The Venn of Dining

I type, this gray morning, with the heavy doors open. Cool air wafts in through the screens. Laundry chugs in the washer and fa-lumps in the dryer. The boyos are off on a tooth-cleaning expedition fifty miles away; they will stop for a nosh. I have butter softening for sour cream Bundt cake: a weekend treat.

And it’s a perfect day to bake something, and a perfect way to celebrate the end of a good week.

The Bundt cake is a fairly new addition to our family repertoire of ‘favorites.’ This recipe came from the Internet, from a very focused search. One day I realized we had sour cream in the fridge, and I remembered a cake I’d had at a meeting or an event. It was unadorned. The crust crackled like a sugar cookie. The inside was buttery, melting-tender.

If I’d remembered where I’d eaten that treat, I might have emailed a friend and begged the recipe. I could still hear the angels that sang as I ate that slice, but I couldn’t see where they did that singing. So I did a search and came up with many, many sour cream Bundt-style recipes.

Now we have sour cream Bundt coffee cake recipes that we have for special brunches, but this recipe—just a simple yellow Bundt cake that we don’t enhance with frosting or whipped cream or even a sprinkling of powdered sugar—has become an all-time, any time, favorite.

I think about that, and about the foods that come to be loved…by a person, by a family, by another kind of group. Those recipes slide into the personal cuisine, expanding, enhancing. I am thinking about where those recipes come from.

I am thinking that developing a personal cuisine (something we all do, no matter our circumstances) is a matter of Venn diagramming. The things that matter to us, foodwise, overlap.

In the intersect of people and circumstances dwell the foods we eat. If we are lucky enough that economics give us choices, it is an adventure to explore the places where our food loves overlap.

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When I lived alone, the Venn intersects were time and effort and save-ability. I remember making big pots of chili and freezing servings. I remember making a big, beautiful bowl of tuna salad and throwing most of it away. Cuisine for one morphs recipe size, (having grown up doubling, halving was a tough concept to grasp), and sometimes it morphs efforts.

How often do solitary persons, for instance, cook themselves a mashed potatoes and gravy dinner? Such Sunday dinner treats are often reserved for company; they’re not part of the everyday Venn.

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When you live in any kind of family, related or created, the Venn becomes an intersect of the personal tastes of those persons involved. For us, stir fries and fajitas and bubbling pots of macaroni and cheese, some stews and certain soups, reside firmly in the sweet spot. There are cookies in the intersect, and snacks, and fussy, delicious desserts.

Some personal favorites don’t make the cut. There are days when I long to make a big, cheesy, pea-studded tuna casserole, for instance, and I know Mark often yearns after a lovely gray dish of spaghetti and clam sauce.

I have not roasted up a big pot of pork and sauerkraut since Mark and I threw in together.

I have never fixed tripe.

James’ autism comes with definite food sensitivities, a hyper-sensitive sniffer, and a gag reflex; there are seemingly innocuous foods, like cucumber salad, that we avoid making when the boyo is around.

So we work within the intersect, and we find that leaves a lot of room.

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There are other intersects that affect the way we eat. There are history, geography, and capability, for instance.

The history can be personal. Kids believe the food they get at home is cooked the RIGHT way; everyone else’s food is suspect. Mark cooked a lot when he and very young Matthew were Two Guys Together; Matthew, when visiting his grandparents, would point out that they made meatloaf wrong. It was nothing like his father’s, and therefore, not regular meat loaf.

My mother would tell stories about my father’s young stepmother, Catherine,who’d never learned to cook. Catherine would throw a loaf of bread and packages of cold cuts on the table and call it dinner. Dad loved Mom’s cooking (which she, of course, Venn-ed to his meat and potatoes taste), but every once in a while, he purely loved a cold cut sandwich. It’s a treat for me, too, especially deli cold cuts on the kind of hard rolls so crusty they explode when you break them open. I remember those sandwiches from childhood.

That’s a culinary predilection that spans generations.

Mark’s parents, Pat and Ang, made the most extraordinary spaghetti sauce. His dad learned from his grandma, a famed cook; Pat and Ang cooked big pots of sauce together so often that they built on that fragrant base and developed a shared personal style.

When Mark and I first were together, we learned to make sauce from [canned] scratch, taking big cans of tomatoes and puree, tomato sauce and tomato paste, and simmering them together all day long. Often, meat went in there, too: we still use Angelo’s meatball recipe, and pork, Italian sausage, and chicken are all wonderful in long-simmered sauce.

But as canned and jarred spaghetti sauce became better and more available, Ang and Pat changed their methods. They would not—Pat would not, I’m sure, to this day—open a jar of Ragu and call it dinner. But they used a few cans of spaghetti sauce as a base, adding to it tomato paste and basil and oregano grown in the backyard, maybe some pureed fresh tomatoes, water, a handful of sugar, a  bay leaf, some onion…the actual concoction can vary from time to time, although the core remains.

There’s a history to that spaghetti sauce that flavors its creation. There’s a history to yeast-dough coffee cake on Easter morning, and to Grandma Kirst’s Christmas fudge.

Our personal pasts inform the food we eat today.

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But broader history and geography have their impacts, too. Take coffee, for instance (which I am often happy to do). Coffee drinking is pervasive in United States culture, as Marcus (at Marcus’s Tea Blog) points out in “Why Most Americans Drink Coffee Not Tea.” That, he ruminates, is due in large part to Revolutionary history; after the infamous Boston Tea Party, John Adams urged colonists to boycott tea. He called tea “a traitor’s drink,” and he started a movement. People in the budding United States pledged to drink coffee instead of tea, and those roots cemented java into U.S. culture.

In “Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?” Gracy Olmstead notes that coffee-drinking has become a community activity in the United States. She offers soldiers as an example; a lot of vets, she says, picked up their coffee-drinking habits in the service, where drinking coffee was a kind of daily ritual.

She herself, writes Olmstead, became a confirmed coffee drinker as a college student, when her roommates were very serious and very intense about the wonderful coffee they brewed.

So, I wait eagerly for my monthly coffee parcel to arrive; every morning, I grind my decaffeinated beans and revel in the rich and splendid scent. I might trace my coffee-enjoyment to growing up n my parents’ house, where the battered metal percolator stood always on the stove top; my mother would brew a pot at 9 pm or so to heat up in the morning, but it would smell so good she and my father would drink it, helped by whichever children were flitting through the house that evening.

Coffee is a part of my personal history, although not of Mark’s; we do not Venn there.

But coffee is a part of my national history and geography, too; my coffee predilection is made more likely by an act of rebellion that took place almost 300 years ago.

And coffee and tea both take conscious decision-making; they do not come from locally grown plants; they must be mindfully, sometimes expensively, imported.

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But other foods are local and abundant, and so they become part of our cuisine. We have just eaten the last of our summer’s crop of corn on the cob, for example; in Ohio, the long corn season means ears seared on the grill, boiled in a giant pot, or wrapped in wet cloth and nuked. Whichever way we choose to cook it, the ears are lambasted with butter and salt and pepper before teeth touch tender kernels.

We have corn roasts here. We learn to scrape ripe kernels from the cob and freeze them. When the season passes, we begin, already, to look forward to next year’s corn on the cob.

When I was in high school in Western New York, though, we had a Dutch exchange student. Her host family welcomed her with a corn roast. She opened the door to a rocky relationship by telling them, in very clear English and very decided terms, that corn was pig food, and she would not eat it.

The geography of that student’s cuisine told her one thing; our geography told us another. In that intersection, corn was not included in the Venn overlap.

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My mother, in so many ways a thrifty Scot, drew a line at some of the dishes her family cooked. She would talk about visiting her Aunt Barbara when that revered lady was cooking cow kidneys for steak and kidney pie. The house, Mom said, smelled exactly like pee.

She didn’t stay for Aunt Barbara’s dinner, and she never cooked kidney pie at home.  

It makes sense that a small island country like Scotland would lean toward cooking up every usable part of the cow, sheep, or pig. My mother was on board with the theory: she was a great believer in using up leftovers. But she didn’t subscribe to the practice of cooking with organ meat.

That thrift and caretaking did translate into US culture, though. We watch A Chef’s Life on PBS, a show that follows Chef Vivian Howard, who learned her trade in New York City, but went back (reluctantly at first) to her native North Carolina to ply it. She determined to honor the cuisine of her part of the country. When she travels to cook for august gatherings, she will often bring Tom Thumb sausage.

Tom Thumb sausage is made from pig parts, ground up and cooked in that poor pig’s appendix. The flavor, Howard says, is very distinctive.

In fact, we watched a show where she cooked for a hip New York City group; a food critic-type person, thrilled to be talking with her, said he loved the “gutty” flavor of the Tom Thumb sausage. Howard agreed that “gutty” was a good word for it.

Mark and I looked at each and shook our heads. Sausage stuffed into appendix is not in our Venn diagram, not by family or history, and not by geography either. We’ll pass, we agree, on trying Tom Thumbs.

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This week, though, paging through my big black binder of recipes I’ve saved to try someday, I came across one from a cookbook put together by Jim’s school when he was in second grade. It told how to cook a dessert that involved covering an Oreo cookie crumb crust with a cream cheese-peanut butter layer, a pudding layer, a Cool whip layer, and more ground cookie.

I just happened to have everything on hand that recipe called for. On a whim, I made it for a Monday night dessert.

You know what? That 23-year-old recipe yielded results that were mighty good. Mark and I immediately began thinking about Venn intersects.

The pasta club would love this, we agreed.

My extended family would enjoy it, I thought. Mark allowed that his would too.

We thought of several friends to whom we’d serve it, confident they’d approve.

We pondered that all week long, as we whittled away at that tasty dessert, which seem to settle in and become richer as time passed. Someday, the pandemic will be over, and we’ll be able to test our theories on the groups we think would like this newly discovered dessert.

Until then, though, it enters into that Venn slice, that intersect of Things We All Like.

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The boyos are home. James, who finished his math homework and started on some video game adventures in his downstairs man-cave, just came upstairs, wooed by the scent of sour cream coffee cake baking. When, he inquired, did I predict it might be done?

I shared the sad truth that this particular cake takes almost two hours to bake.

Ah, said Jim. Resigned, he trudged back downstairs.

I took Jim shopping yesterday, and he filled a small cart with things he loves—with frozen meals and a variety of chicken, with snacks, and drinks, and an ice cream treat or two. He bought a package of windmill cookies, not something easily found these days, for Mark; Jim doesn’t like those cookies but he enjoys treating his dad. And there are days when our dinner menu doesn’t appeal to him. Then Jim will happily fix his own dinner.

That Venn intersect shifts and changes, and that’s as it should be: the times dictate some likes and dislikes. Growth and discovery influence others.

But some things stay firmly in that intersect. Right now, sour cream coffee cake is one.