Monday, February 8, 2010

The Beginning

Somewhere around 1974 or 1975 my mother gave me three cookbooks. There was The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Clairborne, The New York Times Menu Cookbook, and The New York Times Heritage Cookbook by Jean Hewitt. I used Craig a lot, to reproduce the dishes my mother made. I used the menu cookbook and the Heritage cookbook rarely. I do remember, at Thanksgiving, possibly 1976, finding out that the Heritage cookbook was good for recipes that used up random ingredients. I remember making three or four dishes using cranberries, including pork chops with cranberries, and something called Cape Cod Cranberry Pie, which was really more like cake batter poured over cranberries and sugar. It was good. People liked it.
Later on, I bought too much celery and made Celery Chowder, from Florida. It was like clam chowder, only with celery.
I began to read the book, and it conjured up a way of life that I was enthralled with, at least theoretically. I grew up on a dairy farm in Massachusetts, and as a child, I imagined having my own farm, and growing all my own food, canning preserves, and in general leading the sort of life immortalized by Laura Ingalls Wilder in Farmer Boy. Even when I was a kid, I canned applesauce, and tried to make bread. My mother, who was a New York debutant before she was a farmer's wife, was amused by all this earnestness.
Of course, when I was a teenager, I quickly became aware that Sheffield, Massachusetts was not where it was at, and that nothing ever, ever happened there. For college, I was off to the quasi big city, Washington, DC, where I went to anti-war rallies and invited total strangers to sleep on my dorm room floor.
But the land still had an appeal. I started a community garden. My boyfriend and I drove out to pick your own places to buy tomatoes to can spaghetti sauce. I could have gone back to Massachusetts and worked on the farm. It would have been awkward. My father had retired and rented the farm. I would have had to live with my parents. Basically, I liked the idea of all that hard work rather than the reality of it. I had experienced the reality. I had gotten up at 6:00 am to run the chopper to feed the cows. I had driven the tractor for haying. I had weeded the garden and fed the calves and done the milking. I wanted a more exciting life.
But I still liked the idea of all that, and the Heritage Cookbook was one way of putting me in touch with what I liked to call my roots, (which I ironically pronounced ruts.) So sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, way before Julie Powell, I decided I would cook every recipe in the book.
The New York Times Heritage Cookbook is organized by the regions of America; the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, Mountain/Northern Plains, Southwest and Northwest. Within each of those chapters, it presented appetizers and soups, meat, poultry and main dishes, vegetables, main dish accompaniments and salads, breads, pies cakes, desserts and cookies, and miscellaneous, which is stuffing, pickles, relishes, and stuff like Elderberry Wine from Nebraska. Unlike Julie Powell, I set no deadline, and approached things in no organized fashion. Basically, I made things that I or my family would want to eat.
I raced through the meat chapters in the 80s, cooking some things again and again, like Baked Pork Chops with Rice, from Iowa and Pork Chops and Potato Casserole, from, again, Iowa. That page has brown spots scattered around the page and a big brown stain spread over the recipe for Braised Stuffed Pork Chops on the opposite page. The 80s and the 90s were also big for the desserts. My family as a general rule did not eat desserts, so I used the book for special events, and donations to the soup kitchen. Two whole pages of cake recipes, from Greta's Chocolate Cake to Grandmother's Sorghum Cake have the designation "for SOME" scrawled over the title with the date. My little son and I baked the cakes together, and I told him how the men who came for lunch would reach for a slice of his cake.
For a while I adopted a tradition of having a friend or two over for New Years Day lunch, serving cake, and telling fortunes which involved carving tiny ships out of walnut shells. In 1992, I made Buckeye Maple Syrup Cake. In 1989, I made Orange Cake from Florida.
Other holidays were marked by other dishes. We used to invite our friend Constance and her children for Christmas dinner. After dinner always involved uproarious games of Pictionary during which I laughed until I couldn't breathe. In 1995 I made Trifle Royal. For Thanksgiving, I worked my way through the array of stuffings and "dressings," and the traditional pies. In 1984 I made St. Louis Pumpkin Pie and in 2002, Frozen Pumpkin Pie. In 1989, we invited our neighbors, Nancy and Dave and their kids for Thanksgiving and I made Cranberry-Pumpkin Chiffon Pie.
We had another Christmas tradition for a while, of taking some baked good (my husband and I used to refer to them as "baked bads," to the firefighters, because they had to work on Christmas. On Christmas Day, 1994, we took Cinnamon Rolls, Plain and Fancy (I don't remember which) to the firefighters.
Sometimes I had to be creative. My husband Bob won't touch eggplant, and suspiciously prods dishes he suspects might contain it. I remember taking an eggplant dish to a first grade potluck, because he wouldn't have to eat it. I used a whole series of Blue and Gold dinners, and post Scout Sunday receptions , to foist various foods on an unsuspecting clientele. The post Scout Sunday receptions were great for running through the hors d'oeurves. On February 7, 1993 I made Cheese-Olive Appetizers, which seems to involve wrapping green olives in pastry and baking them. Hmm. In 1991 I made Cheese Straws, in 1992, Quiche a la Roma, which is quiche with tomato, green pepper, salami, cheddar cheese and oregeno, and in 1994, Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms.
But, in the 2000s, my efforts petered out. I had made most of the stuff that anyone would eat. My son had graduated from Boy Scouts and the recipes that were left were A. weird, and B. full of hard to get ingredients, like elk steak.
Then came the twin influences of the BIG SNOW of 2010, and Julie and Julia. I happened to finish reading Julie and Julia on the night the BIG SNOW began. A week earlier I had bought a case of what I thought were oranges to help out a friend's daughter's school fundraiser. They turned out to be grapefruit. I like grapefruit as well as anyone, but my husband can't eat them. So between my daughter and me, we were looking at eating one grapefruit a day. I didn't think that would finish them before the rot got to them. So I thought of the Heritage Cookbook.
It did have some recipes for grapefruit, ones that I hadn't made. There is Grapefruit Sherbet, Strawberry Grapefruit Mousse, and Grapefruit Marmelade. I considered each, and then began leafing through the book. Not all the recipes were weird. Some of them looked pretty good. Why hadn't I ever made New Mexican Corn Bread, which features a can of cream-style corn as well as the usual ingredients? Or Orange Nut Bread? Or Chick-Peas with Chilies? I could do this. Of course there were some things that I probably could not do. While I could get my husband to eat Texas Liver, which sounds pretty good, Morcilla (Blood Pudding) which features 4 cups of hog's blood is clearly a non starter. That is, assuming I could get 4 cups of hog's blood in the District of Columbia. That reminds me of the time I was supposed to procure a turkey killed by a Muslim for Thanksgiving dinner.
So I started up again, on Saturday morning with Huevos Rancheros. This recipe is just fried eggs on corn tortillas with salsa. Even Noel, my daughter, who is on a dairy and gluten free diet could eat it. Easy-peasy. How come I never made that? My next effort was going to be Salt Rising Bread. The Heritage Cookbook is not given to comments on the food, but Erma Rombauer Beck, the author of The Joy of Cooking, (whom Meryl Streep, in the person of Julia Childs, called Mrs. Joy) referred to an "assortment of smells" created by a friend addicted to making salt rising bread. So, I knew I could expect odors.
I went back into the kitchen after breakfast and read the recipe for Salt Rising Bread. It started out, "Day before, place the potatoes, cornmeal, sugar baking soda, etc in a plastic or ceramic container." Usually the words Day before were what did me in. Not this time. It was Saturday morning. The levening agent, which was what the potatoes and all that other stuff was to make, could do its thing overnight and I could make the bread Sunday. I sliced my potatoes, sprinkled the corn meal, boiled and poured the water, and put all aside on the counter.
The instructions continued, "The mixture will foam up. Do not continue if the mixture is not working." Despite the fact that I turned the oven to 170 degrees to keep the mixture warm, it did not foam. I probably should not have flushed the mess down the downstairs toilet, because it has been somewhat turgid since. Hmm.
So, Sunday, what with the Superbowl and all, I didn't make anything. I did get the ingredients for grapefruit marmalade, which was, "1 grapefruit, 1 orange, 1 lemon and sugar." I picked up a two pound box of sugar at the gas station on Saturday, after stumbling through the ruts of the snow. However, I didn't really read the recipe until Monday morning (no school), when I read the second step, after cut up all the fruit really small, which was let it soak for 12 hours. Hmmm. Then, I didn't read the third step until this evening. The third step involves measuring the massive amount of material you have, and then adding one cup of sugar for every cup of fruit and water. Obviously, two pounds is not going to cut it. So, the marmalade will soak for 24 hours, not 12, and then, I'll go out and get a five pound bag of sugar, which should be up to the job.
Along the way, I searched for canning jars, and dumped out about 8 jars of Fuling Mill Farm Chili Sauce, which I made in 2005 and never really used. Bob protested briefly, but I pointed out that the chili sauce had turned brown on the top, and he agreed that we should ditch it. So, there's no school tomorrow, so I'll get after the marmalade then.

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