Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Tennessee Thanksgiving

The early morning sun casts an ethereal, timeless glow across the taupe and buff-dappled fields of Grassland Farms in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Thanksgiving morning is a moment of serenity. There is only the distant clang of a cowbell, the soft mewing of a cat, or the flutter of a bird to be heard.

The regal, white antebellum manor house sits majestically on a slight ridge. There is no actual documentation on exactly when the house – described as “Tennessee Vernacular Architecture” – was built, but the date is thought to be 1825 or earlier. It is known that a Revolutionary war soldier named Alexander Greer acquired the property through a land grant from North Carolina in 1815.

These days, Pittypat prowls the yard as protector of the property...

Inside the brick cook house, preparations for the Thanksgiving Day feast are underway...

Mom slices sweet potatoes for a casserole sweetened with apricot jam. Jim shapes the crust for a homemade pumpkin pie …

The aroma of cinnamon and cloves fills the house as the finished pie cools on the kitchen table …

I join the communal preparations, dicing butternut squash for a puree sweetened with maple syrup …

Ray prepares the turkey, and Jim clips sprigs of fragrant rosemary from the kitchen garden to perfume the bird …

By afternoon, the table is artfully set …

A platter of American artisanal cheeses is put out – including clothbound Cheddar from Cabot Creamery in Vermont and gamey and gooey Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia …

Soon, the turkey is done, and Dad begins his designated carving ritual …

As the sun begins to recede behind the foothills beyond Grassland Farms …

We take our seats at the table and give thanks for good food and blessings, an appreciation of place and the moment, and – despite any obstacles that might arise – an enduring sense of family.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving – I Swear I Didn’t Steal the Pie

Happy Thanksgiving! I’m heading to Tennessee for an old-fashioned Southern holiday meal, but before leaving, I thought I’d serve up this cautionary tale.

If somebody offers you a free pie, you might want to think twice.

Last week, a group in the office throws a late afternoon happy hour. On the menu – beer, cupcakes and pie. Don’t look at me. I didn’t plan the menu. Maybe the pairing of snacks and beverages wasn’t optimal, but the sweets were top of the line – pumpkin pie, and pumpkin cupcakes with maple cream cheese frosting from the Magnolia Bakery. Yes, cupcake fans, Magnolia has opened a new midtown branch just down the street from the office. My administrative assistant is VERY worried about my waistline.

But, I digress. Due to the fact that the noshes and the beverages, didn’t exactly … uh, mesh, there were some leftovers – several gorgeous pumpkin pies. So, a very nice colleague named Sophia suggested I take one home. I was unsure for a second, since I had a theater engagement that evening, but decided that free pie doesn’t come along every day, and I could figure out how to pack the pie securely for the trip from Midtown Manhattan to suburban Long Island.

So, there I am, walking down the hallway with my boxed pie, feeling like I won the lottery, thankful for my colleague Sophia, and thankful for my free pumpkin pie. I pass by a few colleagues.

“Did you take that pie?” one of them asks.

I shrug off the comment, since most New Yorkers are an obsessively suspicious lot.

I arrive back at my office. My office neighbor “Danbury,” an aristocrat from Connecticut, gives me an accusing glare.

“Did you steal that pie?” he demands.

“It was a gift!” I insist.

I am now feeling like a criminal and thoroughly demoralized. Not one, but two people have taken what was a lovely holiday gesture and turned it into an incident worthy of the Fox News – “The Executive and the Purloined Pie – Film at 11!!!” Secretly, I am feeling a little guilty, because I had been contemplating a blog post on how one can eat for free for days on office leftovers. Scratch that idea.

I leave the pie at the office and go to the theater. After the final curtain call of “On the Town” I pick up the pie and head for the subway. The train never comes, and I am at risk of missing my train to Long Island. I hop an alternate train, that lets me off one block from Penn Station, and I have to sprint to the train, pie in hand. If you had seen me running down 34th Street at 11:32 p.m. carrying a pie, you might have thought I’d stolen it, too.

After all that, the pie makes it home relatively intact, with just a few cracks, as you can see from the photo above. If I squint at it, I can pretend it’s a smiley face.

The presence of the pie inspires a whole Thanksgiving dress rehearsal, of sorts. I pour over the recipe books and magazines, because you can’t have pumpkin pie without all the fixings, right? I roast a chicken, because Thanksgiving is all about a plump, juicy bird:

I make a silky-smooth gravy from the pan drippings:

I prepare a luscious dish of Maple-Glazed Sweet Potatoes:

And, I forgo the timesaving temptation of Stovetop Stuffing in favor of making my own from scratch – simple stuffing with apples and raisins. I even cube a whole loaf of Italian bread:

It’s all a build-up to that magnificent pie. It is a glorious feast, indeed, and a perfect prelude to the official holiday of thanks.

The spread is so good, in fact, that I am stuffed to the gills, and have absolutely no room left for the pumpkin pie!

May you fare better, keep your good reputation intact, and be sure to get your slice of pie!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Small Publishing Milestone for T.W.

Somebody once said, “Good things come to those who wait” (Was it Shakespeare, or Hillary Clinton?). It has certainly tested my patience at times to wait for the publication of “Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl – An Encyclopedia,” but it has finally arrived.

“Entertaining…” is a two-volume encyclopedia published by Greenwood Press which contains 120 entries that explore the history and cultural significance of all aspects of entertaining. Yours truly was one of 64 contributors, and I joined the project in the spring of 2006, even before “Culinary Types” arrived on the scene. Sometimes, the project seemed as if it were taking about as long as the history of world entertaining, but I suppose there were a lot of dinner parties and dirty dishes for the contributors to sort through in researching this tome.

Authored by T.W. Barritt are five hefty entries, Colonial America, Dinner Parties, Martha Stewart, Fourth of July and Wine, as well as a sidebar on how to prepare Plum Pudding. The contributors are described in the preface as “all experts in their respective fields,” and I do claim a certain familiarity with wine and have prepared a plum pudding or two in my day. While I’ve come close to meeting Martha on one or two occasions, that event has yet to happen. I do hope if she reads the entry, she feels I portrayed her influence on entertaining with accuracy and insight.

I am indebted to the delightful Francine Segan, who first invited me to join the project when I contacted her out of the blue more than two years ago to interview her on her specialty, culinary history. I greatly appreciate the opportunity she provided.

Now, I’m really not expecting you to run out a buy a copy. “Entertaining…” will be marketed to reference libraries and retails for $199.95 on However, I thought you’d enjoy hearing the news. I was pretty thrilled!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pie for All Seasons

Pie is messy.

It doesn't slice very neatly, the crust fractures easily, and the filling eventually becomes a soupy glop on the plate. Yet it is somehow comforting. Pie is familiar, flexible and always ready to adapt. Just like a big, sloppy, wet kiss, pie emanates home, hearth and love.

Winter weather has arrived in New York and a frosty wind pummels me as I hurry along Lexington Avenue. The Dow has done another one of its late afternoon nose dives, I’ve got a strange and feverish buzz from the flu shot I received earlier in the day and its god-awful cold. It’s the perfect night for a comforting piece of pie. Maybe two. Maybe even three.

I enter a large classroom painted in primary colors and adorned with works of finger painting art in the basement of the 92nd Street Y. There, author and food historian Francine Segan is setting a groaning board of nearly a dozen, picture-perfect pies. Francine has one of the best jobs in the world. She researches and recreates historic recipes, and has authored several stunningly photographed cookbooks. She cooks with the Today Show Family, interviews Jacques Pepin and hosts lectures focused on the kinds of foods most of us obsess over. Tonight, she’s serving up a lip-smacking program on the history of pie.

Francine was my editor on a now-completed publishing project that seemed to last a millennium (more on that in another post). She's witty, exuberant, sweet, tart and frothy, sort of like one of those mile-high lemon meringue pies. And, she’s got a plethora of pie lore at her fingertips. She takes me aside and explains that this week leading up to Thanksgiving has more Americans focused on pie than any other time of the year. And, she confirms that – as I’ve been hearing recently – “pie is the next big thing.”

Frankly, the group of guests looks a bit beleaguered, but things are about to brighten up, as Francine invites us to help ourselves to a little pie. The momentary commotion at the pie counter resembles a Blue Light Special at K-Mart.

“If you’re allergic to anything, you’re out of luck,” says Francine. “There’s nuts, there’s fruit and there’s plenty of sugar.” Within minutes we are back at the table, each digging into a plateful of pie. The mountainous plate before the woman across from me looks like a three-dimensional work of abstract expressionism. Wayne Thiebaud, eat your heart out.

There are eight choices, and I can proudly say I sample almost all of them, including Honey Pumpkin Pie, Banana Cream Pie, Medieval Meat Pie, and the ever-popular Mock Apple Pie. Pie for dinner you ask?? Don’t raise your eyebrows at me. You’d do it too, in a second. It proves to be a balanced meal indeed – the Pumpkin Pie chocked full of beta carotene, the banana cream pie a good source of potassium, and the savory meat pie providing a full-serving of protein. Not to mention all that love.

As we munch away, Francine takes us on a little journey of pie through the ages. Among the morsels,

The first recorded recipe for pie comes from Roman times and was a Rye-crusted Goat Cheese and Honey Pie.

As Francine describes it, in the Elizabethan era “pie was kind of like a Tupperware container where you put your leftovers,” resulting in all kinds of varieties of meat pies.

The Lemon Meringue Pie was invented by a woman from Philadelphia named Elizabeth Goodfellow.

Pie a la Mode was made famous on the menu at the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, but was actually invented by a professor from Cambridge, New York who liked to combine pie with ice cream.

The Eskimo Pie, invented in the 1920s, borrowed the name. It is not a pie.

During times of bad economic news, we as a society tend to turn to sweets (might this explain the hefty portions of pie we are attacking during the lecture?)

Likewise, Prohibition seemed to have inspired the invention of a variety of sweets (we will satisfy our addictions, somehow).

Mock Apple Pie was invented in the 1930s as an economic alternative to the genuine article, when crackers were free, but an apple cost a penny.

When the good times returned in the 1950s and smart suburbanites turned to home entertaining, the cocktail hour, inspired “Cocktail Pies,” like Grasshopper Pie and Brandy Alexander Pie.

As you might guess, the classic pie-in-the-face is a distinctively American invention.

As Francine wraps up her lecture, she notices that a group of staff members from the Y are standing outside the door and looking in, longingly. Are they drooling? She invites them in to partake of some pie. Francine is a crucial part of the 92nd Street Y employee retention program.

Meanwhile, I’m in Pie Paradise. It’s a bit like Hog Heaven, but a whole lot sweeter.

©2008 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Twilight at Sophia Garden: The CSA Experiment Concludes

The crescent moon looks like a sliver of fingernail – thumbs down – against the blackened sky as I approach Sophia Garden on foot. It is a cool night. The volunteers are huddled under the canopy and a propane lantern casts a beacon of light across the remaining bins of vegetables.

It is my last pickup at Sophia Garden, the heavenly organic farm run by a group of Dominican Sisters on suburban Long Island. I joined on an impulse, and now the growing season is over and the summer has turned to autumn. The fields are plowed under and little evidence remains of the plants, stakes and vines once bursting with vegetables. It has been my first experience with Community Sponsored Agriculture. I feel a sense of accomplishment, but a tinge of sadness that it is over. And, my wallet is feeling just slightly pinched at the thought of having to return to supermarket prices, just as the economy is experiencing a meltdown.

The yield is far smaller now. Three carrots, two eggplants, a butternut squash and just a half pound of still ripening tomatoes. Gone are the days of nine pounds of tomatoes, bushels of burgundy beans and bundles of crisp lettuce. Still, I will likely make good use of this produce, generating close to two weeks of meals.

I learned a great deal through this CSA experiment. I approached my meals differently, learning to cook according to the yield of the garden instead of some spontaneous food craving. Usually, I made great use of the pickup, preparing enough good food to carry me through lunch and dinner for nearly two weeks. On those weeks when some of the produce went to waste, I felt badly, and tried a little harder the following week. I cooked in quantity on Sunday and Monday, although I can still improve how I organize my freezer. I also became more thoughtful about where my food comes from.

I learned that I love chard and one can eat greens as a main course. I’d always been afraid to try it, and now I’m pining for its sweet, tender flavor. I learned that pasta, rice and couscous can help extend a meal for days. And I discovered that even three small carrots can lead to a surprisingly good meal when transformed into an exotic Moroccan Carrot Salad. I also took the opportunity to purchase more vegetarian cookbooks than one guy should really own.

The rainbow-colored heirloom tomatoes were glorious. I ate them in salads and soups, and used gold and red jewels to adorn the tart pictured above. I even mastered the art of preserving some for later, thanks to Lydia’s recipe for oven roasted tomatoes and some guidance via email on a Saturday night.

The pounds and pounds of potatoes have made their way into frittatas and Spanish Tortillas:

The luminous purple, white and green eggplants became Ratatouille:

In the end, the garden only gave me two butternut squash, but it was the base for a silky autumnal soup with apples, leeks and cider:

Acorn squash goes all fancy when roasted with pure maple syrup and butter:

And, there are even still more potatoes to prepare, this time in a lovely golden potato leek soup:

With all these vegetables, thoughts eventually turn to dessert, and even there, veggies are victorious in nutty and dense whole wheat zucchini bread:

Finally, I must report that I did actually make it to all of my scheduled volunteer work shifts, although at times my attendance seemed precarious. On one occasion, I was introduced to a talkative 8-year-old boy named Elijah who told me his life story and peppered me with questions about mine for three hours as we pulled weeds from between the string bean plants. I also sustained quite a few mosquito bites along the way. On my final shift, I actually found myself alone in the shed with only my thoughts, sorting cherry tomatoes and watching as a burnished, golden haze enveloped the garden. Eventually, it was too chilly and too dark to see what I was doing and it was time to conclude. There were times when I didn’t want to report for duty, but I was usually glad I did, especially when I would complete a task. The garden needs continual care, but at times the weeds seemed daunting. But there was some sense of satisfaction leaving a vegetable plot more orderly and tidy than it was found. Dare I say that Sophia Garden may, in fact, be a metaphor for life?

Happy Winter to the blessed organic sisters of Sophia Garden! I’ve already signed up for next season!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Cocoa Kiss Meme for Freya

I swear I’m only doing this because I’m so happy Freya is back in the blogosphere as the proprietress of The Cocoa Lounge. I’m not much of a master at memes. When I first started blogging, I didn’t even know what they were. Now, the word seems to come up every other day. I’m also hyperlink-challenged so this could take all afternoon …

But, Freya has tagged me and showered me with some lovely compliments, so here you go. All I can do is close my eyes, point, and let the natural order of the blogosphere take over. This one is called “The Commenters Meme” and is directed at the last 10 commenters on Culinary Types who are also blog owners. Not being a mathematical genius, it was somewhat strenuous to count backwards and come up with 10 blogs and 15 questions. If I happen to tag you, do with this what you will!

The Blogs:

1. Tiffany of Life After Gluten
2. Louise of Months of Edible Celebrations
3. Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen
4. Lydia of the Perfect Pantry (since Lydia was also tagged by Freya, does this disqualify her? I don’t understand the rules …)
5. Cakespy
6. Freya of The Cocoa Lounge (Gotcha! Since you started this, are you disqualified, too? I could do the math better if I had a piece of chocolate right now …)
7. Maryann of Finding La Dolce Vita
8. Jenn DZ The Leftover Queen
9. Helene of La Cuisine d’Helene
10. Veron of Veronica’s Test Kitchen

The Questions:

1: What is your favorite post from number 3’s blog? Kalyn does amazing and inspiring things with vegetables. Her Spicy Crockpot Sweet Potato Recipe got my mouth watering.

2. Has number 10 taken any pictures that have moved you? Check out Veron’s bewitching, Halloween-inspired macarons.

3. Does number 6 reply to comments on their blog? Yes, she even manages to tag me once or twice a week …

4. Which part of blogland is number 2 from? I suspect that Louise might own more homes than John McCain, but I know she often splits her time between Eastern Long Island and rural Pennsylvania.

5. If you could give one piece of advice to number 7 what would it be? I’d advise Maryann to cook me a meal, since her astounding food photos have been tempting me for a year!

6. Have you ever tried something from number 9’s blog? After Helene posted on Mark Bittman’s Veggie Burgers, I made them as well. Delicious!

7. Has number 1 blogged something that inspired you? Tiffany’s recent Daring Bakers Challenge of Pizza has a beautiful rustic look, and has inspired me to work on my pizza skills.

8. How often do you comment on number 4’s blog? I probably average about two comments a week at the Perfect Pantry, but we also chat on email and Facebook, and hopefully we will actually meet face-to-face one day soon. I'll probably hear about this meme, too ...

9. Do you wait for number 8 to post excitedly? I am anxiously awaiting Jenn’s next post on the importance of eating locally.

10. How did number 5’s blog change your life? Well, after years of therapy, Cakespy has now convinced me that I don’t have to be concerned about my obsession with cupcakes anymore. It’s very liberating.

11. Do you know any of the 10 bloggers in person? Veron and I have met in NYC, and someday I hope to visit the famous Test Kitchen.

12. Do any of your 10 bloggers know each other in person? Lydia and Kalyn are buds.

13. Out of the 10, which updates more frequently? Lydia, Louise and Cakespy sort of dazzle me with the frequency with which they post.

14. Which of the 10 keep you laughing? Cakespy is a scream, with icing on top!

15. Which of the 10 has made you cry (good or bad tears)? I laughed so hard I cried when Cakespy destroyed a variety of Halloween candy in the microwave.

It’s now up to the above mentioned 10 to carry on the meme if they so desire. Be careful out there.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Tower of Cupcakes Celebrating 80 Years

We celebrated my Dad’s 80th birthday this weekend with family, friends and a tower of cupcakes. Everyone pitched in to choreograph the surprise, and of course, I was on cake duty. Cupcakes seem the appropriate chose for someone who is 80 years young, and we kind of liked the Halloween palette since Dad first arrived in this world on October 31, 1928.

And, what a different world it must have been then. Mickey Mouse first appeared in the animated film short, “Steamboat Willie,” and one of my favorite books, “The House at Pooh Corner,” was published in England. Calvin Coolidge was the United States President and Amelia Earhart was the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic. My, have times changed.

Here’s a toast I wrote in honor of Dad for his 70th birthday celebration. It seems just as appropriate today:


We are here today to honor your special qualities that have had such an influence on all our lives:

Your thoughtful authority,

Your patience,

Your willingness to help us in any situation,

Your love of nature, the National Parks and “the great outdoors,”

Your sense of responsibility and your work ethic that brought so many good things to our family,

Your ability to make the best Tom Collins and grilled flank steak on the planet,

Your skill with a camera (even though you’ve got hundreds of slides that still need to be catalogued),

Your quiet, abiding faith,

And the unconditional love you’ve given us all.

Happy 80th Birthday, Dad!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 03, 2008

Cast Your Vote to Bring Back Election Cake

You may not realize that cake has long-standing political connotations.

Of course, there’s the infamous “Let them eat cake,” comment from Marie Antoinette. (Remember what happened to her?) Some key political figures have had pastries named in their honor, including the Washington Pie and the Abraham Lincoln Cake.

There’s also the highly politicized, national debate on obesity where snack cake is often viewed as a culprit. Some activists fling pastry as a political statement. There are also several stories where cake has figured prominently in the discussion during this historic election season in the United States.

Both 2008 presidential candidates appear to have inspired the inner baker in their constituents. “Yes We Can” has become not only a campaign slogan, but a culinary chant. And, you probably can’t get through a day without hearing a reference to who’s entitled to what share of the pie, or a politician who would like to have his –or her – cake and eat it, too.

Then, there’s the story of Election Cake, which amounts to a sweet incentive for doing ones civic duty. In “How America Eats,” published in 1960, food writer Clementine Paddleford provides a venerable recipe for “Grandmother Gilette’s Election Cake,” and discusses how in the mid-nineteenth century, farmers would travel into town to vote at the town meeting. They made a community holiday of the excursion, and Election Cake was served.

One historian traces the origin of Election Cake to 1771 New England where a set of itemized expenditures found in Connecticut list the cost of cake as part of the Election Day festivities. While there are many variations, Election Cake is similar in style to an English fruitcake, or sweet bread leavened with yeast. It contained spices and dried fruits that were readily available in the early American kitchen such as cinnamon, nutmeg, currants and citron.
Election Cake was prepared with the intent of serving a large community gathering, many of whom needed to put aside agricultural work to vote. It needed to be worth their while. Election Cakes were huge, sometimes weighing upwards of 12 pounds. Amelia Simmons, author of the first American cookbook, “American Cookery,” includes a recipe for Election Cake in the second edition of 1796. The recipe requires thirty quarts of flour, ten pounds of butter, 14 pounds of sugar, 12 pounds of raisins and three dozen eggs. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Election Cake custom declined, voting become more localize and the democratization of cake gradually faded from the polls.

How could the serving of cake disappear from such a significant community event? It sounds like a vast right-wing conspiracy if you ask me. These days, voter turnout barely reaches 50 percent (although that may change this year). Could this poor showing at the polls perhaps be connected to a scarcity of cake?

Each year, when I go to vote, my former elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Weber signs me in. Imagine how voter turnout – and our national outlook – might be improved if Mrs. Weber were to hand each citizen a delectable slice of cake just before they cast their ballot?

In 1988, Marion Burroughs of the New York Times provided this recipe for Election Cake using modern methods and ingredient proportions and this is the recipe that I am endorsing for the 2008 Presidential Election. It’s a “lighter” version than the original cake, and while it won’t feed an entire community, it does yield two substantial loaves.

Pundits may note that my Election Cake was slightly burned at the edges, but then it has been a rather scorching campaign season. I offer it along with a plea for all who can to be sure to get out and vote and a call to reinstitute the tradition of serving cake at the polls. What a sweet way to bring the country together. Maybe some likeminded politico can squeeze an Election Cake referendum into one of those dreaded pork barrel projects that have been mentioned once or twice this year?

By the way, T.W. the Baker is not a bad label exactly, but it does tend to be somewhat of a gross generalization and misses a lot of the finer nuances like thinker, writer, historian and philosopher.

©2008 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved