January 5, 2011
2010 was a good year.
We started it off by gabbing about the weird things people put in coffee, the evolution of the sweet tooth, and the history of cereal boxes, among other topics. We explored five ways to eat many kinds of seasonal produce. We launched a new Monday feature called Inviting Writing, and you all have been responding with wonderful stories on themes like road trips, college food and eating at Grandma’s house.
Yes, it’s been a wonderful year. But personally, it’s not just 2010 that I’m wrapping up and waving goodbye to… I’m also leaving Smithsonian to work for another magazine. While that’s certainly exciting, it’s bittersweet, since it means parting ways with Food & Think, the blog I helped launch just over two years ago. We really hit our stride last year thanks to Lisa Bramen, the fantastic freelance co-blogger who joined me “temporarily” and is still going strong. You can look forward to reading more of Lisa’s work here, as well as posts from a few new and returning writers in months to come.
It has challenged to me to pay closer attention to serious issues of the day like food safety, childhood obesity and sustainable seafood, as well as track down answers to not-so-serious questions like “Does cheese pair better with beer or wine?” and “Why are chocolate Easter bunnies hollow?”
And it has inspired me to taste or cook many things for the first time: fresh sardines, jellyfish, lionfish, biltong (South African jerky), poutine, kohlrabi, sunchokes, purple long beans and more. Heck, I’d never even cracked into a crab or a whole lobster until I became a food blogger! I’m grateful for those opportunities, and to all of you for reading.
Happy New Year, everyone!
December 6, 2010
Today’s featured writer is Jane Pellicciotto, a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon who keeps an illustrated log of her fresh produce purchases and contributes occasionally to the Portland Farmers Market blog.
Pass the Gravy
By Jane Pellicciotto
Whenever we visited my father’s family in New York, it was with a mix of excitement, curiosity and a little dread.
Brooklyn had what the Maryland suburbs lacked—subways rumbling overhead, the Chinese five-and-dime, colorful accents, and Grandma Pell’s cooking. But it also meant a nail-biting journey in the car with my father, for whom driving was sport. He would jockey for position among the black Cadillacs on the narrow avenues, while I’d slide down the vinyl seat so I couldn’t see the too-close cars. Instead, I’d try to think about the pizza awaiting us.
Grandma Pell, whose name was Lena, was born in Manhattan in 1908, a year after her parents emigrated from Italy. She’d never been to Italy herself, but maintained her family’s ways around food. Put oregano in the pizza sauce, never in the marinara. Fry sausages in olive oil, but the meatballs in vegetable. Soak the eggplant in salt water first; fry the slices not once, but twice.
Rules were not universal, however. An argument once broke out between my uncle’s sister and her husband whether to stuff peppers with raw or cooked pork. Heads turned when a hand came down hard on the table. Raw won.
The kitchen was always grandma’s domain and from its small space came humble, but glorious food: unadorned pizzas, stuffed squid, spaghetti pie, green beans stewed in tomatoes, and eggplant parmesan that melted in your mouth like butter. We saw these visits as an excuse to eat with abandon—salami and proscuitto and capacollo, slabs of salty wet mozzarella, extra helpings of rigatoni and meatballs. But most of all, for me, it was about the stuffed artichokes. One by one, I’d savor the slippery metallic leaves and the slow journey to the heart.
Grandma, who always wore a cotton housecoat, was methodical. She had a head for numbers, having been a bookkeeper despite her father’s orders to be a seamstress. And she was practical. Once, she overheard my uncle ask us if we wanted greens. Grandma came into the dining room, set down a bowl of broccoli rabe dotted with slivered garlic and said, “You don’t ask. You just put it!” Meaning, if someone wants it, they’ll eat it. Don’t fuss. (Then again, grandma would also ask over and over, “Did yas have enough? Have some more. It’s gotta get eaten.”)
My siblings and I were hungry for words and language and culture, keeping our ears perked for delicious turns of phrase like “just put it,” which we added to our own lexicon. Sauce didn’t just taste good, it “came nice,” as if a benevolent thing arrived at the front door. Dishes were “put up” rather than loaded into the dishwasher, and the ends of words were clipped while their centers were drawn out, adding bouncy drama to Madonna, calamari, mozzarella.
There is an edge to New Yorkers, not to mention Italians. And my grandmother had the misfortune to outlive her only two children—my father and aunt—by almost half a century. So I cherish one of the lighter moments in my memory. Back when my brother was a teenager, and very particular about clothes, Grandma announced on one visit that she had been saving a pair of dungarees for him. She returned with a relic of the bygone disco age. We looked at each other with alarm, but to our surprise my brother tried on the jeans. He emerged from the bathroom walking stiffly, stuffed into the jeans like a sausage. His flattened butt was emblazoned with metallic gold lightening bolts. We didn’t want to hurt grandma’s feelings, but none of us could contain the laughter, including grandma, who could see the jeans were painfully out of date.
It is no myth that getting a recipe from an Italian grandmother is nearly impossible. Once, I tried to get an answer as to how long she kept the marinated artichokes in the refrigerator, knowing that botulism could be a problem.
After many fits and starts, she finally offered, “not long.”
When I asked why, she said, “they get eaten.”
My sister’s efforts were able to extract more details of Grandma’s amounts and processes, until we had something resembling recipes. Try as we might, we can’t quite duplicate the flavors we tasted all those years. I’m convinced it’s about more than just ingredients. Taste is about place—the cold ceramic floor, the well-used paring knife, the loud exchanges, even the distant sound of car alarms. Still, when I prepare roasted peppers, I make sure never to leave a seed behind.
Grandma Pell died last summer just shy of turning 101. Salute.
November 29, 2010
Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving! To ease you back into the work week, we’ve got a short, sweet Inviting Writing story about eating at Grandma’s house. Today’s featured writer is Elizabeth Breuer, an OB-Gyn resident in Texas who blogs about both medicine and food at Dr. OB Cookie.
By Elizabeth Breuer
Whirls of exhaled cigarette smoke filled my grandmother’s kitchen. She always stood at the counter with her lit cigarette, a neatly folded New York Times and a glass of wine, from a gallon jug stored neatly under the sink, filled with ice cubes. She incessantly flipped from The Weather Channel to CNN on a small television that sat just beyond the table, silently beaming out bold closed captions of the daily occurrences.
Her table was made gracefully. Atop a neat tablecloth perched an English porcelain bowl filled with fresh fruit—mostly grapes, though sometimes peaches or other local produce from the farm stand. While I sat the table sipping my orange juice, she would stand there puffing and thoroughly examining my life.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” That was always the first question.
Oatmeal cookies and blueberry pies would frequently end up in front of me. If they weren’t baked that day, they were taken from the industrial-size freezer—pies woken from hibernation to thaw in the spring for hungry granddaughters. We would sit and chat and nibble, the morning turning into afternoon to evening. A simple dinner of potatoes, shrimp and broccoli would suddenly appear, lightly drizzled in a thin layer of butter and a crumble of pepper.
Then we would eat more pie, with a scoop of vanilla Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. My grandparents would drink a whole pot of coffee and stay up chatting as I wandered up the creaky stairs of the 200-year-old house. In the morning, back down the creaky stairs, I would pack up my car with my clean and folded laundry, a tin of cookies and an “emergency” sandwich, and haul myself back through the mountains to school.
My grandma died a month before I graduated from college. I’ll always cherish the weekends we spent together in New England in her kitchen. I think she’d be happy to know that I love to bake pies and cookies, that I’ve still never smoked a cigarette—and that I do have a boyfriend, who I am marrying.
November 22, 2010
We’ve received such wonderful stories from readers in response to our latest Inviting Writing theme about eating at Grandma’s house—thank you! This one, a richly detailed recollection of Southern-style family dinners in the 1950s and early 1960s, seems perfect for Thanksgiving week because it’s a veritable feast of description. The writer, Mary Markey, has a knack for preserving the past: she works at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
By Mary Markey
Every year, my mother and I took the train from Illinois to spend the summer with our family in Georgia. The “Nancy Hanks” would pull into the little train station in Millen late in the evening, where we were met by an uncle and aunt or two and whichever of my cousins had begged the hardest to make the trip. Our trunk was loaded into the bed of the truck, the cousins and I clambered up after it, and we were off to Granny’s house in the country.
In the immense dark, her porch light glowed like a beacon. And there she was, wiping her hands on her homemade apron, come to the doorway to meet us. Small, round, and soft and rosy as a withered peach, Granny was the heart and soul of our family.
Aunts and uncles and more cousins were soon assembling on the porch. Transplanted early to the Midwest, where I was already a lonely outsider, here I was content to be taken back into the fold of a large, extroverted Southern family. I looked forward to a summer of many playmates and indulgent grownups.
Cuddled in with a few cousins in the spare room’s creaky iron bedstead, I smelled the deep, mysterious odors of Granny’s house—old wood, damp earth, wood smoke, cooking and the chamber pot that we had used before turning in. On the porch, the adults would stay up late talking as they rocked in chairs or on the glider. Their laughter was the last thing I heard as I drifted into sleep.
When we woke, the uncles were long gone to the fields, and the aunts were at work in the textile mills in town. My mother was in the kitchen, helping Granny prepare the noon dinner. We snatched a cold hoecake or leftover biscuit smeared with jelly and took off on our own adventures.
Granny’s house was a one-story frame building that had once housed a tenant farmer on my grandfather’s farm. The dining-room was light and airy, with windows on two sides curtained in the translucent plastic plisse curtains that the dime stores once sold to poor people, but the kitchen was a dark, close little room. In the even darker little pantry were Mason jars of home-canned food, plates of leftover breads and biscuits, and an occasional mouse.
My nose remembers these rooms best: open Granny’s big freezer, and you smelled frost and blackberries. The refrigerator held the sharp tang of the pitcher of iron-rich well water cooling there. The kitchen was saturated with years of cooking, a dark, rich scent of frying fat and spice overlaid with the delicious smells of whatever was being prepared for dinner that day.
Almost everything was raised by my family and if not fresh, had been frozen or canned by Granny and the aunts. Meat was the anchor of the noon meal, and there were three possibilities: chicken, pork, or fish. The fish, caught by my Aunt Sarah from the Ogeechee River, were delectable when dredged in flour or cornmeal and cooked in Granny’s heavy cast-iron skillet. (Did you know, the best part of a fried fresh fish is the tail, as crunchy as a potato chip?) My favorite dish was chicken and dumplings. Granny made the dumplings by hand, forming the dough into long, thick noodles to be stewed with the chicken until they were falling-apart tender.
There was bread, though nothing leavened with yeast. Instead, there were biscuits, rather flat and chewy, speckled brown and gold. We had cornbread at every meal, but it wasn’t “risen”; we had hoecakes, light and sweet with the flavor of fresh cornmeal, cooked quickly on a cast-iron griddle. There was always rice, cooked to perfection and topped with gravy or butter, as you preferred. If we were eating fish, we fried some hush puppies along with it, airy puffs of cornmeal and onion.
And the vegetables! Granny’s table had an infinite variety: fresh green beans, black-eyed peas, crowder peas, lima beans. Collard, mustard and turnip greens had been picked last fall and stored in the mammoth freezer. Okra was stewed with tomatoes, boiled with butter, fried to a crisp or just sautéed until it fell apart. Fresh tomatoes were served cold, sliced, and dusted with salt and pepper. There were yams, candied or simply baked and buttered. Green vegetables were cooked a long time with salt pork—no hard, unseasoned Yankee beans for us, please.
We washed it all down with heavily sweetened iced tea served in mismatched jelly glasses, or aluminum tumblers in jewel colors, or in that cliché of all down-home clichés, Mason jars.
Desserts were simple, probably because too much baking would heat up the house. There was an abundance of fresh fruit—peaches and watermelons were favorites, with or without store-bought ice cream. My aunt Camille would sometimes bring a spectacular caramel pecan cake with dense, sugary icing. Aunt Carmen was known for her sour cream pound cake. Granny often made a huge blackberry cobbler, served drenched in milk. I was torn between by love of its flavor and distaste for all those little seeds that got caught between my teeth.
As small children, we cousins ate at the kitchen table, watched over by the women. It was a day to remember when you were finally thought old enough to sit at the big table in the dining room, and since all of us were all within a year or two of each other, we graduated pretty much en masse. In adolescence, we cousins often preferred to perch in the living room to talk, pawing through Granny’s photo albums to laugh at our parents’ (and be embarrassed by our own) baby pictures. We returned to the big table more often as we moved through our teenage years, and one day, as a married woman in my twenties, I looked up from my fried chicken to see a kitchen table ringed with my cousins’ children. The cycle was completed.
(More from Millen after the jump…)
November 15, 2010
Continuing our Inviting Writing theme about “eating at Grandma’s house,” today’s story celebrates another Bestemor. Author Jenny Holm is a freelance writer who grew up in Minnesota, but has been all over the place since, from Russia to D.C. to an organic farm in Vermont. Currently, she’s teaching English in Georgia (the country). She chronicles her adventures in a wonderful food blog called Gusto: Eating With Pleasure.
By Jenny Holm
“You can roll lefse for forty years and still it won’t always behave for you. Humdinger!”
My grandmother, Eunice Sylvester, bunches the dough she’s just been rolling back into a ball and spreads her pastry cloth with an additional dusting of flour. “Now don’t you dare stick to that board, stinkerpot!”
Chided into submission, the dough behaves this time. Grandma swiftly rolls out a 12-inch round so thin you can see through it, flips its edge over a flat wooden stick and peels it from her pastry cloth. It hangs precariously there for only a second or two before she unfurls it onto the hot electric griddle sitting atop her kitchen table.
She has spent holiday seasons laboring over these delicate potato-based crepes, called lefse, since 1967, when her husband, Arvid, (my grandfather) presented her with this very griddle as a Christmas present. “Some gift!” she quips as she jabs Grandpa with the end of her rolling pin. “I haven’t been able to escape it since!”
Lefse was one of the recipes that Grandma’s grandparents, Norwegian farmers, brought with them to the western Minnesota prairie where they settled in the late 1800s. While our dough chills in the fridge, Grandma tells me how her mother Sophie used to prepare this winter treat. A few technological upgrades notwithstanding, the process has remained essentially unchanged.
She would mix pounds upon pounds of minced potatoes with butter, milk, and salt, adding flour and working it in with her powerful hands until the mixture reached the desired consistency—too much flour and the lefse would come out dense and tough; too little and the paper-thin rounds would tear. After forming balls of dough and chilling them in the frigid outdoor air, Sophie would roll out circles two feet in diameter and cook them directly on her flat iron stovetop, feeding the fire with spent corncobs. The resulting pancakes came out light and chewy, a warm and filling treat that Sophie’s 16 children (of whom my grandmother was the youngest) enjoyed slathering with butter, sprinkling with sugar, and rolling like cigars before devouring.
My family has abandoned many of the other “old country” dishes our ancestors cooked, like lutefisk (cod soaked in lye to preserve it) and rolle pulse (beef and pork pressed into a roll with ginger and onions, sliced, and served cold), but lefse remains beloved. Demand for it at our holiday table consistently exceeds supply. However, the labor-intensive nature of its preparation and the necessity of an experienced hand to judge the quality of the dough by its texture mean that only dedicated disciples are likely to carry on the craft for future generations.
That’s why I asked Grandma to let me shadow her as she prepares the first batch of the year. My lefses come out crisper than hers do (because I spread the rolling board with more flour than necessary, she says). They are not always round, and take me at least three times as long to roll out, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.
“Don’t worry,” Grandma assures me over my shoulder. The first time she tried to make lefse on her own, she used red potatoes instead of the requisite russets, and ended up in tears over a wet, gloppy mess. “It’s nice to have an assistant. Eighty was alright, but 81—goll!”
My grandfather is no longer strong enough to help out the way he used to, but he still joins us for the company. He sits at the kitchen table over his coffee and cookies, snatching the occasional lefse still hot from the griddle while Grandma is turned toward her rolling board. Sixty years of marriage have attuned her to his every move, and without turning her head nor slowing the rhythm of her rolling she warns, “Arvid, you better stop stealing those or we won’t have any left for your grandchildren to eat!” Grandpa sheepishly finishes the mouthful he’s been chewing, takes a sip of his coffee, and launches into a jazzy, syncopated version of “Jingle Bells,” his tenor voice wavering slightly but still clear and merry.
As the small kitchen warms with the familiar, comforting aroma of boiled potatoes and the heat emanating from the two grills set up at opposite ends of the room, flour settles onto our hair and clothes like first snowflakes. My mother, who has been monitoring the grills while Grandma and I roll the dough, tears a just-cooked lefse in half, spreads it with butter and sprinkles sugar on top, then rolls it up and thrusts it into my mouth.
The first sweet, chewy bite floods me with memories of all the holiday celebrations that begun and ended with this very taste, and reminds me that so much more than butter and sugar are tucked into this delicate pancake.