Monday, March 21, 2005

who wants seconds - autumn comforts from home

My family is a tight-knit group...the sort of family that embodies cliches and continues to perpetuate the fifties stereotype which otherwise has completely lost relevancy. My father, tall, dark and handsome, goes to work every day in a suit and tie, leaving at dawn and coming home after dusk, reserved and silent - a powerful role model. My mother, small, fair, and lovely, stayed at home with my brother and I throughout our youth, caring for us, cooking for us, cleaning for us, and teaching us right from wrong, as well as that there are a million shades of gray. Doug and I, only two years apart, were best friends and, although we fought as brothers and sisters do, we were always friends first.

Of course, having an idyllic family (and indeed, as the proud member of a living, breathing stereotype, how could it not have been idyllic?) is a pressure cooker - and frankly, the picture of Americana was not as much Norman Rockwell as 'Around the World in 80 Days'. So my friendship with my brother, my love for my parents, while these things were earned and cared for throughout my life, part of their creation and maintenance was due to necessity. Because often, we only really had each other to rely upon - over the course of my life, we moved through five states, two non-US countries, and a territory for a total of more than 10 separate moves.

And so we made friends and memories, shared laughter and tears, and then left them as together as we had come, in search of the next step in our lives as a family. My mother, whose quiet power and internal fortitude are disguised by her petite stature and big, toothy smile, made this work by taking every possible step to ensure continuity in our lives where she could. This meant spending each and every holiday season with my Grandparents in rural Wisconsin, seeing my Nana and Grandpa, Great Nana and Grandaddy, and all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

It is no surprise, then, how difficult it is for me to choose one item of comfort, one sight or smell or taste or touch that I can alight upon and identify as my favourite. How can I, when there are so many amazing memories to choose from? Every Christmas or Thanksgiving, Doug and I knew we could count on certain things at Nana and Grandpa's house. There would always be checkers or cribbage with Grandpa in the afternoons, for example, and the candy jar would always be full of long, sticky ropes of black licorice. Great Uncle Paul would always come for Sunday dinner, dressed in a sport coat and tie long after it was required by courtesy, and at 5pm sharp he would always have a martini, gin not vodka, in a tumbler over ice with a dilly bean. Doug and I would fight over who got that bean, not because either of us liked them, but because it was Uncle Paul's. Dinner was marked by the ringing of a small copper bell hung in the entrance between the kitchen and the dining room, only to be rung once the long lace table cloth was out, the silver and china placed, with crystal water glasses full and candles lit. And there was always lefse, wrapped into pale, thin cigars of butter and sugar, as there had been at our family's tables for centuries since before leaving Norway.

How can I choose? Lefse or krumkakes from our holiday feasts? Sticky buns from Sunday brunch or oyster stew from Christmas dinner? The thick, rich, homemade Bloody Mary mix my Nana has made forever and guards as a family treasure, stored on her pantry shelves in rows of canning jars like manna from heaven or the sweet, zingy sweet red pickles that dyed my fingers on more than one occasion when I sought a cinnamony treat between meals? What could sway me - what single experience is more than the sum of these parts?

Hard though it is to believe, there can be only one thing and it is my comfort. It combines the things I loved most about our visits to Nana and Grandpas - the sights, scents, textures, sounds, and everything in between that makes for comfort food. I have carried it through childhood where I can see it in my memories, bright and shining on the family table, often maligned but loved and never retired in favor of a chic new flavor, technique, or en vogue replacement. I brought it with me when I left my parents' home for my own beginnings in college..shared it with my friends, my roommate, my future husband, and always to positive reviews.

When I was sick, even at my sickest, I could turn to this food for comfort. It never waivered from being a safe solace, inviting, healthful, filling, and quieting. I knew where it came from, its history and my own, and it very easily might have kept me alive when I was too scared, hurt, and confused to entertain thoughts of other things. I have never felt turned away from it, I have never felt judged in its company, and whenever I have it, I feel the arms of the other strong, confident women before me holding me close. Even now, healthy and able again, when I need comfort, I turn to it before anything else.

And of course, I love the ritual of its preparation, the feeling of making it the same way my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother have, the smell of it as it wafts through my kitchen, sweet and subtle. It is so satisfying to feel the way the room becomes filled with heat and heavy with an indescribable, fuzzy, soft glow and even the piercing sound of my oven becomes muted and musical. I love the texture in my mouth, smooth on my tongue, thick and rich as cream, and warming from the inside out... a familiar blanket for my tummy. That it is simple and pure and unadulterated, that the recipe has never changed, is comfort all on its own - I cannot fail, for countless generations of women before me have made it fool-proof. But, almost more than anything, its beautiful, bright, joyful color excites me today the same way it always has, whether the bright gemstone on my Nana's side board, shocking contrast against white lace and polished silver, or the faded treasure tucked deftly in my freezer, tupperware armor protecting it as I prepare for the end of another season.

As my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother before me, I will share this recipe with my children. And, with that, I find great strength and great comfort because, in a simple memory made tangible in food, we will always be connected, supported, and comforted.

My favorite comfort food is my Nana Lynts' Mixed Winter Squash. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you.

Nana Lynts' Mixed Squash
  • 2 medium acorn squash

  • 2 small butternut squash

  • 2 teaspoons fresh ground white pepper

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 tablespoons salted butter, plus garnish

  • milk, as necessary

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Grease glass baking dish with a bit of butter. Cut squash in halves and place side-by-side in dish, cut side up.

Bake until very tender, about 50 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly. Using large spoon, remove seeds and stringy pulp - throw these away.

Scoop out squash flesh and transfer to large mixing bowl. Add pepper, salt, and butter to squash; mash by hand with potato masher to desired consistency. If the squash is too thick or lumpy, add milk to even and smooth.

Serve in pre-heated terrine and garnish with small pieces of butter on top.

Servings vary by squash size - average about 8.

(image from season by season)


Anonymous Julie said...

What a lovely way you have with words! I really enjoyed reading your post...a beautiful stream of memories...

7:40 PM  
Blogger Dawn Falcone said...

I, too enjoyed reading your entry. Such great details. And the squash recipe looks sooo good.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

{sigh} That was lovely...I really felt transported for a few moments! My mother always made a baked squash dish for Thanksgiving dinner at our house, and now I do the same for our little family dinner- it wouldn't be the same without it.

Thank you so much for entering your post in the contest; please make sure to check back in the next day or so for the round-up, and next week for the results!


11:54 AM  
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7:44 PM  

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