Gruesome foods -- oyster pot pie, eggplant, tripe

May 17, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

It seemed as if every other shopper at the Waverly Farmers Market was walking down Barclay Street with an armload of rhubarb.

The claret-red stalks topped by floppy green leaves stuck out of the carrying bags people lugged from the weekly open-air market.

Rhubarb. Now there's a dish that will divide people sitting at the dinner table faster than a discussion of politics. Some people hate it; others consider it one of May's most heaven-sent gifts.

Both of my grandmothers believed in rhubarb's quasi-medicinal value. I believe they called it a spring tonic or a spring cleanser. Their idea was that a big bowl of stewed rhubarb worked wonders for the digestive system.

They spooned it over cottage cheese. They added generous slugs of heavy cream. At age 6 or 7, I just sat there with a skeptical look and remained unconvinced. I wouldn't touch it. It had the color of red watermelon and the consistency of a squashed garden slug.

Rhubarb fits into one of those highly divisive gastronomic categories. It's either ambrosia or poison. To a child, it was arsenic.

Baltimoreans seem to have a number of rhubarb dishes that can either cause a food fight or make the diners purr with satisfaction.

These dishes are nothing like universal pleasers such as Silver Queen corn or properly made macaroni and cheese. Who doesn't like homemade strawberry shortcake? Or the flaky crust on a chicken pot pie?

Then there are other dishes that cause you to run and hide.

I can think of few things my grandmother Lily Rose would take from her Oriole-brand oven that were not my idea of a fabulous dish. But there were a few.

Lily was an excellent maker of pot pies. Her chicken, veal or beef pot pies could have taken a prize at the state fair at Timonium. But every so often, she'd pull a nasty switch and deliver an oyster pot pie. Just about everyone in my family and anybody else who heard about this treat was at the table 15 minutes ahead of time. Slithery, salty oysters baked in a pie was not my idea of supper. I dined on cream of tomato soup.

Another dish that had some of the family calling out for seconds was tripe, or fried cow's stomach lining. It took all my courage to walk into the kitchen the nights when this stuff was flopping around the biggest black cast-iron skillet my grandmother could find. Once again, I said no thank you.

I knew I was in a strange culinary world at the age of 4 or 5 when my mother and grandmother instinctively made for certain counters at the Belair Market for cuts of animal that nobody else bought. They delighted in securing tripe and acted as if only they knew the secrets of this wonderful find.

When I offered a dissenting opinion about the dish, I was told I was backward in my tastes. Many years afterward, I consulted the food writer Craig Claiborne. He concurred with the chefs of Guilford Avenue. In fact, he noted that patricians delighted in tripe in Babylon's Gardens.

In truth, the kitchen seemed to smell so bad on tripe night that even grandmother relented. She served two separate meals, one for those who would eat it and another for those who would not.

I always got the impression that something was wrong with my taste buds for not savoring fried eggplant. Once again, there was practically a line forming at the kitchen door with starved eggplant enthusiasts.

Zel,.5l Earlier in the afternoon, Aunt Cora sliced the eggplant and dried the pieces between linen towels. Then come 5 o'clock and she started frying them as the rest of the household waited to gobble them up.

The compliments flew. Cora's cooking skills were compared to the chefs at Horn & Horn, the old-fashioned East Baltimore Street restaurant where fried eggplant was regularly on the menu. Everyone was as happy as an oyster in an oyster pie. I deferred and ate canned peas.

To my palate, eggplant was the vegetable equivalent of tripe. Both should have stayed at the Belair Market.

They say your tastes mature as you grow older. The jury is still out on oyster pot pie. I can face an eggplant if it's properly disguised with other ingredients. I'll pass on the fried version.

Rhubarb and I have made peace. In fact, there's about two quarts of it on the second shelf of my refrigerator. As for the tripe, leave it for the Babylonians.

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