Forrest Oliphant

John Neil's food essays

2008-03-09

I found this on the laptop that I loaned him last year. I hope you enjoy them...

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Birthday Cakes

One of the few things that every human born has in common is the day that they came into this world: their birthday. Most of see our birthdays as rather momentous occasions, all things considered. Scientists get all excited about the Big Bang and other such theories, but most likely even those same scientists have a little voice inside trying to tell them what all the rest of us know instinctively. That is, the Universe really began when we ourselves came into it.

Little wonder, then, that almost every culture that keeps track of how many days it takes for the seasons to cycle around once also keep track of the days that people began their journeys through the seasons, and little wonder also that these days are celebrated. In the Western world, the most common symbol of these celebrations is a special dessert bedecked with candles: The Birthday Cake.

In our modern world with its constant demands on our time and resources, few of us have the time to devote to what seems such a banal little gesture and all too often the birthday cake is relegated to the bakery at the local chain-store supermarket. These bakeries crank out hundreds of identical slabs of white cake or something that true chocolate enthusiasts cringe every time these dry brown rectangles are referred to as "chocolate" cakes, which are then smothered in a blend of sugar and shortening that could almost pose as true "icing on the cake," at least until someone tastes it. Then, with perhaps the application of a superhero, cartoon character, or animal of choice, these cloyingly sweet confections are carted off to be the perfect-looking centerpiece of some child's special day. This routine has become so common that no-one seems to notice that these cakes are nearly inedible except to those whose tastebuds only register flavors somewhere on the Richter scale.

Thus, once a person has reached the age where the candy at the checkout counter represents cavities and headaches rather than a wond'rous horde of glittering delight, the birthday cake is largely shunned and forgotten, along with the birthday that no longer is "my special day" but a reminder of one's rapidly fleeing youth.

This is not the way it has to be. A carefully chosen birthday cake that reflects the honoree's true desires and personal tastes can be lovingly handmade with the special person always in mind and perhaps without the traditional but sometimes depressing multitude of candles which drip hot wax on both the cake and the honoree's mood. A cake like this can be a rejuvenation, a reinvigoration, a reminder that as every year in a person's life passes by, they grow more dear and more beloved to those around them. In truth, making a specific kind of cake that we have grown accustomed to and which we tend to believe "suits the occasion" is often not nearly as significant as choosing any type of dessert, as long as it is special to the birthday girl or boy, and perhaps adorning it with one or two candles to represent the occasion and retain that sense of ceremony so important to the occasion. My third birthday cake, incidently, was adorned by my doting but perhaps slightly over protective mother with, instead of flaming candles, a few cocktail shrimp. If you doubt this, I have a picture to prove it.

That being said, here are several recipes for possible birthday desserts, some more traditional than others, but all with the potential to get the most important message across:

"On this day some years ago, you came into this world. We're all glad that you're here with us, and we hope to celebrate this day for many years to come."

Blackberries

There aren't many foods out there that have such a strong allure for me as the Blackberry. When I was very young, we lived in tiny town in a house with a humongous back yard. God and Nature had ruled much of this back yard for many years, but they had not reckoned on such a powerful force coming through and conquering this territory in the name of order. This powerful force was my Mother, a gardener of such passion and knowledge that she took the land and its desire to grow and turned it very gently but firmly into a burgeoning wealth of produce. However, no matter how strong her desire to improve and enlarge her garden there was one area she never even considered clearing to be plowed. This was the blackberry bramble.

In winter when the foliage had long since withered and disappeared, this was a place of bleak beauty, of stark, thorny, curving tendrils that wove together to form an impenetrable mass so barren of worth there was no reason to brave the scratches and scrapes one would inevitably amass by struggling through the pointed plants.

In spring, however, Mom always sent Dad out with a machete or a swingblade to chop trails through the vines and brambles. Still, there was nothing to be gained from this imposing and difficult patch of thorns, but these trails always proved invaluable come...

Late summer. The cycle of seasons had turned, the spring foliage had done its job, and now, in the heat of the dog days, these once stark and barren bushes showed their most definate worth by producing, with every bursting bud, scores of tart, sweet berries that were worth more than gold to a youngster who could far more easily navigate the trails and passages made by the interwoven brambles than the larger, clumsier adults under whose thumb they spent every day. My sister and our friends scrambled through the brambles, picking handfulls of the berries and more often than not, cramming them right into our mouths and reveling in the intense, sunny flavor of them.

Our parents cried out for us to bring them back baskets and buckets full, and sometimes we did, but more often they had to wade out into the brambles and pick the juicy treasures themselves. They filled their own baskets and buckets, taking them back inside to turn into jams, jellies, pies, crisps, and cobblers. These, of course, were devoured by us youngsters as fast as we could get our hands on them.

I have no proof of this, but I think Nature made Blackberries for kids. This is not to say, of course, that "grown-ups" have no place eating them. Quite to the contrary, I think the more blackberries a grown-up eats, the more like a kid they'll feel. On that note, a more recent memory I have of blackberries is that a few years ago, in the dead of an extremely hard, bleak, and dreary winter, our friend Martha Owen came by our house to deliver a precious, precious gift: a blackberry cordial she had made from fresh blackberries earlier that year and let age for several months, carefully hidden away against just exactly the sort of weather we seemed to be cursed with.

We all gathered around the little bottle and its dark, almost black contents, pouring perhaps a shot's worth or two into several tiny cordial glasses and passing them around. With every sip, the drinker's eyes closed and they were transported into the sunlight. The rich purple stuff, so carefully crafted and then hidden away and left untouched in an amazing act of willpower, was the essence of summer, perfectly preserved in such a way that even Nature herself would have been impressed. Blackberries are the essence of summer.

Holidays at John And Nana's

My family has lived in the town where my father was born and raised since I started third grade. My grandparents were close at hand, so we spent as many holidays together as we could. When I, and of course everyone else, was younger, we would gather at my father's parents' house for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas; my aunt would come, sometimes accompanied by one or both of her two sons, David and Allen, who were both at least ten years older than I and therefore irresistible role-models. I'd get to feel exceptionally cool for an hour or two, playing (or more often, watching them play) complicated board games that made little sense to me but were nevertheless extremely cool, involving as they did giant robot battles or mythical, mystical, magical creatures and spells. When I grew into an adolescent, I did my best to track down these games that represented, for me at least, the true meaning of what it meant to be cool.

Of course, when meal time rolled around my illusions of being a hip and worthy young man were shattered by my inevitable discovery that David and Allen were seated with the grown-ups and I, once again, had been shunted off to the kid's table. Alas. But my annoyance at everyone's lack of recognition of my obvious maturity was soon forgotten when the meal was served. Our family meals tended to be something along the lines of a very well organized potluck, with my grandfather (who refuses to answer to anything but his name, John) preparing an entree and a few sides and the rest of the family bringing such dishes as they believed would compliment the main dish. It was usually ham for Easter and turkey for Thanksgiving, with a wide selection of meats and gravies for the Christmas feast. My Mother would bring several vegetable dishes and my Aunt would contribute a casserole or something similar and everyone would bring a dessert or two.

Then we'd all pile into the small dining room, form as best a circle as we could in the crowded space, and hold hands. My dad or John would lead us in a prayer of thanks and praise to bless the meal and the occasion, and then we would, politely of course with so many Moms around, dig in to some of the best food we'd eat all year. The specific dishes weren't so significant; they changed from one feast to the next. It was the collaborative effort that set the mood of the occasion. Everyone had worked together to make a meal that wasn't Potluck, exactly, but still had some of the element of surprise that makes Potlucks so enjoyable while at the same time retaining the balance of dishes so important to a good meal.

I, of course, understood little of this at the time, being completely content to just wolf down whatever landed on my plate and hold it up for seconds. And, being at the kid's table, I'd often join in (and usually outright win) the impromptu belching competitions or rude-joke swaps. Occasionally, if they had been especially badly behaved recently, David or Allen would be relegated to the kid's table with us and I would sit there in rapt admiration as I was hopelessly outclassed by this pair of champion burpers who knew far more jokes that were far ruder than I was ever allowed to even imagine. These meals were formative experiences; without the chance for us all to gather and eat and relax together, I simply would not be the person I am today.

Pie

Pie. Mmmm, Pie. There aren't many other dishes in western cuisine with such versatility and, of course, such awesome and yet humble allure. In Britain, the pie is often a full-fledged meal, with fillings involving rich gravy, tender root vegetables roasted to bring out their delicate flavors, and lashings of steak or pork. These meat pies and "pasties" are distinct to the regions of Great Britain in which they originate, but they all share the common theme of bringing all the necessary ingredients of a whole meal into an easily carried and much more easily eaten shape, all wrapped in delicious short-crust pastry. In the brief time I spent in England several years ago, I fell in love with the Cornish Pasty and practically lived on these gravy-laden, meaty hand-held meals. Now, our local traditional English dance team, of which I was a member at the time, sell these pies, some with meat, some vegetarian, every fall at an Appalachian folk craft and music festival to fill the "Send Us To England Again" fund; we always make several thousand dollars over the course of two days and often run out of pies long before we run out of customers.

In America, however, the meat pie is much less common. In fact, the only meat pie that most Americans recognize is the Chicken Pot Pie, a cousin of the hand-held British variant but without the latter's emphasis on portability. The Chicken Pot-Pie is a sit-down meal, a dish to gather the family around the dinner table and completely satisfy the hungriest of them whether they've just come from breaking their backs in the hot sun pitching hay or whether they've spent their day trying to bend their minds around the mysteries of budgets or sales figures and the other arcana that make up many careers in the modern world.

But the American pie is most often and most definitely a dessert item, proverbially so, to the point that the distinguished Mr. Jefferson's words concerning Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness often get paraphrased into talk of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Mom's Apple Pie. The brave men who risked and sometimes laid down their lives in World War II kept Mom's Apple Pie in their minds as a much more accessible and personal symbol of what they fought for, whether their mothers had actually often made Apple Pie or not.

And for good reason are these humble desserts so iconic; every region in America seems to have their own special take on the best thing to fill a 13" circle of pastry with. The southern Pecan Pie is legendary, terrifying carb-counting dieters across the nation; the Pennsylvanian "Shoo-fly Pie" is perhaps one of the best uses for molasses ever discovered, a rich and chewy thing that most folks can only handle one or two very thin pieces of without feeling the need to loosen their belts. In southern Appalachia where I was born and raised, the Fried Apple Pie, a sort of pastry turnover filled with sliced apples and a blend of cinammon and other spices and then deep-fried, can bring tears of joy to even the crustiest old curmudgeon. Savannah, a beautiful little city near the Georgia Coast, is famous for its Chess Pie. This is a rich and delicate custardy sort of thing that gained its name through a common question and the local accent.

"This is delicious! What kind of pie is it?"

"Why, honey, that's chess' (just) pie."

This goes to show that even a pie considered a delicacy by almost everyone who's ever tried it is still "chess' pie." The pie is a dessert for everyone, can be made by anyone with some basic kitchen experience (with the right tutelage) and can be filled with almost anything that's colorful and flavorful.

Berry pies are a constant favorite, with the tender tang of blackberries, blueberries, or raspberries complimented by the sweetness of the filling and the firmness of the crust. Strawberries alone make a pie so sweet it'll send youngsters into ecstatic bliss and fill them with the need to run laps around the house, but temper the sweetness with a few tender shoots of rhubarb and you get a tangy delight that anyone would have a hard time passing up.

I have some good friends who live several hours away in a small city; they are fortunate to have a fairly good-sized back yard in which grows a large and venerable cherry tree. Every year, my friends pick these deliciously tart cherries and make with them all kinds of goodies from pies, cobblers, and crisps to delicious liquors and cordials. One year, our friend Martha baked a beautiful cherry pie and drove it the three hours to our house, carefully balanced on her husband's lap. It arrived safely, was raptly admired by all present, including my three-year-old younger brother, and then put safely in the kitchen to be served after dinner. We ate outside on the porch and it was a magnificent feast, but all the time we were anticipating the gorgeous cherry pie that awaited us. When we were finally finished and began clearing the plates, my mother went into the kitchen to retrieve the pie and discovered a most heinous crime. Nothing remained of the pie but a very sticky dish with a forlorn ring of pastry around the edges. My little brother was discovered hiding not far away, even stickier than the now-empty pie dish and about twice as big around in the middle than he had been before dinner. One so young could simply not resist the call of the Pie.

Addressing more modern concerns, The Pie is a perfect dessert for a crowd of eaters who all have different tolerances regarding food. Pies can be made without wheat or glutens, without dairy or animal products of any kind, without nuts or other foods that are common allergenics, even without crusts at all to reduce the carbohydrate levels. The Pie is an adaptable, delicious dessert with an ancient history and a timeless appeal.

On a final note: Mmmm, Pie.

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© July 2007, John Neil Davidson