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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Can Chic

I realize that this is about the millionth blog post about canning. People my age and younger rediscovering home economy, tight times and retro sensibility hitting it off big-time. DIY swollen beyond the banks of punkdom, or maybe just punks getting old. Whereas my mom's generation drifted away from home-spunnery and the scent of backwardness and poverty that hangs with it, a few of us drifted right back.

Luckily for me, mom didn't refuse to do do some things, and would turn around and express her pride in being able to. (Welcome to the conflicted mind of a child of Appalachia, reaching for an easier way, but loyal to a culture better than them flatland city folks got.) In any case, she taught me to can and garden and other stuff. Her mom did those things, all my grandparents and greats and ancestors did it themselves, because they had to. My kin were Virginian for centuries, but we were what're called there "middling folk," who done did it themselves.

Canning and pickling, even freezing, are things I recall both grandmas doing. So this summer, when my kids' grandma visited (you may remember her from such paragraphs as, the ones you just read), I bought 40 pounds (sadly, splitwood bushel baskets have been replaced by boxes) of tomatoes and some extra jars, and on the appointed day we set about canning.

The kids weren't getting a lesson, and mostly kept away, which is good when there's a guy exploding jars in boiling liquid. Because yeah, I was learning, about how tightening the lid too much before processing causes catastrophic jar failure. Meanwhile, the kids were being kids, in a house that smells like tomato sunshine and sounds like stories punctuated by the slisking of rings securing lids whose ploinking will signal completion. Months from now, the un-slisking of the jar, the release of the smell, will transport them to a happy summer day. Every time they open those memories, every time yet to happen when they walk in the garden or hear jars rattling in the canning kettle, culture seeps into their cells. 

I think mom enjoyed it. I did, and I learned. I have a bunch of canned tomatoes and sauce from that day and from the good year in my own garden that will feed bodies and spirits. All of us got to enjoy being part of that stream of descendants and see culture flow along with it.

That's about all I wanted to say. Maybe the title made you think I was gonna taunt the chic, but nah. A few of you wonder if it's a typo, or maybe a purposeful use of homophony to call my mom a "can chick," and the answer is yes. And yes, the vagueness--yes typo or yes homophone?--is also intentional. Yes, I am veering off course now, and should sign off.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Recipes? We don't Need Recipes! (Usually)

"Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" is not only the most famous (mis)quote from Blazing Saddles, it is a guiding principle for many of us, and this holds true in the realm of food, from its growing (I'll never be a certified Master Gardener) to it's consumption (I enjoy what I like with a blissful ignorance that appalls true foodies). So it should come as no surprise that my cooking is only loosely guided by recipes. I am no baker or devotee of Spanish molecular cuisine, so it usually doesn't much matter. 

Last year, Mom gave be a little booklet of photocopies of recipes written in her hand and those of my grandmothers and some other relatives. I've referred to it once or twice with re-creation of a family favorite in mind, but mostly it is a talisman, a link to childhood and my ancestors. Mom herself had a wooden box full of index cards, clippings, and various scraps of paper with instructions for construction of all sorts of concoctions, some of which she actually made, and others of which were more aspirational in nature. When the computer age dawned (maybe 'mid-morninged' would be more accurate), she saw the devices as an exciting new form of wooden box, and began a process of entering recipes that continues to this day.

I'll cop to following a few recipes. When canning, for instance, I'm still too new to be automatic and I have a healthy wariness of botulism, so I follow the guidance of people who know better. And for some reason, I still look up the proportion of water to oats every time I make oatmeal. 

But what about when making something new? On occasions when I'm trying to replicate something particular, I'll use a recipe. But it's usually a matter of looking up a bunch of them, discerning the commonalities, and distilling an essence that suits me. Then, adding back on ingredients geared to my own taste, maybe changing a technique to something I'm more likely to pull off without burning myself or the meal. I triangulate, augment, omit, and alter at will. Then, often as not, enough time passes that I have to do the whole process over because I didn't write anything down (so I'm not claiming to be too smart for recipes...just cantankerous).

Some people have trouble operating this way, because they feel like the person who wrote the recipe knows better. Seems mutton-headed to me, since most recipes now come from free-lance writers and amateurs whose main qualification is that they can post to the internet. The same people who bring you fluff and porn, neither of which is all that satisfying, and one of which leads to a funky aftertaste. Sometimes, they're flat out wrong about something, and if you follow their directions, you end up with your meal tasting like someone recipeed on it.

Taste matters, if only to yourself and the people at your table, so that's where I leave the recipe track fairly often. I like grinding pepper into just about everything, whether the recipeer thought of it or not, and go heavy on the garlic. An epidemic flaw affecting many recipes is the under-use of a signature ingredient: one banana banana bread (try as many as you can fit in the pan), a fractional teaspoon of anything. I sure as hell remedy that. Oh, and if it calls for something I don't like, it ain't going in.

Practicality trumps fidelity. I substitute all the time. Like, my cupboard may or may not contain shortening (honestly, I don't know or care) because I use whatever else works, and it only sees use when a grandma appears and wants to make pie crust. Speaking of which, I skip the crust often as not. Gimme the inside, where all the good stuff is. I do not now and never have had saffron (queen of under-used signatures) or a host of other ingredients that are expensive or only good for one dish. Food on hand must sometimes transmogrify: yogurt to cream, pumpkin to sweet potato, nettles to spinach. And as far as cooking method, if it cannot happen with the utensils and cookware I have, then it ain't happening, or it's going to be McGyvered. 

One thing I've never been able to understand about recipes is that they seem to have no sense of reality when it comes to quantity. "Yields a dozen" rarely proves true, unless you are one of those people who likes tiny food, and especially when a recipeer wants to be healthy or lo-cal, they tend to create portions that bear no resemblance to reality in the U S of A.  Another quantitative delusion is that the Recipe is so paramount that cooks should do things like use half a can of something, or a fractional fruit. No, you base your pie on the pumpkin you have, and if there's more than enough filling, you dump the rest in a casserole dish for some creamy crustless extra. Having unused food fragments at the end usually leads to waste, and basing your dish on units such as the amount of tomatoes you picked one day or a 24-ounce can makes life easier.

Quantities expressed not in tablespoons or ounces (or the dullest of all, grams), but in friendly fuzzy terms appeal to me, partly just because they sound cool: shake, smattering, smidgeon, sprinkling,...and that's just the S's. I guess people have tried to quantify dollops and dashes, but I'd rather retain the mystery. Units like these leave room for individuality, they respect autonomy. Handfuls and pinches remind us that the basic scale of cooking is human. 

The variability and vagueness to these also says something about how we've passed on culinary culture over thousands of generations. I've asked old women about how much of an ingredient to put in, and plenty of times gotten answers like "Enough," or "It depends..." They're saying that you cannot reduce a good dish to a list, they're testing to see if you really want to do it right, they're wondering whether you are worthy of receiving their knowledge. Or they're just foggy, maybe cantankerous, or just having fun messing with you. But they have ancient knowledge sometimes, and it's better to learn their way with all its seeming imprecision and archaic measurements. You'll end up with something deeply tasty. 

The tasty things I manage to serve up eventually repeat themselves enough that I suppose I settle in on a recipe, at least in my head. In the past year, as I can and make jam more, I've taken to writing down what I did. Sometimes, anyway. At some point, I may park some of those on this blog, more so I can find them again then to encourage any of you to try them. You may, and it's possible that you'll even like it, in which case I encourage you to write it on a card, put it in a box, and pretend you made it up. But really, you don't need my stinking recipes.