Monday, March 28, 2011

Weekends in March

Dear Reader,

I ventured out to celebrate a good friend's 60th birthday this Saturday. Per form, the weather proved to be cold and blustery but there are plenty of things to do on a Saturday in March when you don't have to be anywhere in particular. So, giving my friend his choice of where to have lunch, we found ourselves at the Rathskeller, sitting in the Kellerbar under the mounted moose head with the sun pouring in through the high windows. Between the spirits and the sunlight, one could forget the outside temperature hovered somewhere barely north of 30 degrees and a twenty mile-per-hour wind whipped through the streets. We ate a good meal of less-than-healthy food, drank, and discussed work, politics, and the general state of humanity in the modern age for a couple of hours under the roof of the building Vonnegut's ancestors designed then gathered our coats and set out on the downtown of Indianapolis.

From the house of Vonnegut we made our way to the Eiteljorg to catch the Red Black exhibit. For those of you who aren't Indianapolis natives, the Eiteljorg is the local museum of Native American and Western history. It's a lovely building that (by design) seems to rise out of the ground, kiva-style. The exhibit, like many good museum installations, left me feeling enlightened and troubled. My Cherokee heritage has always been a source of pride however, learning that my people kept slaves reinforced the realization that native peoples are just that - people. They have all of the same flaws and shortcomings no matter what their genetics.

From inspecting the past we made our way to the big downtown mall to discover another of the mega bookstores, Borders, is closing up shop in downtown Indianapolis. It was my wakeup to the fact that the chain had gone bankrupt. Had I waited ten more days I would have missed the entire thing and been left knowing something had been on the corner of Meridian and Washington Street but unable to remember what it had been. We shopped the remnants and it felt a bit like attending an estate auction while the viewing was still underway in the parlor.

I have the distinct feeling birthdays shouldn't come in March. It's too depressing a month, filled with rain that wanted to be snow but didn't make it and ceaseless, restless wind. Even the ground is wet, swollen and sick with too much rain. A lot of people would say the month of my birthday is just as inappropriate, January is a frozen and unforgiving month of bitter cold and driven snow - equally depressing. Still, I think March is worse. It's the season of promises on the brink. Of hints at warmth that turn out to be misleading; the weather version of red herrings. This March has come in like the proverbial lion but, in the hearts of every Hoosier, we know there's little guarantee she'll leave like a lamb.

I don't mean to leave you depressed! Looking at the facts, the days are getting longer and the average temperature is climbing with each day. Spring has arrived, harbinger of summer's long, languid afternoons and temperate nights. All is not lost - it's just a bit uncomfortable for a while.

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Honest Loaf

Dear Reader,

Of all things cooking, the baking of bread has come to stand in for the home. Actually, more than the home, it has come to represent a certain kind of home. Some would say it stands for the kind of home most of us either don't feel like we have time for or have forgotten the value of in our busy lives. These people see bread as a symbol of a time gone by; a gentler, simpler time when the day provided time for kneading and proofing, for punching down and rising, and for baking. Others see the baking of the daily loaf as something just about as anachronistic as the horse and buggy. Possibly worse, it can be interpreted as the ball at the end of the domestic chain women wore (and some still wear) around their collective ankle, a chore that required long hours of work and tending and forbid the pursuit of happiness endowed all our citizens. Personally, I can see both sides of the argument, though I grew up in a Wonder Bread world and never knew an unsliced loaf before I started buying my own groceries.

It might have been during those first solo excursions to the grocery store that I got the bread bug. Walking through the bakery section after working a split shift, just as the baker started taking loaves out of the oven and the warm smell permeated the entire store. I started out with "basic loaves", that is to say white bread. At first they came out like bricks - dense, hard, and tasteless - but something kept me from giving up. Now I'm known for brioche, focaccia, and gingerbread. Until now, however, I hadn't found a certain recipe that I'd always wanted to make.

Salt rising bread holds a special place in my heart and those who know me well might be able to guess why. To clue you in further, you should know that salt rising bread is especially popular in the south and Appalachia (the Carolina's, Virginia, and Kentucky). No clue? The answer goes back to an episode of The Andy Griffith Show titled Dogs, Dogs, Dogs and a scene in which Barney mentions salt rising bread. I tried to find a video snippet for the blog entry but couldn't. Regardless, since I saw the episode I've been looking for a copy of the recipe and during my perusal of The Gourmet Cookbook I stumbled upon the very recipe. Of course afterward I managed to find the recipe on the net in just a few seconds. Regardless, here it is.

I strolled through the bread section and it contained most of the usual suspects - rye breads, baguettes, brioche, and the sort. There are the bad 50's pictures and unholy combinations such as pate en brioche or duck liver pate baked inside of a brioche crust. Modern bread baking has turned more toward the "country" or "peasant" loaf, recipes like focaccia and other rustic loaves that focus on herbal notes, unbleached and specialty flours, and rustic textures. What I found most interesting about the bread section was the preface shown below:

The idea of a baker being pilloried for a "bad loaf" seems pretty harsh considering the lax laws regarding the quality of foods in the past. I did a search on the web but the only thing I came up with was an unsighted article stating that in medieval times there were laws regarding bakers cheating customers and that the term "baker's dozen" emanates from this period when exceptional bakers gave their customers thirteen of an item instead of twelve to separate themselves from the rest of their profession. I hate to think what would have become of me for all the bad loaves I baked while learning! My sourdough still comes out plain and dull, doubtless a crime worth of the stocks! It also worries me that the authors seem to be lamenting that they can't nail their baker's ears to a post when they feel their whole wheat isn't up to snuff. It seems to go beyond quality control to institute corporal punishment for sub-standard bread. Then again, maybe I'm just soft.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Old Cookbooks

Dear Reader,

Over the weekend we took a little one-tank-trip to the lovely berg of Berne, Indiana with a couple very good friends. While we were preparing for a nice stroll in the 35 degree pouring rain, my friend presented me with a tattered and yellow book.

"It's a gift." He said, handing the tome over. "You don't have to keep it if you don't want it."

Yeah, giving me a book is a commitment thing. I could start my own hoarding show, just me sitting in my hole of an office surrounded by teetering piles of print, muttering "I don't have a problem…" What's doubly bad is this particular book is titled A Taste of Texas, a 1949 Neiman Marcus giveaway containing recipes "culled from over 2000 submitted by N-M customers…" as the flyleaf says. I really can't fathom sending a recipe to a department store. Neiman Marcus probably had a contest or something of the sort with thousands of post-war home makers vying for a brand new fry-o-lator or something equally gadgety. Needless to say the book hasn't gone anywhere but into the "do something with me" pile.

Staring at that pile today I thought, "Hey, why not post a few snippets from these unwieldy books that nobody but me would even consider keeping? It's not a good or original idea, but what else are you going to do on a gloomy, Indiana Monday in March when the finals aren't on TV?

So, though I started out talking about A Taste of Texas I hope you will pardon the curve I'm throwing when I start with a totally different cookbook. The biblical the Gourmet Cookbook volume I came out in 1950. After a decade of circulation, the editors at Gourmet Magazine decided they'd better secure their spot in the cooking pantheon with a hardback cookbook for the epicure. The result is a weighty 781 page book bound and printed in Italy to ensure its panache. Like a good Italian roadster, the Gourmet Cookbook is impractical - hardcover and as thick as an unabridged dictionary, hardly the sort of thing you want nestling between the flour and butter while baking cookies. My copy came from my wife's favorite aunt and it looks nearly unused. Since she was an excellent cook I imagine she found it just as unwieldy in the kitchen and opted for something a little more counter friendly.

Regardless, paging through the book gives an overview of the rarified mind of the late 40's gourmet. There are the aspic-molded horrors you'd expect along with some truly odd stuff. Aspic referres to a jelly, usually formed from stock rendered from some sort of meat and then clarified. If you've ever taken a piece of roasted chicken out of the fridge to find a gelatanious goo pooled in the bottom of the container, essentially that is an aspic. The use of aspic in American cookiery rose to its pinnacle in the 50's before plummeting from the dinner table and into kitsch ridicule. The following two examples show how Gourmet Magazine suggested plying the edible shalack that was aspic:

For those who don't possess a culinary dictionary, this dish is a jelly-mold made with goose liver pate, aspic from chicken or some other fowl, and mayonnaise. It's difficult to imagine this falling in the appetizer section of the book. I can't fathom the thought of jellied liver and mayonnaise as appetizing! I'm also left wondering how this recipe ever came to be. I mean who thought, "You know what this chicken and liver jelly needs? Mayonnaise."

If jellied goose liver isn't to your taste we have an alternative. Jellied cheese! Actually it's jellied cheese and mustard. I'm struck by the difference in terms here. Notice that the cook is advised to add a few 'grains' of cayenne and salt? You'd never see that language in a modern cookbook, probably because the concept is utterly ridiculous. As someone who dabbles in cooking, I can't ever imagine picking out three grains of salt and adding them to a dish. What would be the point?

Well, I thought I'd conclude the first batch of appetizers with a dish that doesn't involve meat jelly. The Lorraine Custard is akin to the popular in kitchen and song, Quiche Lorraine. The Lorraine in question refers to the Lorraine region of France where the German-influenced locals concocted an open pie consisting of an egg custard with smoked bacon or lardons. Later cheese was added to the mixture to create the quiche that is popular today. The custard version shown in this section of the Gourmet Cookbook is, essentially, the filling of a quiche Lorraine without the pie crust. It seems like an odd selection, one that might be interpreted as the author padding this section of the book with a partial recipe given a new name.

I think a lot of the focus on cooking from the fourties and fifties is on the oddities of aspic. Maybe it's the freak show aspect of jellied foods or the fact they're so uncommon on the modern table. Regardless, the number of aspic recipes in the cookbook is very limited. The next portion of the cookbook's hors d'oeuvre section deals with vegetables. When I say vegetables, don't think vegetarian. The cheff of the fifties seems as incapable of imagining vegetarianism as the cheff of the middle ages would be of imagining the microwave oven. Nearly every dish involves meat and those which don't rely on salad dressing. An example would be cucumbers dressed with french dressing, salt, and pepper. Not all are as bland, there is a recipe for Eggplant Caviar that I plan to try.

Maybe the most interesting things in the Gourmet Cookbook are the few photographs of the food described by the recipes. I'm not sure if the way we think of food has changed since the fifties or if the technology and techniques of photographing food has evolved sufficiently to make the old photos look absolutely hidious but I've yet to find a 'classic' cookbook that makes a single dish look remotely appetizing. Anyone who is familliar with The Gallery of Regrettable Food by the genious James Lileks will be fully aware of the mayhem that can be wrought by a recipe and a camera. The odd pairings of props with dishes, the off colors, the bizzarre geological formations are all apparently part and parcel of the 50's gastronomic landscape. I imagine in sixty years someone will be looking at Paula Dean's creations and thinking "What must she have been smoking..." so I'm reluctant to be too hard on the food of the fifties. Of course, that doesn't mean I'd want to see it served to me!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Dear Reader,

There's been (at least from my limited prospective) a recent upsurge in interest in genealogy. Ten years ago I couldn't have imagined seeing television ads for websites that specialize in family trees. Now you see them all the time, common looking people touting how they didn't know great granddad lived next door to the famous Mr. X or that great-great grandma had a fascinating career as a secret agent spying on the Confederates and passing the info on to Grant in the form of coded tatting. They're very persuasive commercials, offering the possibility that the viewer springs from uncommon stock - that you are special because someone you are related to was special. That in this world of conformity and ever contracting borders, there might be someone in your family tree who struck out into the wilderness, tamed the unknown, tested themselves against the world and came out with more than a six-figure paycheck to show for their efforts.

I'm not knocking genealogy. My mother spent hours behind a humming electric typewriter, carefully recording information she found in the dusty back rooms of various libraries. Women of the 19th century told their story in quilting and mom told hers in leaf-thin pages of type held together in scavenged three-ring binders. For all of mom's typing and researching, I don't have a single spy or famous neighbor to talk about. Oh there are a few scoundrels (bootleggers and petty criminals including my grandfather who's been accused in family lore of 'borrowing' automobiles from alleyways as well as cooling pies off windowsills) but there are many more average folks running stores, planting corn, and working in factories.

The truth is that most of us spring from 'common' folk who lived simple lives. Consider that in 1910, a little over a hundred years ago (a couple of generations), the most common occupations were farmer and farm laborer. People either owned land that they tilled or tilled land that someone else owned. They worked hard to support their families, scratching a living out of the land and living by its rhythms; heroic in its own right without the necessity for famous neighbors.

Still, in spite of the heroism of the common man and woman, the desire to be special remains. I feel it every time I see one of the commercials I mentioned earlier. I feel it even more in March due to St. Patrick's Day and my family's (at least purported) Irish lineage. So, I did a little searching and came up with the following hopeful tidbit:

"Recorded as Madain, Madden, Maddin, Madigan and MacAvaddy, this is a famous Irish surname. It derives from the pre 10th century Old Gaelic name O'Madain, translating as the descendant of the son of the hound. The hound is famous in Gaelic heraldry having the virtues of speed, endurance, and loyalty. Most Irish surnames originate from a chief's nickname. O'Kennedy, for instance means the male descendant of the ugly headed one! The O'Madain's originated from lands on the River Shannon in County Galway, at one time holding over 25,000 acres. Even today name holders are still numerous in that part of Ireland. The Madigan branch of the clan are regarded as almost exclusively a Clare-Limerick family, although a branch are to be found in Counties Antrim and Derry in Ulster. Richard Madden, (1798 - 1886) was the author of the book 'The United Irishman', whilst many name holders emigrated to either America or England during the infamous 'Potato Famine' of 1846. Walter Madden, his wife Mary and their children Richard aged five and Alice, a baby sailed from Galway, bound for New York on the ship 'Junius ' on May 1st 1846. The first recorded spelling of the family name is believed to be that of Dermot O'Madadhain. This was dated circa 1100 a.d. He was chief of the Ui Maine, Connacht, during the reign of King Henry 1st of England, known as 'The Just", 1100 - 1135."

Being an aspiring writer, the bit about Richard Madden struck me most. There, of course, is no concrete connection between myself and the doctor, writer, abolitionist, and historian of the United Irishmen however the romantic in me would like to concoct one. One writer bridging himself to another writer, a writer who penned works 123 years ago during a time of turmoil and change. That's the sort of thing that can either inspire you or make the fiction you compose seem tawdry and pointless! Maybe I shouldn't go looking too hard for the ancestral wellspring from whence my literary desire flows. Maybe I'll find Niagara Falls and be so intimidated as to turn back to the shallow, current-less lagoons of a tamer life. That possibility is doubtful. I've never found comfort in fitting in (come to think I've never fit in) so under the glassy surface of the familial harbor lay sharp reefs on which to flounder. Better to point myself toward the horizon and all the unknown wonders it holds.