December 5, 2011
‘Tis the season for specialty foods that grace store shelves and dining tables but once a year. And for some people, certain times of the year just don’t seem quite right unless the table is graced by those unique edibles. Have you ever gone to ridiculous lengths to make sure that you and yours could have that one, prized food on your stomachs? For this month’s Inviting Writing, tell us about the distances you traveled, the favors you called in, the sleepless nights, the hours spent slaving in the kitchen and whatever else you had to do to secure a special dish. Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com by Friday, December 9 and we will publish our favorites on subsequent Mondays. I’ll get the ball rolling.
How I Got My Cookie Fix
By Jesse Rhodes
For almost every special occasion—anniversaries, graduations and always at Christmastime—Mom would invariably make platters of pizzelle. For the uninitiated, these are Italian cookies made via a waffle iron-like press where dollops of sticky dough—punched up with flavorings like vanilla, anise or cocoa—are flattened out into wafer-thin discs emblazoned with fabulously intricate designs. Coated with confectioner’s sugar, their resemblance to snowflakes is striking. And, due to their delicacy, trying to eat them requires some skill. One wrong bite and the entire thing snaps, smattering the front of your shirt with flecks of white powder, which, admittedly, can be some source of entertainment. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect cookie. Not content with trying to time visits home to when Mom might be making them, I decided I needed an iron of my own. The problem is that every pizzelle manufacturer has its own cookie design. Logically, pizzelle made in any other machine should taste just like the ones I ate growing up, but none quite inspired the same sense of nostalgia as the look of Mom’s cookies. So, like hers, mine had to be the Vitantonio model 300 pizelle chef with cast iron grids, made in the good ol’ U.S.-of-A. No substitutions.
This particular machine had not been produced since the early 1990s, and eBay seemed to be my only hope for scoring one. It turned out other people had a similar appreciation for the goodies this iron made and were willing to shell out big money, sometimes paying upwards of $100, which was well above what I could afford. Nevertheless, I was not above engaging in bidding wars. Despite knowing that the odds of actually winning were slim, I blithely kept placing bids in dollar increments, sticking it to whoever had the means of investing more money than I in a uni-tasker kitchen appliance that, admittedly, even I would only use during the winter holidays. Sure, my fellow eBay bidders could have their cookies. But if I had anything to say about it, they were going to pay for them.
It was late July and weather forecasters were making a big t0-do over the fact that the heat index would hit a whopping 105 degrees. Since that day also happened to be a Saturday, and I wasn’t about to waste a day off sitting inside with the blinds closed and A/C cranked, I got up early to at least get a walk in and went down to the local Goodwill before the weather became too unbearable. While browsing the mishmash of kitchen goods, I saw it. Nestled among the tortilla makers, griddles and cannibalized hand mixers sat the blackened and dingy object of my culinary affections. I wondered how it could have ended up here. Perhaps an Italian grandmother had died and whoever settled her estate thought this thing made really bad waffles. Whatever its origins, it was mine. And for all of five dollars. Plus the cost of a new electrical cord. (I went back on the hottest day of the following summer thinking the stars would align again and there would be another one sitting on the shelf. No such luck, not that I technically needed a second. But the thought of a pizzelle iron trophy room, glittering in chrome-plated glory, was an undeniably attractive idea.)
I got home and set to work cleaning, cracking out the liquid soap, the dish rag, the automotive-grade steel wool, the bottle of Turtle Wax liquid chrome polish, but soon noticed that one of the tapered, black bakelite feet was a little loose. I know well enough that turning a screw to the right tightens it, but on upending the iron and turning it around a few times, telling my right from the appliance’s right was anyone’s best guess. So I ventured a guess, made a few turns, and soon heard an ominous “clink” as the foot fell off in my hand and heard the sound of a renegade nut rolling around inside. Turning it right-side up again I stared at my gimpy little pizzelle iron, barely able to maintain its balance. There was no avoiding a trip to the hardware store in order to buy a few tools to crack this thing open.
A few days later and a mile and a half mile walk up to Cherrydale Hardware, I found myself staring at a display case jam-packed with socket wrenches, puzzled by their strange denominations: quarter inch, three-eights of an inch, half inch, three-quarters of an inch. The clerk kindly asked if I needed help and told him I needed a crash course in what these things were.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked.
My mind raced. I mean, could tell him I was fixing a pizzelle iron, but that would require explaining what the thing was, which would then require a description of the beautiful snowflake-like cookies—maybe mention the powdered sugar—and then realize I was standing in a sawdust-and-plywood, mom-and-pop-style hardware store telling a total stranger that I’m repairing a cookie press.
“I’m fixing a waffle iron.” Waffle iron. Yes. With big, muscular Belgian grids ready to churn out hearty breakfast-of-champions-grade golden waffles. It was a perfect fudging of the truth. The clerk instantaneously suggested a quarter inch wrench, which I purchased, along with a five dollar appliance cord, and went home.
The repairs were quick and painless. Soon I had it plugged in and heated until the grids were smoking hot, dropping teaspoonfuls of vanilla-flavored batter and finally making my own cache of cookies. I have since made them up for friends and as table offerings at social gatherings, and there’s a certain sense of pleasure that comes from introducing people to a cookie that always seemed so unique to Italian kitchens. It’s a feeling that just barely trumps the satisfaction of having a personal reserve of pizzelle at home stacked in a popcorn tin that sits beside my favorite chair.
November 21, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Stories about the holiday, being thankful for a certain food, or edible expressions of gratitude. Jessica McLean, like many of us, has wrestled with recreating traditional family recipes, which are often tricky, sometimes in surprising ways. She lives in Pennsylvania and says, “I enjoy eating anything my grandmother will cook for me, and watching from a healthy distance while she prepares it.”
How Do You Make That?
By Jessica McLean
For me, one of the best parts about Thanksgiving—and the winter holidays in general, really—is the traditional recipes. The ones my grandmother breaks out only for Thanksgiving and Christmas (and maybe Easter). Many of them are family recipes she learned from her mother, and they aren’t especially fancy. What makes them special is that she makes them only for holidays.
Turnips are one of these recipes. My great-grandmother was born in Estonia, and turnips were a common dish in her household growing up. Even after she’d moved to America, she would make this food from her childhood for her own girls. Her daughters all loved a particular turnip dish she made—I don’t know what it’s called, really. We always just call it “turnips” during the holidays, since it’s the only turnip dish ever served. It’s a sort of mashed and baked dish—nothing fancy, just warm and tasty and filled with tradition.
When I was little, I wouldn’t go near them. They smelled funny to me.
Truth be told, my grandmother and my great-aunt were really the only two in the family who ate them. But my grandmother makes them every year, even after the death of her sister, because they loved them and because the dish has been traditional for the holidays for generations. When I was in high school, I finally felt brave enough to try them and was surprised by how good they were. Creamy and soothing like mashed potatoes, but with such a delicate flavor…I almost always request them now, just to be sure they’re at the table.
A couple of summers ago, I moved to a new town where I didn’t know anyone and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. So I decided to give my grandmother a call and get the recipe for her turnips. I had this idea that if I could have just a few scoops of my favorite Thanksgiving food, the jolt of nostalgia would cheer me up. My grandmother cautioned that she didn’t have exact measurements because the recipe was so old, and gave me the basic gist. I trekked out to the store and picked up the ingredients, including the all-important turnips. At home, I diligently prepped and chopped and mashed and baked, waiting with anxiety and anticipation to taste the outcome.
When the turnips were out of the oven and cool enough to eat, I put a big scoop in a bowl and settled onto the couch to enjoy. I took a bite and the taste was more or less correct, but the texture was just…off. More like a chowder than thick mashed potatoes. It was still an enjoyable and affordable snack, but I called my grandmother right away to figure out what went wrong. I told her everything I did, hoping that she’d be able to fix this for me, to tell me what I did wrong or forgot to do so that I could recreate the delight I felt each Thanksgiving with my first bite of turnips.
After talking it over for a few minutes my grandmother suddenly gasped. “Jessie, I know what happened. My mother called these turnips because that’s what they call them in Estonia, but they’re actually rutabagas!”
I won’t say that this turned my whole world upside-down because it wasn’t quite that dramatic. We did have a good laugh about it, and I asked her to make an extra batch during the holidays that year so I could take left-overs home with me. But I still haven’t attempted to make the rutabagas myself, even though I do have a corrected copy of the recipe. I decided they were best left to the expert—my grandmother—and to Thanksgiving.
November 14, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Stories about the holiday, being thankful for a certain food, or edible expressions of gratitude. Our first story comes from Hope Yancey, a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is thankful for a relationship that thrives in spite of food.
The Bacon is Faux, but the Love is Real
By Hope Yancey
The smell of vegetarian bacon aromatizing our kitchen as it steams up the microwave is enough to send my husband running the other way fast. He would probably classify the assault on his nostrils as a pungent odor rather than a mere smell. I heat my strips of veggie bacon for breakfast, sometimes enjoying them accompanied by eggs or arranged on a sandwich roll with a little Miracle Whip and dash of black pepper. Served over toast and sliced tomatoes and topped with prepared cheese sauce, it makes a nice version of Welsh rarebit for an easy lunch or supper.
We have a long and storied history with veggie bacon in our relationship. It was one of the first meals I cooked for my husband after we met about 11 years ago. He kindly pretended to savor it, only confiding much later how truly unpleasant he found my morning meal of choice. I’m sure he wondered what other gustatory delights awaited him in his future. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I like the stuff. I harbor no delusions that it tastes like real bacon, though I wouldn’t really be qualified to say because that’s a flavor I haven’t experienced for myself since at least 1990. It doesn’t particularly bother me that veggie bacon’s texture is such that it fails to crisp, hardening instead. No matter: What it lacks in authenticity, it compensates for in other ways.
Veggie bacon served its purpose, as it proved to be the gateway to a string of other meat substitutes my generous husband would go on to bravely endure in the name of love. There’s been veggie sausage (patties and links), veggie hot dogs, veggie burgers and much more. He views some products more favorably than others. Veggie corn dogs, like veggie bacon, are decidedly not a favorite of his, but for different reasons in each case: “The veggie bacon definitely smells the worst. It’s just outright offensive. And the corn dogs taste the worst,” he said recently. Harsh. Fortunately, he does have an affinity for some of the veggie meatballs he’s tried. All is not lost.
Carnivorous lunches with one of his brothers represent a brief but regular weekday reprieve for him. He indulges in foreign meals that are scarce in our household—things like turkey sandwiches, ham and sausage calzones and delicious Teriyaki chicken, all made with actual meat. While he’s toiling away at the office, I’m able to luxuriate in my veggie bacon with abandon. As I pull the familiar, slim package from the freezer, I can be secure in the knowledge that the aroma in the air should have ample time to diminish before his arrival home. It was a revelation for me that there also are homemade versions of veggie bacon out there; that’s a whole new delicacy waiting to be discovered. It could be a game-changer.
In the meantime, I’m thankful for a husband who tolerates my self-imposed dietary restrictions so gracefully and occasionally even joins me in a meat alternative. I feel like a wife ought to do more to demonstrate her gratitude. I should really bake him a cake. Was that a recipe I saw online for frosted maple-bacon cupcakes garnished with pieces of veggie bacon?
November 7, 2011
After a month of reconciliation stories, it’s time to move on to a new Inviting Writing theme. For November, we turn to the subject on many minds: Thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Whether you have a story about the holiday meal itself, being thankful about something related to food, or edible expressions of gratitude, we want to hear it. Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com, along with a couple of biographical details (name, location, personal blog URL if you have one) before November 11. We’ll read them all and post our favorites over the next few Mondays.
I’ll get things started.
You May Find Yourself in Another Part of the World
By Lisa Bramen
Every so often I have a David Byrne moment. I’m referring to the Talking Heads frontman who, in the song “Once in a Lifetime,” asks, “Well, how did I get here?”
One of those moments was a couple of weeks ago, as I sat around a bonfire at the pig roast and potluck dinner being thrown in the parking lot of the local motel, eating deviled eggs and baked beans and listening to my neighbors discuss the merits of various forms of home heating—a frequent topic of conversation in these northerly parts.
Seven years ago, I was still living in Los Angeles, drinking appletinis or mojitos or whatever was then in vogue, in bars where the talk often centered on the machinations of Hollywood. I hated my job in advertising. I hated my life. So, as I chuckled to myself about the strange twists of fate that brought me to an aging motel’s parking lot on a frigid October evening, my follow-up thought wasn’t, as in the song, “My god, what have I done?” It was, “Thank God.”
The motel is one of only a handful of businesses in my small hamlet in the Adirondack Mountains. The others are a post office, an upholstery shop that doubles as a music and theater venue called the Recovery Lounge, and the library (not technically a business, I know). There used to be an antiques barn and a bakery that was open only on summer weekends, but they, along with about a dozen houses—including the home of the widow of late toy designer/theme park pioneer Arto Monaco—were destroyed when Hurricane Irene veered inland this August and caused the Ausable River, which runs through the center of town, to rise some 12 feet above flood stage. Thankfully, no one died in the flood, save a retired amusement park pony named Pickles, who was swept away in spite of the valiant rescue efforts of my neighbor. But in a community of less than 200 people, it was a major blow.
Still, having lived through larger catastrophes elsewhere—I was in college in San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake and in Southern California during the 1994 Northridge earthquake—I can say with confidence that no one does disaster relief like a small town. Since the flood, nearly every weekend has had some kind of aid event: a firewood donation drive, library clean-up parties, fundraising concerts. The potluck and pig roast was one of them.
I’ve lived in this place for two years now, and I already know far more of my neighbors than I did in any of the cities or suburbs where I lived for up to 10 years. These neighbors come from all different backgrounds, many quite different from my own, though most are good company around a bonfire. Many of them know how to do something useful in an emergency—wield a chain saw, fix a generator, bake a half-dozen pies. Quite a few volunteer on the local fire department or ambulance squad; they helped rescue stranded homeowners from the flood.
I sometimes miss things about city life—not least the availability of good, multi-ethnic food. But all things considered, I’m just fine with deviled eggs and baked beans. Even thankful.
October 31, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation. The range of responses was surprising: We heard about a failure of familial reconciliation, a longstanding family disagreement about bologna on the wall, and today Somali Roy reveals her fraught relationship with pumpkin and reminds us of the usefulness of younger siblings. Roy is a freelance writer in Singapore who has previously written about her relationship with her (mother-in-law’s) kitchen and the joys of eating in a Kolkata cafeteria.
Giving Second Chances
By Somali Roy
At a very early age I came upon the profound wisdom that siblings, especially younger ones, are tiny minions sent by God to make growing up easy and entertaining. I engaged mine as a playmate when friends weren’t around and would occasionally bully her. But mostly I used her as a means to escape eating unfavored food by shoving it onto her plate when nobody was looking. And that condemned food, which my sister grew up obliviously consuming in copious amounts, was pumpkin.
Unfortunately, because it was my mother’s favorite, there was no escaping this soppy, milquetoast, gourd-like squash. I liked to characterize vegetables as people with real feelings. “Pumpkin is not assertive. It has no defining taste or character—it’s mild, squishy and uninviting,” I ranted. Being opinionated and judgmental about vegetables certainly didn’t help. Wasting even a mote of pumpkin under my mother’s supervision was sacrilege, so I had to improvise.
There were several variants of pumpkin dishes cooked in our house, mostly influenced by traditional East Indian recipes. Two of them that were remote possibilities for my palate were Kumro Sheddho (boiled and mashed pumpkin seasoned with salt, mustard oil and chopped green chilies) and Kumro Bhaja (thinly sliced pumpkin dredged in batter and deep fried). Both recipes successfully masked the pumpkin taste that I so resented. Anything other than these was offloaded on my sister, who was too hypnotized by the cartoons on TV to notice the pile on her plate.
When college started, I moved to another city and lodged with my grandmother. She, I discovered, nursed an even greater love for the vegetable. My days were peppered with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes. I missed my sister terribly. Once again I was forced to improvise. I offered to help my grandmother with her chores, and the responsibility of grocery shopping was readily relinquished to me. Starting then, the pumpkin supply at the local bazaar suffered, either due to untimely monsoons or truck strikes and roadblocks or just bad crops—whichever excuse suited my whim. I was thankful that my grandmother never compared notes with her neighbors.
Two decades passed in successfully dodging and evading this vegetable in a world that’s enamored with pumpkin so much that it’s used as a term of endearment: I love you, my Pumpkin. How was your day, Pumpkin? Come to dinner, Pumpkin Pie. It may be the 40th most beautiful word in the English language (according to a survey by British Council), but I knew I wouldn’t have coped well with this moniker.
However, December 2008 had different plans for me. We were relocating to another country and it was my last Christmas in Munich. The day before our office was closing down for holidays, a colleague invited me to share her homemade lunch—a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup. My heart sank. Already burdened with the pain of leaving a city I had come to love, I definitely did not need “pumpkin soup for my frayed soul” to lift up the mood.
There wasn’t enough time to Google pumpkin-induced allergies (if any) that I could fake. So I obliged my host and perched myself on the kitchen chair, staring haplessly at the bowl for an entire minute. There was nothing else to do except take that huge leap of faith. The rich, creamy taste, mildly sweet with a hint of cumin and ginger spiked with a dash of lemon was not something I was expecting at all. While going for a second helping, I double-checked that it was genuinely pumpkin, in case I didn’t hear it right. Could it be carrot or yam? She assured me it wasn’t, so I asked for the recipe.
Thus began a phase when I ordered only pumpkin soups for appetizers while eating out. The result was undisputed. Pumpkin finally redeemed itself and bagged a one-way entry ticket to my humble kitchen. When I made my first pumpkin soup using my colleague’s recipe, it was sensational and a comforting reminder that giving second chances are worthwhile. As for my sibling, she grew up to love pumpkin—whether on her own accord or as a result of intervention remains ambiguous.