Friday, October 30, 2009

Made with Love During Times of Sorrow

German Pancake ~ Karen Smith


3 eggs

¾ cup milk

¾ cup flour

½ tsp salt

1 ½ T butter

½ + tsp vanilla (for the adventurous, add as much as you want!)

Mix ingredients and pour into a cast iron skillet. Place in oven at 450ºF and bake for 15 min. Turn the oven down to 350ºF and bake for 10 min.

Christmastime recalls memories of vibrant red poinsettias, the scent of sweet, green pine, and the sounds of countless Christmas CDs playing continuously from Thanksgiving until December 25th. Yet the memory that brings the most warmth to my heart is the thought of my Mom’s famous German Pancake, which she made every Christmas Eve morning. The word pancake may conjure images of a plump stack of flat, doughy circles, drenched in sticky syrup, but after one bite of my Mom’s German pancakes, the idea of eating a pancake is forever a magical experience. Just the sight of a golden cradle of hot fluffy pastry embracing the cast iron pan instantly causes the glands to salivate. While Christmas day may have been the most exciting event in terms of material gain, Christmas Eve morning marked the highlight of my year’s culinary delights.

After my Mom passed away from ovarian cancer in the fall of 2003, looking at December 24th on my calendar became a hard thought to bear. My Dad convinced me that together, we could make Christmas seem as normal as possible by creating our special Christmas Eve breakfast. I wanted to place my complete confidence in my Dad’s hopeful suggestion, but the thought of making the German pancake without my Mom seemed sacrilegious. As we whipped the ingredients in the same vessels my Mom used year after year, I began to think that Christmas was going to taste just as sweet as it always had. We placed the mixture in the oven and did the only thing we could do … wait. Those 25 minutes were some of the longest minutes of my life, and when we pulled our creation out of the oven, the seconds that followed made my heart sink. In the bottom of the cast iron pan was nothing I had ever seen before – a stout lump of white dough that looked nothing like the flaky, light pancakes my Mom had made. My Dad and I looked at each other with disgust written all over our faces. The only explanation we could provide to the great flop of our German Pancake was that it was made without the loving hands of my Mother; the mixture, void of her generous dousing of vanilla and brisk whisking strokes, lay deflated, uninspired inside the once proud cast iron pan. When following a recipe, it’s not always about using the right ingredients and following instructions to a tee, but more importantly, it is about the love and joy that is put into the dish that truly makes it come to life.

Similarly, for Eduardo Machado, in his memoir Tastes Like Cuba, as he transitions from the lavish culinary traditions from his childhood in Cuba to new gastronomical finds in America, he discovers that recreating the meals of his youth is not simply a matter of supplying a laundry list of ingredients. Although it becomes nearly impossible for his mother to acquire the same ingredients in American that she used in Cuba, it seems that any attempt at trying to transcend their feelings of exile in America come short as her mock Cuban concoctions fall flat, serving as bitter reminders to the reality of their circumstances. After his mother’s efforts to make a typical Cuban meal of fried steaks, Machado reveals an honest, childlike reflection of the results: “Frying the steaks was disastrous […] The rice was not high quality. The split peas were not black beans. But worst of all, the steaks were tough and the chunky bready was greasy. She had tried her best, but it was not close enough, and for her that was the same thing as a failure,” (107). Machado later goes on to realize that he “had not missed Cuba [but] missed the food for sure,” (120). From these realizations, the audience can gather that Machado holds on to the remnants of his Cuban nationality through his relationship with Cuban food. His connection with the meals of his youth in Cuba is one made from memories of comfort and satisfaction. His mother’s inability to reproduce these same feelings through the familiar recipes she used in Cuba suggest that in order to create a meal, it requires more than just a batch of ingredients; through love and a homey environment, a meal’s true flavors bubble to the surface.

Together, Machado and I experienced a painful reminder of the loss of something very important to us through failed attempts of creating normalcy through cuisine. With these experiences in mind, it becomes apparent how one attaches national and family identity to food; a family recipe is an extension of this identity, a bit of recorded history that holds the hope of a continued growth. However, a recipe, no matter how many times it is made, can never be perfectly replicated. A recipe, while it supplies a list of the same ingredients and directions for the cook time after time, does not contain the details of who made the dish, the inherent traits and idiosyncrasies of the recipe’s originator, or he description of the environment in which it was made. Examining the creation of a recipe, or the recreation of a favorite meal, shows how great is the influence of what goes into a meal besides the physical ingredients, and how the outcome of a meal can influence the spirits of those who partake in its communion. For Machado, in his never-ending longing to recapture his Cuban youth, and for myself, trying to conjure the familiar tastes of Christmases past, we come to realize that the memories of past culinary experiences are intrinsic – the focus should not be to recreate them to a precise memory, but to enjoy their newfound taste in their own present surroundings.

Works Cited

Machado, Eduardo. Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home. New York: Gotham Books, 2007.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Finding home at Bloomington's Farmers' Market

A Taste for Trust

For nearly 35 years, the family table has had a reason to rejoice in Bloomington, Indiana. In 1975, when a group proposed to the city council a plan to organize a market to “connect backyard gardeners and small farmers with consumers” (Robinson, Hartenfeld), seeds were planted in the heart of the community that would allow for a weekly celebration of the famers’ sweat and labor, the precious nourishment from mother earth, as well as the joining of the pastoral and the ever growing college town. Experiencing the farmers’ market on a Saturday morning, one will find a world that extends Bloomington’s thriving gardening scene to local inhabitants and college students alike, creating a sense of community where trust is the foundation between the grower and consumer.

On Saturday, September 19, I became a first time visitor of the weekly community affair:

“Where is the ATM?”I keep asking, but no one seems to know the answer. Why should they know? The farmers have come in full force this sunny Saturday morning – pick-ups loaded down with piles of rough skinned potatoes, cartons of freckled apples, and bundles of bursting yellow sunflowers. It’s 10 o’clock and I already feel like I’ve missed the opening scene of Thorton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ as I stroll into the middle of the marketplace, watching customers greet their neighbors, taking the time to stop and say their hellos before quickly darting off to snag the glossy, purple eggplants that have caught their attention. These people, I think, have found their place … rather, they have transcended the boundaries of time - the 21st century, materialistic lifestyle, and have been able to sink their teeth into the bucolic landscape that was once the epitome of a wholesome family lifestyle. Their concerns do not revolve around money, and surely not plastic credit cards. Their greatest anxiety is not my lack of an ATM, but of the tender give of a peach upon first touch, the vibrant shine of the heirloom tomatoes, or the sweet scent of an apple as it is held directly under their nose, trying to draw out the image of the countryside from which they were plucked. This, I realize, is the Midwest.

Eyeing a sign over a table crowded with red pails filled with green and cream colored winter squash, I read the words – “Heartland Family Farms”, the small inscription underneath, “no chemicals”. These last two words serve as a symbol of trust between the farmer and the customer. In a world that obsesses over disease, pesticides, and genetically modified crops, this sign, this note, this pail of squash, is a reassurance that here, the sun, rain, soil – the sweat, labor and gentle touch of the farmer’s hand, are the only things that envelop the produce filled tables. From the seed, to the ground, to the market, to your mouth, the last taste that lingers on your lips are traces of the Bloomington community – not the far off lands of Ecuador or Peru, not the underside of a price tag peeled off after a purchase at Kroger.

Pausing in front of a stand for Capriole, Inc., I become saturated in the flavors of the heartland, the essence of Bloomington. A generous sample of white, fluffy goat cheese embracing a wooden spoon slides into my mouth, causing me to stop all the thoughts that are running through my head. A taste so simple and savory, I quickly discover, cannot be found in an airtight plastic container. Who ever thought the love and care of a farmer could become a noticeable difference in the quality of fresh produce? Karen, the women dishing out samples of the delectable cheeses, touches my arm as I begin to leave, chiding me, “Sweetheart, you’re not done yet.” A smile crosses my face as she slips two more spoonfuls of cheese into my hand. Meanwhile, the man next to me experiences the same magnanimous gesture. Instantly, he buys the first two cheeses that he samples; yet Karen makes sure no hasty decision be made as she describes in detail the specific traits of each cheese – which one is best when served with braised beef, a slice of toasted French baguette, or a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. Together, they are collaborators in some elaborate scheme as they envision the presentation of his findings at the family table that evening – a table that will soon be surrounded with the shrill sounds of a child’s laughter, the warm whisper of a mother’s loving advice, and the beaming smile of this proud father who has placed before his kin a piece of the community, a trusting relationship harvested within the Saturday morning farmers’ market at the Capriole, Inc. cheese stand. Karen sees no division between her customers and her family – she enriches the community as she places each sample of cheese into the hands of her neighbors, sharing with them the distinct pleasure and magic that a family run farm can create within the fruits of their labor. Karen, I learned, is not even one of the owners of the farm; she told me she simply desires to help her friends “feed the community,” a gesture that most certainly shows her joy of sharing this union with her community in her quest to have no one go on with their Saturday without the touch of such creamy goodness escaping their lips.

Today, I too have experienced the luscious treasures of the Saturday market; my unexpected desires have been fulfilled. My hands have now felt the tenderness of fall’s plump, ripe tomatoes, gripped the untamed green stalks of a boisterous bunch of carrots, and coddled the sweet, airy morsels from a bag of fresh kettle corn. But more so, my hands have felt the work of a proud, trusting community. Not only do locals pile their baskets with the region’s freshest and finest, they fill their minds and bodies with the richness and resources from their own community. When walking through the market entrance, worries are left outside next to the MARSH shopping carts and Kroger 10-for-10 specials. Once inside, swept into the pastoral, your cravings for quality are quickly nourished through the relationship of trust within the Bloomington community farmers’ market.

“The ATM,” I suddenly remembered, transported back into the world of credit cards and ominous grocery lines; yet come next Saturday, the importance of an ATM will fall behind me, for I will find myself on the other side of the equation, enjoying the produce of my neighbors and tasting the trust of my community.