Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Praise of Peaches

A Food Rhapsody, With Some Modest Reflections on the Culinary History of the United States (of Moose and Goose)

Prelude: This post follows up in some ways on our review the other day of the new Nora Ephron film, Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and based on Julia Child's memoir of her years in France and Julie Powell's memoir (which has the same name as the film) about cooking and blogging her way through all 524 recipes of Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (That post, by the way, has brought more than 700 readers to Roxie's World in the past two days, smashing all previous traffic records to smithereens. Thanks for visiting, everybody, and thanks again to Shakesville for putting us in a "Blogaround.") The post also cogitates on issues raised in two wonderful posts and discussion threads over at the always fascinating Historiann. In advance of the release of Julie & Julia, Historiann took issue with a history of American cuisine that sees everything as before and after Julia, perhaps giving too much credit to Child for transforming American taste and foodways. The posts are here and here. Go read them. Food will never look the same once you've seen how Historiann and her history geek squad look at it.

(Photo Credit: Picked up here.)

Do I dare to eat a peach? Why, yes, I do -- Well, or, the moms do. Many, in fact, over the course of the long, bounteous, stay-at-home-to-save-money-and-see-if-the-dog-is-going-to-die summer of 2009. Moose returns from the farmer's market every Sunday loaded down with the most luscious yellow red orbs of glory on dog's earth, and she has spent much of the summer trying to make sure that all of one week's peaches get eaten before the next week's supply arrives. And so the moms have had peaches on breakfast cereal, peaches with ice cream, cute little donut peaches with truffles, peaches with nothing at all, and finally -- inevitably, and accompanied by vocalizations that recall Meg Ryan's famous scene in When Harry Met Sally -- peach cobbler, made from the recipe in The Silver Palate Cookbook.

The Silver Palate, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, came out in 1982. The moms think of it (and, to a lesser extent, its sequel, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, published in 1985) as having taught them how English profs and other cool cultural types ought to cook and live. They got together in 1984, and The Silver Palate was an essential part of their transition from starving grad students who had grown up in the provinces to the high falutin' Eastern sophisticates they are today. (I am certain that those who know the moms in the real world will rush to verify the truth of that statement in comments. Right? Hell0000000? Anybody there?) The moms had separately learned to be perfectly respectable cooks in the course of their Texas (Goose) and Indiana (Moose) girlhoods. Goose had earned her stripes as a saucier by making a flawless white sauce in a home economics class she was forced to take at a religious college she was forced briefly to attend. Moose had discovered her knack for culinary resourcefulness when she cooked her first Thanksgiving dinner in a basement apartment so small and dark she could barely see the cans of sweet potatoes her mother had mailed to her (which was just one of the reasons she didn't end up serving them).

Interestingly, neither of the moms can credit Julia Child for much of their early culinary education, though Goose recalls watching repeats of The French Chef late at night in her early years of grad school. Irma and Marion Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking was the Bible of the mother of the Goosians, while Moose's childhood kitchen relied on the red-and-white checked Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Both households also had an assortment of local cookbooks, mostly published by churches or women's civic organizations. The moms' cookbook collection still contains volumes produced by the junior leagues of Houston and San Angelo, Texas and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Indeed, when Moose feels like shocking snooty friends, she'll whip up a batch of spinach balls from the I've Got a Cook in Kalamazoo cookbook, and wait until the guests are oohing and aahing over them to reveal the source of the recipe. Their stories underscore a point made in Historiann's discussions on the topic of Child's influence over American cooks -- i.e., that it was inflected by both class and geography. The San Angelo junior league's cookbook opens with a preface noting that "On a cattle drive . . . the most important person in the world to the average cowboy was the cook." You get the impression the cowboy wasn't looking to tuck into a Boeuf à la Bourguignonne at the end of a long day on the range, and the junior league's collection of recipes reflected that regional history.

In any case, if the moms were decent cooks by the mid-80s, The Silver Palate helped to make them more adventurous and ambitious ones. They still recall the Thanksgiving of 1987, when the parents of the Moosians and the Goosians were brought together for the first (and, as it turned out, the only) time -- and were treated to a menu that included purées of broccoli and sweet potatoes with carrots instead of the usual side dishes. Moose thinks of this as the Crème Fraiche stage of her life as a cook, which didn't last long, but she still consults The Silver Palate every year for holiday menu ideas and still relies on a variation of its recipe for roasted turkey. There are a few other recipes that have become household staples, including "Our Favorite Vinaigrette" and a rich green lasagna that is the most delectable argument for vegetarianism we have ever eaten. But still, the recipe that takes us back to The Silver Palate season after season, the page we lovingly marked with a torn-out recipe for a lemon tart we never got around to making, the reason, we are sure, that God invented peaches, is the recipe for peach cobbler that appears on p. 308.

Here is the recipe:

Peach Cobbler

From The Silver Palate Cookbook (parenthetical remarks by Moose)

4 cups peeled and sliced ripe peaches (we always use more than that)
2/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (crucial -- don't leave it out)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (Moose boosts it to 1/2 t., at least)
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk

For a decadent topping:
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
3-4 tablespoons peach brandy or peach cordial

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 2-quart baking dish.

2. Arrange peaches in baking dish. Sprinkle with 2/3 cup sugar, the lemon zest and juice, and almond extract.

3. Bake for 20 minutes.

4. While peaches are baking, sift flour, 1 tablespoon of the remaining sugar, the baking powder, and salt together into a bowl. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles cornmeal. Combine beaten egg and milk and mix into dry ingredients until just combined.

5. Remove peaches from oven and quickly drop dough by large spoonfuls over surface. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Return to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until top is firm and golden brown.

6. Whip cream to soft peaks. Flavor with peach brandy to taste.

7. Serve cobbler warm, accompanied by whipped cream.

The photo below shows Moose's most recent iteration of this perfect recipe, which she has dared to tamper with by adding a few blackberries. (Moose has gone rogue as a cook this summer, after decades of slavish fidelity to recipes. We don't know how to explain this shocking transformation, but so far the results have been delicious.) Voila le cobbler:

(Cooked, styled, and photographed by Moose. Hell, she even bought the peaches.)

Go. Make. Eat. Have your own food-induced orgasm. Then come back here and tell us stories about your culinary education. We'd be especially interested to hear from some kids who actually did have East Coast upbringings. Was Julia Child a big influence on the cooking done in your home? Also, for our pretty boys who are such excellent cooks: We are fully aware of how gendered the whole business of a culinary education is. Learning to cook was a huge part of growing up female for the women of Moose and Goose's generation. We'd love to hear when and how men obtained such knowledge and how they experienced it as a part of growing up (queer?). So go eat and then get back to us, you hungry hounds. Bone Appétit encore, mes amis!


  1. Hey Rox,

    Goose here, and my mouth has been watering as I read this post. That white sauce was not the only thing that saved my grade in that damned home ec (ick -- sorry folks, but that's the way it felt at the time) class. Besides the bechamel, I made a perfect asparagus soufflé, the only one in the class not to fall perfectly flat. And that Junior League cookbook? It's got a dee-lectable jalpeno cheese grit breakfast casserole. How can one go wrong with that? And Julia Child? I loved to read Mastering the Art of French Cooking in grad school and would try my hand at a few dishes, but mostly I watched her show and chowed down on my friend Robin's delicious meals, all prepared via Julia's directions. My Mom cooked out of the Joy of Cooking, but really the only thing she taught me to do directly was fry chicken, paper bag of flour with salt and pepper and secret seasoning and all. And Antonia taught me to make guacamole. I think we should start reading Julia aloud in the evenings, as we slip a lovely French something or other.

    Mmm mmm. . . .

    love from your

  2. Love the cooking post here. And the cobbler sounds great.

    On the cookbook front, I still have Joy of Cooking AND BH&G red & white cookbook on my shelf--both of which I've dragged across the country in various moves since receiving them as gifts from my mother (and I sometimes even consult them). My mother still regularly gives me little spiral bound cookbooks compiled by some church auxiliary group or local women's group to sell as fundraisers. Casseroles are a big thing in these cookbooks.

    I enjoyed the Historiann posts as well--thanks for linking to that. My grandmother just passed away this year. Betty & I went home to visit my family several years ago, and we ended up sharing a guest room with my grandmother. We stayed up late into the night talking about her life in central Indiana during the Depression--much of the conversation centered on what they ate--what they grew in the garden, where the berries and persimmons grew on their farm, what they were able to hunt. And she told us how to make fried pies. Not that I've ever tried--but I treasure the memory of hearing the instructions.

  3. Omigod. Please tell me there's some cobbler left for Kristin and me! ;)

  4. Geoffrey, dear, that cobbler would be moldy by Saturday, even if we could restrain ourselves from polishing it off. Which, of course, we cannot.

    Kelly: PERSIMMONS! Persimmons were an important part of Moose's Indiana childhood -- they grew on trees in her neighborhood -- and she's never heard anyone talk about them in any context other than Indiana. Her mom used to make persimmon cookies and bread. No fried pies, though -- You gotta promise to pass a recipe for that along at some point.

    One of Moose's most cherished possessions are the recipes written out on index cards she got from her grandmother Jane. What happens to that culinary history -- so ephemeral, so hard to document, yet so lovingly passed down from generation to generation? A party ain't a party at our house unless it includes a batch of Janie's cheesed olives, made from that food-stained index card we've held onto for so many years!

  5. ML--Did you have one of those big perforated aluminum cones with a wooden stick in it that you used to press the persimmon fruits? My family made persimmon pudding--an oddly textured, half-cake/half-pudding concoction that we served cold with ice cream or whipped cream. There's nothing else that tastes quite like a persimmon.

    And some distant relative would bring vinegar pie to the big family reunion each summer. Sort of like a lemon pie but, you know,, made with vinegar . . . .

  6. Moose does not recall a perforated aluminum cone with a wooden stick used for persimmon-pressing, but she may need to consult the not entirely reliable memory of the mother of the Moosians on this point. They did have a taste like nothing else -- sweet but kind of . . . muddy?

    No vinegar pies at Moosian family gatherings, but I bet her girlhood pal Melanie had 'em. They were Hoosier farm folk from way back.

  7. My mother was a great and adventurous cook, who taught us to love fresh vegetables, esp. artichokes, and wonderful fish, esp. salmon, and who learned to cook in every cuisine we encountered (Japanese, Turkish, Thai among them). So, eating her food was a great culinary education. She had the Larousse Gastronomique as well as a war time edition of the Joy of Cooking and many community cookbooks by other military folk.

    However, with such a fabulous cook mother and sometimes living in places with servants who did the cooking, I didn't learn until I was away from home. My first cookbooks were all hippie veggie ones: The Whole Earth Cookbook and The Tasajara Cookbook were my bibles for many years.

    Then I went through a macrobiotic period which gave me a great passion for food in its simplest forms, its most pared down self, and to make the aesthetics of balance, color, and state the great elegance of eating.

    I also learned to bake bread with the greatest hippie cookbooks of all time: Laurel's Kitchen and The Bread Book and Laurel's Kitchen Caring.

    Then I began to love cookbooks themselves: their pictures, their commentary, their flights of fancy, their culinary adventures, their cultural range. My mother introduced me to Sunset Magazine and all its cookbooks, but I discovered for myself the great cookbook writers: Claudia Roden, my favorite, Deborah Madison, Madhur Jaffrey, Yamuna Devi, Alice Waters and Marcella Hazan. And then the great cooking theorists or memoirist, among them I class Julia Child and Simon Beck, and of course, M. K. Fisher, not to mention, MFK Fisher's Translation of Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste.

    I learned from my first hippie cookbooks never to follow the recipe, but always to learn the meaning of the combinations, sometimes their science, sometimes their philosophy, sometimes their history, sometimes their personality first and foremost.

    "Food is our common property, the body of the world, our eating of the world, our treasure of change and transformation, sustenance and continuation...the unfathomable effort of all beings who have brought us this time to eat from most ancient times, from every world, past and present.... It is our absorption of the suffering of the plants and creatures eaten, or displaced or killed by clearing and harvesting. It is cooking and eating, preparation and cleaning, planting and sewage, exchanging and transporting...."

    This has graced every kitchen I have cooked in since 1975....

  8. Not two days ago I was trying to buy me a new
    "chino"! -got the research in English, you so-called cooks; the mysterious perforated cone tool it's the Chinois Strainer... run and buy yourself one, if you want to experience the most fine sauces and purees! http://www.creativecookware.com/chinios_strainers.htm

    Won't get long into cooking... still feel strained from my dissertation and I could go much, much longer writing about cooking/alchemy. Just lemme mention two cookbook pearls "La Enciclopedia Culinaria de la Marquesa de Parabere" (1933) -just by knowing this one I got the rave admiration of a prof cook who granted me access to his unlimited cooking tricks and recipes never shared with his family! We are talking wisdom from a monastery kitchen...

    The other more contemporary would be "1080 Recetas de Cocina" by Simone Ortega (1972) -in my own brother's words "you cannot fail if you follow her exact directions". That was the only cookbook that came to the States in my suitcase! Just as a home reminder...

    With these basic lib I'd say you would be well prepared to deal with a stove (even coal or stone!), tools, procedures, and ingredients with knowledge and success for traditional Spaniard and some ole European dishes. Creativity at your own risk.

    In peaches terms, you have tasted nothing until you try the vineyard peaches (from La Rioja, or Aragon) of very yellow compact meat with pinkish velvety skin, which are such wasp/bird favorite that growers cover each one with a paper bag while they are still attached to the trees to protect them from bites; the locals have a curious way to serve it in big chunks swimming in cold red wine... Oh la la... It would be the closest to chewing sangria.

    Cousin Tona sends much snoring love, siestas are her strongest ability in this kitchen.

  9. Definitely our most mouth-watering comment thread ever -- and how wonderful to hear from my Aunt Isa so far away in Spain and Aunt Katie, whose cosmopolitan upbringing has helped to produce one of the finest cooks we know. Katie, where does that marvelous quotation on food as our common property come from? We can't place it.

    And we've yet to hear from anyone who grew up eating and cooking Julia Child. (Pardon the cannibal metaphor. I trust you all know what I mean.) It would appear that Roxie's World is deficient in children of the Eastern establishment. Fancy that! (Belch.)

  10. June Star9:56 AM EDT

    I grew up with Better Homes and Gardens and still have a copy. There's a nice meatball recipe--filled under Spaghetti and Meatballs--that I regularly make. I moved on to Joy of Cooking when I married the first time and was living in Chicago and going to college. I got the Silver Palate books in grad school as Moose and Goose did. The vinaigrette you mentioned, a recipe for Sweetmeat pecan bars, fruit-stuffed pork, and, to my mind, the best Caesar salad ever still regularly make it to my table.

    I remember buying these books for my mother to her great delight. When she visited me in New Jersey during grad school, the Silver Palate store was the one stop we HAD to make on our day in NYC.

    During that time, my mother also collected recipes from our family on both sides and created a family cookbook. It's entirely hand-written with different contributors' recipes photocopied on different colored paper. Ever organized, my mother created an index to boot.

    I make recipes from a wide variety of cookbooks--by revered professionals (Hazan, Pepin) and lots of hometown cookbooks. The cobbler recipe I most frequently make is from Tea Time at the Master's. (Easy Peach Cobbler is just what it claims and it never fails to please.) I cook recipes from the backs of the packages and have really come to admire Pam Anderson (no, not that one), whose columns appear in my Sunday newspaper magazine supplement. Her CookSmart recipes are great. Just google "Broiled Chicken Breasts with Lime-Chutney Glaze and Broccoli Slaw." You won't be disappointed.

    Finally, three of my own recipes (for pesto, tavern chili, and chicken with peanuts) appeared a couple of years ago in a cookbook produced by my sons' elementary school. I occasionally run into folks who tell me they've made them. I love that.

    And as for you, Moose and Goose, and your hifalutin Eastern ways--well, many evenings spent over Progresso Clam Dip, Rotel tomatoes and Velveeta, and a party or two that featured Goose's infamous Coke Jello mold suggest palates unconstrained by class.

    Sometimes you want a nice asparagus gratin, after all, and sometimes french fries and gravy really hit the spot.:)

  11. Dudley's human9:59 AM EDT

    Alas, I am a completely inept cook. I don't enjoy it, and I don't do it well. There are a couple of exceptions--recipes from the Old Country (Hungary), although to call them "recipes" suggests a written tradition that doesn't exist in our family in connection with these dishes. However, the one thing that has saved me when I have company is a delightful book called Enjoying the Art of Canadian Cooking by Mme. Jehane Benoit. The book is full of recipes that seem to be largely country French Canadian, and all are unique and interesting--and, strangely for me, I can't seem to ruin them.

    About that Christian college Moose went to (an inveterate link-follower am I): Wikipedia says the condition on the below-market purchase of the land by the college was that it be named after the original owner, Childers. It took them a mere 14 years to break their word.

  12. Dudley's Human: I wanted to make a joke about "the art of Canadian cooking" being an oxymoron, but my typist won't let me, on account of she lived in Canada for two years and can vouch for the deliciousness of country French Canadian cooking. Best darn sauteed squirrels she ever had. ;-) Oh, minor but important factual correction: GOOSE attended the Christian college (two, actually, before her checkered undergrad career was over), not Moose. Moose always attended godless public institutions, lucky girl.

    June Star: Busted. You know us long and well enough to let everyone know that the Clam Dip and Velveeta Era preceded the Crème Fraiche Stage of dining in Roxie's World. It was kind of you not to add that the Hefty Bag Era also preceded the London Fog Period when it came to protection from the elements. ;-) Love your narrative of how you developed your prodigious skill and eclectic taste in the kitchen, especially the story of your mom's family cookbook. As we were working on this post yesterday, Moose gave her mom a call to verify some of her recollections, and the Mother of the Moosians called back a few minutes later to say that she had unearthed her own mother's collection of recipes. She called back again to say that she had found a family food memoir she herself started writing in the 80s. It is called Mom's Apple Pie, because that's what she was famous for making in our family.

    Oh, Moose also bought her a copy of The Silver Palate, which she also loved.

    Finally, let the record show that we have another great chef who learned to cook from Better Homes and Gardens. Still no children of Child in Roxie's World!

  13. Candy Man1:06 PM EDT

    First, let me testify to the gloriousness of Moose's Peach Cobbler. It is everything -- and more -- that she suggests here.

    My own culinary adventures started in college, with a good friend who knew a lot more than I did and was happy to teach me (because I let him use my kitchen!). Deborah Madison taught me most of what I know about vegetables -- and also some basics, like homemade pasta and all sorts of bread. But the swankier, foodie side didn't start emerging until I followed a series of recipes Charlie Trotter published in the NY Times (sometime in the late-90s). Mushroom and pear soup with cumin oil... white chocolate bread pudding.... I remember making those recipes for the first time, and realizing a bit of what else might lay ahead.

    I hear the cooking up in Canada is pretty good these days, by the way. Perhaps I'll report back on that next week.

  14. Anonymous1:13 PM EDT

    Ok. My mom just finished lunch, and now she's hungry all over again. Her mouth is watering imagining how Moose's peach cobbler might taste.

    Too, my mom wants to give Goose credit for all the compliments she gets on her guacamole.

    My mom is a big fan of The Settlement Cookbook although she does have a copy of The Joy of Cooking up on the shelf and lately, she's been experimenting with variations on recipes by Nigella Lawson.

    Much love,

  15. June Star3:16 PM EDT

    Okay, when I read through this post the first time, I skipped the recipe. I just went back and read it and will be making it very soon. Easy Peach Cobbler be damned for once.

    I also wanted to note that it was studying for my Ph.D. oral exams that really turned me into a cook. Reading all day every day for months in anticipation of a single two-hour exam really made me anxious to do something that had more day-to-day tangible results. Cooking fit the bill. It was during this period, indeed, that I was making my own mayonaise. Now, granted, making mayonaise isn't difficult, but who makes mayonaise? Someone anticipating answering questions on Melville's _Pierre_, that's who.

    And for the sake of accuracy: It's Ro*Tel Tomatoes and Tea-Time at the Masters. I also became a copyeditor in graduate school.

    Good times.

  16. With you on the hunger pangs, sds, and we definitely do not want to give Goose short shrift in this culinary conversation. She does most of the day-to-day cooking in our household and is skilled in the art of whipping up something wonderful out of not much of anything. She also understand the chemistry of cooking much better than Moose does (which is why she is such a great saucier) and has the patience to let the food cook at just the right pace. Moose? Not so much. She'll rush if she can.

    Candy Man, it should be illegal for you to mention your mushroom and pear soup with cumin oil during business hours. My typist has gone all weak at the thought of it. Still, as the youngest to weigh in here and the only boy, you need to tell us more about what cooking and eating were like in your house growing up and what kind of messages you recall getting around gender and cooking. Get back to us, 'kay?

    Finally, June Star, I think you might have hit on a way to save academic publishing. Perhaps the MLA should put together a cookbook of recipes people learned to make while studying for their PhD qualifying exams. I'm going to go take a nice long nap and try to come with a clever title for it. Tea-Time at the PhD Level doesn't sound like a big seller, does it? I'll try again.

  17. That cobbler looks lovely! If the nectarines are still good this weekend, I’ll set some aside to make a batch.

    My first cooking influence was my babysitter (a retiree who was our stand-in grandma, since ours lived far away). When I stayed with her, she involved me in meal planning and prep. (“We’re going to make a casserole. What kind of meat should we use? Noodles, rice, or potatoes? Any cheese? What vegetable should we add? What kind of soup should we bind it with?”) Occasionally, we’d cook together from UNICEF’s book Many Friends Cooking, which my grandparents had sent me.

    I loved visiting her and getting some say in what we’d eat— my dad, the primary cook in my family, was a bit of a control freak and firmly believed we kids would ruin his kitchen if we went into the fridge or turned on a burner.

    I didn’t get into the kitchen myself until right before college. My parents went on vacation and stocked the freezer with a month’s worth of microwaveable entrees, which I left in the freezer. I started cooking out of my parents’ Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, then quickly decided I didn’t like cooking or eating meat. So I picked up the Tassajara cookbooks, Laurel’s Kitchen, and a Moosewood cookbook from the library. I copied interesting recipes from the newspaper. If something didn’t turn out, the dog obligingly helped me clean it up. By the end of summer, I had a repertoire of tasty vegetarian dishes and an ongoing interest in discovering more. What’s more, I felt a little more self-sufficient.

    Add me to the list of people who find cooking a (relatively) instant source of gratification. Unlike my other work (teaching, writing), I can tell right away whether something needs to be done differently to make this food tastier, and usually can pinpoint what that something is.

  18. Score another one for the BH&G Cookbook, even if you quickly abandoned it, Rachel B. Moosewood was the universal cookbook of grad school in the 80s, so the moms were quite devoted to it, though they were never pure vegetarians. Indeed, I'm not sure they've ever been pure anything!

    I like the way your culinary narrative connects with issues of independence and self-sufficiency as well as pleasure. And casseroles. We love us some casseroles when we're in a comfort food frame of mind.

  19. Candy Man11:36 PM EDT

    Your wish is my command, Roxie --

    Looking back at my childhood, I don't remember cooking being an explicitly gendered activity. I have a clear memory of my mother's dad cooking home-made rollatini for the extended family, and my own father would on occasion make a tomato sauce -- and every year at the holidays he'd put together an enormous antipasto.

    But day to day it *was* my mom in the kitchen, making fairly basic but always satisfying meals. She didn't teach me how to cook -- at all. And yet I think watching her for all those years must have had an effect on me. I associate cooking for others with a kind of lovingness, and I know I learned that at home, from my mother.

  20. Sorry Rox that I forgot the cite the quotation -- it's from the Introduction to Edward Espe Brown's Tassajara Cooking, Shambala 1973.

    It is nice, isn't it. (smiles)


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