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Gustatory ramblings

Food For Thought

How many times have you promised yourself you were going to do something “someday” or sooner? I’m afraid I’m not very good at keeping promises to myself– I am pretty conscientious about promises to other people but nobody knows if I renege on the ones to me– except me. These are promises based on a guilty conscience, I suppose. Those things I KNOW I should do but tend to admit only to myself. The sort of things you’d want to change about yourself but don’t tell anyone else about because you’re not sure you’ll live up to them. Things like losing weight, cleaning out the front hall closet, doing your Christmas shopping early, returning that casserole dish your aunt left after a potluck in 1997. She probably doesn’t want it now anyway, since she’s living in a retirement home and seldom cooks these days.
One of the things I always intended to do someday is to sort through all those recipes I clipped from magazines and newspaper columns (remember when there were always recipes in the newspaper?) and all the ones my mother and grandmother tucked into the pages of their favorite cookbooks. Those recipes friends and relatives had jotted down on notepaper. Sometimes those recipes were never used, requested only as a courtesy, and sometimes they have been altered or added to over time, there might be several versions. You can usually tell which is the most used version though, it will be daubed with gravy, egg or frosting.
By far, the most common are recipes for desserts. Aunt Esther’s black walnut cake, which was legendary for at least three generations, is just one example. I’m pretty sure I’ll never make it, though. I tried once and it didn’t turn out nearly as good as the ones she made. It’s no secret the distinctive flavor of her cake was due to the fact she baked it in a wood-burning oven. Aunt Esther is no longer with us and the number of people who were lucky enough to have enjoyed her cakes is diminishing, so I see no practical reason to save that recipe. But I will. Aside from an extremely unlovely but amazingly durable wooden salad bowl she gave us as a wedding present, the cake recipe is about the only tangible thing I have to remember her by.
My college roommate’s mother taught me to make matzo ball soup, but her matzo balls were just a little different from the recipes I find in cookbooks or on the package of matzo meal, in they involved butter and chopped parsley and were cooked directly in the chicken broth rather than in water.
I don’t make them often so I keep her recipe to refer to in case I forget something important.
Some of my favorite recipes from the past are only my attempts to recreate things I particularly liked but have never found recipes for. One of those is my mother-in-law’s rhubarb and orange jam, the main ingredients of which are rhubarb and those candy orange slices much like gumdrops. Another orangey treat is the sponge cake my mother always made a few days after she made one of her 13-egg white angel foods. It used all the egg yolks left over from the angel food, plus one whole egg, and was flavored with orange juice and grated orange zest. I’m pretty sure the recipe was from a Betty Crocker cookbook, but I’ve never been able to track it down. I keep trying to reinvent it, but never come very close.
Among the many salad and dessert recipes are a great many involving Jell-O. Like condensed soup, gelatin dessert mixes came into popular use during the years between the two world wars, and American housewives eagerly devised myriad ways of using them. There are many recipes and variations thereof for the colorful fruit-flavored concoctions, and it is often difficult to decide if the result is to be considered a salad or a dessert. I recently was reading a novel in which a woman from Louisiana was said to be making a congealed salad. Not being a Southerner, I was unfamiliar with the term “congealed” in that context, and wondered just what that was and why I’d never heard of such a thing. Then as Fate so often provides, a friend of mine read an essay she had written about a Jell-O salad luncheon she had attended. In her discourse about gelatin, she mentioned, in the South, these were called “congealed” salads. Ah-hah! Mystery solved. Now, if I could just solve the mysteries of the orange-rhubarb jam and the orange sponge cake...