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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Soft words butter no parsnips (or: it takes four squirrels to make pie)

  My mother grew up in Connecticut, and she remembers all sorts of regional specialties that she ate growing up that people just don't make now. She was thrilled to find a 1963 reprint of the 1939 regional Yankee Cookbook by Emmajean Wolcott.

Emmajean. Who is named Emmajean anymore? (Well, to study that, you'd want to look at the beautiful graph at Name Change, but that's a separate topic. It's a really lovely way to present that information though, isn't it? Nearly as nice as the Crayola color chart analysis in Color Me A Dinosaur. Pretty digressions are the best kind!)

Ahem. This cookbook is full of strange lore, and stranger recipes. It has recipes for cooking with coots (a TV series title waiting to happen!), which are birds with tough feathers that lived in the region, which were a challenge to prepare.

It offers tips such as:
At least four squirrels are needed to fill a two quart pie dish. Four squirrels serve six.
Because you were wondering.

There are many recipes involving cornmeal. As a fancy Californian, my mind automatically turns to polenta with sun dried tomatoes (mmmm, polenta) but soft or hard polenta-type dishes went by many names: bag pudding, johnnycake, hasty pudding, and gap and swallow. (<-I do not recommend searching for this term, as nowadays, it only leads to 'p0rn.') Soft, hot cornmeal was served with milk as a dessert; there were variations of "Indian pudding" with cornmeal, molasses, milk, sometimes salt, sometimes cinnamon. (It must have been tough to get cinnamon.) I'm trying to picture something like cornbread pancakes with syrup, but softer: it has some potential.

I may have liked the versions of pumpkin pie they had in the area: since sensible chickens don't lay eggs in winter, pumpkin pies were egg-free. Pumpkin, molasses, milk, ginger, cinnamon, and salt were the primary ingredients of the pie filling. Pumpkins ("pompions") that weren't baked and eaten fresh were sliced up for storage, and the strips were air-dried.

The cookbook includes some recipes from the native people who pre-dated the New England concept, mostly involving the complex preparations you need to make to prepare local fauna for roasting (how to remove glands you may not be aware of, for example). You're still thinking about squirrel pie, though, aren't you? I am, too, and I don't remember it having any other ingredients. Did I mention ick? Ick.

Aside from thinking about the potential to make sweet dessert polentas, I didn't come away with any inspiration. New Englanders ate simple foods, many of which were baked or roasted, with relatively few ingredients. The desserts appeal to me in their simplicity - apples, pumpkins, cinnamon, molasses - but not the entrees. It's the sort of cookbook that makes you understand why people glamorized spice traders: relative to a pie shell full of squirrels, a masala dosa with a side of sambar starts to sound like heaven many times over.

I realize I own more spices right now than most people in NE consumed in their entire lives. Lucky lucky lucky. Spoiled and lucky.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:04 PM

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Things you find 'down cellar'

  My mother, who grew up in Connecticut, is THRILLED to have found an old cookbook full of New England regional recipes and lore. She got it for twenty-five cents, and can't put it down.

It has recipes for homemade pickles, for chili sauces my grandmother made in my mother's childhood, for squirrel soup, for muskrat dishes (courtesy of Native American locals), for scrod (which I used to eat in the roadside fish shacks that existed during my childhood visits, always breaded and deep fried, always with tartar sauce), and for eels. Eels were a big New England staple, and the book even includes a poem about eels and the bounty they offer the river-filled regions.

Yes, the book has recipes for fried eel. Yes, you've just gotten over the nightmares you had when I described the preparation of fried eels in Unlike Mom Used To Make, Part VI: My Mom!!, my food interview with my mother about what she ate in the past compared to what she eats now. Sorry for bringing it up again. But I find it fascinating: the northeast has no fame for eel cuisine. When anyone mentions eating eel, I think of unagi sushi from Japan. (I've heard children whine and demand this dish from their parents. Yes, I live in San Francisco.)

My mother has pledged to sit down with me and talk about the dishes the book reminds her of. It should be fun. The whole idea of regional specialties is exciting to me, so I'm looking forward to it.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pasta love

  Cookbooks often tempt me with a few mouth-watering descriptions, but when I have been separated from my money and have time to really review every recipe, I sometimes realize that the ONLY things I'd really want to cook are the few items that got my attention initially. (This sounds like some sort of analogy about relationships, but it's not, I assure you. Well, not intentionally.) Libraries provide a great workaround for this: you get to spend enough time with a cookbook (2 weeks plus) to decide if it is something you should own.

sliced fennel bulb frying in olive oil [Image: sliced fennel bulbs frying in olive oil.]

Six or seven years ago, I checked out Cooking from an Italian Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen from the San Bruno Public Library. And every single thing I made from the cookbook was hailed as one of the best homemade Italian dishes ever. But the book, dating from 1984, is out of print, and at the time, on-line booksellers wanted seven times the cover price. I mourned my separation from the cookbook, but vowed that someday, I would own it.

There are a lot more on-line booksellers now, and I have acquired a copy for a mere doubling of the cover price. And it is worth it. This book is a collection of over 300 recipes, each and every one of which is vegetarian. It is an encyclopedia of cooking: how to make homemade pasta, and how to use different shapes to make fancy items like tortellini or ravioli; how to make gnocchi; lasagna techniques; how to make pickled veggies; how to make risotto; and an absolutely stunning selection of vegetable side dishes that goes on and on...

There is a catch: I am much more vegan-leaning than I was six or seven years ago. Back then, I was regularly buying cheese, and could occasionally be imposed upon to cook with eggs. This cookbook has many, many recipes involving eggs and cheese, which is a surprise: I mainly remember the vegan dishes. Nevertheless, there are many dishes I am trying with great success, with minimal modifications.

Star dishes so far include:

-fusilli ai capperi: pasta spirals in a sauce of basil, garlic, prepared mustard (!!), capers, and olive oil

-rigatoni puttanesca: firm tubes in a raw sauce of tomatoes, garlic, black olives, capers, and basil

-melanzane al forno: eggplant baked with olive oil, fresh oregano, and garlic, topped with fresh tomato sauce

-finocchio fritto: sliced fresh fennel bulbs, blanched, dusted with flour, and fried in olive oil.

This is the sort of cookbook that inspires you to rush out and buy a tomato crushing machine, so you can make a full year's supply of tomato sauce to can while tomatoes are still at their peak; or a pasta machine, so you can dedicate your every evening to the production of delicate, homemade fettuccine...

Warning: you will spend more time cooking and will buy alarming volumes of capers, but you will be very happy. Just so you know.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Americans want cheap, fat-free, deep-fried cigarettes they can feel good about

  It is awkward find yourself eating with a group of people who are complaining about their health and weight while eating things they really shouldn't be eating.

It impedes conversation to drink cocktails with people who seek sympathy for their completely preventable medical conditions.

It is also very difficult to formulate encouraging comments to leave on the websites of fundraising pages for charities which raise money for new organs for drug abusing rock stars, but we can leave that topic for another time.

How do these things happen? I blame culture.

I think it often works like this:
If I was raised as a Polish Catholic (like my mother was), I believe that Iím in the one true religion, and that my national Polish foods are the best foods to eat Ė because otherwise, why would my mother have made them for me, and why would my family eat them? Questioning the health benefits of that diet raises questions of fundamental identity issues, which are inviolable. It is impossible that my mother would feed me unhealthy foods (she is a good person!), it is impossible that Poles arenít making the best sausages on earth (we are a great people!), and while most of my relatives died young, I have a few that lived to be 100, which proves that it is a good diet! (If it was really that bad, they ALL would have died young!) Nutritional information from (non-Polish) scientists conflicts with what I (want to) believe, and must be discarded.

You, and all studies that say things I like are bad for me, are dissing my culture.

All that research showing the epidemics of heart disease and cancer among people who eat like me is irrelevant. I will choose to believe that "everyone" gets these diseases, that they cannot be prevented. In a pinch, I will believe that cultures that have better health statistics than mine have some (inscrutable?) genetic advantage, and that their much leaner traditional diets have no impact at all.

Studies that say that things I like are GOOD for me, however, are a completely different story, and I will clip those and carry them around with me to show you while we are drinking (some other cultural heritage's) beer.

Pass the ketchup.
This clearly isnít true for everyone, but it explains some of the blank looks the person who is eating a deep fried traditional food while complaining about heartburn and clogged arteries gives you Ė facts about health simply donít fit into this line of thinking, and so must be discarded quickly.

People who actually process this information may be more open, to a point, but you are asking them to criticize the deep-fried part of their heritage, and that may be the only part of their heritage they are really attached to.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Family Dinner Traditions: My Dad! From the continuing interview series Unlike Mom Used to Make, Continued. Part VII.

Last spring I began interviewing friends and relatives about what their families ate for dinner as a child, to learn which food traditions people follow, and which they choose simply to remember fondly. So far I've posted:
-Part 1: Me and Steven
-Part II: Reggie
-Part III: Larry
-Part IV: Rosemary
-Part V: Andra
-Part VI: My Mom.

I am working on my grandmother's interview by mail even now, teasing various details out of her gradually, though she has tried to escape my interrogation techniques several times, which is easy to do by mail (aside from the appearance of my persistent questions on every card and letter I send to her). I'll write about that when I have a few more answers compiled. In the meantime, let's look at what my Dad ate.

Dad's family dinners. My father was the 5th and final child in his family, and he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. My grandmother had moved north from the South, which had influenced her cooking: there were certain "soul food" elements in her family traditions which I think of as being more Southern than specifically African-American, though both cultural influences were present. Cleveland is also very much in the "Midwest," which has its own cooking traditions. Overall, I'd say this combination resulted in an "All-American" menu of food, which my father described as "normal" more than regional.

My father remembers eating these items for dinner:

-meatloaf with mashed potatoes
-chicken (breasts only)
-pork chops (rarely)
-hot dogs

Vegetables & Fruits
-greens (with bacon, for flavor)
-veggies grown by Aunt Norma. Aunt Norma had a very productive garden, and would provide bushel baskets of fresh produce, including:
--green beans
-black eyed peas (with chunks of meat, or simmered with ham hocks)
-mashed potatoes
-plums and grapes from the plum tree and grape arbor in their home garden

Casseroles and combinations
-macaroni and cheese (made with cream, cheddar, and macaroni)
-scalloped potatoes
-toasted cheese sandwiches
-deviled eggs

Baked Goods and desserts
-cakes, including carrot cake
-pies, including lemon meringue, apple, pecan, and peach cobbler
-golden bars (sort of like a brownie, but not based on chocolate. I'll get the recipe for these from my mother, and post it in a later entry)
-corn bread
-other homemade breads.

Dad also remembers drinking Seal Test Milk.

Things Dad Didn't Eat. As we were working through Dad's list, he also came up with items that he specifically did not eat. There were a few reasons for this. Partly, my father was a fussy eater, but there were a few other factors. One interesting factor, which I had never heard mentioned before I interviewed him: a few of my father's older siblings told him that he would be haunted by the spirits of any animal he ate, and would also taunt him with the discarded legs of chickens. He didn't take well to this. Perhaps this is why, growing up, my father preferred meat dishes that were somewhat removed from the animal: he liked chicken breasts only, and never parts on the bone; he didn't like ribs or other meat that retained a direct resemblance to its original anatomical location; etc.

Items on my father's did-not-eat list include:
-fish. This is primarily because my grandmother was allergic to fish. (This means that my eldest uncle shouldn't have been quite so surprised when my cousin turned out to be similarly, severely allergic.) Dad says that Grandpa would sometimes catch red snapper, and would have to prepare it himself.
-pot roast
-chitlins, a.k.a. pig intestines. My father once walked into the kitchen, and was repulsed by what he considered to be a very bathroom-related smell. When advised what was cooking, he swore never to eat those.

What he eats now. My father's diet in recent years has been influenced by Atkins and the fact that he cooks for himself now, but the basic dishes listed before - meats and veggie side dishes - are still reasonably close to what he eats now. My 2004 inventory of his cupboards and refrigerator doesn't produce a very clear list of entrees, but I know he tries to eat light meals, including sandwiches, eggs and toast, pasta, and chicken with broccoli. While my Mother is quick to point out the double pepperoni pizzas that she brings over to his house when they rent a good movie, that's not quite as indicative of his diet as it was back before his bypass surgery in the early 1990s, when fast food was a regular feature of his week. Living out where strawberries are grown, I know he also eats fresh, local fruit that is available from the stands a short drive from his home. I know he likes broccoli.


I have more notes from my mother, which I'll provide shortly.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:14 PM

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