Category Archives: FOOD RELATED ARTICLES

CANNING SEASON – MAKING YOUR OWN SAUER KRAUT

There is, I confess, a kind of insanity that takes hold of me whenever I come into possession of any large quantity of fruit or vegetables—or, say, the owner of my favorite little grocery store in Burbank would offer me a couple of flats of ripe tomatoes for next to nothing. My freezer would still overflowing with frozen bags of pureed raspberries, from the last such windfall. It’s apparent, nothing else is going to fit into the freezer until I finish making up batches of jam. One wonderful holiday recipe is a chocolate-raspberry spread that I like to give away during the Christmas season.

Maybe I was a squirrel in a former life. What else can account for stocking up, canning, dehydrating, and freezing far more food than we can possibly consume?

Or, if not a squirrel in a former life, I would like to believe that this is something I inherited from my German/Hungarian paternal grandparents—who would butcher a hog once a year and make up lots of sausages. My grandfather converted one of their garages into a “smoke house” where he had the hams hanging from the rafters. (This isn’t something I remember – but my sister Becky did, and told the story often enough).    

Years ago, we acquired a very large stoneware crock. I believe it originally belonged to my younger sister Susie’s mother-in-law, Vera. It could hold something like over 30 quarts when it was filled. In March, to honor St. Patrick’s day, cabbage can often be bought locally for 10 cents a pound. (I lost this big crock when Bob backed the car into it turning my car around in the driveway).

Our first attempt to make our own sauerkraut turned out ok, although the finished product turned a little dark—undoubtedly from using regular salt instead of canning salt. The following year, some friends who moved to Texas but with whom I shared a love of canning and exchanged recipes, happened to find a close-out sale of canning salt, pickling ingredients and I don’t know what all, at their local Walmart store and bought everything they had. They sent me a big box of these things, and I believe I must have a lifetime supply of canning salt on hand, now.

 There is very little to making your own sauerkraut—what it does take a lot of is elbow grease. You have to shred the cabbage very fine and then for about every 5 pounds of shredded cabbage, mix in about 3 tablespoons of canning salt. Then it gets packed into the sterilized crock. You weigh it down—Bob made a round piece of wood with a handle that just fits inside the crock—but we wrapped the wood up in layers of plastic. On top of that we’d prop 4 or 5 filled 2-liter bottles of soda pop, stick it in a corner of the pantry and let it ferment for six weeks. At the end of six weeks, voila—you have sauerkraut.

 In colder climates, the crock of sauerkraut can be kept in a fruit cellar and eaten as is. But, here in Southern California, the summers get very hot (and we don’t have cellars) so that at this point, the sauerkraut needs to be canned. This means heating the sauerkraut in a big pot, while boiling quart jars in another large pot.

When the sauerkraut is simmering, (185 to 210 degrees), it can be packed into the hot sterilized quart jars, sealed, and then submerged in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes.

We entered our sauerkraut in the Los Angeles county fair in 1990 and won a blue ribbon for it.

People either love sauerkraut or they hate it—there doesn’t seem to be any middle of the road.

All the years I was growing up, my mother made sauerkraut and pork, with mashed potatoes and peas for New Years eve supper, which was served late, probably around midnight. According to William Woys Weaver, the author of SAUERKRAUT YANKEE”, sauerkraut with pork was eaten on New Year’s Day by the Pennsylvania Dutch people, for good luck. I remember one New Year’s Eve, when I was about 15—I was babysitting for neighbors a block away from home. Around midnight, there was a knock on the door; there stood one of my brothers, with a plateful of sauerkraut and pork, mashed potatoes and gravy, sent over by my mother. I cried in the sauerkraut as I ate my good luck supper.

Weaver says that sauerkraut was something one learned to make as a child, that for the Pennsylvania Dutch people, the art of sauerkraut was practically second nature.

He says that Philadelphia writer Eliza Leslie was one of the first to publicize Pennsylvania-German sauerkaut in her cookbook, but that the earliest recipes appeared in newspapers and agriculture journals. Ms. Leslie was a famous cookbook author of the 1800s, including “Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry Cakes and Sweetmeats” by “A Lady of Philadelphia”, which is now available in facsimile edition from Applewood Books.

According to Weaver, “…sauerkraut is so intermeshed with Pennsylvania-German ethnic identity, that it always makes it appearance anytime Pennsylvania German foods are specifically called for…” During the Civil War, it gave birth to the name “Sauerkraut Yankees”.

Weaver tells this following story: “There is a twist of irony in this because history turned the joke around on the South. When Confederate troops captured Chambersburg in the summer of 1863, one of the first things the famished rebels demanded from the inhabitants were barrels of sauerkraut. The Dutch could only smile and shrug their shoulders. No one in his right mind made sauerkraut in the summer…”

 I was enchanted by the discovery of a little recipe booklet called “ONE NATION UNDER SAUERKRAUT”, published by the people of Waynesville, Ohio for their annual Ohio sauerkraut festival. I’ve been to Waynesville—one of my brothers used to live near there, and my sisters and I spent one wonderful summer day visiting the many antique stores in Waynesville.

Ah, but I didn’t know about their sauerkraut festival! The author of “One Nation Under Sauerkraut”, Dennis Dalton, provided some fascinating facts about sauerkraut—that cabbage has been an important food crop to mankind for more than 5,000 years—that at one time it was so highly revered in Egypt that it was worshipped during certain religious rites—that the formula for sauerkraut (an Austrian word meaning sour cabbage) was invented by China’s Emperor Shih Huang-Ti. It was developed as a result of an economic need to stretch the rice diets of coolies constructing China’s Great Wall over 2,200 years ago. That third century sauerkraut little resembled the Teutonic variety of present times. Chinese cooks achieved fermentation by pickling whole cabbage leaves in wine.

 It was sometime during the latter part of the 16th century that someone stumbled onto fermenting cabbage with ordinary salt.

Sauerkraut reached American tables and became a part of the nation’s menu after the Dutch colonized New York.

However, it was the Pennsylvania Dutch who immortalized it in table fare, story and song, a people who have an old saying “He is as Dutch as sauerkraut”.

 We “put up” (canned) 30 quarts of sauerkraut in 2009. I swore this was it; that I was never going to make sauerkraut again. Bob always shrugged and smiled and said “you always say that”. I will say this, neither he nor I have ever had scurvy. **

Bob (who really was my sous chef) passed away in September of 2011. I think I opened the last of the jars of sauerkraut when my penpal Bev & her husband came to visit the winter of 2012—maybe, just maybe I will attempt making sauerkraut again next spring—if I can find someone to help shred the cabbage! A few years ago – maybe in 2010 – we bought a huge crock that has a specially designed lid that keeps the contents “sealed” while it is fermenting.

 This summer has found me canning tomatoes and tomato juice, with the bounty of tomatoes from my son Kelly’s garden. LAST year when we were tired of picking tomatoes, he and I picked all the green cherry tomatoes we could find before he pulled out all the vines to go into the trash. I looked up and found a recipe for pickling cherry tomatoes –

Ok, you can’t be too rich or too thin (or to paraphrase Wallace Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor back in the 1930s) …have too many pint or quart jars waiting to be filled.

 

– Sandra Lee Smith

 

 

“WHAT’S CHRISTMAS WITHOUT COOKIES?” ASKS THE COOKIE LADY

What’s Christmas without cookies ? Christmas cookies to share with family, friends, and coworkers—perhaps some cookies for the mailman (or the mail lady). I also give cookies to my manicurist. Each of my sons receives a tin of his very own cookies—chocolate chip, no “ingredients” (ingredients are nuts, raisins, coconut or any of those other yucky things that I love so much. When my sons were children, they took containers of cookies to their teachers.

A few years ago, I bought Disney-theme cookie jars and filled them with different kinds of cookies. Along with my sons and their families, one of the cookie jars went to my younger sister and her family, who also live in California. Other cookies are wrapped in baskets or tins—or whatever suitable containers I find (I search for cookie containers throughout the year. Some of our best bargains have been containers bought at Target, after the holidays, for 90% off).

When I got married in 1958, I had one Betty Crocker cookbook and a boxful of recipe pamphlets. That Christmas, General Mills published a small booklet called “Betty Crocker’s Holiday Almanac” – I kept it, and began saving the Christmas recipe sections in my December magazines; Woman’s Day always published a tear-out cookie/candy recipe section—the earliest I have was published in1962. These are in 3-ring binders that have somehow grown to 8 thick binders, just with cookie recipes.

What I had, in 1958, was a start – enough recipes to bake some cookies and a few batches of fudge. When we moved to California in 1961 we had little more than a car-trunk full of clothing and the baby’s bed—but I somehow managed to do some holiday baking.

In 1963 – after moving back to Ohio in March, returning to California in December-
We didn’t even have furniture (much less a tree)…but I baked cookies; we invited friends over and everyone sat on the floor drinking coffee and eating Christmas cookies.

From these austere beginnings, my holiday cookie baking grew until it began to reach mammoth proportions. In the mid 60s, a girlfriend and I began making cookie dough in September, and freezing the batches. When we thought we had a goodly amount of cookie dough (I think about ten or twelve batches each) we’d embark on a cookie-baking-marathon. We did our baking late at night at her house, around the corner from me, because her husband worked nights and it was the only time I could get out of the house—when all four of my children were asleep. When we finished, we had filled all of our Tupperware containers and anything else we could find to use for storage. We’d divvy up the cookies, giving burnt ones to our husbands and children to eat and were ready to pack our own cookies into smaller containers for gift-giving.

We were purists, in those days—everything was made from scratch, with real butter and only the best of all ingredients—no imitation vanilla for us! I think there was one frightful year (1975?) when sugar was $5.00 for a 5-lb bag and we had to search for cookie recipes using honey or molasses.

In the 80s, along came cookie exchanges—frankly, these don’t always work out the way you’d like; someone always shows up with store-bought cookies (“I didn’t have time to bake”) or cookies with burned bottoms that no one wants. In theory or in the women’s magazines, cookie exchanges are always fantastic. Take it from me; it doesn’t always happen. You can tell people repeatedly that it’s a Christmas cookie exchange and you want them to make Christmas cookies and you can bet that over half of the contributions will be ordinary (non-Christmas) cookies. In my women’s magazines, cookie exchanges are always so extraordinary – maybe the secret would be to tell everyone that a magazine journalist and photographer will be at the exchange, in order to assure everyone bringing Christmas cookies.

In the 90s, along came grandchildren and my niece and two nephews, children of my younger sister who herself is young enough to be one of my children (I was 21 when she was born). The arrival of these children opened new vistas for cookie baking. We have baked cookies (children love to make cut-out cookies) which are wildly decorated with sprinkles (children believe that more is better). We also began a new family tradition of having a cookie-and-craft day sometime before Christmas, but also for Valentine’s Day and Easter. I make large (holiday appropriate) cookies for them to decorate and we do some kind of craft project that “goes with” the cookie—for instance, when they decorated big tree-shaped cookies, they also decorated small artificial Christmas trees to take home). This has turned into a big event not only for my grandchildren and my sister’s children, but also for my godson, and some of my friends’ children. (The big cookie idea actually has its roots back when my two younger sons were in first and second grades, and I would make enough large cookies—and plenty of frosting—for all the children in their classes to decorate a cookie to take home).

Nowadays, I admit—I’ve learned a lot of short-cuts, such as making cookies from cake mixes. There are entire cookbooks dedicated to teaching you how to bake wonderful tasty cookies from a cake mix! And in recent years (I am confessing this publicly) I have been stocking up on refrigerated sugar cookie dough and using it for our cut-out cookies.

What you have to do, though, is let the cookie dough come to room temperature, mix in as much flour as possible (usually about half a cup or more to one package of refrigerated cookie dough) – mix in it until it’s blended, then shape into several balls and re-refrigerate the dough until its very firm. I usually work with 2-3 packages of refrigerated cookie dough at a time, Adding flour and sometimes something like a little nutmeg, then reshaping it into balls and putting it back into the refrigerator to firm up. Normally, those refrigerated cookie dough cookies spread too much and lose their shape–the added flour will prevent that from happening. Last year my grandson’s school was selling Masterpiece cookie dough for a fundraiser – my goodness! That sugar cookie dough of theirs was excellent.

There was a time I would have turned my nose up at pre-made cookie dough but if you work with it enough, you can still make really good cut out cookies.

And here’s a tip: You can take sugar cookie dough and turn out dozens of different cookies with it–all you need is some imagination and a lot of sprinkles, jimmies, chopped walnuts or pecans and melted chocolate.

I still search all year long for sales on tins and other containers, for sprinkles and jimmies when they are on sale after a holiday, or for cookie cutters on sale half price after Christmas.

And even though I have retired, former coworkers know they can expect to receive a tin of cookies from me. I also take large containers of cookies to the Claims Department, where I worked. My friend Tina used to say that whenever she took some cookies home, her husband asked, “Are these from the cookie lady?” It’s a good title. I think I’ll keep it.

You can mix and freeze most batches of cookie dough so it’s never too early to get a head start, but before I begin mixing, I always have to go through my cookie files and decide what I’ll make this year. Some recipes are a given; two of my sons want only chocolate chip cookies, no nuts, no other “weird” ingredients (their description, not mine. “Weird” would be something like chocolate-covered raisins). Close friends put in their favorite requests, such as Crispy Little Lemon Wafers or Mexican Wedding Cakes. Bob liked Springerle; it reminded him of his childhood. A few years ago, I found a beautiful large Springerle board at store in Santa Barbara—and it was on sale! A lot of people don’t like Springerle, which has Anise seeds and extract in it. The finished product is a hard dry cookie, good for dunking. I, on the other hand, am very partial to those paper-thin Monrovian spice cookies that I can never get thin enough with my rolling pin.

I make a lot of sugar cut-out cookies and this is a good project to do with grandchildren. One year in the 1960s, I left butter cutout cookies, all freshly decorated, drying on every available surface in the kitchen and dining room. When we got up the next morning, we found our 5 year old son had eaten the icing off every single cookie. (He didn’t like to be reminded of this).

I have to make a batch of diamond-shaped butter cookies encrusted with finely chopped walnuts and sugar; my paternal grandmother always made these and the cookie cutter I use to make them was hers.

We make lots of cookies throughout the year and you can generally find the cookie jar in the kitchen filled to the top, but Christmas is the time to make special cookies, the ones you don’t make any old time…like Spritz, and chocolate pinwheels, candy canes and gingerbread boys.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. In the 1940s and 50s, when I was growing up, there was very little money. We recycled gift wrap and ribbon, ironing out the wrinkles. We made our own gift tags with stickers that didn’t stick on anything else. Once a year, I took my two younger brothers shopping in downtown Cincinnati. We rode the bus there, and visited all the department store Santas to get free candy canes, then did all of our shopping at the 5&10 cent stores. Somehow we managed to buy presents for everyone in the family with our meager savings.

My mother didn’t shop for a tree until Christmas Eve day, when she could get it half-price. We never saw the tree until it was decorated, with presents piled all around. We were generally kept out of the house, visiting my grandmother, until my father came to pick us up. Somehow we always got there just after Santa Claus left – “Hurry, if you look out in the back you might catch a glimpse!”

Christmas was celebrated Christmas Eve and we have carried on the tradition. I tell the grandkids when they arrive, “You just missed Santa! If you look out the back door, maybe you can catch a glimpse of him!”

For those of you who want to start creating your own holiday traditions, cookies are a good way to start. You don’t have to buy a lot of cookbooks (although I do have a lot of cookie cookbooks) – nor do you have to go and buy all the November/December women’s magazines featuring cookie recipes (although these are inspiring and great to collect in a 3-ring binder) – you can find all the recipes anyone could possibly ever dream about right on the internet. One of my favorite websites is http://www.allrecipes.com but I promise you, there are many others.

But if you can’t stand the thought of using refrigerated cookie dough, here is an old tried-and-true favorite cookie dough that I have been making for decades (before the refrigerated stuff came along):

WHITE CHRISTMAS COOKIES

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, well beaten
4 cups all purpose flour-sifted
1/8 tsp each nutmeg & cinnamon

Cream butter, gradually add sugar; beat with electric mixer until light and
Fluffy. Beat in eggs. Sift together dry ingredients and stir into creamed
Mixture. Store overnight in covered container. Roll dough very thin (I
Roll it out between 2 sheets of wax paper that have been dusted with flour). Cut into shapes. Bake at 350 Degrees 1-13 minutes. Makes 16 dozen small cookies.

*I always use parchment paper on the baking sheets; this eliminates ever
needing to butter the cookie sheets. Always cool cookies on wire racks.
When completely cool, they can be stacked in plastic storage containers.

EASY TOFFEE CRACKER BARS

Easy bars with graham crackers, pecans, and other ingredients. Technically speaking, I wouldn’t call this a cookie – it’s more of a confection. But these are wildly popular with everyone.
Ingredients:
• 20 graham crackers (individual squares), regular or chocolate
• 1 1/2 sticks butter (6 ounces)
• 3/4 cup brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Preparation:
Line a jelly roll pan (10×15-inch) with foil; arrange graham crackers in the pan in a single layer. Combine butter and sugar in a heavy medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Boil for 2 minutes; stir in vanilla and chopped pecans. Pour the hot mixture over crackers and spread evenly. Bake 10 minutes at 350°. Remove at once from pan to flat surface to cool. When cool, break into smaller pieces.

CLUB CRACKER BARS

1 box club crackers
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup cream or condensed milk
1 cup crushed graham crackers
1 cup coconut
1/2 cup nuts, chopped
1/4 tsp salt

Line a 13×9 inch pan with whole club crackers. Mix remaining ingredients together. Bring to a boil stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until thick. Pour over club crackers. Top with more whole crackers.

Icing:
5 tbsp butter
1/2 cup milk or cream
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
cocoa (optional)

Mix ingredients together. Beat well. Frost the crackers. Cut into squares.

**

ORANGE SLICE SQUARES

4 eggs
¼ cup milk
1 pound light brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 ½ cups candied orange slices, chopped
1 cup chopped pecans

Beat eggs, add milk and brown sugar and beat well. Sift flour and add to mixture reserving enough flour to mix with chopped orange slices and pecans. Fold into mixture. Pour batter onto a 15x10x1” well greased cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool. Spread icing evening on top. Cut into squares.

Icing

1 tbsp butter, softened
3 tbsp evaporated milk
1 tbsp orange rind
2 cups powdered sugar

Combine all ingredients thoroughly.

LEMON BISCOTTI

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
3 TBSP water
2 TBSP canola oil
4 tsp lemon zest
½ tsp lemon extract
½ cup confectioners sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
yellow sugar (optional)

Preheat oven 375 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a bowl. With an electric mixer on high speed, beat the granulated sugar, egg, water, oil, lemon zest and lemon extract until blended. On low speed, add the flour mixture, beating just until combined.

Place dough in 2 (12”) logs, 3” apart on the sheet. Bake until golden, 20 minutes. Cool the logs on the sheet for 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board. Cut each log crosswise into ½” slices. Arrange slices in a single layer on the sheet and bake until lightly browned, 15-18 minutes. Cool on a rack.

For the icing, whisk confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Drizzle on the biscotti; sprinkle at once with yellow sugar (if using). Let stand until icing hardens, about 2 hours.

This last recipe is for the Christmas tree cookies I baked and Savannah decorated for my sister’s cookie exchange one year:

Savannah’s Christmas Tree Cookies

4 1-lb packages of refrigerated sugar cookie dough
1 to 1 ½ cups of flour
Butter cream frosting
Various sprinkles

Let refrigerated cookie dough come to room temperature in a large bowl. When soft enough to handle, mix in flour to make a stiff dough. Shape into four balls of dough and re-refrigerate until firm. Roll out and cut with tree shaped cutters. Bake at 350 8 to 10 minutes (until just brown around the edges). Cool on racks. Spread with butter cream frosting that has been tinted green with food coloring. Decorate as desired. Makes about 6 dozen (more if you have a smaller tree cutter than what we were using).
**

One final suggestion about baking and decorating cookies–if you have children or grandchildren or even neighborhood children – to decorate cookies with, by all means do. These are precious memories they will always cherish. And so will you!

Happy Cookie baking!

Sandy (The Cookie Lady)

REDISCOVERING BREAD PUDDING

Bread pudding was one of the few desserts that we grew up on, Although we might have that or rice pudding just as easily for breakfast as we did for dessert.  Dessert just wasn’t a part of my mother’s repertoire, except for special occasions like Christmas.

 It’s easy to understand how the bread pudding (or rice pudding) managed to make it to the table. We always had bread; my mother baked homemade bread twice a week in large roasting pans. We rarely had “store bought bread” in the house until much later, after my mother began working at Crosley’s over in Camp Washington.  (My sister Barbara recalled that we had the only mother in the neighborhood who worked full time—mind you, this was a time, in the 1940s and 1950s, when most mothers stayed at home).  It doesn’t surprise me that we might have left over rice from any meal; my mother’s rice was like library paste.  The most you could hope for was to break down the pasty consistency by spooning on a lot of chicken broth.  We always had mom’s library paste rice with stewed chicken for Sunday dinner. I was an adult living in California before I discovered that I really do like rice. (and my brother Bill has confessed to liking mom’s  library paste rice.)

I don’t think my mother had a recipe for making bread pudding although it’s entirely possible that she may have followed the recipe for Bread Puff Pudding that I found in her Ida Bailey Allen Service Cookbook.  The recipe is a simple combination of milk, bread crumbs, a bit of butter, small amount of sugar, vanilla, and a couple of eggs.  These would have been all ingredients on hand in my mother’s kitchen. Mom’s bread pudding sometimes contained some raisins, too.

What got me thinking about bread pudding was a surgery my daughter-in-law had one year.  Keara was recuperating from a tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy, and was able to eat only soft foods.  I sent home to her a double batch of creamy tapioca pudding. She requested another comfort food; bread pudding.  Then, while searching through my box of newspaper clippings, I came across an article that appeared in the December 10, 1987 edition of the Los Angeles Times – and the subject was – you guessed it – bread puddings.

One of the recipes sounded so good that I decided it was the one to make; I just had to go out and buy a loaf of white bread, which we seldom have on hand, and then “make it stale” by letting the slices set out on the kitchen counter for half a day.

Well, I want you to know, this was a great bread pudding recipe—I did have to sample it, of course, to make sure I wasn’t sending Keara something she wouldn’t be able to eat!

Betty Balsley, the author of this particular article in the Los Angeles Times, explains her love for leftovers (something I can really relate to) and says that she’s always fascinated by the way home cooks as well as professional chefs adeptly handle flavors and texture to produce unforgettable culinary creations.

“Thus it was,” she writes, “that when attending the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Assn. Conference in New Orleans in October, I gained an unmentionable number of pounds sampling an almost amazing variety of these classic American sweets (i.e., bread puddings). “None,” she claims, “were bad. A few were so-so but the majority were worth every calorie they added to my frame…”

What followed was an assortment of bread pudding recipes, ranging from Omni Royal Orleans Bread Pudding to Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding souffle with Whiskey Sauce.  I chose to make “Allie And Etell’s Bread Pudding. The Allie, I presume, is Paul Prudhomme’s sister Allie.  I added raisins to my batch of bread pudding, because what is bread pudding without raisins?

By now, as you might suspect, my curiosity was piqued. Do only the chefs of Louisiana know how to make bread pudding? Sylvia Lovegren, in “FASHIONABLE FOOD” writes of it “Bread pudding was another one of those old-fashioned all-American dishes that were de rigueur for trendy chefs. Although bread puddings were made around the country with every sort of ‘regional accent’, one of the most popular was one with a Southern, especially southern Louisiana, twang….”

Lovegren then offers a recipe for Bread Pudding with Pecan Bourbon Sauce.

Since the topic of bread pudding appears in Lovegren’s chapter for the 1980s, possibly this also explains how an article devoted to bread puddings ended up in a 1987 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Most food historians whose works I consulted don’t mention bread pudding at all.  So, what’s the story?

Even my tried-and-true “WISE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY” has disappointingly little to say about bread pudding, other than suggesting they are an excellent way of using slightly dry bread and offering two recipes. Numerous “Americana” cookbooks fail to mention bread pudding at all, whereas, – at least – in “THE BEST OF SHAKER COOKING”, authors provide ten recipes for the dessert, ranging from Shaker Mountain Blueberry Pudding to Maple Bread Pudding. All sound delicious.

A Good Housekeeping cookbook published in 1942-43 offers ten bread pudding recipes as well, including one for the Queen of Puddings which is mentioned in “PIONEER POTLUCK”, stories an recipes of Early Colorado, collected by the State Historical Society of Colorado. “THE PIONEER COOK BOOK” published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers provides one recipe for Grandma Taylor’s Milton Pudding or Bread Pudding.  Queens Pudding is also mentioned in the “LINCOLN HERITAGE TRAIL COOKBOOK” by Marian French. (It seems that bread pudding was elevated to Queen’ Pudding by spreading the top with a layer of jelly or preserves after it was baked. Then you made a meringue with the whites of a couple of eggs and two tablespoons of sugar, and spread that over the top. Finally, you baked it again until the meringue was a light brown.

“THE PRACTICAL RECEIPT BOOK” published in 1897 by the Young Ladies Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Sewickley, Pennsylvania offers no less than sixty-five pudding recipes, two of which are for the Queen Pudding.

However, finding recipes for Bread Pudding doesn’t answer my original question—nor does it explain to me why or how this delicious dessert disappeared from the American culinary landscape.  Have we all become so busy that the only kind of puddings we have anymore are of the instant packaged variety that require only the addition of milk—or, equally tasteless — a pre-made item that you pick up in the dairy section of the supermarket, which only requires peeling off a foil cover? Ew, ew!

Perhaps we have to search into the much more distant past for the answer to the origin of bread pudding, or desserts in general as we know them.

Not much is known about desserts in the middle ages.  Patricia Bunning Stevens writes about desserts in “RARE BITS” subtitled “Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes”.

Describing the middle ages, she states, “…at the end of the meal, the table was cleared and spiced wine served, with sweet wafers, raisins, nuts, and ‘comfits,’ as sugared caraway seeds and anise seeds were called. It is from these simple beginnings that our modern ‘dessert’ stems, for the word comes from the French desservir and, ultimately, from the Latin dis servir, to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).

As time went by, the idea of true desserts spread and various countries developed their own preferences. “To Englishmen” writes Ms. Stevens, “the only dessert that ever really counted was the pudding….”  She continues with a rather detailed explanation of the English Pudding which contains dried fruit and spices; however, Ms. Stevens has nothing to add on the subject of bread pudding.

Until around 1800, the word pudding nearly always signified a sausage of some kind—i.e., a meat-filled casing. In “FRUITCAKES & COUCH POTATOES,” author Christine Ammer also notes that, “In Britain, the word ‘pudding’ alone often signifies the dessert course of a meal, whether or not it consists of the thick, soft, sweet mixture so called by Americans”.

Writing about plum puddings, Betty Wason, in “COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS,” notes that it was during the reign of Henry VIII that the Christmas feast came about.  “Plum Pudding,” says Wason, “originated as ‘plum soup’ made of mutton stock, currants, prunes, raisins and sherry; then bread was added to thicken it, and it was called ‘plum porridge’.  Eventually it became mostly meat with suet, wheat, raisins, currants, and spices added. Even the stews of England in those days were sweet and gooey, so spiced no one knew quite what the meat tasted like. (I think the main reason for that may have been that the meat was bad or tainted—the heavy spices would have masked the actual taste of the meat. It was for the same reason that the French concocted so many sauces to put over meats. But I digress).

“Plum Puddings,” Wason explains, “were made by the dozens—literally—because according to superstition, it was good luck to eat a plum pudding on each of the days between Christmas and Epiphany, ‘making a wish on the first mouthful each day.’  But woe to anyone who nibbled at a holiday pudding before the Christmas feast began—he would be in trouble for twelve months to come…”  (Sounds like something someone’s mother would have come up with to make sure no one was getting into the feast day food too soon!)

While doing a search on Google.com, I found a short but illuminating clue to the history of bread pudding. To make bread pudding, an oven is necessary; you can’t make it very well in a pot on top of the stove.  In early pioneer times, as we know, food was cooked over an open fire. The English version of foods like plum pudding were cooked on top of a stove but the whole mess was put into a pudding cloth that was suspended into a pot of water. The English pudding came into its own only with the invention of the cloth pudding bag at the end of the sixteenth century (before that, animal organs were used to encase the pudding process).

Another clue—centuries ago, women might mix up their own loaves of bread but they usually had to take it to something like a communal oven or to a professional baker–to have it baked. The lady of the house might mark her bread with the letter of their name or her own special design (from which we have the Patty Cake nursery rhyme line, “roll it and shape it, mark it with a “b” and put it in the oven for baby and me”.

To make something like bread pudding, as we know it, stoves—with ovens—had to be invented and make their way into ordinary households.

Having found no definitive answer to my initial question—who created or invented the first bread pudding—I feel compelled to make an assumption or two.

Bread pudding as we know it is most likely a creation of the mid-or-late 1800s, devised during frugal periods, to make use of stale bread. And there were, indeed, many austere periods in American history. It was one of the primary reasons so many men and women headed west in the mid 1800s, searching for a better life.

**

Louisiana chefs have, unquestionably, elevated the status of bread pudding to new heights while modern day cooks have come up with new and delicious creations using croissants, dried cranberries, day old cinnamon rolls or cinnamon bread. (type in bread pudding on Google.Com and you will come up with literally thousands of websites and bread pudding recipes galore.

Here for you to try is one of the recipes that appeared in the Los Angeles Times article. I’ve made a few minor changes to the original recipe because, as most people who know me are aware, I can’t leave a recipe alone.

¼ lb (1 stick)  unsalted butter (should be softened, room temperature)

1 cup sugar

2 (12 oz) cans evaporated milk (undiluted)

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

7 slices stale white sandwich bread, toasted

½ cup seedless raisins or dried cranberries

Place butter and sugar in large bowl of electric mixer and beat on medium speed until mix is well creamed, about 5 minutes. Add milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cream of tartar and ginger. Beat on low speed until well-blended, about 3 minutes.

Break toasted bread into small pieces and arrange in even layer in bottom of ungreased 8×8” baking pan. Sprinkle on raisins. Pour milk mixture over the bread and let it stand for about 1 hour, occasionally patting down any bread that floats to the top.

Bake 450 degrees 20-25 minutes or until top is very well browned and mixture shakes like a bowl of jelly when pan is shaken. Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes before serving.   Makes 8-10 servings

Note: raisins, roasted pecans or other nuts or coconut can be added to recipe if desired.  I’ve discovered that dried blueberries also makes a nice addition.

I’ll leave you with this quotation, from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, in which he writes, “Hallo!  A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day!  That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other…”

Review by Sandra Lee Smith

THE GREAT AMERICAN CHRISTMAS COOKIE SWAP

As closely as I can remember, the December issue of Redbook magazine once featured a cookie exchange, festive with photographs and—if I am not mistaken—this particular cookie exchange took place in Ohio in the 1970s. I have collected the December issues of many women’s magazines for about fifty years and most are packed in boxes in the garage—I hate to part with any of them.

What I do remember best is that a group of us—coworkers in the office where I worked—held a few cookie exchanges. I hosted one in my home. A friend named Lyn also hosted one. Another year we had the cookie exchange at work . The first cookie exchange was really a flop. We spread the cookies out on platters and let everyone just help themselves to whatever they wanted. As hostess I ended up with all the burnt, crumbling cookies no one else wanted. First lesson learned: Everybody brings 5 or 6 dozen of ONE cookie. It must be a Christmas cookie and it can’t be store bought. Yes, people brought store bought cookies and made no attempt to conceal it. Then each guest receives two or three of each cookie, depending on how many people are there.

Last year I bought a Good Housekeeping cookbook titled THE GREAT CHRISTMAS COOKIE SWAP COOKBOOK.  Theoretically, cookie exchanges should work out to everybody’s satisfaction.  The problem is getting six or more women to put some real effort into making six dozen of one Christmas cookie and putting some thought and consideration into the project.  At one of the cookie exchanges my younger sister hosted, she compiled all the recipes into booklets for each of the guests. And no matter how much the hostess emphasizes that the cookies shouldn’t be ordinary run-of-the-mill cookies—they should be Christmas cookies.  Despite our emphasis on this rule, several people will still bring an ordinary chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie.  Inevitably, they will say they really don’t know how to bake Christmas cookies or they didn’t have time. there are more excuses than there are cookies.

One Christmas, my granddaughter and I made large Christmas tree cookies, frosted and decorated to look like a Christmas tree.  I baked; she decorated.  It baffles me that, years later – so many people don’t understand the concept of a cookie exchange.

I read on Google that cookie exchanges go back seventy years or more. I never heard of them at all until people I worked with started talking about cookie exchanges.

So, what to do if you are invited to attend a cookie exchange?  Put some thought into one cookie that would look festive and yummy. It doesn’t need to be very elaborate or expensive. If your resources are limited, buy a couple bags of a cookie mix; beg or borrow a few Christmas cookie cutters from a friend or neighbor. You will need two nice cookie sheets; if you line them with parchment paper, you can reuse the paper many times. If you make little star cookies, a small star will yield a lot of cookies.  You can make dozens of little stars in a very short time. Cool them on a rack and when the stars are cool, glaze them with a thin white frosting, If you have a young helper in the kitchen let your sous chef helper drizzle some colored sprinkles on the glaze before it has time to set.    Before you can sing all the verses to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, your cookies will be baked, decorated, and ready to pack in little plastic baggies. And stores like Michaels and JoAnn’s have loads of different kinds of bags in which to pack your cookies. Or spread them out on a large Christmassy platter.

Take a copy of your recipe along to give to the hostess or if you are ambitious enough. make enough copies so that each guest (and the hostess) receives a copy.

Guests are sometimes asked to bring a few extra cookies for sampling; the hostess may offer coffee or tea to go with the cookie tasting.

It isn’t rocket science, girlfriends – a cookie exchange is easy.

–Sandra Lee Smith

 

 

 

“The Rules of the Cookie Exchange”
by Robin Olson ©1997

  1. All cookies should be homemade, baked and main ingredient must be flour.
  2. No plain chocolate chip cookies, cookie mixes, no-bakes, meringues or bars.
  3. Please bring 6 dozen total cookies.
  4. The theme is “Christmas Cookies” (You can make any theme you like.)
  5. Arrange cookies in a basket or platter and be creative! Bring a large container to carry away your cookie, (or the hostess can provide a take away container.)
  6. Email a copy of your recipe before the party (or bring recipe to the party)
  7. Christmas (or party theme) attire is encouraged!
  8. RSVP as soon as you can and let me know what type of cookies you are planning on baking – no duplicate recipes are allowed.
  9. There’s a prize for the best Christmas outfit. (Give prizes!)
  10. If you don’t have time to bake, or have burnt your cookies, but still want to attend, you must go to a real bakery and buy 6 dozen yummy cookies.

Go here for a simple text version of the rules to copy and paste. Modify to suit your needs and include on a separate sheet, with your invitation.

THE RULES OF THE COOKIE EXCHANGE
(aka Cookie Exchange Rules, Cookie Swap Rules)

Robin L. Olson, Copyright 1997

Copyrights notice: “The “Rules of the Cookie Exchange” are for your personal *offline* use, feel free to change items to suit your needs and no acknowledgments are needed.

If you’re a writer, journalist, blogger or posting to message boards (ie; anything online or in print publication) using the CE rules, (in part or whole) please give credit where credit is due, and create an active link on the bottom of the same page that says:
“Some content courtesy of Robin Olson, Cookie-Exchange.com.”

 

NO CHRISTMAS COOKIES THIS YEAR!

By the time my first son, Michael, was five and his brother Steve was two, we were living in a rented house in North Hollywood and it was while we were living at that house on Kittridge street that I began collecting cookbooks—and was really into cookie baking by that time. I had acquired a lot of Wilton decorating tips and began learning how to make little flowers, like violets, with royal frosting, to put on cookies. Just before Christmas in 1965, I embarked on a sugar cookie baking marathon. I planned to give cookies to friends as well as coworkers at Weber Aircraft where both Jim and I were employed.  After hundreds of sugar cookies were baked and cooled, I began frosting them, one night, like an assembly-line, covering all the table and counter tops with trays of frosted cookies.  When at last the cookies were all decorated with butter cream frosting, I left them out to dry overnight. I collapsed in bed around 3 am.

The next day, I got up to discover that Michael had eaten the frosting off of every single cookie.  Every – single – cookie.  Needless to say, no one received gift tins of cookies from the Smiths that year.  To add insult to injury, Michael didn’t even get a tummy ache from all that sugar.  So, even though I may not be able to describe the many different cookies I made for most Christmases over the past 50 years..I can certainly tell you the story of the year no one received cookies from us.

In a homemade recipe journal I found in a used book store in the mid-60s, I was impressed with the author’s lists – lists of guests for parties, lists of everything that had been served – and lists of the cookies and confections she cooked and baked to give to friends for the holidays. So, I began keeping lists also. I’ve kept a Christmas notebook for years—it helps me remember who received what so that I don’t give that person the same thing two years in a row.  So for whatever it’s worth- here is a list of my Christmas cookies for 1981:

Chocolate chip

Chocolate cut out

Butter cut out

Mexican wedding cakes

Lebkuchen

Oatmeal ice box

1 dough 8 ways *bon bons

Peanut blossoms

Rum raisins

Butter pecan

Gingerbread boys

Almond icebox slices

Sun giant raisin

Cinnamon stars

Spritz

Truffles, 2 kinds

Sugared almonds

Mint walnuts

Candy pecans

Pralines

Peanut butter balls

Texas fruit cake

Madelines

What this list tells me is that not much has changed in thirty years. Many of these recipes are the same ones I’m still baking! And the mint walnuts became a favorite when my penpal in Oregon sent me small bottles of mint oil, from their mint crop. (although any kind of mint oil will work). Those are really not a “cookie” but what you might call a confection.

There was one other year – possibly the early 70s – when the price of sugar skyrocketed—a 5 lb bag of sugar soared to over $5.00. I may have baked some cookies but am inclined to think I focused on recipes that had molasses or natural sweeteners such as dried fruit.  Fortunately, the price of sugar dropped (maybe no one baked cookies that year) – and even now with sugar sold in 4 lb bags instead of 5 lbs, the price roughly $2.50 a bag, give or take depending on who has on sale—but there are ways to getting around the price of sugar – such as using cake mixes (bought when on sale) to make cookies with just the addition of eggs and maybe one or two other ingredients—but no added sugar. Sometimes you just have to be resourceful.

–Sandra Lee Smith

 

 

CANNING VEGGIES FROM A “SMALL” CITY GARDEN

 My son Kelly planted a larger garden last spring. He has done a little dabbling in gardening in the past few years, mostly pumpkins for the kids to make jack-o-lanterns. This year’s garden was a more serious endeavor. He planted corn, tomatoes, small hot chili peppers, bell peppers and crookneck squash. Oh, and watermelon and cantaloupe too. Early on, the garden began overflowing faster than any of us could pick, cook, or can. The squash went crazy. I went to a birthday party for a girlfriend in June; it was at a restaurant in Gorman and about forty something guests showed up. I put crook neck squashes in paper lunch bags and labeled them all door prizes—got rid of about 20 squashes this way but I could have easily given away many more. Then watermelon and cantaloupe overflowed; we couldn’t eat it fast enough or find enough homes for the fruit.

Meantime, Kelly’s one packet of cherry tomatoes began taking over the entire garden. As fast as they ripened, he would bring a bucket of tomatoes over for me to can (I live right around the corner from them). Tomatoes not quite ripe enough went in 1-pint plastic containers that I put in a back window that gets morning and afternoon sun. They would finish ripening overnight.

The easiest thing I could think of for canning cherry tomatoes was to convert them into juice and cook it down to a puree. Every other day I would cook a pot of cherry tomatoes and run them through a food mill; then the juice went into a gallon jar until I had enough to fill 7 quarts (the maximum amount that fits into my canner). I discovered that the easiest way to cook the juice down without any scorching was to pour the jars of juice into my largest crockpot. When I thought it was thick enough, I would have the sterilized quart or pint jars ready along with lids that had been sterilized and kept hot in a small pan. (I often wondered what the importance of cooking the lids was – it’s to soften the sealing compound on the underside of the lid—so that you get a solid seal after the jars have been submerged in a boiling water bath for an allotted amount of time (which varies depending on what you are canning. I only can food that can go into a boiling water bath, rather than a pressure cooker).

Well, we picked and picked and picked cherry tomatoes for weeks—I just took my time cooking the tomatoes in a small amount of water and then running it through a hand-held food mill. Then the pulp went into newspaper and into the trash; the juice went into the gallon jar until I had 2 gallon jars filled (I have often regretted not having a compost anymore. Bob & I had a compost going in an enclosed brick space in my back yard in Arleta—we lived there for 19 years so whatever he dug out of the very bottom of the compost would be perfect for gardening – and we invariably had volunteer tomato plants coming up where ever he used any compost).  I can’t do a compost here in the desert – nothing that would attract coyotes or bears which, believe it or not, have been spotted in Quartz Hill and Palmdale a few times since I’ve lived here. I was sitting in my car about to go somewhere one day when a skinny old coyote came around the corner and meandered slowly up my street.  And critters have been known to capture and kill family pets. A black bear was spotted one day about halfway between mine and my sister’s houses. I think animal control had to come and get that little fellow. Sorry, I digress.

Well, long story short, I have canned over 50 quarts of tomato puree. Some of Kelly’s little hot chili peppers went into a few of the jars.  The last of the tomato puree is heating up in my crock pot even as we speak. I should get 7 or 8 quarts of puree from the last of the ripe tomatoes.

A few days ago I suggested to Kelly (as we were digging around in the garden picking the last of the ripe tomatoes we could find) that I wouldn’t mind trying to make some pickled green cherry tomatoes—so over the weekend he and I picked all the green tomatoes we could find – we filled two large stainless basins and a large strainer—and he began pulling out the vines and packing them into his trash bin that is for leaves, clippings, garden debris. He climbed into the trash can to pack it down – and we called it quits for the tomatoes

(His bell peppers are still producing blossoms and peppers. I diced dozens of bell peppers with my Vidalia food chopper – it has a small dice and a larger one – and I filled bag after bag of bell peppers to give to friends and to fill our freezers).  Most of the chili peppers went into my dehydrator and we have given a lot of those away too).

So, yesterday – after making sure I had everything I wanted to put into my green tomato pickles – I began sterilizing jars, filling them with the green cherry tomatoes and spices—and making pickles. I weighed the cherry tomatoes on my bathroom scale before starting – and had 14 pounds of tomatoes.  This has produced 12 quarts of pickled cherry tomatoes. How do they taste? Well, I have one jar in the frig—not canned—and we’ll give them a taste in a week. The rest are going into my jelly cupboard which I had to completely change around this morning to make enough space for all the tomato puree and the cherry tomato pickles.  Whew! We don’t have the pantry or cupboard space that I had in the Arleta house. And you can’t store excess grocery items in the garage – it gets too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.

To Make Pickled Green Tomatoes, I checked various sites I found on Google—which is easier and faster than going through my collection of notebooks on canning, preserving, jelly & jam making.  I made my own variations which included the omission of garlic, which none of us is crazy about in pickles. I also added a small hot chili pepper in some, not all, of the jars.

 What You Need:

(For 12 quarts of green cherry tomato pickles)

14 pounds of green cherry tomatoes
12 cups of white vinegar
12 cups of water
12 tbsp. of kosher salt
dill seeds
whole black peppercorns

red pepper flakes or whole small chili peppers—dried or fresh

Jars — either quart-sized jars or 6 pint-sized jars, as well as lids and rings, a hot water canner (if you’re planning on storing your pickles long term)
Jar lifter

Prepping Your Tomatoes

(Note: If you’re planning to process your pickles in a hot water canner, you should fill the canner with water, add your jars, and turn the water on to sterilize and warm your jars. Just leave the jars in the water until you’re ready to use them. Place the lids and rings in another pan with simmering – not boiling- water until you’re ready to use them.)

Gather and wash 14 pounds of green tomatoes. I used green cherry tomatoes because they seemed to stay firmer after processing, but any tomato will work. You can cut your tomatoes in half if they’re larger or cut them into quarters. (I left mine whole and used different sizes – large and small. The very small ones  filled empty spaces in the jars.)

Now, make your brine. Add the vinegar, water, and salt to a pan, and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, it’s time to start filling your sterilized jars.

Remove the jars from the boiling water canner with jar tongs. Set them on a towel on your counter (so they don’t crack when they come into contact with the cool surface) and add the following to each jar:

  • 1 tsp. dill seeds
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp (or more if you want them spicier) of red pepper flakes–or small whole red chili peppers (fresh or dried)

Once your spices are in, start packing your tomatoes into the jars. Really, pack them in. Once they’re packed, add brine to fill the spaces between tomatoes. Use a chopstick or knife to go around the inside of the jar and remove any air bubbles, then fill with more brine if you need to. Leave 1/4 inch of headspace, then wipe the rims of your jars to clean up any brine, add your lids and tighten your rings.

Put your jars in your hot water canner, and cover with a lid. Once the water comes up to a boil, start your timer — you’ll be processing your pickles for fifteen minutes.

Once time is up, remove your jars and place them on a towel on a kitchen counter. They’ll have to sit there for several hours to cool. When they are cool, you can label the pickles and put them in a dark place to “age” – 6 weeks should be about right. This is the length of time I age my hot Hawaiian pineapple pickles.

Making Refrigerator Pickled Green Tomatoes–You can also forget about the boiling water processing if you just want to make a few jars of pickles to be eaten within the next month or so. Prep your tomatoes, add your spices, tomatoes, and boiling brine to the jars, and place in the refrigerator. They’ll be ready to eat in about a week.

What to Do with Pickled Green cherry tomatoes? You can snack on them or slice or dice the pickles to go on top of hamburgers or hot dogs. They can be diced and added to tuna or chicken salad for sandwiches—or cut up to go into salads.  The sky’s the limit.

–Sandra Lee Smith

 

FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A. BY BECKY MERCURI

FOOD FESTIVAL U.S.A.

It was the greatest delight when I first discovered “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” in a cookbook catalog—the title and the author’s name, Becky Mercuri, jumped right off the page—for I knew that this was our very own Becky Mercuri, with whom I had occasionally corresponded and talked with on the telephone about a decade ago, when we both wrote articles for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange.

I had known for quite some time that Becky was writing “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” –food festivals interest me, also, so it was doubly delightful to have Becky’s cookbook to read and write about. For, of course, this is a combination cookbook and food festival directory. There are, in “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” 250 “Red, White & Blue Ribbon Recipes from all 50 States”. As a Californian, I turned first to the section devoted to the Pacific, to see which California food festivals had caught Becky’s attention. The choices are good ones, ranging from Mendocino California’s Abalone Festival to Castroville’s Artichoke Festival. Also included is the Strawberry Festival in Oxnard, California, which I have attended; Oxnard is just a short drive up the 101 freeway from the San Fernando Valley and attracts a great deal of attention in the local press every year. When Bob & I would drive to Ventura for a weekend getaway, we’d drive through the back roads that lead to Oxnard and Ventura, through vast farmlands that include the Oxnard strawberry fields. Becky notes, in “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” that “Over 148,000 tons, or about 20 percent of California’s strawberries, are produced in the Oxnard area. The annual Strawberry Festival pays tribute to the industry while providing affordance entertainment, great food, and support for a host of local charities…”

One year, when my aunt was visiting from Florida, we took her on a day trip to Ventura, stopping at an Oxnard produce stand on our way home to buy a flat of strawberries, which I converted into preserves. The strawberry festival in Oxnard, Becky observes, “features more than 270 arts and craft booths, three concert stages, Strawberryland for Kids and wacky contests (such as the Strawberry Shortcake Eating Contest).

And, although I knew about the Gilroy Garlic Festival which Becky Mercuri notes is world-renowned, I confess I didn’t know about The Borrego Springs Grapefruit Festival, the California Dried Plum Festival in Yuba City, the California Dry Bean Festival in Tracy, California, or the Goleta Lemon Festival in Goleta, California. And that’s not all! There’s a Carrot Festival in Holtville, California, and the Indio International Tamale Festival, in Indio, California—there is even an Eggplant Festival in Loomis, California!

I think it might be fun, if money and time were no object, to travel the width and breadth of the United States, just to attend some of these festivals. Who wouldn’t want to check out Louisiana’s Sugarcane Festival, Crab Days and Oysterfest in St. Michael’s, Maryland, or the World Catfish Festival, in Belzoni, Mississippi? Vidalia onion lovers might want to head for the Vidalia Onion Festival in Vidalia, Georgia, while New Yorkers might be interested in the Phelps Sauerkraut Festival in Phelps, New York, or their own Hudson Valley Garlic Festival in Saugerties, New York.

As one might expect, there is a Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, Maine, every year (that would surely be a great festival to attend!) – and while one might expect blueberry and maple syrup festivals on the East Coast, would you be surprised to discover the Marshall County Blueberry Festival in Plymouth, Indiana, or the Parke County Maple Syrup Festival in Rockville, Indiana? And although I was born and raised in Ohio and knew about the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio, I was astonished to learn about an Asian Festival held in Columbus, Ohio, and a chocolate festival in Lorain, Ohio! (There’s also a Chocolate Fest in Burlington, Wisconsin).

Becky Mercuri has done her homework well for, along with an intriguing assortment of recipes which range from Double Chocolate Raspberry Marble Cheesecake (Central Maine Egg Festival) to Best Restaurant Manhattan Clam Chowder (Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cook-Off and Festival, Santa Cruz, California), you will also find well-written, interesting capsule descriptions of each festival

In the Introduction, Becky writes, “Street food, carnival food, festival food—by whatever name, this is food that draws Americans together. Thousands of food festivals are held annually throughout the United States, attracting millions of visitors…”

John T. Edge, who wrote the Foreword to “FOOD FESTIVALS, U.S.A.” notes, “In FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A., Becky Mercuri sings a paean to the diversity of America’s food heritage. Along the way, she manages to convey a few lessons in culinary history. So dive in. By the time you hit page 320, you’ll be out the door, stomach rumbling, car keys in hand, hell-bent for the Prairie Dog Chili Cook Off and World Championship Pickled Quail Egg Eating….” John says “Look for me. I’ll be there, too. I’ll be the guy surrounded by spent chili bowls, napping under the bough of an oak…”

Becky says that, in writing this book she had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of Americans who work hard to produce the food festivals and ethnic celebrations that make up such a rich part of our collective culture. She quotes food writer Ronni Lundi, who she interviewed a few years ago, who told her “Music and cooking are my passions. They provide windows to look at culture.” Becky adds, “Indeed. Nearly every festival in this book boasts of that same basic combination of music and food and gives us a peek into the very essence of life in a particular region or ethnic group….” And perhaps that explains why, after collecting “regional” cookbooks for over thirty years, I find food festivals equally fascinating. And a cookbook about food festivals? My cup runneth over!

If you find the food history of the United States as fascinating as I do, I think you will enjoy “FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” – you may want to take it along with you on your next vacation, and search out some of these absolutely unique regional tributes to our culinary heritage. There is even a Directory of Festivals by Month, and a Directory of Festivals by State. Amusing illustrations have been provided by artist Tom Klare.

Becky Mercuri began collecting recipes at the same age as I, (nine years old) and her cookbook collection contains over 7,000 volumes (maybe close to the same amount I have although I quit counting at 3,000 books over ten years ago). We also share an interest in cookie cutters but while Becky has over 3,000 cookie cutters and molds, I have no idea how many I’ve accumulated over the years—I can only tell you, they fill an assortment of plastic containers that I have stored on shelves in a Rubbermaid cupboard. At the time this was written, Becky had three dogs and a dozen cats, and was donating a portion of the proceeds of this book to the cause of animal welfare. Along with writing for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, Becky was food editor of the Wellsville Daily Reporter for three years. Last I heard, she was also working on a comprehensive bibliography of all English language cookbooks published between 1940 and 1949. Perhaps by now, it’s been completed. I lost contact with Becky Mercuri when she moved back east (she had been living in California).

“FOOD FESTIVAL, U.S.A.” was published by Laurel Glen Publishing. It is available on Amazon.com at $5.39 new or starting at one cent for pre owned.

Review by Sandra Lee Smith
9-2013