When you’re ready for good reading about good food and good people, Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table comes with the highest recommendation. It is available both in print form and as an outstanding recording with Rick Bragg reading his book. Not surprisingly, Momma has a few words to say about her Creamed Onions, a dish without actual cream or milk: Don’t cook your sliced onions too long, just until they begin to wilt “and get to smelling good.” Bragg notes, “Do not be dismayed if the onions seem to cook down to almost nothing. They are so rich, a spoonful or two is usually enough per serving. If you really like this, “next time use more onions,” Momma advises.
Bragg observes that Thanksgiving dinner was the great meal that began the holiday season, the holiday kickoff for Christmas. “Working people started looking forward to this meal as soon as the weather slipped below ninety-two in the shade….” And of course turkey was the foundation of the meal. Bragg’s mother “had turkey down to a science, and an art…My mother never bought a turkey early, believing that if you waited till the last minute you would somehow get a turkey shopped to the grocery as part of a second or even third wave, which she believed to be fresher, and not one that had been frozen rock-hard since before Halloween.”
Bragg offers his own views as well as Momma’s: “I believe that turkeys just freeze harder than other substances on earth. They seemed to have more in common with bowling balls and anvils than with something a person might, someday, be able to consume. This was perhaps the time when I began to see my mother as some kind of alchemist, able to turn lead to gold.”
Bragg notes that his mother’s recipe is “the simplest recipe I have ever seen, or even heard of.” Going back through all the recipes, he thinks he’s figured it out: “I went back through these pages and counted the number of times that “1 stick butter” was the measurement we used, except in this one, where it was “1 pound.”
Momma offered advice on how long to cook the turkey: “Till it’s done.”
And to bring this full circle with this month’s celebration of the onion, creamed onions cooked in bacon fat were always part of the grand meal at the Bragg home.
As a PS, we’ll add this morsel of memory from Julia Alvarez, who, in We Are What We Ate: 24 Memories of Food, recalls a story that her husband likes to tell a lot: the one time she invited him over for dinner before they were married, “I served him salad with bottled dressing and a side plate of fried onions and tofu squired with chili sauce…I am always aggrieved that he forgets the dinner rolls, which I bought at the Grand Union bakery, something I would normally not do, since I much preferred crackers as ‘the bread’ with my dinner.”.
It is October, but before we say “Hello, Pumpkin,” we must bid adieu to the faithful friend Zucchini. Botanically, the zucchini is a fruit, a type of botanical berry called a pepo. Of course, in the kitchen, the zucchini is a vegetable–appearing in everything from soup to bread to chocolate cake. To prove this point, see a fun article by Molly O’Neill in The New York Times that concludes with recipes for Zucchini-and-Almond Soup, Shepherd’s Pie-Style Stuffed Zucchini, Francesca’s Zucchini Carpaccio, Pasta With Zucchini, Shrimp and Saffron, and Zucchini Cake With Ginger and Hazelnuts.
M.F. K. Fisher noted that when she can “buy zucchini not over four inches long and preferbly with the little withered blossom still clinging to the umbilicus,” she cooks them and saves the juice for midmorning broth to borscht.
All squash originated in the Americas, specifically a region known as mesoamerica. In the 19th century the zucchini was cultivated in Italy and didn’t reach the U.S. until the 20th century, brought here by Italian immigrants.
Is any vegetable subject to as many jokes and funny stories as the Zucchini? Here are a few classics.
- The trouble is, you cannot grow just one zucchini. Minutes after you plant a single seed,hundreds of zucchini will barge out of the ground and sprawl around the garden, menacing the other vegetables. At night, you will be able to hear the ground quake as more and more zucchinis erupt.–Dave Barry
- Last night we had three small zucchini for dinner that were grown within fifty feet of our back door. I estimate that they cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $371.49 each.–Andy Rooney, Word for Word
- They have Elvis Presley zucchini molds now: you clamp them around your zucchini while it’s young, and as it grows it’s deformed into the shape of Elvis Presley’s head. Is this why he sang? To become a zucchini? Vegetarianism and reincarnation are in the air, but that’s taking it too far.–Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
- One day we came home from some errands to find a grocery sack of [zucchini] hanging on our mailbox. The perpetrator, of course, was nowhere in sight … Garrison Keillor says July is the only time of year when country people lock our cars in the church parking lot, so people won’t put squash on the front seat. I used to think that was a joke.–Barbara Kingsolver
Celebrated writer Marge Piercy’s poetry generally focuses on social and environmental concerns, but in “Attack of the Squash People” she has some fun with zucchini. Here’s a snippet:
Recite fifty zucchini recipes! Zucchini tempura; creamed soup; sauté with olive oil and cumin, casserole of lamb; baked topped with cheese; marinated; stuffed; stewed….
Sneak out before dawn to drop them in other people’s gardens, in baby buggies at churchdoors.
Shot, smuggling zucchini into mailboxes, a federal offense.
September is for Tomatoes
Not to get political, but think about this: In the days before Twitter, we had a president who kept careful records of his gardening. Besides that, when he was president Thomas Jefferson kept a record of when tomatoes appeared in Washington markets. In his account, tomatoes vine-ripened in local gardens were available from July 16 to November 17.
In Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook says that the best way to experience true tomato taste is to grow your own. “Both The Tomato That Would Not Die and the heirloom Brandywines in my Vermont garden are of the species Solanum lycopersicum, and both are red. But the similarity ends there. My Brandywines are downright homely–lumpy, deeply creased, and scarred, they look like badly sunburned Rubens derrieres. Nor are they made for travel. More often than not, one will spontaneously split during the twenty-five-yard stroll from garden to kitchen. If not eaten within a day or so after being picked, they develop brownish bruises and begin leaking a watery orange liquid. But that rarely happens. Around our place, Brandywines go fast. They may be ugly. And fragile. Yet there is no better-tasting tomato than a garden-ripe Brandywine.”
Read more in this book about America’s most popular “vegetable” and get insight into the way America farms. The book is available in the Charlotte Library’s overdrive collection.
The documentary “Food Chains” builds on Estabrook’s work and The Atlantic provides a provocative discussion.
In his wonderfully poignant, funny, rollicking food memoir, cookbook, and loving tribute to his mother and his region, Rick Bragg writes about tomatoes in Chapter 18. Tomatoes without Taste, Tomatoes without End, starts with Momma’s complaints that tomatoes haven’t been good for the last 50 years. “She has openly disdained beefsteaks, Big Boys, Heatmasters, Sunmasters, Sweet Millions, Mountain Masters, and Boxcar Willies. She does not give a damn. It is understandable that she would feel that way about supermarket tomatoes, which are not actually food, and most likely ripened somewhere on a truck between here and Homestead, or Mexico, or in the hold of a tramp steamer. A supermarket tomato is food the way a frozen burrito is food: of last resort.”
The chapter ends with Momma’s recipe for Ham and Redeye Gravy over Fresh Diced Tomato, along with her observation: “What I learned from it was how things can go together than ought not go together, like how that meat-grease-and-coffee mixture could wilt that tomato just the the right amount, but how you salt it first, to begin the process of wilting it, to get it all goin’.”
Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World…Tales from my Momma’s Table is available from the Charlotte Library as a book and as a CD audio. The book is heartfelt; it’s hilarious; it’s highly recommended. And to hear Rick Bragg read it is a wonderful delight.
In their book Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, James and Kay Salter observe, “You can assess the quality of any Mexican restaurant by one of the first things brought to the table: the salsa. The word itself is Spanish for “sauce” or “gravy” and appears as early as 1571 in accounts on conquistadors in the New World.
“Salsa was originally made by the ancient Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas from tomatoes, native to the region, along with onions and spices. It was served as a condiment by Aztecs rich enough to have meat and fish on their tables, while the poor used it on tortillas…. In the U.S. it is even more popular than ketchup.”
Thank you to Laura Lipmann for her wonderful ode to double boilers–and to quirky fathers, from the New York Times Sunday magazine, Aug. 4.
Blueberries, a healthy fruit to sing about!
1940 “Blueberry Hill,” introduced by Gene Autry in the western “The Singing Hill,” was later played and sung by many musicians: Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong, Kay Kyser, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Andy Williams, Kiki, Cliff Richard, Bruce Cockburn. It was Fats Domino’s biggest hit, and in the TV series Happy Days, Ritchie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard), sang it whenever he found a date.
I found my thrill
On Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill
When I found you
And there’s some more blueberry lore!
1949 Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal was a Caldecott Honor Book
In 1971, The vain, self-centered, snobby, disrespectful, Violet Beauregarde is turned into a very large blueberry in Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
In 1981 Blueberry jelly bellies were created for Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration in 1981 A portrait of President Reagan made from 10,000 jelly belly beans hangs in his presidential library in Simi Valley California
2010 We come full circle with Vladamir Putin playing “Blueberry Hill” on piano–and singing it–at a children’s charity dinner in St. Petersburg
As always, take a look at the wonderful cookbooks in the Charlotte Library for a good recipe. Here are a couple:
New England Open House Cookbook has everything from Blueberry Sangria to Blueberry Pancakes. And Blue Hill Blueberry Bliss, a version of blueberry buckle, with nectarines.
The Vermont Country Store Cookbook has a recipe that combines two summer favorites: Blueberries and Zucchini.
Watermelon: Citrullus lanatus, a fruit distinct from the ordinary sweet melons, has a long history of cultivation. Surviving wall paintings show that watermelons were cultivated and eaten and in Egypt well before 2000 B.C. Because they were useful as a source of potable liquid they traveled to lands around the Mediterranean as far east as India and, eventually (10th to 12th centuries AD), to China.
When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat. –Mark Twain
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.
I know of no more agreeable and nutritious food at this season than bread and butter and melons, and you need not be afraid of eating too much of the latter.–Henry David Thoreau,
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.–Terrance Hayes, whose sonnet repeats this line 14 times. It is well worth saying it 14 times:
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
Keep going: 11 more times.
Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert, New York Times
Luling, Texas has been choosing a high school junior to be the Watermelon Thump Queen for well over half a century. Unlike other Queens of Texas (i.e. Peanut, Strawberry, Onion or Rattlesnake), to be Queen of the Watermelon Thump requires running a political campaign. . . . (Watch a short film)
Here’s the beginning of a poem that’s sure to evoke strong memories:
My Mother’s Colander
by Dorianne Laux
Holes in the shape of stars
punched in gray tin, dented,
cheap, beaten by each
of her children with a wooden spoon.
Noodle catcher, spaghetti stopper,
pouring cloudy rain into the sink,
swirling counter clockwise
down the drain, starch slime
on the backside, caught
in the piercings. . . .
from Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems. © W. W. Norton and company, 2019
FOOD SNOB GUILTY PLEASURES
Six Things That Food Snobs Like Even Though They’re Not Supposed To
Jif peanut butter. Yes, it has sugar and hydrogenated oil in it, but corporate peanut butter (Skippy, too) simply tastes better than natural peanut butter, whose oil and solids separate no matter how much they’re stirred, making some mouthfuls feel like an oil slick and others like tile grout.
The other five have equally fun descriptions:
French’s French Fried Onions
from The Food Snob’s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Gastronomical Knowledge, by David Kamp & Marion Rosenfeld
The book is out of print, but you can get a copy of these six guilty pleasures at Monday and Wednesday lunches. After all, as Roald Dahl reminded us: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” Dahl included this wisdom in his screenplay for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Scholars trace this back to Horace, leading Roman poet who died in 8 B.C. He put it this way:
Mingle a little folly with your wisdom;
a little nonsense now and then is pleasant.
Julia Child advised that “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” She also noted, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” The Sunday New York Times book reviewer doesn’t go quite this far but does advise No to Pseudoscientific Diets! Yes to Less Stress About Food!
This means “Yes to amping up the vegetables and fruits, and yes to drinking more water, for many reasons. No to detoxing, a pseudoscience word that means nothing. Your liver and kidneys are detoxing as we speak, with no help from kale.” And if you want to know about the Jane Austen Diet, the reviewer says it’s probably better as a literary romp than as a dieting tome. That said, Austen fans “will enjoy being reminded of how smart she actually is about our health, and how she uses food, eating and exercise as shorthand for character. “
The April 22 New Yorker eat-out columnist complained about the 3 ½ hour wait at a snazzy new restaurant in Manhattan. Once she got in, she had plenty of complaints about the food too: (“plate of mediocre nachos strewn with scrambled eggs”). You can eat at the Charlotte Senior Center on Mondays and Wednesdays with no wait, good company, and a great variety of menus. And for men, there are the Thursday breakfasts twice a month.
Jane Kramer, longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, has written the Letter from Europe since 1981, covering culture, politics, and social history. Her 2017 book The Reporter’s Kitchen is food-filled New Yorker pieces including profiles of remarkable chefs, gastronomic history, and her own culinary exploits. These exploits are wildly entertaining and informative, ranging from memorable expat Thanksgivings in Umbria–in July– to foraging for everything from nettles and yarrow leaves to sea lettuce. Kramer recounts that it took her two days to make Julia Child’s Beef Wellington, “owing, among other things to the fact that my kitchen was so small then that I had to scrub the hall floor in order to roll out the dough for the pain brioche after each rising.” About twenty years later her husband said, “I was just wondering, why don’t we have beef Wellington anymore?”
You can find this engrossing account of food around the world at the Charlotte library.
Relive your childhood–and pass it on to the younger generation–with another savory tidbit from a library resource:
- What’s the difference between an elephant and a cookie?
- Have you ever tried dunking an elephant in milk?–Joke-Lopedia: The Biggest, Best, Silliest, Dumbest Joke Book Ever! 269 pages of groans 818.6 WEI at the Charlotte Library
Book Notes: For laugh-out-loud reading, Don’t Try This At Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs offers gasps and guffaws.
Famed chef Daniel Boulud, who has more than one disaster tale to share, observes: “One place you don’t ever get lucky is in the kitchen. You either make the food right or you don’t.”
Senior Center cooks would add: Even when you make the food right, things sometimes happen. We applaud chef Scott Peacock, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Like a dog, biscuit dough can smell fear. But as far as I know, there are no documented cases of a biscuit ever attacking someone. So what if your first batch or two don’t turn out like your father’s memory of his grandmother’s biscuits, or there aren’t angels singing when you take your first bite? Practice makes progress and that’s really what it’s all about–the satisfaction and enjoyment of learning as you go.”
Practice make progress: a motto to live by.
As it happens, The New York Times published Peacock’s recipe for buttermilk biscuits, noting that he does get a little fussy. In another article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Peacock explained his own family ins and outs regarding biscuits. Who knew biscuits could be such a critical matter? This article was included in Best Food Writing 2008, ed. Holly Hughes
For a warm, funny, touching, and quite wonderful tribute to his momma and her Southern cooking, don’t miss Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World…Tales from my Momma’s Table.
Each heart-warming story ends with one of Momma’s recipes.
Bonus: The Charlotte Library has a copy of Bragg’s book and also an audio with Rick Bragg reading. Not to be missed!
M. F. K. Fisher observed that “Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat.” Are you willing to share your secret? Send it in. You can indicate if you wish to shout it out–or remain anonymous.
Send to: email@example.com
This article will give you a lot to think about the next time you drink a glass of milk:
Explore the wonderful cookbook section of the Charlotte Library. Here are a few suggestions for February.
- The Bread and Salt Between Us: Recipes and Stories from a Syrian Refugee’s Kitchen, Mayada Anjari with Jennifer Sit
This cookbook, of delicious home-style recipes and stories from Syria by a refugee woman…carries in a true spirit of America. America, the place people across the world come to for comfort, safety, a better future for their children.–Francis Lam, host of The Splendid Table
- The Weeknight Mediterranean Kitchen: 75 Authentic, healthy Recipes Made Quick and Easy for Everyday Cooking, Samathan Ferraro
Try the Everyday Chicken Schawarma. When we served this at the Senior Center, it met with great enthusiasm
- The EatingWell: Healthy in a Hurry Cookbook: 150 delicious recipes for simple, everyday suppers in 45 minutes, Jim Romanoff and the editors of Eating Well
Try Tuna Pomodoro or Mustard Crusted Salmon
- New England Open-House Cookbook: 300 Recipes Inspired by the Bounty of New England, Sarah Leah Chase
Try the Poppy Seed Coleslaw