What We Eat; The Recipes We Share

Losing a beloved family heirloom is a very real, personal loss; they’re things that cannot ever be replaced or re-created. But perhaps the most precious heirlooms are family recipes.

—Stanley Tucci, Taste

Really men DO eat quiche—we had it for dinner last night, and I watched the boyos, real men both, down two thick, steaming, cheesy slabs each.

I had been thinking we had leftover Easter ham in the freezer when I stumbled on the idea of quiche for dinner, and I’d been wanting to experiment with making pie crust from gluten-free flour. Quiche seemed like the perfect way to incorporate the goals of using up leftovers and experimenting with pastry; it seemed a good thing to nosh on, too, on a kind of chilly Thursday night.

I followed a traditional one-crust pie dough recipe, substituting my “1:1” flour. The pastry mixed up just fine; it rolled out pretty cooperatively, too, on my flour-dusted Tupperware pie-crust-rolling cloth. But when I picked it up to slide it into the pie pan, the crust crumbled. I wound up patting it in place, chunk by shattered chunk. I smushed it together as seamlessly as I could, and I covered it with a couple of layers of thick aluminum foil; it baked while I mixed up the quiche filling.

And we DIDN’T have any leftover ham; that Easter ham was so good we devoured it within a few days, making sandwiches and omelets and fried egg and ham breakfasts. We had some deli ham, though, so I rolled up a couple of slices, and used the new knife Mark got me for Christmas—a knife so finely honed, it’s a dangerous weapon in mindless hands; my thumb is healing nicely, though—to chop them up fine.

The ham went into the batter, and I grated up some “Emmi” Swiss and some Dublin cheddar, and I tossed those shreds in my gluten free flour, and then I pulled the crust from the oven (“Pour the filling into a HOT crust,” my recipe admonishes). I stirred the cheese into the batter. Then I poured the batter into the crust, which was brown and a little lumpy, but still, it looked appetizing enough…and it was sizzling hot.

And while the quiche baked, we threw together little side salads, and Mark sliced up chunks of the sesame seed-topped pave’ bread (I bought it for him on Wednesday, after he had one of those knock-‘em-out procedures at the hospital—the kind of procedure men of a certain age seem wont to encounter, and often need cheering up after. Mark did very well; the cheering maybe wasn’t even necessary, but he surely liked the bread.)

The quiche, perhaps fueled by half-and-half instead of insipid skimmed milk, thickened up beautifully. A gluten free meal it was, even if a light one it was not, and Jim said he really LIKED the crust. Not just, “This is okay, considering,” but, “I LIKE this crust!”

So that was a little triumph.

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After dinner, after washing up, after we went for a little walk around the shady grounds of the Helen Purcell home, we watched the newest episode of Julia on HBO Max. This week, Julia Child went to New York City for a PBS awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria, and she got thoroughly dissed at least three times during the trip. Julia had lunch with her editor, Judith Jones, and with Blanche Knopf, Judith’s boss. Knopf made it clear that she found Julia’s fascination with and appreciation for food trifling.

Then the authentic French chef came out to be cosseted and admired by Knopf, and Julia introduced herself. The chef admitted to knowing who she was, and he took her hand and told her to leave the real cooking to the men who were oh so much more capable of doing it.

That night, at the gala dinner, Julia encountered Betty Friedan. The character was compelled to tell Julia that she was an intellectual lightweight, and that her show was contributing to women’s imprisonments in their homes and kitchens.

In the show, the impact of those three negative encounters is shattering for Julia Child. Did they really happen? They COULD have, my internet search tells me, but not for sure. The dressings-down are well dramatized, and they are unsettling enough that I am composing arguments FOR Julia Child in my head.

“Look,” I say, “whose philosophy stood the test of time!” and, “Certainly, because  of Julia, in part, we appreciate food more now, and the cooking and appreciation of it is every gender’s responsibility…women are not chained to their convection ovens…”

Julia is right to advocate appreciation of wonderful food at home, I muse, as I wander off at 8:30 or so, to soak in a tub and read Stanley Tucci’s Taste: My Life Through Food. It’s here that I encounter Tucci’s quote about recipes being the very best of heirlooms, and that gets me thinking.

Julia Child’s recipes are certainly a legacy; I made her scalloped potatoes for the first time this Easter. They are much easier and faster than the recipe I had been wont to use, and Jim absolutely loved them.

And as I read Tucci’s book, I think that every family creates its own culture, and a big part of culture is food.

What kind of food culture do WE have? Do we have heirloom quality recipes?  Does quiche in a gluten-free crust count?

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Mark’s family of birth, much like the warm Italian family Tucci was raised in, has a definite culinary culture. His father, Angelo, loved to cook, and he and Pat, Mark’s mom, collaborated on many a meal. They were famous for their red sauce, which most always had meatballs the size of baseballs in it. It might also have Italian sausage, pork, or ham hocks, slow-simmered and succulent. They would scoop the meat onto large platters and pour the sauce into sturdy pitchers, one for each end of the table. There’d be hefty bowls of pasta that passed around, and sliced crusty bread, and people who weren’t used to the meal would breathe in the fragrant steam, taste, sigh, and sink into flavor-induced ecstasy.

Lasagna at Christmas, when Mark was growing up, was another amazing feast. Mark’s dad made fritters, in spring and summer, with dandelions or nettles. And some concoctions, cooked up in Lent, I couldn’t always cotton to: sardines and boiled eggs in the red sauce, and a clear soup with olives in it—olives that bobbed to the surface like the eyeballs bobbed in Kathleen Turner’s soup, in, I think, the banquet scene in Temple of Doom.

Loved recipes, unloved recipes—still, Mark’s family had a food culture and definite heirloom recipes. We emulate the red sauce these days, although we seldom start with whole tomatoes; we use canned spaghetti sauce, tomato paste, and tomato sauce, herbs from the backyard, garlic and onion, minced, and whatever kinds of meat are on hand: meatballs, maybe, made with ground beef and pork from Rittberger’s butcher shop, fat links of hot Italian sausage, the leftover bone from a Sunday pork roast… It may not quite meet the sublime levels of Mark’s parents’ sauce, but it is thick and hearty and very, very good.

So that, maybe, is an heirloom recipe. That’s one for the box.

And, building on my brother Dennis’ wisdom (“Good chili,” Dennis said, “always starts with good spaghetti sauce”), we make some mean chili. That could maybe be considered an heirloom recipe,–an heirloom technique, at least–too.

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On my side, the culinary history was maybe not so rich. My father grew up half in orphanages, half at his father’s house, mostly when he was old enough to contribute—and when his father had married a much younger third wife. She was so young, she’d had little time to learn to cook, and dinner, my father remembered, often was fresh-cut bologna and a loaf of white bread from the corner store.

My father went from that table to the Army, where he didn’t get much chance to experiment with fine cooking; he had the opportunity, though, to learn that he didn’t much like Spam.

My mother was half-orphaned, too, and she remembers her Aunties thriftily cooking up the cheap cuts from the butcher shop. They’d make, for instance, Mom would recall, kidneys, and the house would smell like steaming urine, and she would wander off to find a better option—there were so many children in the extended family, and so many family members’ homes peppered along the same street, that no one much noticed when one kid didn’t show up for a kidney dinner.

There is one recipe for an oatmeal cookie that my mother passed down. It is kind of a sweet oat cake; it has a dry dough that must be flattened with a fork, and it’s almost as rich as shortbread. I think that may be one of her mother’s cookie recipes…and my grandmother, who died when my mother was three, is said to have been famous for her always-full cookie jar, and her always-scrumptious cookies.

Together, my parents favored a meat and potatoes cuisine; the meat and the potatoes both would often be fried. The meat would certainly be fully cooked; those Depression kids had had horror of trichinosis firmly instilled into their tender hearts. Roast beef, baked chicken, pork chops: what we knew about them was that they were chewy; lots of glasses of milk washed that protein down.

What did emerge from my birth family culture were goodies: a holiday sweet dough, rich shortbread cookies, and, of course, Chocolate Fudge Delight. Those recipes, for sure, could be considered heirlooms.

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And then there’s the family we’ve morphed into, and the people and places that have influenced our tastes, the sensitivity to smell and texture that affect the foods that Jim will eat. What dishes, I wonder, what foods can we call our culinary zeniths? We have some tried and true recipes we love—a chicken and rice bake that we make with a bechamel sauce instead of the originally-called-for cream of mushroom soup. There’s a Hungarian goulash recipe we’re fond of. Oh, there’s Alfredo sauce, of course, and we like risotto when I’m in the mood for labor-intensive stirring.

The thing is, though, I feel like we’re still exploring, still evolving. I am much more comfortable, less achy, and more energetic, living in a gluten-free world. I am finding my way; what’s better: gluten-free pasta, or skipping pasta entirely? Thin strips of eggplant are a reasonable substitution for lasagna noodles, and spaghetti squash is lovely baked with red sauce and mozzarella cheese. I am still exploring the world of zoodles, though, and gluten-free pizza crust techniques, and whether there’s any point in gluten free bread, or whether I’m just better off going bread-less, altogether.

Because of this, some old family favorites are fading out of the dinnertime repertoire, and others are being, cautiously, perhaps, added, and sometimes, the three of us eat completely different things.

Lately, too, I’ve been thinking about my meat consumption and how much healthier plant-based eating is both for the human body and for the planet. This is not a shared passion; meat-free eating is not, I believe, ever a practice Mark and Jim will embrace. So I sort through my meat-free cookbooks, and I ponder adapting recipes—adapted for me, though, and served alongside their carnivorous food, and it feels like I am sailing further and further away from developing any kind of rational, unified family culinary culture.

We like stir-fries, for instance, but these days, stir fry instructions might look something like this:

  • Put your rice on to simmer.
  • Slice the boneless chicken as thinly as possible, and sauté in a mixture of olive and sesame oil. When cooked through, put in a covered dish to keep warm.
  • Chop and slice veggies; cook in the same pan as the chicken was cooked in. When crisp-tender, remove from heat.
  • Scoop tender rice onto each plate. On Jim’s, pile slices of chicken. On Pam’s, stack those stir-fried veggies high. On Mark’s, mix the chicken into the veggies and ladle that onto the rice.
  • Pass around various sauces—sweet and sour, hot and tangy, teriyaki…let each apply liberally according to taste.
  • Dig into what are, essentially, three different meals.

Maybe an heirloom recipe is this: let each craft the food according to their own taste.

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Could our culinary heirloom be confusion?

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Still, I have five binders full of recipes that Jim has organized for me: some recipes we’ve tried and loved; some adventures are still waiting to be brought to fruition. We flip through those and pick tasty sounding dishes and try to experiment with something brand, spanking new, at least once a month.

Maybe there are culinary heirlooms waiting there to be discovered.

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Not so long ago, Matt, Mark’s firstborn son, and our youngest granddaughter, Kaelyn, came to visit. I had pulled out some steaks, thinking we’d make fajitas with all kinds of veggies and shredded cheeses and thinly sliced seasoned beef, and everyone could basically compile the meal of their choice. But when I asked Kaelyn if she liked fajitas, she shyly said no; really, she said, what she liked to eat were burgers and chicken fingers and frozen yogurt.

So that night, we went to the steakhouse instead of cooking, and everyone was happy. Matt and I loved the crispy, honey-butter Brussels sprouts; Mark and Jim made gagging noises and ate seared meat. Kaelyn enjoyed her breaded chicken, and afterwards we stopped at the Sweet Frog shop and built our own frozen yogurt sundaes.

Maybe an heirloom recipe could also be this: Go to a restaurant that everyone approves, order what you like, and relax and enjoy the company of these people that you love.

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Beyond a couple of obvious staples, I’m not exactly sure what our heirloom recipes are; maybe we’ll just have a lot of multiple option meals to talk about. What’s important is that we have the chance to share meals with the people we love, the pleasure of seeing them enjoy flavors that make them smile, and the warmth of rich conversation fueled by real interest in what the other has to say.

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I think that’s what Stanley Tucci is saying in his book; I think that’s what Julia Child was trying to tell the world, and why her teaching reverberates long after she herself is gone. Sharing food IS important; what food that might be is personal and unique to each of us. Maybe the true, perfect heirloom recipe is this: eat food that makes you smile in the company of people you love.

3 thoughts on “What We Eat; The Recipes We Share

  1. Kim Allen

    I love your food blogs. I consider my mom’s recipe for Oatmeal cake an heirloom because it showed up at family meals, that were also special times and also shared with others around us if we were picnicking with a group. It is about the memories and the taste. I still make it for, for instance a garden club meeting. However, with one stick of butter in the cake and a caramelized frosting of one stick of butter, brown sugar and coconut, it can’t be a steady diet, but boy, is it good! I have a friend who uses almond flour a lot to make things gluten free.

  2. I made gluten free Nanaimo bars for a friend. My son, upon consuming some of it, said “well it’d not Nanaimo bars but it’s OK as a GF layered square. My husband asked if I could make real Nanaimo Bars now? Some recipes it seems are not meant to be trifled with. And yet were very happy to try new things. We both came from meat and potato households so we find out a bit boring after a while. This is as usual an excellent post where your words are so descriptive

    1. I agree, Bernie; there are some things it’s just better to do without. (Gluten free bread…not so much…)

      I have to report a tiny triumph tonight though: I tried a corn-based pasta that I read was very close in texture (the problem I have with most gluten free pastas), and it was GREAT. I am tickled; this opens up the world of tuna salad and mac and cheese again!

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