Most of the upper garden was reserved for sweet corn. In spring, we helped Dad plant, dropping the bright pink kernels into the dark dirt. By August, stalks reached high over our heads, taller even than Dad, and if you walked into the narrow paths the leaves would close around you with a dry whisper.
The Rule: water should be boiling before Dad picked any ears. Then we’d run the basket down to the kitchen, where Mom waited, ready to peel back the husks and brush all the silk away. In a good year, there were few corn worms; in a bad one, Mom’s knife cut easily through the cobs.
When enough of the crop was ready, Mom and Dad froze corn. Other vegetables, like green beans, were canned, but Mom loved the fresher taste of frozen corn. We picked, cleaned, blanched, cut, and packaged load after load. Blanched corn is still crisp, and there’s something green in its taste. But sweet, oh so sweet.
I have a farmer. My feelings toward Tina and her farm are territorial. Mine. Tina and Randy raise beefalo, sturdy TAM-ROC pigs, and free-range chickens. If I’m lucky, I find a reason to drive by their farm (which is two hours away) to buy beautiful eggs. Rich, buttery – a steal at $2.50/dozen. They are mine.
There should never be moderation with strawberries, just as there should never be strawberries shipped from California to Pennsylvania. Strawberries should be picked under a clear sky, knees aching a little from crawling around, low leaves lifted to find the monstrous beauties hiding in the shadows. A buzz of bees. What you taste, doesn’t count.
Growing up in southwestern New York, I was the youngest of three daughters. We Hannigan girls learned about the three sisters crops of the Iroquois: corn, climbing beans, and winter squash. Fair-haired, blue-eyed Cheri was maize. Cindy, with her beautiful hands and stubbornness, was a green bean. And that left late-ripening butternut squash for me.
My family was solidly working class, from a rare time in history when that meant we had enough. Enough food, enough room, enough money to put a little aside if my Mother economized. Her beef stew was a staple, a vegetable-rich, brothy wonder, scented with bay, parsley, and thyme. Today it simmers on my stove.
The Village Hotel clung to the edge of the highland overlooking mangroves and the lagoon. Expats loved the view and the locally sourced cuisine. I sat with Carol one morning in the open dining room, breakfast over, our coffee cups cold. This was good for the gecko who dropped in. (Reminder: thatched roofs are habitats.)
A pro argument for the existence of Spam, the “canned cooked meat:”
If the Spam is sliced very thin, and cooked in a skillet until crispy;
If you toast an English muffin, and cook a good egg until the yolk is just beginning to set;
If the cheese is not Velveeta;
Spam almost beats bacon.
NOTE: My Dad, who would have been 93 yesterday, adored Spam in any form, including thick, somewhat gelatinous, uncooked slices with yellow mustard on spongy white bread. A child of the Depression, he was fond of all sorts of processed meats: potted ham, deviled ham, head cheese, dried beef, ring bologna, Vienna sausages – you name it, if a product had a long shelf-life, the man loved it.
The invaders left their foods behind. The German missionaries left potatoes. The Japanese forced the islanders to grow rice to make sushi. The Americans introduced a diet of canned mackerel and ham, as well as Budweiser. Because of this, when I ordered sushi in Pohnpei, lovely rolls arrived, perfectly formed around tiny cubes of Spam.
A sunny, pan-Mediterranean menu seemed a safe bet for a graduation party in July. Mint and oregano snipped from the side garden, crisp cucumbers and tomatoes from the farm stand. Then the skies over Pennsylvania opened, torrents of rain soaked paper lanterns, and Rich and Stan grilled souvlaki and spicy beef patties under golf umbrellas.
My cookbooks lie. I haven’t traveled widely; I’ve purchased well. Perhaps because of this, I’m not truly beholden to the people of a culture, so I pick dishes up from disparate places and swap them willy-nilly. My favorite Greek tzatziki sauce is Armenian jajoukh. My only modification: roast the garlic, and never measure the herbs!
Recipe from: Sundays At Moosewood Restaurant, by the Moosewood Collective, Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York, NY 1990.
Mr. Bianco repaired shoes for a living in Wellsville, but more importantly, he owned the popcorn cart. He served his popcorn in red-and-white striped cardboard boxes. First he scooped some fresh popcorn in, then a ladle of real butter, then more popcorn, more butter, and a hefty shake of salt. Children dreamed of his popcorn.
I haven’t stood on a street in Vietnam or Thailand, but I will take Madhur Jaffrey’s word that versions of our favorite green bean dish can be throughout the region, and often from street vendors. The recipe, deceptively simple, taught my boys to love beans. Loads of garlic, chilis, ground pork, fish sauce, beans – delicious.
Recipe from: Far Eastern Cookery, by Madhur Jaffrey, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, NY 1989.
El Bravo employs a magic woman in the kitchen. Perhaps she is someone’s grandmother, whose strong brown fingers trick the flour dough to become tortillas so thin that light passes through. And the tamales! Masa blended with fresh corn, encasing a blaze of pork and chili, steamed in green leaves. She is a magic woman.
Peanut sauce should be enjoyed with abandon. That’s the children’s rule for eating Thai food. Long before they appreciate the complex curries and salads, children love the peanut sauce. Unfortunately restaurants serve it in itty-bitty portions. So I learned to make it at home, in quantity. When the satays run out, spread it on toast.
Recipe from True Thai, by Victor Sodsook, with Theresa Volpe Laursen and Byron Laursen, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1995.
NOTE: Mr. Sodsook’s recipes are built around homemade curry pastes, so if you want to use the store bought, cut the amount in half. You have been warned.
The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company’s cheese counter was ruled by a wizened man with thick glasses and three hairs combed over his mostly bald head. If a customer hesitated he’d yell “You don’t know what you want?!” One day he stepped in front of the counter, and I saw that her apron covered a flowered housedress.
Outside Prestogeorge’s shop sat a big peanut roaster; you could smell it a block away. Long before Starbucks changed our dialog about coffee, Prestogeorge roasted fine beans from every coffee-growing region on the planet. I loved the Ethiopian Yirgachefe beans, so tiny and perfect. But why the peanut roaster, when coffee smells so much better?
You can eat sushi at Andy’s, dance at Cavo, and rent upscale lofts at The Cork Factory – all within The Strip’s borders. But in the late ‘80s, things were scruffier. Early Monday mornings, the produce markets dumped the past prime vegetables and fruits out on big tables, where Polish bushas sorted through cabbage heads, 10/$1.00.
The original Primanti Brothers shop, on the corner of 18th and Mulberry, once fed hungry truck drivers and dock workers coming off the graveyard shift. Men would shout out orders, passing money over one another; huge sandwiches topped with coleslaw and fries were wrapped in butcher paper, and hurled over the crowd to waiting hands.
Beets taste like damp earth. I am not fooled by their beautiful color, leaching through the rings of flesh to a solid core. If you cut them, do they not bleed? These are not simple radish kin, though you could think that from photographs. No. Beets defeat me. Even the smell sickens. Take them away.
The Beef’n’Barrel seems preserved in amber: the floral wall paper, the stained glass, the captain’s chairs (they remind me that, yes, my butt is getting a bit too wide). Behind the glass, a stout man carves sheets of rare meat from a steamship round. Order the Beef on Kimmelwick Special; be brave with the horseradish!
NOTE: If you are wondering what a beef on weck is, the beef is self-explanatory, and the kimmelwick is a soft, eggy, very slightly-sweet roll, crusted with caraway seed and coarse salt. This sandwich is always served with a wee vat of hot horseradish on the table. There are many awful versions, produced in bars all over upstate New York. The best examples require a kitchen with serious beef skills, which this family restaurant has in excess. (If you have room for dessert, they have a crispy cream puff shell, filled with homemade vanilla ice cream, and topped with lovely, slightly grainy chocolate sauce. No, this isn’t a restaurant for healthy eating!)
We’re economical and the hotel room has a microwave. We consider options at the Market Basket. He wants pasta; I want chowder. It’s almost Boston; chowder’s practically required. The container says “microwave safe”, so I plop it into the machine, and hit one minute. The sides collapse when I pick it up; my hand screams.
I return to see the boy. A gorgeous, hot blue day at Boston’s harbor. Harborfest is in full swing with dogs and children playing everywhere. The salt breeze off the water makes my heart glad…and hungry. There’s a chowder competition – free tastings from four restaurants. We joke, but my fingers hold the spoon so carefully.
Duncan orders the seafood chowder, and I beg a taste. We’re talking, laughing, and I don’t cool the spoon with my breath. Instead the hot chowder hits my tongue full steam, and I scrabble for the water glass. Through tears, I shake my head: chowder holds fire at its core.
Can you frolic in a grocery store? We crossed the walkway from the parking garage, and almost felt the theme music swell as the doors opened to the massive Wegman’s in Natick, all 146,500 square feet of it. Two floors, two restaurants, a royal wedding of flowers, furlongs of prepared foods, cheeses, seafood tanks. (Frolicking!)
NOTE: We didn’t take pictures, because we were too busy running hither and yon, but Google has plenty of other people’s photos if you are curious. Usually huge stores induce my flight instinct; here, I wanted to stay, and taste, a lot.
We walked through the canyons of the Financial District, everything closed for the holiday. And then, the damp breeze teased of roasting meats, a hint of anise, and maybe something pickled, something steamed. Chinatown. The paradox engulfs me, as always – I want to try everything, and yet am so afraid of exactly what everything is!
The market sells each crab by weight. Do you want a 1, 2, or 3-pound crab? The children who catch the crabs walk out among the mangroves, carrying long sticks and prodding the dark roots. Angry crabs latch on. Somehow the kids get the front pincers wrapped in strips of tire rubber, fingers still intact.
Pohnpeians do not eat dogs, but our neighbors were from Chuuk. They called her Brown Dog; I called her Haiku. Perversely, islanders who eat dogs do not seem to care for them like other livestock. We fed her leftovers, and I attempted to doctor her sore ears. She bore large, strong puppies who disappeared quickly.