December 19, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about foods that make your holidays. Our first essay was about a mystery cookie from the Italian Alps, and today we have a story about a main-course dish: mashed potatoes. Judy Martin, from Cupertino, California, appeared here before with an essay about food and dating.
The Mashed Potato Monster
By Judy Martin
Every holiday meal must include mashed potatoes. But my mother made them from a box. I never could understand why she liked those flat, dry, ragged little flakes that pretended to become potatoes when hydrated. Even my elementary school made real mashed potatoes. Except for the time they turned out to be mashed turnips. That was a nasty surprise for a first grader!
When I was 10, I spent a week visiting my cousins. One night, a small sigh of pleasure escaped my lips at the dinner table. There were lumpy mashed potatoes on my plate. What a treat! My aunt heard my sigh and demanded to know its cause. I responded that the potatoes had lumps. This was the ultimate compliment. It meant the potatoes were real. But she refused my compliment. No matter how much I tried to explain, I don’t believe she ever forgave me for commenting on her lumpy mashed potatoes.
We ate mashed potatoes often when I was growing up, and I continued the tradition with my own family. For everyday meals, they were made with margarine and low-fat milk. But for holidays, they were dressed up using my grandmother’s preparation method (no flakes for her) with lots of real butter and pre-heated evaporated milk. Sometimes I even added sour cream or cheese. I was proud that my son Matt grew up eating real mashed potatoes. He didn’t care what else was on the holiday menu as long as there were mounds of mashed potatoes.
The first holiday Matt spent with his new wife’s family in California was a culture shock. He was horrified to learn that not everyone eats mashed potatoes on holidays. In fact, his wife’s family never eats them at all. His mother-in-law’s potato casserole just wasn’t an acceptable substitute. He marched into the kitchen and prepared his own mashed potatoes. I was mortified to hear this story; I had created a Mashed Potato Monster.
Matt’s in-laws are good sports and, unlike my aunt, don’t offend easily; they found his mashed potato obsession humorous. Now we often spend our holidays all together and to avert another holiday crisis, I make sure there are mashed potatoes on the menu.
December 7, 2011
One of my favorite things about the holiday season is that there are so many delicious foods that appear only this time of year—and every part of the world that celebrates Christmas has its own specialties. You could spend all of December eating a different regional food every night (hmm, not a bad idea). But, as Jesse wrote in this week’s Inviting Writing, most people have at least one favorite holiday food that they absolutely must have or it isn’t truly Christmas.
For French-Canadians, that dish is probably tourtière, a spiced meat pie that’s eaten around Christmas and New Year; it was traditionally served after midnight mass or at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Usually filled with minced pork or a mixture of pork, beef and/or veal, it can also be made with other kinds of meat. Spices might include cinnamon, nutmeg, mace or cloves.
According to The Ottawa Citizen, the name comes from the dish used to bake a tourte, and the word tourte can refer either to the pie or to the passenger pigeon, a now-extinct species once used to fill the pie. The same article includes several intriguing variations on the basic tourtière, including one made with seafood.
I first heard of tourtière when I moved to the Adirondack Mountains in New York, a stone’s throw from the Quebec border. The French-Canadian influence here is evident in French surnames and place names, the popularity of hockey and curling, and the occasional appearance of poutine on restaurant menus. A few places around here sell tourtières around the holidays, but I never had one until this weekend, when I took a trip to Montreal.
I bought a mini-tourtière from a bakery in the indoor Jean-Talon market (a fun place to visit if you’re ever in town). It was made with duck, and the crust had a cute little duck cut-out on top. It was tasty—the crust was deliciously flaky—though I found the filling a little lacking in zing. I had read that some people eat them with ketchup or other condiments, so I decided to try some steak sauce. I don’t know if this would be considered an acceptable accompaniment by traditionalists, but it worked for me.
If you don’t live in the vicinity of a French-Canadian bakery and want to taste tourtière yourself, try one of the recipes from the Ottawa Citizen article above. A recipe from Serious Eats includes mashed potatoes in the filling, plus plenty of spices. You can even make a vegetarian version with TVP (textured vegetable protein), as in this recipe from Canadian Living magazine.
What’s your favorite holiday food?
November 23, 2011
When I first set out looking for references to the Thanksgiving celebration in literature, I had a hard time finding them. A few people suggested Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Although the series is set in the latter half of the 19th century, after Abraham Lincoln encouraged the celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, there’s no apparent mention of its observance by the Ingalls family (I searched in Google Books and on Amazon).
That other 19th-century classic about a struggling rural family, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, also contains no mention of Thanksgiving, but in 1882 the author released An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving. First published as part of a series of short stories narrated by Jo (the aspiring writer sister from Little Women), the children’s tale is like an early version of the movie Home Alone—with slightly less mayhem.
When their parents are called away to Grandma’s deathbed the day before Thanksgiving, the Bassett children decide to prepare the meal on their own. Prue pulls the wrong “yarbs”—herbs in the country dialect Alcott uses for her rural New Hampshire characters—and puts catnip and wormwood in the stuffing instead of marjoram and summer savory. The kids nearly shoot a neighbor friend who comes to the house dressed as a fearsome bear (a misguided prank). In all the commotion, the turkey is burned and the plum pudding comes out hard as a rock. But all’s well that ends well, and Ma and Pa return in time for dinner, along with some other relatives, explaining that Grandma wasn’t dying after all—it had just been a big mix-up.
Before all the hullabaloo, Ma has this to say about the effort that goes into the annual feast:
“I do like to begin seasonable and have things to my mind. Thanksgivin’ dinners can’t be drove, and it does take a sight of victuals to fill all these hungry stomicks,” said the good woman as she gave a vigorous stir to the great kettle of cider apple-sauce, and cast a glance of housewifely pride at the fine array of pies set forth on the buttery shelves.
An even earlier book about rural New England life was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1869 Oldtown Folks. Stowe describes celebrations from her childhood, including “the king and high priest of all festivals,” Thanksgiving. She explains that preparations took a whole week, because at those times even the conveniences of her adulthood, such as pre-ground spices, were not yet available. In one passage she muses about something that remains a staple of the Thanksgiving table, pie:
The pie is an English institution, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species. Not merely the old traditional mince pie, but a thousand strictly American seedlings from that main stock, evinced the power of American housewives to adapt old institutions to new uses. Pumpkin pies, cranberry pies, huckleberry pies, cherry pies, green-currant pies, peach, pear, and plum pies, custard pies, apple pies, Marlborough-pudding pies,—pies with top crusts, and pies without,—pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around, and otherwise varied, attested to the bounty of the feminine mind, when once let loose in a given direction.
Another giant of American literature, Mark Twain, included a quote about Thanksgiving in Pudd’nhead Wilson, his 1894 novel. Each chapter begins with an aphorism from Pudd’nhead’s calendar, including this witticism:
Thanksgiving Day. Let all give humble, hearty, and sincere thanks, now, but the turkeys. In the island of Fiji they do not use turkeys; they use plumbers. It does not become you and me to sneer at Fiji.
A century later, Philip Roth found meaning in the Thanksgiving bird as the great equalizer of American society in his Pulitzer Prize–winning American Pastoral:
And it was never but once a year that they were brought together anyway, and that was on the neutral, dereligionized ground of Thanksgiving, when everybody gets to eat the same thing, nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff—no kugel, no gefilte fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people—one colossal turkey feeds all. A moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity, a moratorium on the three-thousand-year-old nostalgia of the Jews, a moratorium on Christ and the crucifixion for the Christians, when everyone in New Jersey and elsewhere can be more irrational about their irrationalities than they are the rest of the year. A moratorium on all the grievances and resentments, and not only for the Dwyers and the Levovs but for everyone in America who is suspicious of everyone else. It is the American pastoral par excellence and it lasts twenty-four hours.
Finally, a number of contemporary novels use Thanksgiving as the backdrop for family dysfunction—perhaps none so disastrous as in Rick Moody’s 1994 The Ice Storm, about two suburban families during the 1970s. For example:
Thanksgiving dinner at the O’Malleys, as Benjamin had often pointed out, was like waiting for the end of a ceasefire. Billy and her father would assume a guarded silence until the first drinks had been consumed. Then Billy would launch into his list of dissatisfactions beginning with, say, her father’s preposterous support for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Open disgust was not far away.
Here’s wishing all of you a safe, happy and relatively dysfunction-free Thanksgiving!
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.
May 6, 2011
Once a week, an email chain of epic proportions germinates in my inbox: it’s a regular call to brunch, followed by a scramble to figure out where we’re eating, how many people are in so that reservations can be made, what time we’re eating and whether or not bottomless mimosas are available. No mimosas usually means a change in venue, depending on who’s in. And come Sunday morning there’s a round of phone calls and text messages to rally the oversleeping, hung-over and/or otherwise indisposed members of the group. It’s a complicated affair.
In anticipation of this Sunday, families all across the country will be be going head-t0-head, trying to beat each other out in securing brunch reservations at their favorite dining spots in order to celebrate Mother’s Day. When did people start subjecting themselves to this delicious little slice of Sunday madness?
As is the case with many culinary traditions, the origins are a bit hazy. Some food historians think that the meal has its roots in England’s hunt breakfasts—lavish multi-course meals that featured a smorgasbord of goodies such as chicken livers, eggs, meats, bacon, fresh fruit and sweets. Others posit that Sunday brunch derives from the practice of Catholics fasting before mass and then sitting down for a large midday meal. And then there are those who look to New York’s abundance of dining spots when it comes to tracing the origins of classic brunch dishes from eggs Benedict to bagels and lox.
What does seem certain is that the word “brunch”—that playful blend of “breakfast” and “lunch”—first appeared in print in an 1895 Hunter’s Weekly article. In “Brunch: A Plea,” British author Guy Beringer suggested an alternative to the heavy, post-church Sunday meals in favor of lighter fare served late in the morning. ”Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,” Beringer says. ”It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”
But wherever the initial spark of genius came from, the tradition definitely seems to have caught on in the United States in the 1930s, supposedly because Hollywood stars making transcontinental train trips frequently stopped off in Chicago to enjoy a late morning meal. It was a meal championed by hotels since most restaurants were closed on Sundays and, with church attendance flagging after World War II, people were looking for a new social outlet that also let them sleep in a bit. Restaurants soon hopped on the bandwagon and began offering the decadent spreads of food and signature morning cocktails, such as Bloody Marys, Bellinis and Mimosas.
“Sunday dinner became important because it was the only time people could eat together as a family unit during the week at the onset of urbanization and industrialization, 150 years ago,” according to Stanford University professor Carl Degler in a 1980 Chicago Tribune article on the rise of America’s brunch culture. He also pointed to another social change that might be responsible for why Sunday brunch became so popular here. “After World War II, large numbers of American married women entered the workforce for the first time. [...] Married women needed a relief on Sunday, too, thus the rise in popularity of Sunday brunch eaten out.”
Chefs, however, aren’t a huge fan. After a busy Saturday night, trying to create a menu for a meal that stretches from 11 A.M. until 3 or 4 in the afternoon—finding that right balance between breakfast foods, lunch foods and exotic hybrids of the two—is no small task. And then there’s the issue of dealing with fussy diners.
Will you be celebrating mom by way of a big brunch buffet this Sunday or do you have other Mother’s Day dining traditions you like to keep? Tell us in the comments area below.