I’ve found the translation of the manuscript into a blog interesting in several respects. The manuscript is a narrative and chronologically faithful to the Dinner Diaries. I’ve found the blog however to be more immediate and, to some degree, a dialogue. Additionally, it only makes sense to present the Dinner Diaries in a seasonal context which is not necessarily chronological. Regardless, we’ll get to the same place.
Dinner Diary December 25, 1996
Merry Christmas to Everyone! Bonnie and I have had several Christmas Day menus. But since 1996 this menu has become the Christmas Day Dinner for us. Some nice champagne and cheeses beforehand, some shrimp or homemade fried oysters earlier in the day. We love Iron Horse ‘Sparkling Wine’, Brut. Crystal clear, beautiful straw color, lots of flavor, very dry. I was turned on to it in the Robert B. Parker, ‘Spenser’ novels. Actually Spencer’s sidekick, Hawk, was, in his wonderfully understated manner, singing its praises in one of the books. As I, a 5’8” Polish lad, have always seen myself as Hawk, a 6’3” shaved head ebony urban Greek Hero, I couldn’t wait to taste it. As good as it is, it has brought me no closer to being 6’3” nor have I acquired any of Hawk’s other attributes. I will keep drinking it and hoping.
A nice blissful time with just the two of us. It drives both of our families crazy that we don’t spend time with the ‘family’ on Christmas Day. My mom says, “You don’t love us. Why can’t you spend the day with us? Why don’t you join the FAMILY?”
As Bonnie’s parents always thought that I was a bit different, and that this different was rubbing off on Bonnie, they didn’t question our plans. Bonnie and I figure that we are a family, the two of us. Yep, right there, two people – one complete family. Not to mention the fact that my family is a four hour car drive away. Not to mention the fact that we don’t get a lot of days for the two of us to spend time exclusively with each other. Not to mention the fact that we both love, and like, each other and honestly treasure our time together. So, our ‘family’ will be spending Christmas Day with – us – our family.
We’ve had several menus before we hunkered down with a Prime Rib and Yorkshire Pudding and, who knows, I suspect that at some point the menu will change again, though it is nice to have a tradition. The prime rib is a beautiful cut of beef. If your butcher has any competence, it’s actually pretty hard to screw up this cut, all should be well.. Make sure that the beef is worthy; nicely marbled with fat and make sure to get, if the cut doesn’t already have it, a nice caul of fat to put over it as it cooks. I’m like a kid seeing a magic trick with the Yorkshire Pudding. In goes this batter – out comes this ‘pudding’! How cool is that, very light, crispy on the outside and edges, warm chewy yeasty the inside. Like a giant popover. Martha’s recipes for this work very well (MSL = Martha Stewart Living). As I note, get an internal temperature that’s above 117°. Bonnie and I like our beef rare, but we also like it hot/warm also, so we prefer 130°. Serve it all with the roasted vegetables or a salad and a nice big red. After dinner, sit back and watch the new DVD that you got from Santa.
Dinner Diary February 8, 1994
Fruitcakes have gotten a bad rap for eons. If the ACLU were really anything other than a bunch of communists out to bring down America, they would have taken to the defense of fruitcakes long ago.
As you see in my note, the recipe that I used is from the New York Times Magazine, December 1, 1985, by Marion Burros. I obviously saved it, but didn’t get around to trying the recipes until February 8, 1994. I had some other things to take care of first.
These recipes yield remarkable, incredibly good fruitcakes, and I love fruitcakes. I have since found where to buy candied fruit that radiates light like jewels (the Italian Market is one source) and carry the true taste of the original fruit. I have found that this is one of the keys to fruitcake success. Like anything else – the best ingredients. Screw all those fruitcake jokes! While not as ‘light as air’ these are not door stops. They have substance. Above all they have flavor and texture. As with so many dishes, the flavors meld into a taste that is more than the sum of the ingredients.
I make my cakes a minimum of six months before the Christmas season. They are then wrapped in cheesecloth and lightly with plastic wrap. And then! And then! I dose them every couple of weeks with alternating sprinklings of rum, brandy and a good Irish whiskey such as Bushmills. The alcohol evaporates and the flavors of the spirits remain, entering into an incredibly complex dance with the fruit, sugars, flours, eggs and seasonings.
I give these as gifts at the Christmas season. While I ask all, “who really likes fruitcakes?” and many people say, “Yes, I like fruitcake” I can tell the chosen few by the expression on their faces: their eyes get big and bright, they begin to breathe rapidly and a small drop of saliva forms at the corner of their mouth. Those few, they do in fact LOVE fruitcakes, and it’s those folks to whom the prize goes.
From the late 1970’s until the early 1990’s The New York Times ran truly magnificent recipes and dishes in the Sunday Magazine. It’s different now and I’ll write about that in a future posting. As I wrote above the fruitcake recipes are from the December 1, 1985 article by Marion Burros. The article and the recipes follow. As my scanner isn’t large enough to take the New York Times Sunday Magazine page size I’ve had to dismember the pages.
The Culinary World of the In-Laws
Spam and Tak-A-Boost
Bonnie’s mother cooked and by God she cooked and served to her beloved family – Spam. I have tried Spam once or twice. I recall that it left a thick coating of grease in my mouth and throat that was virtually impossible to dissolve. Thankfully, martinis were finally able to dissolve it.
Bonnie recounts, with a mixture of disbelief and longing (much to my horror), the ‘recipes’ that her mother employed in serving Spam. Regression therapy does not appeal to Bonnie. She is not appalled by the fact that she was served Spam. She is a Spam survivor and not afraid to admit that to the public. She remembers the Spam being sliced – ‘fried’ in brown sugar and butter (because of the unknown and unknowable chemical composition of Spam I’m not certain that we can actually call this frying – probably closer akin to what occurs in EPA Superfund Sites) and then these slices were put on a plate (probably paper) and doused with one of those – I WISH I WAS MAPLE – syrups. Sometimes a pineapple slice was placed atop the, the, the, the, ah, ah, ah, – we ain’t callin’ it food – SPAM. WHAT!!!!! No maraschino cherry for this baby???!!!
Being part of Bonnie’s family has opened up many new culinary worlds for me. Her family, on one side, is from southern New Jersey. For those of you who are familiar with all cultural implications of that particular geographic area, and are also familiar with the central Connecticut area that I grew up in, you may imagine the ‘um, how shall I say this – I shall say it outright – culture shock that crashed upon me in regards to the ‘regional cuisine’ that I was introduced to. Know this; I love a tremendously wide range of foods; from sashimi to hotdogs, most foodstuffs between those two poles and many items that perhaps the majority of Americans may pass on eating.
However, nothing ever prepared me for the vin-ordinaire of her clan – Tak-A-Boost (pronounced: Take A Boost). Pronounced, ‘tegaboose’ if you’re from that area. To begin with, her clan didn’t drink alcohol, so I was already flummoxed. Introduce me to Tak-A-Boost they did. Actually I had one sip and it was enough to give me nightmares for a lifetime. I believe that people in southern New Jersey drink this in an attempt to atone for their sins – my opinion (something to do with mother/sister/mother/daughter/mother/daughter – see the movie Chinatown).
This concoction was supposedly invented by a demented (again, my opinion) pharmacist in southern Jersey. It contains caffeine and was, judging from Bonnie’s clan, consumed by folks whose religious precepts frowned on actual coffee (again, my opinion). A demented (again, my opinion) entrepreneur tried to take the drink nationwide several years ago – he failed. The median age of the purchaser of this drink (you can buy it premixed or mix it with water yourself) is approximately the same age as those folks who used to purchase four door Oldsmobile sedans and who are now purchasing nothing as they, and Oldsmobile, have passed on.
So, what does it look like? The color is a mixture of flat cola, old coffee and it has a slight oily sheen. So, what does this taste like? You’ve really got to taste it yourself to experience its Full Monty. But, I remember it tasting like a mixture of prune juice, several days old coffee, flat cola, 4 cups of sugar per serving and a ‘delightful shimmering hint of day old cigarette butts’. Again, my opinion.
Miracle of miracles, it’s still being made so if you’re a truly brave and daring soul…………
Church Basements And Ambrosia
Becoming a member of Bonnie’s family had implications that reached beyond Tak-A Boost. I was introduced to the world of the church basement. Growing up in Connecticut I was familiar with churches, I was required by my parents to go inside them. So I knew from an early age that churches did in fact have basements. I simply had no idea that all of life milestones could occur within their confines.
A Church Basement
Actually, my kindergarten classroom was located in a basement, the basement of the venerable and hallowed Kensington Grammar School. The fact that our classroom was located below grade was greatly appreciated by us lads because our fire escape route was to climb up a short ladder attached to the wall and exit the basement window – ladies first. We had fire drills often, not as often as I’d have liked, but often. Maybe that’s what brought about my kissing Sandy on the school bus. Maybe that explains a lot of things in my life.
Anyway, in Connecticut I attended religion classes and Boy Scout meetings in the church basement. The difference between the Connecticut church basement and the south Jersey church basement was that, in south Jersey, every single event in a person’s life is celebrated in – THE CHURCH BASEMENT.
I mean every event: births (I gotta believe that this happened in some), birthday parties, after the funeral, bridal showers, weddings, wedding anniversary parties, Bar Mitzvahs (just joking – maybe), Christmas parties, baby showers, christenings, Easter luncheons, retirement parties, Rotary Club, women’s auxiliary meetings. I mean, don’t these towns have fire houses just for a little variety?
Invariably at these church basement functions in South Jersey, regardless of the function, I would be confronted with AMBROSIA! Webster defines ambrosia as:
- The food of Greek and Roman Gods.
- The ointment or perfume of the Gods.
- Something extremely pleasing to taste or smell.
- A dessert made of oranges and shredded coconut.
Something, as they say, was lost in translation. If what I have seen on the church basement folding tables covered with plastic table cloths was the food of the Gods then I’m eating better than they are. Ointment of the Gods maybe, certainly not perfume. Extremely pleasant to taste or smell? I would beg to differ. An orange and coconut desert? While one or two or five of the thirty to fifty ambrosias on the tables may have borne a passing reference to orange and coconut the remaining dishes ran a gamut of colors that are not seen in nature. All of them were ’jello-ish’. Some of them had a rainbow sheen to them similar to roadways after the rain. Others had ‘things’ in them. Some identifiable such as mini-marshmallows, which I am told are a big favorite, others had ‘things’ that I find impossible and am too faint of heart to try to describe.
God bless all of you in the church basements celebrating those milestones that are our lives – just don’t make me eat the ambrosia.
Next week: The return to the Dinner Diaries