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Salad Bowl or Melting Pot, regardless which expression conjures up images for you, the basis for both is alimental. Yes they refer to us, the citizens of this country, the settlers, the immigrants, the refugees and those born to them, the last five hundred or so years of assimilation and dissimilation. Comparing us to a Salad Bowl indicates that even as we are mixed, the individual ingredients are still identifiable, in other words in the same way you can pick out the onions or tomatoes in your salad, you can tell when you’re in Korea town, or in Little Italy even as they are both located in an American city.
A Melting Pot would be more appropriate in comparing a blending which is less distinguishable such as Rice-a-Roni, the combinations of rice and pasta introduced by an Armenian family, or a Hamburger or Hot Dog, brought to America by German immigrants and appropriated as American food.
Of course the blending refers to more than food but I leave that part for another story. Here I’m concerned with cultural identity.
What is the first thing that immigrants look for when coming to America? Food of course, but not just any food, the food of their homeland, the food that their mothers made, the tastes of home. This association makes us feel less foreign and more accepted. It’s the human need to belong. Food also makes us proud of our heritage. When a food we grew up with across the oceans makes its appearance in America, we feel a connection.
First sought after are the staples such as bread. When we first arrived in Dallas in 1965, the only breads available came in a plastic bag from the grocery store. While at first we were fascinated and intrigued, we quickly reverted to our desire for the freshly baked chewy and crusty bread of our past. Luckily we were not alone as many other immigrants had similar cravings. A few small bakeries appeared trying their hands at the art of bread baking. As demand grew fresh bread became available even in grocery stores While the best bread has only three ingredients: flour, water and salt, baking bread is one of the hardest processes to perfect. The variables are almost uncontrollable. The right oven temperature, the perfect blend and grind of flours, the humidity, the kneading and proofing are all steps where things could go wrong especially when baking in large batches. As many bakers who have tried can attest, baking bread is a trade, baking good bread is an art form. Although today bread is widely available, the art of baking has become illusive. To cover up for inadequacies bakeries have resorted to flavorings and additions. Cheese breads, olive breads, fruit and nut breads while all enticing and acceptable are far removed from the simplicity of the original. They have sadly become complete meals or desserts.

When a French style bakery entered the arena claiming that they imported an authentic brick oven and secret recipes we were very exited. While better than previous selections, it still did not live up to our expectations. Oh yes, expectation: that illusive something based in memory. That was the missing ingredient and one that could not be filled. No imported brick oven or secret recipe would live up to nostalgia. It was not only about the bread, but the aroma permeating the air as we approached the bakery, a shabby little hole in the wall where the baker and his wife had been up for hours lovingly practicing their art form, where you were recognized and greeted by name, where you didn’t have to point out that you preferred a darker loaf and where your business was appreciated. Immigrants trying to duplicate that feeling of home bring with them the foods of their ancestors and thus enrich our lives with the one connection we humans have to one another that causes minimal friction: food.

Bread

Bread (Photo credit: CeresB)friction: food.

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She’s turning ten this month, that’s seventy they say in dog years. She has visibly aged with white whiskers encircling her snout and brows. She moves slowly and has trouble with stairs. She doesn’t jump up on the bed or sofa willingly but somehow when she forgets and accidentally ends up there, she has trouble getting down. Her joints seem to creak and although she rarely speaks up, her eyes express kind acceptance.

Last night she gently scratched at the bedroom door as she had many times when insecurity overwhelmed her. Lightning lit the sky with the inevitable sound of distant thunder. I told her to settle down but I knew that she wouldn’t, not until I got up and joined her in the family room where she could keep an eye on me. The storm moved closer with increased violence and she brought her body next to mine deciding to sit on my feet. We both dosed in and out of consciousness, she with more assurance. It lasted about two hours this time. I quitely left her to return to my bed knowing she was aware of my every move. She didn’t protest. She knew that I would be back soon enough to perform the morning ritual of feeding, preparing, awakening.

I read all the warnings about a dog like this, about the inbred attachment issues, about the separation anxiety, about the long list of physical challenges, but who doesn’t have issues. Besides, we needed a dog to accompany us in the hill country, a guard dog of sorts, one that would warns us of approaching danger. She never became that dog. Scared of every noise and movement she reluctanly played her role as we slowly became dependent on each other, filling the void left when the kids went off to college, something that the couple of aloof cats we had could never do.

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Days turned into nights, months into years and here we are looking into each other’s eyes, knowingly, painfully aware that going back is not an option. Sometimes I can tell she can’t see me clearly. She waits for my voice and then heads in my direction, happy yet uncertain. I cook for her and bathe her weekly as she gratefully follows me around wherever I go, a habit I now take for granted.

On most days she still patrols our property mostly observing the boundary lines, occasionally zooming in on a rabbit or squirrel she knows she’ll never catch. She searches out the sun on the patio floor till overheated she hurries inside and plops down panting. Fear makes her bark at other humans warning them to stay away, assuring me that she’s on guard. Misunderstood she puts her head down and retreats, waiting for praise instead of admonishment. Lately she’s given up. Still bothered by the noise of the blower on mowing days, her barks are mostly for my benefit.

Many dogs and cats have enriched our lives over the years. As we spend this last chapter together, I realize that even as many times as I wished I could sleep later in the mornings, or be away more than a few hours a day, or be free to travel without worrying about boarding her, or be able to sit without being interrupted by constant demands for attention, Schnitzel has managed to warm her way into our hearts in a very special way.

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

English: Apicius, De Opsoniis et Condimentis (...

Recipe for (Rosh-Hashana) honey cake, out of a...

Title page of Pegge's 18th century edition of ...

Cookbooks or cookery books are so much more than collections of recipes. They are a mirror into peoples’ most intimate lives: the way they use food as nourishment of both body and soul. Cookbooks also reflect a society’s economic condition, its dietary restrictions governed by religion and even political and racial attitudes. For many women cookbooks served as a diary where favorite recipes were recorded next to the growth charts of children; where teardrops fell over personal losses; where simple additions reflected the meager balances in old tin cans; where prayers for better days competed with thanks for past rewards.

Crude recordings of recipes have been discovered in ancient caves and old egyptian and greek text. The personal nature of nourishment is also reflected through the ages in historical writings and in fiction. Ancient manuscripts and uncovered writings across the globe show that cookbooks were treasured by women and passed down lovingly to daughters. Inside the pages of these well worn diaries rested their secret hopes and expectations as well as their quiet rebellion.

In many of the handwritten cookbooks and later even the commercially published ones, recipes for food were complimented with recipes for medicinal cures and pomades. This was a natural compilations of products which shared the same source materials. Observations of the effects of certain herbs or roots on the body’s wellbeing led to the creation of special concoctions. Nourishing and healing went hand in hand and the most immediate remedies were found in the kitchen.

My most treasured cookbook belonged to my grandmother Dora. It is well worn with personal additions or comments covering every page. Written in Hungarian more than a century ago, it reflects the excesses of the Hapsburg kitchen. Most recipes are not practical for today’s fast paced life, nor would they please our palate, however the lists of required ingredients such as game, fattened geese and pigs, offer a peak into the economic status of the elite. These cookbooks were used to instruct the staff and rarely did my grandmother do more than taste and approve. Even as she liked being in the kitchen, it was to supervise and direct the chopping, peeling, boiling or frying of ingredients. In later years as times changed  she would become more hands on an when scarcity during the wars became an issue, her creativity is reflected in the substitution of ingredients penciled on the side of a recipe.

For me, reading old cookbooks serves as a journey into a not so distant past when women spent their lives in the kitchen, mostly out of necessity. I cook because we have to eat and it relaxes me, but I also do it as an act of homage to all those women who came before me. Today we argue about the insensitivity and discrimination that kept women at home and yes, I am a child of the sixties, a time of liberation, but I believe that the ability to create healthy home cooked meals is a great loss to our society. A family gathered around the table sharing in the fruit of their labor as well as in their daily intrepidations, is a happy family.

Quick Summer Veggies

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So many veggies, so little time!

Summer Zucchini Complete

Sauté an onion in a tbsp of oil till lightly golden. Add 5-6 sliced zucchini and a crushed garlic clove and cook for 3 minutes. Pour in a can of diced tomatoes and a can of drained chickpeas, season with salt and pepper and a tsp of cumin. Lower hear and simmer for 10 minutes. Add a cup of sliced mushrooms and a half cup of chopped cilantro and cook five more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with rice or noodles.

New Potato Salad

Boil 8-10 small red potatoes I their skins till done, drain, cool and slice. Dressing: 1 cup vinegar, 1 Tbsp agave nectar, 2 cloves crushed garlic, 3 Tbsp chopped dill, salt and pepper to taste. Pour over potatoes and toss gently. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Toast 1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds and sprinkle on potatoes before serving.

Fast Layered Dip

Open a can of vegan refried beans and press them on the bottom of a small dish. Add a layer of smashed avocados, then a layer of your favorite salsa. Repeat and top with chopped onions, toasted sunflower seeds and cilantro. Spread on soft tortillas or eat with chips.

Pasta Salad In a Hurry

Pour boiling water over asian rice noodles, let stand for 5 minutes, drain and place in a large bowl. Add chopped lettuce, chopped cilantro, chopped scallions, 1/2 cup rice vinegar, 1/4 cup sesame oil,  1 tsp grated ginger, 1 clove crushed garlic, 1 tsp agave nectar, salt and pepper to taste. Toss well and top with 3-4 spoons of sesame seeds.  

  

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

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I don’t remember seeing any cookbooks in our house when I was growing up in Transylvania. Meals were assembled based on loosely memorized recipes adapted to the seasonal availability of product or traditional dishes we had enjoyed. Our kitchen was the center of activity where meal preparation took time and given the rudimentary appliances and tools, hard labor. We lived in perfect four seasons and the summer bounty had to be quickly eaten while the excess needed to be preserved. A large pantry held jarred tomatoes and peppers of every color, stuffed vegetables,red and green cabbage, beets and turnips along with pickles of every size. Jams and preserves had their special corner. Berries, stone fruit, rose petals, green walnuts and quince sat next to jars of peaches, apricots and my favorite, sour cherry. Onions and potatoes, staples of any Hungarian kitchen, were stored in the cellar, while sweet red peppers strung with straw were hanging everywhere. Pounded in a mortar they would become the indispensable Paprika of every dish. Aromas of all kinds filled the air as large pots simmered on the tiny stove.

While our backyard garden provided some produce and fruit, a weekly trip to the local farmer’s market was essential. I loved going, not so much for the food as for the colorful ribbons that the traveling Gypsy vendors sold along with trinkets I was not allowed to have. The bustling farmer’s market brought together local vendors as it had for thousands of years regardless of political border shifting.

Most summers though, my brother and I would get shipped off to my maternal grandparents’ house where the same ritual of food preparation took place. I remember a much larger garden and farmer’s market along with more freedom to explore. It is there that I dug for my first pink new potato, tasted tomatoes and sweet peas right off the vine and picked wild raspberries. It is also where I handed a Gypsy girl about my age a few coins for a handful of ribbons in a decorated wooden box.

A typical light summer meal would include a cold soup, perhaps cherry or potato, fresh bread spread with goat cheese and sprinkled with paprika and caraway seeds, sliced red radishes, scallions and mineral water.

In search of vegan offerings…

The best place for vegan fare is my own kitchen where I can control the ingredients. However, a girl’s got to go out with friends and Hubby on occasion and that’s where things get a little tricky in the Dallas area. Of course I can always eat a salad or have a veggie or pasta dish but it’s not the same as when vegan fare is at the heart of the menu. The fact that I don’t like imitations also limits my choices since many restaurants pride themselves in offering fake seafood, fake meats and other look-alikes. Overall I’ve had the best luck dining at Asian, Indian or Middle-Eastern places. You do have to be careful though and remember that the wait-staff is not very knowledgeable even when they try to be. I had a waiter tell me once that I can have tofu in my soup but not realize that the broth was made with chicken stock or not know that rice and noodles were being cooked with chicken or beef base. Gelatin is also a widely used thickening agent as are yogurt and cheese.

At most Asian restaurants a nice selection of stir fried veggies with steamed brown rice is a safe bet. I also like to substitute rice noodles or add tofu. Thai recipes use eggs extensively so if you like Pad-Thai make sure they’re omitted, also Coconut Lemongrass Soup (Tom Kha Gai) is made with chicken stock.

A couple of Sundays ago, TJ and I had the best Veggie Burgers and fries at a new place that opened in our neighborhood. I realized later that the nice mesquite flavor was probably due to the use of the same grill on which meats were prepared.

The worst places for finding something vegan are Dallas’ Mexican restaurants. Even if you opt for beans and rice, you cannot be sure that lard was not used in their preparation. Also, chips may seem vegan but again, it depends on what they were fried in. Then there’s the cheese: it’s added to everything even when not visible.

Vegan Caesar Salad with Garlic Toast

Place washed and drained romaine in a large bowl. Chop 2-3 garlic cloves and whisk with 1 tsp Dijon mustard, 1/2 tsp salt and pepper, the juice of one lemon, an 1/2 cup of olive oil. Place 4 slices of good Italian bread on a cookie sheet and brush with olive oil, smashed garlic and chopped parsley. Sprinkle toasts with Hemp Hearts, shelled hemp seed (my Parmesan Substitute) and bake at 400 till golden. Toss salad with dressing and use Hemp Hearts again liberally. This is a great way to add texture and protein. *If you miss the taste of anchovies, you may add a tsp of dried sea weed flakes to the dressing. Enjoy!

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Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

ImageDallas in the sixties became the incubator for my ideas, the place where in my teenage years I chose the roads that led to who I am today. In the late nineteen sixties, while the rest of the country was churning with activism, Dallas was still the place where teenagers walked after school to the neighborhood drugstore’s soda fountain and where hippies, drugs and civil rights were not talked about in respectable company. At least that was the view from my little corner of the world and most likely not supported by facts.

In reality, I was too busy becoming American and that took a lot of work. The shock of abundance in every aspect of life coupled with unfamiliar customs consumed all my waking hours. How could I make sense of smiling faces which greeted me with apparent enthusiasm only to whisper as I looked away. Girls and boys gathered on street corners dressed in matching outfits, giggling at what exactly. Perfect hair and nails and diction unmistakably screamed success.

Grocery stores were stocked with unfamiliar products I just had to try: bread that came out of a plastic bag, TV dinners that only needed heating, canned veggies and meats and of course Dr. Pepper, every Dallas teenager’s drink of choice. Oh and hamburgers, this strange concoction on a bun replacing the sit down meal with portable convenience. Convenience was the buzz word of the sixties as marketeers lashed on to changing demographics and prescribed suitable solutions to the masses who were needed in the workforce and not around a dinner table.

I was fascinated with all of it. I participated like a wide eyed puppy and couldn’t get enough. I ate the burgers and the fries, and the white bread with bologna, and the tuna salad with lots of mayo, and the turkey and dressing with instant mashed potatoes, and washed it all down with Dr. Pepper. And then I discovered the biggest trick played on us, the one dubbed ‘just add eggs and water’ mystery in a box, the instant cake and its cousins the puddings. I consumed with fervor because I was told to. Every billboard, every TV commercial, every magazine touted their benefits and I had to participate to be truly American. Besides, there was no alternative. My parents were just as busy trying to fit in and had no time for old country traditions. The few times that they craved a memory, it was not available anyway or it required extensive searching and funds. We succumbed, we accepted, we assimilated, we were good, clean members of society on our way to serve and we made sure we lit our cigarettes after every meal for that special finale.

But then something happened. As my gluttony was adding to my waistline and all other lines, I noticed that the girls at school were giving me dirty looks and whispering more than usual. And while they were staring I also noticed that they were thin, very thin. How was that possible? Didn’t they consume the same diet as me? Didn’t they go home and have a TV dinner while watching “A Life to Live’ and a big slice of chocolate cake? Didn’t they spend afternoons at Big Bob’s eating hamburgers and drinking Dr Pepper?

Luckily I had a friend, another member of the outcasts who made it all clear: they were dieting! Dieting, a reaction to following the recommended regimen of high calorie  foods and the birth of another industry. So what were they eating I asked. Mostly nothing. Just drinking sodas, chewing gum and smoking cigarettes. This was a huge revelation. It not only challenged my faith in the American way of life but also led me to my first diet. I was going to show those girls that I could be just like them: malnourished yet smiling.

It didn’t last of course, it couldn’t. After several episodes of gaining and losing, I was led back to eating like in the old country. My parents who became alarmed at my behavior and who became less accepting of new ways, hired a cook to prepare meals from ‘scratch’. Being the first one home after school, I would sit at the kitchen table and watch how Doris transformed raw ingredients into delectable meals. Over time, she allowed me to help her chop and sauté and since I was a quick learner, she would explain the history behind the dishes she prepared and also the chemistry involved in using just the right amounts when measuring. As I learned more, I developed a love for the craft and art of cooking and became more involved in nutrition. When Doris left, I was able to prepare a balanced meal that was not out of a box.

Grandma Dora’s Layered Cabbage (Kolozsvari rakott kaposzta)

Squeeze about 2 lbs. of sauerkraut well. Add a cup of water and cook for 10 min. Meanwhile, cook about 1/2 cup of rice and set aside. Fry a large chopped onion in 1 tbsp of lard, add about a lb of ground pork and cook for ten minutes stiring often. Add 1 tbsp good Hungarian paprika and 2 cloves of crushed garlic and set aside. Chop 3-4 pieces of bacon and fry a few minutes then add 1/2 lb of sliced smoked hungarian sausage and stir. Assemble in a large casserole: Pour fat from bacon and sausage on the bottom, add about a third of the sauerkraut, half of the cooked pork, half of the rice and all the bacon and sausage. Stir a quarter cup of milk with one cup of sour cream and pour half over mixture. Repeat steps and bake uncovered at 375 for about an hour.

I have never made this recipe which I found in my grandma’s papers, but I enjoyed it as a child. Grandma Dora lived to be 98 and never dieted. She came to the US in the early seventies to join her children. After teaching herself English, Dora became an American citizen at a special ceremony at the UN, something she was very proud of.

*vegan version: substitute oil for the lard and a mushroom medley for the meat, bacon and sausage. Add a cup of cooked beans and use coconut milk instead of the dairy.