Some foods grab us, hold us firmly, speak directly to our fondest memories.
Image from http://www.yelp.com
The recipe was in a sort of foodie magazine, a slender volume that talked about best recipes from different regions. I did a double-take when I saw the cover: there, in all its splendid glory, was a beef on ‘weck sandwich.
Beef on ‘weck is western New York State food,–thinly sliced roast beef, tender in au jus, piled onto a kaisery bun (officially called a kummelweck roll) that has coarse salt and caraway seeds baked onto its lid. Many aficionados slather the sandwich with horseradish for even more of a zesty kick.
There was a place, in my hometown of Fredonia, called the Park Pub; there, they served up beef on ‘wecks the size of small pizzas. Six of us would cram into a booth and order one of the Pub’s giant ‘weck sandwiches and one of their enormous shrimp cocktails. We’d get a pitcher of beer and a stack of plates and reach across and over and in front of each other, talking, laughing, debating, suggesting. That would take us through a fine portion of Friday night, the food fueling the camaraderie.
Outside of western New York, though, people looked puzzled when I mentioned the sandwich. Even German bakers had never heard of kummelweck rolls, so beef on ‘weck became, like a real Lake Erie fish fry, something we looked forward to enjoying on our visits back home–and a dish we didn’t think about otherwise.
Until I saw that magazine and realized, Hey! I could make these!
I have a new office in a new building with new colleagues down the hall, and these new colleagues have instituted a Thursday lunch club. One Thursday in the semester is mine, and on that day, it’s my responsibility to bring lunch for the whole crew. (The rest of the Thursdays, I get to eat wonderful things brought by other people. I like this concept very much.)
My Thursday popped up last week. Because I discovered that our new Provost is from Jamestown, the western New York city where our Matthew lives (and where Lucille Ball is from), I thought I’d try making beef on ‘wecks, and I invited the Provost over to eat and to meet people on an informal basis.
It was no problem finding the beef to roast (I even stumbled on a buy one/get one sale), and I had the caraway seeds and kosher salt in my cupboard. But the slicing of the beef became an unexpected challenge.
Years ago, when I was what my very funny boyfriend called a ‘supermarket deli wench,’ people would buy their beef and take it home and roast it in a big covered casserole. Then they’d bring that heavy lidded pot back into the store and tote it to the deli. One of us would heft it over the stainless steel display case and pull off the lid, and we’d be overcome by the lovely scent of the juicy roasted meat.
The customer would laugh. “Go ahead and have a nibble when you’re done!” he or she would [usually] say, and we’d wrestle the meat onto the slicer and carefully shave off tender slices until only a tiny nubbin was left. We’d hold it up inquiringly to the customer, who [usually] nodded, and then we would slap it onto the work surface, grab up one of our sharp deli knives and slice that little end into pieces. The first one always went to the customer, the founder of the feast, who proudly popped it into her [or his] mouth, nodding and smiling, and then the deli clerks clustered tightly. When we separated, there was not a trace of that roast beef nubbin left.
Everyone sighed, a gentle exhalation: “Ooooh; that was GOOD.”
The slices went deftly back into the roasting pan, covered with a big sheet of plastic wrap. The top went back on. The customer took that bounty home to simmer it in its own beef juices. They’d serve it with a pile of kummelweck rolls, bowls of horseradish right nearby. They’d offer an enormous casserole full of brown-sugary baked beans, always with bacon, and sometimes with ground beef mixed in, too. There would be baked pasta and big bowls of potato and macaroni salad. There’d be green salads, tossed in Italian dressing.
That was dinner for graduations, showers, anniversaries, special birthdays. It was a welcome wedding menu, in which case, of course, dessert would be a lovely tiered cake slathered in buttercream frosting with a googly-eyed plastic bride and groom sliding around on the top. For all other events, sheet cakes crowned the meal, sometimes adorned with a festive message.
So. Last week, I rang the bell at two supermarket meat rooms and inquired if I could roast my beefs and bring them back to have them sliced.
‘Uh, no,’ both meat room clerks told me, giving me kind of an odd look. Once a product leaves the store, they said, it is not welcome to return. They revealed that there are health and safety regulations involved that weren’t in force way back in 1975.
It made me a little huffy. And a little concerned. How was I going to get my beef sliced thin enough to simmer in the juices, to stack the way it’s supposed to stack, so thin and tender it would fall apart on first bite?
Mark and I pondered and we decided: We will buy a meat slicer.
Which we did.
The new Provost came to the lunch, and my intrepid colleagues tried the meat on the salty buns and deemed them surprisingly good. We ate all the salad I made with spuds grown by our coworker Randy, and the tray of apple pie bars was three-fourths gone by day’s end.
And then that weekend, I gathered up my stuff and hopped onto a plane for Fort Lauderdale to spend a birthday weekend with my darling niece and godchild, Shayne. When I told her about the luncheon, her eyes truly lit up.
“Beck on ‘weck is my FAVORITE,” she said. “Can we make that for my birthday?”
And it was good. Again.
In fact, on Monday, my last day at Shaynie’s, we got up and I hugged kids and we drove the youngest, Miss Maddie, to her elementary school and went back and had beef on ‘weck sandwiches for second breakfast. And when I texted Shaynie that I was home and safe, she texted back: Had another one for lunch!
Such a simple thing, to salt and caraway a sandwich bun, but the smell and taste take me–and Shayne–back to wonderful times, connect us to our earlier days, and connect us, too, to people we love and miss.
For another niece, Meg, it is the coffee cake my mother used to make that spells ‘connection.’ Early on, Mom discovered a recipe that involved 11-3/4 cups of flour, along with scalded milk, egg and sugar, yeast, and I don’t know what else; she made it at Easter time, a sweet, sticky dough that she’d shape, at first, into small sweet rolls laced with cinnamon and frosted, still warm, with butter cream. Those took a long time to shape and bake and ice, but they disappeared at a rapid clip. Mom decided to make coffee cakes instead; she would braid the dough into long, tender loaves that sprawled the length of a cookie sheet. (The cakes didn’t hang around any longer, but they took less time to shape and bake.)
When the braided loaves cooled slightly, Mom would frost them, and she would adorn the tops with candied fruit and nuts: cherry/nut/cherry. Meg loved those cakes, and she loved the adornment, and woe to you if you switched it out. Nut/cherry/nut was just not going to do.
I have made my mother’s coffee cake; I have washed the kitchen floor, white from the flour that foofs up in the first mixing and then floats gently on the house air currents to settle where it will. I have discovered that buying a bag of frozen bread dough, defrosting and shaping it, yields a yeasty cake that, when cinnamoned and frosted, tastes remarkably like Mom’s. I have given up on cleaning floury floors, but not on coffee cake for Easter.
In Mark’s family of birth, pasta was the meal of celebration. As a child he sat at the children’s table at his grandparents’ house, and piled into the sugo and pasta, bread and salad. The Sicilian sun of his grandparents’ childhood flavored the sauce. Mark was surrounded by siblings and cousins and laughter.
Later, the feasts moved, with his grandmother’s table, to his parents’ home; as Mark and his siblings married, a new generation of cousins were relegated to the children’s table in the front parlor. But the food was the same–tender pasta drenched in red sauce, platters of sauce-cooked meatballs and pork and sausage, the crusty bread, the fresh crisp salad–always enough, too, if a friend tagged along or an out-of-town cousin showed up at the door.
It wasn’t just the food–it was the warmth and the incredible smell that enveloped you as you stepped inside from the cold; it was the sounds of laughter and welcome pouring from the crowded kitchen.
Mashed potatoes said ‘festive’ at my home port–big roasts of meat (although one year, Peppy, my first, special dog, stole the roast off the table while the family was in the kitchen gathering up the sides) with a giant bowl of fluffy white potatoes, butter melting on top. There was an off-white lace cloth that fit the entire table, leaves and all; there was my mother’s special dinnerware with the pretty rustic scenes emblazoned on the plates. Little pitchers of gravy, bowls of hot veggies, usually from a can. Stuffing if the meat was fowl. And tons of dessert–cookies frosted and sugared, pies with moisture beading on top, chocolate layer cakes with white icing between the layers and fudge frosting coating the outside. Cheap wine (my mother had a long Cold Duck period) and strong coffee.
Merged, Mark and I favor both kinds of meals and some choices of our own—lasagna says ‘special’; so does crown roast of pork, and we can both feel festive digging into a cheesy, saucy plate of eggplant parmesan. We haven’t so much given up our food roots as expanded them, although some things–his dad’s breaded burdock, my father’s vienna sausage,–we have agreed to leave behind.
Oh, I know. There are some reading this who think, “Gosh. Red meat on a seedy, salty bun. Ummm–no, thanks!” The strange sounding combination doesn’t say “childhood,” to those readers–doesn’t whisper, ‘Christmas’ or ‘Uncle Bill,‘ ‘Dennis’ or ‘Park Pub.’
But I bet there is a food that speaks to memories; don’t we all have a dish, a dessert, a stew, a treat, that calls us out of time and into childhood? Isn’t there a steaming plate or a crunchy nosh that reconnects us to that patient child within?
There is food, and there are memories; sometimes they simmer long together.
Last week I was the roast beef bringer, the wizard of ‘weck. I am returned to the land of crisp lettuce and boneless chicken breast, but I am better for my journey, and happy that I went.
Here’s a link for an easy Beef on ‘weck’ recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/162533/beef-on-weck/