Category Archives: Food

The Joy(s) of Cooking

Next to my computer keyboard, I have three pamphlet-style cookbooks.  One is the 21st Edition of the Calumet Baking Powder Company’s “Reliable Recipes”.  Today I learned that cookbook was published in 1922, and is a minor collectible.  The second is a publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1950, called “Family Fare: Food Management and Recipes”. Both these I got from my mother; it’s likely that she got the Calumet cookbook from her mother.

The third is a Greek cookbook I bought sometime in the mid- to late 70’s, at a Greek Festival at the Greek Orthodox Church in Memphis.  That one is where I got my recipe for moussaka, and there has never been a better recipe.  I remember the first time I made it–I was a little shocked that there was cinnamon in the meat sauce, and even more shocked to find that it makes the dish.  And I’m not even a fan of cinnamon.  At Greek Fest here in Tallahassee, they don’t use cinnamon in their moussaka, because “most people don’t like it”.  Wimps.  It takes forever and a day to make it, but it’s worth it.

One of my favorite cookbooks ever was one called “Good, Cheap Food”, which I can’t seem to locate.  It has my recipe for black beans and rice.  Like the moussaka, it takes forever to make.  First you soak the dried beans.  Then you boil them for a couple of hours with spices.  Then you combine them with a meat sauce and bake them for another couple of hours.  As an aside, I always serve them with yellow rice.  White rice reminds me of maggots.

I’ve saved the best for last.  The Calumet cookbook has the recipe for bread pudding that I still use, with tweaks.  I’m a fanatic about bread pudding.  I loved it as a child, and was delighted to learn it’s one of  the signature desserts in New Orleans. I tried it everywhere.  The worst bread puddings are those that add things like raisins, and God forbid, fruit cocktail.  Bread pudding should be plain, enhanced with a sauce.  The best bread pudding I ever had was at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.  They bake it in individual serving dishes, topped with meringue, and just before you eat it, the server pours warm whisky sauce on top.

Here is the bread pudding recipe, complete with tweaks.

1 small loaf stale bread, 1 quart milk, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 level teaspoons baking powder, 2 eggs well-beaten, 1/2 level teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 cup melted butter.

Remove soft part from loaf and grate on coarse grater.  (No, no, no.  Don’t do this, use French bread and keep it in small chunks, crust and all.)  Scald milk, pour over bread.  Let stand until cool.  Beat eggs, add sugar, salt, and baking powder, mix well.  Add to bread/milk mixture.  Add vanilla and butter.  Bake in a buttered baking dish 1 hour, in a slow oven (whatever that means.  My guess is 250-300).

You’re on your own for the whisky sauce.  You can use rum, but I prefer whisky.

The First Thanksgiving. Er, Sort Of.

The American holiday of Thanksgiving is this coming Thursday, and here in America we have a host of traditions about it, from the food to the story of the first one.  In fact, we have a lot of stories about a lot of things, some of which are outright myths (Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox), some stories which may or may not be true (George Washington and the cherry tree), and the story of the first Thanksgiving, which we all learn as wee children.

Here’s how that story goes.  The Pilgrims came to America from England, in search of religious freedom.  They landed on Plymouth Rock, in Massachusetts, in 1620.  They were befriended by a Native American named Squanto, who taught them how to plant native plants such as corn, squash, and beans, and how to make the crops thrive by planting them with dead fish.  The next year, when it was time to harvest, they had their first Thanksgiving feast.  In drawings, this is usually depicted as the Pilgrims and their native American friends seated side by side at a long table, enjoying turkey and a bounty of other dishes.  And they all lived happily ever after.

So by coincidence, I’m reading the book “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick.  This is the third book by Philbrick I will have read.  The first was “In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, for which he won the National Book Award in 2000.  The second was “Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition”.  He’s written two others, one about the  battle of the Little Bighorn, and another about Bunker Hill.  I’m quite sure I’ll read them too.

The thing that used to confuse me the most about the Pilgrims was the religious freedom part.  When you look at the later history of the Pilgrims (take the Salem witch trials, for example), and indeed the history of our country to this day, religious freedom had nothing to do with it, except for their own.  They weren’t interested in religious freedom for everyone, just for themselves, because they were right, and everyone else was wrong.  Also only half, or slightly less than half of the “Pilgrims” were Separatists (from the Church of England), coming to America for religious freedom for themselves.  The rest were people coming for various reasons, including the hope of bettering themselves financially.  Plus, the Separatists didn’t live in England.  They’d already left and lived in Leiden, Holland.  They had to go back to England to board the Mayflower.  Some things they believed I wish we’d kept, such as a firm belief in the separation of church and state.  They thought marriage was a secular ceremony, not a religious one.  While they thought they were right, there’s been no mention of them attempting to “convert” their Native American friends…so there is in fact evidence of tolerance.  And that was a good move.

There actually is a big rock at Plymouth, but they didn’t “land” on it.  In fact, their first landing was at Cape Cod.

They did have ceremonies called “thanksgivings” on a regular basis, but the First Thanksgiving was more like a harvest feast.  There was a Squanto, and he apparently did teach them to plant corn, squash, and beans, using dead fish as fertilizer.  But there probably weren’t any turkeys on the menu.  The English were familiar with turkeys, they’d been imported to England long before, but the wild turkeys in America were very hard to catch.  Probably they had ducks, geese, and corn, squash and beans 🙂  But probably no fish.  They’d been farmers, and didn’t know how to fish.  It’s thought that the Native Americans brought some deer.  And they may have brought some fish too.  Let’s hope they had a dessert or two.  Maybe something with pumpkin or apples.  They could have sweetened them with honey or maybe maple syrup.

The long table is probably completely made up.  They barely had houses, much less furniture.

All in all, while the story has been simplified, much of it is true in essence.  Except for the part about living happily ever after.  After an auspicious beginning, things go to hell in a handbasket as far as relations between the settlers and the Native Americans.

It remains a good story.  They really were courageous and endured many hardships, both on the ship and in their first year in a strange land.  They had much to be thankful for…having food, having each other, having new friends, and surviving.  If parts of the story aren’t quite true, it’s still a good life to aspire to.

 

That’s The Wrong Fork!

It came as a big surprise to me yesterday to learn that Emily Post wrote a cookbook.  And you too can have a copy of it (original 1951 version, in hardback) for $2.30 from Amazon.  (The shipping is probably twice that.)  The 1951 version may be the only version as far as I know; unlike The Joy of Cooking, which has several versions and has been updated through the years.

In my opinion, if you never have but one cookbook, it should be The Joy of Cooking.  It has every basic recipe you could (and should) know how to cook, and not only that, some fascinating reading about the properties of food (why and how do eggs work in recipes? How exactly do they make flour?) and directions for cleaning a duck from the feathers down, along with many other kinds of game.  It really could be the survivalists’ handbook.

I don’t know why I was so surprised that Emily Post wrote a cookbook, because suddenly I remembered my first Home Economics class.  At my high school, you could get three different types of diplomas:  basic, vocational, or college preparatory.  I was in college prep, and we had certain courses that were required–that was probably true of the other categories as well, but we didn’t fraternize much so I don’t know–but we had room for some electives.  My freshman year, I chose Home Ec.  And then I took it for two more years.

I was interested in cooking.  My father had taught me to cook a little bit (my mother was a disaster in that area) and I’ll never forget making my first apple pie under his supervision, which included a crust made from scratch.  Mostly I’ll never forget the feeling of amazement and accomplishment when I took it out of the oven.  People can actually eat this, and I made it!

Nothing compares to that first apple pie, unless it’s the first time I grew a tomato plant. I planted this! In the dirt!  And I can eat it! I was young once, and many things could surprise and delight me. It takes a little more these days.

But I remembered that my Home Ec I teacher, Mrs. Noland, was not just about learning to cook and sew. It was about etiquette at the table, and proper attire. She was the advisor to an all-girls “social club” I belonged to, and every year, we had an afternoon tea, I think to welcome new members. Hats and gloves required. Proper way to balance a saucer on your lap and hold a teacup. She was the height of sophistication in our little mountain town. That said, I don’t know why I was so surprised that Emily Post wrote a cookbook, since so much of etiquette revolves around eating.

Fast forward to when I was 21 as opposed to 14, and I was going to dinner with my then boyfriend at the home of a woman who was known to be an incredible cook. I mean, she had copies of Gourmet magazine lying around the house. Her husband was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and they were obviously experienced at entertaining. I was dying to go, but terrified. Literally trembling, afraid I would do something wrong at the table and expose myself for the rube I really was. My boyfriend said, don’t be afraid, just watch me. Use the fork I use. And that’s what I did, but I needn’t have worried. The hostess was so gracious, so good at making her guests feel comfortable, that I probably could have made a mistake and I never would have known it.

Mrs. Noland taught me some of the rules, but this hostess taught me the true meaning of etiquette. In the end, the rules are designed to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed, and if you can’t do that, you’ve failed.

It’s been a long time since that Home Ec class and that dinner, but I still know how to hold a teacup.

Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives

This is the title of a show on the Food Network.  Chef Guy Fieri travels around to various “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants all over the country, most of them suggested by viewers.  He tootles around in his signature cherry red convertible Camaro.  Like I believe that.  They are most certainly flying his car to whatever city he’s in, but it’s a good trademark, and Fieri is a lot of fun.  Each of these restaurants has some signature dish they do very well, and sometimes more than one.  Fieri has never met a food he doesn’t like 🙂

I think of the classic diner as a free-standing place, like an old railroad car that has been converted into a restaurant.  It’s very narrow, with a counter and stools on one side, and booths against the wall on the other. But there are also faux diners, mocked up to look like something from the 1950’s.  One such diner that I believe was in New Orleans had black and white tile linoleum floors, red and white checked table cloths, lots of chrome (light fixtures, stools) and servers dressed up in uniforms like they wore in the old sit-c0m “Alice”.  And complete with juke boxes playing Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

A couple of real diners are famous, such as the Whistle Stop Café in Juliette, Georgia.  It was made famous in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes”. Maybe lesser known is the diner called the Northside Café, in Winterset, Iowa, featured in the movie “The Bridges of Madison County”. Until the movie was made, Winterset was best known as the birthplace of John Wayne. When I lived in Des Moines, I visited all the locations where the movie was made–the farmhouse, Winterset, all the bridges that were still standing. Every year they have a Covered Bridge Festival in Winterset, and I can say that one of my fondest memories is that this is where I saw my first and only demonstration of live polka.

Drive-Ins: When I think of drive-ins, I don’t really think of restaurants, although it was a revolutionary idea. I think of movies. When I was a child, my parents took me to the movies, always a western, and I always fell asleep before the end, after asking a million questions about what had just happened and what was going to happen next. As a teenager, we had a drive-in movie in our town, which I only went to once. It seemed to me that just being seen there was enough to trash your reputation. When I got ready to move to the big city of Memphis after graduation, several people expressed misgivings about the dangers of a city. I was like, “Are you kidding? At least there’s something to do there. Here, I’m in more danger going to the drive-in”.

Dives: I don’t think of dives as restaurants. I think of them as bars. Three in Memphis stand out for me: Peanuts, the Last Laugh, and The Daily Planet. Especially The Daily Planet. The owners were for some reason obsessed with Superman and Lois Lane and there were posters all over the bar of them. Both Peanuts and The Daily Planet had live music, and even the most amateur of live music in Memphis was a cut above what you usually see in bars.

But for the highest honor you could bestow on a dive bar…that goes to Vic’s Kangaroo Café in New Orleans. I’m amazed–I looked it up and it still exists, at 636 Tchoupitoulas St. It was across the street from my first office there. It was the after-work watering hole for me and my fellow managers. So many memories…like the time we took our boss there. He wasn’t much of a drinker, and after one or maybe two beers, he got offended by something someone said to him at the bar. We don’t know what it was, but our boss Fred was black, and he was the only black person in the bar. So pretty safe to assume it was something racial, or he assumed it was. I think being the only black person in the bar made him a little paranoid, and then you add alcohol to that…So Fred breaks a beer bottle on the bar, leaving shards of glass on the bar and a jagged weapon in his hand. We all surrounded him and marched him out of the bar, all the while shouting “Everything is OK! Really, he didn’t mean it! We’ll be back to clean up the glass! He’s leaving now! Please don’t call the police!”

I should write to Guy Fieri and tell him to check out Vic’s 🙂 They do have food. Every Friday they would do a crawfish boil on the sidewalk outside the front door. They had a popcorn machine that they added cayenne pepper to. I wasn’t able to breathe while they were popping it. I was there so much that eventually they would come to me and say, “We’re about to pop some more popcorn, wanna go outside?” Now there is the epitome of your friendly hometown dive bar.

What’s For Lunch?

Fellow blogger spencercourt, who became a real-life friend, followed by becoming a Facebook friend, started something this week.  spencercourt grew up in Manila, and attended a high school called, at that time, the American School.  The name subsequently changed to the International School.  He and fellow schoolmates of different graduating classes have a Facebook group called something like the AS/IS Club, and also have their own website.

By a strange coincidence, I have something similar.  I grew up in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.  We don’t have a website, but we have two Facebook groups.  One is strictly for my graduating class.  We were the first graduating class from the new high school built in our town, and we feel pretty special because of it.  The other group is called “Remember Waynesville When…”.   People of all age groups post photos of Waynesville then and now, interesting bits of history, memories, etc.

So spencercourt asked an innocent question.  He asked if any of his AS/IS peeps remembered what they ate for lunch in high school, because he couldn’t remember. He could remember eating lunch almost every day at the Army Navy Club, but not what the food was.  He wanted to know what his fellow AS/IS folks remembered.

I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember what we ate for lunch either, with one exception.  The rolls.  They were a type of yeast roll called a water roll.

So I asked the same innocent question on our “Remember When” group. Who remembers our school lunches, and specifically, who remembers the rolls? OMG, you would have thought I asked everyone to share their ideas on how to achieve world peace. People were coming out of the woodwork. EVERYBODY remembered the rolls.

One of the things I looked forward to were the replies to spencercourt’s question. It seemed to me that school lunches in the Philippines might be pretty exotic. Then it dawned on me that school lunches in the mountains of North Carolina might seem pretty exotic to people from the Philippines.

Many people remembered days when lunch was pinto beans, turnip greens, and cornbread. I remember having corn quite often as a vegetable, probably because corn was grown locally quite a bit. You think of corn as a crop grown in the endless flat fields of Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas, but if planted correctly, it grows just fine in the mountains too, just not as abundantly.

Besides the rolls, many people also remembered the peanut butter cookies. Apparently the government gave our schools free peanut butter and cheese. So we’ve gone on the hunt for the recipes for the rolls and the cookies from former lunchroom ladies.

One member of the “Remember” group is a former local politico (County Commissioner) turned reporter for the hometown newspaper. The discussion has reached the point where her editor said she should write a story about it for the paper.

She wondered how she could possibly do that, since she doesn’t cook. (She stores cups and saucers in her oven.) I told her she doesn’t play an instrument or sing in a bluegrass band either, but she regularly reports on that anyway. No difference.

Plus, I said she should treat it as history, not as a cooking article. School lunches have changed dramatically over the years since we got “homemade” rolls and peanut butter cookies for lunch in the school cafeteria.

Like I said, spencercourt started something.

Got Milk?

This refers to an ad campaign in the U.S. showing various celebrities (and at least in one case, the Mona Lisa) with white “mustaches” from drinking milk. With gusto, you assume.
I am a milk freak and have been since I was a child. Had I been permitted to, I would have drunk (drank? drunken? drinked? Making it up as I go along here) milk with every meal and every snack. But I was only allowed to drink milk at breakfast. For lunch and dinner, my choices were sweetened iced tea and sweetened iced tea. For snacks, I could have Coca-Cola.
I still find this puzzling. My mother was a registered nurse and had to know that milk is much healthier than tea or Coke. The only thing I can come up with to explain it is that milk was more expensive.
I wasn’t permitted to drink coffee at all, ever, but that was mainly because my mother didn’t like it and we never had it in the house. She made it for my father, but once he moved out, that was the end of coffee in our house.
So I developed an addiction to Coca-Cola. My first semester in college, one day I realized I was drinking 6 Cokes a day. So, I just stopped. Don’t ask me how I managed to do that.
Then I developed an addiction to coffee. With cream and sugar. The only time I’d tasted it (from my father’s cup), it was black. It dawned on me that I didn’t live at home anymore so I could drink anything I liked! One day I was at work, and realized that I was using like 4 packets of sugar for a 6-ounce Styrofoam cup of coffee. I was making syrup. So I just stopped that too.
I wasn’t addicted to Cokes or coffee, I was addicted to sugar. I still drink coffee…two cups every morning, black…but almost no sodas at all. I might drink half a Coca-Cola once a year. The carbonation is strangely refreshing. I drink ginger ale about that often.
Back to milk. I still love it and drink it at every meal, unless I have to try to act elegant and drink wine instead. But it turns out, I’m a mutant. Only 70% of the world’s population continues to produce the enzyme lactase after childhood, and it’s required in order to digest milk, whether it comes from your mother or from a cow or a goat or a fill-in-the-blank. It also turns out that people with extreme Northern European ancestry (Scandinavia, the British Isles) are most likely to continue to produce lactase (90% probability). People of African or Asian descent have only a 10% probability.
I knew about lactose intolerance in cats, which I learned the hard way. I once rescued this little feral kitten from the streets of New Orleans (“Erin”), who wasn’t weaned and didn’t know how to eat solid food. So I added milk. He snarfed it up. Once he began eating the solid food, I quit adding milk. Later on, I decided to give him milk as a treat and he was the very definition of sudden projectile vomiting. It was very impressive. Halfway across the room.
But it isn’t just cats…it’s all mammals. I can think of a lot of good evolutionary reasons for this. For one thing, it encourages the baby mammals to become independent and start eating other things, and if necessary, to go out and hunt for them. (Mom will not always be there.) It lets the mother rest and build up reserves for the next baby.
I’d like to mention that I had another cat who got sick and I fed her baby food meats mixed with rice, on the advice of the vet. While I’ve never tried canned or dry cat food, baby food veal is really yummy stuff. I hope PETA isn’t reading.
But lucky me! I can still drink milk and eat ice cream to my heart’s content.

A Whine About Vegans…As Promised

As I’m sure everyone knows, Veganism is an extreme form of vegetarianism, although not the most extreme. That would be Fruitarianism. Those people only eat things that don’t kill the plant they came from. I want to ask, what about a plant like spinach, which is an annual? It’s going to die anyway, so why can’t you eat it? Some won’t eat seeds, because they are future baby plants.
But as usual, I digress. Vegans don’t eat meat, but they also don’t eat things produced by animals, like eggs, honey, and milk. The rationale is that this leads to exploitation of the animals. I fail to see how eating honey exploits honeybees, since it’s something they’re going to do anyway. Bears do it, why can’t I?
Eggs and milk are a different story. If you’ve read anything at all about factory farming, you know that chickens and cows are forced into very unnatural conditions and lead miserable lives from our perspective.
Especially cows. Cows don’t produce milk unless they’ve had a calf, so what happens is, the calves are removed from the cow immediately after birth. They’re fed a milk substitute, and soon killed for veal, or destroyed right away if there is a surplus of calves.
So what is an animal lover to do?
Here’s what I say: Humans did not start out as omnivores, but we are now. It’s like the folk tale of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to take him across a river, because he can’t swim. The frog is reluctant. The scorpion tells the frog he won’t sting him, because if he does it will doom them both. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, and the frog cries “Why?!” The scorpion says it was because he can’t help himself. He’s a scorpion, it’s in his nature.
It’s useless to feel guilty for being the creature you are. We are scorpions. And nobody ever castigates lions for eating antelope.