Photo: Jim Orsini/Flickr
I am not gluten intolerant nor do I eat a gluten-free diet. In fact, I am gluten-full, perhaps to my detriment, I don’t know. But, as someone who has written eight books about bread in all of its incarnations, I can’t ignore the food trend tsunami called gluten-free. It’s all over the media, on the morning shows, in major magazines, and, most notably (from a trend watchers perspective) all the rage in Hollywood.
Here’s what I currently know about gluten-free: possibly 1% of the world’s population may have a genetic condition called Celiac Sprue, which causes a major health crisis if left undiagnosed. For a long time most the medical community was rather unaware of this condition, probably assuming the number of “celiacs” was far less than 1%. But now, in a major about-face, gluten is becoming implicated in all sorts of health concerns, such as autism, auto-immune and neuro-motor conditions. In other words, you don’t have to be a celiac to be vulnerable to the ravages of gluten. Gluten, which is a protein found primarily in wheat and, to a lesser degree, in rye and barley, may or may not be the true culprit but, as least for now, is an ingredient of interest (like a “person of interest” in a crime) and many people who have eliminated gluten from their diets report noticeable health improvements – the circumstantial evidence could lead to a conviction.
I am not an American snob, believing that all things American are somehow superior. When it comes to food, however, I must admit a prejudice for true American classics. I can trace this prejudice back to the time I spent in Europe, trying to convince classically European trained chefs that American food was, in fact, more than cheeseburgers. As a professional pastry chef I have long felt that that most quintessential of American desserts, the humble pie, often gets short shrift. Pies appeal to me in a way that few other pastries do. And although I have felt their siren pull for years, I have always been hesitant to admit it for fear of ridicule. But now it is pie season, (for what is Thanksgiving if not a feast of pies?), and I am left to rethink my relationship to pie, this most American of desserts.
I consider pies to be the perfect expression of who we are as a country. They are a simple yet elegant, no frills, take me as I am treat. Pies were born of a desire to make something special from what was at hand. No fancy puff dough filled with butter and carefully laminated for hours. No siree, give us some good ol’ lard, a couple of handfuls of flour, some salt and ice water and we are good to go. Equipment? Bare hands and a few minutes of rubbing fat into flour and you are done. Fillings? Pies are truly low maintenance, asking for only the simplest and most at hand ingredients. Pies are not elitist, fruit in or past their prime will do just fine. Original pie fillings were the dried out, last year’s apples from the root cellar. And while they would love the fresh apples from your CSA, they will quickly adapt to the slightly shriveled fruit in the bottom drawer of your refrigerator. No fresh fruit at hand? Then toast some nuts, add dried fruit and liquor, an egg or two, fill, bake and enjoy.
Flan made by Jorge Fernandez, who refuses to share his recipe.
WFAE is no different than most workplaces. Mention that there’s food available in the break room and watch out for the stampede. One of the station’s traditions is a potluck lunch for Thanksgiving. Although it’s potluck, we put up a list to see who’s bringing what, and we drool all week in anticipation. If you have a signature dish, you’ll probably be drafted into making it. Our corporate development director inherited the duty to bring an onion-cheese bake when a co-worker left. More than 10 years later, she’s still encouraged to bring it. We have the usual Thanksgiving fare – ham, cranberries, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, etc. But we also have a few not so common dishes. This year it was custard-filled cornbread with honey butter, pineapple-cheddar bake and flan. The only drawback to our potluck lunch is working in the afternoon when we’d like to take a nap – just like Thanksgiving.
Gumbo Ya Ya Photo: Flickr/Southern Foodways Alliance
We had a wonderful interview with Molly O’Neill and Dan Huntley on Friday, November 12. If you didn’t hear it, I hope you’ll check it out on the WFAE, Charlotte Talks archives–it was lively and full of great stories. Molly is the author of a beautiful new book called, “One Big Table.” It chronicles her ten year journey to collect the best family heirloom recipes that are still in use across the country. Dan is a local food expert (and BBQ maven) who is helping Molly stage some One Big Table farm events to promote the book both locally and in other regions (Molly did one just a few weeks ago Ellis Island–talk about the perfect venue!). One of the most important take-aways from the interview, from my perspective, is the huge influence of ethnic and immigrant recipes and food ingredients on the American table. Molly said that the old image of America as a melting pot might best be updated to, instead, a tossed salad. As a bread baker, I suggested we call it One Big Loaf. But, regardless of metaphors, the fact is that the recipes that people keep cooking are the ones that are passed down, generation to generation, sometimes tweaked and modified yet still, to a great extent, preserving the emotional connection to the original source. This could be to a grandmother, great grandmother, or someone who stowed a few seeds in their socks when they arrived at Ellis Island and started a garden that has since become part of a family’s legacy.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I think it’s especially timely to focus on the historic pathways of the foods that we love to eat. This is America’s uniquely secular, non-denominational holiday, and our thank you gift back to the world, specifically dedicated to giving thanks not only for the gifts of the earth but also for those who came before us. It could be said that the first Thanksgiving, the one in Plymouth, is the iconic example, the model, of the fusion of Old World and New. The Pilgrims brought their customs but the local Native Americans brought the food and showed them how to use it and, for a moment at least, everyone shared a kind of peace and harmony. Considering all the fear that is currently running rampant about immigrants flooding our shores (I’m not taking sides here, but who can blame them; even with all our problems this is still the best place in the world to live and to reach for a better life; and all of us, or at least most of us, came from immigrant stock ourselves), coming together at the table is the one place where we can find commonality in our diversity. Whether we live in a tossed salad culture, a melting pot, or one big loaf, there are times when it helps to reflect on how many immigrant influences we each do have in our lives, and how these influences show up most clearly on the table, in the meals that we share. Hey, maybe what we really are is not a tossed salad but one big, tasty gumbo–what do you think?
Filed under Food, Holidays
33 loaves of bread + 15 pounds of turkey + 15 pounds of ham + 216 slice of cheese + 3 jars of peanut butter + 3 jars of jelly = 324 sandwiches for Urban Ministry!
WFAE’s mission is to serve the community. We usually fulfill that mission by providing in-depth news, information and discussion over the air and on the web. However, yesterday we made sandwiches for Urban Ministry’s Operation Sandwich. Urban Ministry is an interfaith organization dedicated to serving homeless neighbors and ending homelessness. Every day Urban Ministry provides 800 sandwiches to neighbors, which amounts to almost 300,000 sandwiches a year.
We saw this as a great opportunity to bond with each other and help our neighbors. Staff personally donated over $200 and in-kind sandwich supplies. While we carefully crafted our sandwiches, we chatted about food, personal lives, holiday plans, and the latest Hollywood gossip. It took about an hour out of our day, but the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie lasted all day.
Contact Urban Ministry to learn more about Operation Sandwich.
Last week Molly O’Neill stopped by Charlotte Talks for a chat with Mike Collins. While she was here, she shared a recipe from her mom, Virginia. Molly tells us that her mother is a fabulous baker, and this recipe for French Almond Cookies is an O’Neill family holiday favorite. I don’t know about you guys, but I know what I’m baking this weekend!
Virginia’s French Almond Cookies
1/2 pound (2 sticks) lightly salted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon, honey
2 large eggs, well beaten
2 cups ground almonds
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees farenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cream the butter and sugars until smooth. Stir in the honey, eggs, and ground almonds. Combine the flour with baking soda, then add to the butter mixture. Mix well.
2. Pinch off a piece of dough the size of a walnut (about 2 tablespoons). Roll it between your palms to form a cigar shape. Place on the baking sheet. Repeat, placing the cookies 2 inches apart. Push a slivered almond into the center of each cookie.
3. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Immediately transfer to a wire rack to cool. Let the baking sheet cool and reline with parchment before shaping and baking more cookies.
Makes about 11 dozen cookies
Congratulations to Steve Whitesell of Gastonia! Steve’s favorite family recipe is Sugar Cream Pie (check back in later for Steve’s recipe). Thanks to everyone for entering the contest and for sharing your family food memories and recipes. We hope you’ll keep coming back to WFAEats!
Filed under Food, Giveaway