Feb 24, 2006

Cooking with Nana: The 1950s

(This is another gesture towards a food memoir. I'm trying to figure out what I might say and what my voice will sound like.)

In my basement are six file boxes and three notebooks of my grandmother’s handwritten recipes. Yellowed, tattered, disorganized, repetitive. Yet I search for clues to what her life was, its secrets and revelations. Sometimes I find a favorite dish, like Gingerbread or Country Captain, and the recognition warms me. The rest must be extrapolated.

I’m up to the 1950s now. She and my grandfather (“Papa”) lived in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and he taught at Valley Forge Military Academy. Nana volunteered at the Neighborhood League Shop and socialized with the other faculty wives and Neighborhood Leaguers. She wore white gloves to the city, had a cleaning woman, and in general lived the genteel life of a Main Line lady. That is, a Main Line lady of the 1950s. Her moderate-size four-bedroom colonial, circa 1952, has in the late 1990s been renovated and added onto, enough so that the house is now three times bigger and completely unrecognizable. No doubt it has a huge kitchen that is rarely used for the kind of cooking my grandmother did: braided breads, baked beans from scratch, apple pan dowdy, meat loaf with beef she ground in her own grinder, and salads from Papa’s well-tended garden.

These recipes are contained in a black looseleaf notebook, in no apparent order. Two documents, stuffed inside the notebook with recipes on them, help me date this collection. One is a Christmas letter from the USMA (West Point) Class of 1925 to its individual members, dated 1953-1954. “From the Pentagon to Paree, Korea, Japan and Germany to all points north, south, east and west—wherever Uncle Sam’s best are stationed.” The other is a mimeographed page of recipes headed “Television Kitchen Recipes” by Florence P. Hanford. “Featured Every Wednesday in Color,” asserts the next line. The show could be seen at 2:00 PM on WRCV-TV, or Channel 3. On the side is a jaunty drawing of a cameraman focusing his huge camera on a plated ham, which has hands and legs and a cheerful face. Channel 3 started using those call letters in 1956, and the show’s time was 2:00 from 1958 to 1960. The first recipe on the Television Kitchen page is Sautéed Chicken with Potatoes. It calls for chicken, butter, flour, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, potatoes--fair enough--and then, distressingly, 1 ¼ cups of cranberry juice. In the early days of color TV, taste was easily sacrificed, I suppose.

Nana was also in her fifties, keeping pace with the century. I don’t know if her memory was starting to go, or it she was just taking precautions against recipe loss or destruction, but there are three identical recipes for Texas Hash in this book, two for Lemon Cake Pudding, two for Shrimp Creole and two for French Dressing. Certain ingredients dominate the main dishes, especially crabmeat, oysters, cheese, cream, and sausages. This was company food. The richness also dates the recipes, because Nana had a heart attack late in the decade and became one of the first Americans to follow a strict low-fat diet. I remember her making angel food cake for every single birthday. She disdained cheese, bacon, and rich desserts when I knew her, so it feels strange to read one brownie recipe’s exclamation, “Delicious!” Brownies with frosting. A recipe for five pounds of fudge deservedly ends the collection. Just reading it makes my teeth hurt. Nana must have been in a hurry when she was copying it, because most of the instructions are written in now-dead shorthand. The angel-food-cake Nana I knew would no doubt be pleased that I couldn’t read the code.

Some recipes do sound good, and I’ve flagged them for trying someday, like Pink Party Cake, Mocha Mystery Cake, the Texas Hash, and Chicken Cacciatore. Pink Party Cake includes crushed peppermint candy in the frosting, and Mocha Mystery Cake has a cup of coffee poured over it. Texas Hash must be important or it wouldn’t be written three times. And I remember eating Nana’s Chicken Cacciatore as a child.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the daughter of strict teetotaling parents would take a cocktail or two. Nana’s father and mother, Graham and Grace, would no doubt be shocked to find that she harbored this recipe for Whiskey Sours:

2 cups whiskey
5 to 6 tablespoons sugar
Juice of 8 lemons
Maraschino cherries

Mix first three ingredients, add ice, and shake in cocktail shaker or mason jar. Keep refrigerated to prevent dilution. Put a cherry in each glass. Makes 12 to 14 drinks.

Do you even know 12 to 14 people who drink whiskey sours? Grace and Graham didn’t, and I certainly don’t. I like to think of Nana pouring these drinks for the officers and their wives into her lead crystal lowball glasses, sneaking a sip and an extra cherry in the kitchen. I see her making sure to introduce people and say just the right thing, looking elegant in a pinched-waist silk dress down to her mid calves. She smiles graciously and moves demurely, her auburn hair shining, pearls gleaming. No one knows the hours she spent painstakingly assembling canapés, grinding meat, picking vegetables, and baking in the hot kitchen. In this moment, she is the hostess, cool and fresh. And perfect.

Feb 22, 2006

John Quincy Adams Fan Club

Jack's favorite U.S. president is John Quincy Adams, because he had a pet crocodile. And I like him because I think the middle initial "Q" is the best ever. I have a fondness for Lincoln because he was so gaunt and hollow-eyed and sad, but also for Taft because he was fat. I like Teddy Roosevelt because he was so rowdy people thought he was drunk. And Buchanan because he was a bachelor. And Carter because he lusted in his heart, Ford for falling down a lot, Washington for having wooden teeth, and Millard Fillmore for having a funny name.


Will thinks that if you put the phone down on a picture, and the person on the other end puts the phone up to their eye, that they can see the picture. Guess he is a couple of years ahead of his time.

Feb 19, 2006

Marrow, Real and Metaphorical

Well, I'm finally reading Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell. She's the young woman who decided to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. She blogged about it as she went, and turned it into a book. She was making the publicity rounds in the fall. I saw the book on the "New Books" shelf in my library, and remembered that I wanted to read it.

It's charming, really. I like her voice, personable and real. She lives in what she deprecatingly calls an "outer borough" of New York, in a "loft" apartment, with "loft" always in quotation marks. She makes all this labor-intensive food in a crappy little kitchen. Her husband is very understanding. They drink a lot of vodka and order Domino's bacon and jalapeno pizza if the dishes don't turn out so well.

It is a crazed mission. Yes, crazed is what you must be to murder three lobsters in your own kitchen, saw a bone to get out the pink jelly-like marrow, and engage in untold other carnivorous cruelties with what can only be called at best mediocre or in other cases entirely inadequate kitchenware. And aspic is best left in the dustbin of culinary history, to say nothing of oeufs en gelee, aspic with soft poached eggs chilled in it. If you disdain HOT runny eggs then, yeesh, Domino's it must be. I had an accidental-on-purpose 30 minutes to kill before picking the boys up at school last week, so I read the book in the Seven Stones coffee shop in Media (Fabulous coffee! Real mugs!). It was all just fine until I got to the part about the marrow:

"I clawed the stuff out bit by painful pink bit, until my knife was sunk into the leg bone up past the hilt. It made dreadful scraping noises--I felt like I could feel it in the center of my bones. A passing metaphor to explorers of the deep wilds of Africa does not seem out of place here--there was a definite Heart of Darkness quality to this. How much more interior can you get, after all, than the interior of bones? It's the center of the center of things. If marrow were a geological formation, it would be magma roiling under the earth's mantle. If it were a plant, it would be a delicate moss that grows only in the highest crags of Mount Everest, blooming with tiny white flowers for three days in the Nepalese spring. If it were a memory, it would be your first one, your most painful and repressed one, the one who made you who you are." (p. 75)

I thought to myself, "This girl can write and cook! And why am I sweating so much?" I read on:

"So there I was, scooping out the center of the center of things, thinking mostly that it was some nasty shit. Pink, as I think I've mentioned. Very wet. Not liquid, but not really solid, either--gluey clots of stuff that plopped down onto the cutting board."

I put the book down. Took a sip of coffee, which suddenly tasted awful. Took some deep breaths. I was sure I was going to either faint or vomit. Was I going into some kind of mild shock? I was still a bit weakened from the flu . . . . Would that girl in the corner call 911 if I fainted? Should I alert the staff of the way I was feeling? But I didn't even want to stand up. Thankfully, the feeling passed after I desparately tried to think of all things non-marrow-related for five minutes. I was reminded of the time I read Anthony Bourdain's The Raw and the Cooked while I was in bed with a bad back. You just know that when the words "extreme" and "food" go together, that omelettes and ice cream will give way to embryos and entrails, and not just the eating of them, but their gruesome preparation and, always, the term"delicacy" will be bandied about.

Anyway, marrow aside, Julie & Julia is a great read.

My latest culinary pursuit occurred yesterday, when I cooked Konigsberger Klopse for my Dad's birthday. That's German Meatballs. I used the meatloaf mix with pork, beef, and veal. What I really like is the lemon in them, and chopped anchovies. and little bits of chopped pickle in the gravy. Heh heh. Peculiar but good.

Also Nigella Lawson's Buttermilk Birthday Cake with vanilla frosting. It's from How to Be a Domestic Goddess. A wonderful rich white cake. I decorated it with blue frosting to indicate waves, Jack drew a surfer saying "Yo!" (Those Philly surfers!) and Will drew lava and blue and yellow squiggly somethings. There were seven candles instead of seventy-seven. With my dad's emphysema, he had to take a couple of breaths to blow out even that many. He is going to the Bahamas for five days on Wednesday, hence the water theme of the cake.

Enjoy the sunshine, Dad, live long, and suck the marrow out of life. I mean, it must taste good, right?

Feb 12, 2006


It's been a little over a week, and today I can thankfully say that no one in the house has a fever. Haven't been able to say that since Sat. Feb. 4. We had company that night and over the course of the evening I felt more and more achy and chilled. That night Will also started a fever. His flair for the dramatic is striking. He wanted to sleep with us, and as soon as lay down he started screaming "I'm dying! I'm dying!", and breathing loudly, using his vocal chords. We weren't terribly convinced that he was dying, but were getting pretty alarmed that he was halfway to hysteria. So I cradled him in my arms and saying "Rock-a-bye Baby" to him a couple of dozen times. Each time he got quieter, until he finally fell asleep. Then my 30-minute-project was to slowly sink down to a lying position, and shove him off me without his knowing. Mission accomplished.

Then on Sunday Jack developed a fever that turned into a lung infection. My fever/cold (the third cold in about 7 weeks) caused an asthma flareup, so now I'm on steroids, antibiotics, and new asthma meds. Jack was home all week, and Will was only home on Monday and Tuesday. I was kind of strung out by the time I finally went to the doctor on Friday, because it's hard taking care of even one cooperative child when you yourself are coughing endlessly and feeling extremely fatigued. (A special little extra was when we had to give Will an enema on Tuesday, whee.)

So this post is just to say we made it. And that I never want to see Shrek again. And that if tomorrow is a snow day I shall weep.

Feb 6, 2006

Comments work now

A couple readers told me that the comments didn't work on the Monopoly post. I think the problem was because I had written it in Word instead of using a Blogger draft. So my blog didn't know that the post existed, at some level. So I redid it, and something must have been done differently, because it's working.

So comment away.

Monopoly, a Fable

Once upon a time, in the southeastern part of a commonwealth called Pennsylvania, there lived a brown-eyed boy named Jack. He begged his mother and father for the game Monopoly. Lo, they finally found it for him at Target, and gave it to Jack for Christmas. Not Junior Monopoly, nay. Real Monopoly. The kind where you are supposed to figure out 10% of your net worth because if you don’t, you have to pay $200 in income tax. The kind that taketh hours and hours and hours to play. (Fie, archaic verb endings that sneaketh into this passage!)

Upon unwrapping the package and claiming the small horse-riding figure for his own, young Jack begged whoever was able to join him in a game. Young William, his brother, was able only to throw the money and move everyone’s pieces but his own. Father (racecar) proved more than able and quite willing. Father still had the board memorized from his own youth, and nuances of strategy, and the cost of every property, nay almost every damn detail. He had the habit of saying, for example “That will be $22,” upon Mother’s rolling the dice.” “Shuttest thou up,” she requested. “I want to discover everything myself!” But I digress.

Jack, as Mother and Father soon learned, liketh not to lose. Upon losing, tears would roll down his face and Mother, yea, thought her heart would break. Upon winning, Jack would shout, “Let’s play another game!!” Hence, many a game transpired, upon the kitchen table, the dining room table, the living room rug, and finally on the floor in the new sunroom.

One day, Jack and Mother started a game in the new sunroom. Jack announced, “I’m going to buy Broadway and Park Place.” In due time, he landed on Broadway and the deed was done. Mother, having hast another engagement, enlisted Father to take her place. In a Machiavellian move, Father bought Park Place. Four turns later, Jack began to sob, “I—WANTED—PARK—PLACE!” The crying ensued for, yea, an eternity. Mother, whose heart was making loud rending sounds, rejoined the game. “Will you sell me Park Place?” asked the young Jack, big brown eyes shining and hopeful. “Well . . . I guess so. But for $400!” She felt tough and demanding. Park Place was now Jack’s.

Turn upon turn ensued. In a twinkling, it seemed, he had three houses on Boardwalk and two on Park Place. Sweat broketh out on Mother’s forehead every time her little hat rounded the corner by “Go Straight to Jail.” Soon, she landeth on Boardwalk. She mortgaged her railroads, Marvin Gardens, and Atlantic Avenue in order to pay. Next time around she landeth on Park Place. She beginneth to feel, most viscerally, the error of her ways. She mortgageth all her properties. She selleth all her houses. Upon paying the requisite $1400, there was but $52 in her possession. Saith Father, I can’t believe you sold him Park Place! You should have charged him three times that amount!”

“I give up,” sayeth Mother breezily, “You win.” “No, no! Let’s keep playing.” Mother trieth again, “I’m going to wash the sunroom floor before before we put the furniture in, so we need to put the game away.” “No! Let’s just finish in another room! The game can last longer!”

Desirest thou a moral for this story? I can’t really think of one other than “If thou shouldst sell thy son Park Place for a song, he shall whip thine ass.”