Ruth Bass: Delectable memories of good food
Food is such a trigger. It’s all very well to talk about how many points an ice cream cone might be, but it’s not the first thing most dieters think about. Instead, they remember a cone that dripped all over the place in the back seat of the car or the first soft serve of the season when the boards came off the Tyler Street Dairy Queen or the day their 2-year-old took his first lick of creamy chocolate.
Many memories are made of food -- not yogurt and kale and grilled haddock when the eater is behaving in a supposedly ideal way, but pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, applesauce right after the apples have been picked, baked ham on Easter with an aromatic glaze of pineapple or honey.
Mouth watering. The sight of a lemon meringue pie in the glass case on a diner counter brings into focus daughter-in-law Donna’s tall and perfect lemon meringue pies, often successfully transported a hundred miles or more for our enjoyment.
Custard pie triggers a different memory. My mother, a superb cook, usually made very nice custard pie but sometimes was upset by a bit of curdling near the crust. She admired the fact that her mother-in-law, despite the vagaries of temperature control in a wood stove oven, never failed to turn out smooth custard pie.
At the other grandmother’s house, it was the chicken and dumplings -- creamy meat and biscuits without sogginess -- that come to mind as a taste sensation we’ve never quite duplicated. Sometimes, of course, the memory improves on the actuality, but it’s doubtful in this case. The platter, still extant, was large, oval, decorated with pale green vines, its glaze crackled with age.
This train of thought revved up steam the other night as the Jewish holiday of Purim approached. Most years, because the family loves them, we make hamentaschen, the triangular pastries that resemble the hat worn by the evil Haman, just one of many men in history whose goal was to destroy the Jews.
It seems odd that we commemorate the evil one’s hat with cookies, rather than creating a replica of Queen Esther’s crown, she being the one who stepped in to save the Jews. But we do eat the little hats, so perhaps that’s the justification. The king of Persia, who did not realize Esther was Jewish, gave Haman permission to exterminate all the Jews in his kingdom. Esther persuaded the king to withdraw the order, and Haman and his 10 sons were hanged.
Some years, the one-day holiday of Purim passes me by, and I have to make the hamentaschen late. But whenever they are turned out, they call up images of Pittsfield’s Adele Goldblum. It’s her recipe, and unlike some others, it has orange zest in the batter -- delicious. The small circles (cut out in this house with a wine glass) get a daub of minced prune, poppy seed or apricot and are then pinched into Haman hats.
The first time I tried these produced some bad moments in the kitchen, bad words included. As my Aunt Mary used to say when cookie-making wasn’t going right, the dough just wouldn’t behave. Popular demand legislated that I conquer failure, however. I added a little more flour and stopped rolling the chapeaux quite so thin.
One of the best moments came when I shipped a box of hamentaschen to our son’s room at college. Half Jewish himself, he had three Jewish roommates, but I was the only mother who provided those freshmen their taste of Purim. Shipping delectables was genetic for me - my mother went so far as to mail me a cherry pie at college on the occasion of George Washington’s birthday.
Next month: Matzo ball soup. That’s easy.
Ruth Bass lives in Richmond. Her website is ruthbass.com.
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