Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Memories of Food and Family

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving. A day of gratitude. The day that signals the official start of the holiday season. A holiday marked by traditino and symbolism. For many of us, it’s a chance to spend time with our families and be thankful for each other and for the bounty that is laid before us at our dining room tables.

And for most of us, this holiday has become very much about food. Food and lots of it. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is “a good thing.”

Nowhere are family food traditions more evident than at our collective Thanksgiving celebrations. Perhaps for this reason Thanksgiving always makes me nostalgic; I fondly recall large gatherings with family members who have long since passed, in homes that are no longer standing or at least, no longer occupied by the familiar and the familial.

Our Thanksgivings were almost always spent in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, in a little slate-mining town nestled in the hills of central Pennsylvania. Slatington (aptly named) is, even today, pure small-town America.

The drive to Slatington from our home in Philadelphia always seemed interminable. The stretch of the Pennsylvania turnpike that goes north out of Philadelphia hadn't been built yet, and most of the trip was on four-lane roads with traffic lights every few miles As we got closer to Slatington, the four lanes became two, then twisting country roads through small hamlets, with streets lined with modest homes and always, a fire house, a single grocer and a gas station. A fine old brick church and its ancient graveyard marked the point at which we knew we were only minutes away from our destination.

My aunt and uncle lived in a big (or so it seemed to me as a small child) old stone home on Main Street. (No, I’m not making that up.) The Kern homestead sat at the corner of Main and Kern Street (I’m not making this up, either) and is forever seared in my memory. It was a deep, narrow, two-story affair, originally built with an outhouse. The outhouse became a tool-shed when the home was eventually modernized to include a single bathroom on the second floor, above the kitchen at the rear of the house. With a single staircase at the front of the house, a trip from the kitchen to the loo entailed climbing a long, wooden staircase and a trek down a long, narrow upstairs hallway paved with well-worn rag rugs over ancient wood flooring…and no small measure of planning ahead. Sometimes the walk to the bathroom seemed longer than the drive to Slatington.  I am sure there were several occasions on which I barely made it.

On the ground floor, one had to walk through the dining room and the living room to get from the kitchen to the staircase, which was off the “parlor”, a formal living room that faced the street and opened onto a lovely, covered porch. There was a sofa in that room; they called it a “davenport.” I loved the smell of old wood and the muffled sound of Main Street traffic in the otherwise quiet room, motes of dust floating in the slices of filtered afternoon sunlight.

The kitchen was just large enough to eat in, but clearly not laid out with cooking in mind. Lovely, thick quarter-sawn oak cabinets, darkened with the patina of age, went nearly to the 14 foot ceilings, making cooking a bit of a physical challenge for my petite aunt Pauline. The sink was “all of a piece,” as the Pennsylvania Dutch would say, a one-piece sink/counter/backsplash carved from a solid slab of slate.

Pauline eased her cooking woes by fueling herself with my uncle Stummy’s infamous whiskey sours while preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The Dutch have a curious habit of giving everyone nicknames, especially the men. Stummy’s real name was Stuart, and he actually had a friend whose nickname was “Johnny Chicken Shit”. As for the whisky sours, I suspect they contained more whisky than sour. (For true Dutch-country authenticity, pronounce it “whiskeysahrs.” Imagine the movie “Fargo,” and sing the last syllable as three distinct notes. “Whisky sah ah ars”, accent on the second “ah”. Perfect.)

There was a porch on the side of the house, as well, with doors to both the dining room and the kitchen. I loved that porch. Unlike the one in front, which was covered and shaded most of the day, the side porch was open and warmed by the pale autumn sun in the afternoon. There was a clothes line in the back yard and a big patch of rhubarb. Behind that a narrow alley and then a huge, tree-covered mountain. (In hindsight it was more of a hill, and we were young adolescents before we gathered the nerve to climb it. By then it didn’t seem nearly as big.) My sister and I would spend hours on the porches and in the yard, enjoying the smell of leaves burning somewhere nearby and the crisp, fall air, while we waited an eternity (and worked up huge appetites) for the mid-afternoon meal.

Pennsylvania Dutch meals are always a celebration of plenty (read: gluttony). My mother always said that her great uncles ate until they were full, pushed their chairs away from the table, loosened their belts a notch, and bellied up to the table again for another round.

A favorite side dish in the Dutch country is the locally produced and naturally sweet “Cope’s Corn”. Made for over 100 years by the John Cope company, Cope’s Corn is dried, roasted sweet corn. ( Reconstituted, it has a caramel color and flavor that is unlike anything else. Served either stewed, creamed or in a corn pudding, it was a staple at all of our Thanksgiving meals. Shortly after my husband and I started dating, I brought it to one of his family Thanksgiving celebrations and now his family asks for it, as well.

There were all the usual Thanksgiving trimmings: several kinds stuffing, which the Dutch call “dressing”, including my late grandmother’s chestnut stuffing which my husband now requests each November; sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and the like. And there were cranberries and molded Jell-o salads.

But one dish that was unique to our feast was my aunt’s “hot lettuce” salad. The lettuce isn’t actually hot; it’s simply iceberg lettuce dressed with a warm, creamy sweet and sour bacon dressing.  I've never tried making it. Maybe this year?

Pauline and my grandmother were also known for their creamed pearl onions. This was long before those pearly little gems were available pre-peeled in your grocer’s freezer, so it was no small feat bringing them to the table. It took an hour or more to peel enough onions for a crowd and prepare them for braising and a healthy dose of heavy cream. And on more than one occasion, perhaps because there were too many dishes to serve—or too many whiskey “sahrs” consumed--Pauline made the onions and forgot to serve them. “Oh, goodness, Stummy,” she’d laugh, “I forgot the pearl onions!” It was a testament to her good nature (or good whiskey) that she found this oversight amusing despite all the effort she had put into them.

Dessert is a specialty of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The German settlers in this part of the country have been credited with inventing the two-crust fruit pie as we now know it. (I know this is true because Alton Brown said so.) And while “Shoofly” pie is a tradition among the Amish, it is less popular among the secular inhabitants of the region. However, mincemeat pie is a favorite and was something I always looked forward to at Thanksgiving. My grandmother always made the mince pies—her crusts were legendary—and Pauline did the pumpkin pie. My mother often made mincemeat cake; three layers, a mile high and slathered with cream cheese frosting. I wish I still had the recipe.

My cousin Jeff was in the Slatington High School marching band, and there was always a football game on Thanksgiving day. I remember Jeff coming in an hour before dinner was served, dressed in his band uniform, cheeks rosy from the crisp fall air. After dinner, my cousin Jane and my father sat together playing the old upright piano, while the women cleaned up the dishes (by hand) and the rest of the men fell asleep in front of a football game. The Kerns had cable TV back when it was cooler to have an antenna.

Pauline always sent home a care package of leftover turkey and my grandmother’s yeasty dinner rolls. There was no better sandwich than leftover turkey and real mayonnaise on an “Edna roll.”

It was dark by the time we headed home, mom at the wheel. Bundled up in a blanket in the back seat of our station wagon, my sister and I were usually asleep by the time we reached the old brick church on the outskirts of town…with visions of turkey sandwiches dancing in our heads.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

This Blog

If you're new here, I hope you'll be so kind as to follow my blog. I've been remiss in posting of late, but I promise that will change.

Autumn is always a time of change, and in keeping with that, there are lots of changes in my life, new recipes in my kitchen, new events to train for...and always plenty of sarcasm to go around.

Be sure to scroll down and check out the archive for lots of earlier articles about my favorite topics: food and fitness.

Hope you'll read...and comment.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I used to be a Superhero

For the better part of my adult life, I was "that woman"...the one who earned a pretty nice salary while juggling a demanding career, a marriage, a house and two kids.

It's hard to remember how I managed that. Sure, I have an abundance of energy, I always have. My sister and I were instilled with a strong work ethic by our hard-working, successful parents, particularly our mother. And I am fortunate enough to have a husband who was always willing to chip in with cooking, cleaning and kid duty, particularly when my job called me out of town--which was often.

In addition to my full-time job, I also taught fitness classes a few days a week, and with my daily commute to/from home/work/gym, my schedule was pretty packed. It was sort of a point of pride for me...the ability to juggle all this stuff. It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Supermom! Watch me bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan...then throw a Martha Stewart-worthy dinner party for 10 friends on the weekend with not so much as a hair out of place. I sewed my daughter's first holiday outfit because the ones in the store weren't elegant enough, and my kids rooms had curtains and dust ruffles that I made myself.

I remember my mother-in-law calling me Supermom. I'm pretty sure she didn't intend it to be a compliment, but I chose to take it that way. It would have been a compliment coming from my own mother.

Some days I felt like I should don a cape over my trendy "I'm a cool advertising chick" clothes before I climbed into my car for my morning commute to my kick-ass office. I'd imagine it flapping behind me as I strode confidently into my office, heels clicking. Other days I'd come home, exhausted from a long day of dealing with clients and deadlines, and wonder who was going to make dinner if I couldn't muster the strength. My house was always a mess and I was usually weeks behind on laundry. But I put those short-comings in the "don't sweat the small stuff" category and focused on being as good a mom as I could manage and always feeding my family home-cooked meals.

And although I loved my cape, I secretly envied my friends who had managed to migrate to "work at home" or part-time careers so they could have more time for themselves and their families. And I looked down my nose at the moms who stayed home every day; the trim MILFs who stood at the bus stop in their tennis dresses or gym togs, then spent the rest of the day at the health club, shopping and lunching with their friends. I could never be "one of those women". Indeed, I reveled in the challenges of my demanding life and took great pride in my juggling skills. It made me a Superhero. Those other women were mere mortals in cute yoga pants with their husband's gold cards.

But now I'm almost an empty nester; one is off at college and the other is a 16 year old who probably still needs his mommy but does a really good job of acting the independent teenaged chick magnet. The kids are still demanding, but now they're depleting the dollars in the bank account not the hours in the day.

I'm struggling to start my own business after a heart-breaking layoff last year from a job I loved. So I now have that "flexible schedule" I always wanted when the kids were young...and more time on my hands than I know what to do with. My crazy schedule and lack of free time had forced me to abandon a lot of my hobbies out of necessity, and so I find my "free time" is spent...well, I'm not really sure what I do with it, other than spend too much of it on Facebook.

And my house is really clean.

When I imagined this stage of my life, I always hoped I'd be doing exactly what I'm doing right now; running my own qualitative research consultancy. When business is good, I travel a lot; not something I could do when the kids were little. But I always assumed I'd ease into it; have time to build my client base before being forced to try to get the business off the ground because I had lost my primary income. In a perfect world, I would have planned for this with a little more operating cash to weather the inevitable dry spells that all small businesses experience.

I took over our fourth bedroom and turned it into a beautiful home office. The allure of "working from home" can be powerful. But the reality is I have lost the stimulation of an uber-cool office with pool tables, impromptu Friday afternoon happy hours in Cubeville and daily interaction with 1,000 interesting, young, creative people every day, and replaced it with the quiet companionship of a furry feline and 750 Facebook friends who think I'm swell. That wasn't something I anticipated, and I don't feel all that "super" sitting in my home office in a pair of flats.

My business is going to take off...I can feel it. I'm good at what I do and more importantly, I love what I do. But there's nothing more ego-crushing than a job loss, even when you know it was a purely economic decision. A year later, I'm (mostly) over that part.

But I miss my cool clothes. I miss my heels. I miss all those ridiculously young, painfully cool people I worked with.

Most of all, I miss my cape.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mixed Food Metaphors

Mixed metaphors drive me crazy. "She can't hold a torch to you." and "It's not rocket surgery" are two of my favorites. "She's not the brightest bulb in the shed." You get the idea.

The only thing that makes me crazier is mixed food metaphors, a.k.a. Fusion Cuisine. I'm talking Kimchi Weiner-schnitzel and Tex-Mex Curry and other culinary crimes committed against the American public.

While I applaud that our collective palate has grown adventurous enough to warrant this sort of experimentation on the part of some pretty talented chefs, most of the time it's more "miss" than "hit" when multiple cuisines are mixed, particulary at the hands of an amateur.

So color-me-skeptical at the idea of "edamame hummus."

Edamame is the staple of sushi bars, and is, in fact, the lowly the soy bean. Boiled in salted water, dusted with sea salt and eaten from the shell like peanuts (to which they are a close relative) at sushi bars all over the world. They are the essence of the flavor element "umame" and are healthy litttle green gems, loaded with protein. And they are darn tasty with a saketini. (Then again, isn't everything?)

Hummus is now so ubiquitous it's almost become an American food. Middle-Eastern in origin, hummus is traditionally made with chick peas. A luscious puree of chick peas, tahini (sesame paste), olive oil and lots of fresh lemon juice, hummus graces menus and kitchen tables all over America. And although many liberties are taken with the word "hummus", you can't just puree a bunch of beans and call it hummus. Hummus means chick peas. Anything else is just bean puree.

So I more than a little curious last evening when confronted with a bowl of green puree and a few pita chips as part of an appetizer we ordered at a local "Asian fusion" lounge owned by a prominent group of Chaldean (Catholic Iraqis) restaurateurs.

After scooping up some of this mystery puree on the chips, I eventually abandoned the chips and just went at it with my chopsticks. It was rich and creamy...I knew right away it was some sort of edamame puree. I passed it to my husband. "Edamame," he said. Yup. It was. It was also sublime.

"Oh my God," I said to the waitress, "this stuff is addictive!"

"Oh, I know! The edamame hummus, it's insane, isn't it??"

Ah, edamame hummus. But of course, it made perfect sense. A Japanese fusion restaurant owned by Chaldeans. Well, if anyone could pull that off, I guess they could!

"Does it have chick peas and edamame?" I asked. No, the waitress informed me, just edamame and olive oil and lemon. Hmmm. As I scooped up the last bits from the bowl with my chopsticks and momentarily contemplated licking the bowl, I decided not to argue the semantics of calling it "hummus".

Instead, I immediately googled some recipes and planned my dinner around some of that lovely green puree.

(Recipe to come.)

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Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.