Sunday, October 26, 2008

Culinary Heirlooms.

So I watched Tony Bourdain's new one-off show last week, something on the Travel Network called, "At the Table." It was supposed to be an insightful hour where food experts come together to talk about food issues. What's hot and happening and worrisome with the culinary world. It was SUPPOSED to be this. In actuality it came off as a bunch of New York pretentious foodie wankers bragging and complaining. A lot of the viewers agreed.

However, one knight at Tony's foodie roundtable did make a worthwhile comment - something that really stuck with me. Bill Buford, founder of Granta (I heart Granta) and the terrific book, "Heat" which chronicles his experiences as a "kitchen bitch" for Mario Batali, actually said something resonating. One little thing - and it came at the very end of the show, which made me even more annoyed at this phoned-in piece of television offal. It's like they ended the discussion before it even really started!

Bill stated, "This is the first generation of people that won't have family recipes to pass on to their children." The plethora of pre-cooked convenience foods and the amount of restaurant traipsing has made extinct recipes for all-day cooked spaghetti sauce and things like homemade biscuits, pies, and cakes. People don't even roast chicken anymore but buy a pre-rottiseried one from their local superGiantEagleKrogerWegmans mart. Not that those aren't delicious (they are) but gone are the days when recipes were passed down like precious heirlooms.

This got me thinking. He's right. What I wouldn't give for my Muddy's recipe for coconut cake. She passed away in May before I could get it. Or my Nana's Waldorf salad. Or my Aunt Ann's pound cake. How will our cuisine evolve when things like this aren't learned and treasured? I don't even know my own mother's recipe for lemon-raspberry tart, which was my favorite. She made it every time I requested - usually for birthday dinners. Hell, she didn't halfway remember it herself. When asked, she'd reply, "Oh, a little of this and that. If you want I could TRY to write it down..." Things like this are important and should be treasured like photographs or old slides. Once they're gone they're only good memories. Delicious taste memories that fade.

Several years ago I had a moment of clarity and grasped one of these taste memories for a time. It was scribbled in shaky hand on the back of an envelope, the edges tattered, the paper wrinkled. It's for my Nana's pickled eggs. I love her pickled eggs. To me they sing of home, Christmas, jingle bells, and all things Yuletide. She only made them then. Sometimes I could get her to make them as early as Thanksgiving, but never in the spring or summer. No, pickled eggs were purely cold weather food. Delicious pickled cold weather food. Eggs the color of beets and so pickled your lips would pucker when you bit into them and so purple your tongue would look like a Chow dog. I loved them.

As Nana grew older, I realized my time with the eggs would grow shorter and shorter unless I did something. Unless I learned to make them myself. And so I got the recipe. I actually sat my Nana down and made her give me the pickled egg recipe. Nana gave measurements like "a pinch" or "just enough," nothing concrete. I made them numerous times over the next several years with varying amounts of success. They tasted good, but they tasted different. Never as good as Nanas. But at least I was making them.

Ironically, when I looked for this recipe to put in the blog, hopefully passing it on to the Internet generation, I couldn't find it. I thought it was glued carefully into a recipe book I made for myself. Alongside other treasured recipes culled from magazines and the Internet. My foolproof favorites I call them. But it wasn't there. I even looked in my crate of "as yet to be glued" recipes to no avail. It was nowhere to be found. Lost forever. Somehow I felt as if I proved Bill Buford right. Sure, I could find a similar recipe on the Interwebs, but it wouldn't be hers.

The hunt wasn’t all in vain though – I found other things. Recipes torn from newspapers and magazines, photocopied onto white paper with handwritten suggestions like, "Use more turmeric than is called for," and "Black beans work just as well." These were my mother's foolproof favorites. She had given me my own collection of them as a “starter pack” for my first foray into the outside world as a young woman. I still have them and by now they are mixed in with my own. There was even a scribbled slip of paper called, "Ingredients for a Happy Life," that Momma had come up with. Her food poetry I suppose. Finding these forgotten treasures was a small revelation, easing the pain of my pickled egg loss.

One recipe, "Granny's Apple Sauce Cake" was photocopied from a newspaper article. Evidently my mother had sent in this gem to the local paper. Mee Maw (the Granny in question) was my grandfather's mother. The local Waynesboro paper printed the recipe and here it was – passed on to the next generation. There's no date, but I have to think it might be from the late 1950's. A true culinary heirloom.

I love the lack of direction in this recipe. Cook for how long? Until it's done. At what temperature? Whatever one is needed. It's got a directness that's refreshingly simple in this age of foams and food alchemy. I've no children to pass this recipe to – and so I cast it to the winds and whims of the Interwebs. Maybe somebody somewhere will make “Granny's Apple Sauce Cake" and keep the taste memory alive. Mee Maw would've liked that. I haven’t made it yet, but after rediscovering this recipe, I sure plan to. It's not pickled eggs, but I love apples too.

Granny's Apple Sauce Cake
1 cup butter or lard
2 cups sugar
2 cups sour apple sauce
1 tsp soda in each cup sauce
2 tsps each of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice
2 cups cooked raisins
4 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup nuts (if desired) black walnuts preferred

Add soda to apple sauce. Add sugar, eggs, salt, spices and stir. Add flour gradually. Then add raisins, nuts, and melted butter. Cook raisins almost dry. Seeded raisins need no cooking. Bake in tube pan in moderate oven.

4 comments:

lisaiscooking said...

What a great post! I couldn't agree more about the Bourdain show. Buford was the only one attempting to participate, and his comment you mentioned stuck with me too. I've never tried a pickled egg, but now I want to!

Libby said...

Thanks for reading. Yeah, I'm a big fan of Bill (and pickled eggs) and for the life of me couldn't understand why there weren't more people like him on the show. Where was Ruhlman for crying out loud?! :)

Dee said...

I couldn't agree with you more about the Tony Bourdain's "At the Table", it was slow going & yes...a show of complaining I could skip the next time. I really enjoy Tony but hope this isn't a round table of pretentious malcontents we are given each time he uses this format. That said, I also love the idea of blogging about culinary heritage. Also, those pickled eggs are just beautiful! Great photo & blog post!

Libby said...

Thank you so much. Yes, the culinary heritage thing got me thinking - I've seen books about "taste memory" (like Death by Pad Thai) but I wonder if there are writings like this...hmm......thanks for the nice comments!

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