Friday, August 17, 2012

Americans and a National Cuisine

Pellegrini correctly assesses that Americans who are not recent immigrants lack an established cuisine. He comments about Americans:

"His curiosity about culinary matters, of relatively recent origin, is an encouraging sign.If he would proceed wisely, however, he must remember that the evolution of a traditional cuisine requires time. His immediate concern should be a willingness to experiment, an insistence upon quality, a purging of his mind of all culinary prejudice...

The culinary poseurs, foreign and domestic alike, are out to capitilize on American credulity in cultural matters. Their insistence that cooking is an art and eating and drinking a ritual, has thrown the dinner hour out of focus and produced needless confusion. There are few Americans, for example, who can serve a dinner which deviates a little from the native tradition without being somewhat self-conscious about it. And who is certain about when to serve red and when to serve white wine? The proper attitude, of course, is that it doesn't make a damned bit of difference." (p. 231-2)

For Pellegrini, what matters is the quality of the ingredients and a willingness to improve, using the proper techniques, using the materials on hand. He also states earlier in the book his belief that women and men can be equally good cooks, although it is easier for men to do so as a vocation because women are tied down with domestic duties. This is a radical statement since he is asserting that domestic cooking is as important as restaurant cooking.

Both Italy and France have strong regional cuisines. Peter Mayle in particular likes to visit smal, unpretentious restaurants in little towns with traditional (often female) cooks. These regional restaurants will serve food using recipes that draw from the meats and produce traditionally produced by the surrounding countryside. Although they don't use the term, these restaurants can be viewed as locavore dining spots.

It has been sixty years since this book was published. I would be interested in hearing from readers whether they think that Americans have developed a domestic cuisine, and if so, what is it? I think we have developed the burger and fries combo to a fine art, but would love to read comments from others.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Gardening and the Neighbors

Home gardens have traditionally been grown by first-generation Italian immigrants. While most people, when they think of gardening Italians, recall Vito Corleone dropping dead in his Long Island yard, many other humbler Italians also tilled the soil of their yards. For example, my great-grandfather the unsuccessful wine-maker had what my mother remembered as a "farm" in the Bronx of the 1930's. My father's mother had a large garden in her house in Elmont, although I tend not to believe my sister's claim that grandma raised goats; I don't think this would have popular with the neighbors in Elmont in the 1960's. My neighbor in Astoria was able to be self-sufficent from his produce from his two yards. Italians in Glendale, Middle Village, and Canarsie and Bensonhurst all had patches with tomatos, zucchini, and basil.

Pellegrini viewed his yard not as something to be turned into green turf, or cemented over for additional parking space, but as fertile land that could be used to feed his family. He turned twenty-five hundred square feet of spce into a vegetable garden. In addition to a ffifty artichoke plants and a fifty-foot row of raspberries, he also had:

"sixteen blueberry bushes, three peach trees, a plum, an apple, a fig, and a pear. There are also about a hundred strawberry plants. ...The fruit trees and berry bushes provide thefamily with fruit for the year. What is not eaten in season is frozen or otherwise preserved for the winter. We can also give an occasional basket to our good  friends."
(pp 72-3).

He also has herbs, flowers and decorative shrubs, and two thousand square feet of lawn for his children to play on.

Fortunately for Pellegrini, he lived in a Seattle suburb. While Seattle has gentrified considerably since the early 1990's, there were still many ungentrified neighborhoods prior to the twenty-first century. My neighbors in Ballard, for example, had moved to the US from Finland and regularly used the smokehouse they build in their backyard. My neighbors in Queen Anne were  horticulturalists who grew drought-resistant plants in their yard and fennel for their rabbits. The only plants the city cracked down on were marijuana and opium poppies.

Cities in the rest of the country were less flexible. By the mid-1980's, most of my neighbors on Long Island had gardeners, regularly spread chemicals on their lawns, and confined their shrubbery to evergreens pruned in the shape of corkscrews. They would not have welcomed a neighbor who ploughed up his lawn to  plant messy fruit trees and plebian vegetables. My parents had a huge apple tree in their yard, but we never ate the apples. Pellegrini would have turned them into apple sauce and pies.

While there is a new move towards urban farms, particularly in NYC and Detroit, there are also areas where farming is not popular with the neighbors. Fruit trees attract messy birds and rodents. Gardens fallow in winter look like big plots of mud. Rabbits kept in hutches to fatten them before eating would prompt a call to Animal Control. In fact, NYC actually had to amend its zoning law becuase people were completely paving over their  front yards to create parking spots, and the resultant runoff was flooding streets and houses.

Pellegrini's other book, such as the Food Lover's Garden, emphasize the joys of growing your own produce and eating homegrown food. He thinks this helps him to lead a balanced life of both the head and the body, as well as an aesthetically pleasing one. He and his fellow Italian immigrants already know the benefits or exercise, a physical connection to the earth, and a healthy diet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wine and family values

Pellegrini, like many immigrants originally from Italy, made his own wine with grapes that he bought from Robert Mondavi.When I was growing up on Long Island, my mother frequently took me shopping at a giant fruit and vegetable store named
Cross-Island Fruits. They stock giant glass demi-johns and a variety of bottles for the home wine maker. You can order grapes from them, as well as a wine press if desired. Whenever we visited the store, my mother would recall how her paternal grandfather, who immigrated from Tuscany in the 1890's, also made his own wine from purchased grapes. Unlike Pellegrini, who claims that his wine was highly sought after by friends, my great-grandfather's wine was legendarily undrinkable. Pellegrini fermented his wine in glass, as Cross Island Fruits recommends on their wine-making page; my impression was that my great-grandfather used wood, which may have tainted the wine.

When I moved to Astoria in the 1990's one of my neighbors was an elderly Italian man who owned several properties in Astoria. He had huge vegetable gardens and fruit trees on two properties, and canned his produce every fall. He also made his own wine. Although he was in his seventies, he rose at five every morning, rode his bike everywhere, and could be found doing repairs on his property and the houses of his friends.

In addition making his own wine, Pellegrini advocated training children to enjoy wine from an early age. Both of his daughters ate a traditional Italian breakfast of bread and coffee, which he lightly spiked with grappa. They prefered to dip their coffee into his mug, which contained a higher percentage of grappa. The oldest daughter also enjoyed a small glass of wine with her evening meal. Despite their early exposure to alcohol, neither of his daughter developed a drinking problem.

Pellegrini suggested that children participate in the wine-making process by helping to press the wine, carry bottles in and out of cellars, and learning how to monitor the aging of the wine. By learning how good wine is made and how it should taste, they develop an appreciation of it as something that does more than get them drunk. They also view wine drinking as a wholesome family activity, not as something excitingly forbidden.

There have been a recent spate of articles about the new "stroller bars" in Brooklyn. The NY Times even did two articles about Greenwood Park:

While some commentors to The Times articles do not think that children should be in bars, others point out that this is common in Europe. Reading through the comments, the real issue to me is not that children are being encouraged to drink wine or spiked lattes (which might actually calm them down a bit once the alcohol kicks in) but that children are not being properly supervised by parents. I have to admit that if I were at a bar and saw one child try to bean another child with a bocce ball then I would feel obligated to look for a parent to prevent an injury. Since much of my day is spend encouraging children to act in a more thoughtful manner, I would try to stay out of a bar that perpetuated my working environment.

I suspect that if more supervision was available at these bars , whether by parents or on-site nannies hired by the bar, then the atmosphere would be safer and more enjoyable for all. Perhaps Greenwood Park should hire some French preschool workers and open a creche for its customers a la  last month's Bringing Up Bebe.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Improvisational Cook

Pellegrini's family was forced to consider what was found in the natural world around them and what was available in their garden or pantry. As a result, he learned to be an improvisational cook because his food source changed from day to day. He advocates always having on hand four items - onion, garlic, parsley, and celery (p.142) These can be used to flavor any dish. He also suggests growing the Mediterranean culinary herbs - thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, and tarragon, and bay since they taste better fresh than dried (I disagree with him about the oregano, which gets stronger as it dries). Since he lived in Seattle, which in the past seldom freezes, he could keep these herbs growing all year round, and cut them as needed.

A typical meal in the adult Pellegrini's house would be this:

"One day there were six people for dinner. In the refrigerator there were four Italian sausages and a light, scrawny fryer. In the garden were string beans, artichokes, zucchini, carrots, beets, peas, and several other vegetables. The cellar, as usual, was well stocked and bread was in abundance. What could be done?" (p. 224)

He then described how he cut up all the meat, cooked it with herbs, tomato sauce and lemon, then added vegetables and wine. He covered the skillet cooked it for twenty minutes, and served it to happy, satisfied guests. The wine, of course, he has made himself.

Unlike many cookbooks, Pellegrini wants his readers to think about what they have on hand, and how it can be used. He assumes that his readers know how to mince, roast, and bake already; unlike Mark Bittman, he doesn't tell his readers, complete with color photos, how to boil water. He wants them to take this skills and apply them to whatever is handy in the pantry.

Peasants - the original freegans

Pellegrini's attitude towards food was shaped by his childhood as a peasant in Italy. His family was so poor that he followed animals being driven to market so that he could collect their manure and sell it for fertilizer. He gives a description of his father meticulously cleaning out chicken intestines so that they could be cooked and eaten. A typical Italian Christmas stocking contained no toys because children had no time to play, only nuts and an orange (p.19).

In his trip across America to join his father in Washington State, Pellegrini gathered apples from neglected orchards, stunned that so much fruit was allowed to go to waste with no one to threaten him for theft. He lost a girl friend after he served her and her mid-Western parents freshly shot larks for dinner; in Italy, songbirds were viewed as another source of food to a starving population. In a paragraph that is shocking to twenty-first century Americans, Pellegrini admits that friends give him unwanted Easter rabbits bought for their children, and he serves them up for dinner for other friends (who are told that they are chicken) (p. 99).

The grown-up Pellegrini still scavenged for firewood during his trips to the hills around Seattle. Looking back on his childhood in Washington state, he remembered:

"During the first few months in America I went to the forest every day and returned home laden with its precious fruit. There were nuts and berries in profusion. With my father I hunted grouse, pheasant, quail, and rabbit. Here and there were abandoned homesteads with pear, plum, and apple orchards...Although we worked hard in our eagerness to take advantage of new opportunities, we did not neglect what was to be had for no more effort than was required in gathering it. We never bought a bit of fuel."(p.31-2

In addition to what his family found in the land around them, they also planted an extensive garden. This habit was continued by the adult Pellegrini in his Seattle yard.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cooking as part of a balanced life

Pellegrini first published The Unprejudiced Palate in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II. While the US has been at war with two countries for over ten years, we have not had to mobilize our population in the way that we had to do in WW II. There has been no food rationing,and women have not been not encouraged to leave their homes and take jobs in factories to make aircraft and munitions. Rosie the Riveter does not exist in the 21st century.

However, in America of the 1940's, there was considerable rationing. Newspapers and magazines printed recipes for "wacky cakes", which didn't contain rationed eggs. Most recipes were designed to be quick and to use a minimum of ingredients because women were cooking them after spending a day at war work. Food was something just to be eaten quickly before chores and homework were begun.

The Italian-born Pellegrini had a completely different view of cooking. He states in The Unprejudiced Palate that the United States had unmatched resources of plenty in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grains which provided the materials needed for what could be one of the great cuisines of the world. However, he was mistrustful of cookbook authors:

"The American housewife has been convinced by these culinary fakirs that cooking is an art, and since she is at the moment in full revolt against the thesis that woman's place is in the home, she is quite willing to admit that her cooking isn't worth a damn - despite the spherical tendencies of her own and her mate's girth. She is in no mood to achieve distinction in the kitchen if to do so she must go snouting for truffles in the oak groves of Piedmont and preying upon snails in the vineyards of Burgundy. If cooking is an art, then by definition it can be mastered only by a select few – a conclusion which she has been quick to seize upon and exploit in defense of her admitted ineptitude. If excellent meals require exotic and unavailable ingredients, endless hours in the kitchen, and a lifetime to perfect, Mrs. Jones is content to whet the can opener and concentrate on bridge.” (p.10)

In contrast to the view of cooking as a complicated art, Pellegrini believed

“An accomplished cuisine is only one of the ingredients in the good life. It is perhaps the basic ingredient; but to look upon it as either more or less than that is to pervert its meaning…He knows, too, that simplicity and variety, both in ingredients and in their preparation, are the abiding principles on which the distinguished diet is based. A cup of broth, fine, crisp bread, good cheese, celery and chicory hearts, a bottle of wine – never mind the French names and ancient vintages – topped with coffee and brandy, make a pleasant and satisfying dinner.” (p. 14-5).
As a result, The Unprejudiced Palate, while it does contain descriptions of the food that he makes, is more of an exposition of  Pellegrini’s philosophy that anyone can cook, and cook well (whether male or female), with good American ingredients and a basic knowledge of simple recipes and techniques.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why discuss "The Unprejudiced Palate"?

In November, 2010, I did a post in the discussion of Cheap the High Cost of Discount Culture that has since  garnered hundred of hits and as of today, fourteen comments. Those of you who are long-time readers of Brooklyn Book Talk will have realized that while people are actually reading the blog (yes - we do track the hits), they don't comment. However, every few months, someone will post a comment praising this post.

In the post, I quoted the late food writer Angelo Pellegrini. I first discovered Pellegrini in the early 1990's, when I moved to Seattle, worked a series of minimum wage jobs, gardened in a community garden patch, and discovered the Seattle Public Library and the famed Elliott Bay Books. Elliott Bay prominantly featured the works of M F K Fisher, who writes not just about food but the memories that it invokes in people. She had a rich, eventful life filled with tragedy but her interest in food and eating helped her to move past failed marriages, financial crises, and the death of loved ones.

Fisher's book, Dubious Honors, is a collection of introductions that she wrote for cookbooks. One chapter is about the afterword that she wrote for An Unprejudiced Palate, which she helped to get republished by North Point Press in 1984; she had originally read the book in 1948, when she first met Angelo Pellegrini. Fisher and Pellegrini had been invited to serve as judges in a wine tasting conference at the Los Angeles County Fair. They spent three days as partners, judging wine. Pellegrini was annoyed that Fisher, a woman, had been selected as a judge. He spent all three days refusing to talk to her, and generally acting in a hostile, petulant manner:

"The next day was the last, thank God. I had never lived through such a miserable experience. My female honor felt bruised by the dark unsmiling man sitting with such obvious impatience and distaste beside me, sharing the same horrid bucket for our public rinsings, sucking in his breath whenever I had to lean toward him so that I would not pollute his pristine taste buds with my stench.I prayed for patience to get through the fruit wines, through the raw brandies, and away." (p. 97).

Finally on day three, Fisher finally won over Pellegrini, who realized that she did not in fact stink (it was his hotel soap) and she became friends with him and his wife.

Fisher described Pellegrini repeatedly as a kind of Pan (the Greek demi-god, not Peter Pan). She was willing to put aside his prolonged boorish behavior because she admired his writings and was won over by his eventual charm. Although an English professor at the University of Washington, he was born in Italy, the son of Tuscan immigrants who had moved to Washington State in the 1910's and did not learn English until he was ten. Most of his writings focused on food and life in America. While I never met Pelligrini, and was horrified by Fisher's article, I was won over by his writings, which still resonate in food-obsessed NYC society.