`Old-timey' recipes are tasteful link to the past `Old-timey' recipes: good food for thought

This Just In...

January 07, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

DANDELION wine is some trouble to make, requiring several quarts of the yellow blossoms that become more difficult to find with the passing of each ChemLawn spring, followed by a lot of boiling, simmering, straining and waiting. The actual drinking does not take place until six months after you seal the wine in a cask.

It all sounds quaint. But who in this high-speed, instant-oatmeal world has time for such an old-timey thing? We barely have time for nouveau things. We barely have time to watch Emeril cook.

Even Mary Clare Simon, who submitted the dandelion wine recipe that appears in the HARBEL Community Organization's new cookbook, Honey, Hens and Hankerings, seemed to recognize it as anachronistic. "I found this [while] going through recipes at my grandmother's old home," Simon reported. "I have never made it and probably never will."

But there it is, on Page 70, just in case someone wants to give it a try. Just so the recipe does not die.

That is the value of simple, nothing-trendy community cookbooks such as HARBEL's. It's as if a bunch of family recipes have been set out on the sidewalk where the rest of us can find them. They give us a look at what's been going on in our neighbors' kitchens for years. They offer a little taste of yesterday, too. Make dandelion wine the way Mary Clare Simon's grandmother did and you keep a little piece of history alive.

If that sounds grandiose, I make no apology. I prefer heritage cooking to nouvelle cuisine. I like the idea of creating in my kitchen the same aromas and flavors that my ancestors created in theirs, and I try to make time to make it happen.

Last month in Little Italy, as part of my continuing studies in the old cuisine, I sampled homemade - and fast-acting - lemon liqueur. It was made in the Sardinian manner and served cold. The happy maker gave me a recipe for the "limoncino" that probably has been around for a few centuries. It required 14 lemon leafs, the rinds of four lemons, 6 cups of sugar and a liter of alcohol. It is some trouble to make.

When I inquired about purchasing alcohol for this purpose, my favorite liquor merchant wondered why I would go to all that fuss when he had bottles of an Italian liqueur for sale right there on the shelf. Of course. How silly of me. How old-timey.

But, on my next trip to his shop, this same man regaled me with a fond memory from his boyhood - the annual gathering of men to help women crack nuts and chop other ingredients for the family fruitcake; it was a lovely, all-day affair, he said, and he seemed to wish to look out a window and see happy aunts and uncles in a labor of love around a table.

There has been a lot of that wistfulness going around, it seems to me.

Throughout the holidays, I heard numerous people mention family recipes as they compared notes on the high-caloric concoctions laid out before them. Several times I heard someone pine for a dish like mother used to make, or express a wish they had the recipe and the time to prepare it. Men and women derive considerable comfort from the memory of food (at least the food that left a pleasant aftertaste) and consider certain recipes to be something like heirlooms.

Honey, Hens and Hankerings is a little compilation of recipes from Northeast Baltimore families, local politicians and a few local media types (including a certain columnist with interest in Italian cuisine).

As is the case with almost every community cookbook I've ever seen, the HARBEL collection is not without the dubious - a Spanish paella that calls for Polish kielbasa, a lasagna that calls for cottage cheese, a "Matza Pizza" that suggests "some oregano for color," and a recipe for "Baked Beans" that begins with four cans of Heinz baked beans.

But Honey, Hens and Hankerings has a lot of gems, too.

"Apple Crunch," for instance, is a simple, down-home recipe from WBAL-TV anchorwoman Marianne Banister's grandmother, "a Kansas farm wife" who served the dish to hands at harvest time.

Hector Torres, former battalion chief of the Baltimore Fire Department, gave up his mother's recipe for what sounds like a delicious Spanish-style stuffed pot roast, and Patricia Jessamy, the Baltimore state's attorney and a native of Mississippi, gave a Southern baked-catfish recipe that calls specifically for Legg's Old Plantation Pork Sausage Seasoning.

Peter Beilenson's submission, with explicit Baltimore health commissioner-like directions for oven temperature and cooking time, is called, "Aunt Hilma's Garlic Chicken." The recipe looks good, but it almost doesn't matter. I am a sucker for anything named after someone's aunt.

And I have affinity with the man who can make something appealing from leftovers or various this-and-that. Steve Rouse, of WQSR-FM, came up with "Cream of Fresh Carrot Soup" while living on a small farm. "This recipe was perfect for those carrots that weren't picture perfect and pleasing to the eye," he says. "I guess I could call this `Ugly Carrot Soup.'"

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