Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pancake Tuesday

What do you call it: Carnival? Shrove Tuesday? Mardi Gras? Fat Tuesday? How about...Pancake Tuesday?

Last night, Dear Husband and I gathered with our Bible study to celebrate the beginning of the season of Lent while wearing purple, green, and gold beads. No king cake for us, we all contributed ingredients to several patches of really yummy pancakes. Originally, the point of eating pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday was to use up the remaining fat in the larder before six weeks of fasting and Fish Fridays. These days few Christians give up truly bad habits for the period before Easter, much less meat. I, for one, will continue to enjoy pancakes with creamy peanut butter and syrup every Sunday morning. But this time we went all out: regular pancakes with blueberries, with pecans, with chocolate and peanut butter chips, and with blueberries AND mango. Also pumpkin pancakes plain, with pecans, with chocolate and peanut butter chips, and with pecans AND chocolate AND peanut butter chips (upper left). The pumpkin pancake recipe is long if you are used to combining a mix out of a box with some water like I am, but the finished result cooks up wonderfully thick and tasty. Here is the pumpkin pancake recipe I used. There was yummy maple syrup with which to top them all off.

Then it was time for dessert: Bananas Foster, a quintessential New Orleans treat on a day that is nearly synonymous in this country with "The Big Easy."

Afterwards we played a game--Banagrams, of course!

The multi-colored sprinkles are a festive touch, don't you think?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Soup for the servants' table

About a month ago I decided that I needed to learn how to make more kinds of soup. Frequent recipes in my old German sources for groat or barley soups piqued my curiosity, so I looked up one from Henriette Davidis and Louise Holle's 1901 cookbook for "Soup from oat groats with potatoes." "Very nutritious," groats are the inner kernels of wheat or buckwheat (actually not related to wheat) with the hull removed; they may also be broken into pieces larger than for grits. Unfortunately, Dear Husband could find no groats at the grocery store, but fortunately the recipe authorized a swap for barley, and "dishes with barley" is also on my list of "things to learn how to cook." More difficult was trying to identify the kohlrabi, celery root, parsley root, fennel root and/or leeks over the phone to each other (they were poorly labeled at the store), so DH came home with one of each of the following mystery vegetables and some onion. Whereas today, Americans eat a lot of "common vegetables" like carrots, broccoli, and tomatoes, these mostly root vegetables were all usual in traditional German kitchens. Can you identify them? (Answers below.)  
Per the instructions, I soaked the pearled barley in some water while chopping the veggies. It didn't say how much, so I started with 2 cups and added more while it was cooking. There were also no suggested amounts for the vegetables, so I just cut up everything I had--even the beets, which weren't in the original recipe and made the broth pinkish orange. DH said he thought it made the soup look "interesting." (!) Because I wanted to make meat-less version soup, I skipped the "good fat" from smoked beef, ham broth, or bacon and just put the soaked grain on to boil for two hours with a large pat of butter and some chicken bouillon. Around 1900, most Germans still valued beef broth or bouillon, sold as "meat extract" (Fleischextrakt), for its supposed nutritional value. It was often recommended to sick people as easy to digest and a food to build up their strength. Unfortunately, that was a misconception developed by Justus von Liebig, a famous German scientist in the mid-1800s, and propagated by Davidis, the most famous German cookbook author from the mid-nineteenth into the twentieth century. As nutritional scientists were discovering around the time this cookbook was published, Fleischextrakt really only tasted good--there was nothing nutritionally redeeming about it.
The last sentence of the recipe I followed is particularly interesting: "If the soup is meant to be filling for the servants' table, then one can measure out 50g [~ 1/2 cup] of oat groats." This is almost twice the amount of groats/barley per person as the original recipe calls for (30g = 1/3 cup), probably because in bourgeois families, this soup was merely the first course of a midday meal that also included one or two meat courses. (Soup was meant to stimulate the appetite.) The servants, however, would have been eating this as their main dish, most likely with bread and beer. We ate ours with a very anachronistic salad of baby spinach, carrots, and celery. It's anachronistic because at the time, raw vegetables were still a curiosity in Germany and widely considered indigestible! Even uncooked fruit was regarded with suspicion, something to warn children away from eating. My how things have changed since then! Part of the fun of my dissertation project is watching the discoveries of vitamins and minerals creep onto the pages of medical textbooks and home health manuals. Authors start in the 1910s by referring to the "so-called vital-amines" and their supposed benefits, and by the 1930s they open such discussions with the confident assertion that, "Because vitamins are so important to a healthy diet, ...." 

I'm still really focused on the early part of my period (1890 or 1900 to 1930 or 1935), but maybe later I will try to recreate some of the dishes I found in ladies' magazines at the end of the period, when these came with black-and-white or false-color photographs of vegetable or meat dishes arranged "just-so." It's hard to get inspired to decorate serving platters when it's just the two of us eating, but perhaps for Easter or another get-together I will use the opportunity of feeding many people to try my hand at this once-important cooking and hostessing skill.

Answers: DH came home with kohlrabi, a beet, a celery root, a leek, an onion, and a turnip. I knew I liked kohlrabi, but the turnip and celery root are also good. The leek in particular I find tasty. It's a pity neither of us has really taken to beets, which seem to take forever to cook and soften, because they have such a gorgeous garnet color to them. I also like the purple on the turnip skin, although it's plain white on the inside.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

It feels GOOD!

THIS is the first chapter of my dissertation, as outlined on little pieces of scrap paper taped to our dining room wall. I finally assembled it Thursday night, and Friday I typed everything up and inserted all the bits of text I have been working on since early January. The good news is that I have almost 40 pages! The bad news is that 40 pages is the upper limit for the length of a chapter, and the analysis is only half written. I have a LOT of editing and cutting to do, but it feels really good to have gotten this far after only officially writing for six weeks. I have at least another six weeks to whip this chapter draft into shape, in time to workshop it in mid-April. I am quite pleased, because after all of the reading in primary sources I have done since last semester, it turns out I actually have many interesting things to say. I am a little daunted by the handful of important books (auf Deutsch!) still left to read, but the professors have advised me that my analysis is most important and can be supported or tweaked by what others have written, later. I am taking a break this weekend to work on grading and other academic projects, like syllabi and a conference poster, so that I can approach the chapter with fresh eyes on Monday. I am also whipping up another traditional German dish tomorrow, so come back to see photos and read my entry about that!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Marriage advice

chocolates we made, with out-of-season strawberries

In my role as a Frau (wife), I was recently asked for some general marriage advice. Granted, Dear Husband and I have only got 6.5 years of experience in that area--a whole order of magnitude less than my grandparents--but I agreed to share the short essay below. I post it here in honor of Valentine's Day, which DH and I will be celebrating "Eastern Orthodox"-style this weekend. (Before we got married and while we were still living in separate states, we used to wait until Spring Break to celebrate, rather as Eastern Orthodox Christmas and Easter fall a little later than their counterparts in the Western Christian church.)

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Dear Husband and I are high school sweethearts. My friends used to ask how it was that I knew Dear Husband and I were in love and right for each other. Unfortunately, the surest measure I knew then or now of the quality of a relationship is time. If you are still together next year after all the good and the bad, and the year after that, and the year after that—then you have a successful relationship. Of course you should treat each other well, but we have all seen seemingly happy partnerships fall apart. Marriage requires more stick-to-it-tive-ness than Americans are used to exercising, and I hope if/when the two of you ever find the glue between you getting thin, you will turn to your friends for a nudge back together, like the pieces of a plate or bowl you superglue back together after dropping in the sink, because although you could afford a nicer set of dishes, you are used to and still like the one you already have.

One of our coping strategies is that we refer to each other as “partners in life, for life.” That means that we have committed to help each other out with mundane things like household chores, to ensure that each of us can achieve the things we want for our careers and our family. As a church musician, DH is particularly busy during the months of November-December (Christmas season) and April (Easter), so I make sure he gets a meal between rehearsals and mastermind our holiday plans so he doesn’t have to. He does the same for me during the stressful parts of the semester. Because we (usually) manage the little things well, we are individually poised to accomplish big things better. So we joke that although he works several part-time jobs without benefits, DH is my “sugar-daddy” putting me through medical and graduate school; but I’ll return the favor: once I make a physician’s salary, I’m his retirement plan!

A less romantic but more useful measure of the quality of a long-term relationship than time is…your ability to assemble furniture together. This life skill is particularly tested after buying a house, as you finally have the space and an excuse to splurge on a nice set of shelves from IKEA. You know, the kind that look the same from both sides and come with one of those crooked little wrenches and picture instructions without any words? Are you still speaking to each other an hour later? DH and I think we set a record for the 3.5 hours necessary to put together the large, wheeled island in our kitchen from a set of instructions that possessed merely a superficial  resemblance to English. The key to getting through some difficulties in your marriage is to recognize when it is the other person's fault and when it is not. If you two can unite against a common enemy (such as a furniture assembly guide in Engrish), then you really have a strong relationship!

Which brings me to my final point: laughter really is the best medicine. Laugh with each other at each other. Pick your battles, walk away from the unnecessary ones, and use humor to diffuse tense situations—for instance, by talking to bad drivers in a syrupy, sing-song-y voice as if they were stupid puppies: “Did you just cut me off? Yes you did! Yes, you did! Don’t f*** with me today, buddy, I’m on my way home from my in-laws’.”* Read to each other: on picnics, on long car trips, in bed before falling asleep at night. That way, no matter else you do individually, you will always have one thing in common as a conversation-starter. Bonus points for reading something so funny that you have to stop because you’re gasping for air from laughing so hard.

I love being married, and I love being married to Dear Husband. We wish you the same happiness—and intelligible furniture assembly directions.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

So, that's what I know about marriage. In honor of the holiday, I would love to hear your stories and advice as well. Don't worry if you're "late" responding--remember, we're not celebrating until Saturday!

*--I actually have about the best in-laws in the country; I used this as a figure of speech for comedic effect only.