Saturday, August 5, 2017

Comfort Food

Last week at this time I was seated in Amen Street in Charleston sharing a platter of Chincoteague oysters with my dearly beloved under an oyster shell chandelier, surrounded by parti-colored brick and watercolors of jazz musicians.  Our waiter recommended a William Hill chardonnay, but I should have followed my instincts and chosen the Chenin Blanc; nonetheless, if the  wine was pedestrian, it was the only part of the evening that was.

Chunky crabcakes and fried chicken sandwiches; hogfish with pureed cauliflower and omelets with grits; just baked cinnamon rolls dripping with buttery icing and glazed ‘dossants’, a square cross between a croissant and a doughnut with all the glaze and flakiness...and yes, fat of both its parents: this is just a sampling of the overeating we enjoyed during a few days in the Low Country.  Eating Southern seemed only polite after visiting the splendid exhibit “Feast Your Eyes” at the Myrtle Beach Art Museum.  Beginning with porcelain oysters, knives and chandelier, and progressing through the food groups: yams, beans, bacon, BBQ, berries, chicken, Crisco, and finally peach and pecan pie, each artwork is accompanied by a literary reference, so beautifully written, they made my mouth water.

And that brings me around the long way to food and our family.  Long before anyone other than the Sunday paper food editor featured gorgeous spreads of juicy vittles created from exotic ingredients, the eaters in our family memorialized the cooks in writing, for better…..or for worse...but mostly in high praise and appreciation.

My mother and my grandmothers were the cooks I first remember.  Granny knew how to fill a table: meat, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, bread and dessert...much of it home raised from my grandpa’s garden and canned or frozen in the steamy brick oven that was their galley kitchen.  This was workaday food, big pots full to feed a big table...or two.  I know her kids had favorite dishes, but the family cookbook is full of recipes that note, “Mom always made (name the food) and this recipe is almost like it”, so my guess is that Granny cooked by the seat of her pants from the foods in her cellar and freezer and everyone always ate it.

The dishes I remember my Grandma Froerer cooking are fried chicken and mashed potatoes...with gravy for the potatoes, though I was too young and ignorant to appreciate it.  I made a major production out of making the lake for the big hunk of butter to melt in.  Yum!  She also made veal birds, also fried, but I didn’t like those as well as her chicken.  She made yellow cake from scratch and chunky lumps of oatmeal cookies. Both of these she bathed in hand beaten caramel frosting...the nectar of the gods.  As she got older, she always baked pineapple upside down cake, a dish I haven’t had for thirty five years, I’ll bet, ( though Millie used to bake them a long time ago).  The upside down cake was good too-- she had a generous measure with brown sugar--but it couldn’t quite match up to the frosting.

My mom was a marvelous baker and I can attribute my love for coffeecakes and breads to her.  
It’s a pretty good legacy!  Quick breads from apples and cherries and bananas and pumpkin….gooey rolls studded with plump raisins, dripping brown sugar and cinnamon and caramelized sugar as they were tipped carefully from the pan.  That same recipe, titled simply ‘Ma’s Coffeecake’ could be raised in two 9” pans, sprinkled with streusel and topped with pie cherries, apples or peaches. When the kids were young, a visit to Redbarn almost always meant coffeecake for breakfast.

And Grandma Millie is no slouch at baking either, though you’d never know it by talking to her!  The cake is always fallen...or the rolls are burnt...or bubble didn’t turn out right so she had to a) make another bubble...or b) make an entirely new German chocolate cake….or c) start all over again on a hand-beaten-from-scratch angelfood cake!  Despite her protestations, the dinner rolls, the bubbles, and the angelfood cakes are fit for royalty, gifts from hands and heart and no one else can touch them...even though she has generously tutored the next two generations of cooks.

The men may be  the most creative and most particular cooks of the family.  Freed from the challenge of getting something/anything on the table, Mark, Ryan, and Matt do what some of us women never seem to master: plan ahead...even though Matt will resort to chicken patties in the oven every so often as a summer lunch for the Schlueter kids.  Meats in all their aromatic smoked glory are something to anticipate when Matt, Ryan and even Ben take over the menu. In particular, I admire the careful use of herbs, a far cry from my dash of this, some more of that, and liberal dollop of Tabasco when the results aren’t lively enough…..

One of my fondest food memories will be the good-natured ribbing every Thanksgiving between my aunts about baked beans.  Someone would be deputized to bring beans with the caveat that Liz would absolutely bring HER beans because THEY were the best baked beans.  I cannot tell you whether Aunt Anne’s beans or Aunt Liz’s beans were the best, for the simple fact that I wouldn’t waste a square inch on my Thanksgiving plate for baked beans when there was so many other seasonal treats covering every square inch of serving area.  Baked beans?  Heck, we ate those at least nine months out of the year!  But the gentle jesting happened every year and was part of the togetherness and tradition that is the reason we all cook. It’s why Lee makes all the pies, why I overdo it on Ann’s cucumber dip in the summertime and why Millie complains...every Christmas...that the gravy didn’t thicken…....

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