Try not to break into “Fiddler on the Roof” at this title; however, I’ve spent a lot of time with my family recently, which has me thinking about food traditions. I grew up within the culinary limitations of a southern college town (pork and beer, y’all). My mother learned to cook in New England and Texas as a newlywed, although she grew up in a German Jewish family in northern California. I like to think of her cooking as as home-style regional fusion with a strong German influence.
We ate stews, Polish pork chops, pumpernickel bread, and Spanish rice. My mother took me to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. She made her own bread and pie crust, but claimed she could never make biscuits. I grew up thinking that cake mixes were an abomination, store-bought pie crusts were for the weak, and jar tomato sauce was not mentioned in polite company.
All was not blackberry-picking in the mountains for my native food culture, however. For each homemade jar of jam, there was Uncle Ben’s Rice and Campbell’s soup. As I grew up and learned how to eat and cook for myself, I discovered basmati rice, cilantro, and green peppers. I continued going to farmers markets on Saturday mornings and try to make my own pie crust, with varied success.
For me, growing up was a process of choosing food cultures to keep and to reject. (If I never eat aspic again, it will be too soon.) Here are a few simple recipes from my mother (below the line).
My Mother’s Tomatoes
First go outside and throw sticks at the crows and squirrels near the tomato plants. Swear that this is the last year you’re growing tomatoes. Then pick the few remaining tomatoes, slice them thickly, and arrange them on a plate. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe a little fresh basil, but only if you have some in your garden.
Polish Pork Chops
Brown chops in a skillet and cook until done. Remove from pan and add a length of the three-foot dill from your garden. Pour all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. Deglaze with sour cream (or yogurt), stirring well. Pour over chops and serve.
Thin Coffee Cake
Mix 1 cooking spoon of shortening [Ed. note: cooking spoon would be just shy of 1/4 cup.] with 1 egg and 1/4 cup of sugar. Add 1 cup flour, a pinch of salt, and 1 tablespoon of water, a bit more for spreading, if necessary, but the batter should be thick and sticky.
Spread very thinly on a greased cookie sheet. Top with whatever fruit is in season. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake like a pie: 10 minutes in a hot oven and then half an hour at moderate temperature.