Deccanheffalump from thecookscottage tagged me for this meme a week or so ago, and I have been slow in posting, because I wanted to think about it a little bit. But, after a lot of thought, I have come up with five interesting, informative and entertaining (hopefully) childhood food memories to share with y’all. They are in no particular order–I thought of ordering them by age and such, but because I cannot remember some of the ages, I decided just to let them flow like water in a stream of consciousness sort of way.
Lamb: My Dad’s mother, whom most of the grandkids called “Gram,” (except for the ones who called her Hoohoo–but that is another story) taught me how to cook a leg of lamb. It was her holiday dish, her specialty, that we had once, maybe twice a year. She would order the leg special from Pearl Damus at Damus’ Market–a tiny neighborhood grocery store that Gram shopped at for about forty years. Gram always said that Pearl got the best meat, especially lamb, and she trusted Pearl and George, her brother, to get excellent lamb because they, being Lebanese, ate a great deal of it themselves. So, they knew what to look for.
The process of cooking the lamb started the night before we were to eat. She would take the leg out of the refrigerator, and unwrap it from the heavy butcher’s paper, and then would wash it gently. She’d set it on a rack over a baking pan to drip, then would pat it dry with a cotton towel. She didn’t like to use paper towels, because she said they smelled funny. As she washed and dried the leg, she would examine it all over with her eyes and hands; her long, narrow fingers would probe and smooth the flesh in circular patterns.
After it was dry, she would take up the sharp carbon steel butcher’s knife, its blade sharpened to a mere sliver of its former length and width, the steel blackened by age and use, and she would trim the silverskin and some of the fat from the leg. She was very careful in her trimming; the knife would skim over the meat in delicate strokes, and only shreds of fat and connective tissue would fall from its blade. Her hand was so practiced, she never wasted a single ounce of precious dark pink flesh.
My hands were busy with peeling fresh garlic cloves; garlic was a precious commodity, seldom used in the kitchens of my childhood, so my blunt chubby fingers picked at its papery skin carefully, not wanting to waste a single sliver of its deliciously scented mystery. An array of small jars and bottles stood like soldiers over the red formica tabletop, waiting for Gram to marshall them to her purpose.
“Lamb can be made beautifully,” Gram would intone, her cracked voice going smooth as she spoke in rhythym with the movement of her hands. “Or, it can be turned into the worst meat you have ever eaten.” The knife was laid down on the tabletop, the worn wooden handle clicking with finality. Scooping up the trimmings, she saved the morsels of fat for her dog, sealing them in an old margerine tub from my mother’s house. Into the refrigerator they would go, and to the sink went Gram, to wash her hands.
Drying them on a faded dishtowel, she took up the knife again, and said, “You have to be careful with it, and not cook it too much; if the meat goes all brown, you cooked it too long, and it will be tough and gamey. It has to be pink inside.”
Laying her left hand on the leg to steady it, her right hand brought up the knife like a dagger, and quick as a fish, the thin blade darted into the flesh, making a series of shallow and deep punctures at regular intervals in the flesh. “If you just put the garlic on the outside of the meat,” she instructed,” the flavor won’t get inside and make the meat sweet. Besides,” she paused and looked at me, her hazel eyes dancing, “if you leave the garlic on the outside, it will burn, and burnt garlic is right nasty.”
She’d keep stabbing the meat, turning the leg over as she needed, until it was riddled with small punctures of varying depths. Then, her attention would turn to the peeled, pearly garlic cloves, and she would smile as she sliced them into paper-thin slivers. “There’s no need to hurry,” she said. “If you hurry, you take the pleasure out and cut yourself and make awful messes. Start the process in enough time, and work at your own pace. You cut that last clove, and mind–make them thin–if they are this thin, they dissolve as the meat roasts and mix in with the juices of the roast and make everything good.”
My little knife flashed as I carefully, under Gram’s sharp gaze, tried to cut garlic slivers thin enough to see through, like Gram’s. Mine never were that thin,, but she’d smile, showing her gapped front teeth and say, “That’s good. You’re getting better. Now–here’s where those little fingers will come in right handy–we need to tuck a sliver or two in each little slit in the meat, like tucking in a doll goodnight.”
Gram, of course, was right–my little fingers were better than her big ones at getting the garlic into the slits in the meat–especially the ones she cut deep. She finally stopped working at that task and pulled a punchcup out of the cupboard, and lined up her little bottles of herbs and spices .
“Now, listen, while I tell you which herbs to use,” she said, as I went on with my tucking and poking, my fingers slippery with lamb fat and garlic juice. “Marjoram, just about a teaspoon, rosemary, the same, but you have to crumble it–here–smell it. Isn’t it nice?” She’d waft the open jar of rosemary under my nose and laugh when I sniffed and nearly sneezed. “Strong, isn’t it?” she’d say when I nodded.
“Thyme is my favorite,” she said, as she put about three teaspoons of it into the cup, crushing the leaves lightly between her fingertips and thumb. “It really brings out the best in lamb, even more than it does for beef.” She opened up a new jar of cracked black pepper, and dumped a liberal two teaspoons into the cup, and said, “Now, that is my secret. Plain black pepper tastes like dust compared to this–never be afraid to use plenty of pepper. It marries with other flavors and awakens your tastebuds. “
She opened up some paprika, and poured in about four tablespoons. “Paprika is more for color than flavor,” she’d mention, as she sprinkled the brick red spice over the herbs and pepper.
Then, she poured about a teaspoon and a half of kosher salt from its red and white box into her palm, and held it out to me to examine. “This is the best salt to cook with. Morton’s is fine for the table, but for cooking, kosher salt is best.”
“Grandma makes pickles with it, “I volunteered.
Gram nodded. “I bet she brines her bacon and hams in it, too, though the irony of that is interesting.” I didn’t really understand what she meant, but I was too busy watching her mix the herbs and spices in that little cut-glass punchcup to worry too much about it .
“Now,” she said, “We rub these onto the meat. When it goes in the oven, all of this will dry out, and make a brown, crisp crust.”
So, we’d scoop out the salt, spices and herbs, and rub and massage it over the meat. Gram always took a lot of time doing this step; she said it was crucial to get a little bit of the rubbed stuff down in all the slits and crevices we’d made, so it would flavor the inside of the meat, too, not just the outside.
Then she’d set the rack with the leg on it into her big black and white speckled roasting pan, cover it with the lid and set the whole thing into the bottom shelf of the refrigerator (unless it was wintertime, in which case, she would put it in the enclosed back porch) and let it sit to “settle” as she called it overnight.
The next day, she would roast it in a hot oven, basting it with the juices and a little bit of wine and melted butter. She’d take it from the oven and let it sit while she made the richest deep mahogany gravy from the drippings, along with some thinly sliced onions and some cream, flour and water. It was delightful, especially over her creamy mashed red potatoes. When it was time to slice the meat, Pappa would carve it, and it would fall away from the bone, perfectly done: the outside crackling crisp and flaky with herbs, the immediate interior a pale brown, and the very middle, near the bone, pink and sweet.
The flavor was incomparable.
To this day, although I make delicious lamb roasts, and I do it mostly like she did, mine never tastes like hers. Probably, because I cook it more rare, and use olive oil instead of butter for basting.
I think that part of what made her lamb so special is because we only ate it once or so a year, and the process of making it was such a ritualistic process that it lent the entire meal an air of festivity that colored the flavor of the food in our memories.
Saurkraut: For all that my Dad’s family were Bavarian, not many of them ate or liked saurkraut. I grew up with a taste for it, though, because Mom’s parents made it at home, and thiers tasted fresh and wonderful. The stuff we used to buy in cans had a harsh metallic taste that I could never abide, but when it came fresh from the crocks in Grandma’s basement or from one of her canning jars, it was mild, with a complex, almost floral flavor that I have never tasted again.
I used to help “put up” the saurkraut, which was an all-day affair, involving many hands, what seemed like mountains of fresh cabbages a pair of huge salt-glazed pottery crocks that must have weighed over thirty pounds each while empty, a bag of kosher salt and a battery of odd-looking and somewhat lethal tools.
We always started in September or early October, as I recall, and the first step, was the harvesting of the row upon row of cabbages. Grandpa excelled at growing massive heads of cabbage–giant heads that were larger in circumference than my own, cupped in deep green outer leaves that I once tried to taste, and found to be bitter. It was my job to run each head, back to the bushels at the end of the rows. Grandma, Uncle John, Grandpa and Mom each wielded a wicked looking machete which they used to hack the heads from the stalks with a solid thwack. Into my hands the head would go, still cradled in the outer leaves, and off I would dart, toward the big baskets, stripping leaves as I went.
Into the keeper bushel went the cabbages, with a satisfying whump, and into the other bushel went the outer leaves. When that basket filled, which it did quickly, I would heave it up and run off to the chicken coop, where I would scatter the leaves, then pause to watch the chickens descend upon them as if we hadn’t fed them in months. Those hens loved greens and would fight over the choicest bits or on a beetle that was found harbored beneath a pecked leaf.
Then, back I would go to pick up the piles of cabbage heads the cutters had left for me, and I would work fast to catch up, sweat beading on my arms and pouring down my back. The red clay dust would cling to my skin and get under my nails, then mix with the sweat and stain me so that my pale arms and face would streak with cedar-colored stain. Grandma and Mom would laugh at me and call me a redskin and say that finally, thier Indian blood was “showing” on me.
By then, the bushel of outer leaves would be full and it would be time for me to run it to the pasture where the cows placidly chewed grass and clover. They, too, loved cabbage, and would come running when they got a whiff of the sulfurous odor of it on the breeze.
I liked to feed them by hand, and pet their broad white muzzles while they chewed, thier huge molars grinding the tough, bitter leaves with a slow, determined rythym. They smelled good to me–of sun and soil, animal sweat and green grass, and they liked it when I scratched at their deep red necks and flanks, which would twitch under my fingers, as their ears flicked at flies and sweat bees.
After the heads were cut, we’d haul the baskets down to the basement, and the welcome cool darkness would enfold us. The sweat would dry, and we’d actually shiver, so cool it was kept, insulated by thick concrete block walls and poured concrete floor. Grandma would cut the heads in half, and Mom would fill the sink with cold water, and she’d salt it slightly, as we tossed the halved heads in to soak. The salt would draw out any worms or bugs hiding in the cabbage, and they’d float to the top, where I would skim them from the top, collect them in a cup and when we were done, I’d run them to the chickens who would have already had thier appetizer of cabbage leaves and would be waiting impatiently for their main course.
When I got back, Grandpa and Mom would be shaving the cabbage into whisper-thin slices on the kraut cutters that Grandpa had made–they looked like the fancy mandolines chefs use, but were made of wood with carbon steel blades he had made from an old broken tiller. The blades were wicked-looking things–the angled shape made them look like guillotine blades and the time-darkened steel looked ominously as if it were blood stained. It didn’t help that he had them honed to so sharp an edge, I wasn’t even allowed near the things; just looking at them made me shudder.
Mom and Grandpa used them blade guards that he had also made–blocks of wood with nails stuck through them. The nails would dig into the cabbage head, and they could hold the blocks of wood and thus run the cabbage up and down over the blade. The cutters were set up on cinderblock risers, so that a pile of icy-white cabbage would flutter down like snow, for me to gather in big enamelled basins, which I would carry to the crocks.
Grandma and Uncle John had the tampers–big, heavy oak pestles that Grandpa had turned on his lathe–they were slenderer at the top, then flared wide at the bottom, and each weighed close to five or six pounds. Along the length of the pestles, he had turned pretty shapes, embellishing a tool that was used at most, twice a year, because to Grandpa’s mind, just because something was functional didn’t mean it had to be ugly.
They held the tampers at the ready, hovering near the crocks, and I’d pour the basins of cabbage in, a little at a time. At Grandma’s direction, I’d dip into the kosher salt bag with a teacup, and sprinkle the proper amount over the cabbage, then layer more cabbage and more salt, ending with salt.
Then, when I went to gather more shredded cabbage, she and Uncle John would set to pounding it down with the tampers. Even in the cool of the basement, they’d work up a sweat, and pretty soon, Mom would take over the tamping, and Grandpa would shred alone, and Grandma would go upstairs to finish cooking supper, while I ran back and forth with snowy piles of cabbage in those basins, and sprinkle salt. Mom would tease her younger brother, John, if he got winded or complained of a sore back, and she would raise her tamper higher and pound harder, to urge him on to greater efforts.
On and on it would go, until supper was ready and we’d stop and eat, and then back we’d come to finish.
The last hour would seem to go on forever, as the crocks slowly filled with shredded, crushed cabbage and salt, layer after layer, ounce by ounce.
Finally, the last shred was in and Grandma would salt it one more time, then in each crock, she would do the final pounding, because she didn’t trust either Mom or Uncle John to pack it as tightly as she said it had to be. Mom would pull out the sterilized plates–big round stoneware platters that fit just perfectly inside the cirumference of the crock opening. She’d lay these on top of the cabbage, then press down with all of her weight, while John would heft up a cloth-wrapped clean cinderblock, which we used to weigh the plate down, making a good seal.
“Where’s the vinegar?” I had asked the first time I helped make kraut.
Grandma laughed. “There’s no vinegar in it,” she said. “We aren’t making pickles.”
“Then what makes it sour?” I asked, confused, as I looked over at the untouched gallons of cider vinegar stashed nearbye.
Grandma smiled and said, “Magic.”
Grandpa snorted and shook his head. “Don’t fill her head with nonsense, Dean–tell her the truth.” He knelt down next to me and said, “It ferments. There’s little microbes in the air down here that get in there and they start to eat the sugars in the cabbage and turns them sour. The salt keeps the bad microbes from growing in the crocks and the good ones turn the cabbage into kraut if you leave them alone and don’t stick your fingers in or blow your nose on it or something dirty like that.”
Microbes seemed as improbable as magic to me, but then, the first time I was really little. Now, of course, I know that it is a lactic acid fermentation that makes saurkraut, and that there is nothing particularly mystical about it at all, but tell that to a small child.
After that, we cleaned everything up, resterilized the cutters and put them away, along with the basins, the tampers and the machetes. We’d be tired–kraut making is tiring work, especially if you aim to have a hundred or so pounds of it when you are done.
After that, we’d wait while the magic or the microbes or whatever did its work. Every weekend, when we’d visit, I’d go down to the basement with Grandma to check the kraut. She’d lift off the block, then pry up the plate and beneath it, there would be bubbling and fizzing and wonderful smells forming as the fermentation went about its business.
After it was done, Grandma would have us back and we’d can some of it and leave some in a smaller crock. Canning it changed the flavor somewhat, but Grandpa didn’t like to keep it stored all winter in the crocks–he had seen a few batches of kraut stored that way go bad and stink up the house and make people sick, so we’d only eat a bit of it “fresh” after transferring it to a much smaller crock. The rest we’d put up in jars, to eat all through the fall, winter and spring, while we waited for the first fresh vegetables of the season: radishes, peas and lettuces.
The flavor of the kraut, which Grandma would cook with pig’s knuckles and knackwurst that they’d buy from a German farmer down the road, was phenominal. Grandpa put his over mashed potatoes, but I ate mine separately, with bread and butter, and boiled potatoes on the side. It was delicious, very complex, not just sour, but with a greenish, somewhat herbal or flowery flavor that was surprising. It almost tasted like spring in a way, even though the snow was blowing and the sky was grey.
Noodles: Gram taught my Mom how to make homemade noodles.
She learned from her mother-in-law, Grandma Fisher, whose mother brought the recipe from Bavaria.
I learned to make them from my mother, though I cheat and use my Atlas hand-cranked pasta roller to roll and cut them out instead of doing it all by hand.
Which is cheating, I suppose.
But it was my favorite dinner of all in my childhood, and still holds a special place in my heart.
They start with plain all purpose flour, eggs and water. Nothing else.
Mom made a pile with the flour, like a hill, and then would make a well in the center, into which she would drop the eggs, one by one. Then, a drizzle of water into the egg volcano, and she would start stirring with a fork, down in the crater. The dough would start to form as the egg yolks broke and stirred thickly into the flour. She’d stir faster and harder, and the dough would come together as a stiff mass with ragged, crumbling edges.
Then, she’d flour her hands, and start kneading it into a smooth, elastic pale yellow dough with quick movements of her small hands. She wouldn’t knead too much–the Bavarian noodles were supposed to be tender and soft, then she would tip a bowl over the dough and leave it to relax for a while–about a half an hour or so. She used to tell me that the dough had to nap, and would tell me to go be like the dough, so I would curl up under a laundry basket and try and sleep, while she drank a cup of coffee, had a cigarrette and went back to whichever Stephen King novel she was reading that day.
After it had rested, I had napped and she had smoked, she’d clear off the aquamarine-colored formica counter, wipe it down, let it dry and then sprinkle it well with flour. Then, taking up her rolling pin, she would cut the dough into pieces and start rolling it out, thinner and thinner, leaning hard into the task as she put most of her weight into it. I’d beg to help, and she would let me stand on a chair in front of her and put my hands over hers and we’d roll together, but she told me the dough was too hard for me to roll alone. We’d roll out about four or five balls of dough, one after another, down the long blue counter, like an assembly line with only two workers.
Then, she’d move the chair to the side, so I could climb up and watch as she used the old butcher knife from the long closed Fisher and Fruth slaughterhouse, and cut long, 1/2 inch strips of noodle dough out of each rolled out piece. These she cut crosswise into strips about three inches long, and then sprinkled flour over them lightly, and left them to dry. She’d go on down the line, cutting and sprinkling, and I’d watch the noodles start to curl as they air dried in place.
What a mess the entire process made! And how time consuming.
Meanwhile–while the noodles dried, Mom would put on a whole chicken to stew, along with some onions sliced up, some dried sage and thyme, salt and pepper. She’d bring it to a boil, skim the foamy bits and then cover it and let it simmer the rest of the day, while the noodles darkened slightly and curled up into brittle bits that looked somewhat like the pale shavings of wood my Grandpa made when he carved white oak on his lathe.
After the chicken meat had cooked up pink and was falling from the bone, and smelled like heaven distilled into a pot, she’d fish it out, let it cool, pull the meat from the bones and cut it bite-sized, then put it back in the pot. Celery and carrots went int then, and sometimes, if she felt extra rich, a jar of sliced mushrooms.
When Dad was home from work, she’d throw in the noodles, at last. I’d gather them up for her, shaking off the excess flour and putting them in a bowl, and she’d cook them up, then thicken the broth with a little flour and water. Salt and pepper went in, and maybe just a pinch more sage, and she’d mash the potatoes with margerine and milk, using her hand mixer to make them light and fluffy.
We’d spoon up great mounds of potatoes onto our plates, and make wells. Into the wells went ladlesful of chicken, noodles, and broth. On the side we usually had some of Grandma’s frozen corn and peas, both seasoned with margarine, and then, we’d eat until we felt like we’d burst.
That was my birthday dinner for every birthday from age one to age fourteen, I think. Soon after that, Mom quit making the noodles, because she said they were too much trouble.
I was glad to find out that my Aunt Judy still makes them, so at least I am not the only one in the family who makes them now and again. I would hate for Grandma Fisher’s noodles to cease to exist.
Chocolate Mousse: Aunt Judy made the first taste of French cooking I ever had.
She lived with her Siamese cat, Bingo, in a carriage house in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in Journalism at Peabody University. She was very much my role model; to my eyes, she was worldly, glamorous and beautiful, and she always had tales of adventure and romance to tell us all when she drove up to visit us in Richard, her lion-hearted cream-colored 1962 Volkswagon Beetle. She was creative, and always dabbling in the arts–painting, sculpture and calligraphy, doll-making, petit-pointe and music were all things she could do as easily as most people breathed, and she loved to cook and eat, and she was constantly wanting to try out new and interesting foods.
So, it should come as no surprise, that on one visit to West Virginia, she packed up not only Bingo, her suitcase, and walking shoes, but a dufflebag full of odd-looking kitchen equipment, some strange ingredients, and a two-volume set of a cookbook: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
And so, she arrived, and on the third day of her visit, resolved that she was going to make us supper, in the French fashion, and was going to wow us with something called chocolate mousse, for which she had brought some special chocolate that had come all the way from France at a price she could barely afford on her single working student’s budget.
Ah, but she would not be stopped, nor deterred, nor disuaded. Off to the market and the grocery stores she swept, with me in tow, and we drove all about town, picking up this and that and the other thing, and coming home with a veritable mountain of purchases piled precariously in Richard’s back seat. A feast were going to have, and a feast she was going to make.
So, she did. There was chopping, there was mincing, there was grinding, and whipping and grating, and she whirled like a dervish in Gram’s tiny, green-painted kitchen. Her long chestnut hair done up in a scarf to keep it out of the way, she moved from stove to table to stove and back again, as she simmered, poached and roasted the main courses. The scents were incredible, and the steamy kitchen grew hotter and hotter, but I was not about to quit the premises. My eyes were filled with too many interesting sights to leave.
The books were marked and dogeared and scribbled upon in Aunt Judy’s spidery handwriting that is so full of whorls and curliques that looked rather like a language other than English. I didn’t get a chance to read much of them over her shoulder, until she opened to the recipe for the mousse, a page that was littered with chocolate brown fingerprints and smudges.
“Oh, yes,” she muttered to herself, as she plopped another pan into the teetering stack in the sink. Gram hovered in the corner, watching shrewdly. “Jude,” she finally said, “I do believe you have dirtied every pot in this kitchen.”
“I’ll wash them directly, Mamma, don’t you worry, I just have to make the mousse, then I will be right on it.”
That was my cue to hop down and do the dishes, but I wasn’t moving until I saw what a chocolate moose looked like. I had it in my small-child’s mind that she was going to mold large forest ungulates out of chocolate, and while I had eaten many chocolate rabbits in my time, and more chocolate eggs than I could count, a chocolate moose had never been on my menu before.
Well, I was surprised to find out that a mousse is not a moose, and is in fact rather like a pudding, even if it is spelled like mouse and pronounced like moose.
At first, I was disappointed, and dejectedly, went off to help Gram with the dishes, trying to hide my sorrow at not being able to eat a moose for dessert.
That lasted until Aunt Judy served the mousse after a long, fine, meal full of rich textures and wonderful flavors that had never struck my imagination until that evening.
She set before me a little punchcup full of chilled mousse, and one of Gram’s nice silver spoons, polished for the momentous dinner.
I remember scooping my first bite out rather hastily, as I was still a bit stung at not having a moose, and thinking that the French must all be mad to think that a mousse is pronounced moose, not mouse.
As soon as I popped it into my mouth, my doubts and sorrows, distain and haughtiness melted away, along with the chocolate on my tongue.
It was a cloud–a cloud made of chocolate–a Willy Wonka dream of a dessert. It was fabulous, fantastic, and beautiful beyond my understanding, and all I could do was close my eyes and wiggle in place out of joy and rapture. “Mmmmmousse,” I said, smacking my lips.
I opened my eyes to see Aunt Judy grinning at me, her smile knowing.
Pappa scraped his punchcup clean and declared, “Well, that was an awful lot of trouble for some chocolate pudding, but I reckon it was worth it.”
I just licked my spoon, dove into the cup again and smiled at Aunt Judy, and said, “Mmmmousse.”
She nodded in understanding and winked as she took another shiver-inducing bite of mousse.
Thus concludes my Childhood Food Memories. I know I am supposed to come up with five of them, but these were so long, I stopped at four. As it is, I fear that I am going to bore everyone to death with these. If you made it this far, you deserve a cookie.
If you are tagged, here’s what you do: Remove the blog at #1 from the following list and bump every one up one place; add your blog’s name in the #5 spot; link to each of the other blogs for the desired cross-pollination effect.
Next: select new friends to tag and add to the pollen count.
Then create a post listing your own five food memories.
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