Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Taste Memories

My culinary roots are divided between the American South, and the Finger Lakes region of Northern New York State.

My maternal great grandmother came from farm folk in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  It was a harsh and a make-due existence.  She could recall a time during the Civil War, when hungry Union soldiers marched onto the farm looking for food.  Luckily her mother had hidden a ham, the last food her starving family owned, under the home’s floor boards.   Granny, as I called her, grew her own vegetables and fruit (the surplus she sold to the wealthy people in town), kept her pantry full of homemade preserves and pickles, and butchered her own chickens and pigs.  She was also famous for miles around for her signature marble cake. 

My first culinary venture nearly ended in disaster. One Christmas, Santa gave me a tiny electric toy stove.  I enthusiastically whipped up a batch of scrambled eggs which I fed to my baby brother.  Unfortunately, the eggs were raw, and my little brother screamed for days as if I had tried to poison him!

Thankfully, my Grandmother stepped in, and became my spirit guide to all the mysteries of cooking.  From measuring, sifting, stirring and timing – I learned it all.  And that year, my miniature cherry pies sold out at the annual church Strawberry festival.

Summer was the time for berry picking in the woods.   When we got home, Grandma would always make a blackberry roll, which she steamed in cheesecloth on the top of the stove.  I could hardly wait for it to cool.

Come fall, the New York Finger Lakes region would be dotted with small farm stands.   Tart and crisp native apples, Concord and Niagara table grapes, and gallons of sweet apple cider were something to savor. 

Spring would bring a family pilgrimage back to Virginia.   Aunt Lois lived in Richmond, VA, and was a true Southern hostess.  Her big house was always filled with succulent food aromas, and at each meal her table beautifully set.  The memory of her homemade biscuits (based on a secret family recipe), filled with paper thin slices of Smithfield ham, makes my mouth water.  And there were always visits to the old Mixing Bowl bakery for their famous Sally Lund bread and Seven Layer cake.  Aunt Lois worked for the Virginia Travel Council, and her personal claim to fame was appearing on a television show in NYC with James Beard, and presenting him with a Smithfield ham.   Aunt Lois was also famous in our family for introducing us to avocado as used in a salad with grapefruit.  Years later, at my rehearsal dinner which she hosted, she bravely served my soon-to-be husband’s family, salmon mousse.

My mother’s culinary skills were less refined, and more on the ready–made side.   Many nights we dined on tin-foil dinners or charred cube steak.  Casseroles were her greatest kitchen efforts, but these were mainly reserved for dinner parties with friends.  We greedily looked forward to the leftovers.  My own taste was equally unrefined.  For instance, one summer each day of Girl Scout camp my lunch consisted of a tuna fish sandwich on white Sunbeam bread, a bag of potatoes chips and lemonade, all packed in my official GS lunchbox and thermos.

Nancy Lewis, my mother’s best friend, a graduate of the Cornell School of Home Economics, had worked as a food demonstrator at the New York World’s Fair in the French’s Food Pavilion.  On picnics and at meals at her house she experimented on us.  We did not know what to make of this gourmet fare loaded with some strange spices and plenty of French’s mustard.  Poor lady, she was way before her time.

My father’s business partner was an old bachelor, and very lonely.  Each week he took us out to dinner with him.  The destination was often a church supper in one of the local towns.  The food was good, the lines were long, and we would often have to sit and wait patiently with the mostly older folks in the church sanctuary.  We would be taunted by the delicious aromas coming from the dining room.  But the wait would be well worth it when we finally spied the vast array of wedges of homemade pies – which always made for a difficult choice.  Sometimes, Mr. Fink would take us to fancy local restaurants with real white linen tablecloths. Minding our manners, we sampled such unknown dishes as shrub, prime rib au jus or French Silk pie.

Our family vacation in Europe was full of food firsts - my first croissant and my first bottle of mineral water.  But one dinner at the Hotel de La Poste in Vezelay France topped it all.  My brother and I watched in wide-eyed amazement as the elegant French lady at the next table lustily devoured a plate of big juicy snails!  I vowed then and there, to never never eat a snail.  That, of course, was a vow that I did not keep.

When my own children were little, we had a weekly ritual of making bread.  They particularly enjoyed punching the dough down, and braiding the three pieces together.   Influenced by the writer Euell Gibbons, I became a bit of a food forager, and would drag the children through the local fields in search of wild edible food.

I guess I would call myself a “foodie”.  For the past ten years, I have eaten my way around the world, but along the way I have done far less cooking.   I am anxious to rediscover the foods, flavors and tastes of my family’s culinary history.  I look forward to taking time to browse through Aunt Lois’s recipe clipping file and to reading the handwritten recipe book of my paternal Grandmother (who I never knew).  I know I will learn more about those who have gone before me, and about myself. 

I am a great supporter of the concept of “Farm to Table”, and becoming acquainted with the regional foods and cuisine of the Pacific Northwest is on my to do list.  I am also intrigued and inspired by the new crop of Culinary Food and Lifestyle bloggers - who seamlessly integrate cooking, photography and styling with social media.