Literary Eats: At Home on the Range

While unpacking boxes of old family books recently, author Elizabeth Gilbert rediscovered a dusty, yellowed hardcover called At Home on the Range, originally written by her great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter. Having only been peripherally aware of the volume, Gilbert dug in with some curiosity, and soon found that she had stumbled upon a book far ahead of its time. Part scholar and part crusader for a more open food conversation, Potter espoused the importance of farmer’s markets and ethnic food (Italian, Jewish, and German), derided preservatives and culinary shortcuts, and generally celebrated a devotion to epicurean adventures. Reading this practical and humorous cookbook, it’s not hard to see that Gilbert inherited her great-grandmother’s love of food and her warm, infectious prose.

The excerpt below, from the chapter entitled “Egg Yourself on in Emergencies,” is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly perfect things written. Ever.

The second inexpensive assistant to have in your icebox for quick meals is cold boiled potatoes, dull as it sounds, but their variations are almost as endless as those of eggs.

Hashed browns are my first thought, probably because I spent most of my young summer days on the New Jersey coast and a plate of crusty potatoes, soft inside and turned omelet-fashion from the sizzling pan always brings back memories of numerous fishing picnics and I can almost smell the driftwood smoke and see the sun setting over the water. The party generally consisted of three or four young sportsmen and the fortunate (so we thought) girls of their choice, and we started early and eagerly planning and providing food for our Izaak Waltons.

First, we’d have two stuffed eggs apiece, made as I have told you, each half carefully clapped onto its mate and the whole wrapped in wax paper. Then a quart jar or so of whole peeled ripe tomatoes and a smaller one of sharp French dressing, thick with slices of onion and chopped celery, and perhaps a washed, chilly head of lettuce, well wrapped. One of the embryo housewives would produce a cake or a pie, for in those days girls thought their swains were impressed by their culinary skill, and with a great paper bag of cold boiled white potatoes and a pound or two of sliced bacon we were ready to go, accompanied by rattling frying pans, plates, cups, cutlery and a coffee pot.

A trip by canoe or sailboat to the beach, and the boys busied themselves building a fire and then vanished with their fishing rods while we got ready for their return in what we felt was a truly domestic fashion. Coffee and water were measured into the big pot and set aside. The tomatoes and dressing were put in a shady, cool place, bread was sliced and buttered, and all hands began peeling and dicing the potatoes. At dusk, just before we expected our fishermen back, we started all the bacon frying and then put the brown slices to drain on a bit of paper. Some of the grease was saved for the fish that seemingly never failed to appear with the boys and into about ½ inch of the grease that was left went the diced potatoes and a few pieces of chopped onion and lots of salt and pepper. The whole mass was well pressed down into the hot pan and then moved to a “medium” corner of the fire, there to remain for about half an hour.

When the fishing had been unusually good and we needed no extra meat, the bacon was broken up in the potatoes just before we served them, otherwise it went in between our buttered slices of bread. How good the ice-cold tomatoes with their spicy dressing tasted with the broiled fresh fish we basted with the bacon drippings, and how we argued over who should get the last crumb of brown potato before the pan was taken to the edge of the beach for its scrub with sand and sea water! Then big cups of strong black coffee and huge pieces of cake or pie and, while the sun set, someone stirred up the fire and a young voice started ‘Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee’ or maybe a newer song like ‘By the Beautiful Sea.’ Is it any wonder I like hashed brown potatoes?

But even without my memories, try them made just the same way on a prosaic stove. Let the boiled potatoes be cold and dry and have the bacon grease and skillet hot. For home consumption a few chopped onion tops or chives are better than the lustier sliced onion, and a dusting of chopped parsley makes them more delicate. The finished product, with some of our faithful poached eggs resting on top and the bacon curled about the edge, is a one-dish luncheon that any man, particularly, will relish. Sliced tomatoes in sharp dressing just like that made at the picnic, hot coffee, gingerbread from a good package mix, topped with marshmallows when it’s half baked, fruit—and how long has it taken you? Not more than half an hour, including setting the table.

“At Home on the Range” by Margaret Yardley Potter. McSweeney’s, March 2012

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Literary Eats: Show Boat

showboatDid you know that the notes in the refrain of “Cotton Blossom” are the inverted notes of the refrain of “Old Man River.”  Go ahead, sing it in your head:  Cot-ton Blossom……Old Man River.  See?  Now good luck getting that out of your head.

We’re speaking, of course, of the musical Show Boat, which was based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber.  I took a compilation of five of her novels out of the library, because I actually wanted to read Saratoga Trunk.  But Show Boat was there and it won the mental coin toss and I read it first.  I hadn’t read anything by Edna Ferber before and was just blown away by her writing.  Her sentence structure and cadence make the paragraphs read like songs.  And her sensory descriptions are beyond everything.  You don’t read Show Boat, you see, hear, smell, feel, touch and eat it.  The food was unbelievable!  So much so that I felt compelled to dust off “Literary Eats” and share some of these passages.

Begin with how the mischievous and Gallic Captain Andy Hawks convinces his staunch, Puritanical wife Parthy of his plan to buy the Mississippi river show boat Cotton Blossom:

“‘…And will you look at the way the kitchen looks, spite of ’em.  Slick’s a whistle.  Look at the stove!’  Crafty Andy.

Parthenia Ann Hawks looked at the stove.  And what a stove it was!  Broad-bosomed, ample, vast, like a huge fertile black mammal whose breast would suckle numberless eager sprawling bubbling pots and pans.  It shone richly.  Gazing upon this generous expanse you felt that from its source could emerge nothing that was not savoury, nourishing, satisfying.  Above it, and around the walls, on hooks, hung rows of pans and kettlesof every size and shape, all neatly suspended by their pigtails.  Here was the wherewithal for boundless cooking.  You pictured whole hams, sizzling; fowls neatly trussed in rows; platoons of brown loaves; hampers of green vegetables; vast plateaus of pies.  Crockery, thick, white, coarse, was piled, plate on plate, platter on platter, behind the neat doors of the pantry.  A supplementary and redundant kerosene stove stood obligingly in the corner.

‘Little hot snack at night, after the show,’ Andy explained.  ‘Coffee or an egg, maybe, and no lighting the big wood burner.’

There crept slowly, slowly over Parthy’s face a look of speculation, and this in turn was replaced by an expression that was, paradoxically, at once eager and dreamy…”

The boat is bought and a new life begun.  Parthy is slow and reluctant to embrace it, but Andy is in his element, and so is his French lineage:

“Certainly it was due to Andy more than Parthy that the Cotton Blossom was reputed the best-fed show boat on the rivers.  He was always bringing home in triumph a great juicy ham, a side of beef.  He liked to forage the season’s first and best:  a bushel of downy peaches, fresh-picked; watermelons; little honey-sweet seckel pears; a dozen plump broilers; new corn; a great yellow cheese ripe for cutting.

“He would plump his purchases down on the kitchen table while Queenie surveyed his booty, hands on ample hips.  She never resented his suggestions, though Parthy’s offended her.  Capering, Andy would poke a forefinger into a pullet’s fat sides.  ‘Rub ’em over with a little garlic, Queenie, to flavour ’em up.  Plenty of butter and strips of bacon.  Cover ’em over till they’re tender and then give ’em a quick brown the last twenty minutes.”

It’s a magical, fantastic life for Magnolia, Andy and Parthy’s precocious daughter.  She has the run of the ship from bow to stern, from stage to dressing rooms, from the captain’s wheel high above, to the kitchen far beneath, and it’s here she spends some of her happiest hours:

“Magnolia liked to loiter in the big, low-raftered kitchen.  It was a place of pleasant smells and sights and sounds.  It was here that she learned Negro spirituals from Jo and cooking from Queenie, both of which accomplishments stood her in good stead in later years.  Queenie had, for example, a way of stuffing a ham for baking.  It was a fasincating process to behold, and one that took hours.  Spices – bay, thyme, onion, clove, mustard, allspice, pepper – chopped and mixed and stirred together.  A sharp-pointed knife plunged deep into the juicy ham.  The incision stuffed with the spicy mixture.  Another plunge with the knife.  Another filling.  Again and again and again until the great ham had grown to twice its size.  Then a heavy clean white cloth, needle and coarse thread.  Sewed up tight and plump in its jacket the ham was immersed in a pot of water and boiled.  Out when tender, the jacket removed; into the oven with it.  Basting and basting from Queenie’s long-handled spoon.  The long sharp knife again for cutting, and then the slices, juicy and scented, with the stuffing of spices making a mosaic pattern against the pink of the meat…”

Magnolia meets Gay Ravenal, a professional gambler who turns actor, but never loses the itch for the game.  After they are married, he convinces Magnolia to move to Chicago with their daughter Kim, where their life is dictated by whichever way the Ravenal luck runs.  Where fortune goes, the food follows.  “If the Ravenal luck was high, [breakfast] was eaten in leisurely luxury at Billy Boyle’s Chop House between Clark and Dearborn streets.” 

“In came the brokers from the Board of Trade across the way.  Smoke-blue air.  The rich heavy smell of thick steaks cut from prime Western beef.  Massive glasses of beer through which shone the pale amber of light brew, or the seal-brown of dark.  The scent of strong black coffee.   Rye bread pungent with caraway.  Little crisp round breakfast rolls sprinkled with poppy-seed.

This is 1870s Chicago, before it “got civic” – young, raw, bustling, coarse, when:

“Calories, high blood pressure, vegetable luncheons, golf, were words not yet included in the American everyday vocabulary.  Fried potatoes were still considered a breakfast dish, and a meatless meal was a snack.”

We learn of the culture of the professional gambler, and of Chicago’s numerous gambling establishments.  Gay Ravenal favors Mike McDonald’s “The Store”, and who wouldn’t:

“Ravenal might interrupt his game to eat something, but this was not his rule.  He ate usually after he had finished his play for the day.  It was understood that he and the others of his stamp were the guests of McDonald or of Hankins.  Twenty-five-cent cigars were to be had for the taking.  Drinks of every description.  Hot food of the choicest sort and of almost any variety could be ordered and eaten as though this were one’s own house, and the servants at one’s command.  Hot soups and broths.  Steaks.  Chops.  Hot birds.  You could eat this at a little white-spread table alone, or with your companions, or you could have it brought to you as you played.  On long tables in the adjoining room were spread the cold viands – roast chickens, tongue, sausages, cheese, joints of roast beef, salads.  Everything about the place gave to its habitués the illusion of plenty, of ease, of luxury…”

Luck continues to dictate the room and board of the Ravenals, such as at Cardinal Bemis’ famous place on Michigan Avenue:

“He would ask suavely, ‘What kind of a dinner, Mr. Ravenal?’  If Gay replied, ‘Oh – uh – a cocktail and a little red wine,’ Cardinal Bemis knew that luck was only so-so, and that the dinner was to be good, but plainish.  But if, in reply to the tactful question, Gay said, magnificently, ‘A cocktail, Cardinal; claret, sauterne, champagne, and liqueurs,’ Bemis knew that Ravenal had had a real run of luck and prepared the canvasbacks boiled in champagne; or there were squabs or plover, with all sorts of delicacies, and the famous frozen watermelon that had been plugged, filled with champagne, put on ice for a day, and served in such chunks of scarlet fragrance as made the nectar and ambrosia of the gods seem poor, flavourless fare indeed.”

A reversal of fortune could quickly put the Ravenals in a rooming house on “Gambler’s Alley” where weak coffee and single eggs are made over a gas jet in the room, and Magnolia hoards the nickels that will allow her and her daughter a trolley ride to the park on Lake Shore Drive.  And then, just as quickly, the luck can turn again:

“It was no novelty for Kim Ravenal to fall asleep in the dingy discomfort of a north side rooming house and to wake up amidst the bright luxuriousness of a hotel suite, without ever having been conscious of the events which had wrought this change.  Instead of milk out of the bottle and an egg cooked over the gas jet, there was a shining breakfast tray bearing mysterious round-domed dishes whose covers you whipped off to disclose what not of savoury delights!  Crisp curls of bacon, parsley-decked; eggs baked and actually bubbling in a brown crockery container; hot golden buttered toast.  And her mother calling gaily in from the next room, ‘Drink your milk with your breakfast, Kim darling!  Don’t gulp it all down in one swallow at the end.'”

As their circumstances become more dire, the descriptions of food grow more meagre and infrequent, and after Ravenal’s desertion and the decline of the river boat era, the food of bygone days becomes a dream.  But what a dream indeed…

Orange Couscous Supreme

Trawling the leftovers from my local library’s annual Book Sale (“Free!” said the sign, “Help Yourselves!”) I found Kim Sunée’s Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and the Search for Home.    I took it down to Lavallette with me and I really, really wanted to love this book.  It started out very promising, with sumptuous descriptions of the cuisines of New Orleans, Stockholm and France.  But halfway through, I was becoming annoyed with Keem.  Three-quarters through I wanted to smack her.  By the end I was just skimming from recipe to recipe.  The food was amazing but frankly I couldn’t stomach any more of her search for home.

Anyway, one recipe that immediately jumped out at me was an orange couscous salad.  It sounded perfect beach house fare.  It was mine and Jeeps’ night to cook dinner for 14: we had chicken breasts marinating in Ken’s Steakhouse dressing, and shrimp marinating separately for kebabs.  My brother-in-law was out crabbing and undoubtedly would be bringing in a catch.

   

I thought the couscous salad would go great with the mixed grill so I ran out to the local A & P to gather ingredients and whipped it up.  It was a little labor-intensive but all-in-all a great success.  Even my brother-in-law, who is no fan of couscous, liked it a lot.  And he wasn’t just being nice.

I doubled the recipe given below, skipped some things and added others.  It’s one of those dishes that you make by the recipe once and then improvise ever after.  And you’ll notice that I brought my cutting board and knives down to Lavallette which is quite possibly the smartest thing I’ve done.  Ever.

And before we begin, a short tangent on sectioning oranges, which was harder than it sounds.  I knew the basic technique of cutting a slice off the top and bottom to stabilize the orange, then cutting the peel and pith off lengthwise, then cutting between the sections to get your supremes, as the French say.  But this method resulted in the orange falling apart, miserably small chunks of orange clinging to large shreds of membrane, and a growing fear of slicing into my hand.  My brother-in-law had already taken a trip to the ER after a mishap cleaning his crabbing knife, so I resorted to the grapefruit method of cutting the orange across horizontally, then cutting out the half-sections with my paring knife (also brought from home because my pants are smart).  This worked out much better.

Orange Couscous and the Supremes Salad

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 10-oz box plain couscous
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 oranges
  • 2 tbsps chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tbsps chopped mint leaves (I skipped, I’m not a fan of mint so I doubled up on parsley)
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 1 cup golden raisins, currants or chopped dates (I skipped)
  • 1 cup snow peas, roughly chopped (my own addition)
  • 1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, halved (my own addition)

Bring water to a boil.  Put couscous, onion and snow peas in a large serving bowl and add water, stir, cover with plastic and let steam 5 minutes.  Fluff with fork.  Stir in olive oil, salt and pepper.  Set aside and let cool.

Zest both oranges and juice one of them.  Remove peel and pith of second orange and cut into sections.

  

Add zest and chopped orange to couscous.  Stir in parsley (and/or mint), tomatoes, cucumber, and the fruit if you’re using it.  Cover and chill in refrigerator 1 hour and up to 2 days.  Taste before serving and add more salt, pepper, olive oil, juice if needed.

  

Literary Eats: All-of-a-Kind-Family

The All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor was probably among the most beloved of my childhood books.   I took them out repeatedly from the Croton Free Library, those wonderful books about the five little girls growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, circa 1910.  As well as telling the engaging tales of the close-knit sisters, their extended family and community, the books also serve to educate on Jewish traditions and culture, and food figures very very prominently.

One day Mama takes her girls along as she shops for the Sabbath on Rivington Street.  Each daughter has a daily allowance of one penny, and there are no ends of goodies on which to spend it.  Observe, though, that these girls gravitate toward the savory snacks, as well as the sweets:

At the next corner, Henny bought a fat, juicy sour pickle with her after-lunch penny.  She ate it greedily, with noise and gusto, while her sisters watched, their mouths watering.  “Selfish!  How about giving us a taste, huh?”  Henny pretended she didn’t hear them, but before the pickle was half gone, she stopped teasing and gave each a bite.

The sweet potato man did not mind the cold.  Why should he when he had his nice hot street oven to push before him?  When Ella caught sight of him, she said at once, “Just the thing for a cold day.”  The sweet potato man stopped before her and pulled open one of the drawers of his oven.  There arose on the air such a delicious smell that Ella smacked her lips expectantly.  Inside she saw the plump sweet potatoes in their gray jackets.  Some were cut open in halves and their rich golden color gave promise of great sweetnetss.  For her penny, Ella got a large half and as she bit into it, she wondered why sweet potatoes baked at home never tasted half so good.  When she rejoined the family, four other mouths helped make short work of that potato.

Gertie turned to Charlotte.  “What’ll we buy with our pennies?”  The answer to that question was just then coming along the street.  Candied slices of tangerine and candied grapes mounted on sticks lay in rows on white trays.  The peddler stopped when he heard Gertie’s delighted cry.  “Penny a stick, little darlings,” he said.  Charlotte chose grape and Gertie took tangerine.  Thus two more pennies were spent.

“Arbis!  Shaynicke, guttinke arbislach!  Keuf meine heise arbis!”

The hot chick pea peddler was singing the words over and over in a funny Yiddish chant as he rolled a small white oven along the streets…Sarah decided to give her penny up to him.  Everyone watched as he fished out the peas.  First he took a small square of white paper from a little compartment on one side of the oven.  He twirled the paper about his fingers to form the shape of a cone and then skillfully twisted the pointed end so that the container would not fall apart.  He lifted the wagon cover on one side revealing a large white enamel pot.  The steam from the pot blew its hot breath in the little girls’ faces so they stepped back a bit while the peas were ladled out with a big soup spoon.  The wagon cover was dropped back into place and the paper cup handed over to Sarah.  The peas were spicy with pepper and salt and how good they were!  They warmed up the children’s tummies and made them very thirsty.

The next day’s Sabbath dinner is, as always, a feast:  “Gefullte fish, chicken soup with homemade noodles, roast chicken, carrots prepared in a sweet way, and applesauce.”  Food and meals from other religious feasts and holidays are lovingly detailed, as are the occasional snacks the girls are treated to by their neighborhood grocer, Mr. Basch, such as  flavored soda crackers and bits of smoked lox.  At the local candy store owned by Mrs. Blumberg, sweets are sold by the half-penny, and nobody is better at pulling more fun out of a red cent than the two youngest daughters, Charlotte and Gertie.  In one of the book’s most delightful chapters (“Who Cares if It’s Bedtime?”) they buy a penny’s worth of chocolate babies from Mrs. Blumberg, another penny’s worth of soda crackers from Mr. Basch, and they hide all the loot beneath their bedcovers until lights out that evening, when Charlotte conducts a fabulous game.

…Tucking in the featherbed, Mama said goodnight to all and went out, shutting the bedroom door behind her.

The fun could begin at last!  Charlotte directed because the game was hers.

“First we take a chocolate baby, and we eat only the head.”  They bit off the heads and chewed away contentedly.

“Now the feet.”  That was hard.  The tiny feet were very close to the legs but they did the best they could.

“Let’s gobble the rest up altogether.”  That was a good order.  They gobbled away.

Charlotte continued.  “A cracker now.”  They fished about in the dark.  “We’ll take a small bite just to find out what kind it is.”

They each took a small bite.  “Mine is a lemon snap, I think,” Gertie said.  “What’s yours?”

“Mine’s a ginger.  We have to nibble along the side of this piece of cracker as if we were mice and we have to do it until I stay stop.”  So they nibbled and nibbled and pretty soon Gertie exclaimed, “My piece is all gone.”

“So’s mine,” Charlotte told her.  She had enjoyed nibbling so much she had forgotten to change the order.

Charlotte had lots of ideas.  With the next cracker they had to make a circling movement ten times around in front of their open mouths and then pop the cracker in.  But they were not to bite into it.  Oh no, that cracker had to be taken out of their mouths again and the circle repeated ten times.  After that they could eat the cracker as they pleased.

And so the game was played till there wasn’t a single thing left.

Illustration by Helen John, from All-of-a-Kind Family, Random House

And so through the year we follow the family through good times and bad:  holidays and birthdays; lost library books (the expense to replace it is unthinkable to this poor family, and the girls work together to find the money); a bout of scarlet fever smack in the middle of the Passover holidays (Mama has her hands full but manages beautifully); a scorching heat wave which results in a trip to Coney Island, with a picnic lunch of  “…bread-and-butter sandwiches, Mama’s kind, a slice of sour rye bread placed against a slice of pumpernickle; hard-boiled eggs and whole tomatoes sprinkled liberally with salt.”  And a surprise treat, “Store-bought cakes!  Not just plain cakes like the ones Mama baked at home for the Sabbath, but fancy ones with icing – chocolate and vanilla!”  The methods Mama uses to deal with reluctance to do chores and refusal to eat vegetable soup are both creative and strict (how many of us faced at dinner the same warmed-over bowl of soup rejected at lunch?)  At the end of the book, the family is blessed with the birth of Mama’s sixth child, a long-awaited son, Charlie.

“No matter what it’s going to be like, it’ll be all right with me,” said Ella.  “But we aren’t an all-of-a-kind family any more.”

“In a way we are,” Mama said, smiling.  “I think that means more than our having five daughters.  It means we’re all close and loving and loyal – and our family will always be that.”

Everyone agreed.  Even little Charlie opened his mouth as if he were about to speak.  But it was only a yawn.

–Excerpts from All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor, Wilcox & Follett, New York, 1951

Literary Eats: Quantum Acres

A small excerpt from Quantum Acres: Flashback"", by Gregory Zeller.  Greg is my good friend and fellow writer; often he is my toughest editor.  He is also CEO of Strong Language, LLC.  Greg uses strong language with me when I use too many cliches.  He’s a regular slave driver…loves to crack the whip…there I go again…

The French onion soup might have been the best of Nawahine’s life. They’d snuck into the restaurant’s lavatory and washed up as best they could, then grabbed two seats at the bar and scanned a menu featuring brick-oven pizzas and sirloin burgers, and at first, Nawahine was disappointed to settle for the affordable soup. But when it hit his lips, something else hit with it. 

Whether it was reality deprivation, grievous suspicion that this was his last meal or simple starvation, the soup was an exquisite sensation, salty and silky and warm. As the first slurp slid down his throat, Nawahine closed his eyes and let it linger, a surprisingly blissful moment amidst the deadly chaos.

Speak clearly.

Speak well.

Use strong language.

Literary Eats: A Big Storm Knocked it Over

These are just some snippets from A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by Laurie Colwin.  Though I don’t like winter much, I do like this chapter very much, and could well imagine a Christmas like this.  So here is the last idyllic scene of winter, as Jane Louise and her husband Teddy decide to do away with the stress and strife of holidays spent with family, and run away to Vermont for Christmas with Jane Louise’s best friends, Edie and Mokie.

In the end they bundled into Edie and Mokie’s old car and drove to Vermont, four very tall adults in a not terrible large space.  Mokie and Teddy sat in the front, and since the seats were pushed back to accommodate their legs, Edie and Jane Louise squashed into the corners of the car and stretched their legs out crossways.  Jane Louise passed around a thermos of coffee.  In the trunk were four pairs of ice skates, and tied to the top of the car were Teddy’s cross-country skis.

They stayed at an inn kept by an old Swiss couple.  The four of them were the only guests.  The hostess had kept fires going in their rooms and put hot-water bottles into their beds.  It was freezing cold.

After they gulped down a few excellent sandwiches, they crawled into bed.  Jane Louise woke in the night to see that it was snowing.  The fire in the room had died down.  At dawn she woke up again to find herself inside a greeting card from another century.  Outside the snow fell straight down in large, flat flakes.  The room was wallpapered with a print of cabbage roses.  The Persian rug was faded.  One of the inn cats was asleep on a blue chair.  It was Christmas Eve and she was far away from her family.

They went to breakfast…They wore silk underwear, leggings, T-shirts, turtlenecks, heavy sweaters, and three pairs of socks.  They ate dozens of muffins, piles of toast, and cups and cups of coffee with hot milk.

After breakfast they ambled into the sitting room, sat in front of the fire, and read the papers.

“Gosh, this is romantic,” Mokie said.

Then it was time for lunch, and then they went up to their freezing rooms and took naps under their down quilts and blankets.  If the Schuldes family was celebrating Christmas, there was little sign of it, although the sitting room was full of pine branches in enormous glass jars, and there were wreaths on every door.  In the late afternoon the smell of mulled cider wafter up the stairs.

Jane Louise realized that she was exhausted.  They were all exhausted.  The idea of lying around napping took them by surprise, like a fall on the ice, and they surrendered to it.  When they came down for dinner, they were surprised to find a cheerful group of people they had never seen before.  Mrs. Schuldes explained that these were friends and relatives who always came for Christmas supper and evening skating.  Guests of the inn were traditionally included.

They stood in the living room, drinking hot cider, until the doors to the dining room were pulled back to reveal the kind of table Edie said [her client] would have paid several hundred thousand dollars to have someone fix up for her.  On the large sideboard were three roast ducks, a glazed ham, an enormous glass dish containing a mountain of beet and herring salad, greens, roast potatoes, and a giant Christmas cake.

“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Edie said.

As they began their dinner, the front door crashed open, and in walked the three big Schuldes boys and their dogs.  They had just come from cleaning off the pond and setting out the flambeaux:  huge torches on poles.  They sat down and began eating quantities of food Jane Louise found mind-boggling.  “Did you and Mokie eat the way when you were teenagers?” she asked Teddy.

“Honey, I still eat that way,” said Mokie.  “This is Heaven.”

Here they were, the four of them, at this big table in the middle of nowhere on a major holiday, surrounded by people they had never seen before.  Jane Louise was eating her duck and thinking about sex.  What was anyone else thinking about?

After dinner they piled on their coats and scarves, gloves and boots, and went down to the pond for an evening skate.  The Schuldes boys had lit the flambeaux.  Near the benches, where you could sit and put your skates on, they had lit a bonfire.  The pale quarter moon hung in the cloudy sky, and the stars peeked in and out of the fleeting darkness.

Teddy was a wonderful skater.  It was like dancing to him…He skated over to Jane Louise and led her onto the ice…Skating with Teddy was nicer than any skating she had ever done.

Over on the other side Mokie and Edie were being silly.  They looked like a pair of storks…waltzing and twirling and Edie was laughing.

Mr. Schuldes skated while smoking a large curved pipe and wearing a Tyrolean outfit and feathered hat.  Mrs. Schuldes wore an old mink coat.  One of the guests, who had been a professional skater in her youth, took off her coat to reveal a pink skating costume  She glided out in the middle and executed a series of twirls and leaps.

The three Schuldes boys pushed a round wooden table onto the ice and covered it with a cloth.  Mrs. Schuldes skated out with a tray of hot chocolate and cookies.

“I have died and gone to Heaven,” Edie said to Jane Louise.  “This isn’t really real, is it?”

Jane Louise thought it was like a fairy tale out of the Old World, like a Victorian postcard or the Nutcracker Ballet.

Teddy drank his chocolate and kissed his wife…It was dark. It was Christmas.  He was on ice skates with his wife in the freezing cold, drinking hot chocolate and eating the kind of powdery nut cookies that melt in your mouth.  For an instant life was frozen…This was Heaven.

It had begun to snow fine, needlelike flakes that buzzed and stung.  Jane Louise felt her heart open.  Maybe everything would be all right after all, and if you worked almost till you dropped, roasting ducks and sharpening your ice skates and planning to move a table out onto a frozen pond, and if you kept your fires burning and picked your friends with care – maybe if you made sure that every single thing was just so, life would not spin out of control and make you sick with anxiety and concern.

“Someday,” Jane Louise said, as she and Teddy took one, last slow skate around the pond.  “Someday we’ll get a house with a pond and have a party just like this, except we’ll all do it together and have all our family and friends.”

Teddy held her tighter.  He knew perfectly well that in this world few events pop off so well, and few families and friends gather so peacefully.  He did not want to say that this evening had been lovely because Mokie and Edie were their family by choice.

But of course he did not have to say it.  As they walked arm in arm back to their rooms, he knew perfectly well that Jane Louise realized exactly the same thing.

–A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by Laurie Colwin, Harper Collins, New York, 1993.

Kneydlekh

“Call your Bubbi for the recipe and write everything down,” I said to my daughter.  It was just before Passover, and were were going to make kneydlekh, matzo balls.

In the old days my family made them together, batches and batches, some large, soft and fluffy, some small, round and chewy.  The family was split in tastes.

Before my time, my mother’s mother had inserted a crisp bit of chicken skin, a grivn, in the center of every kneydl.  This flavorsome crackling with the dumpling she called neshome, the soul.

My daughter calling my mother for the recipe?  My mother who approximated her mother’s recipe?  Her motherless mother who invented her mother’s recipe?  The ancient and timeless matzo ball?  Yes, that’s my religion.

  • 8 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup matzo meal
  • Dash of ginger
  • 1 tsp veggie or peanut oil
  • Salt and pepper

Crack open eggs (my daughter wrote).  Separate whites from yolks.  Beat whites till fluffy.  Beat up yolks, add oil and matzo meal.  Add salt and pepper.  Put in ginger.  Fold in egg whites.  Add a little cold water – quarter of a cup.  Mix it all around.  Has to be a batter you can work with.  Can’t be cement.  Can’t be mud.

Taste it.  Must be good raw!  Add more seasonings if necessary.

If good batter, cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Put in freezer 10 to 20 minutes.

Boil either soup or salted water.  Have a small bowl ready with cold water and ice cubes.  Dip hands in cold water before each kneydl.  Form kneydlekh and throw in boiling water.  If you want small, hard kneydlekh, add more matzo meal and seasonings.  For small ones, form marble-size; for big ones – size of golf ball.  (They grow).

Cook for 15 minutes.  Cut one big one in half and see if ready.  (Look and taste).  Throw in colander.  Let Mom and Dad do this.  If want to keep warm, cover.

“The Soul in the Dumpling,” from Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich, Penguin Books, New York, 1997.