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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Memoirs through the stomach

    I am currently doing an independent study through Empire State College called "the Art of the Memoir". With my adviser we came up with a program that fits my personal interests: food and cooking. I have used this blog to document stories about my family and how food is entwined in our lives, besides sharing cooking tips and secrets I have come across over the years, and I love every single letter of it. Now I get to share things I am learning about not only my own heritage, but how other heritages have survived and strove through their own trials, and how their basic needs were met in the kitchens of their days.
    I have just finished reading 97 Orchard: an edible history of five immigrant families in one New York tenement, by Jane Ziegelman. Not a memoir, per se, but reading it has evoked personal memories and has made some sense and filled in some blanks about my own past and my family's heritage.
    Suddenly, with  vivid clarity, things I took for granted or participated in had a reason, a deep seated need that was tradition being handed down and I did not even know it. The Baldizzni family, for example, the final family in the book was from Sicily, and although my family was not, many of the the customs and their foods were indeed familiar. The book tells of how the family all got together on Sunday and ate and ate and ate. First course, soup. Followed by antipasto, then pasta with trays of meatballs, sausage, and rabbit, then either a roast beef or chickens or turkey, or individually grilled steaks, and trays of pastries, and nuts and fruit, some of which was grown out behind the garage in a small 10 foot by 8 foot plot, and the vino, do not forget the vino from the grapes Grandpa had grown, and pressed down in the basement.
     A typical Sunday would have about 32 people at the table, and there was no such thing as a "kids' table" we all sat at the main dining room table, with the linen tablecloth and napkins. And we passed each tray of food, to the next person, helping them select the choicest piece for themselves. I remember staying for a week at my Italian grandparents' house, and we did not eat like that during the week. We ate mostly soup and fresh bread that grandma baked every day. The meals were not gourmet, but neither were they lacking and quite as frugal as the immigrants meals were as depicted in the book. I suddenly realized exactly how blessed my family was. My father's family was not among those depicted in the book, my grandfather had secured a job as a longshoreman and was on the upper part of the low-income scale. He also scrimped saved and bought two brownstones in the Hell's Kitchen part of Brooklyn. He achieved part of the American dream early on.
       The struggles faced by the families of 97 Orchard have never been in my family's verbal history--not that that means it was not part of their history, just nothing that was ever discussed. Maybe once you climb out of those conditions you soon forget, or wish to forget.
       In honor of the difficulties the past generations suffered I went on a small journey through frugality in the kitchen. I accumulated and saved the tips from chicken wings for a couple months, something the immigrants did not have the capability to do without refrigeration or freezing capabilities, but I used what I had available to me to help me on my journey. I had frozen a turkey carcass and leftover legs and thighs from Thanksgiving and made soups and stews from the remnants.  I made a chicken stock with the wing tips, I added onions, carrots, potatoes,and celery, then made egg noodles. No meat to speak of, as the tips are only skin, fat and bone, but my husband and kids agreed it was one of the most tasty broths I had ever produced.  Two days later I tore up some leftover chicken from another meal and added it to the broth, and then the next day thickened it up and made a chicken pot pie from that. If it wasn't for the fact that my husband is a beef man, through and through, I might have been able to keep the adding and altering ingredients for a few more meals. But for the cost of a 4 pound chicken, and some leftover wing tips, I fed us for nearly a week out of the vegetables and basic pantry supplies. And the meals were good, as long as you added a bit of salt and pepper, and herbs like sage, parsley, and thyme. The noodles and thickening the broth made the meals more hearty. Lesson learned: you can eat on a shoestring if you have to.
       The soup and stew I made from the turkey carcass was just as rich. I made a turkey-dumpling stew that was to die for, even my beef eaters liked it, but after almost two weeks of poultry, they were done and my husband presented me with an eye round roast beef and  begged me to make it.
       I got four meals out of that 5 pound roast, plus a few sandwiches for lunch for two of us. I made a regular roast beef dinner, with mashed potatoes and gravy, and mixed vegetables, then I made pepper steak with the addition of two large onions and two green peppers, served over rice. Next came the Philly cheese steak sandwiches, again with the addition of onions, a bit of cheese, and homemade french bread, and finally a beef and noodle casserole using the leftover mixed vegetables, and a can of condensed tomato soup, some water and the leftover gravy.  
       I think I am getting the hang of this "stretching" the food idea. Now I think I am going to really keep a close watch on the food budget and see what I can plan ahead to get more mileage for my food dollars. Hey, with the price of food and gasoline you need to get to the store you need to find ways to conserve, right? 

Ziegelman, Jane. 97 Orchard: an edible history of five immigrant families in one New York tenement. Balance of credits to come.

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