Recipe Monday! Are You Fucking Kidding Me?!

(Please forgive me–that wasn’t polite. I shouldn’t have said fucking, but I mean…oh, forget it…)

My oven broke on Wednesday. My sewing machine on which I’m sewing masks for friends keeps jamming. The Surgeon General, Governor Cuomo, Dr Anthony Fucci, Dr Deborah Burx, and every other expert–even Trump who is no expert at all–now say this week is going to be hell on wheels with possibly 2 to 4 to 6 weeks more, which I really don’t need to hear. After I post this, I have to venture out to the market again because we’re running low on a lot of staples. I’ll climb into my version of a hazard suit: washable rain jacket and shoes, leggings tucked into socks, mask and gloves, and hope for the best. Once home, I’ll strip off my virus soaked clothes and then spend an hour disinfecting everything in some location far from the house

None of this is bad compared to last night when I tried to comfort a friend who has just lost someone close and has another friend in the hospital.

Fuck.

Breath.

We are going to get through this.

We really are.

To help, let’s gather a shred of historical perspective by leafing through a couple of old cookbooks written during difficult times.

How to Cook a Wolf–M.F.K. Fisher (1942)

Mrs. Fisher–the food writer who every food writer in the known world would like to be compared–wrote How to Cook a Wolf in response to World War II and its affect not only on food and cooking but on rattled spirits. The book is stuffed with her good prose, worthy advice and sensible recipes. For some reason she has an affinity to saving juices from roasts, boiled vegetables, and fat in cold gin bottles. I take this as a recommendation to her readers that gin helps calms rattled spirits.

Of particular use for us is the many ways she gives to help stretch scarce provisions. She turns even the most humble of ingredients into something worthy of a feast. Take, for instance, the three pages she devotes to polenta:

“It is really cornmeal, nothing more. But it is dressed for the fair, in its most exciting clothes, and it can be the mainstay of a poor family’s nourishment or the central dish of a buffet supper for twenty jaded literary critics with equal nonchalance.”

Today it’s usually served with a nice crust after spending some time on a skillet. Fisher recommends leaving it in a heap, much like rice, and always serving a savory sauce, hopefully with mushrooms, on the side.

Polenta

3 cups cold water

3 cups boiling water

2 cups polenta meal

2 teaspoon salt

(1 cup diced Monterey or mild goat cheese; optional but good)

grated Parmesan-type cheese

Stir the meal gradually with the cold water to form a smooth mixture. Slowly add it to the boiling water, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. If in a double boiler, cook without further stirring for three hours. If in a heavy iron pot, stir gently now and then for an hour with a wooden paddle, taking care not to disturb the crust that will form against the pots. The polenta should be about the consistency of spoon bread when done. If too thick, add more hot water.

Stir in the cubed cheese at the last if desired. Then shape into a mound and cover with grated cheese, to be served separately with whatever sauce is desired. or make into a ring around the sauce on one plate.

Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchenby Malinda Russell, 1866

Domestic is considered the first cookbook written by an American black woman. Mrs. Russells emphasizes that she was born free by law, “one of the first families set free by Mr. Noddie of Virginia.” She planned to ship to Liberia but ran out of money in Lynchburg, Virginia, and found work as a cook and general servant. She saved enough to then move to Cold Springs, Tennessee, where she opened a very profitable bakery. In 1864, a gang of mercenaries raided the town, threatened her and stole her money, after which she fled to what she called “the Garden of the West,” Paw Paw, Michigan. She was near destitution and, with a handicapped son to support, put all her hopes in writing and self-publishing a cookbook that might earn enough money to return to Tennessee. It was, to say the least, not a good time for cookbook sales, with many people having more problems to face than trying out a new recipe. A few months after she published the book, the town burnt down and Mrs. Russells and her book disappeared into history.

Fitting for a baker, the majority of her recipes are for desserts, many of them refine–for instance  floating islands in creme anglaise. A handful reflect leaner tables, such as grated bread cake. At the start of our first sheltering order I ran out with everyone else to fill the basement with supplies and came home with three loaves of Italian bread that I reasoned was necessary for all the pasta dishes I’d cook. Two loaves went stale by mid-week. This cake was a saving grace. It’s a little like bread pudding but it puffs up beautifully and goes very nicely with whatever you’re drinking these days.

Grated Bread Cake

Grate 1 quart stale bread in a bowl. In another bowl beat six eggs and add 1 1/2 cup butter, 3 cups sugar, 1 pint milk, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon baking soda, a little grated nutmeg, 3 tablespoons flour. Pour into a baking pan and cook for about 35 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin–Mina Pachter and the women of Terezin, 1996

We are at the start of our third week of confinement in New York and, as you can see from my opening whines and the obscene title of this piece, some of us are forgetting that life could be exponentially worse. In Memory’s Kitchen is a book I took down from the shelves and placed on my counter to remind me I have nothing to complain about. Even with all the ambulances going by my window and living in the shadow of death, I should be ashamed of myself for not being as strong as Mina and her companions.

If you do not know this book, please seek it out, especially in honor of Passover. In Memory’s Kitchen is a collection of recipes written on scrapes of paper by the women imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin in what was then Czechoslovakia. The recipes represent the life they led and the place they once held in both their families and society. I can’t begin to phantom how the women could bear to bring up these feasts they made for their families, these beloved handed-down recipes they expertly created in better times. And yet, I can’t imagine a better way for them to rise above the unbelievable reality they were existing in.

Food is identity. Food is hope. Food is the way we give love and reverence to our past. Food gives us sustenance even in the leanest times to carry on into the future. The following cake–from it’s title to its ingredients–encapsulates hope and grace in the midst of horror.

Groom’s Cake

2 egg whites with 16 decagrams* sugar. Stir for 1/2 hour. 6 egg whites (stiffly beaten to) snow. Bring to a boil 16 decagrams sugar, 24 decagrams chocolate with 6 tablespoons water. Add to the stirred egg whites. At the end add the snow. bake with oven door slightly ajar.

*Decagrams is noted in the book as “ten grams, a metric unit equal to 0.35 ounces.”

8 thoughts on “Recipe Monday! Are You Fucking Kidding Me?!

    1. You too! The really wonderful thing about all this is how much people are taking care of each other. Never had so many complete strangers asking strangers how they are and wishing them well. Brooklyn/NYC is truly becoming a tiny, caring village! Hope you are well…

    1. Thanks, Beth. All things considered, we have no reason to complain. The level of anxiety, though among everyone here is pretty intense. You know things are a bit over the top when strangers start saying hi to you on the street. Just wish the sewing machine would get its act together And yes! I rather try something from an old cookbook than anything else! hope you and your family are ok, too.

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