Wednesday, February 28, 2007

From Bannock to Boston Brown Bread:

Deep within my secret high-tech lair and fully-equipped kitchen, I begin my investigation of the cuisine of Canada. I must first admit I know nothing about Canadian cuisine. My only slight advantage is that I’ve covered significant stretches of Canadian. Back in the 1990s, a work assignment had me traveling by car through all of the Prairie Provinces. It was flat, I got dizzy counting telephone poles and we lived on doughnuts, coffee and club sandwiches.

I start by trying to understand a little more about the country. Some Canadian facts to chew on – the population was estimated at 32,227,000 in 2005 and the capital is Ottawa. People of British and French descent make up more than half the population. Canada was originally inhabited by various Native American peoples and the mainland was explored by the French and English beginning in the late 15th century. In 1605, the French established the first permanent settlement at Port Royal but gradually lost control of eastern Canada, which was ceded to England in 1763 after the Seven Years' War. The Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867 and extended to the western provinces in 1905. One reference says the name Canada originated with the word kanata, which means “village” in Huron, an Iroquoian language of eastern Canada. The French explorer Jacques Cartier used the word to refer to the land around his settlement, which is now part of Quebec City.

I’m beginning to develop a picture. The cuisine will likely have French, English and even Native American influences. I spend some time looking into one of the menu items Jill has given me, skillet-baked bread called Bannock. I find some fascinating strands of history that link the old and the new world. There are stories of early British settlers bringing bannock to North America where it became part of the diet of First Nations people. There are members of the Cree community who say they learned to make bannock from the Scottish who settled in Northern Quebec hundreds of years ago. Consistent ingredients appear to be flour and baking powder for leavening and it is often cooked as patties in a large skillet, sometimes over a campfire. I wonder about the practicality of building an open fire in my kitchen for the sake of authenticity, and then I decide to move on to investigate several vintage Canadian cookbooks online. Meanwhile, Jill in Ottawa is following a trail through early American culinary history to the city of Boston. She writes:

I begin researching my American meal with a trip to the library to pick up some cookbooks to join the stack already on my living room floor. Included in my selection -- I just can't resist -- is the "Miss America Cookbook". Much to my surprise, Miss America eats more than just salad: the book includes a recipe for Sweet Potato Pie, courtesy of Miss America, 1980. I set the pageant winners aside for the time being, however, as I decide to prepare a trial loaf of Boston brown bread, something I've never made before and may have eaten once, on a long-ago trip to Boston.

I discover that Boston brown bread is a steamed bread, made with a combination of wheat and rye flours (some recipes call for graham flour), cornmeal, molasses, buttermilk and baking soda. Raisins appear to be optional. The dish dates back to colonial times and features ingredients available to the early settlers of New England. Corn was a staple in the colonies and rye was also plentiful, while wheat was in shorter supply, accounting for the blend of flours. While one source suggests that the bread may have initially been sweetened with maple syrup, the rum trade made molasses a common ingredient in New England dishes. Sugar cane harvested by slaves in the West Indies was shipped to Boston to be made into rum, which was sold back to Europe or West Africa. (As a historical aside, I learned that in 1919, Boston suffered the "Great Molasses Flood", when a tank holding molasses exploded, killing 21 people and injuring another 150.)

Since many early settlers did not have ovens, cooking instead in large fireplaces, the bread was steamed rather than baked, traditionally in a tall cylindrical container. Most of the historic recipes I find call for steaming in a basin or mould, while modern cookbooks suggest a coffee can. The Puritans served the bread as the traditional accompaniment to baked beans, another dish featuring molasses. As their beliefs prohibited the Puritans from working on the Sabbath, this meal was commonly prepared on Saturday and reheated the following day.

For my first effort, I turn to Fannie Farmer. I consider the recipe in the original 1896 "Boston Cooking School Cookbook", but decide on a more recent - although virtually the same - version, using corn meal, whole wheat flour and dark rye flour. After two hours of steaming in a hopefully well-cleaned coffee can, the bread (pictured above) comes out beautifully, a rich, warm brown cylinder, slightly springy to the touch, similar to a steamed pudding, but less dense. Following Fannie's directions, I slice the hot loaf by using a crossed string, which works perfectly. The taste is sweet, although not overwhelmingly so, with a distinctive, slightly bitter molasses flavour that lingers. It reminds me of something which I can't quite pin down - a bran muffin maybe? Perhaps it will come to me on the next attempt.

Here in the states, my friend “Lee Sloan” a Grande Dame of food and wine – who is on the guest list for the Canadian food tasting on March 18th – starts to feed me some tidbits of information. Lee writes:

I don't have any Canadian cookbooks, per se, but I started checking out a couple of old traditional French tomes to see what I could find. Larousse had nothing on any of the proposed dishes.

But I did find, in the "Bouquet de France," 'Gourmet's Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces,' circa the 1950s, a recipe for La Tourtiere Poitevine (Poitou Chicken Pie). It's from the province of Poitou -- which is just below Anjou, Touraine and a corner of Brittany -- and, in fact, I don't see any vegetables in it.

Shortly after, Lee informs me that she has located a “source” that could move my research forward – a woman who lives in Canada -- and for several years worked for the Canadian consulate to market Canadian foods here in the United States. She has heard of every one of the dishes in the Canadian Challenge and would be delighted to talk with me.

The plot – much like the French Canadian Pea Soup – thickens.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pasta Therapy

How does one shed the residual effects of a tedious and fairly annoying work week? Immersion in a weekend cooking project could be the solution. That level of control that I completely failed to exert over errant employees during the week might be far more constructively and successfully applied in the kitchen. A touch of pasta therapy is in order. The tagliatelle will bend to my will, assuming it is cooked al dente. As with most transformations, though, Pasta Therapy requires a twelve-step program:

Step 1: Invite brother and sister-in-law for dinner. Ask them to bring salad and beverages.

Step 2: Spend day in sweats, rambling around the kitchen. Refuse to look presentable until at least 3 p.m.

Step 3: Mix two batches of fresh pasta dough with semolina – each with 200 grams of flour, 2 eggs and pinch of salt. Knead vigorously and let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Step 4: Set up pasta machine and crank briskly until frustrations dissipate. Produce twelve paper-thin sheets of pasta and let dry for 10 to 15 minutes.

Step 5: Feed pasta sheets through roller, cutting each into precisely-shaped tagliatelle noodles. Toss all misshaped or mangled noodles.
Step 6: Page through Silver Spoon cookbook, dubbed “the Bible” of authentic Italian cuisine. Select simple recipes that taste like they took hours to prepare.

Step 7: Use funky serving spoons purchased at Museum of Modern Art Design Store for creative presentation of appetizers. Design mouthwatering one-bite appetizers of Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella Salad and Gorgonzola Goat Cheese Crostini with Chives.

Step 8: Prepare Ricotta and Raisin Tart for dessert. Try to contain excitement when you discover that most of the ingredients for the simple, but elegant dish are already in the pantry. Bake in new square tart pan and get inventive with powdered sugar topping.
Step 9: Prepare pasta sauce. Allow two cans of petite-cut tomatoes and 8 tablespoons of fragrant extra virgin olive oil to simmer for 30 minutes until tomatoes are infused with rich flavor of olive oil. Reflect on outstanding flavor and amount of chopping time saved by using canned tomatoes.

Step 10: Program stereo and welcome guests. Enjoy conversation over cocktails and highly artistic appetizers.

Step 11: Cook pasta and note fact that fresh pasta is done far more quickly than any project I attempted this week. Toss pasta with sauce and garnish with grated ricotta. Eat and drink with zeal for four hours.

Step 12: Take moment to appreciate overall healing effects of Pasta Therapy. Go to bed, and leave dishes until Sunday morning.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Canadian Culinary Challenge Arrives:

With my American Culinary Challenge in hand, Jill has been cooking up a response in Canada. I learn the full details when this correspondence arrives. Jill writes:

Dear T.W.,

When you first suggested this culinary challenge, I began searching for recipes quite casually, leisurely flipping through a few cookbooks and wandering around the web. I found lots of choices and, as in the United States, many distinctive regional dishes, but how could I settle on just one? So when you proposed a full menu, it seemed like the perfect solution for someone who has trouble making up her mind. I decided to devise a meal composed of recipes from, or typical of, the three Canadian provinces in which I've lived: Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia.

But then I faced a new challenge: I couldn't find a distinctive vegetable or salad recipe. This week, the search got more serious. All my cookbooks were removed from the bookshelves and stacked into three piles, international, American, and Canadian. The international books were returned to the shelves, the American books set aside for research into U.S. cuisine, and the Canadian books pored through for the perfect side dish. I visited the library, the bookstore and the far corners of the web. My living room turned into cookbook chaos. But still, my vegetable problem remained. I found many delicious-sounding recipes using local produce, but none seemed to have a unique history or folklore attached to them. Had it been spring, fiddleheads might have been an option, but they're still buried under a meter (in Canada) of snow.

As a result, with the exception of what you may include in the soup, your menu is a little low on vegetables. However, I've made up for the side dish-deficit by including two dessert items – a reasonable substitute, in my view. Here is your Canadian culinary experience:

French Canadian Pea Soup
Two Canadian Sweets: Butter Tarts & Nanaimo Bars

I'd also suggest that you gather a group together for the March 18 tasting. There are many variations of tourtière and (as you'll discover) the "correct" style of butter tart is hotly contested, so you may even want to experiment with several versions of those dishes. As a little something extra, you could offer your thirsty guests a round of Caesars.

In a radio interview some years ago, Colonel Sanders, that culinary icon of chicken, described Canadian food as "plumb tasteless." Hopefully, you won't have the same reaction!


Hmm. No vegetables? Two kinds of desserts? I think I’ll survive …

But since I’ve only heard of two ingredients in this menu – peas and butter – and I need a lesson in pronunciation and geography, it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me in terms of research.

So begins my Canadian culinary odyssey ...

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Luncheon for President's Day 2007

Pass the patriotism, and have another helping of history. I’ve long wondered how best to mark President’s Day, the annual celebration of George Washington’s Birthday in the United States. The idea of a three-day department store sale seemed so insufficient to acknowledge a multifaceted man who was patriot, military strategist, spymaster, gentleman farmer, public servant, statesman and diplomat. But there’s a rich culinary history behind America’s Founding Father, and two years ago I came up with the idea of a President’s Day Luncheon to research, prepare and taste the foods that might have been on the table of the legendary man who was the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797. George Washington loved food and wine, and this meal – with its distinctive ingredients and flavors of the American Colonial period – which I shared with my family today, invokes his legacy and spirit.

Madeira Wine: The island of Madeira was discovered by a sea captain in 1419, approximately 400 miles off the coast of Casablanca, Morocco. The island was densely wooded, and the sea captain burned the island to clear it. It was believed that the smoke and ash from the fire created the smoky taste of Madeira wines produced on the island, but this is most likely a legend. Madeira wine was very popular in the American Colonies, and it was considered a patriotic drink, because it came from Africa and required no tax from Great Britain. Madeira is a fortified wine which means alcoholic spirit is added to stop fermentation and preserve the wine. For that reason, it traveled well during long ocean voyages and kept well in the wine cellars of American colonists. Thomas Jefferson stocked his first wine cellar with an ample supply of Madeira.

Anchovy Toasts: This recipe for anchovies on toast points sprinkled with grated cheese and broiled is attributed to “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph, a popular cookbook in early America.

Claret: According to author and wine expert John Hailman, George Washington was fond of Claret, a wine from the Bordeaux region of France, but also a term used to describe any light red wine. It is the first wine ever mentioned by wine connoisseur Thomas Jefferson. Hailman recounts a meal in 1780 which lasted many hours during which Washington and the French Marquis de Chastellux engaged in many celebratory toasts and glasses of wine.

Veal Rice Pie Enjoyed by George and Martha Washington: There are a number of veal recipes and instructions for “veale pie” listed in “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery” transcribed by Karen Hess, a collection of the First Lady’s handwritten family recipes. As the Mount Vernon estate was a working farm, it is likely that veal would have been served often. The ingredients of potatoes, tomatoes, rice and sliced hardboiled eggs would have been common on the plantation, and could have been assembled from a variety of leftovers.

Thomas Jefferson’s Favorite Corn Bread: Thomas Jefferson often dined with George and Martha Washington, and was a noted gourmet. This recipe is a cross between a corn pudding and a corn bread, and is similar in technique to Indian pudding, where cream is poured into the center of the batter, resulting in a baked custard consistency. Jefferson recorded in his Farm Book the many vegetables – including corn – grown at his home Monticello in Virginia, and the archives of the estate mention that cornbread was served for breakfast and the family was fond of corn meal.

Samuel Fraunces Cranberry Bread: This loaf recipe, flavored with cranberry and orange is named for Samuel Fraunces, the owner of Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. On December 4, 1783, General George Washington held a farewell dinner for his officers at the Long Room at Fraunces Tavern, marking the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War. Washington thought Samuel Fraunces to be an excellent cook, and eventually made him the steward of his presidential home in New York City.

Washington Cake: According to an 1843 newspaper article, this cake “was a favorite at the table of General Washington,” but other sources identify a similar recipe as “Washington Pie” a layer cake with a jam filling that was baked to celebrate George Washington’s birthday beginning just before the American Civil War and into the early 20th century. It was likely called a pie, because the two layers were thinner, and often baked in pie tins. A similar style cake with custard filling became the Boston Cream Pie. A variety of patriotic confections and “Washington Cakes” were popular in the new nation, with a number of pound cake recipes with currants associated with George Washington that evolved from the traditional “Queen’s Cake.” This cake includes flavorings of apple juice, nutmeg and cinnamon, and a filling of apple butter, as apples were a common ingredient in the Colonial kitchen. The recipe suggests that you can use a combination of white flour, wheat flour and cornmeal if you’d like it to taste like an 1830’s version of the cake. I did just, that and the thick batter tasted nutty and sweet, much like a spice cake.


“Thomas Jefferson on Wine” by John Hailman, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2006

“The Early American Cookbook,” by Dr. Kristie Lynn and Robert W. Pelton, William H. McCauley Imports and Publications, Seventh Printing, July 2002.

“The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook” by Mary Donovan, Amy Hatrak, Frances Mills, Elizabeth Shull, Montclair Historical Society, Montclair New Jersey, 1982.

“The American History Cookbook” by Mark H. Zanger, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 2003.
“Thomas Jefferson’s Cookbook” by Marie Kimball, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1976.

Old Sturbridge Village Kids,” Winter 1996.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 18, 2007

5 Things About Me: My intrepid and inquisitive virtual friend, Veronica has tagged me from her Test Kitchen to answer the "5 Things About Me" meme that is making the rounds in the food blogosphere. Okay, ready, set, go:
  1. I learned to cook at an early age. I was one of four brothers and my mom raised us to be self-sufficient, so we always participated in preparing dinner and made some tasty dishes from the Betty Crocker New Boys and Girls Cookbook. I also loved the Peanuts Cookbook by Charles M. Shultz and recipes that were printed in Scholastic Magazine. Someday, I want to get my brothers together and recreate a meal of recipes from the Betty Crocker book.
  2. My favorite food, bar none, is Macaroni and Cheese. My favorite recipe is the one my mom made when I was growing up, called “Double Good Macaroni and Cheese.” We still eat it, and I’ll probably post about it soon.
  3. I have always loved telling stories. When I was a kid I put on puppet shows, and in elementary school I wrote a “novel” that was approximately ten handwritten pages about the kids I rode the school bus with called "Five on a Bus." I also wrote a weekly serialized detective mystery for the high school newspaper. Now, I’m really enjoying writing stories about “Culinary Types.”
  4. A lot of my disposable income is devoted to food, wine, classes on food, cookbooks and restaurants, so I decided a long time ago that my charitable giving should focus on addressing hunger. God’s Love We Deliver, Trinity Lower East Side Services and Food for the Homeless and Long Island Cares are three organizations I support that do extremely important work.
  5. I usually travel for work about 50 percent of the week, and believe me, eating on an airplane is not what it used to be. When I’m not traveling for work, cooking food, eating or writing about food, I’m usually feeding my addiction for Lost, Prison Break and 24. Does Jack Bauer ever stop to eat??? If I were him, I’d be starving by 11:30 a.m.!!!!!!!!

    © 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sing for Your Supper:

Lincoln Center is a cultural crossroads in New York City – ballet, theater, symphony, dance, and of course some of the greatest opera stages and singers in the world.

I meet up with my friend Lee Sloan – a Grande Dame of the New York food and wine scene – at the Barnes and Noble on Broadway and 66th. The neighborhood is covered in a blanket of snow, and Lee is wrapped from head to foot to protect against the sub-zero temperatures. Lee is patron of the arts and a class act all the way. Who better to join me for an homage to world-class opera and food?

We ascend to an upper floor where food historian Francine Segan has taken center stage to discuss her new Opera Lover’s Cookbook, a lush tome dedicated to great composers, librettos, arias and fine dining. Segan is a witty and elegant lady who has a passion for food and the arts. She has written several fascinating cook books on Shakespeare’s Kitchen, The Philosopher’s Kitchen and Movie Menus.

At the podium is one of Segan’s opera-inspired dishes – a Verdi Penne Pasta. Lee and I each take a helping and play one of our favorite parlor games, “Guess the Ingredient.” Is it caramelized onion? Is it orange zest? In fact, it is fig! The pasta is tossed with wine-soaked figs that are deliciously sweet and contrast nicely with salty prosciutto from Verdi’s birthplace of Parma in Italy.

Segan says the opera lover and the gourmet each share a similar ardor for the good things in life and food and opera is a natural pairing. She serves us a buffet of scrumptious trivia. In times past, snacking was encouraged at the opera, to the point where silk gloves were customized with buttons allowing women to easily remove their hand to pick up food. Sorbet was a popular refreshment and sorbet areas were common at the opera. Opera singers have been immortalized through food. The famous Thanksgiving leftover dish, Turkey Tetrazzini, was named for Italian soprano Louisa Tetrazzini, and Melba Toast and Peach Melba were created by the renown chef Escoffier to honor singer Nellie Melba. Mozart was born in Austria, the dessert capital of the world, and there are many famous references to food in his operas including a sensual pasta scene in Don Giovanni. Many instantly-recognized opera arias are actually “toasting arias” and much bubbly is consumed at a party scene during the “Champagne Aria’ in Don Giovanni.

Segan even offers recommendations for opera scores to cook by, inspired by her grandmother, who thought the beat of Rossini was particularly good for whisking mayonnaise. So pull out your wire whisk and pop on that CD of Barber of Seville. It’s sure to inspire a great performance in the kitchen!

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Cook’s Tour of Regional American Dishes:

Jill in Ottawa and I have been debating what defines a classic Canadian or American dish, and now it’s time to start cooking. Jill will research and prepare American cuisine, while I’ll tackle Canadian gastronomy. Jill has read my ruminations on the quintessential American dish and she responds immediately. The following line gets her attention: "America is made up of regional dishes...Jill's cooking assignment may have just gotten somewhat larger in scope."

She writes: Now I'm getting nervous. What is your brain cooking up for me to cook up? Could this possibly mean a dish from each U.S. region? I know there are 50 states, but just how many regions are there? And if this is the plan you're hatching, will there be room in my kitchen for all this food? So many questions as I await my assignment. Now that you have the makings of a plan, I'd better get moving to finalize my thoughts for your culinary challenge. Given the direction you appear to be going, could an entire menu be in order?

Jill is, in fact, on to my plan, although I’ve tried to contain the geographical scope, at least a little. So, I issue my American Culinary Challenge:

Dear Jill,

America is a vast country and an enormous “soup pot” of cultures and cuisines simmering with flavor. I’ve consulted with the experts, and they concur that there is no single quintessential American dish. There are, however, hundreds of distinctive and delicious regional dishes.

So, I’m proposing an “armchair” tour, from your kitchen in Ottawa, to locations in the United States where distinctive and enduring dishes have emerged.

Your culinary mission, should you chose to accept it, is to research and prepare a menu of five dishes, each with its own succulent history. Together, they comprise a menu, so I’d suggest that you invite some guests and gather their impressions as well. Your focus will be the East Coast, where I have traveled extensively. Your culinary itinerary of the U.S. includes:

Boston Brown Bread
New England Clam Chowder
Waldorf Salad from New York City
Country Captain from Savannah, Georgia
Southern Sweet Potato Pie

Perhaps it’s ambitious, but I’ve seen you whip up a spinach soufflé in no time, and I know you like to travel, so I think it will be a “piece of cake” for someone of your culinary skills. Here are some questions to ask as you move forward:

How did the dish emerge?
Why were the ingredients important to the dish?
How were the ingredients characteristic of the region?

I propose March 18 as the tasting date for our culinary exchange, both in New York and Ottawa. You can prepare individual dishes and send research updates ahead of time, but March 18 should be the date it all comes together. We can each record our experiences between now and then, and share our discoveries.

I eagerly away your Canadian Culinary Challenge!

Bon Appetite!

T.W. Barritt

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Herdsman's Chapel

It is numbingly cold in Helsinki -- the kind of cold where all your joints feel distressingly fragile. Yes, I do manage to get around -- one man, one carry-on suitcase, a suped-up laptop and a Ziploc bag full of toiletries. One day I can be eating homemade ice cream in suburban Long Island, and the next day I’m freezing my buns off in Nordic country. Fortunately for me, it is “Blini Season” in Finland.

The restaurant Kappeli is located in Helsinki on the Esplanade, a strip of park currently coated with a layer of ice that runs along a main avenue in the historic section of the city. The sun has long since disappeared, and my colleague and I brave the 10 minute walk from the hotel in subzero temperatures for a bite of supper.

Kappeli means “chapel” and the restaurant was built in the 1860s on the site of an outdoor market where a herdsman would sell cows milk in a little decorated stall that was referred to as a “chapel,” and the herdsman called a “pastor,” or shepherd.
Kappeli is an enchanting crystal pavilion on the edge of the park that glistens in the evening twilight. Neo-classic statues and scroll work adorn the outer peak. Inside, the restaurant is warm and inviting with the open appearance of a baroque sculpture garden. We are seated by a window that overlooks the icy park and handed a special blini menu that celebrates the long season of winter. Our waiter, Eero politely answers my numerous questions about the food, even retreating to the kitchen to check certain facts and provide me with as much detail as possible about the menu and ingredients.

We start with Burbot Soup, a dish I’ve not come across before. Eero tells us that burbot is a firm white fish, a “bottom feeder” like catfish that thrives in icy temperatures. It’s been an atypically warm winter in Helsinki (hard to believe), and the supply of burbot has been limited so we are lucky that the restaurant has gotten some in. The steaming soup is an elixir on this frigid night with chunks of smoky fish, potatoes and fresh dill in golden broth, with a touch of richness from butter. The intoxicating aroma of dill is apparent as the soup bowl is placed on the table. As an accompaniment, Eero passes a large basket of exquisite breads from Finland – tangy brown bread the color of molasses and soft, chewy rye dotted with caraway seeds.

Blinis are of Russian origin and are hearty, disk-shaped russet-colored pancakes made from three flours – wheat flour, rye flour and buckwheat flour. The batter is mixed with beer, rests for many hours and then is fried. At Kappeli, the fragrant six-inch pancake is brought straight from the stove to the table in a small cast iron skillet and served with condiments and perfectly-shaped quenelles of various savory toppings like sour cream, whitefish roe, mushroom salad, herring caviar, crayfish tartar, chopped onion and smoked reindeer tartar.

For dessert, I tackle a stack of thin tender caramelized blinis layered with cream and cloudberries, a thick, translucent, amber jam that is pucker tart. Body and soul fortified, we must then bundle up and head back into the frozen midwinter night.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Desperately Seeking the Quintessential American Recipe:

Me and my big, hungry mouth. I’m the one who suggested that Jill in Ottawa and I each research and cook a dish authentic to the homeland of the other. Now, I’ve got to come up with a uniquely American dish -- at least something appetizing enough that Jill will want to eat it. Take-out, while pervasively American, doesn’t count since there’s no cooking involved. And, I’m a little concerned that journalist Michael Pollan of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is getting a lot of ink lately claiming that America has no food culture whatsoever.

I turn to my vast cookbook library, and consult the experts. Should I focus on the cuisine of New York? David Rosengarten’s “It’s All American Food” suggests Buffalo Chicken Wings and New York Cheese Cake, but I’m not sure that bar snacks and dessert really count as cooking. Although, that’s where many of us Yanks get most of our essential nutrients.

Perhaps “Suburban Cuisine?” That is, after all, my ethnic food. I check “The Back of The Box Gourmet” and the “Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.” But most of the recipes in the circa 1953 “Better Homes” look like Easy Bake Oven food, and while there are some tasty entrees in “Back of the Box,” Jill’s got a sophisticated palate, and I’m not sure she’ll tolerate Campbell’s Soup Green Bean Casserole or Lipton Onion Soup “Souperiour Meat Loaf.” There are many historic American recipes, and “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery” contains dozens. For a moment, I consider “Martha Washington’s Great Cake” until I see that the recipe calls for 40 eggs – separated – along with four pounds of butter, and four pounds of sugar. A bit time intensive, and heavy, unless you’re expecting 60 people for dessert.

My search leaves me perplexed, with a slight case of indigestion. So, I ask Jill what she thinks is classic American fare. She writes:

What comes to mind when I think about American food? Good question. Rather than considering the topic deeply, I decided simply to go with the first five things that popped into my head, unmediated by notions of good taste (see #2) or research into whether these foods really are American. Here's my list:

1. Southern fried chicken
2. Fast food burgers and fries
3. New England clam chowder
4. Pumpkin pie
5. Pecan pie

Of course, I have to ask you the same question about Canadian food. This should be particularly challenging, because, as all self-righteous Canadians like to attest, Americans know absolutely nothing about Canada!

Well, I have spent a good deal of time in Canada’s Prairie Provinces consuming doughnuts and club sandwiches, but for the moment I take a pass on the question of Canada’s cuisine, so I can solve my American culinary dilemma.

My fellow food bloggers chime in with ideas. Veronica, the recently self-confessed “hopeless carnivore” puts aside the bubbling beakers in her Test Kitchen, and suggests: "How about shrimp and that American? How about squirrel pot pie? Just kidding!"

From the West Coast, The Food Blogga offers this: “When I taught, I had some foreign exchange students who were eager to try some classic American foods they had heard about. Here are a few: BBQ, Mac n' Cheese, hoagies, burgers 'n fries, meatloaf, doughnuts, apple pie, & yes, pizza. Okay, they're not hi-brow, but they are quintessentially American!”

It is my friend, “Lee Sloan,” a Grande Dame of food and wine, who hits the nail on the head. Over Chestnut-Fennel Soup at Terrence Brennan’s Picholine in New York, she sits back, pauses thoughtfully and then pronounces matter-of-factly, “There is no distinctly American food. America is made up of regional dishes.”

As always – when it comes to food – Lee is right. And, Jill’s cooking assignment may have just gotten somewhat larger in scope. I now have the makings of a plan.

Next: Jill’s Assignment

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Corner Ice Cream Parlor

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for those neighborhood institutions and establishments that, one-by-one, seem to be slipping away. In most communities the family-owned, corner ice cream parlor is an anachronism, having long been replaced by drive-through or national chain restaurants.

The idea of an old fashioned ice cream parlor conjures up images of Archie Comics and “Happy Days.” Believe it or not, one actually still exists not far from my home. OK, maybe it’s not my corner, but Krisch’s Ice Cream is located on a corner in the slightly drowsy town of Massapequa, Long Island. The family-owned business has been operating on Long Island for 87 years, originally in Queen’s, before eventually migrating to Massapequa. They are famous for their homemade ice cream.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Krisch’s, so I locate their menu online which promises retro 50s style burgers, fries and many luscious flavors of ice cream. If that’s not tempting enough, there’s also meatloaf, milk shakes and cream pie. Meatloaf, ice cream and pie??? That’s the food of the gods in suburbia. It seems like a visit is in order.

I recruit Cousin Steve to join me. Cousin Steve is an edgy graphic illustrator and comic book artist who knows far more about four-color printing than four-star restaurants. I can confirm that he has an identical twin brother named Frank, which can cause some wacky mix-ups at family gatherings. What better person to take to a restaurant that may only really exist in the funny papers?

There is a full moon, and it’s a frigid night, a dubious time to sample homemade ice cream, but we’ve come too far to turn back. As we approach Krisch’s, I take note of the fact that there is outdoor seating available. “Let’s try that … next summer,” Cousin Steve shivers.

Inside, I see that Krisch’s has had a bit of a makeover since my last visit, in basic primary colors of red, turquoise and black, but the booths and swivel stools at the counter remain a staple. Most of the wait staff is about a third of my age. We are seated in a back corner in the “cheap seats” as there is a line for the cushier booths in the center of the restaurant. There’s a glass case filled with homemade chocolates, and some kind of Valentine’s Day decorative theme going on with lots of hearts, flowers and stuffed bears. I scan the main dining room for any sign of Betty and Veronica. “Are you hungry for Wonder Bread, yet?” Cousin Steve asks.

Cousin Steve checks out the authenticity of our booth, and holds up an old-fashioned glass sugar dispenser that sits with a bottle of Heinz on the gray Formica tabletop. “No Splenda here.”

The theme from “Hawaii Five-O” is playing in the background and we are handed oversized laminated menus to peruse the endless selection of entrees. Cousin Steve comments that the logo has recently been updated to the 1980s. I’m torn between the Corn Dog Platter and the Pizza Burger, but Cousin Steve seems fascinated by two karmic options: The Twin Burger or the Mt. Steven Burger Deluxe.

“Did you see that there’s also Mt. Steven Chicken on the menu?” I ask.

“What’d you call me?” retorts Cousin Steve. He’s a little put off by the fact that “Mt. Steven” is not spelled “Stephen” but when he learns that the deluxe burger entree comes with two burgers, he’s convinced. “Two burgers!” he cheers. “Biology is destiny.” I settle on the less ambitious Pizza Burger.

As an appetizer, we split an order of potato pancakes and applesauce, and I order Krisch’s famous milk shake. At the risk of seeming too Vanilla, I order … well, Vanilla. The drink arrives in a tall silver “frappe can.” The thick, chilled milkshake crawls up the straw and tastes sweet and silky-smooth.

On the wall is lots of Massapequa and malt shop memorabilia. There’s a poster of “Monkey Mountain,” a peculiar roadside tourist attraction that was part of the Massapequa Zoo in 1954, and there are signed photographs of Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin – Massapequa’s first sons of comedy and theater – hanging just over the cash register.

Our entrées are delivered and Cousin Steve is aghast at the sheer volume of his burger. “It’s got its own zip code. Even my mouth’s not that big!”

The Mt. Steven Burger is a double stack of beef sirloin, bacon and cheese (“real cheese, not that orange goo,” according to my cousin) that sits about eight-inches high once you’ve figured out how to cap it with the pile of shredded lettuce, pickle and Kaiser bun that sits to one side. Cousin Steve slaps the two parts together like cymbals, and clutches it tightly. “With the Mt. Steven Burger, you have to commit,” he explains. “Once you’ve got the two parts together, you can’t put it down.”

I try the same technique with my Pizza Burger, and a river of marinara sauce floods out of the other end of the bun. On the other side of the table, Cousin Steve is trying to conquer Mt. Steven. “It’s smirking at me,” he proclaims. “It’s daring me to finish it.” Finally, the man triumphs over the mountain, and the Mt. Steven Burger is no more.

But, Cousin Steve is in search of another conquest. He orders a Mini-Waffle Sundae with Cake Batter Ice Cream, real whipped cream and hot fudge, topped with a maraschino cherry. I regress back to childhood and order a huge scoop of Fluffer Nutter Ice Cream. The Cake Batter Ice Cream tastes like something Betty Crocker just popped out of the oven, “but colder,” as Cousin Steve points out, “despite the hot fudge.” The Fluffer Nutter Ice Cream is a super-soft and creamy blend of Marshmallow Fluff and Peanut Butter, although after several spoonfuls, I start to crave Welch’s Grape Jelly.

Cousin Steve’s dessert platter is close to squeaky clean. “There may be some volcanic activity in Mt. Steven Burger tonight,” he groans. As he is consuming the last bit of Cake Batter Ice Cream, an entire Pee-Wee Basketball Team enters for some post-game refreshments.

“Kids in shorts, hopped up on sugar, and a full moon?” asks Cousin Steve in horror.

We decide it is prudent to pay the bill and make a quick exit.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved