Last November, Salon contributor Felisa Rogers started an ongoing series of articles under the umbrella title, “Heirlooms.” In it, she takes us into the kitchens of women and men sharing recipes and stories of the extended families from which they come. Rogers explores the community-building and meaning-making involved when we carry with us foods and recipes from our forebears that then get passed on to the generations that follow. Her essays savor the complicated ways that our rich family histories can sometimes become intertwined with our food memories and our culinary traditions. As a nice touch, each article concludes with a recipe.
The opening piece explores “an 82-year-old Mennonite turned Berkeley artist” and a German-by-way-of-Ukraine-and-Kansas recipe for flinsen, a thin crepe-like pancake. Rogers’s own family gets examined in the second installment, which focuses on her mother-in-law’s recipe for nut butter balls, known elsewhere as Russian teacakes. January’s feature includes one of my favorite quotes, probably because it echoes a simple lesson I learned from my mom about family traditions (“Things change”); the piece focuses on a family’s longstanding annual homemade doughnut party:
When I ask Jan her secret for surviving the long hours and the tumult of a large family, she says that her tongue is calloused from biting it, but then admits that her son-in-law probably feels the same way. This year they argued over the doughnut party. Lou wanted to serve cocktails and other types of fried food such as deep-fried cheese curds and calamari. Jan was resistant to modifying her family tradition. Now she concedes that Lou’s idea wasn’t so bad. “Isn’t that how traditions always are? Don’t they always change? For me the nucleus of the doughnuts is the family. And what that family looks like and when it happens … that’s where all the change happens.”
The fourth entry in the series, about an Irish family that expanded to include Italian Aunt Rosie in 1914 when tension between those ethnicities was particularly fierce, features my other favorite quote as Rogers helps to cook up a batch of Aunt Rosie’s chicken parm:
Despite making a huge mess in the kitchen, Tom is not a haphazard cook. He takes his time as he slices each chicken breast into cutlets, and then dips the meat in eggs and bread crumbs. He’s a more precise cook than I am — his every motion betrays the typical New York obsession with exact culinary tradition. When I suggest we could use a preexisting bag of panko to coat the chicken filets for the Parmesan, he looks horrified. “No,” he says decisively. “We need the cheap stuff.”
I enjoyed reading and recommend all of the essays. Rogers has an engaging style that’s both curious and reflective. That said, occasionally she seems to romanticize the past, while at other times she can come off as jarringly critical of modern locavores who advocate a return to the sort of saner, more sustainable food system that she so admires from days gone by. In the following quote, from this month’s essay about an octogenarian who grew up on a small farm in northwest Wisconsin, she manages to do both:
Today’s effete foodie would salivate at the food that graced Carol’s childhood table: pork chops from local pigs, garden-fresh parsnips and salad greens, homemade bread and fresh butter. Her life story reminds me of an important fact: We haven’t been this way for long. Living people, indeed relatively spry living people, remember a time when the industrial food chain was not a matter of course. A time when you knew where your food came from, a time when the command to “eat local” would have seemed laughable, a time when farm to table was not a political statement but common sense. I doubt Carol has heard of Michael Pollan, and she would be unlikely to agree with his points in the manner that he presents them. But her life reflects an attitude about food that is not so out of pace with his supposedly liberal values: She takes delight in vegetables; she sees the value of gardening; she’s not above enjoying a glass of wine with dinner; she eschews boxed food in favor of baking and cooking from scratch.
Even here though, I still appreciate the writing and how it makes this effete foodie think.