Hoppin’, Skippin’, Sloppin’—Eating the Fruits of Every Day

James and I come home from a comprehensive shopping trip just as Mark arrives for lunch. The three of us ferry shopping bags to the house in the pale sunlight. (There was no worry about the ice cream treats I indulged in at Aldi’s staying cold on this crisp Ohio January day. We left them in the trunk while we ran into Kroger to top off the shopping trip with produce and Italian sausage and a variety of cleaning supplies. Then, trunk and back seat jammed with packages, we drove home to enlist Mark’s help in unpacking.)

It feels good to fill the larder again with homely, everyday foods after the rich abundance of holiday treats. Tonight, I think, I’ll release some hot Italian sausage from its casing, and brown it up with a big chunk of burger, stir in the left-over red sauce, and simmer up some chili. There’s a bag of cornbread mix my niece Meg sent in a savory Christmas package; that will be a wonderfully steamy side. And, I decide, I’ll use up some set-aside crumbs in a batch of potato chip cookies.

But first, the three of us thrust and parry and dance, shoving cleaners beneath the sink, running an industrial-sized package of toilet paper to the stairs, hustling cold food down to the freezers, and rearranging space on the pantry shelves. When we finish, Mark returns to eating some cold chicken drumsticks, spiced with a new rub we discovered not long ago and roasted up for last night’s dinner. Jim turns the oven on to bake a couple of chicken cordon bleus he scored at Aldi’s. Chilled from all the outdoors-ing and hefting and sorting freezer food, I decide I want something hearty and spicy and satisfying.

I take the remaining Hoppin’ John from the fridge, scoop a big dollop into a red Fiesta-ware bowl—the Christmas china went back to its ignominious basement hiding place last night—layer a dessert plate on top and stick it in the microwave for four minutes.

While I wait for the beep, I wonder again where the name Hoppin’ John came from.

************

We were trying to remember last week, Mark and I, where and how we learned that Hoppin’ John is good luck food on New Year’s Day. We’d latched onto the idea somewhere, and then my niece sent us a South Carolina cookbook, and there was a recipe. It wasn’t like anything we’d tried before, and we decided it would be fun to give it a shot one New Year’s Day, at least a decade ago.

And we liked it so well, it’s become a tradition, and black-eyed peas, something I’d never cooked with before, have their own reserved space in our larder.

Probably, Mark and I mused, this was not the food served at the big table in fancy plantation houses. While those folks ate their holiday roast from fine china, careful not to spill a drop on the creamy imported lace tablecloths, the people who’d engineered the fancy feast were, probably, finally cooking their own special meal. And they were no doubt doing that with the pieces and parts the rich folk turned their noses up at—the hog jowls, the field peas, the rice, and the leftover tomatoes.

Today, in the lull between lunch and dinner prep, I decide to look up the history of Hoppin’ John.

What’scookingamerica.com answers all my questions. It tells me the dish is fixed all over the South, a traditional New Year’s Day treat, but that it is special to the Carolinas. A quintessentially American dish, it has roots in many cuisines—in French and African and Caribbean styles, all filtered through the materials available to the good Gullah cooks from the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and northern Georgia.

The recipe, the website tells me, first appeared in print in 1847, in a publication called The Carolina Housewife. And tradition says that it became popular through the marketing skills of a lame Black man who sold the dish in the winter, on the streets of, perhaps, Charleston—when even southern winds carried a chill to the hearty shoppers out walking in the December air. The man had an odd skipper-y gait, and he…and the dish he so successfully sold…came to be called Hoppin’ John.

There are other possible explanations for the dish, whatscooking.com tells me, but I like the spirit and the success of that indomitable John’s personality. That’s the story I choose to believe.

Each component of the recipe, I learn, has its meaning, and they mostly deal with financial good luck. The black-eyed peas (the recipe is also, sometimes, called “Carolina Peas and Rice”) represent coins. The tomatoes stand for health. Traditionally, the dish is served with collard greens—greens for greenbacks—and cornbread, its golden goodness reminding us of the gold that brings us wealth. Eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, the hopeful legend tells us, brings prosperity in the new year.

And, having savored my leftover Hoppin’ John, I am excited to read that, when you eat the dish as leftovers after New Year’s Day, it becomes known as Skippin’ Jenny. And that means the money-luck, and one’s ability to manage all that prosperity frugally, will certainly last all year.

************

So now I have a face and story to bolster my understanding of Hoppin’ John, and I think of another named-for food: Sloppy Joe. WAS there a Joe, and was he sloppy?

I search, and I discover Sloppy Joes have an even more convoluted history than Hoppin’ John.

It could be, wonderopolis.org tells me, that the saucy sandwiches were named for Joe, a cook at Floyd Angell’s café in Sioux City in 1930. Joe was used to making “loose meat” sandwiches, legend says, and one day, he decided to change it up by adding tomato sauce to the mix. The sloppy sandwiches were an instant hit, and an American classic was born.

Maybe. The classic might have been born years before that, in in 1918, when, Jen Wheeler writes on chowhound.com, Jose Abeal y Otero opened Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana, Cuba. Otero’s space, Wheeler suggests, was maybe a little less than pristine, and it may have been his friends who suggested the name for both his bar and the sandwich he invented. It wasn’t exactly the sloppy joe we know. Wheeler writes that Otero’s sandwich combined “…two Cuban classics—ropa vieja (shredded meat in tomato sauce) and picadillo (ground beef with spices.)”

OR—the sandwich could have come from a Key West bar that Ernest Hemingway liked to frequent. In fact, he named the place for his friend, owner Joe Russell. Russell, who shows up in To Have and Have Not as Freddy, the bar owner and captain, first called his place The Blind Pig. That didn’t work, and he changed the name to The Silver Skipper. It still wasn’t just right, and, at Hemingway’s insistence, Russell finally named his bar after Otero’s bar in Havana. Another Sloppy Joe’s was born.

As far as I can tell, the Key West Sloppy Joe’s still exists and still maintains that the great American sandwich started THERE. Wheeler quotes Donna Edwards, Sloppy Joe’s brand manager. “We took it,” Edwards said in 2015 of that Cuban-style sandwich, “and Americanized it by making it THE sloppy joe and not just a loose meat sandwich.”

*****************

Hmmm. At least we can be sure of whom one food, a food we learned Mark and I were mis-naming for most of our lives, was named for. Johnny Marzetti, a baked combination of ground meat, tomato sauce, cheese, and pasta, is named for Teresa’s brother-in-law. (That dish is not, as our peeps in western New York might believe, called “goulash.”)

Elizabeth at ohiothoughtsblog.blogspot.com, wrote a nice essay about Johnny Marzetti in 2013. Teresa Marzetti opened a restaurant on Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio, in 1898, the year she and her husband immigrated to the States. The family place was so successful, they opened another. The Broad Street site closed in 1942, but the other restaurant remained opened until 1972, the year Teresa died. The dish called Johnny Marzetti remained one of its most popular offerings.

“We will start a new place and serve good food,” Elizabeth quotes Teresa as saying, way back at the beginning, “at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we will serve good food.”

The hearty combination of meat and sauce and pasta sold for 45 cents a serving, and I can just imagine it warming the bellies and the spirits of hungry people during hard times. Johnny Marzetti obviously fulfilled Teresa’s vision of good, good food.

*************

On this ordinary Friday night, the holidays slowly sliding behind us (we will take the tree and the nativity, our only remaining symbols of the feast just celebrated, down on Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany), I chop and stir to make that chili for dinner. I dice a little onion and throw it into a deep skillet with “loose meat’—the untethered hot Italian sausage, the ground beef. I sprinkle minced garlic.

When everything is richly browned, I pour in spaghetti sauce from Tuesday night’s meal. I open a can of kidney beans and another of tomato sauce. I stir.

The mixture, homely and simple, begins to bubble, and I turn down the heat and gather the ingredients for cookies. I’m using a recipe from 1901, from a state fair in Kansas, I think, that calls for crushed potato chips. We have two little Tupperwares full of the ends of chip bags; I will crunch them down and mix them in, into the dough that contains my home-mixed AP flour substitute and a little oat flour and just a smidgen of whole wheat flour. I’ll use the end of a bag of semi-sweet and milk chocolate and white chips, and a new bag of semi-sweet morsels. By the time Mark comes home, there will be cookies cooling on the sideboard and that thick rich Central American-inspired stew thickening and heaving on the stove top.

Ordinary food. Food invented by some ordinary genius who asked herself—or himself—“What would happen if I added beans to that?” or “What can I do with these leftover potato chips? The kids won’t eat them, but I hate to throw them out.” They experimented—sometimes, no doubt, they failed miserably, but sometimes they had amazing successes. Those successes got passed down, and the people who received them used the ingredients THEY had at hand, morphing them even more.

There are times, of course, for grand dishes named for grand people—for Napoleons and Charlottes and Wellingtons,—even, for fancy Sandwiches. And then there are times for ordinary foods, for the kinds of nourishing concoctions that people without many means developed—maybe on their own, maybe morphing the dish passed down to them by another wonderful cook.   

Sometimes, that humble inventor’s name—or the name of someone they loved—got itself attached to the dish they perfected.

And I love the treat, once in a while, of the fine and the fancy. But when the high feasting days are over, it’s a comfort to go back to soups and stews and casseroles—to go hopping and slopping and skipping through the cookbooks.

It’s a comfort and a pleasure to celebrate the abundance of an everyday dish.

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What We Hand Down

Ray takes care of our neighborhood. Several single women of varying ages, elderly couples of varying activity levels, busy young families, live all around us. Ray, a skilled handyman, works to keep their lawns mowed, their gutters cleaned, their windows washed and replaced when needed, their shingles and siding and roof tiles in good repair. I see him around the neighborhood almost every non-rainy day; he wears his long-sleeved, acid yellow, work shirt, long cargo pants and a baseball hat. (He is protected against the sun. Ray is probably somewhere in his fifties, and when age starts creeping in, delight in that beef jerky tanned look goes creeping out.)

When two friends asked about finding someone reliable to clean their gutters and do some autumnal house repairs, of course I thought of Ray. I went to Sandi’s door to see if she had his contact number; Sandi was not home. Phyllis seemed to be gone, too. But then, driving James home from work, I saw Ray out mowing her lawn.

I deposited the boy at home and walked over to talk with Ray.

******************

“Nah,” said Ray. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I got too much.” And he told me that, in addition to the neighborhood work that keeps him busy every single day, he manages a couple of apartment houses—does maintenance and repairs and, when needed, cleaning. And that week, all three skills were required, because a young tenant, months behind on the rent payments, had turned into a midnight runner.

Somehow, Ray said, they’d learned she debarked to someplace down south, leaving behind her a filthy flat with holes in the walls and broken windows and smelly, ratty clothing ankle-deep on all the floors of all the rooms. Ray needed to clean the place out, repair the holes and gashes and breaks, and paint and shampoo and scrub so the next tenant could move in to a place that was light and fresh and clean.

“These kids,” Ray said sadly, and he wiped an acid yellow arm over his beaded forehead. “They have no idea how to keep a place clean.”

“Who teaches them, I wonder?” I said, and I had a vision of kids growing up in chaos and moving out to live in chaos of their own making.

“Jeeeezzzz,” Ray answered, long and deep and distressed, “they don’t even know how to keep their laundry clean, half of ‘em. I think they run to WalMart when there’s no more clean socks.”

And we reminisced then, about our diligent mothers, who had Spring Cleaning and Fall Cleaning; who made us scrub down walls twice a year and wash the woodwork with Murphy’s Oil Soap suzzed up into a bucket of hot water. Who had days for washing and days for ironing, days that they baked and days they changed beds and scrubbed tub and toilet—because often, back then, the bathroom, no matter how many kids were crammed in the house, numbered one—and days they went to the market and brought home a week’s worth of groceries. They taught us, our mothers, to wield an iron and dry sparkling glasses in the dish drainer and to cook up a passable stew or spaghetti sauce. And though I certainly wasn’t grateful at the time, many’s the time I’ve silently thanked the household gods I had a clue about what to do when, and how to do it.

Ray, of course, as a boy back in the 1970’s, trained at his father’s school of household maintenance, too, and learned to change a fuse and run a mower, to stick his hands into gloves and clean disgusting, decomposing stuff out of gutters twice a year, to caulk a window and to reinforce a sagging table-leg and to keep a vegetable garden healthy and weed-free. He could seal a driveway and he could fix a small engine. He was good at those things, Ray was, and when he grew up and got married, he and his wife bought a fixer-upper and turned it into a proud-to-owner, and people started paying Ray to do the same for their houses.

We talked about all this, and then I asked Ray if he knew of anyone I could recommend to my friends who needed gutters cleaned.

Ray sighed, a shudder that shook his whole tired body, and he said no. “No one knows how to do this kind of work anymore,” he said sadly. “Or, if they do know how, they don’t want to do it.”

We talked a little bit more and then I thanked him and walked back home, leaving the man alone to get back to his work.

But the conversation stayed with me. I wonder: who’s passing the basic arts of living on down to our [collective] kids?

*********

Last week, Mark replaced the motor for the fan in the powder room. The old one had been dying, loudly and painfully, for a year, but every fourth or fifth time, we’d flick the switch, and the thing would hum into quiet, vibrant life, and we’d say, “See? It’s okay! There must have just been something stuck.” Mark took it apart and cleaned it, and it was great for ten days or so, and then it just was done.

So Mark, who’d learned home repair at HIS father’s school, took the old motor out and sat down at the computer and searched. It WAS an old motor, too—sturdy and reliable, it lasted upwards of thirty years without a hiccup or a grumble. It had a name and a number on it, limned in the dust of the ages, and, while Mark couldn’t find that exact make, he did find a motor that would fit exactly into the space left vacant.

He ordered it; it arrived in two days, and he installed it in the powder room. The only glitch was where the wires connected; they interfered with the vent going back on and Mark had to get creative. But he handled that and screwed the vent back on, and now, there’s the reassuring whir of the powder room fan whenever needed.

“I was thinking about it,” said Mark, “and I just could have replaced the whole fan. But I thought, we throw things out too easily. Why not fix what we’ve got?”

He probably saved fifty dollars on the project, and he walked around for days with that straight-backed sense of accomplishment: I fixed it.

The week that Mark fixed the fan, I walked by a house down the street on garbage pick-up morning. A huge TV—the kind that has an enclosed triangular bump-out behind the mega-screen—sat at the curb. I had a vision of a sleek new flat-screen sitting or hanging proudly in the house. Maybe the owners would have had, too, to replace the TV stand or entertainment center; with each new technological innovation, the furniture that holds our media grows also obsolete.

As I pumped on up the street, I conjured a vision of my father unscrewing the back of our old black and white TV (my parents didn’t get a color set until most of us kids had flown the coop; my mother always claimed the picture was better—crisper, more delineated—in the black and white world). Dad would hunker down and peer and fiddle; he’d decide which tube was causing the problem. He would disconnect that tube and put it in a bag and drive down, on a Saturday afternoon, to the TV repair shop. He’d return with a new tube to ease back in; he’d replace the back of the old TV, and he’d turn it on, cock his hips and purse his lips, and run out to play with the antenna settings on top of the house.

He’d complain about the cost of replacement tubes: Two dollars! he’d mutter, bitterly, but fixing the TV was always a priority.

Today our televisions are sealed mysteries; and when they’re done, they’re done. We put them out at the curb, and we go buy a new one.

So it’s nice when something, like Mark’s fan, can be repaired. And essential that the house guy has the skills to fix it.

************

There has been a break-off in there somewhere, in how homely arts are being passed down. Oh, there are still families that take their kids and anchor their little faces on the jobs at hand and patiently—even when it would be easier to let them go play and just do it themselves—tell them which tool to get and what it’s called and how to wield it, explain why the baking soda is necessary to the mixture, or show them how to plummet down onto their knees and thoroughly scrub a bathtub. But that’s, I think, the exception these days.

Because lots of things have happened.

Maybe some of the change took place in my generation—we who came of age in the sixties and seventies and rejected so much of what we were expected to mindlessly accept. We women, we would work outside the home. We would bring home the bacon, and fry up the bacon, and be perfectly seductive and sweet-smelling at the end of the day. A whole industry grew up to support us, an industry that includes labor-saving appliances and ready-to-heat foods and mixes.

Michael Pollan, in his essay, “Eat Food: Food Defined,” advises this (and it’s his all-caps): DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. Real food, says Pollan, was the kind of food people ate before squeeze tubes of yogurt appeared in the dairy case and cereal breakfast bars became a thing. Pollan calls the food we eat today—the processed, packaged foods of mysterious origin,—‘modern food.’

They’re complicated, these modern foods, he says, and there are many reasons to avoid them.

There were many reasons to embrace them too, though, when changes came. Women were busy—stay-at-home moms in the sixties, for instance, often had five or more kids, all at various ages and stages, all needing various things, including time and rides and soulful attention. And food. Putting a meal on the table at 5:30 when the ravenous dad came home could be a challenge after an afternoon spent picking up, dropping off, meeting kids after practice or rehearsal and getting them home in time for homework and making their beds and all the frou-frah of everyday life.

And just think how complicated that life would be if you were a mom who worked outside the home.

So what’d be wrong with taking a brick of burger from the freezer and stirring up, in twenty minutes or so, a hearty double pot of cheeseburger helper? And kids got used to the taste of powdered cheese mix, raised their eyebrows at concoctions that came from their mothers’ shelves and imaginations.

Why make a casserole from scratch when the family likes the Helper-style better?

And sometimes, the mixes WERE magically better. Hand-mixed and baked cakes, for instance, required patience and no loud thumping around the oven area for a good sixty minutes—a calm that could be tricky in a busy, bumptious household.  I can remember the first time my mother tried a cake mix, and the two chocolate layers came perfectly out of the oven, with their rounded tops and tender texture. She decanted them onto plates and let them cool; she frosted them into an exactly symmetrical, light and airy concoction.

Everyone loved that cake, and I don’t think my mother ever made another scratch cake after that. And I learned how to add mayonnaise to a chocolate cake mix, or spices to a yellow one, but I never learned, back then, to make a cake from scratch.

******************

We are busy: more employed than ever before, and more locked in to outside the home activities—into meetings and classes and practices and memberships. Cooking from scratch is often a fond memory; these days, family supper itself—even a fast food one–is a rare event.

And a whole industry stands ready to assure us that we really don’t have time to cook.

I remember discussing favorite foods with a favorite student once. She mentioned that she loved mac and cheese, and I told her I had a great recipe.

“How would THAT work?” she asked, truly curious. The only kind of mac and cheese she’d ever eaten came in a slender blue box.

********************

Another thing happened, sometime around those heady days of personal revolution and re-defining freedom: we decided, as a society, that everyone needed to go to college, preferably for a four-year degree.  I can remember my mother advocating what she called trade school—get a skill and get a job, she said, and then you can go to college if you want to. But you’d always, she suggested, have a skill to fall back on.

That was especially true for girls as divorce became more common; girls just couldn’t plan to be the home-half of a marriage partnership any more. Because husbands left for whatever reason, and wives were stuck with kids and mortgages and no viable resume.

My mother had shorthand skills and typed; when I went to high school, I looked forward to acquiring those skills, too, but my guidance counselor quickly disabused me. I could be business track or college track, and I had good grades. College track it was, and it would have taken organizational machinations to merge the two. So on to college I went, a two-fingered typist, wishing fervently that I’d at least found time for a keyboarding class. I graduated with my English literature degree and visited with friends who’d taken their business skills right to work after high school, and who were making more money than my father did after thirty years at the same plant.

But now, the jobs available have changed; the steel plants shuttered, manufacturing disappearing from US soil. Many industries demand at least a two-year degree of their entry level employees.

Going to college is an expectation. But what if learning a skill or a trade was an expectation, too—and what if we granted the earned respect to the people who did that?

********************

Maybe Madison Avenue did this on purpose; if we’re functionally dependent, we need to buy products and devices and services that once we would have made or fixed or done at home. But there’s a costly loss in terms of pride and satisfaction and tradition…and in the sense that we’re sending our kids off into the world with the skills they need to navigate most kinds of emergencies.

So I try to be mindful. I blow dust from my sewing chest and, when I iron a shirt and find a tiny tear, I take the time to mend it,–before a tiny tear become a roaring rip and a good shirt becomes a rag or a discard. I buy some soft, pretty yarn on sale, and, at night, watching that sleek flat screen TV, I knit throws for the family room. I dig out recipes books and remember how to make soups and stews.

I think about making chocolate cupcakes, and when I discover there’s no devil’s food cake mix, I try making a batch from scratch. They are denser and moister. They sink down, a little, in their centers. I find a recipe for salted caramel icing, and I fill the little dents with that, and then frost again over the tops. The boyos say they like them better than boxed—but they could be just being kind.

And once a week, I try to engage Jim in the kitchen, sautéing and stir-frying, chopping and creating. He wavers between reluctance and fascination.

He is firmly in the reluctant lane when we work on laundry and cleaning skills, but I persist. Slowly and surely, he’ll learn the skills; whether his house or apartment will meet the Mom-test—well, that’s not up to me. What’s up to me is to make sure he’s got the tools.

He’ll decide how to use them. Someday—and in the greater scheme of things, not so very far in the future—I’ll be gone. I hope he’ll be prepared, by then, for an independent life.

***********

I believe we are at a transition time, a time of cataclysmic change, as life-changing a time as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time of wonder and magical technology. It’s a time when we’ve become entirely dependent on what’s made by other hands—a time of both opportunity and great danger.

And part of that danger is in what can be lost—the skills, the confidence, the knowledge passed on.

************

I text my friends and tell them Ray is not available. They text back, sadly, that they understand.

A guy like that is bound to be busy, they say.

 

Of Snow Storms and Fitness and Cookies, Still Warm

 

Soup

When I leave work at 5:30, it has just started to snow, a hard, fine sugar that glazes the roads.  I take the long way, carefully, and savor driving through the sparkling mist in the half-light of dusk.

At home, the dog meets me at the door; she trots to the edge of the back stoop, and she puts her nose out into the weather.  She turns her head, gives me a look that says, clearly, “Never mind!” and hurries back inside.

I feed her.  I change into a soft old navy blue sweater and pull-on pants.  I start a pot of soup.

The soup is a hearty recipe from a dear friend, Kathie, and it  goes together quickly. I follow the recipe exactly. Well, I do, except that I have five cups of broth made from the bones of Sunday’s roast chicken in the fridge, and I put that in instead of the water that’s called for.  Which is just as well, because, instead of a package of wild rice mix with its tangy flavor packet, I use the leftover rice from a big batch of risotto.  And I discover a little cup of French style green beans from last night’s dinner, so I throw those in–with a hefty helping more from the bag in the freezer–instead of broccoli.

Other than that, though, it is EXACTLY Kathie’s recipe, and it begins, quickly, to burble enticingly. It blends sautéed onion and shredded carrot, the nice lean chicken, the broth with the fat skimmed off. It is hefty on the vegetable matter–even the broth was a long simmer of celery and carrot and bay leaf, herbs and spices and bones with shreds of meat a-clingin’, onion and leftover corn and one sad tomato. For the most part, I think, Tara would approve of this soup.

Tara is our wellness coach at the College; every Wednesday she meets with us, and evaluates us and talks to us.  She demonstrates good stuff to us.

At our first meeting, she takes our measures. Considering them, she sets the curriculum: we’ll work, she says, on body mass indexes, cholesterol, and nutrition.  We’ll learn, Tara tells us, to incorporate activity into our days, to do exercises that relieve the stress in our backs and our necks, and to walk until our heart rates reach a nice healthy thumping pace.

We nod and smile and look at each other plaintively.

Tara is an inspiring person, glowing of mien, joyously giving, and there is no way we can doubt that what she tells us is what we should do.

So we begin, and we encourage each other: I pack celery sticks for snacking, enough to share.  Linda brings baby carrots; Jaime stashes a six pack of little Greek yogurt cups in the staff room refrigerator.  We bring our sneakers to work; in the afternoons, at 2:00 or so, we lap the building, striding down the hallways, romping up the stairs.  For the first circuit, anyway.  We elevate our heart rates.

Tara talks about changing habits rather than dieting, so I set myself two immediate goals:  increasing the helpings of fruits and veggies I eat each day, and building three thirty minute sessions of heart-pumping exercise into my week.  I’ll start, also,  practicing better portion control, and, as time rolls on, when I use up a bag of flour or a loaf of bread or a box of pasta, I’ll replace that soft white starchiness with something whole grained and hearty.

I am determined. I am committed.

I am home on a snowy cold night, and I am–sorry, Tara,–going to make cookies.

The soup bubbles merrily. I get out the peanut butter, the eggs, the flour, the rich dark brown sugar.  The butter. I pull out my old red-checkered cookbook and check the instructions. I mix up a double batch of peanut butter cookie dough.

By the time I am done, the boyos have arrived, safely home from their excursion to Westerville, 50 miles away. The roads were fine on their way there.  They kept an appointment, browsed through a bookstore, stopped at Panera for dinner.  By then, the snow had begun to fall, and they drove sedately home. Mark brought a beautiful little loaf of sliced, crusty, rustic bread.  It is the perfect thing to go with the steaming soup.  I ladle out a bowl and take two small slices of bread from the bag. The boyos shed their snowy jackets and stomp off their boots in the back hall, and I grab my cozy murder mystery and take my lovely supper to the table.

Despite my variations, the soup is as good as I remember; the bread is a fresh and  chewy treat, and the book is a tantalizing, comforting read. Refreshed, I turn the oven on to 350, pull the baking sheets out of the cabinet, and begin shaping little meatballs of peanut butter cookie dough. It’s a learned task; I must have first done this well over fifty years ago, when my mother taught me that the cookie jar should never really be empty.

She was not an extravagant shopper, my mother–and the family budget applauded that: we did not have soda pop or potato chips or ice cream treats in the house very often.  But we always had baked goods.  The cookie jar was full or it was being replenished; and sometimes there was also a cake or a pie. Our friends liked to visit. They were each on a first name basis with the cookie jar, and they knew where to find the glasses to contain tall drinks of milk.

No more demonstrative than she was extravagant, my mother showed she cared by baking for us.  A house devoid of home-baked cookies was an empty home, indeed.

That’s especially true, I think,  on a night when the furnace has to struggle and chug itself to life and the snow’s so cold it glitters. I set up trays of peanut butter doughballs, dip a fork into sugar, and flatten the balls with criss-cross tine marks limned in sweet crystals.  I slip the first two trays into the oven; in moments the smell of warm peanut butter floats through the house.  The dog comes out to sit by my side as I type, hopeful, keeping me company, trotting at my heels when I pull two sheets from the hot oven and replace them with two more.

She gets the leftover burger, the dog does, but no cookies. She considers that, and then, a canine pragmatist, accepts.  Mark and Jim appear in the kitchen, take themselves little stacks of cookies warm from the oven, slide back to their electronic universes, munching.

“These are GOOD,” they say.  I try one, too, and I agree.

Outside, in the full dark, snow still falls, getting more defined and less sugary.  The wind picks up.  Drifts pile up in the shelter of the hedges.  This is a storm so strong the weather gurus have named it; I watch the deepening glitter and fantasize that work tomorrow may be cancelled. Mark goes quietly through the house, opening cabinet doors that shelter pipes; the warmed air will cradle those conduits, keep them from freezing.

I pull the last two trays of cookies from the oven. With a spatula, I slide the cookies onto a platter, adding them to a burgeoning mountain.  I clean the last of the baking things, setting the cookie sheets face down on the warm stove to dry.  I divide the soup into little containers, and I look around my kitchen.

Some deep-seeded need to fill the larder, to batten down against the storm,  is satisfied.  Maybe the snow will stop within the hour; maybe it will continue all night. I hear the vigilant snowplow scrape by; I acknowledge, sadly, that a snow day tomorrow is an unlikely thing.  But whatever happens, there is soup in the refrigerator; there are cookies in the jar.  My family is safe and warm, protected from the elements.

Tomorrow I will chop more celery sticks to take to work; I’ll do some solitary Saturday laps around the building.  I will keep to my goals. But I will not regret the cookies, those warm and fragrant amulets that keep winter’s breath at bay.

PB Cookies

 

Take the Pepper; Come Back for the Salt

 

 Evelyn sat behind the counter and watched as people passed by, never turning to look her way or stopping to explore the wonderful, quirky, lovely things she had in her little store. She had taken a great leap to open the little gift shop, a leap of faith–faith in the Almighty, in her own ability, and in her nephew Barney’s assurances.

“Aunt Evy,” he’d said, “you have taste and a discerning eye.  People will pay for that.”

This store, with its little stash of glowing inventory, had taken all of her savings.  She had left her job in the doctor’s office, and they quickly replaced her.  If this didn’t work, she would truly be in trouble.

“Wait,” Barney assured her. “Ride it out.  It takes a little time.”

But Evelyn didn’t think she had much time before the bottom crashed away, and she couldn’t sustain things any longer.  She needed a miracle–just a little miracle would be nice.  She needed shoppers–four or five a day would be fine, especially if they each spent thirty dollars.  She sighed and went back to get her dusting cloth.  At least she would, for sure, have the most immaculate shop in town.

************
Jorie was wiry and dark and unremarkable, not pretty, not ugly, not smart, not dumb.  I am completely UN-special, she thought. I’m so un-special that I’m invisible sometimes.

It was a complicated time at her house.  Her oldest sister, Mills, was pregnant–19 and pregnant, and hadn’t there been some screaming about that? Mills was the pretty one, all golden hair and blue eyes, and she was smart too.  She was in college studying to be a teacher, except that now she’d take some time off to have her baby.

She had married Danny and they were living at Jorie’s house, but just until the first of the year, and there was tight-lipped, silent disapproval seeping from her mother’s pores.

Mills acted unconcerned.  “Don’t you worry, Mother!” she’d snapped.  “I’ll finish my degree.  The college has a daycare.  I’m not going to be derailed.”

She said it like an accusation, like a taunt, to her mother, who had only had one semester of college before it became apparent Mills was on her way.  But, Jorie thought, her parents loved each other; they would have gotten married anyway.

And it was her mother’s choice, wasn’t it, to keep on having kids? Four years after Mills, there was Freddy, who was a sophomore now and had just discovered what he called the Wonderful World of Alcohol.  He stayed out late; he came home drunk; there was more screaming.

Jorie–Marjorie, really, but no one called her that, just like no one called Mills ‘Mildred’–came along four years after Freddy, and there was a bigger gap–almost six years–between her and Patrick, the baby. Patrick and Freddy had blue eyes and blond hair, too–Freddy’s kind of a dull and dirty blonde that he shaved close to his head.  Patrick had a nimbus of curls.

Between Mill’s pregnancy and Freddy’s partying and Patrick’s excessive cuteness, Jorie felt like there was only a narrow space for her.  She would be, she advised herself, smart to squeeze into the space available, shut up, and crouch beneath the radar.

Which she did, pretty well, but it got lonely sometimes.  Sometimes she wished her mother would just talk to her–just for 15 minutes a day or so.

She’d asked yesterday if she could help with the holiday baking, and her mother about snapped her head off.  “Just let me DO this, Marjorie!” she’d said.  “If you want to be helpful, go clean your room.”

That wasn’t right of Mom to say, because Jorie always kept her room neat, and she vacuumed it weekly.  She enjoyed dusting and rearranging her pictures and statues.  She made her bed, every day. She cleaned and straightened Patrick’s room, too.  She picked up the magazines in the living room, and she loaded the dishwasher.  She was learning to do her laundry and loved the feel and the smell of an iron in her hand, crisply pressing cotton cloth.

She DID help.  Mills and Freddy mocked her, mercilessly; Patrick accepted that Jorie was there to pick up after him.  Her mother kicked her out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t fair.

Her dad got home late, usually, at 6:30 or 7:00, always one to pick up overtime at the plant; by then Jorie would be in a chair with a book, and Dad would come in and just for a minute rest his hand on her head and smile down as she smiled up.  They were the dark ones in this fair-haired family. But Dad was handsome–distinguished, even, with his snapping eyes and high cheekbones and glossy mop of hair.

Jorie was just…unremarkable.

*********

After school on Wednesday, Mom was taking Mills to her OB/Gyn appointment, so Jorie had to walk over to pick up Patrick at his kindergarten class, which was in a separate school about a half mile from hers.  And he would be whiny and not want to walk home, so Jorie, who had three dollars saved, would take him through the little downtown, and they would stop at the coffee shop and share a coke.  That way, he’d shut up and not drag behind, bitterly resenting the lack of ride.

Patrick was out playing with two friends when Jorie got there; he left them reluctantly and opened his rosebud mouth to protest the walk home.  Jorie cut him off with a promise of the coffee shop.  Patrick clamped his little mouth shut, considered, and accepted the placation with a shrug.  He dragged his book bag behind him, and Jorie remonstrated; they wandered, bickering, into the little downtown area, until Jorie lifted her head, looked in a window and saw wonders.

It was a new little store; she’d never seen it before.  In the window was a display of music boxes and kaleidoscopes. Oh, Jorie loved kaleidoscopes.  Inside, she could see beautiful frothy clothes on a rack and little statues and doodads arranged enticingly on counters.

“Patrick,” she said.  “Patrick! Let’s go in here.”

************
Evelyn was dusting when the bell jangled, and hope surged and then faded.  It was children; she’d have to watch them.  She hurried behind the counter and kept a sharp eye.  They were whispering by the salt and pepper shaker display.

There was a great deal of low discussion, and then the little boy came over, a pepper shaker cupped in his chubby little hands. He looked up at her, enormous blue eyes shining, and he raised the little shaker toward her. It was a clever little owl.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “could I buy the pepper today and come back for the salt next week? ‘Cause I only have three dollars?”

His hair was a molten golden aura encircling his head.  He looks, thought Evy, like an angel, and her heart leapt. It seemed to her, suddenly, like a sign or a test, and of course she would let the little one take the pepper and come back for the salt.  She solemnly took his money, and handed him a clipboard. He printed his name carefully on the sheet of paper attached and handed it, equally solemnly, back to her.

“I won’t let anyone else buy the salt owl,” she promised.

“My mother loves owls,” he said, almost reverently, and he left, herded by another, bigger child. Blinded by all that blue and gold, Evy didn’t take much notice of the bigger one.

**************

That week, Jorie turned into an odd job whirligig.  She shined Dad’s shoes; she walked to the store for Mills.  She vacuumed Danny’s car and she folded laundry.  She earned a quarter here and fifty cents there.

She told Mills about the little store and Mills went down and did some Christmas shopping.  Mills saw a necklace she liked and she hinted broadly to Danny, who went down with his mother and bought the necklace.  His mom got a few little things, too.  Jorie told the kids at school about the store and some of them went in to get gifts for their moms, or to buy one of the homemade suckers in a pail by the counter.

By Thursday, she had the money they needed. Patrick had a play date, so Jorie went into the store alone.

***************

Evy looked up at the thin, dark child standing in front of the counter.  “You want what?” she asked.

“The owl,” said Jorie, “the salt owl.  For my mother. She loves owls.”

“Sorry,” said Evy, sharply. “Not for sale.”

Barney looked up at her hard tone, folded up his paper and stood.  He smiled over the counter at Jorie, who had frozen in shock.

“But I was HERE,” said Jorie. “I was here with my brother, Patrick.  He wrote down his name and you gave him the pepper and said we could come back for the salt.” Jorie’s eyes glazed over, and Evy realized: this was the darker, bigger child.

“Oh, darling,” she said.  “I am sorry.  I didn’t see you that day.”

“I’m know,” Jorie whispered, apologetic. “I’m not especially stand out-ish.”

“Oh, darling,” whispered Evy again, and she shook her head clear of its cobwebs. “I’m going to get you a special box and a gift card. You wait right here.”

She went into the cluttered little back room and sorted through boxes, and she could hear  Barney’s rumble and the child answering him, stumbling a little at first and then being drawn into the conversation.  Their voices rose and fell. Evy found the box and a little Christmas gift tag with a beribboned owl smiling up from it, and she took them out to Jorie.

She took the shaker down from its shelf and nestled it in tissue.

“See how I did that?” she asked, and Jorie nodded.  “Well,” said Evy, “here’s another piece of tissue for the pepper.  And if you need help, you just bring it back.”

Jorie’s face was shining now, and Evy saw how her dark eyes snapped, and, with that blush creeping up under her skin, how pretty she would be.  “Oh,” she said impulsively to the girl, “oh, with that complexion and those eyes,–you’re going to be so lovely.”

Jorie’s eyes opened in shock and she hugged the bag Evy gave her tight to her chest.  At the door she remembered her manners and turned to thank them and say goodbye.

“Come in any time you’re bored,” said Barney, “and you can help me grade papers.” Barney taught second grade and was always co-opting help with the endless math sheets.

When Jorie left, he turned to Evy. “She’s been sending you business,” he said.
**************
Jorie didn’t expect much that year, but it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.  Her Dad and Danny decided they would do all the cooking and cleanup and they spent the whole day, Christmas Eve, simmering up spaghetti sauce and making meatballs.  Mom disappeared upstairs to do her wrapping, and Mills, after she threw up twice in the morning, ran around humming and grinning.  Freddy didn’t go out with his friends at all, and he went to midnight Mass with Dad and Jorie.  Mom stayed home with Patrick, who couldn’t sit still that long or that late.

The next morning there was a ton of presents.  Danny and Mills got her a necklace with a real diamond, and Dad got her books.  Her mother got her a cookbook and her own cooking things–wooden spoons and pans and a little electric beater, and she said they would make cream puffs the day after Christmas.

Freddy got tons of clothes and Patrick tore and jumped and threw wrapping and got his new toys out right away, right in the middle of the wrapping paper mess.

There was a very dewy moment when Mills pulled the paper off a big package and discovered Grandma’s christening gown.  All four of them had been baptized in it; years before, Mom had been baptized in it.  Now Mills and Danny’s baby could be too. Mills gulped out a thank you and hugged Mom for a long time, and even Dad had snail tracks on his cheeks.

*********
When Mom opened the pretty  box, she stared down at the little owls, and her hands stopped, fingers splayed, frozen, for a minute, in the air.
 
 
“They’re beautiful,” she said, a little gruff. Patrick jumped up and down on a pile of gift wrap, grinning. “Let’s,” Mom said to Jorie, “go fill them up.”
 
 
“Don’t we have to wash them?” asked Jorie, shocked.
 
 
“I can’t wait that long to use them,” Mom said. In the kitchen, she added, “I know who did all the work to get these, Missy.”
 

 *********

She saw me, Jorie thought.

**********
On the 27th, Evy made a little clearance display of Christmas doo-dads; they were gone within the day.

“I’ll actually have to come in early to dust,” she said to Barney, who’d arrived to take her out to dinner. “I didn’t have time today.”  She thought about Jorie and Patrick, and how the day they’d come in had been the last frozen day; after that, the ice thawed and things started flowing.

She put her hand on Barney’s camel-hair-coated arm and she laughed. “I thought the angel was Patrick, with those curls and those eyes, but it was Jorie all along.  I’ll look closer next time.”

“Not,” she added after a pause, “that Patrick isn’t a sweet little guy.”

It had been a nice Christmas, Evy thought, and she had a small but steady stream of customers coming back.  And she was having dinner with her favorite nephew, at the Chinese place they both loved.  She gotten what she’d asked for: just a little miracle.

********

Just a little miracle, and it had been quite enough.
*********
My blogging friend Jodi posted a wonderful, real-life photo of a little Christmas angel just recently—our thoughts were on that same kind of Christmas innocence! 

What The Kale Do We Care?

Kale

I open the refrigerator, and realize the white plastic grocery bag is still on the top shelf.  Mark has forgotten to take the kale to work, to share that bounty with his colleagues. I wanted him to put it on the lunch room table with a sign that said, “Fresh kale! Free to good home!” He was pretty sure the spunky young vegans in his office would snarf that green stuff up.

Ah, but here it remains.

It is Friday; I don’t want to let that kale sit until Monday.  I will be freezing kale again this weekend.

*********
I love our CSA–our Community-Supported-Agriculture plan. I love it in theory and I love it in practice.  Every week, on Tuesday, my buddy Randy brings me two wonderful bags of homegrown goodies.  Every week since early spring, we have enjoyed salads–salads so fresh I can taste the sunshine on the greens.  We’ve had traditional lettuce salads; we’ve experimented with spinach salads and discovered we love that old-fashioned, tried-and-true method,–the one with bacon, onion, and hard boiled egg,—the very best of all.

Mark has broken down and admitted he really likes a good homemade broccoli slaw, and this week I got myself the required ingredients to make us some broccoli pesto.  We’ll get a baguette from the wonderful bakery around the corner; we’ll slice it thin  and toast those slices in the broiler.  We’ll slather them with this new concoction. We’ll decide if broccoli pesto can compete with pesto made from basil.

And I’m wondering if you can make a slaw from kohlrabi.  I’ve never cooked with kohlrabi, never prepared one in any shape or form. My dining room table has a cluttered lot of cookbooks, opened and bookmarked to recipes I’ve never tried before, requiring ingredients that were previously invisible to me when shopping.

Searching the cookbooks

What fun this is; what an adventure.

Why does the kale seem like a burden?

*********

There is a literature, I think, of surfeit food.

It was in Caddie Woodlawn, I am pretty sure–Caddie is one of my lexicon of red-headed heroes–that the mama decided she’d raise turkeys for fun and profit.  But the profit disappeared; it being a bad year, when she took those turkeys to town to sell, she discovered she couldn’t recoup nearly what she’d spent to raise them.

In high dudgeon, she took the birds back home and announced to her family that they’d be eating turkey that winter.  The kids cheered; turkey had been, till then, an only-on-Thanksgiving delicacy. Now they could have it nearly every day. What a treat!

A treat–for less than a week.  And then the kids discovered just how boring and uninspiring repeated turkey meals could be, even though the mama racked her brain to come up with creative ways to serve it.

“Oh, boy, TURKEY!” didn’t take long to turn into, “TURKEY?  AGAIN???”

Barbara Kingsolver writes about zucchini in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,–about dealing, in July, with an abundance of the squash coming from the family gardens.  She and her husband and daughters experimented with all kinds of cooking creativity–stuffed zucchini, zucchini muffins, sautéed summer squash; Kingsolver’s daughter, Camille, even invented an ingenious zucchini chocolate chip cookie. And still they had squash on the counter; baskets of zucchini waited in their store room.

“All dinner guests were required,” writes Kingsolver, “to eat squash, and then take some home in plastic sacks. We started considering dinner-guest lists, in fact, with an eye toward those who do not have gardens. Our gardening friends knew enough to slam the door if they saw a heavy sack approaching.”

Their gardening friends were facing the same conundrum, according to the author: what to do with all this zucchini?  Driving home one day, Kingsolver and her family discovered a bag of zucchini squash hanging from their rural mailbox. They began locking their doors–an unheard of measure of security, but they wanted to be sure that no one broke in and left zucchini.

Only in America, right?  We have a literature complaining about excess food.

**************

Every Tuesday, Randy walks from his building, where he runs the Duplicating Center and the mail room, to mine (where I hole up in my office next to the adjunct work area, stealthily plotting professional development). He puts two generous bags of home-grown goodies in the break room fridge.  Before I leave at night, I gather them up, and when I get them home, I unpack them.

Mark, curious, joins me at the kitchen counter (veggie-phobe James retreats to his typing chair in a different room entirely), and we take out the week’s treasure, item by item, gem by gem.  There are bunches of fresh lettuce; there are tender onions, and pungent radishes.  Glossy spinach; comical kohlrabi; bouquets of broccoli. This week, there was a pint of red raspberries, a harbinger, I know, of a bounty to come–Randy’s farm is famous for its beautiful berry crop. There is glossy spinach; there is hearty chard. There are cucumbers.

I take out the old plastic colander; I wash the greens and the onions. I spritz the berries, and we put them in a fiesta-ware bowl.  I sprinkle them with sugar and put a dessert plate over the top.  They will make their own syrup as the juices release. Later, I will get some whipping cream and angel food cake and we will have a shortcake.  Later, we will do that, if someone doesn’t eat all the berries, spoonful by sneaky spoonful, long before they can ever touch cake.

I spread things out on clean, soft towels to dry, snip the long leafy greens from the onions; pack things up for the refrigerator–or, often, tear leaves into salads to eat right then.

And then, I contemplate the kale.

Kale is hearty, bold tasting, good for you. It can’t be substituted for spinach or chard with impunity, especially in salads.  You have to like kale’s particular flavor and qualities to eat it fresh.  But cooked into recipes, it is almost interchangeable with its milder-flavored brethren.

“Cow food,” Mark calls it.  I must transform it and blend it into other ingredients, and then, knowing it’s there, he eats it without complaint.

Kale is tasty as the green part of Italian wedding soup.  It adds a lovely bit of healthy texture mixed into the ricotta lasagna filling.  Kale goes well in a risotto, with a hearty chicken broth and Parmesan cheese.  My fellow CSA-ers have been generous in sharing kale recipes they have tried, achieving results they love.

“You could just make smoothies,” suggested a well-meaning friend.

I could, but watch me walk to the family room door and call it out.

“CURLY KALE SMOOTHIES!!!!!”

Did you feel that rushing wind?  Did you see them run?

****************

I rely, heavily, on my old Joy of Cooking, and it tells me I can freeze kale just like any other green–blanch it for two to three minutes first, or lightly stir-fry its strong green leaves.  And so I do…I have a freezer full of small packets of kale, and I know I will be glad of them as the kale crop wanes (DOES a kale crop wane?) and the season progresses.

But for some reason, the preparation of kale does not make my heart sing. I can wash and hand dry lettuce, patting each tender leaf dry individually–a job that takes some time–and I will feel joyful and uplifted.  Not so with kale.  I’m not sure why. Some kind of personal bias is kicking in there.  I’ll fight it; I really will.

And I’m thinking my thinking has been limited. Last night, at the supermarket, Jim spotted what he thought was a travesty–a spinach and cheese pizza.  He made polite gacking noises, and then he looked at his father.

“Seriously, man,” Jim asked, “would you EAT that?”

And seriously, Mark replied, “Yeah, Buddy, I would.  Looks tasty.”

Dude.  I have a great recipe for homemade pizza dough.  KALE pizza!  Time to get those curly leaves ready. I’m thinking…white cheddar?

***********

And time to examine my attitude–really.  Am I complaining about having too much food?  Look at the arrogance, the smug complacency, in that.  I need an adjustment, and it needs to come quick.

The first of the zucchini came in this week’s goodie bag.

*****************************************************************************

Since I’ll have extra ricotta this week (only a few tablespoons go into the broccoli pesto), I’m looking forward to trying kale in this hot dip recipe:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/aida-mollenkamp/spinach-ricotta-dip-recipe.html

And…to reward myself for all my healthy rumination and efforts, tonight I’m making a batch of Jodi’s Milk Chocolate-Caramel Filled Chip Cookies.  I have to bring cookies to share at work tomorrow, but this nice big recipe makes plenty to share and plenty to keep at home. http://lifeinbetween.me/2015/06/27/kicked-up-milk-chocolate-caramel-chip-cookies/

Ode to a Skillet…

…a cast iron skillet.

Let T-Fal and Teflon

Take flight!

Skillet up straight

      I was using a kind of flat, shovel-shaped, wooden spoon-type thing to chop ground beef in my cast iron skillet, kind of mushing it down to brown evenly, when I had one of those clear, bright, sensory memories.  Suddenly I saw my little mother, five feet four inches and maybe 120 pounds, as they used to say, soaking wet, hair a kind of wild auburn, brown, and gray halo around her intense, concentrating face,–saw her chopping a big chunk of frozen burger with a butcher knife.  It was way before the day of the microwave; if you forgot to take the meat out to defrost, your options were limited.

     Mom liked to decimate it into smaller pieces, which then cooked down faster. She’d turn the fire on low under the cast iron skillet, trowel in a little bacon fat, and–WHACK!–chop off a solid chunk of frozen hamburger and throw it into the hot pan, where it would sizzle and spit in the grease.

     She was a little wild-eyed on days like that, a little scary. I’d slink away from the kitchen, slide into the living room to watch TV. But the big pot of thick hamburger gravy, served over mashed potatoes, with a hefty side helping of canned peas, was delicious and hearty—not harmed a bit by all that whacking.

     The skillet she used could very well be the same one I was using to brown burger for Johnny Marzetti. When Mark and I got married, my parents gave us one of their skillets, and his parents gave us another.  That was almost 35 years ago. I’ve cooked my way through a series of omelet pans, Teflon fryers, and T-Fal skillets in those years, used ’em and cast ’em away. My cast iron skillets are still going strong.

     I started wondering about how old they might be, and where they came from, so we deciphered the block print in a big cross on the back of one of the pans. It said “Griswold,” and I looked that up on-line, discovered the pans were made in Erie, Pennsylvania, not so very far from where I grew up.  The Griswold Company had been in operation since 1865, the last year of the Civil War; they folded, crippled, according to Wikipedia, by labor and economic problems, in 1957.

     Judging by their markings–and by family history–our pans came out of the plant between 1919 and 1940, before our fathers marched off to to do their patriotic duty, before those idealistic young men saw and experienced things that would change their lives and outlooks forever.  Mark’s dad, Angelo, served in the Navy, shipboard on the O’Bannon; he remembers the ship’s cook taking special care of him when he developed a devastating stomach ulcer.

Skillet bottom

     My dad was in the Army; he did not have fond memories of the food. He couldn’t wait to get home to eat home cooking–he vowed to never eat another bite of Spam in this lifetime. And, of course, with war-time rationing and meat coupons scarce, the first meal my mother offered was Spam, fried crisp in that cast iron skillet.  That was the last time Spam touched that skillet; not once, in my whole memory, did that meat-like substance ever enter our house.

     But the skillet cooked a whole heck of a lot of bacon. My mother had a thick white ceramic mug into which she poured off the fat. And then she’d wrap two dish towels around the hot, hot handle, and, rearing around, stick the skillet into the deep farm-style sink, full of sudsy water; we loved to watch the steam explode and hear the angry hissing.

     Our kitchen could be a risky, exciting place to spectate.

     Mom saved the bacon fat and used it, again in the skillet, to fry up any number of things–fried bologna, which my father favored; eggs, cooked so the yolks were almost hard. Fried egg sandwiches were one of my parents’ favorite meatless Friday meals. I’m not sure those eggs in bacon fat met the letter of pre-Vatican Catholic law, but my mother never wavered. She even experimented with making hard little funny homemade doughnuts; she fried them in a couple of inches of melted, snapping bacon fat.  She would shake them in powdered sugar, crisp and thick with bacon grease.  We would munch them down.

     On very, very special occasions, my father would wrap a towel around his waist, fill the cast iron skillet with solid shortening and start it to melting down.  He would put us–any of us he could catch and corral–to work peeling potatoes.  It was, we imagined, like being on KP in the Army–we peeled what felt like piles of potatoes, and he’d look critically and say, “More.” Then we had to slice them, and the slices had to be thin enough to please; we’d put the sliced spuds in a cold water bath in a big old metal bowl, and, when he judged the fat was hot enough, Dad would start throwing the potatoes in, humming, cigarette dangling dangerously close to the food, stirring and flipping those homemade potato chips.

    He lined a big bowl with layers of paper towels, and he’d flip the finished chips in and liberally salt them.

    Oh, we loved those things, loved to grab them, as they hissed and sizzled on their greasy bed of paper towels, juggling them with our burned fingers and eating them straight from the bowl.

    “They taste just like McDonald’s!” someone would say.

     We had been to McDonald’s once, when my brothers’ Little League team (which my father coached) went to the regional tournament in Jamestown, New York, 35 miles away from our small town. We had eaten our first fast food burgers and fries; we had all had chocolate milkshakes; and we had heard the angels sing. I can’t remember if the team won or lost, but I can remember how those fries tasted.

     Dad’s homemade chips were as good, if not better. They were such a complex operation that, on those rare occasions he’d cooked them–maybe every two years or so–they constituted the entire meal. And we were happy, more than happy, with that.

     Mark remembers Angelo searing meatballs in the cast iron skillet, getting a nice crust on them before putting them to simmer in an all-day pot of red sauce.  His dad cooked cardone in the skillet, too—crisp little fritters of egg and flour and wild burdock with herbs and spices.  Those met with mixed reviews, but Angelo loved to make them and loved to eat them.

   Those skillets served up lots of meals to two big, hungry families. When they came to us, they learned a couple of new tricks–we like to put cornbread batter in a greased and sizzling skillet to bake; we saute breaded eggplant and then bake it, layered with cheese and sauce until it’s bubbling and oozing. We rub the skillets down with grease occasionally–we use vegetable oil, the custom of saving bacon fat having been lost, in our household–coat them well, rub the excess off, and bake them for an hour at 325 every so often to keep them seasoned.

     So Griswold skillets have been on my mind. And yesterday, Roberta, a gifted chef and adjunct faculty member, invited me into the culinary lab to see the cakes her students had created for their practicum. All the cakes were two layer round creations, all baked in the same regulation-sized pans. But, within those similarities, the students’ imaginations had taken flight, and there were flowery ‘love’ cakes, ‘Frozen’ cakes, and a fall cake with a sturdy chocolate tree, frosting leaves falling, and whimsical little owls made of marzipan. There were air-brushed cakes and there was sculpted chocolate on cakes, and there was fondant in many colors and guises. There was a cake that looked like a Stetson hat; its brim rolled off the plate and slanted up toward the hat itself, cockily, on one side.

     “You go ahead and pick your favorite,” Roberta said. I looked at all those cakes, and I looked at all the students, flushed with pride and accomplishment, and I said, “No.” They were all amazing, those cakes.

     We talked a bit; I got to hear how the students had been inspired. I was inspired by their excitement and their passion for their craft. But then I had to go back to my office and get some work done.

     So I cut through the kitchen, and I noticed a cast iron contraption sitting on the vast gleaming metal counter top.

     “What is this?” I asked Roberta.

     She opened it; inside there was a cast-iron waffle maker. She flipped it over. The bottom had that tell-tale cross. It proudly admitted to being a Griswold product, made in 1908.

    “Wow,” I said. Roberta nodded.

     “These babies,” she said, “were made to last.”

     So I think of our two pans, and I think of our two sons, and I picture them in some long distant–I hope–day, a day when Mark and I are well-loved memories.  In my mind’s eye, they have thick dish towels wrapped around the handles of their skillets, and they are running–running those skillets to some big old sink after using them to cook up a big batch of–what? Jambalaya? Chicken wings? Browned and beautiful French toast?

   Maybe I’ll be watching them from a cloud, sitting with Mark, and my parents and his, and we’ll all be smiling. It’ll be like we’re watching a relay race we all ran a heat in; our laps over, we can rest and watch the young ones carry on. Which I hope they’ll do for a long, long time, but way out there in the distance, I see granddaughters limbering up, reaching hands back.

     “Slap that skillet HERE, Bubba!” they’re yelling, bouncing, ready to rush off into their own exciting lives.

     Things are just things, after all, but these things, these Griswold skillets, carry a whole lot of memories in their sturdy black selves. I hope they’ll still be in the race a hundred years from now.

Roberta and just some of those wonderful cakes
Roberta and just some of those wonderful cakes

Greaty’s Cookbook

 

Time tested sources of favorite recipes...
Time tested sources of favorite recipes…

 

 

 

Greaty and I are making jubilee jumbles in her warm, sparkling little kitchen, with its organized and well-stocked cupboards. I love it that she always has things like canned milk on hand–she tells me that, when I set up housekeeping, I should always keep canned milk or powdered milk in my cupboard, just in case I’m in the middle of a recipe and realize the milk is gone–or gone bad.  (Of course, she adds thoughtfully, if you’ve got milk gone bad, you can make a cake, too.)

She’s thrifty, my Greaty, born in 1925, a child of the Depression.  She likes to tell stories about that time; I like to hear them.  They say that communication and understanding skip a generation, so that kids and their grandparents click when kids and their parents don’t.  With me, it’s two generations; I love my mom and my grandma to pieces, of course, but Greaty is the one who really gets me.

I like everything old and weathered and seasoned; Mom and Gram say, if it’s old and doesn’t work, chuck it and buy new.  Greaty tells me stories about the making-do she and her family did during the twenties and thirties.  They never threw out a piece of cloth; they’d turn a shirt inside out, make it into a smaller shirt for a younger child, salvage the buttons, save the bits and scraps to make quilts.

I have one of those quilts on my bed; Greaty made it with her mom and older sister Gwyn; it’s a crazy quilt with tiny pieces of everything from cloth flour bags to Aunt Gwyn’s best velvet dress.  The stitches are infinitesimal and regular; the pattern is wild; the colors blend and flow.  I love that those three women, challenged by the economy, chose to create a thing of lasting beauty from the little that they had.

Another thing I love is the cookbook we’re using.  It’s one of those fund-raiser cookbooks, from the Town of Wales Old Regular Baptist Church, and it was published in the 1950’s.  It was a time, Greaty tells me, when people were finally realizing that all the ingredients they needed were on the shelves–you didn’t have to make up substitutions for eggs or butter or sugar.  If you needed the stuff to make cookies, it was available.

That, says Greaty, and the fact that the women were home again, their overalls traded in for housedresses, made cooking and baking very popular in the 1950’s.  She and Grumpy had just moved to Ohio then; and in their small town, it was a big deal when the ladies of the Baptist church decided to put a cookbook together.

It wasn’t her church, Greaty–a confirmed Congregationalist– hastened to inform me, but her best friend, Ardyth was a member, and Ardyth, whose job was to collect all the recipes, kept her apprised.

Greaty tells me the stories behind many of the recipes.  Bertie Bohldocher and her daughter Lillibeth, when they heard about the cookbook project, went right to the library and took out some French cookbooks.  So the recipes for vichyssoise and bouillabaisse are from Bertie and Lillibeth, but, says Greaty, neither one of them ever cooked such a thing in their entire lives.  They just wanted to go on record as being aficionados of grand taste.  And so the recipes are their testament…and probably, says Greaty, those are the only two recipes in the book that have never been tried.

Greaty’s book has fallen apart so many times the tape has been taped and taped again; finally she pried apart the yellowing pages carefully, copied the backs at Staples, and pasted all the recipes into a notebook.  That notebook is open on the counter today.  Like a greased baking machine, we work together, reaching for measuring cups, passing over the eggs, grabbing flour and brown sugar from the pantry shelves. We have been doing this since before I can remember.

“You’re 16, Ash,” she says to me, “and I’m 89, but we don’t need words to talk to each other.”  It makes me glow.  I love my Greaty, and I know I am lucky, lucky, lucky to have her, healthy and funny and a vital part of my life.

The cookies are in, and we sit with tea.  One of us gets up every few minutes to rotate the trays in the oven, then a few minutes later to put the bottom tray on the top shelf and vice versa.  The cookies will be perfectly done, with those nice crisp buttery brown edges.  When they’ve cooled, and we’ve eaten a few each, we’ll make a batch of browned butter frosting, a recipe in Greaty’s head, not her book, and frost the ones we haven’t eaten.  I’ll take a plate to Mom; Gram will visit Greaty and get her share.They like their modern conveniences, Mom and Gram do, but they always love our home baked goodies.

Greaty leafs through the cookbook.  “Look,” she says, “here are ‘MAB’ brownies.  That’s a recipe from Mabel Ann Brown, and there’s no chocolate in ’em.  She always said, MAYBE they’re brownies..and maybe they’re not.  Hence, the name, which she thought was a good joke on her initials.”

We’ve made that recipe–they’re buttery good, with pie filling spooned over the crust layer, and then little splots of dough melting on top of that.  When we have bake sales at school, people beg me to bring MAB brownies.  I always say, “MAYBE I will,” and laugh to myself.

There’s a recipe for what Greaty and I call buckeye krispie treats…crisp rice cereal mixed with a boiled concoction of corn syrup and peanut butter and spread in a pan.  We top it with melted chocolate and butterscotch chips, and we melt them in the microwave, which was not a foreseeable option when Greaty got this book.  But the recipe still works perfectly.

There’s a recipe for the most wonderful fudge in the world, which has become a family treasure.  Even non-bakers Mom and Gram can’t let Christmas go by without making a batch of that special fudge.

Greaty and I usually head right to the ‘Cookies and Candies’ section, but she says there are great meal time recipes in there too–a wonderful method for Swiss steak, and a no-fail recipe for roast chicken.

“When the Baptist ladies finally got the book together and ready to sell,” Greaty tells me, “I bought three copies.  I sent one to Gwyn, who loved it too.  I kept one to use.  And I bought one for your Grammy, but she said, ‘Oh, poo, Mom; I’m not using those old lady recipes.’  She hurt my feelings, I’ll tell you.  I asked your mom if she would like it, when she first married your dad, and she laughed.  Cooking wasn’t on her list of things to do, she informed me.”

I think of Greaty putting the book away, hiding her hurt feelings with a laugh and a shake of her head.  I imagine her selling the book at a Congregational Church rummage sale, picture one of the Baptist ladies finding it, getting HER feelings hurt because nobody wanted that very special collection.

I don’t know why–it’s such a little thing–but it makes me ache. I put down my tea, and lean forward to give Grammy a big hug, but she’s bending away from me, reaching into her capacious black purse.

“And isn’t it,” she says softly, “a good thing those women said no?  Because you’re the one that will appreciate it.  If they’d taken it, it would just have gotten thrown away or left behind.  But now, I can give it to you.”

She hands me a manila envelope.  I open it and slide out a perfect version of the Wales Township Old Regular Baptist Ladies’ Guild Cookbook, 1952.  It’s in pristine condition, although the edges of the pages have turned a rich golden color…almost the color of the edges of our jubilee jumbles.

“Oh, Greaty,” I breathe, and it’s a moment too big for awkward, fumbling gestures.  So I just grin and say, “I promise I will use this and use this and use it, until it’s in worse shape than yours.”

She grins back and gives me a quick hug, and we start to make the frosting.

 

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

 

I was looking through cookbooks this week, and, in one my retired colleague Crisanne (a great colleague but not, as yet, a great grandma) gave me, I found a recipe called ‘Marietta Cookies.’ I made the cookies—they’re different and delicious. The name intrigued me, though—was ‘Marietta’ a person? Were these cookies that someone from Marietta always served? I couldn’t discover any answers, but I did find the same exact recipe, under ‘Potato Chip Cookies’ on cooks.com.

The recipe for MAB brownies follows, too; we’ve often speculated about the name. That comes from a book my mother-in-law, Pat Zanghi, was kind enough to share many, many years ago. The cover is falling off; I may soon have to go Greaty’s route and take this book apart in order to save it. The recipes, of course, remain tried and true.

The directions here are just as they appear in the cookbooks.

Marietta Cookies

1 c. butter or margarine
½ c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ c. crushed potato chips
½ c. chopped nuts (I put mine in the food processor and pulsed them fine)
2 c. flour

Cream together the butter, sugar & vanilla. Add potato chips & nuts. Stir in the flour. Roll dough into 1” balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Using the flat bottom of a water glass dipped in white sugar, press each cookie until flat. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes.

Contributed by Betty Stover

–from Iliff United Methodist Church’s Sharing Our Best (2009, Morris Press Cookbooks). The church is in Crooksville, Ohio.

 


M.A.B. Brownies

1 c. margarine
2 c. sugar
3 c. flour
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 can fruit pie filling (or make your own)

Cream 1 and 2, add 1 egg at a time beating after each. Add flour and vanilla. Spread ¾ on greased cookie sheet. Spread on pie filling, then spoon on remaining batter. Bake 350 degrees, 30 minutes.

Contributed by Bev Barnes

—from Cooking With Love 1987, compiled by members and friends of the Laona United Methodist Church, Laona, New York (Walter’s Cookbooks, Waseca, MN)

Breakfast Sandwich Rampant

Breakfast Sandwich

Mark stands at the counter, carefully prying English muffins apart, loading up the toaster. He peels plastic sleeves from slices of processed cheese, splitting each square into triangles, and stacks them, at peel-able angles, on a plate.

The plate is Fiori ware, cream colored, thick, with raised bunches of grapes circling the rim. It is one of an eight-plate set we bought at Hartstone, and Hartstone, I hear is shuttered.

That makes me sad. When we moved here, it was the last standing pottery still using AJ Wahlco machinery–the last vestige of Mark’s first and well-loved career. (This gives me pause: if AJ’s hadn’t closed, a victim of the waning ceramics industry in the States, of manufacturers outsourcing and moving production to places where the labor work, gratefully, for pennies on our US wages, would we be living here? Would Mark have been content, or would the law school urge still have driven him? Like naggling a cold sore, it’s an unproductive but weirdly enjoyable thinking path; we’ll never know, of course, and all the riches of the last 15 years are still secure.)

I am cracking eggs, admiring the fragile brown shells that almost shatter when I tap them on the thick lip of the ceramic bowl. These eggs, free range, are so different from the ones we used to buy at Quality Markets or Tops, delighting in the sale prices–look: 39 cents a dozen!

Then I read about the beak-chopping, scant-movement conditions of industrial egg farms. Then I shared an office with Senti, whose life journey has taken her many miles further than mine has taken me, from a childhood in the Naga province of India, to marriage to a US Marine from Ohio, to the beautiful little farm where she and her family raise chickens and harvest honey and eat salads still warm from the sun that shines on her garden. In India, Senti majored in English literature, and she met tall, handsome Gary; here, she shared an office with another tall, outspoken, female English faculty, and shared, too, the joys of free range eggs.

I spill these eggs into the bowl; their yolks are deeply colored, Crayola orange. As the toaster pa-chumps its golden brown harvest of muffins, I use the little whisk-y tool my mother-in-law, Pat, gave me.

It was a sale item for her ladies’ church group; a lot of my favorite kitchen utensils–this whisk-er, sturdy little paring knives with blades that never seem to blunt–arrived in my utensil drawers from sales like that.

I whip quickly; the eggs grow into a lemon-y froth, and I pour them into the big no-stick frying pan. They sizzle in a bath of olive oil and butter. In the middle of the pan, the froth immediately gels. I lift that with the spatula and tilt the pan so liquid egg runs below it.

We are making breakfast sandwiches, making what McDonald’s calls Egg McMuffins. These are a family favorite, and as we assemble, working smoothly together, I try to remember when we as a family first decided these were great—and to recreate them at home.

I can’t recall.

I do remember one Father’s Day–it may (in fact, I think it was) have been the Father’s Day we gave Mark this very jumbo-sized frying pan, for this very purpose: sizzling up tasty, filling Sunday breakfasts–looking in my wallet, finding a ten dollar bill, and running to McDonald’s for a sack of English muffins. I got a variety–Canadian bacon, sausage,– and brought them home to the old farmhouse we were renting that year.

The farmhouse had actually been an inn in the 1820’s; it welcomed and sheltered us while we pondered whether to buy and where to perch; that morning, we sat at the table in the big old dining room and devoured the entire sack of sandwiches, Mark, Jim, and I, and wished we had more.

Who knows–it may have been that day, too, that one of us said, “You know, I bet we could make these,” kicking up experiments that led us to a beloved breakfast staple.

The eggs are almost done, still a little bit liquid just on top, and I turn off the heat and let them settle. The last of the muffins pops out of the toaster; Mark grabs it, tosses it, blows on his hand where he touched the sizzling metal, and slaps it onto the counter, quickly spreading butter, which melts into a golden brown glaze.

I line up six torn sheets of aluminum foil and open a muffin onto each. Today’s foil is pristine, new from the box. I save lightly used foil, though,–I’ve always done so– and Mark, when we first married, found that strange and endearing.

He’d call me “Jean”, after my frugal, Scottish mother, when he came into the kitchen and found me gently wiping off a sheet of used foil. I’d let it dry and fold it up for a second life covering a casserole or wrapping around a soaked paper towel to transport a bouquet.

“Save that foil, Jean!” he’d tease.

I would.

I set the ingredients out on the counter; we work together, assembling: triangles of cheese on top and bottom muffin halves; eggs on the bottom; on the top, Canadian bacon.

(Canadian bacon! I can still remember the first time I tasted it, as a very young child, and my surprise at its absolute goodness. And my surprise at what my mother said: “You look like you just heard the angels sing.” It was an unusual remark for her to make, unusual in its depth of noticing; it tickled me. That insured that Canadian bacon went on my childhood list of Wonderful Things to Eat–along with pancakes, corn on the cob, brownies with white icing.)

We flip the muffin halves together, use the foil to wrap them tight, and place them on a sturdy cookie sheet, which I slide into the oven. Mark goes upstairs to see if young James considers home-made Egg McMuffins a good reason to roll out of bed at 9:00 AM on a Sunday.

He does.

I take my coffee outside to the little table in the carport, sit and sip while the sandwiches coalesce in the 350 degree oven.

A memory niggles…one weekend, after the move to Ohio, we went back to New York to visit Mark’s parents, and we slapped together a huge batch of these babies on Sunday morning. The family gathered. I can’t remember the occasion–was it Easter? a birthday?–but I remember the laughter, the pile of silver wrapped sandwiches diminishing, and our nephew Jeremy, a true enjoyer of life, saying, “A little bit nicer than what you get at McDonald’s, eh?”

It doesn’t take long for the cheese to melt, the flavors to blend, the sandwiches to warm enticingly. Mark takes out the old, careworn black oven mitt, and slides the cookie sheet onto the range top. We grab plates, pour juice, and sit down for a Sunday morning breakfast together.

Jim narrates a couple of scenes from TV shows that the morning’s repast brings to his mind…a meal on “How I Met Your Mother,” an incident in the coffee shop on “Friends.” Mark talks about the contractors who will seal the driveway and about the unexpected, unwelcome dry rot damage he just discovered around the big kitchen window. I slide an article across the table about the World War I posters on display at the Ohio Statehouse, and we decide that we will go, that very afternoon.

Even as I savor the sandwich, I think about how quickly this breakfast will become a memory, and about how fixing this breakfast has evoked memories of so many people and places in so many different eras of my life–from very young child to silly young wife; from a cramped galley kitchen in Mayville, New York, to the expansive, old-fashioned kitchen in that old inn, to this well-loved space we inhabit today.

A mundane breakfast sandwich: a trove of vivid memories.

I understand, I think, why archaeologists, anthropologists, get excited over one tiny object, one slender shard. Look at the history entwined around a common, everyday item.

We used to do a self-awareness activity when training peer tutors. What three things would you include on a personal crest, we’d ask? Secretly, I always had trouble identifying symbols for my own imaginary shield.

But now, hey–I think it’s easy. Let’s use the humble Egg McMuffin. Maybe I’ll show it shooting out tenacious suckers that reach every facet of our lives, ensuring that we’re never unconnected to our past, to the people, however far-flung, whom we hold dear.

Yep: let’s put that on my family crest: breakfast sandwich rampant.

Just a couple of guys at the farmers’ market

Corn and tomaters

Sometimes she has to work on a Saturday morning, and then she asks her husband and son if they’d mind going for her.

“It’s important to shop locally,” she’ll say. “We want to support our local farmers.”

They nod seriously and look over her shoulder at the list (kale, she wants; rhubarb; new potatoes–fingerlings, too, if possible; onions, salad greens, carrots, tomatoes…). They look at each other as she writes earnestly, the man and his tall son. They roll their eyes.

She hands them the list, kisses them both, grabs her travel mug, and rushes off to the car, off to whatever Saturday event demands her presence, and they toast up some English muffins, spread them with jam, crunch them down, and then head to the Farmers’ Market.

It’s held at the fairgrounds; tables and tents stretch out for almost a quarter mile. In the big barns, vendors who need refrigeration set up their wares.

Here’s what happens when she goes: they head out onto the green, briskly passing the gleaming white trailer that sells coffee and doughnuts.

She laughs when she sees the line of people at the trailer.

“Yeah, RIGHT,” she’ll say. “THAT’S what we come to a farmers’ market for–doughnuts.” And she leads them into the thick of the vegetable stands.

She’ll have her list, but first, of course, she has to stop at each stand, look at their goods, check out their prices. She makes her way down one end and up the other, stopping to talk with women from her club, with neighbors, with people from work, with the vendors themselves; talking recipes, debating advantages of grilling over steaming, planning for what’s going to be ripe and on the stands next week. Only when the entire circuit is complete does she buy, getting potatoes at one stand, an eggplant at another, going all the way to the end to a guy selling from a wobbly card table whose blueberries looked just a little plumper than the rest.

They trail after her. Every once in a while, they catch a whiff of doughnuts crisping up merrily in a bath of boiling grease.

Table by tent, she picks her produce, hands the bags to them to carry, and they work their way back to the car.

“Want to go in the buildings?” they ask her.

They always ask.

“Nah,” she always says. “Nothing in there we need.”

She smiles as they drive home, thinking of the salads she can throw together. “Won’t those summer squash taste good right off the grill?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah,” they say. “Can’t wait.”

But.

On the days she can’t go, the days they shop for her, they park the car and bound out, homing in on the doughnut trailer. The man gets a cup of hot tea; his son gets a hot chocolate; they each get three doughnuts in a paper lunch sack.

By the time they get to a nearby picnic table, the sacks are greasily translucent, and they pry the plastic tops off their drinks, releasing steam. They take the doughnuts out and stack them on the flattened sacks. They munch and sip as the crowd flows around them.

“Are those people from around here?” the son asks his father every time, meaning the people who run the doughnut trailer. And every time, the father answers, “Yes. Yes, they are.”

They raise their styrofoam cups to each other somberly. “It’s good,” they assure each other, “to shop local.”

Then they stop at the first big table they come to, one that has just about every kind of vegetable. The man hands the woman working the stand the list. She looks at it pityingly.

“His wife’s at work,” she whispers to her partner, and they pack up the freshest and best stuff for the poor woman who has to send these men to do her shopping.

The man writes a check, and they head toward the barns.

On the way, some of the vendors offer a taste, hoping to drum up business. One man extends perfect little grape tomatoes.

“Eat ’em like candy,” he says. “Sweet as sugar.”

The man takes one, but the son declines.

“Uh, no, thank you,” he says politely. “I’m more of a carnivore.”

In the shadowy barns, there are meat vendors behind huge old glass-fronted freezers and refrigerated cases. Sometimes the vendors bring portable cookers and sauté chunks of meat, spearing them on toothpicks—cubes of pork in a homemade barbecue sauce, also for sale at the booth; once, nibbles of ostrich meat. Marinated chicken, tender smoked turkey; sometimes, but rarely, little bites of beef.

They work their way through the dim interior, politely accepting samples. The guy who runs a dairy stand usually brings green cheese—moon cheese, he calls it, but today’s tech-savvy, highly educated children don’t get that—and sets out a plate of samples. They always take some. It’s gritty, a little salty, oddly pleasing. They linger at the fudge table, where they can choose from samples: peanut butter cup; salted penuche; rocky road; classic chocolate.

There are jewelry tables, there are tables with NASCAR paraphernalia; there are people selling lovely hand-knit and crocheted baby clothes. At the very end, by the double doors, there is a baked goods booth.

The young man gets a brownie, oozing gooey fudge frosting, as big as the paper dessert plate it comes on. His father gets a strawberry hand pie, crusted with sugar. The baker lady hands them each a half-inch stack of paper napkins; they eat the treats in the car, licking their fingers and wiping their hands and mouths happily.

Then, their duties done, they carry their produce home.

When she gets home from work, she inspects the carrots, the squash, the leafy greens, the sweet corn, the tiny new potatoes. Bunched together on the little kitchen table, they make a colorful array, worthy of a centerfold in Good Housekeeping.

“Oh, you did great,” she tells them warmly; they duck their heads modestly and allow as how they were happy to go to the market for her.

“It’s really kind of wonderful, isn’t it?” she muses. “We get all this, and we’re supporting local farmers.”

They bob their heads in enthusiastic agreement.

“You’re right,” they say. “You really are. It’s great to shop local.”

The Carrying of Cookbooks

Streusel topped muffins

This cool and foggy May Sunday morning, I’m baking streusel topped muffins to warm us up. The recipe (a coffee cake recipe; I prefer to use a good coffee cake recipe to make my muffins) is from what we call ‘the new cookbook’–a version of the red-checkered Better Homes and Gardens recipe book. My sister-in-law Mary gave me my first copy when I first got married way back in the early eighties; that copy lasted until about 1994, when my husband and sons got me the latest edition for Christmas. Jim, who was four then and very literal, dubbed it the new cookbook because of its recency, not its title. Twenty years later, when we’re discussing where to find a recipe, we might say, “That one’s in the new cookbook,” and the seeker will know to go grab that twenty-year-old book.

I read a fable once about a man who drowned because he refused to let go of a trunk filled with his prized possessions. And I’m on board with that; our things should not own us. Every so often, I go into purge mode and really think: do I need this? Does this add anything to my life? Would anyone be at a loss if I got rid of this? Have I used this within the past year?

And so blouses that I like but will probably never wear again, books that were mind-opening when I was 32, jewelry with broken clasps, scented candles, tape players,–they all land in a box for the thrift store. I have cookbooks on my shelf, however, that I’d be hard-pressed to let out of my grasp, even as the waters swirled around my ankles.

My Betty Crocker cookbook holds together with packing tape; it has a pie chart photo on the front featuring, among other culinary treats, a fondue pot full of pale orange stuff. My brother Sean and I bought that book for my mother in the very early seventies; we bought it with money saved from baby-sitting and paper routes, and when Mom opened it, she blurted, “No! You spent TOO MUCH!”
We were so proud; that was Mom-speak for, “What an incredible thing!” The Betty Crocker Cookbook was Mom’s cooking bible, and her old version came out just past World War II. We knew we had given her a gift she would cherish and use, and when it came to me after her death, the cover was already wobbling apart. I used it enough to seal the separation and the packing tape came out.
I make the recipe for Hungarian Goulash in this volume; it’s a recipe I met under the name ‘Beef Paprika’, and that’s what we still call it. A dear friend, Pam Hall, fixed it for a dinner party when we were running with the same crazy post-college crowd, and my companion then and I fell in love with it. It was a recipe that Pam’s mom, a truly gifted cook, was testing for the Betty Crocker kitchens. It’s re-named Hungarian goulash, in Mom’s cookbook.
Pam is gone now, too, and I never follow that recipe without thinking of her openness and generosity; nor do I ever use the book without memories of meals at my Mom’s. (And…I love the picture of Betty Crocker on the back of the book; she had been revamped for the Women’s Liberation movement of that day, and sports a smooth page boy haircut and an ascot type collar. She looks as if she could be bringing home the bacon before cooking it up in pan…)

From that same era, I have a slim paperback volume, Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook. That was a wedding shower gift from another dear friend, Sharon, a high school friend who stayed close during college. We lost the reins of friendship after that, but I still think of her fondly whenever I gently open this aging book. One section talks to young couple-cooks about stretching a budget; I used those recipes a lot. I still make the ham and bean skillet fairly regularly, and there’s a concoction made from leftover ham, cheddar cheese, and Bisquick–Bisquick’s big in a lot of these 1970’s recipes—and sprinkled with sesame seeds that’s a nice side with a steaming bowl of soup.

Last month, there was a potluck at Mark’s work for a departing colleague; most people signed up to bring a dish, but Mark was tapped by his colleague Debbie to bring what we call ‘Lee Brothers.’ It’s a mac and cheese recipe from a book that my darlin’ niece Meg gave me–The Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook. There they are on the cover–Matt and Ted Lee, their waists about as big around as the circumference of my knee–and I turn the page to find recipes with no regard whatsoever for modern diets and cholesterol concern. The mac and cheese recipe is actually listed under vegetables, with the argument that school cafeterias always considered macaroni and cheese a vegetable side.
The dish calls for whole milk, lots of cheddar and Swiss cheese, butter…it is oozey and fattening and totally wonderful. (How do those Lee boys stay so thin? Do they EAT their own cookin’???) For the potluck, Mark mixed it up the night before and rolled it into the crockpot, letting it cook on low all morning at work. There were no leftovers to worry about when he brought the crock pot home. (This recipe, by the way, is easily available via a quick Web search; I needed it just post-move when cookbooks were still packed away, and opted for the easy route.)
I also favor the Lees’ recipe for Hoppin’ John at New Years’ time.

Meg, like the Lees, is now a South Carolinian, and she gave me, also, Baked by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Lewis and Poliafito opened their first bake shop/cafe in Brooklyn, but they followed it, I believe, with one in Charleston; when I visited Meg, we visited that (no longer run by the founders, but still–quite, quite yummy.) This book yields the closest recipe I can find to Starbuck’s Reese’s cup cookies. I can’t find those cookies in any of the Starbucks in this area of Ohio; I insist on braking for Barnes and Noble stores in New York and PA–not a hard sell with my boys–on the off chance of finding my favorite cookie in their attached cafe’s—and usually my luck holds. Meanwhile, I strive to re-create those cookies in my kitchen; Baked offers a pretty darned good approximation in its peanut butter cookie recipe.

Mark gave me a chicken cookbook, the Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes, when we lived on Orchard Street; its chicken corn chowder recipe was a great thing to cook when in the law school years, with hungry young law students visiting for meals. (Mark’s young classmate, Todd, used to pass him notes in the midst of challenging class sessions. “I’m hungry; I need soup,” the note might say, or, “I like chicken corn chowder.”)

I have a stack of those little fund-raiser compilation books with the plastic spiral bindings; they yield the best recipes for things like no-bake cookies, Buckeye-style Rice Krispy bars (corn syrup and peanut butter instead of marshmallow; a topping of melted chocolate chips; these don’t last long on my counter), and never-fail pie crust. I go to Julia Child for roast chicken (and one of these years, she’s going to show me how to make French bread). My Joy of Cooking helps with everything from how long to cook a roast of beef to a reliable recipe for raspberry bars. And Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Cooking is my go-to for risotto; my homemade broth is forever enriched by her technique of roasting the bones and veggies before immersing them in a deep, long simmer.

I also have notebooks full of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines or printed from the Internet; my son Jim helps me organize these by numbering pages and creating tables of contents. This is where Mark’s parents’ recipe for “Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs” resides and my sister-in-law Mary Ann’s directions for Buffalo Wing Dip, along with a classic cheesecake recipe that can’t be beaten and Louise Pelletter’s directions for a long-simmering red sauce.

I suppose I could add my favorite recipes from each of the cookbooks I’ve mentioned; type them out, save them to a thumb drive, print out a copy and paste them in a notebook. That would be efficient, maybe.

But I am not so interested in efficiency in this process.

Everyone once in a while my Jim, who is a lover and a maestro of lists, will sit down with a cookbook and start listing recipes we should try. So we will experiment, say, with parmesan crusted chicken–very, very delicious-or pepperoni bites, a classic seventies appetizer treat. Our repertoire, getting just a little bit stale, expands.

And my cookbooks give me the sense of continuity, of gifts, not just of the physical book, but of the tastes of the giver, and their care for my well-being. The cookbooks I’ve gifted to myself give me the sense of the passing on of important techniques and processes–a true home-making tradition not limited to an age or a gender, but an essential part of any life. I like to open and savor them; I like to read the intro’s and anecdotes.

I have worked with young people immersed in strong passed-down traditions; I have worked with young people whose lives don’t have the shape and the girding this kind of passing-down provides. I feel for that second group, having been lucky enough to have both, the passing down of lore from family and friends, and the acquiring of new traditions along the way. But I know that, with caring friends and personal curiosity, good stuff can be shared, and traditions can be begun.

That’s why my cookbooks travel with me. I’d let go of their trunk if I had to choose between them and the deluge.

But it wouldn’t be easy.