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Member since: Sat Nov 30, 2013, 05:06 AM
Number of posts: 16,647

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Writing about food: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook

"Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me. When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein. When we first began reading Dashiell Hammett, Gertrude Stein remarked that it was his modern note to have disposed of his victims before the story commenced. ... And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seem as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. ... Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable.

"The only way to learn to cook is to cook, and for me, as for so many others, it suddenly and unexpectedly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. ... It was in this time, then, that murder in the kitchen began. The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it, nor would he tell me with which of these horrible necessities one began. ... On the docks of Puget Sound I had seen fishermen grasp the tail of a huge salmon and lifting it high bring it down on the dock with enough force to kill it. ... After an appraising glance at the lively fish it was evident he would escape attempts aimed at his head. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so grasping, with my left hand well covered with a dishcloth, for the teeth might be sharp, the lower jaw of the carp, and the knife in my right, I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in. I let go my grasp and looked to see what had happened. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second, and third degree. I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr. Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, thoroughly washed and dried the fish and put it aside while I prepared CARP STUFFED WITH CHESTNUTS."

National Sandwich Day: James Villas, "American Taste"

"There is a time and place, I suppose, for what the British and Scandinavians call a sandwich, but when it comes to the real McCoy, in no country has the art of the sandwich been more developed and appreciated than in the United States. Sandwiches have always been to most Americans what pasta is to Italians or rice to Chinese. ... Ah, but lead me to a delicatessen where the corned beef is sliced by hand and stacked high and evenly on a Kaiser roll, or show me a well-trimmed Club sandwich on which the chicken is tender, the tomatoes, lettuce, and mayonnaise impeccably fresh, and the bacon plentiful and crisp. ... The first thing I seek out when visiting my native North Carolina is a chopped pit-cooked pork barbecue sandwich or plate of small country-ham biscuits moistened with red-eye gravy. ... If two pieces of sourdough bread filled with Dungeness crab and avocado represents for me a high point on any trip to San Francisco, just the thought of sinking my teeth into a turkey with Russian dressing on white, a hot pastrami or sardine on rye, a Reuben, or a lox and cream cheese on a split bagel at one of many New York delis is mouth-watering.

"Over the decades there has developed in this country a veritable repertory of sandwiches that can now only be termed classic American. Who can say in all honesty, for instance, that childhood would have had its same wonderment without those addictive peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crisp grilled cheese, creamy egg or tuna or chicken salad, hot dogs, and thick homemade hamburgers -- sandwiches which, for better or worse, few of us ever outgrow completely? From the various regions there emerged sandwiches that today have overall national appeal: pimiento cheese, oyster loaves, fried fish, and pork barbecue from the South; fried egg, hot dogs (German wursts), and hamburgers (German Hamburg chopped steak, introduced, as was the hot dog, at the St. Louis World's Fair) from the Midwest; Sloppy Joes, beef barbecue, and tacos from Texas and the Southwest; Cheesesteaks from Philadelphia; Silver Dollars, Denvers, Heroes, crab, and Monte Cristos from the West; lobster rolls, brisket, and baked beans and bacon from New England; and from New York City and vicinity, hot pastrami and corned beef, chopped chicken liver and onions, Reubens, sardine, lox and cream cheese, and Coney Island dogs.

"Pseudosophisticates who enjoy sneering at the great American sandwich might do well to thumb through the pages of none other than Escoffier, the distinguished French master who didn't think much about preparing dainty tea sandwiches but was fascinated enough by something called a Bookmaker to reproduce its lengthy recipe. Essentially this is an entire loaf of bread sliced in half, buttered and filled with a thick grilled steak seasoned with horseradish and mustard, wrapped in sheets of blotting paper, and squeezed tightly in a press for 1/2 hour. Now that is a sandwich."

Writing about food: Angelo Pellegrini, "The Unprejudiced Palate"

"I was not immediately impressed by the skyscrapers, the automobiles, and the roaring trains of the metropolitan centers along the eastern seaboard. ... What was immediately impressive were the food stalls; the huge displays of pastries and confections, the mountains of fish, flesh, and fowl; the crowded cafes, where the aristocrat -- or so he seemed -- sat beside the drayman in overalls, gulping coffee drawn from huge urns and soberly eating ham and eggs; eating such fare without any visible display of joy, as if in obedience to some distasteful duty -- as if it were yesterday's polenta! Ham and eggs! ... Ham and eggs with fried potatoes, stacks of buttered toast and coffee -- that was my first acquaintance with American food. It remains to this day my favorite dish. I would pay dearly for a gulp-to-gulp moving picture of myself, seated in a New York restaurant, a hungry immigrant urchin to the core, trying to counterfeit nonchalance as I wolfed my culinary cares away. And as I remembered the boot of earth across the water, where eggs had been too precious to be served with any regularity, and where coffee had been hoarded against the bellyache ... I said to myself ... America is good.

"Several years later I heard those identical words spoken by an Italian grocer to whom I had gone for provisions. It was in one of those intimate shops, none too tidy, crowded with sacks of beans, peas, lentils, ceci, barrels of olives, huge wheels of cheese and stacks of salami and dry cod, where the opulent and inefficient operator is more ready to chat than to sell. He took me into his dingy office, rolled back the top of some late executive's desk, as if he were about to show me his ledger or perhaps a recent issue of Practical Merchandising, and revealed loaves of bread, slabs of cheese, and several salami. He then pulled out a drawer, which in any sensible establishment would have catapulted a typewriter into view, and several bottles of wine emerged from the darkness. He locked the door to the establishment, sliced the salami, uncorked a bottle, and opened a can of olives. As he sat down and reached for the cheese, he mumbled, in his own version of English language, 'America ess gude. Today, leet the paesani spend the mawney in the safetyway store.'"

Writing about food: David Sedaris, Halloween candy (from "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim).

"The night after Halloween, we were sitting around watching TV when the doorbell rang ... to discover the entire Tomkey family on our front stoop. ... 'So, well, I guess we're trick-or-treating now, if that's okay,' Mr. Tomkey said. ... Asking for candy on Halloween was called trick-or-treating, but asking for candy on November first was called begging, and it made people uncomfortable. 'Why of course it's not too late,' my mother said. 'Kids, why don't you ... run and get ... the candy.' 'But the candy is gone,' my sister Gretchen said, 'You gave it away last night.' 'Not that candy,' my mother said. 'The other candy. Why don't you run and go get it?' 'You mean our candy?' Lisa said. 'The candy that we earned?'

"I knew that it was just a matter of time before she came into my room and started collecting the candy herself, grabbing indiscriminately, with no regard to my rating system. Had I been thinking straight, I would have hidden the most valuable items in my dresser drawer, but instead, panicked by the thought of her hand on my doorknob, I tore off the wrappers and began cramming the candy bars into my mouth, desperately, like someone in a contest. Most were miniature, which made them easier to accommodate, but still there was only so much room, and it was hard to chew and fit more in at the same time. ... I began breaking wax lips and candy necklaces pulled from pile no 2. These were the second-best things I had received, and while it hurt to destroy them, it would have hurt even more to give them away. I had just started to mutilate a miniature box of Red Hots when my mother pried them from my hands, accidentally finishing the job for me. BB-size pellets clattered onto the floor, and as I followed them with my eyes, she snatched up a roll of Necco wafers. ... Along with Necco wafers she took several Tootsie Pops and half a dozen caramels wrapped in cellophane. I heard her apologize to the Tomkeys for her absence, and then I heard my candy hitting the bottom of their bags."

Writing about food: the funeral dinner from Joris-Karl Huysmans' "Against Nature."

"One of these meals, modeled on an eighteenth-century original, had been a funeral feast to mark the most ludicrous of personal misfortunes. The dining-room, draped in black, opened out on to a garden metamorphosed for the occasion, the paths being basalt and filled with ink, and the shrubberies replanted with cypresses and pines. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth adorned with baskets of violets and scabious; candelabra shed an eerie green light over the table and tapers flickered in the chandeliers. ... Dining off black-bordered plates, the company had enjoyed turtle soup, Russian rye bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mullet botargo, black puddings from Frankfurt. game served in sauces the color of liquorice and boot-polish, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, plum-puddings, nectarines, pears in grape juice syrup, mulberries and black heart-cherries. From dark tinted glasses, they had drunk the wines of Limagne and Roussillon, of Tenedos, Valdepanas and Oporto. And after coffee and walnut cordial, they had rounded off the evening with knass, porter and stout. On the invitations, which were similar to those sent out before more solemn obsequies, this dinner was described as a funeral banquet in memory of the host's virility, lately but only temporarily deceased."

Writing about food: Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

"We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called 'paprika hendl,' and that, as it was the national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians. ... I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sorts of queer dreams. There was a dog howling all night under my window, which may have had something to do with it; or it may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty. ... I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour, which they said was 'mamaliga' and egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call 'impletata,' (Mem., get recipe for this also.)

"There are many odd things to put down, and, lest who reads them may fancy that I dined too well before I left Bistritz, let me put down my dinner exactly. I dined on what they call 'robber steak' -- bits of bacon, onion, and beef, seasoned with red pepper, and strung on sticks and roasted over the fire, in the simple style of the London cat's-meat! The wine was Golden Mediasch, which produces a queer sting on the tongue, which is, however, not disagreeable.

"He insisted on carrying my traps along the passage, and then up a great winding stair, and along another great passage, on whose stone floor our steps rang heavily. At the end of this he threw open a heavy door, and I rejoiced to see within a well-lit room in which a table was spread for supper, and on whose mighty hearth a great fire of logs flamed and flared. ... My host, who stood on one side of the great fireplace, leaning against the stone-work, made a graceful wave of his hand to the table, and said: 'I pray you, be seated and sup how you please. You will, I trust, excuse me that I do not join you; but I have dined already, and I do not sup.' The Count himself came forward and took off the cover of a dish, and I fell to at once on an excellent roast chicken. This, with some cheese and a salad and a bottle of old Tokay, of which I had two glasses, was my supper. During the time I was eating it the Count asked me many questions as to my journey, and I told him by degrees all I had experienced."

Writing about food: "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

"The schoolmaster ... is apt to occasion some little stir at the tea-table of a farmhouse, and the addition of a supernumerary dish of cakes or sweetmeats, or, peradventure, the parade of the silver teapot. ... Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvelous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him.

"The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of beech and hickorynuts, and the pervasive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble field. ... As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye ... ranged with delight over every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides be beheld vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Further on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields breathing the odor of the beehive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle ... .

"Such heaped up platters of cakes of various and almost indescribable kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives! There was the doughty doughnut, the tender oly koek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and honey cakes, and the whole family of cakes. And then there were apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and moreover delectable dishes of preserved plums, and peaches, and pears, and quinces; not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens; together with bowls of milk and cream, all mingled higgledy-piggledy, pretty much as I have enumerated them, with the motherly teapot sending up its clouds of vapor from the midst -- Heaven bless the mark!"

Writing about food: Laura Ingalls Wilder, "The Long Winter"

"'Hurry and get the work done,' said Ma. 'And then, Laura, you go to the corn-patch and bring me a green pumpkin. I'm going to make a pie!' ... Then Laura ran through the cool, misty rain to the corn-patch and lugged back the biggest green pumpkin. ... Ma put the crust in the pie pan and covered the bottom with brown sugar and spices. Then she filled the crust with thin slices of the green pumpkin. She poured half a cup of vinegar over them, put a small piece of butter on top, and laid the top crust over all. ... They ate slowly, taking small bites of the sweet spiciness to make it last as long as they could.

"'I'm glad I put beans to soak last night,' said Ma. She lifted the lid of the bubbling kettle and quickly popped in a spoonful of soda. The boiling beans roared, foaming up, but did not quite run over. 'There's a little bit of salt pork to put in them too,' Ma said. Now and then she spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda-water from the kettle and filled it again with water. She put in the bit of fat pork. ... The little shanty quivered in the storm. But the steamy smell of boiling beans was good and it seemed to make the air warmer. At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. ... Then Ma emptied the beans into a milk-pan, set the bit of fat pork in the middle, and laced the top with dribbles of molasses. They would have baked beans for supper.

"The black iron hopper in the top of the mill held half a cupful of the grain. ... The mill gave out its grinding noise. 'Wheat will grind just like coffee,' Ma said. She looked into the little drawer. The broken bits of wheat were crushed out flat. ... 'Can you make bread out of that?' Pa asked. 'Of course I can,' Ma replied. ... The brown bread that Ma made from the ground wheat was very good. It had a fresh, nutty flavor that almost seemed to take the place of butter."

Writing about food: Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine."

"Grandma, he had often wanted to say, Is this where the world began? ... Eyes shut to let his nose wander, he snuffed deeply. ... He saw bread waiting to be cut into slices of warm summer cloud, doughnuts strewn like clown hoops from some edible game. The faucets turned on and off in his cheeks. Here on the plum-shadowed side of the house with maple leaves making a creek-water running in the hot wind at the window he read spice-cabinet names. ... 'Cayenne, marjoram, cinnamon.' The names of lost and fabulous cities through which storms of spice bloomed up and dusted away. ... And looking at one single label on a jar ... The word was RELISH. ... RELISH! What a special name for the minced pickle sweetly crushed in its white-capped jar. ... He put out his hand. And here was -- SAVORY. ... 'Savory ... that's a swell word. And Basil and Betel. Capsicum. Curry. All great. But Relish, now, Relish with a capital R. No argument, that's the best.'

"If asked about her cooking, Grandma would look down at her hands which some glorious instinct sent on journeys to be gloved in flour, or to plumb disencumbered turkeys, wrist-deep in search for their animal souls. Her gray eyes blinked frorm spectacles warped by forty years of oven blasts and blinded with strewings of pepper and sage, so she sometimes flung cornstarch over steaks, amazingly tender, succulent steaks! And sometimes dropped apricots into meat loaves, cross-pollinated meats, herbs, fruits, vegetables with no prejudice, no tolerance for recipe or formula, save that at the final moment of delivery, mouths watered, blood thundered in response. Her hands then, like the hands of Great-grandma before her, were Grandma's mystery, delight, and life. She looked at them in astonishment, but let them live their life the way they must absolutely lead it."

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