Three years of food: (in case we forgot) the other important thing

by Pat Tikkanen

Last month I wrote about the last three years during which my husband, Don Curto, who wrote this column for twenty-five years, and I were living on my family farm near Calumet. I wrote about our decision to receive hospice care for the COPD which claimed his life on June 21, some of those who cared for him during this time and a little of his tenacious love of life, that sustained us both. Important things. But for Don, there always was another important thing, as the name of this column always proclaimed—food.

1409_food_campo_dei_fioriThese last weeks I cry a lot in grocery stores. Sometimes it will be at the sight of a particular product—the red and black packages of Scotch shortbread cookies at the check-out of our co-op in Hancock, stacks of Land of Lakes butter on special, a display of lovely small new potatoes, even the bottles of V-8 juice (the thick liquid made pill taking easier) all carry poignant memories. Other times it is memories of how much Don loved food markets—all kinds and all over the world. He has written often of his love of Rome—the monuments, the ancient ruins, the majestic Vatican, the restaurants—but I know if he were given a chance to visit one last place in that city, it would be the Campo dei Fiori (which translates as field of flowers), Rome’s most famous food and flower market.
On my first visit back to Marquette after his death, I stopped at the new co-op on Washington Street. All I could think of was how Don would have loved this new market. It would easily have taken him two hours to examine the produce, the display in the new deli section and the products in every aisle. He would have been proud of the work accomplished by the co-op board and staff, many of whom he knew. Overwhelmed by sadness, I left after less than ten minutes, with a bottle of mineral water and a free apple for the drive back home.
1409_food_don_parisWhile food always was important to Don—the procurement, preparation, and eating—it became much more of a focus of our life together after the move to the farm. When Don still owned his restaurant, we ate there almost every night. Sunday, when the restaurant was closed, was the one day we usually cooked at home. Even after he was not in the business, Don loved to eat out often, as did I. When we were at home, he usually decided what he wanted to eat, shopped for the meal and did the cooking. This was fine with me, although there were times when it was quite apparent this was a man used to having someone else clean up after him. At home, this was me.
For the first year or so after the move, not a great deal changed in our division of duties, except we were eating at home a lot more—partly because we were further out of town and partly because we also were making meals for my father. We developed a routine. Everyone was on his own for breakfast and lunch, but we ate dinner together at my grandmother’s dining room table—a heavy, square oak pedestal table with a much-scarred top from years of family meals—that has been in the home since I was a child.
After we added caregivers to our family, Don trained them to set the table every afternoon for the evening’s dinner, always setting out both a salad and dinner fork from the sterling silver we carried back from Italy (we paid our duty) in 1998, cloth napkins, two sets of salt and pepper shakers, water and wine glasses, with his reserved for chilled sparkling cider—preferably Martinelli’s, thank-you-very-much. This was the way it was to be done, whether we were dining on meatloaf or Boeuf Bourguignon straight (well, Don never followed anyone else’s recipe straight) from Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook.
(From somewhere, Don had gotten what he called “perfect” meatloaf, which is as follows: two pounds of hamburger—not ground anything else, traditional fatty hamburger—one can evaporated milk, one egg, one package of dried onion soup mix; mixed together very well—a real squishy job—baked in a loaf pan for one hour, pouring off the fat halfway through.)
We did eat a great variety of dishes, both old favorites—especially Don’s collection of pasta recipes, pot roasts and soups—and newer things for us, including several varieties of Hunters Chicken, pork roast with sauerkraut (which, along with that meatloaf, became one of the comfort meals that sustained us through this last severe winter), and French-style stews—either chicken or beef, thick with mushrooms and fragrant with herbs and wine and served over noodles.
We ate more fish, because that is my father’s favorite supper, my grandmother having been a Finnish fisherman’s daughter who immigrated with her parents from an island in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway. A favorite was lake trout fillets, dipped in beaten egg and lightly coated with cornmeal and flour, smothered with onions and baked. There was some debate as to whether it was better to sauté the onions separately, in the classic way (and that  actually is better). Don said this also was a favorite of his Italian father, raised in Calumet. Some weeks Don would bake bread, which he found especially therapeutic, turning out lovely loafs of brioche, focaccia or Challah.
We shopped for groceries just about everywhere the Keweenaw has to shop—both the large chains and the smaller, independent grocers, every bakery, the Keweenaw Co-op and Peterson’s Fish market at the top of Quincy Hill. For a while Don continued to shop alone and almost daily, but as his mobility lessened we usually would go out together at least once a week,  often stopping at three or four different stores.
Don was forever resistant to the idea of planning a week’s meals—how would we know on Friday what we might like to eat on Monday? He also did not like for anyone else to decide on the evening’s menu.
Even in the last six months, during which he rarely left the house, he felt that the kitchen was his territory, and that included deciding what should be cooked that day. To avoid shopping every day, I would stock up—buying things for plenty of suppers and then we would “consult” every morning about what we should have, using what we had on hand. Sometimes that worked.
Sometimes Don would get a different idea and send caregiver Brittany (his sous chef) to the store. She became an expert at phone shopping—calling markets and checking availability and prices before heading out to get what was wanted. Don was experimenting constantly, trying to improve a recipe. Before Christmas, he and Brittany worked for several weeks on perfecting his father’s recipe for tomato sauce, which he then wrote up as his Christmas greeting, and which I am giving you at the end of this column, as he wrote it.
Don also loved to try new products, and boxes of pasta sauces and pasta would arrive almost weekly. The best gifts for Don were always food (with books a close second), and it always was a good day when a “care package” arrived from friends. Our small in-suite refrigerator often was cramped with jars of olives, packages of cheese, and other delicacies that served as the basis for his lunch many days.
Breakfast the last year usually was toast from English muffin bread (I would tease Don this actually was “butter with a little toast”) and eight pitted Kalamata olives, followed by several spoonfuls from a jar of U.P. Food Products Antipasto. Their combination of tuna, sweet pickles, and vegetables in tomato sauce seemed to settle Don’s stomach after ingesting his morning medicines, and he just plain loved the stuff. For a few weeks this winter, there was panic in the house when it seemed there was a shortage, with a rumor  the owners of this small family business had run off to warmer climates. (Providers of addictive substances are not to take vacations.) Fortunately we found a good supply in Calumet’s premier gift shop, Copper World. Whew, another crisis resolved.

Don’s Christmas Greeting, 2013
From Don Curto, originating with his dad, Charlie Curto, who was eating some variation of this red pasta sauce when he was a boy growing up in Calumet in the 1890s.
Here’s what he had to put together, or, if you wish to be more appropriate, he had to “mise en place”—or, translated, “get all this junk together”—for six servings. (So you don’t have to go looking for anything at the last moment.)
Stuff you need, and what you need to perform on it….
• Three tablespoons butter; you will use in two steps.
• One-half of a medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped quite fine, so it will soften and cook quickly.
• One-half teaspoon salt—use the stuff that is mined beneath Detroit; forget the sea salt picked up on the beach after the tide goes out.
• One small carrot, washed and trimmed. Get rid of the initial trim. Using the trimmer, peel strips from the carrot until you can chop the trimmed carrot into thin, small strips.
• One small stalk fresh celery, chopped very fine for quick, easy cooking.
• Two peeled cloves of garlic, chopped finely.
• Eight ounces Italian sausage. When used, cook thoroughly; break up with heavy spoon to cook into small pieces.
• One cup good dry red wine. Don’t use junk.
• One twenty-eight ounce can of best crushed tomatoes. When my dad did this recipe, he used mostly garden tomatoes. When the fine canned Italian tomatoes became available, mostly from Andriacchi’s in Ishpeming, he used them. I urge you to do the same.
• One heaping teaspoon granulated white sugar. Depending upon the taster (your tongue in this case), use or don’t use.


Cooking it up…
In large, heavy frying pan, melt two tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted and stops foaming, add the onion and sprinkle with the salt. Cook, stirring regularly to keep them from sticking, until onions turn translucent; then add carrots, celery and garlic.
Cook carefully on low heat until all the vegetables are done. Now you will understand why you cut carrots so thinly. If you have decided to use meat, cook carefully until done. If not, skip this step. Add the wine. Stir and break up any brown bits from the pan. Add the tomatoes, and bring them to a fine simmer. Cook undisturbed for thirty-five to forty minutes, until the fat separates out from the sauce. Add the remaining one tablespoon of the butter and stir to melt it. Add the pepper and taste the sauce.
It is a rare instance that a sauce is not helped by a judicious casting of the sugar.
— Pat Tikkanen

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