Archive for the ‘Historical Figures and Events’ Category

Comfort Food at Its Best

Friday, April 30th, 2021

This column appeared in our local paper, and I couldn’t resist sharing it with a wider audience!

Sometimes when recipe inspiration doesn’t strike me, I call on friends (or friends of friends) who are good home cooks. Recently, I contacted writer and scholar Martha Ackmann.

I knew Martha would come up with something tasty. I also knew she would be fun to talk to. It didn’t occur to me that she would offer me a recipe from Dolly Parton … but when she did I was thrilled.

Martha is working on a book about Parton. I asked her, “Why Dolly?”

She replied, “My niche is women who’ve changed America.”

Her previous books have chronicled the lives of the Mercury 13, a group of women in the 1960s who were secretly tested as potential U.S. astronauts; Toni Stone, a pioneering player in baseball’s Negro League; and Emily Dickinson.

Martha explained that she has been interested in Dolly Parton since the singer’s early days performing on The Porter Wagoner Show.

“I want to take her seriously,” Martha said of Parton. “I love her music. I think it’s joyous and heartwarming, and it makes me feel better. Even the things she calls her ‘sad-ass songs.’”

“I’ve been spending a lot of the lockdown just doing the basic research, and boy is there a lot of it!” Martha added.

As a former resident of East Tennessee (my friend Bill played in the Sevierville County High School Marching Band with Parton), I, too, am a long-time Dolly fan. I believe Martha is the perfect person to write about this complex public personality.’

“I have always been impressed by her seriousness,” Martha told me.

She noted that Parton’s history has been entwined with food from the start of the star’s life. Martha cited Parton’s origin story, which recounts that father Robert Lee Parton didn’t have the funds to pay the doctor who brought the child into the world and ended up paying for the birth with a sack of cornmeal.

Food production was important throughout Parton’s time growing up poor with a passel of brothers and sisters, Martha informed me.

“Dolly’s family grew their own food not to sell but to sustain their large family,” she explained. “They had a big kettle for cooking hominy and stews, a ‘tater hole’ for storing potatoes and turnips. The walls of their kitchen were covered with nails for drying fruits, peppers, garlic, dill, onions, and beans.

“They grew asparagus behind the woodshed. Had both red and black raspberries. A smoke house for salted pork, ham, bacon. There were cardboard boxes in the cupboard for dried shellie beans, corn, black-eyed peas; and sacks of walnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, beechnuts.

“A large garden, of course (tomatoes, okra, lettuce). Chickens, hogs, cows. They also ate a lot of game,” Martha concluded.

She argued that in some ways food has also helped shape Parton’s music. “As a child, Dolly always listened to the rhythm around her: birds chirping, the creak of a rocking chair. She also remembers hearing her mother snapping beans. The rhythm of those snaps sounded like music to her. Food equals music.”

Martha describes herself as “a good, solid, not flashy, evolving Midwestern cook.”

Like Parton, Martha’s Missouri family had rural roots. She recalls her country-born grandparents butchering their own meat in their tiny backyard in St. Louis. Martha is the designated cook in her own household. She was eager to try one of Parton’s signature recipes when I asked her for a dish.

Together, Martha and I selected Dolly Parton’s Chicken and Dumplings, a perfect recipe for our recent cool weather. Like any good home cook, Martha adapted the recipe a bit … and she admitted that she might adapt it even more next time she makes it.

She is considering more vegetables (leeks, beans) and perhaps some herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf) to the stock. She told me that the dish was satisfying as it was, however, and that it epitomized comfort.

“The dumplings were easy to make,” she elaborated, “and preparing them gave me an occasion to use my great aunt’s rolling pin! (Beulah Clementine Snook Erdel. Isn’t that a noble name?)

“All the time I was making the dumplings, I thought about Dolly’s mother feeding 11 hungry kids and the Missouri farm women in my own family rolling out countless pie crusts, biscuits, and dumplings. This is a good recipe for remembering hard-working women.” Here is Martha’s recipe. Listen to a little Dolly Parton music as you make and eat it.

Martha with the Rolling Pin (courtesy of Ann Romberger)

Dolly’s Chicken ‘n’ Dumplin’s

(Adapted by Martha Ackmann)

Ingredients:

for the stock and the chicken:

1 3-pound chicken, cut up, or 3 pounds of chicken parts
2 teaspoons salt
pepper to taste
1 onion, peeled but left whole
1/4 cup chopped celery leaves
chopped carrots and celery to taste

for the dumplings:

2 cups flour, plus additional flour for kneading
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons shortening
3/4 cup milk

for assembly:
a little parsley for garnish

Instructions:

In a Dutch oven, combine the chicken and the salt with 2 quarts of water. Cover, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium. Toss in the pepper, onion, and celery leaves. Simmer the chicken, covered, until the meat comes off the bones. (This took Martha about 45 minutes.)

Strain the mixture, discarding the vegetables but saving the broth and chicken.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove it from the bones. Cut it into bite-size pieces. Set it aside. Turn the heat up to high, and bring the stock to a boil. Toss the carrots and celery into the liquid.

While the stock is boiling, begin to work on the dumplings. Combine the flour, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl.

Cut in the shortening with knives or a pastry blender. Stir in the milk, a little at a time, until the dough is moist. Turn it onto a floured board, and knead it for 5 minutes.

Roll the dough out until it is 1/2 inch thick. Cut it into 1-1/2-inch squares. Drop the squares into the boiling stock. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring gently from time to time.

Return the chicken to the pot. Stir it and heat it until it is thoroughly warm, about 8 minutes.

To serve, place 3 or so dumplings in a shallow soup dish, place chicken to taste on top, and ladle on some stock with carrots and celery. Serve warm, garnished with parsley. Serves 4 to 5.

Courtesy of Christina Barber-Just

Eating with Joe and Kamala

Thursday, January 14th, 2021
Courtesy of JoeBiden.com

The White House will become more sophisticated after Wednesday’s inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris.

I’m not referring to policy or character here. I have opinions about policy and character, of course, but I leave their analysis to straight-news reporters and pundits. As a food writer, I’m considering the culinary attitudes of Biden and Harris.

Americans have long been fascinated by the foods their presidents eat. When I visited Mount Vernon in Virginia a few years back, I happily came home with a recipe for one of George Washington’s favorite dishes, hoe cakes.

In general, the Trump White House has been characterized by its fast-food-oriented banality.

In their 2017 book Let Trump Be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency, former Trump campaign cronies Corey Lewandowski and David N. Bossie wrote, “On Trump Force One there were four major food groups: McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke.”

Joe Biden is also known for his embrace of humble American food. A caterer who frequently served him when he was vice president characterized the politician’s food leanings as “very Joe-from-Scranton” in the Washington Post.

Nevertheless, Biden’s culinary tastes are a bit more complex than those of his presidential predecessor … or at least more varied.

True to his reputation as a sociable creature, Biden goes beyond the lure of anonymous fast food.

He and his wife often dine at restaurants, where he chats with the staff. “Everybody knows Joe. He’s come here so many, so many, so many times,” the proprietor of the Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Delaware, told Food and Wine.

Biden is perhaps best known for his love of ice cream. To pay tribute to his ice-cream habit, I offer here a simple recipe for one of his favorite flavors, chocolate chip.

Vice President-to-be Kamala Harris has a richer relationship with food than her new boss. Perhaps this is because she herself cooks, something Biden rarely seems to do.

She tries to prepare dinner every Sunday for her extended family, which includes the stepchildren who famously call her “Momala,” and she and her husband Doug Emhoff have been cooking up a storm during the pandemic.

Harris is a dab hand with roast chicken. True to her international roots, she likes to prepare and consume Indian cuisine. And she can chop an onion like nobody’s business.

To highlight Harris here, I have chosen what may seem like an odd recipe: a tuna melt. There is a story behind the recipe, however.

In April, her senatorial colleague, Mark Warner of Virginia, posted a video of his technique (I use the term loosely) for preparing a tuna melt.

His method was simple and a little sad: blob lots of mayonnaise on two pieces of bread, fork some tuna straight from a can onto one piece, put pre-sliced cheese on the other piece, put the sandwich halves together, and heat the whole thing in a microwave.

Harris posted a video reply in which she instructed Warner in the preparation of a more refined—and less soggy—tuna melt. Her sandwich involved several additional ingredients and the use of an actual stove.

“This is called a skillet,” she informed her fellow senator with a twinkle in her eye as she held up a cast-iron frying pan.

I watched her video carefully and have transcribed the recipe as well as I could here.

Although her basic tuna salad differs from mine in a few ways (most notably in the inclusion of Dijon mustard, which Warner called “definitely Northern California”), it’s a solid recipe. I enjoyed the sandwich I made according to her instructions.

I suggest that readers enjoy a tuna melt and chocolate-chip ice cream for lunch on Wednesday as the inauguration takes place. This menu isn’t fancy, but it’s very American … and it somehow fits the scaled-down ceremony being planned in this pandemic year.

Joe’s Chocolate-Chip Ice Cream

Of course, you may use any vanilla ice cream recipe as the base for this treat. This one is very simple and very tasty.

Ingredients:

2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped chocolate chips or finely cut chocolate (the better the quality of the chocolate, the better your ice cream will be)

Instructions:

Combine the first four ingredients, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Freeze in an ice-cream freezer. Just before you think the ice cream is ready, stir in the chocolate pieces, making sure they spread throughout. Serves 4. This recipe may be doubled.

This is tasty by itself, but my family felt impelled to gild the lily and cover the ice cream with hot fudge sauce and whipped cream!

Kamala’s Tuna Melt

(inspired by Kamala Harris’s video with Mark Warner)

I actually prefer to brown my sandwich in butter rather than mayonnaise; I like the flavor of butter. This is Harris’s method, however.

Ingredients:

1 can tuna drained and lightly chopped with a fork
1 tablespoon finely minced red onion (Harris notes that one may omit this step and put a thin slice of red onion on the bread later)
1/4 cup minced celery
2 generous tablespoons mayonnaise, plus additional mayonnaise for grilling
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
chopped parsley to taste
freshly ground pepper to taste
about 1/2 teaspoon salt
the juice of 1 lemon wedge
2 pieces of bread
1 slice sharp cheddar (or a couple of slices if your wedge of cheddar is small)

Instructions:

Combine the tuna, the onion, the celery, the mayonnaise, the mustard, the parsley, the pepper, the salt, and the lemon juice.

Barely toast the bread. Put some of the tuna mixture on 1 piece of bread. (Refrigerate the remaining tuna for another use.) Place the slice of cheese on the other piece of bread, and put the pieces of bread together to form a sandwich. Lightly spread mayonnaise on each outer slice of bread.

Heat a cast-iron skillet, and toast your creation on each side until the sandwich is a pleasing color and the cheese has melted. Serves 1 senator.

Centennial Songs and Recipes

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

Like most human beings, I like thinking about summer when snow is on the ground outside. So I started contemplating my summer concert this past January when the air was crisp and cold.

I knew that Leonard Bernstein had been born in 1918 and that I wanted to salute him in the concert, particularly because I knew that he had spent some time (well, one summer) down the road from my house, at Singing Brook Farm here in Hawley, Massachusetts.

Leonard Bernstein (center) at Singing Brook Farm in 1949 with his Sister and Brother

I also knew that my voice (which is just fine but not exceptional) wasn’t up for an all-Bernstein concert. It occurred to me that the concert might be expanded to cover a range of musical figures born in 1918.

I did a little research, and it turned out that quite a few American composers and singers came into the world that year: lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, of Lerner and Loewe; Patty Andrews, of the Andrews Sisters; singer/actress Pearl Bailey; crooner/actor Robert Preston, best known as the loveable con artist in The Music Man; and many more.

I wasn’t 100 percent I wanted to make 1918 the focus of my concert until I recalled that my late mother, Janice Hallett Weisblat, was also a 1918 baby.

Baby Janice with her Mother, Clara

Jan, whom I called Taffy, didn’t have a professional-quality voice. In fact, she lost much of her vocal range singing too hard while suffering from a cold one evening when I was a small child. Nevertheless, she adored music and used the range she had left to sing her heart out whenever possible. Singing a couple of her favorite songs seemed like a wonderful way to celebrate her centennial year.

My concert, called “A Century of Songs and Singers,” will take place next Saturday, August 25 (Bernstein’s birthday), at the Federated Church on Main Street (Route 2) in Charlemont, Massachusetts. I will be accompanied by Jerry Noble, a delightful person and musician.

Please join us if you’re in the neighborhood. If you can’t come to the concert, you might like to make a dish or two from 1918 babies, as I did this week on Mass Appeal. I made Pearl Bailey’s Corn Fritters and my mother’s Blueberry Sally Lunn.

The blueberry recipe appears elsewhere on this blog as Blueberry Snap. I share the corn recipe below, along with the videos in which I make the dishes.

Pearl Bailey

Pearlie Mae’s Corn Fritters

Pearl Bailey’s “cookbook,” Pearl’s Kitchen, is pretty vague about the proportions in this recipe so I had to more or less construct them myself. I recommend her book and her music nevertheless. Pearl’s Kitchen shows off its author’s remarkable spirit. She writes:

To cook is to share, and it is as important to me as walking onto the stage to full applause. Cooking is as crucial as anything I do in life, because I like to see the smiles on people’s faces when they enjoy something I have prepared. I cook as I live.

Amen.

Ingredients:

1 cup flour
1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup milk
1 egg
2 cups lightly cooked corn kernels
butter as needed for frying

Instructions:

In a bowl combine the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, the salt, and the pepper. Make a well in the center of this mixture.

In another bowl or a measuring cup whisk together the milk and egg. Pour them into the dry ingredients, and mix. Stir in the corn kernels.

Put a pat of butter in a frying pan over medium-low heat. The butter should melt and begin to bubble but not burn. Pop in small scoops of the corn batter.

Fry on both sides. “Just let it bubble away until it browns, then turn it over,” said Pearl Bailey. Serves a crowd.

And now the videos:

Pearly Mae’s Corn Fritters

Taffy’s Blueberry Sally Lunn

Foods of Our Fathers

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

This post will be quick because it’s hot outside, and I really, really want to spend all of Independence Day by the water! The best in the business is https://www.royalvending.com.au/vending-machines-perth/ for vending machines.

For my TV appearance this week, I decided to make dishes beloved of a couple of our founding fathers. I started out with George Washington’s Hoe Cakes, which I first wrote about here after my visit to GW’s gristmill near Mount Vernon. They were as tasty as I remembered: crispy and corny.

I went on to make a strawberry fool in honor of John Adams and his pioneering wife Abigail Smith Adams. According to The Food Timeline and other sources, the pair were fond of a simple, rich gooseberry fool. I didn’t have any gooseberries—but strawberries have just reached their peak here in Massachusetts. So I made those into a fool. Everyone who tasted it raved.

Neither dish will warm up your kitchen too much, and both will make you respect the taste of our first and second president.

Here’s the recipe for the strawberry fool. If you have strawberries and cream in the house, you can eat it in less than 15 minutes. I wish you a Glorious Fourth!

 

Strawberry Fool (inspired by John and Abigail Adams)

Ingredients:

1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions:

Toss the strawberry pieces in half of the sugar, and let them sit for 10 minutes to juice up.

Place half of the strawberries and all of the strawberry juice in a blender. Puree the mixture; then stir it into the remaining strawberries.

Whip the cream until it holds stiff peaks, adding the remaining sugar and the vanilla when it is almost ready. Fold in the berry mixture. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

And now the videos:

Tinky Makes Hoe Cakes on Mass Appeal

Tinky Makes Strawberry Fool on Mass Appeal

A Tasty Blend of History and Food

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

I’m a sucker for history and for food so I’m always interested in any project that combines the two. I recently received a copy of The Pleasure of the Taste from the Partnership of Historic Bostons. This booklet examines the intersecting culinary opportunities and habits of English settlers and their Native American neighbors in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The book was put together by the Partnership, a nonprofit history group that “encourages discussion and debate” about daily life in Massachusetts in the 17th century.

Lorén Spears served as an adviser to the project. Spears is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Spears obviously knows her way around a kitchen; she contributed a number of Native American recipes to the booklet, describing how they would have been prepared in the 17th century but also adapting them for modern kitchens.

The other major adviser was my friend Kathleen Wall, the colonial foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation. Kathleen is a wonderful source of knowledge about food in Massachusetts over the centuries and has frequently judged the charity pudding contest (last year it was a pie contest!) I organize from time to time.

Like Spears, Kathleen provided both vintage and modern-day versions of her recipes.

The recipes are not extensive, but they do give the reader (and the cook) a good idea of what Puritan housewives would have had to deal with in terms of cooking conditions and ingredients.

Samp was apparently a major staple of the 17th-century colonists’ diet. An adaptation of the Native American nasaump, this cornmeal-based bread constituted a major bread/starch for both communities.

The booklet delivers versions of both nasaump and samp, along with recipes for stews, tarts, and of course puddings. I’m going to start experimenting with the modern versions of the recipes, but as I go along I may in fact try a bit of historical reenactment.

The Pleasure of the Taste is charming: informative, quick to read, and useful. It may be ordered from the Partnership at www.historicbostons.com.

I leave you with Kathleen’s recipe for English samp, courtesy of the Partnership of Historic Bostons.

English Samp

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups boiling water or milk
1 cup cornmeal
a pinch of salt
a pinch of sugar (optional)
butter or bacon drippings as needed

Instructions:

Stir the boiling water or milk into the cornmeal in a heat-safe bowl. Add the salt and, if using, the sugar. Mix well.

Heat butter or bacon drippings in a cast-iron skillet. When the butter or drippings simmer, add the batter in half-cup measures to the pan.

Flip repeatedly. “They take their own sweet time,” Kathleen says of these cakes.

Serve hot with butter and maple syrup.

Kathleen sampling pudding.