|From Dishes Mother Used to Make, 1941|
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
TAKE TWO CALF’S FEET
by Terri Griffith
(This essay originally appeared in Connotation Press in 2011)
Like art, pornography, and love, everyone knows the meaning of the term “from scratch.” And just like these other words, when pressed, the definition is as hard to wrangle. The term is contextual, shifting meaning depending on who says it and when. I’m an adept cook, but I’ve never made puff pastry. I don’t know anyone who has. Even The Barefoot Contessa uses frozen, but I’m certain someone out there has a French grandmother who would rather starve than pull a box of frozen dough from her freezer. You can often find a big copper pot on my stovetop simmering chicken stock. I make salad dressing. I soak beans.
The meaning of “from scratch” was perfectly clear to me until one day when I was browsing the Culinary Arts Institute cookbooklet Dishes Mother Used to Make (1941). I wasn’t reading, just paging through looking at pictures. There was a photo of what I at first thought was dessert—star-shaped, gelatinous. The caption read: “This pretty mold of nourishing calf’s foot jelly is made by the same recipe as the one mother carried when she visited the sick.” It then became clear that I was looking at aspic. The revelation came not from the ingredient list or attendant photo, but somewhere in the middle of the directions when I realized that the calf’s foot in “Calf’s Foot Jelly” was the source of the gelatin. It was stupid not to understand this immediately; earlier cooks would have.
But I’m not an earlier cook. To me, gelatin in its virgin state comes from a small orange package of Knox or if I’m lucky, a professional cook’s box of gelatin sheets. I should know better. Still, I find it difficult to imagine the average contemporary home cook rendering gelatin “from scratch.” Then again, what recipe from the last hundred years would have us boiling calf’s feet? Effectively, a box of Knox is from scratch, in that it is the least processed version of the ingredient available.
In the I Love Lucy episode (1952) entitled “Pioneer Women,” after figuring out that Lucy has washed more than 200,000 dishes in the ten years since her marriage to Ricky, Lucy and Ethel decide they want automatic dishwashers:
Ricky (to Fred): Isn’t it amazing how spoiled modern women are?
Ricky: Yes, spoiled. You think you got to do a little work and you’re hysterical.
Lucy: A little work!
Ricky: Why honey, this is the electric age. All you have to do is flip a “swish.”
Lucy (to Ethel): We flip a “swish.”
Ricky: Your grandmother didn’t have none of these modern electrical conveniences and they not only washed the dishes, they swept the floor, and churned the butter, and baked the bread…they made their own clothes.
Lucy: Sure and where are those women today? (pause) They’re dead!
So Lucy and Ethel bet Ricky and Fred that they can all live as people did in their grandmothers’ time. They choose the date 1900 as the cut off and if the women can keep to the “Gay 90s” then they can have the money for dishwashers. Although their conversation is framed around the idea of technology, the show comes down to a parsing the concept of “from scratch.”
You don’t even have to watch this episode to know what happens—Lucy and Ethel spend the rest of the show trying to make bread and butter. As you’ve probably guessed, they were unsuccessful. Lucy is unfamiliar with bread making and relies solely on a cookbook to guide her. At one point she describes to Ethel what kneading is. Precisely because she has no idea what she’s doing, she finds that she’s used thirteen cakes of yeast instead of three.
It is Fred’s grandmother who churned butter, so we know from this that she must have lived somewhere rural with access to large quantities of cream. Making butter from store-bought cream doesn’t make good economic sense. As Ethel says sarcastically of the half or so pound of butter she has just churned, “Imagine, all that butter and it only cost me twenty three dollars and seventy-five cents.” And that was in 1952.
Ricky’s bread-baking grandmother lives in Cuba, and as he mentions on another episode that his family are farmers. This is a significant difference not in era, but in culture. Lucy and Ethel live in New York City, in apartments. They are show people: the Mertzs, retired vaudevillians, and Ricky Richardo, a bandleader. In later episodes, the Richardos own their own nightclub. Both the Mertzs and the Richardos are childless, at least in this episode. Even in 1900 it seems unlikely that these women would have baked bread, much less churned butter. Neighborhood markets were abundant, bakeries close, fresh dairy delivered daily. Judging by Lucy’s complete lack of knowledge about bread making, no woman in her family ever baked a loaf of bread anywhere in her vicinity. For women like Lucy and Ethel, meals comprised of fresh bread from the bakery and milk-man delivered butter were from scratch.
On the Food Network show Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee (2003), our hostess schools us in the assembly method of cooking. Her website states: “Sandra Lee’s trademark 70/30 Semi-Homemade philosophy combines 70% ready-made products with 30% fresh, giving everyone the confidence to create food that looks and tastes from scratch.” For Sandra Lee the definition of “from scratch” is rather generous. Lee asks us to reassemble food that has arrived in her kitchen already in varying states of readiness. The “homemade” in Semi-Homemade Cooking often does not point to what serious cooks would refer to as “from scratch” ingredients. In her recipe for “Mexican-Style Macaroni and Cheese,” Lee has the cook combine boxed macaroni and cheese with “Mexican” seasoning, finally topping the whole thing with packaged, pre-shredded Mexican cheese blend. In this recipe, I can only imagine that the fresh ingredient would be the cheese.
But to be fair to Lee, it is not food that purports to be healthy or nutritious. Lee is selling something else. She is selling love. We can see this from the cocktails and tablescapes she constructs each week. The subtext of every episode of Semi-Homemade Cooking is, If you take these ingredients and fabricate them into something recognizable as food, you will demonstrate to your family how much you love them. In this way, Sandra Lee’s recipes, however misguided we may think them, are successful.
Famed cookbook author and former owner of The Barefoot Contessa gourmet food store from which she takes her nickname, Ina Garten makes a living cooking mostly from scratch and showing us how to as well. Her cookbooks are slick and appealing. Hardcover, with big, beautiful pictures, of healthful, lovingly prepared dishes. Although Barefoot in Paris is one of my favorite cookbooks and contains recipes for “French Lentil Sausage Soup” and “Palmiers,” it also contains recipes for things like “Roasted Beets,” which is simply…well, roasted beets. In her other cookbooks you can find similar recipes for “Roasted Winter Vegetables” and “Roasted Carrots.” These are fine recipes and suggest things like the addition of thyme or a splash of vinegar, but they are essentially recipes for dishes that don’t need recipes. These are simple foods, which is exactly the point Garten is trying to make—That wholesome ingredients and simple preparation are all that are needed to create an outstanding meal. Even in the picture of the humble roasted carrots, the carrots are seductive and slick with olive oil. The photo is pornographic in its detail and explicit availability, the shards of fresh cracked pepper and grains of kosher salt large enough to see.
Like Lee, Garten is a contemporary cook. She does not expect her readers to make puff pastry, nor does she expect us to make our own mayonnaise, though she does recommend specific brands. Whether this is intended or not, this recommendation of store-bought products reminds home cooks that we are not making every element of this dish from scratch. What she does is strip away the layers of processed food that we have grown so used to eating that they have become nearly invisible. This has the effect of throwing the few remaining processed items into stark relief against their elemental brethren: carrots, beets, a whole roast chicken.
How do we define what is from scratch and what is processed? Is flour processed? Cheese? Sausage? Canned chickpeas? Organic free-range chicken stock? Unprocessed sausage is just meat and where’s the fun in that? And what’s the difference between the bag of pre-shredded, “Mexican” flavored cheese blend, and a ball of goat’s milk cheese from my local natural cheesemonger?
This cultural move to deconstruct food into recognizable components is central to both The Slow Food and Localvore movements. But we see this idea reflected in the general consumer market as well. In a recent Tostitos ad, a woman in her twenties who is shopping for her upcoming party is perusing the chip isle while her thoughts run as a voiceover. She thinks about chips and how much she doesn’t like one of the potential party guests. The ad ends with her looking at a brown, natural looking bag of corn chips, which contains thirteen ingredients. She then picks up a bag of Tostitos and the voiceover says, “White corn, vegetable oil, salt. Yeah, three ingredients is good.” Suddenly these Tostitos Scoops are recontextualized as wholesome solely because they are simple, made of ingredients we can all understand. In the 1990s “white corn, vegetable oil, salt” would have read as a list of foods to avoid.
I am sure there are those who mill their own grain, as I am sure there are those who make puff pastry from scratch, still for most people a bag of flour is an elemental ingredient. It’s our renewed desire to know what we are eating—where it comes from, the quality of ingredients, how it was produced—that makes a short ingredient list a selling point. Whether or not home cooks will return to rendering gelatin from hooves has yet to be seen. But with the ways things are going, it seems likely.
Berolzheimer, Ruth. ed. Dishes Mother Used To Make. Chicago: Culinary Arts Institute, 1941. Print
Garten, Ina. Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2008. Print
—The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1999. Print
—Barefoot Contessa Family Style. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2002. Print
—Barefoot in Paris. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2004. Print
“I Love Lucy.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Web. 11 Feb. 2010.
“Knox Gelatine.” Kraft Food. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
“Pioneer Women.” I Love Lucy: The Complete First Season. Original Air Date, 31 Mar. 1952. Paramount, 2005. DVD.
Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee. The Food Network. Web. 12 Mar. 2011 http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/sandra-lee/mexican-style-macaroni-and cheeserecipe/index.html.
“Unwanted Guests.” Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Web. 18 Mar. 2012.http://www.goodbysilverstein.com/#/work/tostitos_dips_and_chips_unwanted_guests_broadcast.