Saturday, June 18, 2005

All I Ever Wanted


I'm about to set off for eight days of vacation with the kids, visiting the folks in southwestern Pennsylvania, just over the border from Grantsville, Maryland, ancestral home of my father's clan. "Clan" is to be taken figuratively here; so far as I know, there are no Mennonite tartans, which is just as well, since a lot of my relatives wear far too much plaid as it is.

In any case, I won't have access to the Internet while I'm away, so I won't be posting updates. Yes, yes, I know. My imagined readership is notionally crushed. But if that's the worst thing that happens to you in this quarter-hour, I reckon you're way ahead of the game.

Anyway, I'm leaving you this somewhat long (and decidedly rambling, but what else would you expect from me?) post to sustain you while I'm gone. So don't eat it all at once! You don't want to be like the Ricardos and the Mertzes, stuck in the Alps (this was during the I Love Lucy European Vacation days) with only a block of cheese between the four of you. Ricky, Fred, and Ethel ate their cheese right away, but Lucy wisely decided to save hers. As a result, while she was sleeping, the others ate three-quarters of her piece. I'm not sure how this analogy plays out in the blog context, but by the time you've worked out a reasonable explanation, I'll likely have returned from vacation.

The part of Pennsylvania that we're going to is in Somerset county, in the mountains, not far from the Maryland border. It's Amish country, and on Sunday mornings you hear the clop clop clop of horses going by as wagons carry the large Amish families to church. I'm not entirely sure what the impression of Amish cuisine is in the larger culture, but I reckon that it's influenced a lot by what you see at various Amish farm markets, which are a sort of Amish food outlet where the Amish sell their food to the general public two or three days a week. Some of these are quite distant from where the Amish live. There is (or was, anyway, and not long ago; it may still be there) one of these markets in Burtonsville, Maryland, which is only a few miles from the town in Maryland where I grew up, and where there is no Amish community to speak of, as far as I know. It is amusing to go to such a place and see so many people with my last name, but I am not entirely a fan of the food, though some of the meat products are very good in a very bad-for-you sort of way.

From reading and from personal experience, I know that Amish cooking, as prepared by the Amish for the Amish, is even less impressive than what one finds in the farm market, where, after all, they have to play to the tastes and expectations of their customers. The Amish are, of course, very devout and very conservative Christians, and every part of their lives are suffused with their faith, including their cooking. For someone to be recognized for her cooking is considered a form of vanity and therefore ungodly. Consequently, Amish cooking tends to go for a sort of lowest common denominator that all Amish cooks can meet. Because of this, if you go, for example, to the fundraising supper given by some of the cooks in Springs, Pennsylvania, you will get (ample portions of) smoked sausage, creamed corn made from dried corn, mildly seasoned applesauce, and some sort of potatoes (they always get the potatoes right, at least), along with some variety of overcooked greens, and a fairly nondescript dessert. It is ungrateful to complain about the meal, since you will only have paid two bucks for it, and you will have been able to fill up on the potatoes alone, but if you have the chance to eat an authentic Amish meal, it is not an opportunity that you especially need to leap at.

If, however, you happen to be in Springs on a Saturday morning, you can stop at the Springs Corner Market (there is really only one corner in Springs) and pick up some excellent baked goods. The breads (go for the whole wheat), cookies, and pies are all good, but the star of the show is the freshly fried donuts. The donuts go early, and if you can't get there before 8 am, you're going to miss out on them, but if you do manage to snag a couple or a dozen, then you're in for one of the best bad-for-you treats available. These donuts are huge, and they're fried to a dark brown, then covered with a sugar glaze which is going to get all over your hands. You really don't want to eat too many of these, but that's not a huge problem since only the most dedicated eaters can eat more than two at a sitting. These are potent donuts.


As much as I love to cook, I am equally a big fan of restaurant eating. With some provisos. I prefer to eat things out that I couldn't or wouldn't make as well or better at home, and I prefer to avoid restaurants that are pricy and/or stuffy. I am happy to pick up the $40 tab for a few hours of pool (obviously, I don't live in NYC), but I would usually only spend more than that for dinner to make someone else happy. There are exceptions, of course. I'll happily exceed that limit to eat at B.Smith's in Union Station. The first time I ever had fried green tomatoes (What's with that? My mother's family is from the south and subjected to me to the agony of chitterlings and the ecstasy of cheese grits; they couldn't have fried a green tomato for me?) was at B.Smith's, and every other restaurant has fallen short of their standard. The sweet potato pecan pie is similarly a category killer.

If memory serves, the first time I ever ate at B.Smith's was with Rick (not his real name; I can't remember his real name; proper nouns are sometimes problematic for me), my friend Jim, and Jim's then-boyfriend Steve2. (Steve1 having been Jim's first boyfriend. This is still how he refers to them years later. We are all still waiting for Steve3 to arrive on the scene, but we are not holding our breath.) Steve2 was an import from Kentucky that Jim picked up off the Internet. No, really. He chatted with the guy online, and then a week later he flew out to visit him and a week after that Steve2 flew here to visit Jim, and four weeks after that Steve2 moved in with Jim. Jim was 40 at the time, and he had not yet come out to his parents, who were fairly intimately involved in his life. His mother, Marie, came over to his house while he was at work a couple of times a week to do his laundry and make sure that the cleaning person wasn't running off with the silverware. Given all this, it seemed likely to me that Marie would notice a new member of the household, and I repeatedly suggested to Jim that perhaps it would be better for all concerned if he told his parents before his new boyfriend arrived on the scene, but Jim felt that it would be easier for him if she just found out organically. (Yes, the fan was soiled.) Anyway, the relationship got off to a somewhat rocky start, but by the time Bob? (nope, not Bob either; I'll remember that name sooner or later) arrived on the scene, they at least had the appearance of being a happy couple.

George? (no) was a fifty-year-old financial advisor from a suburb of Harrisburg, PA. I don't remember the exact town, but I think it was either Hicksville or Boondocktown. He was, for the most part, a pretty nice guy, and he was not unattractive, but it might be safe to say that he had not had much exposure to the urban life (he wore short-sleeve dress shirts and polyester pants to his office, and to Dupont Circle, as it happened), and he craved it. The first few times we dated, I'd made the trek from my apartment in Gaithersburg to his duplex in the middle of nowhere. It took me about seventy-five minutes; I drove very swiftly. But he quickly wanted to come visit me and see the city, by which he really meant the clubs. So he had come down Friday evening, late, and we'd stayed in with the plan of meeting up with Jim and Steve2 for Saturday evening.

After B. Smith's, we went somewhere else in DC to catch a movie that was part of the annual Reel Affirmations GLBT film festival. I had explained to Fred? (uh-uh) that after the movie, I would want to come home because it would be late and I was singing with the choir the next morning and had to be at church by 8:20, which meant getting up no later than 7 (or 6 if there was to be any early morning HQT [horizontal quality time, for future reference]), so I was not going to be up to going to a club after the movie. But before dinner he kept trying to get me to agree to go to a club, during dinner he kept it up, on the way to the movie he didn't let up, and after the movie he was still thinking that I was just playing hard-to-get or something.

So when I finally got it through his thick (but otherwise not bad looking) skull that no meant no, he was somewhat disappointed. Jim and Steve2 dropped us off back at Tim's (still no luck) car, and we started to drive back to Gaithersburg. Once we were on the road, he started to tell me how bitterly disappointed he was by my behavior. Then he explained to me that dancing was very special to him because when he'd been courting his wife (he actually used that phrase, though she'd been his ex-wife for some time by then), they'd always gone dancing. I let slide the concept that perhaps some guy you're dating doesn't want to relive your breeder courtship days and just reminded him that I'd told him from the outset that I didn't want to go to a club. Then he repeated how terribly disappointed he was. Then he started to cry.

I am not a person unacquainted with guilt. One might, in fact, say that guilt and I have been on intimate terms since I was five years old and given to understand by the Southern Baptists that I was full of sin and that God was watching me. I got over the whole notion that God was watching me (thank the powers that be for firewalls!), but getting over a lifetime of guilt is a slow process, and it is easy for me to feel awful about disappointing someone. But when a grown man starts to cry because you won't go dancing with him the way his wife did, guilt gets off the bus to make room for utter disbelief.

When we got back to my apartment, Dick? (well, kind of, but no) informed me that since I wouldn't accommodate him, he was not going to stay the night. I reminded him that it was already after 1 am and that he had a ninety minute drive ahead of him, but he seemed not to care, and by that point, I was only too happy to sleep alone.

That was the last I ever saw of Victor? (I fear this is a lost cause. I'll have to ask Jim whether he remembers.) We talked on the phone a few times after that and exchanged some emails and made plans to get together a couple of weeks later, which was, as it happened, the weekend before my divorce trial was scheduled (though it was subsequently postponed, more than once). But then a twenty-five year old Mexican guy from California, with whom he'd been chatting online for months ("But we've never even discussed sex!") persuaded him to come visit him on the same weekend. Victor informed me that it was more important for him to see this person than to provide moral support to me because, after all, no one had been there for him during his divorce, and he'd survived. He also said that he still wanted to date me, and that the trip to San Francisco was just the only time his young friend and he could finally meet, but by that point I'd had way more than enough, and I told him that I was no longer interested. Which, incredibly, made him angry.

I heard from him even a couple of times after that, but only because he wanted to gloat. He spent four days in San Francisco with Carlos (also a fictitious name, but I never met him, so who can blame me?), and they had "clicked" immediately. Before he returned from SF, he was already talking with Carlos about the possibility of a commitment ceremony, and he soon brought him back to Boonieville to meet his four kids (but without telling the kids that he was gay or that Carlos was his boyfriend, naturally). Carlos apparently had other plans, though, because he left whatshisname for someone his own age that he hooked up with when he was back home in Mexico City over the holidays. Chuck? (nyet) was crushed, but by that time I was too bored with the whole thing to even be happy that his heart had been broken.

Still, the whole thing did introduce me to fried green tomatoes, so I got the better end of that little tussle with fate. Too often when you have fried green tomatoes, they're all soft and vinegar-y. The ones at B.Smith's are firm, with a fully crisp coating that contains cumin. They serve them with some sort of sauce that is based on red peppers.


The sweet potato pecan pie at B. Smith's is a two-layer affair, with sweet potato on the bottom and pecan on the top. The combination is amazing, and it is as wonderful as my pecan pie, and that's high praise. Mine is the best pecan pie in the world, or at least one of the best. I suppose that other people who use the same recipe probably get similarly good results, though I am not sure they appreciate it as much as I do since they did not suffer through as many sickeningly sweet pecan pies as I did when I was a youth. Most southerners' idea of a pecan pie (and as the pecan is a southern nut, so too is the pecan pie essentially a southern food) is to toss a bunch of pecans into a pie shell and then to make sure they're good and dead by drowning them in corn syrup. My recipe is a great deal less sweet but has some extra butter, allowing the pecans to take center stage and sing their little hearts out. There are also a good many more pecans in my recipe than one might find in a pecan pie in a diner in Norfolk, and that can only be good.

I shelled a lot of pecans when I was a child. My sainted Grandma (Mom's Mama) lived in Chesapeake, Virginia, and in her back yard were two tall pecan trees that bore bushels of nuts every other year. Some were shelled at her house, and many others were brought home and shelled in the evenings and set aside in the freezer for use in pecan pie or fruitcake or my mother's Seven-Up Salad. Pecans are a lot easier to crack than, say, walnuts, and the preferred method of shelling a pecan is to squeeze two of them together until the shell of one cracks. Then you remove the shell and put the nutmeat into your bowl. If you're very skilled, you can get the nut out whole, but it is faster to get out halves, and halves are the most useful form in any case. If you break the halves into something smaller, then you get to eat the very sweet meat, so it's a win-win situation.

Grandma may not have been canonized, but I never met anyone who knew her and didn't love her. She was born in the Edenton, North Carolina area in 1908, the second of seven children, though only five of the children survived. When Grandma was eight, her twin baby brothers died, followed shortly afterwards by her mother. The official cause of death was scarlet fever, but as my aunt will tell you, "They died of neglect." They lay in unmarked graves for seventy years, when Grandma had headstones made for them.

The family was dirt poor, and from the time her mother died (and perhaps before), my grandmother took on a heavy portion of the housework, and in 1916, people really knew what drudgery was. It took two days just to do the laundry. Her father would be gone for long periods of time working or fishing, and the family survived on cornbread, eggs, and salted fish. When she was a few years older, her father brought home a new wife, the only person about whom I have heard my grandmother say an unkind word (and then only after the wicked stepmother was long dead). When Grandma was sixteen, she left home to work in the mill, and not long thereafter, she met my grandfather. On their first date, the went to a cemetary.

My grandmother said that she learned to cook from her mother-in-law, who appears to have been the first adult relative to have shown her any real kindness since the death of her mother. She and my grandfather lived with her in-laws for the first few years of their marriage, and she always spoke of that period as an idyllic one.

Grandma had and raised six children. My mother was her third child and oldest daughter. My grandfather died shortly after my mother got married, and I never knew him. Grandma's youngest child was five at the time.

Having to earn enough to keep her family going, Grandma got a job at High's, a dairy store that still exists, though in a somewhat altered form and largely different locations. It was about a mile from her house, and she walked to and from the store every day until she retired at sixty-five. She never learned to drive, and so far as I know, she never missed it, though of course by the time I was old enough to notice such things, she already had six grown children and a heap of grandchildren, any of whom would take her anywhere.

When I was young, my parents would sometimes leave me at Grandma's house for a week at a time, a treat that I would beg long and hard for. Sometimes I would walk to High's in the middle of the day to see her and get a popsicle, but mostly I would play in her back yard and with the kids in her neighborhood. When she came home for the evening, she would always bring a pint of High's ice cream, which she would cut in half, crosswise, with her biggest knife, and we would each eat our half, right out of the carton.

However she learned to cook, she learned well, and the food was always good and plentiful when we visited her. Breakfast was always the same. Eggs, sunny side up; grits with butter and salt; fried ham; and white toast. Coffee for the grown-ups, orange juice for the young'uns. I would invariably pour a large spoonful of grits on top of my egg, then cut through both so that the yolk ran through the grits, which would then be yellow and flocked with cut up bits of cooked egg whites.

I don't remember her ever making anything that wasn't good, but what everyone loved best, and what everyone always wanted her to make, even when she was much older and had long since turned over family dinners to my mother and my aunt, were her dinner rolls. Many people have tried to replicate them, but it was impossible to get a recipe out of my grandmother, since she didn't use one. The most detail you could get from her was that she started with two sifters full of flour. The other ingredients were by sight or by feel. The rolls were everything that white bread wants to be but seldom is. I suppose that the excellent flavor came from multiple, protracted risings, as well as from a lot of experience.

My mother actually makes very good rolls in my grandmother's style, but she never serves them without saying "They're good, but they're not as good as Mama's," and she's right about that, I reckon. I could probably learn to make them myself, but even if I made them better than Grandma's, they would not be as good. And no one else is going to come as close as I can: when she died, the thing of hers that I wanted most was her sifter, and I got it.

I suppose that I'm thinking about all this now because tomorrow I'm headed out to take my daughters to see their grandparents, who are now in their seventies. My mother called me today to ask me to pick a few things up. The only foodstuffs were a bottle of good olive oil, something I'm pretty sure my grandmother never experienced, and a pack of steaks, something she could rarely if ever afford. But as one so often hears, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and come Sunday morning, we will all be sitting down together to a large platter of eggs, and a giant bowl of grits. I will likely be the only one who mixes his egg yolk into his grits, but I will not be the largest consumer. No matter how large a bowl my mother makes, there are never any left when A. is done with them. A. was only nine when her great grandmother died, and I'm not sure how much of Grandma she remembers, but this apple did not fall far from the tree.


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