Chicago people used to say to me, when they vacationed on our side of the lake in southwestern Michigan and stopped to buy eggs or dressed chickens from Grandma, “Little Girl, I hope you know how lucky you are to live in such a beautiful place!” I had no idea what they meant, my thumb in my mouth, stretching back to the security of Grandma’s hip, one leg forward to circle a shy big toe in the dust. Their words were meaningless to me, in the way that chickens were mysteriously called “dressed” once they had reached the state of death and undress.
Later I heard their words resentfully – I imagined those Chicagoans all lived in beautiful apartments across the lake, their daughters all slept in pink-canopied beds, and everyone attended smart cultural events every day. THEY didn’t have to risk chicken poop and mulberry juice between their bare toes every time they walked out the door, nor have to laze down the lane to get the cows.
Of course, living in the Hog Butcher for the World was quite a different experience from that my imagination conjured, but anywhere was better to my mind than southwestern Michigan. You can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen the Field Museum, Berghoff’s Restaurant, and Michigan Ave.
We’ve had company from Indiana, from the megalopolis formed from the three small cities of South Bend, Elkhart, and Mishawaka. When we think of this area we think of malls and strip-development, traffic, and fast food joints. I think of deadly trans fats, but that’s just me. But most of all we think of Leo’s younger brother Chris, who died suddenly of stroke just as the Iraq war was beginning in 2003, and we think of Chris’s widow, Ginnie, and their two children, Alex and Cate, who have pretty much grown up in the intervening years – Cate in her first year of college and Alex about to graduate. The three of them flew out for a visit these holidays and we had a blast!
They are plucky, these Southbendians, full of grit and gumption, getting up at the crack of a dismal freezing-rain Vermont dawn, Cate and Alex at least, to go bird counting with Leo, then all of them rounding up later with me at the Co-op and Winter Farmers’ Market. Where else!
Daughter Zoe was here on a nice long visit, and son Spence took quite an interest in these young cousins he barely knew. Over the course of four or five days we took walks and hikes, made shopping forays, played spontaneous charades, and ground down on an absolute mule of a puzzle! And both Alex and Zoe are musicians, so music was a constant. The one segment of their stay where they lacked fortitude was, you guessed it – food!
I have been known for my lectures to picky-eaters – no surprise, that – and some of them have turned around. Another dear nephew, Nate, from over Down-East way, now rhapsodizes about my split pea soup, even as he’s taking yet another wrapped thing out of his microwave, or frying up some industrial food.
But the split pea soup and fresh-from-the-oven bread with which we welcomed these sojourners after their day battling airlines and de-icing, and their packed trip back in a small car from the Albany airport, was met with stiff disbelief. It was as though I was trying to feed them arsenic, or plastic bags boiled up with a hambone. Perhaps in retaliation, we three – Spence wasn’t here that night – had several helpings apiece and stood up from the table with last hunks of bread dripping with olive oil. We were gluttonous.
But maybe our visitors were just tired and frayed from the long day.
The second night, after the bird counting and Farmers’ Market, we took them to Sal’s South. They were into pizza, and when I suggested the small gourmet pizzas, Nephew Alex ordered the Ricotta and Broccoli, I the white shrimp pizza, Leo his favorite dish of Fettucine Alfredo, and Ginnie and Cate a large sausage and pepperoni – pizza again. Alex’s stunned look at the first taste of the delicious ricotta and broccoli turned to pure relief when the large pizza arrived, and they all literally dove into it. It was a moment of spontaneous enthusiasm among the three of them.
The third night was the big dinner night. I’d gotten a big ham from a heritage Brunswick hog from Sunset Farm at the Farmers’ Market, potatoes and squash, too, nice greens... t’would be a big sit-down celebration, and it was – after the toast the ham was celebrated, the squash was tried in tiny spoonfuls, the potatoes were good with good old redbone gravy, and the beets were ignored. “How is it?” I asked in my sprightly, hoping-for-the-best manner. It was “good,” “all right,” and “fine,” from the guests. “Stupendous,” “tremendous,” “terrific,” and “Ummm Ummm Good,” from those I have spent years training.
I had to laugh, which Zoe thought was supremely big of me, considering my past attitude.
But, you have to know by now that we adore these people, and we’re empathetic. A suddenly widowed woman bringing up two children alone, man-o-man, we know how difficult THAT had to’ve been – grief-stricken, all three in shock, just juggling three schedules and going to work or school every day doesn’t leave much time for nor curiosity about food. And it made me realize that when you have grown up in a megalopolis like Southbendelkhartmishewaka, and you eat the foods that, I am finally forced to see, the majority of Americans eat, my Vermont life and habit of listing foods from the farmers that raised them may seem not merely quaint, but perhaps insane, indecipherable, really. And even, perhaps, just a tiny bit pretentious. Not that anyone was so rude as to point that out.
I wooed them with black bean tostadas smothered in Cabot cheddar, because Cate had told me she’d eat anything if it had enough cheese on it. Tiresomely, I asked her how it was. “Fine,” said Cate faintly. “Repeat after me,” I said, “with enthusiasm – It’s wonderful Aunt Sharon!!! – and don’t skimp on the enthusiasm – that’s the most important part.”
There was a chorus around the table of enthusiastic “It’s Wonderful”s.
They loved the fresh kielbasa we served with it, just as they marveled at how substantial Leo’s bacon was – not shriveled up to nothing like their grocery-store bacon.
As I said, it was a lovely visit, and though I don’t believe we got very close to imparting Wendell Barry’s prescient line that “Eating is an agricultural act,” perhaps something rubbed off and at the very least they might begin to notice once in awhile where their food is coming from. I hope so, because I worry about them – the danger inherent in industrial food is becoming more and more apparent, with widespread metabolic syndrome even in children – diabetes, depression, obesity, and heart disease. I want more for them.
At the same time, the whole incident has brought home to me the realization that I am preaching in these columns to the choir – you – people who take the time to cook food that they have taken the time to grow themselves and to collect from others who have grown it; who enjoy thinking about food, and reading about it, and, in general, take great pleasure in it, and know the importance of it.
I hate to sound stereotypically old, but things have changed, and in a dastardly manner. Those city people who visited Grandma to buy eggs and birds weren’t being poisoned by the food they ate from their corner store in the city. There were few trans fats, people still cooked, even in the city, and though they appreciated an egg whose yolk was plump and bright yellow and whose white clung tightly to the yolk, and a chicken that had been scratching around in the sunlight only a few scant hours earlier, and took advantage of them when they could, they were not yet in dire trouble, only on the verge of it. Few(er) people suffered from diabetes or heart disease, much less obesity or depression. Our food chain was on the point of being put in danger, but it hadn’t yet happened.
And for people not in the know, unlike us, Dear Reader, it seems absurd to say that food could be dangerous – even nowadays, even when you’ve been told that you have diabetes or heart disease, especially when so many people are hungry...
Now, since you, the choir, already have your own favorite version of Split Pea Soup, I’ll give you a recipe you might not have, but might like very much. It’s one I had long ago at the Governor’s Inn in Ludlow, from Deedy Marble, when she owned the inn. It is now a 3 star Bed and Breakfast, according to Jim Kubec, who owns it with his wife Cathy, and they no longer serve dinners to the public.
But this is the soup, which I used to take on cross-country skiing expeditions, and my addendums:
Deedy’s Red Wine Sipping Broth
This is the way I got it from DeedyHave on hand equal parts of red and white wine. Take 1 apple, 1 carrot, 1 tomato, and put them in a food processor with 4 beef bouillon cubes, and 1 tsp. black pepper. Put that mixture into a stockpot with the wines. Boil for 35 minutes. Cool, and strain twice through several thicknesses of cheesecloth. Add 1 cup of V-8 juice. This may be stored for several days in a glass bottle in refrigerator.
Now, if you want to be anal about it:
Chop 1 apple, 1 carrot, and 1 tomato. Put them into a stockpot with 1 quart of good homemade beef stock, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or oregano, 1 bottle each of red and white wines, and 2 cups of canned tomatoes. Bring to a boil and keep at an actively bubbling simmer for about an hour. Cool and strain, and drink hot or cold.
I’ve never made it with chicken stock but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be wonderful.
...countin da boids...
Say, a little birdie told me that preliminary planning for Peter McGann’s next cooking lesson series at the Co-op is going on – to be held starting at 5 o’clock on the four February Wednesdays and the first Wednesday in March – five in all, as you can see, and they will each one explore a world cuisine. I believe the price is $25 per lesson, or $100 for all five. What a bargain. I said I thought that was bargain-basement prices, and Peter said “it’s a tough economic climate.” So be it. Stop in at the Co-op at 77 Wales, or call 773-0737.