Rhubarb sprouts food memory

Home cooking: After a while, a traditional breakfast of kidney stew becomes less than appealing.

May 06, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

Bunches of rhubarb arrived at the Waverly Farmers' Market this past weekend -- a sign that local gardens will soon be overflowing.

Stewed rhubarb was a springtime dish on my family's table, but don't think that everyone delighted in it. In fact, there were but a few people who smacked their lips for this sour, slimy stuff.

Rhubarb was one of a category of difficult dishes that issued from the kitchen of the Guilford Avenue home where I was born. Each season had its own strange item -- a food that was a very different feed from the standard rib roast of beef, crab cake or spaghetti dinner.

These are foods you delighted in or detested.

My grandmother Lily Rose, the chief cook, was a softy in the kitchen. She made gentle allowances for those who frowned upon rhubarb or some of its strange culinary cousins. She smiled when her diners applauded her fried eggplant but was just as happy if you said, "No thank you" and reached for the mashed potatoes.

By all accounts, Lily was a skilled seafood cook and marvelous fish fryer. Accordingly, we had platters of fish every Friday. There were those with strong palates who selected a big piece of hake.

Most of us -- remember there were 12 at the table most nights -- reached for the steamed shrimp. I, a non-seafood person and unnatural Baltimorean, had my own personal bowl of canned Campbell's cream of tomato soup.

People would also line up at the door for the oyster potpie -- another Chesapeake Bay dish I place under the "strange" heading. I think I developed an aversion to it ever since I confused it with Lily's veal potpie.

Come Sunday morning, Lily had two varieties of what other people called pancakes. Of course, we didn't.

For those who liked their breakfasts on the bland side, she had her famous flannel cakes, a sort of light French pancake that arrived at your place as described -- as soft as a piece of well-worn cotton flannel.

For those who liked more kick at 8 in the morning, she had real buckwheat cakes, the kind made with special flour and yeast -- and had to be made the night before. Buckwheat cakes smelled like beer (blame the yeast) and were the color of fresh mud after a spring rain. Between the smell, and the color, I'm surprised that anyone asked for buckwheats.

As a child I never touched them. As an adult, I dream of them.

Some days, there would be kidney stew as well. Many old-fashioned Marylanders consider this to be the epitome of breakfast dishes.

These are those, however, who ask for white toast and make a hasty retreat from the direction of the kidney stew pot.

But of all the rhubarb, eggplant and kidney stew of this world, no dish was worse than the fried honeycomb tripe that would appear once or twice a year. I left the house on those nights.

And this brings me to what happened about three weeks ago when I was vacationing in Florence, Italy.

My hotel clerk recommended a fine restaurant and called a cab for me. I was warmly greeted at the door and seated at a table arranged with white linen and a bouquet of spring flowers. Soon a free glass of white Tuscan wine arrived, as did little tasters of special foods the chef wanted me to try.

Soon the grand master of the kitchen arrived -- a tall man dressed in whites with a bushy, expressive mustache.

"Did you enjoy what I sent out?" he inquired.

I nodded in agreement.

"You've just had tripe," he said.

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