Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Take Two Calf's Feet

From Dishes Mother Used to Make, 1941

by Terri Griffith
(This essay originally appeared in Connotation Press)

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?
Lucy: Spoiled?
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 Tostitos ad, a woman (played by a youthful Meghan Markle) 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   cheeserecipe/index.html.

“Unwanted Guests.” Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Web. 18 Mar. 2012.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Vote for Gracie!

My writing partner, Nicholas Alexander Hayes, and I have a new essay published in PopMatters. It's a look back at Gracie Allen's run for President in 1940. Check it out! What ever happened to campaign songs, anyway?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead

I enjoyed The Beginner Housewife (1956) so much that I have decided to read all of the books advertised on the back of the book jacket. First up, How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead In His Social and Business Life, by Mrs. Dale Carnegie. If the name sounds familiar, her husband, Mr. Dale Carnegie is the author of How to Make Friends and Influence People (1936). First of all, let's be real. Mrs. Carnegie, I am positive you have a first name of your own, though the "Mrs." does really highlight the married thing. I was pretty dubious about the claim this book was making right in the title. I thought, What if my husband is a total loser? Luckily, Mrs. Carnegie addresses this in the first chapter.  She says, "Professional social workers, psychiatrists and other specialists may object that the rules I have formulated will not work in every case. What about husbands who are drunkards, drifters, ne'er-do-wells and congenital misfits? (3). I don't really know what to do if your husband is a drunkard or ne'er-do-well. I guess you have to get a different book.

This book is filled with all the sexist crap you might expect. You should cut your husband a ton of slack. Let him go out with his male friends. Stay off his back, even if he stays out all night. But there was also some very thoughtful passages as well. She urges wives not to be jealous of the women who work in the office or your husband's secretary. They're at work making their living--presumably because they don't have husbands who are as good of a provider as your husband is. I thought that was pretty open minded advice for the time.

I thought I was really going to hate this book. Seriously, it has all the hallmarks of something I would despise, but I was actually surprised. My "husband" is my wife and I just assumed there would be little for me. But I found myself, directly after reading this book, drawing on some of Mrs. Carnegie's wisdom. My partner travels a lot for work. I mean, sometimes A LOT. I get lonely and have to watch Columbo and The Dick Van Dyke Show and sometimes eat potato chips for dinner, even though I know it's just going to make me feel bad. So when my partner said she had to go to an "emergency" meeting, I was just about to protest. Then Mrs. Carnegie's words came to mind. She asks wives to keep the complaining and the disappointment to themselves. Traveling is hard. No one wants to be gone all the time. Traveling is part of my partner's job. Actually, a pretty cool part and I don't want to make her feel bad. If I did make her feel bad, there's really nothing she could do about it anyway, so why do it. As my friend Rosa says, "It's time to put on your big girl panties." This is sound advice. Mrs. Carnegie couldn't have said it better.

(I stole this cute photo from PEAKaBooDesign on Etsy. My book had no cover.)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Man's Favorite Sport

Last time I was at Audio Archaeology, I asked the owner for a recommendation for what I was then calling "White People Music," before I knew the term "Beautiful Music." He pointed me to this excellent record, Dear Heart and Other Songs About Love (1965), by Henry Mancini. It's choral music, sort of. It sounds a lot like supposed Jazz Choir from back in the 70s.

The songs on this record are terrible! They say terrible things about "love" and relationships. There's a cover of "Frankie and Johnnie," which is really the kind message we should be sending people about relationships. "Mr. Lucky" is pretty okay, because at least this "lucky guy" recognizes how awesome is "lucky girl" is. I actually think that the Everett High School jazz choir might have performed this tune.

One song was so upsetting to me that I had to Google it. "Man's Favorite Sport." Here is a sample:

Some men say Judo is their dish
While others fish where mountain waters swirl

But let a girl appear, he'll pursue her
And run his fingers through her curls
And that's the way it's been since the world began
The favorite sport of men, is girls!

There is just so much wrong with this song. First of all, the verses are just lists of sports. They are solitary and elitist. But then these sports are compared to forming a lasting relationship with a woman, as if it is a competition. But maybe a lasting relationship isn't exactly what the man wants. Then there's the bit where the males are "men" and the females are "girls." Really? My Googling led me to learn that this is the theme song from a 1964 film of the same name, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. This film is clearly one of those awesome 60s sex comedies that I love so much. Seeing that it stars the queer-as-a-three-dollar-bill Rock Hudson, my opinion of this song changed. I think it was written to be intentionally campy. I can only hope. Still, it's pretty messed up.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Library of Vintage Cocktail Books

Last Christmas I stumbled upon this book on Pinterest called Bacchus Behave!: The lost art of Polite Drinking. I felt certain that this was THE perfect book for my friend Nicholas. He loves spirits, loves Bacchus, and just hates exclamation points. Anyway, I set about trying to buy this book and people wanted hundreds of dollars for it--which might I say, seems worth every penny. Sadly, I did not have this many pennies in my holiday budget. But the interwebs, she just gives and gives. In my search for something object-ey, I instead found something entirely more vast and digital-ey. I stumbled upon the EUVS Digital Collection. This digital library contains I-don't-know-how-many scanned volumes of cocktail books. Their online reader is really amazing, making it possible to actually read and work from these texts. This collection appears to be the library for the Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux. In addition to cocktail books, there are also books on customs and glassware. Really, this is such a finely curated library it's worth your time to check it out even if your idea of a cocktail is a bottle of beer.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Beautiful Music

Today my friend, Stephanie, took me to Madam Zuzu's in Highland Park. It's the second time we've been there. Mostly it's a tea shop, but it has records, too. I found this lovely album by Jackie Gleason called Music, Martinis, and Memories. As you can see, the cover is amazing. On the back it reads: music, martinis, and memories...each creates a wonderfully soft, romantic haze. This makes it sound kind of like Gleason is going to get me drunk and take advantage of me.

Until this afternoon, I had no idea that Jackie Gleason had anything to do with music. There were no liner notes and the text on the back was of little help, so I turned to the trusty Wikipedia. Apparently, Gleason just willed these albums to happen. He didn't play on them and wasn't the producer exactly. It's more like he said, "hey, make a record that will help me get lucky this weekend." Et voila! My new favorite record. Wikipedia called this record "mood music." It was hyperlinked, which I thought was pretty odd. Turns out this music genre actually has a name: beautiful music. I have a big collection of this music. At my favorite local record shop, Audio Archaeology, I just usually go in and ask the man at the counter if he has any new White People music. He hooked me up with a great Henry Mancini album called Dear Heart and Other Songs About Love. Most of the songs are pretty messed up. Now that I have these key search terms, the world of beautiful music is my oyster. Music, Martinis, and Memories is on Spotify if you want to listen to it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Beginner Housewife

The charming librarians at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Flaxman Library got me this awesome book, The Beginner Housewife via inter-library loan from, Guess where? New Zealand! I did for a moment question using the school's resources to procure this book for me. I read the book cover-to-cover, which took about two hours. I lingered. It was short and easy to read. Maybe the "Beginner" referred to reading level and out there somewhere there is The Intermediate Housewife and The Advanced Housewife. There's all sorts of tasties in the table of contents, from the basics of planning your day to the mysterious "masculine mending."

The thing that really struck me about this book is the publication date. It says 1956, but the advice in it seems really old. For example, the book talks about "if you are lucky enough to have a refrigerator." Really, by 1956 I would think most people would have had a refrigerator. By 1956, I would think a refrigerator would not be considered a luxury and that the lack of one would be seen as just that, a lack. It doesn't take very long for appliances of convenience to move from luxury to necessity.

Perhaps related to the refrigerator is the section that covers keeping a "stock-pot." I realize this is a time-honored tradition, but I was pretty surprised to see it in a book this recent. If you'd like to keep a stock pot here's some helpful advice:
1. Keep it covered.
2. Boil it up every day.
3. Never put anything into it but meat (including gristle and bacon rinds) and bones (fresh or cooked).
4. Empty it out daily and clean the pan thoroughly. (64)
I'm not so sure about this...

Overall the book was delight and I actually picked up some helpful hints. I found the
breakfast section really interesting because it included a lot of tinned fish. That would go over big in our house. Despite the total cuteness of this book, it's hardly been checked out.

The back jacket advertises a couple of other books. One is How To Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, which might actually be my favorite movie. It's certainly my go-to when I feel stressed out. I've already put on hold How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead, by Mrs. Dale Carnegie. I don't have a husband, I have a wife, but it couldn't hurt, right? The last book they advertise is The Secrets of Happiness. I'm not so sure about that one either.