Sunday, June 10, 2007

How I Learned to Cook

Back in March, I submitted this essay-with-recipe to a contest that Waitrose Food Illustrated was having, "are you the next great food writer?" - where you got a book contract if you were selected (though I can't find the page right now; WFI's done a redesign ...)

Anyways, hindsight always being 20/20, I see all these structural problems with it now I (though I also see what I was trying to do <grin>) but here goes:

Six or seven years ago, I went to see a play called How I Learned to Drive. I saw it way, way off Broadway, performed by a regional theater group in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A couple of seconds of Internet searching tells me the play’s author is Paula Vogel, and it won the Pulitzer prize in 1998, but if you had asked me before I did the Google search, I would have said what I remembered about the play is that it’s not really about learning how to drive, it’s about child abuse; a sexual relationship between a very young girl and an older man.

How I learned to cook is sort of like that. I was nine years old when I realized I was going to die someday, and it scared the hell out of me. Still does. So when I went to bed at night, I would concentrate on making myself wake up at 6:00 the next morning, so I wouldn’t think too much about dieing. In the morning, I got up, dressed, and went downstairs where I curled up by a heat vent under a side table in the living room, a stylish, 1960s table that had a pole lamp going through it. There was just enough light so that I could sit there and read until the rest of the house, first my father, and then my mother and brother, got up.

By the time I was nine, I had already been cooking for a few years. My brother and I were in charge of making Sunday breakfast, scrambled eggs with fried Osherwitz kosher salami and Velveeta cheese. My brother – who’s now a vegetarian - says he remembers how the salami would curl up with a little pool of grease in each piece. We sliced the salami into rounds, and then cut the rounds in half, and I liked how the half-round slices looked like D’s, the first letter of both of our names. I was in charge of reheating a cup of coffee for my dad, with strict instructions not to let it boil, just to let it get a little ring of creamy, light brown bubbles around the edge.

I guess a lot of my early cooking was following my dad’s instructions – I made his nightly martini to order, too. When I heard the garage door open, I got the frosted glass out of the freezer, and put in two ice cubes. Then I poured in the gin up to the middle of the laurel wreath etched in the glass, and added a frozen lemon twist and two drops of Vermouth.

But on those regular weekday mornings when I didn’t make breakfast and it wasn’t time yet for my dad’s martini, what I remember reading down there under my lamp was my mother’s Gourmet magazines. I didn’t try any of the recipes, but I looked at the pictures and read the descriptions of the food. I remember reading an essay that told how to radiator-dry tangerine sections, and how they felt on your teeth when you bit through to the juicy pulp inside. Even at nine, I had the impression that beyond the tangerines, things were not quite right in the world for the person writing. I can’t find any proof that it was ever published in Gourmet, but I found out much later that the tangerines were in M.F.K Fisher’s essay Borderlands, set in France in the 1930s with World War II looming, a time when she must have been getting unhappy with her first husband, because she left him not long after.

The next year, when I was 10, I decided I was too fat, so I kept on reading about food, to keep from eating it. That’s when I really started cooking, so that I could handle and smell food, and even taste it, while not consuming a whole portion. The first dishes I made were not from Gourmet; more often the recipes were from Joy of Cooking, or from kids’ books that I read. I remember how amused my mother was when I tried to make taffy using a method I’d read in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, Farmer Boy – in the book the taffy never got hard, and sure enough mine never did either. After her pronouncement, “Debra, what were you thinking”, Mom pointed me to the pulled taffy recipe in Joy, which worked, although I can’t say it tasted all that great – home made marshmallows were messier and a lot more fun.

My mom’s mom was a German woman from Cincinnati OH, who was a homemaker with young children in the 1930s; Irma Rombauer, the author of Joy of Cooking was a German woman from St. Louis MO, who was a homemaker with young children in the 1930s. I always felt like the recipes in Joy were somehow handed down to me from my grandmother. Many of her standards are in there, sauerbraten and angel food cake, and salad with hot bacon dressing. Not her whole wheat bread, though, none of us have been able to recreate that, or her coffee bread, baked in a square pan, on the bottom a not-sweet, yeasty bread with lots of holes in it, topped with an inch of cinnamon sugar. Her kitchen smelled like coffee and bacon grease and yeast and vinegar.

Even though my grandmother was the type of cook who methodically tried out recipes, wrapping and dating and freezing dishes if there was no one around to eat them, it’s a good thing I could find her recipes in Joy, because she was not exactly kindly or sharing. She gave me a Better Homes & Gardens bread recipe book for my 10th birthday, with a hand-cranked breadmaker. It was a big bucket that you poured your bread ingredients into, then attached a dough hook and cranked instead of kneading. She filled the flyleaf of the cookbook with a handwritten birthday note in which she threw down the gauntlet, challenging me to become the “youngest and best bread baker” in my county, using this equipment she had provided, and went on to point out that learning to bake healthful breads would serve me well as I aged and needed to eat nutritious foods.

The same grandmother sent everyone in the family boxes of cookies and fruitcake at Christmas time. We laughed the year that she sent a rum cake with so much rum in it the silver nonpareils it was decorated with got wrinkled. One of the cookie kinds she put in the boxes was a chewy, iced, ginger cookie. I never really had the recipe for that cookie, but after searching for many years, I found it, in a holiday cookie cookbook at one of sorority houses where I was the cook for a while – or at least a basis that I could adapt. It was a recipe for ginger bears that you are supposed to hang on the Christmas tree, but the dough sounded like it would yield the right kind of chewy cookie. They’re good right out of the oven, but they really taste the best after they have been frosted and left to age and mellow for a few days, with a cut apple in the container.

Ginger creams

1 stick, 8 tablespoons, 225 g butter
2/3 cup, 125 g brown sugar
2/3 cup, 225 g molasses or golden syrup
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and cloves
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt (if using unsalted butter)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 tablespoon rum or brandy
4 cups, 760 g unbleached white flour

3 cups, 420 g icing sugar
1/3 cup, 75 g butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla or rum or brandy
2 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest (optional)

For the cookies:
Melt the butter, and stir in the brown sugar over low heat, until it’s dissolved. Add the molasses or golden syrup, stir, and cool slightly. Add the spices, salt, baking soda, egg, and rum or brandy. Mix well, and work in the flour until you have a very soft dough. Cover and chill for at least an hour, or as long as two days.

Heat the oven to 350ºF, 180ºC, gas mark 4. Form the dough into balls, using about a tablespoon of dough for each. Bake until firm and slightly cracked. Cool.

For the frosting:

Cream the butter and icing sugar together, and add the milk and vanilla or other flavorings, until you have a spreadable frosting.

Frost the tops of the cookies, placing each on a wax-paper lined baking sheet as they are done. Let the cookies sit at room temperature overnight until the icing is hard, then store them in an airtight container with wax paper between the layers, and a cut apple inside, for 2 or 3 days before eating.

1 comment:

Steverino said...


I found you by googleing "Osherwitz salami." I was wondering exactly what happened to the company.

I was raised in Cincinnati in the 40's and 50's and then came up to Chicago and have been here ever since.

They did not have Osherwitz's salami up in Chicago. What they did have was lousy.

I still make fried matzo, my dad loved it. No one else did since it is so bland. But with diced salami it is very nice. I never cut the salami into slices. Guess diced is the way my mother made it for my dad, and that seemed the authentic way to me. I remember the first time I made the mistake of ordering it in a deli here in Chicago, the salami was cut in slices. I screamed at the waitress and sent it back! Guess the laugh was on me. It really embarrassed my wife and daughter.

I heard many years ago that some Chicago outfit bought out Osherwitz, put it out of business, and distributed their own salami down there. Yuk!

An side: I took Osherwitz' daughter to the Woodward High School prom.

Steverino in sunny Chicago