Cooking by the book

If you’re going to roast eggs, a couple of pinholes are essential to reduce the chance of explosions. A mallet helps. Above left, after 10 minutes on the cooler side of the grill, this roast egg was perfect for those who like their eggs hard-cooked. Above right, even with pinholes, the egg that was directly over hot coals burst after 5 minutes. But it was still tasty, if messy. (Photos by Katherine Larson)

By Katherine Larson

Almost everyone enjoys eating, and many of us enjoy reading about eating. I don’t mean cookbooks, and I don’t mean those strange amalgams where chapters of narrative are interspersed with recipes. I mean books, real true good books, which happen to mention food along the way.

The literary culinary experience starts early. Consider, for example, the inimitable Dr. Seuss. In Green Eggs and Ham he gives us the perfect retort to those—often grown-ups—who try to impose distasteful food on us. By way of contrast, Scrambled Eggs Super! provides a rollicking recipe for the most ambitious dish of scrambled eggs ever, complete with “parsley, quite sparsely, just twenty-three sprigs.”

And every Yooper who loves a reading child has, I hope, provided that child with a copy of Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. It may appear to be set in Maine, but the story of blueberry picking, including an adventure with a bear and culminating in the promise of a pie, belongs every bit as much to the U.P.

Then there’s Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell Hoban. Frances, a delightful young badger with a turn for doggerel, decides that the most reliably delicious food is bread and jam. Mother and Father, who appear to be exceptionally understanding parents, provide her with only bread and jam at every meal. After watching a succession of delicious meals pass her by untasted, Frances decides that some variety would be welcome.

Cook fish for 10 minutes per inch of thickness at its thickest point. Ringing in at 1 inch, this fillet would only need to be cooked for 10 minutes. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

So, the next day, this is what Mother puts in her lunch box: First, a tiny vase of violets along with a doily to protect Frances’ desk. Then a thermos full of cream of tomato soup, a lobster salad sandwich, celery sticks, carrot sticks and olives. Of course, a tiny cardboard shaker of salt for the vegetables. “And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and a spoon to eat it with.”

Ok, parents, you’re on your mettle now! Don’t forget to pack that tiny vase of violets with your children’s lunches!

Older children read, or have read to them, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this epic tale of good versus evil, four children inadvertently tumble into the land of Narnia, which is under the rule of the wicked White Witch who keeps it “always winter but never Christmas.” They have the good fortune to fall in with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, a comfortable pair. Before everyone sets forth in quest of justice, a good dinner is necessary.

And how good it is! Mr. Beaver fries up some fresh-caught trout while Mrs. Beaver prepares potatoes. “There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes.” And for dessert, Mrs. Beaver makes “a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot.” Talk about a solid foundation from which to combat evil!

Happily, we in the U.P. similarly have access to fresh fish: “there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.” There’s not much to the recipe: a hot frying pan, a dollop of butter, and the freshest fish you can catch or find, probably filleted. A reliable rule of thumb calls for cooking fish 10 minutes per inch of thickness at the thickest point; if you’re cooking fillets, that can mean as little as five minutes or less. If you’re feeling fancy, swirl some capers and lemon juice into the pan after the fish is cooked and drizzle the tangy buttery mix over it. At least for now, we should have no need to confront White Witches after we eat.

Sometimes, of course, feasts follow the defeat of evil. That’s the case in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, with the gathering that celebrates all of the book’s many happy endings. It is only a tea party—but to write that it is “only” a tea party is like writing that Mount Everest is “only” a mountain. Here Marmaduke Scarlet contemplates his menu with rapt joy:  “‘Plum cake. Saffron cake. Cherry cake. Iced fairy cakes. Eclairs. Gingerbread. Meringues. Syllabub. Almond fingers. Rock cakes. Chocolate drops. Parkin. Cream horns. Devonshire splits. Cornish pasty. Jam sandwiches. Lemon-curd sandwiches. Lettuce sandwiches. Cinnamon toast. Honey toast…’”

If you don’t want to make a whole batch of Gentlemen’s Relish, anchovy paste offers a milder substitute. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

You probably know that syllabub is a sweet concoction made with whipped cream, sherry, sugar and lemon juice, and that rock cakes are small fruit cakes. But what about parkin? I had to look it up myself. It’s a gooey sweet thing, a gingerbread cake traditionally made with oatmeal and black treacle (similar to molasses).

This is a fact I am sorry to have learned. I had hoped that parkin was something akin to Gentlemen’s Relish, another staple of English literature that stretches from Charles Dickens to Rumpole of the Bailey and beyond—a spicy paste of anchovies, butter, herbs, and spices, often spread on toast. In the books that filled my childhood, someone was always eating up the last of the Gentlemen’s Relish to the disappointment of the others at the table. I would share their disappointment; it’s far more to my taste than, say, parkin turns out to be.

So, no recipe for parkin. But here’s Gentlemen’s Relish, also known as Patum Peperium: in a small pan, melt a tablespoon of butter and gently cook until fragrant a collection of spices—a pinch each of cayenne pepper, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground mace, ground ginger and freshly ground black pepper. Then, in a food processor or with mortar and pestle, combine about seven ounces anchovies (drained and patted dry), another five ounces of butter, two tablespoons fresh white breadcrumbs and the butter-spice mixture. Whir or bash until you have a smooth paste, then refrigerate. After it has cooled, spread a dab of this concoction thinly on a nice piece of hot buttered toast or a baked potato or even a piping-hot slab of steak fresh from the grill; for those who love savouries, there’s nothing finer.

But we have wandered from our theme. Back to children’s books.

If that cake-filled tea was altogether too sweet for comfort, consider a supper earlier in The Little White Horse: freshly-made bread, onion soup, rabbit stew, baked apples, honey, “butter the color of marigolds, a big blue jug of warm mulled claret, and hot roasted chestnuts folded in a napkin.” That’s more like it!

Or, on a simpler note, the picnics that Mary and Colin feast on in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. They begin with a tin pail “full of rich new milk with cream on the top of it,” and go on to even greater delights: in the woods, Dickon uses stones to build a little oven where the children can cook. “Roasted eggs were a previously unknown luxury and very hot potatoes with salt and fresh butter in them were fit for a woodland king.”

We pause a moment to contemplate roasting eggs. Boil, bake, fry, scramble—okay, those are all standard for eggs. But roast?

Enter the always-helpful internet. We learn that a classic way to roast an egg is to take a very long skewer, heat it until it’s very hot, pierce the egg, and then hold the pierced egg in the fire, turning constantly, until it starts vibrating or whistling. This typically takes about four minutes and results either in a beautifully soft-roasted egg or a complete mess with exploded egg all over everything. The food writer for London’s The Telegraph tried it with a dozen eggs and achieved success with only four. Not promising.

Feeling somewhat intimidated, I tried my trusty charcoal grill, but decided to poke a pin hole in each end of two eggs in hopes of averting explosions. I balanced one egg on the grate directly above hot coals and the other on the cooler side, several inches away from the coals; then I put the vented lid on and crossed my fingers.

Five minutes later, POP! The egg on the hot side burst open. I hastily removed it and discovered that, except for the bit that fell into the coals and smelled evil until it was carbonized, the egg itself was delicious. The white was cooked and the yolk somewhat runny.

For the egg on the cooler side, I waited until it had cooked a total of 10 minutes and then removed it. When it was cool enough to open, I discovered a delectable well-cooked egg—and quite a bit easier to peel than the boiled sort.

The verdict: Dickon, Mary, and Colin could well have enjoyed good roasted eggs. But I bet they made pin-holes and used the cooler part of their little stone oven.

If you are in quest of food in children’s literature, it’s hard to beat Farmer Boy, the volume of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series which focuses on the childhood of her eventual husband on a prosperous farm in upstate New York. Hardly a chapter goes by without a mouthwatering description of ample and glorious food.

Young Almanzo finds apple turnovers in his school lunch, “their plump crusts filled with melting slices of apple and spicy brown juice.” He eats pumpkin pie for supper, along with baked beans and ham and three kinds of jam and a “tall heap of pale mashed turnips.” Breakfast features doughnuts and “two big wedges of spicy apple pie,” besides sausages and buckwheat cakes. And so on.

The one dish made by Almanzo’s mother which also appears with some regularity in my own kitchen is called, in Farmer Boy, apples-‘n-onions. That may seem like an odd combination, but in fact when you caramelize sliced onions low and slow with a dab of butter they take on a sweet smokiness that pairs perfectly with slices of apples, also sautéed low and slow in butter. And the combination is the perfect complement to, say, a slice of broiled ham, or a robust breakfast of pancakes with a bit of bacon on the side.

And, finally, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi.

When my young daughters and I moved into a house with a functioning fireplace, we built a lot of fires. Occasionally, on a chilly evening and for a special treat, we would sit down to what they called “Heidi dinners.” As all four of us sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the hearth, the girls would tear off chunks of crusty bread and watch eagerly while I held an old pie tin in the flames. A slab of raclette lay in the tin—a strong cheese from Switzerland that releases powerful aromas and superb flavors as it melts. When one edge was sufficiently melted, out came the pie tin and the girls scooped out the hot, creamy goo with their bread crusts. Back into the fire for more melting, back out for more scooping, and so again and again until all were replete.

No Alm-Uncle, no goats named Schwänli or Bärli, no winds whistling in the great pine trees, but a mighty fine meal anyway. And even better if you ask one of the children to read aloud from the book whose cuisine you are celebrating—as you sit replete by the fire, or even between bites as you munch.

Memories like these last lifelong. Share them with a child, and enjoy them yourself.


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