A Brief Bio and A Great Mom and Dad
Very simply, my life’s journey began in central Connecticut in 1950. A baby boomer with, eventually, two brothers and parents who loved us very much and fed us three meals a day all the days that we lived together. Dad taught us to ride bicycles and play baseball and football, Dad and Mom took us car camping throughout New England and taught their three sons to behave well enough to eat in restaurants without causing a scene – most of the time. The life that I was living was, as far as I knew then, the same life that all of us kids were living at that time; school, church, cap guns, marbles, baseball cards, sneakers, skinned knees and cut fingers, “please don’t tell Dad”, flavor straws, every other week I dropped and broke that damned fragile glass lined thermos bottle that was in our metal ‘Davy Crockett’ lunch boxes, orangeade for special parties at school, “I just bought those pants for you and ALREADY you tore a hole in the knee!?!?!?!?”. We all came to know that it wasn’t the same for all of us and, yes, there were dark days too. But throughout it all I didn’t have a thought in the world about cooking – though I did love to eat. As a child I kept hoping that my few extra pounds and bubble butt that had my mother searching through the pants racks in the Husky Boy Clothing Section of Raphael’s Department Store in New Britain was caused by a glandular condition and would go away. I still have that glandular condition, and I’m large boned.
What was it in my upbringing that started the cooking thing? I honestly don’t know. There must have been something there. I know why I started cooking – I had to eat while I was in college, but it’s not that simple (found out about the cooking/sex thing soon after) but survival isn’t enough of a reason to go to the lengths that I do when it comes to cooking. Do I remember anything about growing up in that tiny ranch house with two brothers, Mom and Dad that would set me on the cooking course? Nope. Of course there are a million memories, but what I remember most isn’t about the cooking and food. What I remember most is that Mom and Dad would do anything, make an extraordinary effort, for their children. Not to the point of spoiling us, though some might argue that, but just whatever we needed to “do” things:
The special type of paint for the school project, encouraging us with the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, making sure that we found the right baseball glove and that it fit, Mom didn’t tell Dad every incident that occurred, Dad played catch with us, taught us the rudiments of batting a baseball, had us rake leaves and mow the lawn (though we couldn’t mow it HIS way), they went to our little league games and PTA meetings and Parent Teacher Conferences and they encouraged and praised our efforts – that type of “do”. Thinking back, I would stay awake the nights of the parent/teacher conferences, waiting for my parents to come home. I wanted to be able to run from the house as quickly as possible if the teacher told them about everything I did at school.
The other strong memory is that there were always lots of books in the house: The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Life Magazine, money to buy books at the school book fairs, Weekly Reader, newspapers, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and honest to God real hardbound books that were not condensed. Only a few years ago I purchased a used copy of a book that I signed out at our town library many times, ‘Mystery At Long Barrow House’, by Nancy Faulkner. It was interesting to read it again to get some idea of the child that I was. While this book had little to do with food it was heavy on Christmas, so there is that connection – I love Christmas time.
I don’t remember Mom or Dad reading a lot while we were kids, maybe they did and I missed it; at one point in his life Dad said that he could read the first and last sentence in a book and know the story (maybe he was right), I don’t remember Mom reading much then, but she reads a lot now. They did read to us, taught us to treasure books and instilled the proverbial life long love of reading in all of their sons.
Maybe the most important memory was that we did a lot of things together as a family – a lot of yelling and screaming, but done together. Together things like all of us sitting down at the table for the meal, all of us at the same time, virtually every day. As I write this, I’m seeing shimmerings of the beginning of my wanting to cook for people in the ‘togetherness’ aspect of my childhood. We did go car camping, take Sunday Drives, visit the relatives, go to drive-in movies (as Roman Catholics we were required to see ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘The Robe’) – all of this together as a family – whether we wanted to or not. Was this togetherness all sweetness and light? Of course not, but nothing tabloid horrendous, rip your soul open forever, either.
Paella on the Cape with the addition of Linguica from New Bedford
Chapter – Jean’s Chopped Ham & Pickle And Potato Salad
I usually didn’t stand by Mom’s side as she cooked. She cooked nothing spectacular in the 1950’s, but there are two dishes that are absolutely memorable to me, dishes that I did watch her as she prepared them – her ‘chopped ham and pickle’ and her ‘potato salad’. Mom was THE cook in the house. That’s the way it worked in the 1950’s. I don’t think that Dad knew how to turn the stove on. From Mom all culinary delights flowed. God, I can still taste those two dishes, still see her making them, ‘MOM’S CHOPPED HAM AND PICKLE’ and ‘MOM’S POTATO SALAD’! Those mere words set me salivating. Dishes that I still work to replicate (I’m 99% there on the potato salad). Maybe it’s that question of context. The chopped ham and pickle was made of: ham, veal loaf, pickles, mayonnaise, God knows what else if anything else. Best served on fresh, seeded rye bread. Bonnie had never even heard of ‘veal loaf’ when I first mentioned it. It’s available in central Connecticut, actually many locations, but you have to find the ‘right’ kind of neighborhood to get the best, one of my favorite stores, Illg’s, Chalfont, Pennsylvania, make their own.
Chopped ham and pickle was a staple of my childhood and Mom made it for me while I was in college and continued to make it until the day that she was no longer able to. One of my great childhood memories was THE WAY that mom made it – an old cast iron meat grinder was clamped to the kitchen counter or the table. All the ingredients, no silly not the mayo, were placed in the hopper with a practiced hand and steadily, not quickly, ground together to the perfect consistency – not too mushy – not too firm. The individual ingredients still recognizable in this wonderfully colored, green, pink, reddish mélange. The taste is the taste of Mom’s chopped ham and pickle salad. No one ingredient overwhelms or stands out, they all work together for this meaty-smoky-salty-sweet-sour-creamy taste with a consistency of a good coarse pâté. Despite the fact that Mom served it year round, I shall always associate it with summer winds, blue skies, white clouds and sunshine.
I don’t even remember if I got to turn the crank of the meat grinder, it doesn’t matter whether I did or not, the picture in my mind and the memory of the tastes is satisfaction enough.
I keep trying to replicate Mom’s potato salad and I have not – yet – I’m close. I know potato salad is a very personalized taste. Green peppers or no green peppers, onions or no onions, how much mayo (Please God don’t tell me that you use Miracle Whip. If you’re going to use the spawn of the devil’s concoction Miracle Whip – which is fake mayonnaise with lots of sugar – spread it on your Spam sandwich), hardboiled eggs? Absolutely! Creating this dish didn’t require such accoutrements as the meat grinder. It was a simple, thin aluminum pot to boil the potatoes, another aluminum pot with a black, chipped, Bakelite handle to boil the eggs in, an old white ceramic bowl to mix it in and a wonderful knife with a carbon steel blade that had taken on a black patina from years of use to prep the ingredients. In Mom’s potato salad the potato pieces were small but, still distinct. They created a chunky and creamy wonder. There was the hardboiled eggs, again small pieces, no onions, no green peppers, there was celery, potatoes and the mayonnaise. Again – HEAVEN. The seasonings? As I remember, simply salt and pepper. Creamy potatoes with a wonderful egg sauce.
I consider my childhood absolutely wonderful if for no other reason than the constants that were Mom’s Chopped Ham and Pickle and the Potato Salad.
When Mom dies I want to have a huge oval sign placed above her grave. Not the grave monument of cold, hard lifeless stone, but a brilliant sign with gold gilt letters, a deep forest green background and a bright, shiny, red border proclaiming,
CHOPPED HAM & PICKLE
AND POTATO SALAD
A sign proclaiming that through these dishes, and so many other things, her warmth and love will continue.
Of course, I also consider my childhood to have been absolutely wonderful because one fine day, on the bus to Kindergarten, Sandy and I ducked down behind the seatback in front of us and kissed (yes, at age 5 or so, I know that with today’s PC nuttiness I’d be in jail). I believe that we were caught by the bus driver and reported but I don’t remember the punishment, so it couldn’t have been bad or else the kiss was spectacular. I prefer to think that the kiss was spectacular. A kiss as spectacular as Mom’s chopped ham and pickle and potato salad.
My initial thought regarding the presentation of the dinner diaries in this blog was to do so in the same manner I’ve done in the manuscript; they’d make their appearance at the proper point in time. However, I cooked a nice, for the most part as you’ll see, dinner this weekend in honor of a friends birthday. And so, I’ve decided to present this diary out of its proper place in time. For those of you that know me you can appreciate the struggle that my thoughts waged in presenting this out of order. The dinner diaries are now on the computer rather than being handwritten. If I handwrote them, you wouldn’t be able to read them. By the way, I plan on presenting new postings to The Cooking and Memoirs of a Curmudgeon Chef on a weekly basis. That’s the plan today, we’ll see about tomorrow.
Dinner Diary August 15, 2009
B., A., BB and me
– Green grapes
– Asagio and Fontina cheeses
– Thai curry sauce shrimp cakes on seaweed salad – the shrimp was processed in a food processor until it could be molded into cakes. It was mixed with scallions, green and yellow peppers, salt and Red Thai Curry Sauce. The cakes were then pan sautéed in peanut oil. The seaweed salad was courtesy of one of our neighborhood sushi restaurants, Ota Ya.
– Pan seared dry scallops served over a bacon, corn and tomato cream sauce: The sauce also contained pan sautéed shallots and fresh basil for seasoning. Very easy to make; dice and cook the bacon. When’s it’s done put it on some paper towels to drain, reserve some of the bacon fat in the skillet ad sauté the diced shallots, add the cream, bring just to a boil and turn the heat off. Add corn cut from the cob and chopped tomatoes (drained). Cover and keep warm. Pan sear the scallops in butter. Add the bacon and chopped basil to the corn tomato mix. Plate. Put a scallop atop the sauce and serve.
– Tomato and lime gazpacho: Tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, red onion salt and pepper and enough lime juice so that it has a distinct, but not overwhelming taste of lime. A portion of the mixture was pureed in the blender with a little chicken stock and the diced vegetables were added to this.
– One of Dave’s Slaws: Shredded red cabbage, carrots and Granny Smith apples with walnuts. The dressing was cider vinegar vinaigrette seasoned with smoked paprika and honey.
– Barbequed, bone-in country pork ribs from Ely’s: Ely’s has the best ribs. Dry rub using salt, brown sugar, dry mustard, paprika and smoked paprika. Barbeque sauce from one of Craig Claiborne’s New York Times cookbooks. I kinda cheat with this in that I put the rubbed ribs in a tightly sealed roasting pan with a little beer in it and leave it in the oven at 300° for about an hour and a half to two hours; until the meat can easily be pierced with a fork. Then it’s on the grill with the sauce.
– B. is a dedicated vegetarian and I made him a serving of pasta with a basil pesto sauce.
– Jean’s Potato Salad: One of the classic recipes. Peeled russet potatoes, bacon, onions sautéed in bacon fat and celery. Seasoned with mayo, a little cider vinegar and a little tarragon and mixed with mashed hard-boiled eggs. Honestly, I don’t recall that Jean ever added bacon to her potato salad.
– A Peach Something with Vanilla Ice Cream: Pit and peel the peaches. Sauté them in butter, brown sugar, vanilla flavored rum, a little lemon juice and a dash of salt. Make spoon bread dough and bake it. I thickened the sauce with a little arrowroot.
The Autopsy Report
A belated birthday dinner for A. As to be expected with some of our oldest friends we had a nice evening. Bonnie made the house and table setting quite beautiful. However, I absolutely blew the peach dessert. In an effort to get things done, never enough time, I made the peach filling earlier in the day. When I topped it with the spoon bread dough the filling was room temperature. A. kept saying, “The filling has to be hot”. I should listen more often than I do. The result of the room temperature filling was dough topping that was nicely crusted on top and absolutely raw on its underside. I ended up scraping the spoon bread dough off of the peaches and serving the filling with the ice cream. It wasn’t bad, but it most certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.
Looking at the menu a little more closely I wonder what the shrimp cakes are doing on the menu. The rest of the menu says United States of America Summer; plain old grilled shrimp might have been a better idea.
I had a lot of possibilities for the menu, but when the ribs were selected it had to be slaw and potato salad. A classic summer meal on a hot summer eve.
NEXT WEEK: WATERY TOMATO SAUCE, INEDIBLE SOUP AND THE FAUX COMMUNION WAFER