Monday, April 19, 2010

it takes an island


Growing up, I loved when dad would reminisce about his youth.  One of his fonder memories was of reading ‘The Yearling’, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  Her mouth-watering descriptions of farmhouse fare left him craving foods he never knew he wanted.  I experienced similar longings when I first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series.  I pined for the floury baked potatoes, thick wedges of cornbread with cracklings, freshly churned butter and earthy sweet maple syrup which were staples of the pioneer diet.  While the food itself was modest, both authors used rich narratives to to whet their readers’ appetite.  I would emerge from reading filled with an overwhelming desire to eat whatever the characters were eating.  Throughout the seven book series, I consumed countless baked potatoes, made ‘snow candy’ in our backyard, and ‘churned’ my own butter by shaking heavy cream in a glass jar.  I made fried cornmeal, the rectangular slices like little packets of sunshine with crisp brown edges all pooled in maple syrup goodness.  These were my first lessons in cooking, no recipe required.  I am now reading the ‘Little House’ books to my daughter, Annabelle.  We try to read a chapter each night and, inevitably, the last two words I hear as I close the book and turn off the light are, “I’m hungry.”

Reading was my portal to life outside our tiny island.  My insatiable appetite for literature was the one obsession that rivaled my love of eating.  Mom instilled a love of books in me from early on, reading classics like ‘Babar’ and ‘Eloise’ alongside more contemporary titles.  By school age, I was making weekly pilgrimages to our local library where I would comb the shelves for enough reading material to sustain me until my next visit.  It was possible to borrow up to twelve titles per week and I often did.  After stacking my selections at the checkout desk, I lugged the books home in a brown paper grocery bag and devoured them one by one.  When I had polished off the allotted dozen, I moved on to my mom’s impressive stash of cookbooks.  I salivated over cake decorating books, filled with page after page of dazzling designs in technicolor frosting, and my first knowledge of calories came from the lone healthy cookbook in the stack.  I was intrigued by a 1960’s tome on French cooking and I pored over recipes for scones, cakes and tea breads, in a dainty series on baked goods.  Mom even had a copy of Martha Stewart’s very first cookbook,  published during her catering days.

It wasn’t long before my fixation with cookbooks led me to the kitchen.  I first tried my hand at savory scones from Elizabeth Alston’s book titled, ‘Biscuits and Scones’.  I made blueberry tartelettes from my ‘Anne of Green Gables Cookbook’ and spicy snickerdoodles from mom’s tattered copy of ‘The Cooky Book’.  Never mind that my scones were a tad tough, my tartelettes more attractive than edible or that my first cookies had the density of a hockey puck; I was baking.  I felt like Audrey Hepburn when she learned to properly crack an egg in the classic 1950’s film, Sabrina

In middle school, my homeroom teacher assigned a semester-long project on South America.  I was apprehensive about the presentation portion which would be graded by my classmates.  On the big day, I arrived at class fully prepared with my in-depth report, a neon poster board map, and dessert for everyone.   I had baked chocolate caramel shortbread which I loosely tied in by explaining that cocoa beans are a product of South America.  I have no recollection of the content of my assignment but I recall the collective  moans of approval as my class sunk their teeth into that buttery cookie crust swathed in chewy caramel and blanketed in chocolate ganache.  My project won second place in a school wide competition.  I may not have been a geography whiz but I had discovered that I could bake it and fake it.

Baking was the springboard that launched my culinary bent; my interest in cooking came later.  A lack of exposure to inspired cuisine and limited island resources do much to explain the delay.  The 80’s were not what you would call a foodie decade.  Fine dining was often a stuffy affair and menus were dominated by red meat, potatoes, and heavy sauces.  The affordable alternatives were usually fast food, takeout or the ubiquitous sit down chain.  My dad, an accountant, celebrated the end of tax season with an annual dinner at The Channel Club which, at the time, was the best and only steak house in town.  This was a place where steaks had three sizes.  The smallest was the ‘Channel’, next was the ‘Texan’ and finally, the behemoth ‘Alaskan’.  Surprisingly, many people are not aware that Alaska is more than double the size of Texas, hence the tongue-in-cheek steak sizes.  The Channel Club was also the fanciest place to eat, making it the go-to spot for prom night.  When I was a little girl, my mom would drive me to the restaurant, on the night of prom, so that I could peek inside for a fairytale glimpse of high school girls in fancy formal dresses.  The restaurant was a sea of hot pink, hunter green, and electric blue satin.  Those nights, I went to sleep dreaming of ruffles, lace and a nice juicy steak.

Our family rarely ate out for dinner but, before I was old enough to go to school, mom and I would occasionally drive to town and have lunch with dad.  One of our favorite spots was Revard’s Restaurant, a greasy spoon with a loyal following.  We would slide into a well-worn, red vinyl booth and place our order.  No menu required, it was always the same, the Reuben sandwich.  Two slices of grilled rye bread sandwiched the perfect ratio of  tangy sauerkraut, juicy slices of corned beef, melted swiss cheese and creamy thousand island dressing.  Accompanying the Reuben was Revard’s trademark, a side of inky, purplish red pickled beets.  I adored those beets.  Dad would surmise that a well seasoned grill was Revard’s secret ingredient.  Maybe it had something to do with their venerable cook, Alice.  Whatever it was, it kept us coming back until the day they closed their doors in 1992.

Despite the extremes of our northern climate, a close family friend, Mary, kept an impressive vegetable garden in her backyard.  She could grow any vegetable that would withstand the cold and it was Mary who introduced me to the pleasures of home grown produce.  This woman was composting, using organic fertilizer and growing her own food long before it was fashionable to do so.  When I was around three years old, the two of us trudged out to her garden in frigid rain to pick the first spinach of the season.  I was decked out in my yellow rain slicker and hand-me-down black rubber boots.   Mary sang to her plants as she tended to them while I stood nearby, shivering, thinking she was pretty kooky but equally entertaining.  After we gathered the spinach leaves, we headed back to the house.  I watched from my perch at the kitchen table as Mary washed the spinach, steamed it and as a finishing touch, sprinkled it with salt and a little vinegar.  She placed the dish in front of me and I gingerly scooped a forkful of murky greens from the mound, raised it to my mouth and proceeded to chew.  The subtle tang of vinegar balanced the spinach’s acidity and the salt brought out its earthy flavors.  It was love at first bite.  Eat your heart out, Popeye the sailor man.

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