Archive for the ‘Historical Figures and Events’ Category

Cooking and Thinking in Provence, 1970

Friday, December 6th, 2013

30book "Provence, 1970" by Luke Barr.

I review a lot of books for my local newspaper. I can’t remember the last one that spoke to me as Provence, 1970 has.

Subitled “M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste,” the book was written by Luke Barr, an editor at Travel + Leisure and Fisher’s nephew.

(M.F.K. Fisher, in case you haven’t read her, is another great read, perhaps the first American to write culinary essays that were taken seriously by both food lovers and literary critics.)

The book hones in on a few weeks toward the end of 1970 when six food luminaries converged in the South of France. In addition to the three writers in the subtitle, Barr writes about Simone Beck, Julia Child’s friend and the co-author of Child’s pioneering volumes on Mastering the Art of French Cooking; Richard Olney, an American writer and artist who wrote meticulously researched books about traditional French country cooking; and Judith Jones, the influential editor who worked with most of the writers involved.

Jones is the only major character in the book who is still alive. At 89 she is still cooking and writing and is a former judge at my very own hometown’s charity pudding contest, which will return in 2014.

Working from letters, diaries, and memoirs, Barr examines individuals and cultures at a defining moment. Most of his American characters had made their reputations (and built much of their lives) paying tribute to traditional French cuisine. At this point in their lives Child and Fisher in particular were beginning to feel ever so slightly oppressed by the Old World and their old lives in France … and to look forward to a new beginning in the New World.

Barr argues that this moment in food history, the time his characters spent together in Provence late in that year, marked a turning point in the way Americans write about food and consequently in the way we cook. Instead of trying to duplicate classic French modes of food preparation, we began to explore our own culinary possibilities.

Much of the food culture we now take for granted followed—including our renewed interest in local, fresh food; the status of chefs and food writers (although not this food writer yet, alas) as icons of popular culture; our curiosity about new, varied flavors; and what Barr calls the “moral dimension” of cookery in contemporary America.

Barr is careful not to overstate his argument; he doesn’t claim that these encounters in Provence CAUSED the way we cook today. He does convincingly maintain that his characters and their interactions “provide a unique, up-close view of the push and pull of history and personality.”

Provence, 1970 takes the reader on a thought-provoking, delicious tour of a remarkable time, place, and group of people. My favorite moment in the book comes when Julia Child and James Beard are improvising a simple supper in the kitchen at la Pitchoune, the small house built by Child and her husband Paul in rural France.

Julia Child and James Beard in December 1970, taken by Paul Child. Used with permission/courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Julia Child and James Beard  at la Pitchoune in December 1970, taken by Paul Child. Used with permission from/courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

For them, as for most of us who love to cook, the preparation of a meal is a balancing act between the knowledge and tradition they have built up over the years in the kitchen and the demands of the unique foodstuffs in front of them. It is an opportunity for creativity and for camaraderie.

I treasure Provence, 1970 for scenes like the one in the Childs’ kitchen and also for its implicit message that change can come at any age. All the main characters are middle aged, ranging from Richard Olney at 43 to James Beard at 67. Yet all are preparing for new chapters in their lives and new chapters in books.

Above all, I love the book for Barr’s sensitivity to the enduring connections that food can forge between people who care for one another and for the preparation and consumption of meals.

His words about his mother near the end of the book speak to the impulse that made me call this blog In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens.

It was my mother, who died a few years ago, who taught me to cook. And when I make something she made for me, or with me, I feel her presence—not in any literal or even ghostly way, but in the form of an atmospheric shift, an emotional warmth. It is striking how cooking binds us to the past, and to the people we love, even when they’re gone.

As Christmas approaches, I raise a glass and lift a fork to Luke Barr and to the historical figures he brings to life in his book. And of course to my own late mother—and to you and those you love, dear readers.

Taffy and Tinky in 2009

Taffy and Tinky in 2009

P.S. If you have already purchased Provence, 1970 for a food lover on your gift list and are looking for other book suggestions, a bookstore, Amazon, or I would be more than happy to sell you a copy of my own Pulling Taffy or Pudding Hollow Cookbook. (If you order from me, you may get your copies signed—and you will be supporting THIS middle-aged food writer!)

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The Feast of Love and Hope and Gratitude

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

turkey-card-web

This month Americans are observing many anniversaries. Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I long for its eloquence and brevity every time I write—and every time I listen to a political speech.

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in a few days is dominating our television screens now almost as much as it did at the time of that president’s death.

Mulling over it repeatedly, we explore our history, our feelings about our leaders, and the difficulty of ever knowing precisely what happened in the past. (The assassination is an event that has been seen by millions of people and studied by thousands—and yet no one can be 100-percent sure exactly what happened on that day in Dallas.)

The anniversary that interests me most, however, is another Lincoln-related one. In November 1863, a week after writing and reciting the Gettysburg Address, our 16th president led Americans in celebrating our first national day of Thanksgiving.

States and communities had celebrated their own days of Thanksgiving for a couple of centuries by then. It was Lincoln who nationalized the holiday and identified it as the last Thursday in November. (It eventually became the fourth Thursday rather than the last.)

Sarah Josepha Hale

Sarah Josepha Hale

Writer/editor Sarah Josepha Hale had campaigned unsuccessfully by letter for such a day with previous presidents beginning with Zachary Taylor. It took Lincoln’s genius to identify Thanksgiving as a quintessentially American holiday—one that was particularly appropriate to a nation at war.

It is when we are feeling the most stress that we have the greatest need to be grateful. Lincoln realized that a nation at war needed to stop, take stock of its blessings, and express gratitude—perhaps even more than a nation at peace. Indeed, his original proclamation reminded Americans to be particularly mindful of those whose families had been disrupted and/or destroyed by the war.

This spirit lives on in the efforts of a variety of organizations to serve Thanksgiving meals (and bring Thanksgiving cheer) to veterans and their families. It also continues whenever those of us hosting Thanksgiving dinner invite friends, relatives, or strangers to join us for this annual feast of love and hope and gratitude.

card1web

You may see Lincoln’s original Thanksgiving proclamation at the National Archives website. And the White House website offers what it calls the “definitive” history of the practice of pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving. I love the weird American-ness of this tradition; we pardon one turkey a year so that we can feel less guilty about eating millions of its cousins!

I’m not actually posting a Thanksgiving recipe this year—although I refer you to several of them I have posted over the years. Try the hush-puppy pudding … or cranberry upside-down cake … or even simple roasted Brussels sprouts.

Instead I offer this simple seasonal quiche. It uses a vegetable I always overbuy at this time of year, the sweet potato. (I received several with my farm share last week so I was forced to get creative.)

Happy Thanksgiving to you all … and to your families. Don’t forget to open your homes and your hearts to strangers at this time of year.

SP Tartweb

Sweet Potato Tart

Ingredients:

1 large sweet potato, cut into small pieces and peeled if you want to peel it
extra-virgin olive oil as needed
salt to taste
3 large or 4 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
fresh, chopped parsley to taste
four eggs
1/2 cup cream
a dash of Creole seasoning
ounces (more or less) sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 8-inch pie shell

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pour a tablespoon of oil into a bowl. Stir in salt to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon). Toss in the pieces of sweet potato.

Place the sweet-potato pieces on a cookie sheet or baking pan, and roast until they are lightly brown around the edges, stirring occasionally. This took me about 1-1/4 hours, but my oven runs cool so it may take you less time.

While the sweet potatoes are cooking, splash oil onto a non-stick frying pan. Place the pan over medium-low heat. Toss in the onion slices.

Cook them slowly, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until they are reduced and softly caramelized. This may take an hour or more. Add a pinch of salt after the first 1/2 hour—and add a little more oil if you need it as you cook. When the onions are finished, stir in the parsley.

Both the onions and the sweet potatoes may be cooked the day before you want to serve your quiche; refrigerate the cooked vegetables until they are needed.

When you are ready to assemble your quiche whisk together the eggs, cream, and Creole seasoning in a bowl.

Place the pie shell in a pie pan. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the pie crust. Top the cheese with the onions and then the sweet potatoes; then pour on the cream/egg custard, and finish with the remaining cheese.

Place the tart (or quiche or whatever you want to call it!) on a rimmed cookie sheet to prevent spillage, and bake it for about 40 minutes, until the custard is set and the top is golden—but the sweet potatoes peeking out are not burning!

Serves 6.

assembling tartweb

The tart halfway through assembly

Celebrating the March on Washington

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Today in honor of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary I cooked a couple of appropriate recipes on the television program “Mass Appeal.” I post the videos below.

You may see the full recipes elsewhere on this very blog. I originally made the black-eyed peas to remember the television program “Amos and Andy.”

And the pound cake, which may be made with blueberries as well as peaches, appears here.

Happy viewing!


A Christmas Carol and Christmas Gingerbread

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Like me, Charles Dickens liked to read aloud from his works. Unlike me, he got paid for it. (Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

 
My mother and I are staying with my brother and his family while waiting to move into our new winter apartment. (Warning: we will move in the next few days so this will probably be the week’s only blog post!)
 
A few nights ago I began reading A Christmas Carol to my nephew Michael at bedtime. To say that the ten-year-old boy is enjoying the story is an understatement. He is devouring it.
 
This short novel penned by Charles Dickens in 1843 is so familiar to me—as it is to much of the English-speaking world—that experiencing it as utterly new through Michael’s eyes and ears gives me special pleasure.
 
A Christmas Carol is the sort of text that scholar Tony Bennett (no, not THE Tony Bennett) describes as layered with encrustation.
 
In the essay in which he introduced this concept, Bennett talked about the ways in which the public perception of Ian Fleming’s James Bond has changed with each successive reinterpretation of the character—from the original books to Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.
 
Bennett likened the changes in our view of Bond to encrustation on a shell or a boat, explaining that re-visionings of a text attach themselves to and reshape the original so that we can no longer see it without them.
 
A Christmas Carol is one of the most encrusted texts around. Not only has it been adapted more or less as is into play and film form; its basic plot has also been used for numerous theatrical and television films (who could resist Bill Murray in Scrooged?) and holiday episodes of regular television programs.
 
Such familiar characters as Mr. Magoo, Yosemite Sam, and Oscar the Grouch have taken on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, whose “bah humbug” attitude toward Christmas and his fellow humans sets the plot of A Christmas Carol in motion. 

Each of these characters, like each of the actors who has played Scrooge (from Alastair Sim to Susan Lucci), has left his imprint on our mental picture of Scrooge.

 
The upcoming Doctor Who Christmas special, set to air on Christmas Day on BBC America, is also rumored to play with the story of Scrooge.
 
I can’t wait to watch it!
 
I have to admit that I take pleasure in Scrooge’s story pretty much every time I read or see it. In that sense it is well named. Like the carols we sing to celebrate this season, it resonates—even improves—each time we repeat its cadences.
 
And despite the tale’s sentimentality, it always behooves us to listen to and learn from A Christmas Carol’s message of charity, good will, and redemption.
 
Naturally, Michael and I have to nibble on something as we enjoy Dickens’s story of Scrooge, the Cratchits, and the ghostly visitors. (We’re willing to share both the story and the food with the rest of the family.)
 
I made gingerbread Sunday because I couldn’t think of anything more wholesome and Christmasy than this dense, lightly spiced treat. We ended up with two complementary aromas in the house—the warm gingerbread and the fresh new Christmas tree. Heaven!
 
My regular cakey gingerbread has been a bit dry lately so I played with the recipe here. You’ll find this version is quite moist, almost brownie like in spots. It has the traditional gingerbread flavor, however.
 
I should probably warn readers that my gingerbread (including this version) almost always sinks a bit in the middle, hence the use of the word “swamp” in the recipe title. Every bite is delicious, including bites from the swampy section. 

God bless us, every one.

 
Christmas Swamp Gingerbread
 
Ingredients:
 
1-1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup sweet butter, melted
1/2 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
 
Instructions:
 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-inch-square pan.
 
In a bowl combine the flour and spices.
 
In another bowl whisk together the remaining ingredients in the order listed. Stir in the flour mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
 
Bake until the cake tests done—from 30 to 45 minutes, in my experience. If it starts to look dried out before it is done, cover it with foil for that last few minutes. If your gingerbread collapses a bit in the middle, ignore it!
 
Serve with whipped cream or applesauce. 

Serves 8 to 12, depending on appetite.

 

And now … a small reminder to all holiday shoppers that copies of my Pudding Hollow Cookbook are available for you to give your friends and relatives! I ship priority mail within the continental U.S. so there’s still time for Christmas delivery. If you’d like a copy, please visit the Merry Lion Press web site.


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Una Voce Poco Fa: Turkey and Tetrazzini

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Luisa Tetrazini in Her Prime (Library of Congress)

 
This coming Sunday, December 5, is National Comfort Food Day. I’ve recently been using up some of our Thanksgiving-turkey leftovers in one of my favorite comfort foods, turkey tetrazzini.
 
Tetrazzini the dish (also made with chicken, salmon, tuna, and for all I know tofu) was named after Tetrazzini the singer.
 
Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940) was a coloratura soprano known as the Florentine Nightingale. She allegedly first took to the stage at the age of three in her native Italy. In her prime she was the toast of opera lovers in both Europe and the United States.
 
Although she was involved in a number of contractual lawsuits, La Tetrazzini was by all accounts a good natured woman.
 
Small of stature but by no means small of figure (calling her stout would be kind), she adored glamorous gowns, jewelry, and hats. 

(Library of Congress)

 
Like other many other sopranos (including me!), Luisa Tetrazzini had a weakness for comfort food. The precise provenance of the recipe named after her is in doubt; a number of different chefs and restaurants claimed to have invented it. It is clear, however, that it was created in Tetrazzini’s honor.
 
Whoever originated it, turkey tetrazzini is my second favorite thing to make out of leftover turkey. (First on the list comes the humble turkey sandwich.) The bell pepper in my version isn’t traditional, but I appreciate the note of color it adds to this otherwise pretty much white dish.
 
To hear Luisa Tetrazzini sing “Una Voce Poco Fa” (“A Voice Just Now”) from Rossini’s Barber of Seville click here. 

To taste the dish named after her, follow the instructions below.

 
Tinky’s Turkey Tetrazzini
 
Ingredients:
 
for the cream sauce:
 
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1-1/4 cups robust turkey stock, warmed
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup milk
Creole seasoning to taste (you may use just salt and pepper, but I like the zip of the seasoning)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (plus a bit more if you like)
1/4 cup dry sherry
a handful of parsley, chopped
 
for assembly:
 
1/2 pound thin spaghetti, cooked
butter as needed to sauté vegetables (try to keep this to a minimum)
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1/2 bell pepper (I used an orange one most recently), diced
a light sprinkling of salt and pepper
2 cups pieces of cooked turkey
1 recipe cream sauce plus a little more milk if needed
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
a sprinkling of paprika
 
Instructions:
 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
 
First, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes.
 
Whisk in the turkey stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes more. Turn off the heat and stir in the milk and cream. Heat the mixture until it is warm; then remove it from the heat and stir in the seasoning, cheese, sherry, and chopped parsley. Set aside.
 
Next, create the casserole. Place the cooked spaghetti in a 2- to 3- quart casserole dish. Cover it with about half of the sauce.
 
Melt a small amount of butter in a frying pan and sauté the ‘rooms and bell-pepper pieces until they soften. (Add a little more butter if you absolutely have to.) Dust them with salt and pepper.
 
Place the turkey on top of the spaghetti in the dish. Cover it with the sautéed vegetables. Stir the mixture just a bit to make sure everything is moistened. Top the mixture with the remaining sauce.
 
If the tetrazzini looks a bit dry, add a bit more milk. Sprinkle the cheese on top of it, and throw on a little paprika for good measure. 

Cover the casserole dish and place it in the oven for 20 minutes; then uncover and cook until bubbly, about 10 minutes more. Serves 4.

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