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May, 2008 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - May, 2008

Grandmothers

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food entreats us to not eat anything our grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food. But just what did Mr. Henry’s grandmothers eat?

Was your grandmother exotic, bohemian, or fresh off the boat? Or, like Ensign Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, was she “as corny as Kansas in August, as normal as blueberry pie?” (Did she look like Kelli O’Hara, too?)

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Sadly, Mr. Henry has no recipes from either of his grandmothers. Grandmother Eunice used to say: “If you don’t learn how to cook, you won’t have to.” Armored with this impregnable Irish logic, she lived a life blissfully unperturbed by dishpans. (But she danced a terrific Charleston.)meissen.jpg

German Grandmother Mae baked a marvelous potatoes au gratin. She was admired for roasts, puddings, and especially for wilted lettuce salad made with a warm vinaigrette of red wine vinegar and bacon bits.

At Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, in a notable departure from Mother Henry’s rules, Mae served the children a small glass of white grape juice spiked with white wine. Giggle fits arrived soon after. Cautioned to steer clear of the Meissen figurine, children were excused from the table so they could play on the carpet and wrinkle their Sunday clothes.

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In her spirited blog, Casey Ellis tells of finding her grandmother’s recipe book written sometime before 1918. It is a captivating story of how a woman’s personality survives through her kitchen notebook, a moving testament to the way identity and food are inextricably bound.

Regarding his preference for the dessert spoon, Bronwyn derides Mr. Henry for renouncing the humble teaspoon. Don’t fret, Bronwyn. The Henry household is not wanting for spoons.

Grandmother Mae’s wedding silver service presents a remarkable picture of the 19th century table. In addition to two sets of 12 teaspoons, there are 12 cream soup, bouillon, dessert, iced tea, and coffee spoons. Just for show, there are 12 gilt silver demi-tasse spoons, too.

Dear readers, please don’t tell Mr. Henry’s siblings that he snagged the silver service. At the ancestral Henry manor, silver candlesticks remain up for grabs.

Green breakfast

It is the year of change, indeed. Among Mr. Henry’s friends and relations long-established eating habits are giving way to new ones.

No meal is more culture-specific than breakfast. On your first trip to Japan, you won’t have trouble finding an acceptable lunch or dinner for anyone in the party. Breakfast is another story. Pickles, sashimi, raw quail egg on rice, tofu, miso soup, nori, daikon – none of these ever graced Mr. Henry’s grandmother’s table.japanesebreakfast.jpg

Mr. Henry’s German grandmother, who graduated from Iowa State University in 1912, rose early and started her day with a tablespoon of corn oil and a glass of hot water. She swore it prevented asthma, but Mr. Henry believes it contributed to regular evacuation, as well. She never missed her morning dose and she lived to be 97.

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Mr. Henry’s Irish grandmother, the most beautiful girl in 1920’s New York, rose late and started with a strong cup of tea (and occasionally with a little hair of the dog, too). She departed this life at age 57.

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Mother Henry is approaching her 77th birthday and charges around town like Hillary Clinton on energy drink. Recently she shared an unusual dietary secret. She starts her day with spinach. (Was that Popeye’s secret, too?)

While Father Henry squeezes the orange juice, Mother downs a few spoonfuls of cold spinach in between bites of hard-boiled egg. Later comes coffee and toast. She claims she needs to eat leafy greens every single day, and sometimes she gets so busy running around town that she doesn’t get an opportunity to sit down to a proper lunch. Dinner selections are variable and don’t always include leafy greens.

Over spring vacation Little Henry and posse shocked the grown-ups by starting their vacation morning with avocado on toast. (Mr. Henry blames the Food Network for these departures from normalcy.) Mr. Henry tried it too, but needed to add goat cheese and honey before it assumed the appearance of a morning repast.avocado.jpg

Mrs. Henry has been making fruit smoothies with seaweed powder – morning green goop. She claims it will change your life. Consider yourself warned.

Classic flatware

Flatware is sending Mr. Henry round in circles.

For longer than he cares to say, he has been promising to buy Mrs. Henry a proper set of knives, forks, and spoons in everyday stainless steel, a set that balances nicely in the hand, lies beautifully on the table, and washes easily in the dishwasher. When Mr. Henry and his peerless consort decided to bind themselves contractually, they included on their wedding registry a classic stainless pattern from Christofle, the best of the best.

Because the marriage loot did not yield all the plates and bowls from their china pattern, however, the fledgling Henry couple elected to exchange their Christofle for the missing china.

He promised to buy that stainless just as soon as they got on their feet.

Time passed. Water ran under the bridge. Financial cycles ebbed and flowed. The tide in Mr. Henry’s affairs was not taken at the flood. Although the voyage of his life is not bound in shallows or in miseries, ready access to the price of a Christofle service for 12 remains elusive.
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Little by little the Henry’s everyday china has grown in sophistication. From Sara on Lexington Avenue came plates in tenmoku black glaze.

Sara glassware too includes some beautiful handblown examples. Old Edo style dinner napkins get softer with each washing.

But the Henry flatware drawer holds only odd bins, a hodgepodge of shapes and styles, their origins expunged from memory.

Each year sometime between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, those twin perils of romance, Mr. Henry wanders into Pottery Barn. He picks up a knife or fork to see whether something better than Christofle has arrived.
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So far, he remains convinced that Christofle Albi II stainless (glossy) is the best. Its simple lines resist useless adornment. (Glossy is harder and more resistant to wear than satin. Under daily dishwasher use, the satin finish scratches and dulls.)

Its weight and balance in hand are persuasive. Other stainless flatware either feels flimsy, the handles too light and too thin, or feels over-designed, the handles imprinting decorative rills on your thumb pad.

Modern design is interesting and occasionally amusing but in the end seems like an unnecessary distraction. Fork tongs do not need to be redesigned every generation. Like printer’s fonts, classic ones serve very well, thank you.

Flatware should serve. (It’s called a service, after all.) Like a picture frame or sculpture pedestal, flatware should play a supportive role. It should not command more attention than the food it conveys. Nevertheless, when you dedicate real skill to a meal, you should eat with tools commensurate to your effort. You owe that much to yourself. After painstakingly planning, shopping, preparing, and serving the meal, is it appropriate to let the food’s final few inches of transport be less than elegant?

In this updated version of a classic design, the Albi II tablespoon is slightly smaller than the Mimosa, the standard of years past. This is an improvement. The traditional French tablespoon is surprisingly big. The standard teaspoon (pictured), on the other hand, always seemed too small for practical use. He opted out of buying the teaspoon altogether and in its place chose the dessert spoon, halfway in size between teaspoon and tablespoon.

In sum, Mr. Henry decided that his essential five piece setting shall comprise the dinner fork, dinner knife, table/soup spoon, dessert spoon, and salad fork. (Perhaps the addition of two serving spoons might make the setting more fulfilling.)

How to pay for this shiny treasure? On Mother’s Day he phoned his own sainted mother to wish her the very best. The conversation soon turned direction.

“Oh, Mom, do you remember when I said I didn’t want anything for my birthday? Well, I found just the thing.”

Disappearing Foods

renewingamericasfood.jpg In a New York Times article “Disappearing Foods,” Kim Severson reviews the new book by Gary Paul Nabhan, Renewing America’s Food Traditions.

Accompanying the article is a marvelous interactive graphic illustrating areas of the United States organized by “gastronomic regions.”

With one finger on the touch pad Mr. Henry wandered interactively around the country. In “Gumbo Nation,” the Gulf Coast region, he read the words “clay field peas” and memories sprouted like magic beans.

Not since the middle 1960’s had Mr. Henry tasted these delicacies. Field peas look like pale green black-eyed peas or greener versions of white acre peas. Normally they are dried and used as fodder. When served fresh, however, boiled with ham hock as Mr. Henry remembers them, they taste creamy, mildly nutty, and divinely sweet. Mr. Henry’s favorite boyhood vegetable, one day about 45 years ago they simply disappeared from the market. Were these the disappearing “clay field peas?”crab.jpg

In “Crabcake Nation,” the southern Atlantic Coast, during Mr. Henry’s youth blue crabs ran thick and wild on Florida beaches.

For spring vacation this year Mr. Henry took the kids to Florida. Promising them a bonanza of blue crab, he bought six flashlights and six poles with crab nets. After dark the hunting party set off after its nocturnal, side-striding prey. They found not a single blue crab on the beach. Mr. Henry hung his bush hat in disgrace. Are blue crabs disappearing?

In “Chestnut Nation,” the Appalachians, Mr. Henry once stopped at a roadside farm stand high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Spying mason jars of something mustard yellow in color, he read the label: “chou-chou.”

Thinking the name was derived from French, he asked, “Is this ‘shoo-shoo’ a pickled cabbage?”

“Naw,” said the tiny young woman. “That’s chow chow.”

“Hmmm,” said Mr. Henry. “Is it sweet?”

“Well,” she said pursing her thin lips, “It’s got right smart sugar in it.”
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In Appalachian argot, “right smart” means “quite a bit.” The pickle, although a little too sweet, was crunchy and delightfully flavorful. Indeed, it was not cabbage but Jerusalem artichoke pickled in mustard. Was this Jack’s copperclad Jerusalem artichoke, one of America’s disappearing foods?