Reviewing restaurants, cookbooks and wine is a blast—though I’ve discovered that dining at two new restaurants a week is my limit. Ditto wineries—two extensive tastings per winery tour is my maximum. It’s not just a matter of calories or intoxication—I’ve found that I need to “do my homework” to keep up. Just as a writer should always read much more than he or she writes, I try to cook, jam, pickle and make wine several days every week.
I came by my palate the old fashioned way—down on the farm. I haven’t yet found an asparagus to equal the wild asparagus that my Pop-pop and I used to harvest, driving the old tractor into the wilds of Zoar Valley. And my Gramma Arlene’s Blueberry Betty remains the best I’ve ever tasted. But I’m happy to keep searching for standout dishes and local crops.
In the food world it seems that everything old is new again. Lately, though, I can’t help but notice some food trends that would curl my grandparents’ hair. If they were alive today it’s hard to say if they would be horrified or highly amused by haute cuisine. Though I feel certain that they’d object to Bacon Sundaes. Five hundred ten-calorie Bacon Sundaes of soft serve vanilla ice cream, fudge, caramel, bacon crumbles and a slice of bacon are now being offered at Burger Kings across our great nation.
Of course the bacon sundae in no way qualifies as “haute cuisine” but that’s where the trend was born. Much like the colors of clothing in your local Wal-Mart come from last season’s haute couture runway shows.
Mixing savory (especially bacon) and sweet is trendy. Last year, much to my family’s amusement, I developed a bacon cheesecake. You may have tried a high-end bacon chocolate bar. It’s good, salty, satisfyingly fatty stuff. But no way would a Gramma mess up a vanilla sundae with breakfast meat. She might do up a gooseberry sauce to go with pork or duck—but cheap bacon and soft serve ice cream would not be deemed compatible.
And no pine needles or pine needle syrup in anything. Pine needles can’t even be burned in the farmhouse stove, let alone eaten.
My Great Gramma Woody would be flabbergasted by chefs’ use of powdered dry sauerkraut. She made kraut, just like her family did in the old country. She knew it was good and good for us, though no one ever talked about the virtues of fermentation or took classes in it. (I’m taking a class in it this Sunday at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton.)
Of course the prices of some ingredients today could knock my Grammas over with a feather. When I used to go with my grandparents to the local farmers market it was called “The Auction” and it was dirt cheap. It was where you went to buy a bushel of tomatoes or corn to put up.
All this talk of “organic” is great and it’s exactly how my great grand parents used to farm. You get out what you put in and you don’t put anything harmful in because that will affect your animals. Plus you don’t wanna mess up your kids—they’re your workforce! My Grampa John always said that a cow should be grass-fed, not grain fed. I wish I could tell him how right he was.
Fresh food prices today directly reflect quality. Yes, you should feel self-satisfied that you’re paying more for your food than you have to. Yes, you’re absolutely doing right by your kids. The only way to get better, fresher food would be to grow it yourself. Prices of organic foods today underline past mistakes—food was never meant to be that cheap. Farmers should never have had to have been an underclass. Corn is not the only answer.
And then there’s this foraging movement. As if top chefs discovered it. Humans were hunter-gatherers long before they were agrarians. Rule of thumb—if it doesn’t kill you or make you sick, it’s edible. Add sea salt or truffles and it’s a delicacy.
My mother always told me that our family could never rightfully be called “hillbillies”—because we lived in the valley. I think I’ve found another thing that separates us from the toothless and incestuous as well as from some top chefs today—birch syrup. My family used to cook down maple syrup. Forty gallons of maple sap cooks down to one gallon of syrup. It takes 90 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup. 90! You gotta really want it. I’ll stick with maple—maybe sorghum.
Everything is a pickle nowadays.
Garlic scapes, peaches, onions. It’s all fair game. I think my Gramma Arlene would approve in principle—pickling lends interest and preserves valuable food. I just wish modern people were better at it. Bread and butter pickles should not pummel your taste buds with sweet ‘n sourness. They should be a relaxed affair that you could actually enjoy with some bread and butter. Pickled beets should not scream “CLOVES!” And pickled peaches, well, why would you do that to such a nice, tasty fruit? Other, less luscious fruits lend themselves to pickling—like watermelon rind and mangoes. Perhaps the best argument for pickling peaches would be if a hurricane knocked down all your peaches when they weren’t yet fully ripe.
Juice bars. What would our grammas make of these palaces of nutritive overreach? They’d probably tell you that it’s better to eat the whole fruit or vegetable. Have you ever seen how tiny an antique juice glass is? My Great Gramma Woody liked to do up her own carrot juice. I’m not sure how she made it. As a child I thought that her drinking carrot juice was all of a piece with her propensity to cook rabbit stew.
My Gramma Arlene thought my Gramma Elizabeth something of a lazy homemaker because Gramma Elizabeth turned to orange juice concentrate in the 1960s. She, unlike Gramma Arlene, didn’t get up early to hand squeeze orange juice for her family.
(Gramma Elizabeth also bought something dry in an envelope that, with the addition of water, was supposed to produce spaghetti sauce, but that’s another tale.)
This is the crux of it, right? When we let go of the old, harder ways we have to spend a couple generations getting back to them. Back to the basics, back to the land that nurtures us.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for embracing the old as new. It should serve to teach our children some good habits. A lot of the approaches to food preparation today are glorifications of practices that used to preserve life as well as our food. That’s cool. Just don’t get me started on the rarity of pawpaws or the beauties of gourmet scrapple—less talking more eating!
Postscript: So I’m thoroughly enjoying myself while dining in the solarium at Luce + Hawkins in Jamesport—this special dining area, where you get a view into Chef Keith Luce’s legendary kitchen, just re-opened for the season—and my son comes back from a trip to the john with a postcard in his hand. It’s a nicely shot ad for Luce’s condiments you can buy and take home, the Keith Luce NoFo Kitchen brand jams, honey, spices, sauces, etc.
And what does it say on the reverse?
This: “We had wild asparagus growing on our family farm on Long Island, and I used to go hunting for it with my grandmother in the late spring. She was from the South and believed first and foremost in natural ingredients and freshness. She would always say, ‘Sugar we need to start the water boiling before we come home with the asparagus. If we have to wait for it to boil, it won’t be fresh enough.’ – Keith Luce”
Wow. Wild asparagus. It makes the foodie world go around.
I made a date with Chef Luce to go huntin’ next spring.
You can sample some of the latest East End taste trends at Dan’s Papers Taste of Two Forks on July 14; check out the many participating restaurants, wineries and food purveyors at