Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Food Memories

Be prepared, I am going to ramble a little.

I was like most teens and pre-teens. I slept too late, especially on Sunday mornings. We were not church goers. Mom might have been if it had not been for the excommunication for marrying a divorced man. The church was tough back then, and it was bad enough that she had married a Protestant the first time and had not baptized her children at his insistence. Perhaps it was just an inflexible parish priest and not the whole church. Later on, she was accepted back into the church and my step father(the divorced one) became a Catholic as well. But I digress...
I remember waking up to two things: the radio or stereo and the smell of Sunday dinner already cooking.
I want to say that the old radio in the dining room was a Phillips, but I cannot be sure. It had a number of bands. It had a couple of short wave, AM, FM etc.. I loved playing with the different bands and sometimes got interesting things on it. But it was overwhelmingly used for classical and the occasional 40s and 50s popular music on Sunday mornings as Mom and later Dad(Paul)cooked the Sunday fare. The radio had belonged to Dad's father I think, but if not, it was at least, quite old. It had to be four feet tall,two feet wide, made of Golden Oak. It was a real monument in the corner of the dining room. It had all the old tubes that took some time to warm up, and a light under the dial that cast an orangy glow across all the different bands. it was probably a significant heat source. It stood in what was probably the worst possible place for it in the entire house. The dining room where it was, extended out of the side of the house as a bay window, but there was little insulation, and certainly, there was nothing under the floor in that area except two feet of air down to the ground. It was not a good environment for a big piece of oak and vacuum tube laden electric appliance.
Amelita Galli-Curci, John McCormack, Beniamino Gigli, Caruso(of course), Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy(a friend of the family) were constantly on the stereo and the radio, as well as any classical music that was available. Buddy Clark was big for Mom, too. As Dad was away most days to northern Maine, he would stop every day in a local "anchor" store and buy little gifts for my Nick-knack loving mother. There were always big displays of LP records that had not sold. He would bring those home all the time as they were often available for 99 cents a pop. It affected my taste in music for the rest of my life. There is something insistent about Caruso singing Non Ti Scordar di Me or Vesti la Giubba and Jeanette MacDonald singing Ciribiribin that makes you want to get up out of bed.(perhaps just to escape it?)
When I got up on a holiday morning, I was immediately set to work on the sugared dates. I don't think that Mom liked getting her hands all sticky. I would separate the dates from each other.(At that time, there were no dates in plastic packages with resealable tops. They arrived in a sticky, black brick.) Then I would crack enough almonds for each one and a few for me. The process is simple. You just split the side of the date open, stick in an almond and close the date over the almond again where the pit used to be. I never did this, but it would be wonderful with a dab of cream cheese, or the sweetened filling for cannolis in it, with the almond on top. Dump the dates into a bowl of sugar and arrange them on a plate to serve. When I was done with that, I was always given celery and cheese spread(Old English Cheddar in a small glass with a metal cap. You had to pry the top off with a can opener. It was kind of like Pub Cheese) Again, it was too fiddly for Mom, and it was a safe thing to give me to do. I would cut the celery into 3 inch pieces and stuff them with the cheese. After arranging them on the plate, I would sprinkle them with Paprika. I wonder if they still make that cheese. Most of our juice glasses were from this, along with the sliced salted beef that was packaged the same way. There were no screw lines on the top of the glass container like a jar. It only makes sense to be able to reuse the glass container...I wonder why they don't do that now? Think of all the free glassware and less garbage.
Mom made a lot of sauce over the years. Often it was a two day affair. It was years before she actually taught me how to make it. I have lost the knack of it over the years I am afraid. Her sauce was exceptional. She used great restraint in her sauce. There was not too much of anything, and if I dumped in too much pepperoncino, she would "OOH" and "Ohhh" as if she would die from the heat that would result. Dick and I loved the heat in the sauce. I think that Mom and Dad did as well, despite her protests. No sauce I ever made would ever compare in heat to the cross pollinated pepper sauce that I have mentioned elsewhere. They had hot peppers from one of those ornamental pots in the supermarket that crossed with others in the garden...That was hot! I once harvested a plant of those peppers, and accidentally touched my tongue with my finger. I hung my head over a bucket for an hour or more till I stopped drooling and coughing from the hot oils.
I made a whole series of sauces over the next few years with a mix of different meats. Sometimes the combinations were truly bizarre. Salami, pepperoni, beef and chicken in the same pot....I froze a lot of sauce and it never reappeared. I found in time that the classic combinations were best, and have stuck to them since.
We all liked watching the Galloping Gourmet that was airing on Canadian television there in northern Maine. He used wine all the time, so Dad became obsessed with it. He used wine in everything. He bought an injector for chicken. He used red wine in ground beef recipes...They were never that great, but he loved them.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were turkey holidays of course. I hated and still hate the smells of the first hour or so of cooking...What is that smell? But once it gets going, of course, there is nothing like it. They made great stuffing, just Bell's seasoning, but with plenty of raisins. The stuffing was pasty as opposed to light and crouton like. Not your ideal according to the gourmets, but it was great. Mom always did the Bell's stuffing in the main cavity of the bird. She made bread and cheese stuffing with Parmesan or Romano and her own bread crumbs that she dried in the oven. Soaked raisins and black pepper along with an egg went into it. This was also a source of "balls" for the sauce when she did not have beef for the meatballs. She made the bread and cheese mix with egg etc., and rolled it into balls. She dropped them into the sauce. As it turns out, this is a pretty common practice in Italy as well. I always thought it was just an economy measure.
The appetizers always went out on the table for people to pick at. The dates and celery were there. There was always an oval, blue Melamine bowl on the table filled to overflowing with nuts. The nut crackers and nut-picks stood in the center.
There was sometimes salami or pepperoni and sliced cheese there as well. There was also a can of drained California olives. If Dad did not get to Portland for his monthly meeting with the State officials at the Boy's Training Center, there were no good olives. They were not available locally except in the Pastene and possibly Progresso jars. The price was prohibitive for those. The cured meats were always sliced paper thin, but usually, these were forgotten and someone would bring out the whole thing to be sliced and eaten as wanted. Dick could slice them very thin and at an extreme angle, but I could not. It was a skill I never learned.He would oil the stone and sharpen and polish those knives till they shone and cut anything beautifully.  Dick did the same later on...who learned from whom?  It sounds like a skill that my own father would have used.  Perhaps it was a common skill in years past before everything was disposable.  The salami, the Provolone and Parmesan were always in the back of the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The salami, shaved as it was, might be there for a whole month. We knew better than to waste it, because it was only available when Dad went south, and that did not always happen every month. The Provolone did not last that long as a rule. It was not really shavable. It usually crumbled when you tried. The big thing for Mom especially, and for the rest of us on occasion, was a salami and Provolone sandwich on white bread. It was best on Scali bread, but if not that, then cheap white bread was always a good substitute. It was the fifties and sixties after all. Cheap white want whole wheat? elitist is that?
There was almost always some kind of a salad. I could never put the dressing together to her standards. She would say: "Be a spendthrift with the oil, and a miser with the vinegar". She always had to correct it for me. It did not help that she dressed the salad directly rather than making a vinaigrette and pouring it on.
If there were fresh cucumbers, she would slice them very thin, then dress them with vinegar and pepper. Sometimes there were paper thin sliced onions as well. One of my greatest pleasures in Italian foods is the tiny Cippolini onions from the North End in Boston, that are grilled to caramelize with balsamic vinegar. We missed out on a lot of those food pleasures because we lived in northern Maine where Italian food was always topped with cheese from the shiny round green box. Mom would apologize to everyone if this green travesty appeared on the table, even if the guests at the table would not have known the difference.
Sliced tomatoes from the garden were a big thing. Huge, Big Girl, Big Boy and Earlianna tomatoes were grown. Again, they were simply dressed with oil and cider vinegar(I think wine vinegar was a luxury that was not possible.) They could not afford three or four different vinegars. Balsamic was unheard of at the time. I have to mention that my stepfather did not have a huge income. They often struggled and did without. However, we never suffered for the necessities. We did not have luxuries, but Mom had access to rather expensive Italian foods that no one else had in the area. Reminders of her roots. There was always good wholesome food on the table. Paul provided us with a life that we might not have had any other way, and one that was a great gift to my mother, who had suffered so much when my own father was unwell for all those years. He provided us with a good house(despite the drafts here and there) He was a good guy, and no matter what faults he may have had, he made a wonderful home for her and for her children. He can never be thanked enough for what he did for all of us. Since I was so young when my own father died, he was the only father I had ever really known other than a few half remembered glimpses in my memory. Also, there might be chopped onion and parsley on top of the cukes if there was some in the garden. Fresh herbs were also virtually unknown at the time. Parsley was very exotic!
They were in the business of providing food for the table, and fresh herbs were too much of a luxury to be bothered with. I got into herbs later on.
In the summer, my favorite salad was sliced cukes, thin walled garden peppers in rings or spears, thin sliced onion(Dad used to pour boiling water over the onions to take the hot out of them for me...bless him) and big chunks of ripe tomatoes...just oil and vinegar on top. Years later, I found that while I traveled in Turkey, they did very similar salads with the addition of herbs from the mountains and lemon instead of vinegar. I was very much at home there except for the goat and lamb.
Dad's work was based in South Portland as mentioned above. He would go for a couple of days a month, always returning on Friday. He took me one time.
He always brought back a huge box of foods from the markets in Portland. He had a number of loaves of Italian bread from Amato's on India Street, the plain loaves and Scali bread as well. He also brought black and green olives, Parmesan and Romano cheese, and the extremely aged and piccante Provolone cheese...that reads: provolonay, not provoloan. He would taste all the salami they had to offer, and brought the best home in a whole stick if he could afford it. Fiorucci was always the best, but it was only available one or two times in all the years he did that. They do not import it anymore, I guess. Fiorucci is a common cured meat line in Italy, and it is superior to much that is available commercially here...or was.
We would wait up for him to get home. He split the big, crusty loaves of bread down the length of the loaf, then split the halves open, almost to the crust, to make Italian sandwiches.
We would soak the inside of the loaf with olive oil.(At the time, Phillipo Berio regular oil was the only one that we had.) we would line the cavity with salami folded in half to bridge the gap at the bottom of the loaf if it leaked. Then in went the very aged cheese, sliced half moons of tomato, cucumber slices, green pepper strips, dill pickle sliced the long way, black olives, green olives, onions, sometimes pepperoni. Then we would salt and pepper them and drizzle the top with olive oil when they were ready to burst....Then we ate them! Amato's in Portland makes a great sandwich, and we were imitating his best, even if they used more conventional bread.
Holiday dinners were pretty much the same each time. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, Easter did not vary a great deal. There might be ham instead of the turkey, but everything else was the same.

Ham always had a brown sugar glaze, with cloves, pineapple rings and cherries skewered on to the whole thing with toothpicks.

The turkey, stuffed as described above was always perfect looking. I don't know how they did it, but it was always Norman Rockwell gorgeous. Dad would get up very early in the morning and by the time the rest of us were up and around, it was well on its way. I don't really understand this because we normally ate pretty late in the day. Turkeys were smaller(or we could not afford huge) and it does not take that long to cook. The turkey was always a little dry, but I think that was a common affliction till the science of TV cooking shows came along over the years. Now, I actually prefer the dryer meats.(The secret to moist turkey, in addition to butter, bacon or any of the exotic cooking methods, is very simple. Just cook the bird to the recommended temperature, minus a degree or two, and allow it to rest before carving. It seems that raising the temperature beyond a certain point drives the moisture out of the meat...USE A GOOD THERMOMETER, AND IT WILL HELP.
There was a rather large dining table in a very small dining room. It filled the space completely, and left very little room for us.....once you were seated, you really did not want to get up again because the only route out was over the table. When this thing was not in use, it was folded up to allow passage through the room. I do not know if it was the fault of the room or the fault of the table, but it was too high on the end toward the window, and too low near the open end of the room. Twelve was not an uncommon number at the table, and once in a while a card table was set up as well. Uncle Phil always sat at the end deepest into the room by the window. Basically, he had to sit there. When he was a child, he was hit by a rock in the leg. He had real problems with it for the rest of his life. Tuberculosis of the bone, was remarkable that he got around as well as he did. He sat there at the head of the table because he could sit with his leg at a funny angle without dealing with someone next to him. Dad sat at the other end, and Mom at his right with her back to the kitchen door. Both of them had easy access. He was more active going back and forth after she got MS, but they were usually up and down a lot.
I mention this elsewhere, but it bears repeating. The first thing served was the little bowl of "Padotolas"...misspelled and mispronounced for my entire life. Badduotuli are little meatballs cooked in chicken broth...Aunt May did them in beef broth with the bone in the middle of the pot, and others did them in other mediums and with different additions, but you can see more about this in other posts here. Mom made them tiny and Uncle Phil made them big(He was an incredible cook!!!!). She always gave him his soup last. The thousands of tiny meatballs had one very large brother that went into his bowl along with the chicken broth...the joke never got old. He used to climb up to the eaves of the house to get baby pigeons, and at Christmas, almost every flat surface in his house had fruitcakes on them, wrapped in dishcloths and soaking repeatedly with brandy.
They served the meals on a dinner service that was purchased piece by piece at the supermarket. First National perhaps? The set had a cream background with a red transfer pattern of winter and farm scenes and oak leaves. It was nice...not my taste, but gathering a huge set like that was difficult any other way on limited incomes and in a rural place They had their wedding china looking down from the china cabinet, but it was precious to them and it rarely got used. It was white with a single red rose and platinum banding at the rim.
Peas, corn, sweet potato, squash(I always thought that was redundant)(they always debated about the wetness of the squash)mashed potato(usually whipped with the big black and white stand mixer with butter and milk to within an inch of its life,(oven roasted potatoes were absolutely marvelous with pork roast or beef roast, crisp and basted in the meat juices after being boiled) appropriate gravy, the remaining appetizers, and the meat of choice were on the table.
Uncle Phil,my brother and my sister would fight over the heart and any other assorted bits...there was a year when the turkey came with two hearts...A Freak!...That was better, but there was still a fight.
Mom learned a lot of cooking from the neighbors in Littleton, Maine after she was married. Good, "farmhand" food. unfortunately, my father was ill most of his life, brought in little money and they starved a lot. Never the less, they had eggs and milk in season(plenty of potatoes in season if she dug them out of the field across the street), so there were cakes for birthdays. She knew how to make desserts.
She did great chocolate cakes, with chocolate frosting. The frosting was peaked beautifully and they looked as good as the most prestigious pastry shop fare. I almost always had lemon cake with lemon frosting. The colorants of the time made cakes and frostings a rather lurid yellow, but boy it was good.
There were always a multitude of pies. We were not mincemeat makers, so mincemeat pies were usually from a jar, but it was not uncommon for people in the area to make mincemeat out of their Autumn deer kill. Always, Always, Always there was apple pie. Lemon meringue, chocolate meringue, banana pudding pie with meringue, coconut cream pie appeared on occasion. Once in a great while there was pecan pie, but pecans were expensive.
If it was not a high holiday, and someone special was coming, they might get the soup and appetizers, but there was always a special request for Italian food.
Spaghetti, with that same blue melamine bowl piled very high with meatballs and pepperoni slices that had been fished out of the sauce.
Chicken, baked or stewed in the sauce was common. No cloves in the chicken sauce was her mantra. and no garlic in the meatballs.
Lasagna on the menu was a sure sign that you were special to her. The lasagna was not the type that came out easily and was so full of ricotta, and mozzarella that it was a fight to get it to the plate, with strings of cheese, and the whole thing collapsing over itself. This is not the lasagna with the neat, prim layers on the front of the lasagna box.
Stuffed shells were a special dish as well, nothing fancy in the filling, just ricotta, egg and cheeses with parsley and pepper.
On the rarest occasions she made Brasciole. Not the little involtini, but a very large one made from a huge flank steak, filled with bread and cheese with raisins, and strangely enough, she sometimes did it with Bell's stuffing. It was remarkably good. It was always done in a big pot of sauce.
With all of the pasta meals, there was always the usual range of sliced tomato and other salad like stuff, especially if the garden was going strong.
There was always white bread to sop up the sauces, Dessert could be anything or nothing, but who needed or wanted it after her meals. Grammie would often bring down her Biscotti.
Type Lentils, filled cookies or lemon chicken in the search box at the top of the page to find other memories.