Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Best Thing I Ever Tasted

One of the hardest things I know of, is trying to condense an entire book of knowledge into a few pages—how do you reduce to a few paragraphs the bulk of information that someone has spent months, or even years, compiling? And how do you do it in such a way as to convey to your readers the value of what you have just read?

I feel that way about “THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED” by Sallie Tisdale. It could have been subtitled “Everything but the kitchen sink” for Tisdale’s book, while part memoir, covers a wide range of culinary history, and, actually, is subtitled “The Secret of Food”. In recent decades, numerous books have been published about our culinary history, some reaching back into medieval times; books that range from Reay Tannahill’s “FOOD IN HISTORY” to Gerry Schremp’s “KITCHEN CULTURE”, from Sylvia Lovegren’s “FASHIONABLE FOOD” to James Trager’s “FOOD CHRONOLOGY”. I, myself, have almost entire bookcase devoted to books of this particular genre. So, you may ask, does the culinary world need another? And my answer is yes, we do, because each writer brings his own particular slant to a subject and this is ever so true in Sallie Tisdale’s “THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED”. She will start out telling you about some of her own life’s experiences and segue into facts and statistics regarding the evolution of our kitchens, the how and why of what we eat and how we eat it. One reviewer noted, “weaving together childhood memories of Fritos and Orange Crush with meditations on the history, psychology and economics of food, she explores the complexities of how we satisfy the most basic of human needs”.

We are introduced to Tisdale as a nine-year-old attempting to make acorn meal the way the Indians did. Sallie grew up in California where, to this day, fourth graders study Indians—particularly tribes of California. The author discovered that making acorn meal was a long tedious process and from there segues into here and now in the kitchen.

She says, “My own generation is the one whose grandparents and great-grandparents tried to leave the past behind in the process of making things brand new….I was born three years after Swanson’s first television dinner appeared—turkey with dressing, peas, and whipped potatoes, and grew up eating good food and bad….”

She explains that both of her parents were teachers and during the school year, they ate “tamale pie: made with hamburger and cream of tomato soup, scalloped potatoes and Spam, canned spinach, iceberg lettuce leaves as big as plates with dollops of reconstituted ranch dressing on top.

To start this book, Sallile began with her mother’s BETTY CROCKER’S PICTURE COOK BOOK, a first edition from 1950 ; she writes, “…I viewed the cookbook as a kind of anthropoligical artifact, a set of clues into my mother’s life. But as I looked more carefully, with more objective eyes, I began to understand that it wasn’t simply an artifact of her life but also of mine—that this seemingly distant world was mine as much as hers, marked my generation as much as it did hers….”

Elsewhere in her book, Tisdale visits General Mills and learns a great deal more about Betty Crocker. “General Mills,” she observes, “has had test kitchens for many decades and the seven in use now look a lot like the pictures in the 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook. The Williamsburg kitchen is blue and pink, with flickering candle ‘flames’; the Arizona Desert kitchen is poppy orange…Each kitchen has a false window looking out on a false view of a false landscape. All the views are sunny….” She explains that all of the kitchens are “working” kitchens, meant to be as much as possible like the kitchens we have in our homes today, fitted with the most popular brand of appliances, the most widely used muffin tins and blenders, the top selling oils, ketchup and margarines. All of the shopping is done at retail prices in grocery stores. Teams of employees—which happen to all be women and are divided into teams of technicians led by home economists—spend much of their time in these kitchens, testing recipes.

“The same attitude that inspired Betty Crocker to tell grown women how to peel a potato prevails here” writes Sallie. “General Mills gets more than 600,000 queries a year to the various Betty Crocker help lines and a lot of them have to do with following simple directions….”

And while you and I, accustomed to following directions in cookbooks, may find this a little hard to believe, a team leader for Dessert Mixes told Sallie, “There was a ready-to-spread frosting mix…We found that people took the plastic container and put it on the burner…that just taught us a lot about what people do not know….

Elsewhere in “THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED,” Sallie delves deeper into the history of Betty Crocker and how the “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” began in 1924 and lasted for 24 years. We have dealt in depth with that subject ourselves, in “DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL” (CCE May/June 1994 so I won’t repeat myself, except to say that Sallie Tisdale’s “take” on this subject, which is focused on Betty Crocker, provides us with another slant on the topic.

However, Sallie’s reflections on Betty Crocker are just the tip of the iceberg and I don’t mean lettuce. She somehow manages to cover an amazing range of subjects. I was especially interested in her thoughts and comments on how Americans handle foreign foods. “Foreign cuisines are first transplanted, then assimilated” she writes. After assimilation comes transformation. Elsewhere in this book, she observes, “We like to eat the cuisine of foreigners in two ways—traveling and one step removed. “

Much of what she writes about how Americans handle foreign cuisine struck a familiar chord; it reminded me of some of Ruth Reichl’s observations about her trip to China, and her discovery that the Chinese food Americans eat is not the same as the Chinese food Chinese eat in China.

In the Epilogue, Sallie summarizes by saying “Food has always meant more than feeding. Food is bonding, sacrament, joy. A quotidian public light…We have a very long history of treating food as a potent, holy, and mystically precious thing….

What is the secret of food?” she asks. “Do you think I have it? … The secret of food, for me, is a steady walk through the middle of the cultural thicket, glancing only now and then to the extremes on either side. A little simplicity—local food, seasonal food, plain food. An apple. Good Oregon cheese on fresh bread, unadorned…a sacher torte made from scratch for a friend. Simmering complex stews….” And in closing, she quotes Fernand Point, “I have been so well nurtured throughout my life that I’m sure to die completely cured.” “What luck to eat well,” she summarizes “and to believe that we deserve to eat well. What luck to be so very lucky. This is the real secret of food”.

‘THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED” by Sallie Tisdale, though not a cookbook, is worthy of our attention. It’s what I consider “a good read”.
Those of you who like bibliographies (and you know who you are) will be properly impressed; you will recognize many familiar names, people like Mary Anna DuSablon, Betty Fussell, John and Karen Hess, Jane and Michael Stern—and a host of others.

“THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED” is available in paperback by Riverhead Books and has a copyright of the year 2000. It sells for $13.00. You may be able to find a copy through Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s used book websites. (And I often find a lot of great cookbooks at the bi-annual Friends of the Library sales).


My Grandmother’s Kitchen

I’d like to tell you a bit about my paternal grandmother, Susanna Gengler Schmidt, who was truly the great cook in my family. My grandmother was German and my grandfather Hungarian. We grew up with all these dishes and delicacies that we lumped together as “German food”; it wasn’t until I acquired some Hungarian friends as an adult living in California that I discovered that Grandma’s thin crepe-like pancakes (which we called ‘German pancakes’) were actually Hungarian Palacsinta.

My grandmother made huge pans of strudel with homemade tissue-thin filo dough, using whatever was in season for the filling. She had some sour apple trees so there was often apple strudel but we also enjoyed cherry, cheese, and even a spicy pumpkin strudel that made an appearance in the fall. She made a chicken broth with ‘rivels’ – tiny little dumplings and with it we would often have a homemade bread crusted with kosher salt (appropriately dubbed salt bread). Her goulash, I learned, was more Hungarian than German and generally didn’t contain much more than stewing beef, potatoes and carrots.

We enjoyed chicken Paprikash and wiener schnitzel and liver dumplings. We all loved the homemade sausages (once a year my grandparents butchered a hog and made a lot of sausages. The hams were smoked in a converted section of the garage).
The one thing I hated (but everyone else enjoyed) was Hasenpfeffer made with wild rabbit that my father would have caught going hunting a few times a year.

My grandmother always made her own noodles (from scratch!) to go with these dishes and it was not an unusual sight for a grandchild to come running in to Grandma’s and find noodles drying on the backs of all the wooden chairs.

Sometimes there was Sacher Torte and sometimes Dobosh torte. I think we all loved the Dobosh torte the most – seven thin layers of sponge cake with layers of bittersweet chocolate frosting between each layer; the whole thing encased afterwards in the same chocolate frosting.

My grandmother often made doughnuts and on the Feast of the Three Kings, you could expect to find a coin – a nickel or dime – inside your doughnut.

Most of my grandmother’s recipes died with her – she never wrote anything down…but her youngest daughter in law wanted to learn from Grandma and stood by her elbow watching, repeatedly, to see how things were made. My aunt is the only person left who remembers how some of these dishes were made.

One of my best memories of sitting at the table with my grandmother didn’t involve an elaborate meal, however. Often, when I was spending the night with her, we would have tea with lemon and some buttered saltine crackers as a snack before going to bed. To this day hot tea and lemon and some buttered crackers are one of my comfort foods.

As children, we all vied for the opportunity to go with Grandma shopping at the farmer’s market in downtown Cincinnati. And it wasn’t until long after she had passed away that we discovered that each one of us believed we were “grandma’s favorite”. She had the uncanny ability to make each grandchild believe that he or she WAS grandma’s favorite.

It has been more than 50 years since my grandmother passed away but she is still very much in our hearts and minds.

Barbara’s Seed Pals

My sister’s name at birth was Barbara Ann Schmidt. How she acquired the nickname of Becky is family lore. My mother’s maiden name was Beckman. When my parents were dating, my father often called mom “Becky”, a diminutive of her surname, Beckman. When my sister was born – she became “Little Becky”. Consequently—to everyone within the family she was always “Becky”. She was never crazy about that name and was known to everyone else as Barb or Barbara. To her seed pals, she was “Barb”.

Now, within the family – I had been the one with penpals. I acquired my first penpal, a distant cousin, when we were about ten years old. The Internet has changed much of how we perceive penpals and my sister was no exception. She joyfully embraced becoming acquainted with people via the Internet and developed quite a network of friendships. Most important of these were her “seed pals”. Unlike me, who didn’t have a green thumb and like Erma Bombeck, belonged to the Black Thumb Terrorist Organization (we killed plants), my sister had inherited our paternal grandmother’s ability to make anything grow (flowers, plants, vegetables, children).

When Wendy expressed an interest in learning more about my sister’s seed pals, I wrote to them, asking them to tell me how they became acquainted with my sister. I had begun sporadic correspondence with some of these seed pals several years ago, when my sister’s illness left her too debilitated to continue writing, I would provide updates on her condition. Many responded to my request for information. There were over a dozen women throughout the USA with whom Barbara corresponded and mailed seeds from her garden (Often in empty pill bottles!). Some seed pals live in Montana, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, California, and Ohio. (She also sent seeds to various family members, including myself).

Mary, in South Carolina, wrote “…I met your sis on an AOL Garden web site about 3 years ago. I posted for something and so did she and we swapped. Every year since, I have giant, carnation-sized marigolds of hers, some bell flowers and a Malva Zebrina. In turn, I have shared her seeds and they have made it to Canada and England, along with PA, TN, FL, SC and NY. As you can see, the ‘pebble in the pond’ has indeed spread far and wide…” Mary says they would also exchange garden information and tips they’d learned along the way, and would also discuss crafts. “I think of her each year when my giant marigolds show their heads in the garden” Mary concluded.

A seed pal named Demaris, in Texas wrote “Barb sent me many more seeds than I sent her. I sent the excess seeds to others and some to Croatia.” Some of those seeds did not survive the hot Texas weather except for a Four O’ Clock plant which has returned for the past three years…” Demaris also met Barb on an AOL message board.

A childhood friend, Patty, who lives in Ohio wrote, “Barb and I swapped perennial seeds. She also sent some gourds for my daughter’s Christmas crafts”.

Vicki, a niece, confided that “Aunt Becky” sent her a lot of seeds over the years. The most recent seeds were hollyhocks. When the seeds arrived, Vicki called her aunt who told her where to plant them and not to expect too much the first season, but if they liked their location, they would bloom the following season. “I remember walking past the flower bed and seeing these huge stalks! Then, of course, a few weeks later they bloomed in beautiful shades of pink! I felt like I was growing my own ‘beanstalk’ because they kept growing and growing until they were 8’ tall!”

Another Buckeye penpal wrote “I was one of Barb’s seed pals. Several years ago she sent me seeds for cosmos…and then I moved from a house with a large garden space to a condo with a tiny space, so the cosmos seeds went into my daughter’s Christmas stocking. My older girl planted a feathery cosmos border along a piney log fence in back of her house, so she can look out on that picture when her kids cut through backyards to catch the schoolbus…”

Stella, in California, wrote, “I met Barbara on the online garden boards. We started out exchanging seeds and began corresponding…we seemed to click and she enjoyed having another ‘youngster’ to correspond with…and dubbed herself as Granny Barb when she signed her letters to me…she sent me quite a number of different seeds collected from her garden…also two dried gourds from the backyard. Seeds were hollyhocks. Sunflowers, cleome and blue morning glories…”

Bre, who lives in Northern California, wrote, “I met Barb online…through a seed exchange. We started to chat about gardening and later about cancer. We laughed and cried together as we shared our stories…I loved her straight away…I remember when she sent flower and gourd seeds to [my son] so we could grow them in our garden. He loved the gourds and still carries around the hand painted gourd she sent for his first Christmas….my gardens are starting to bloom and my “granny Barb” section; I have a Granny Barb angel in her special section of the secret garden…”

Possibly one of my favorite stories came from my sister’s sister-in-law, Lois, who wrote, “I had a Night Blooming Cirrus which had not bloomed in several years. All of a sudden a bud appeared; I watched it carefully since it takes several days to open. On October 12th it opened to the fullest with the most beautiful scent. I later learned that Barb died about the same time. The bloom doesn’t last but a few hours and it was gone when she was…”

My sister Barbara, aka Becky, lost her battle with breast cancer on October 10, 2004—but her seeds continue to grow and bloom in many different parts of the country.


A nurse receptionist I met a few days ago mentioned wanting crockpot recipes; I directd her to my blog to find a list of crockpot cookbooks – but as I scanned through the posts of this past year, I realized I haven’t provided you with some favorite crockpot recipes.

Well, there are so many—we all probably have some tried-and-true favorites that we toss into the pot before heading out the door to go to work in the morning So, here are some recipes for you to try:

Easiest Ever Crock Pot Beef Stew

1 package (24 ounces) frozen mixed vegetables
1 pound lean stewing beef, cut into small cubes
1 can condensed tomato soup (undiluted)
½ cup water
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
salt & pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
Dash of Kitchen Bouquet

Put the vegetables in the bottom of the crockpot. Add meat. In a separate bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients and pour over the meat and vegetables. Cover and cook on low setting 12-14 hours (on high, 3-4 hours). Makes 4 servings.

This is a good recipe to toss into the crockpot before you go to work in the morning.


My favorite crockpot recipe actually requires the use of a pressure cooker the day before – I cook a corned beef roast in the pressure cooker for 1 hour (with enough water to cover and the little bag of spices that comes with the meat can be put into a tea caddy or tied up in cheesecloth), let it cool and refrigerate over night (throw away the spice bag, save the broth), then do the following:

potatoes – 3-4, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
carrots – 3-4 peeled and cut in half lengthwise
1 cooked corned beef roast; excess fat removed, cut in thick slices
broth from cooking the corned beef
1 small head cabbage, quartered

All you have to do is put the potatoes and carrots in the bottom of the crockpot. Add the sliced meat; pour the broth from cooking the corned beef over it all, and add the wedges of cabbage. Let it cook on low all day.

(*if you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can just cook the corned beef in a pot of water for a few hours)

Easiest Slow Cooker Beef Stew

1 package (24 ounces) frozen mixed vegetables
1 pound lean stewing beef, cut into small cubes
1 can condensed tomato soup (undiluted)
½ cup water
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes

Salt & pepper to taste

Put the vegetables in the bottom of the slow cooker. Add meat. In a separate bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients and pour over the meat and vegetables. Cover and cook on low setting 12-14 hours (on high, 3-4 hours). Makes 4 servings.

This is another good recipe to toss into the slow cooker before you go to work in the morning.

Savory Slow Cooker Beef Stew

1 (24 oz) package frozen mixed vegetables
1 lb lean stewing beef, cut into small cubes
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 pkg onion soup mix
½ cup water

Put the frozen vegetables into the slow cooker. Add meat. Mix together condensed cream of mushroom soup with ½ cup water; pour over vegetables and meat. Sprinkle on onion soup mix, stir to mix; cover and cook on low setting 8-10 hours or on high 3-4 hours.

5-ingredient Slow Cooker Brisket

3-4 lb beef brisket
1 large onion, sliced
1 TBSP liquid smoke
1 12-oz bottle chili sauce
salt and pepper to taste

Arrange onion slices in bottom of slow cooker. Place brisket over onions. Sprinkle on liquid smoke. Pour chili sauce over meat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook on low setting 10-12 hours.

(You can add peeled potatoes and carrots in the last 2 hours for a complete meal. Add a little water if necessary).

5-ingredient BBQ Brisket

4-5 lb beef brisket
1 ½ cups your favorite commercial BBQ sauce
1.5 oz bottle liquid smoke
Seasonings: sprinkling of celery salt, garlic salt, onion salt

Place brisket is slow cooker. Sprinkle with seasonings. Pour on liquid smoke. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours. Next day, cook on low setting 8-10 hours or until tender. During the last hour, pour BBQ sauce over the brisket. Excellent served on buns with cole slaw on the side.

Actually, I feel obligated to share the absolute EASIEST BBQ meat/crock pot recipe. You start out with a cooked pork loin roast – have it for dinner one night. (All I do is sprinkle on onion soup mix and wrap the roast in foil; let it roast in a slow (325 degree) oven until it’s done. NEXT day – slice or shred the meat. Toss it into your crockpot. Stir in your favorite brand of BBQ sauce. Let it cook all day. Yum!

Cranberry Cocktail Meatballs

2 pounds Ground beef
1 cup Corn flake crumbs
2 Eggs
1/2 cup Chopped, fresh parsley
1/3 cup Ketchup
3 tablespoons Minced onions
2 tablespoons Soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon Garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon Pepper


16 ounces Can, jellied or whole cranberry sauce
12 ounces Chili sauce
1 tablespoon Brown sugar
1 tablespoon Lemon juice
In a large bowl, combine ground beef, corn flake crumbs, parsley, eggs, ketchup, onion, soy sauce, garlic powder and pepper. Mix well and form into small balls, from 1/2″ to 3/4″ in diameter. Place in a casserole or baking pan. Heat oven to 300 degrees F. Meanwhile in a saucepan, combine cranberry sauce, chili sauce, brown sugar and lemon juice. Cook stirring over medium heat until smooth. Pour hot sauce over meatballs in casserole. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the meatballs. Transfer to crockpot and keep on low for serving. Makes 4 to 5 dozen meatballs, depending on size.

Easy Meatball Soup

1 pound frozen meatballs, Italian seasoned
3 cups beef broth
2 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced tomatoes with Italian seasonings
1 cup diced potato, about 1 medium potato
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
16 ounces (about 3 cups) frozen mixed vegetables

In crockpot, combine meatballs, broth, tomatoes, potato, onion, garlic powder, and pepper. Cover and cook on Low for 7 to 9 hours, until potatoes and onion are tender. Stir in frozen vegetables and cook on HIGH for 1 hour longer. Serves 6. If desired, serve with a tossed salad and pass the Parmesan cheese.


3 large baking potatoes, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 can cream of corn
1/2 to 3/4 bag frozen corn
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Black pepper
1 1/2 cups diced ham or 10 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled, or 1 1/2 cups roasted red peppers, cut to bite size, plus a pinch of crushed rosemary. Put all ingredients in the slow cooker; stir and cook on low 6 to 8 hours or until potatoes are tender.

Well, these will get you started but keep in mind – almost anything that you would cook for hours in the oven or in a pot on top of the stove – can easily be converted to making in your crockpot. One of my favorites is sauerkraut and pork chops – you want to know what I do? I put several pork chops (or some sausages) in the bottom of the crockpot. I dump on a jar of sauerkraut. I put on the lid, turn the setting on low & go off and forget about it until dinner time. Yummy!

Happy Cooking!

Feast of the Three Kings & Grandma’s Doughnuts!


Today, January 6th, is the traditional Feast of the Three Kings (or the Feast of the Magi), aka the Feast of the Epiphany. The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in A.D. 361. St. Epiphanius said that January 6 was Christ’s “Birthday; that is, His Epiphany”). He also stated that the Miracle at Cana occurred on the same calendar day. In 385, the pilgrim Egeria (also known as Silvia) described a celebration in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which she called “Epiphany” (epiphania) that commemorated the Nativity of Christ.
In a sermon delivered on December 25, 380, St. Gregory of Nazianzus referred to the day “the Theophany”, an alternative name for Epiphany, saying that it is a day Commemorating “the holy nativity of Christ” and told his listeners that they would soon be celebrating the baptism of Christ. Then, on January 6 and 7, he preached two more sermons, declaring that the celebration of the birth of Christ and the visitation of the Magi had already taken place, and that they would now commemorate his Baptism.

Epiphany is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches, but a major difference between them is precisely which events the feast commemorates. For Western Christians, the feast primarily commemorates the coming of the Magi; Eastern churches celebrate the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan. In both traditions, the essence of the feast is the same: the manifestation of Christ to the world (whether as an infant or in the Jordan), and the Mystery of the Incarnation.
The West historically observed a twelve-day festival, starting on December 25, and ending on January 5, known as Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas. Yet, some Christian cultures, especially those of Latin America, and some in Europe, extend the season to as many as forty days, ending on Candlemas (February 2).

In more recent years, the Church has changed the date for the Feast of the Epiphany to coincide with the nearest Sunday (thus relieving the faithful of the obligation to attend mass during the week) – but back in the day, when I was attending grammar school, it was a holy day and – my paternal grandmother would make doughnuts! Not just any doughnuts – these doughnuts had a coin (usually a nickel or a dime) inside. Grandma’s doughnuts were good anytime – but fresh, hot and sprinkled with sugar Delicious!
Presumably, the coins represented the gifts of the three kings. (and to the best of my knowledge, none of us ever swallowed the coin.

This isn’t my grandmother’s exact recipe; Grandma Schmidt didn’t write any of her recipes down–but I found a recipe for old fashioned doughnuts so this recipe will stand in for Grandma’s.

To make Grandma’s Old Fashioned doughnuts you will need:
4 cups of all purpose flour (about)
4 ½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp salt
¼ cup shortening (such as Crisco)
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
¾ cup milk

Combine flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. Cream shortening with half of the sugar until light. Beat eggs until light and fluffy; add remaining sugar gradually, beating between additions. Combine egg mixture and shortening, and add vanhilla. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk to make a dough that is soft but not sticky. Cover bowl and chill for at least 1 hour. Roll dough out on floured board to a thickness of about 3/8”. Cut with floured doughnut cutter. Deep fry 3 to 4 doughnuts at a time (Cooking oil should be between 360 to 375 degrees & can be prepared while you are chilling the dough). Drain fried doughnuts on absorbent paper (Grandma drained doughnuts on a brown paper bag). Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar or if you prefer, dust them with a little powdered sugar. Best served hot and fresh! And on the Feast of the Three Kings, you would look for a coin in your doughnut!
Sandra’s Cooknote: You want to drop the doughnuts into the hot oil and when each one is brown on one side, flip them over to cook on the other side – carefully! Hot oil can spatter and cause burns!

Happy Cooking!