Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life

By Friday, April 20, 2018 Permalink 0

TRE Book-a-Month: Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life

Join us in our Facebook group The Rambling Epicure, Mastering the Art of Food Writing, from May 3 to May 17 for the TRE Book-a-Month reading, discussion and, if you like, cookalong, of a biographical cookbook about legendary food authority Paula Wolfert, which includes 50+ recipes, by Emily Keiser Thelin.

“All recipes are, in some way, an exploration of the link between food and memory. We cook the food we remember loving and, in so doing, make new connections and bonds. The amount of love, through food, Paula has given so many over the years makes this biography-cum-cookbook a truly wonderful project. — Yotam Ottolenghi

“Every serious food person knows that Paula Wolfert changed our world, but in this book we learn what a fascinating time she had while she was doing it. Part biography, part cookbook, part history, Unforgettable introduces our greatest cookbook writer to the wider audience she deserves. There has never been a book quite like this one. — Ruth Reichl

“Unforgettable is a brilliant summation of the resilience, exuberance, and expertise that we know and love of Paula Wolfert. — Mario Batali

“We’re all truly indebted to Emily Kaiser Thelin, Eric Wolfinger, Andrea Nguyen, and Toni Tajima for capturing these beautiful, inspiring, and very important memories of Paula’s life and travels. — April Bloomfield

 

“Unforgettable is the story of the exacting, passionate, genuine, driven and indefatigable Paula Wolfert, the ultimate expert on the cooking of the Mediterranean. Emily Kaiser Thelin’s well-written and poignant narrative recounts the tale of this true pioneer of American culinary history. — Jacques Pépin”
 
Excerpts from Goodreads
 

 

 
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Cookalong: Istanbul and Beyond, by Robyn Eckhardt

By Saturday, March 17, 2018 Permalink 0

Join us from February 15 through April 15, 2018, in our Culinary Travel Facebook group as we explore the cuisine of one of the oldest regions of the world — the very name evokes visions of the Silk Road, never-ending caravans wending their way along deserts, stopping at oases to feast on large communal platters and the colorful, bright bazaars selling everything from precious gems to vegetables and sweetmeats; a vision of swirling dervishes and kohl-lined eyes watching you from behind ornate latticed screens.

Just as colorful as the image is is the cuisine of the region of Anatolia — Turkey, the sea of Marmara, the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, of course.

Robyn Eckhardt’s Instanbul & Beyond explores this exciting cuisine and we invite you to explore it along with us…as we cook together across the world.

We’re new to cookalongs, so maybe you can give us a few suggestions.

Anuradha Venkatesh Chenji and Jonell Galloway propose going through the book chapter by chapter, spending ten days or so on each, starting February 15, 2018. You can choose any of the recipes in the chapter you want or have time to make, then post your comments and photos so that we can all “experience” the cook-along together. If this pace proves to be too short or too long, we can always adapt it.

Before getting started, since our little community lives all over the world, we may not have access to all the ingredients required, which are, by the way, listed at the beginning of the book. Anuradha and I suggest that we study this list together and help each other decide what ingredients might be used as substitute, because this will inevitably be necessary for many of us.

Join us for a part of the journey or all — cook one, cook two, cook ALL or any of the dishes. It’s a hop on-hop off journey and you can check when you have time.

If you have any other suggestions on how we might improve this process, please feel free to express them in the Comments section on the Facebook page or event.

Anuradha Venkatesh Chenji

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A Brief History of Coffee

By Tuesday, March 13, 2018 Permalink 0

by Brian Yarvin

“Collectively, Europe’s coffeehouses functioned as the Internet of the Age of Reason.”–Tom Standage

I once asked a friend how much coffee he drank and he boasted “500 billion cups a year.” I knew instantly that this was wrong because the entire world drinks only about 400 billion. No matter where we are — in the car-crazed west, the subway riding city of New York, a town square cafe in Kansas, or a science lab in Antarctica — coffee is our fuel.

Coffee is so powerful that it has its own creation myth. We are told that it was discovered by a guy named “Kaldi.” He was an Ethiopian goat herder who noticed that when his animals ate certain red berries, they got so excited, they began to dance. So he chewed on a few berries and felt that now universal coffee buzz. Afterward, he picked some more, and then told an Islamic holy man about his discovery. The holy man declared them evil and threw them on the fire. When they smelled the roasting beans, they gathered them up, threw water on them, and enjoyed the world’s first cup of coffee.

As much as I love this story, it doesn’t ring true. Six hundred years ago, we humans were so dependent on the plants growing around us that we all knew their obvious properties. A red berry stimulant couldn’t possibly go unnoticed for all those centuries. So with all due respect to those people who’ve named their cafes “Kaldi’s,” I say, forget it.

I know it’s tough to imagine, but humans and civilization went for thousands of years without the stuff. The ancients didn’t know coffee at all. There was none in Egypt, Greece or Rome. The Chinese had tea and it spread throughout much of Asia, but caffeine wasn’t consumed regularly in the West before about 1650.

People on the Arabian peninsula almost certainly knew about the stimulative effects of the fruit of the coffee tree and there is some record of them chewing it, yet they didn’t start making a delicious drink from the ground, roasted seeds until about 1450, with the first clear written records from Yemen in about 1470. There, it was said that Sufi practitioners would drink it to stay awake for long ritual and study sessions.

Even in its birthplace, coffee was controversial. There’s no mention of coffee in the Koran, not that this has stopped a few scholars from trying to rule on it. Was it intoxicating and therefore a violation of Koranic law? Did it cause men to gather together and gamble? Plot treason? Argue? Were these rooms filled with males encouraging the business of prostitution? All these questions and more were addressed by judges and scholars as coffeehouses spread from Ethiopia and Yemen to Cairo and Istanbul. Attempts to ban coffee led to riots in Cairo and an official proclamation approving of it in Mecca during the year 1511.

If you’ve had more than a few cups of coffee, you’ll know that buzz; sometimes it comes with the first sniff of brew, although on rough days, you might not feel it until the third or fourth cup. That tingling, restless energy hits you in every nerve of your body. Is this intoxication? Can’t most of us drive better after a cup or two? Read better? And even think better?

What exactly were people back then drinking? Records show that they were boiling water and adding some part of the coffee bean to it along with (perhaps) some cardamom. Things moved quickly. By 1510 it was being commonly sold in Cairo by both street vendors and at freestanding specialty coffeehouses — by this time considered respectable because they didn’t have the drunkenness of wine or beer.

Given the use of words like “cauldron” or “vat” to describe the early coffee-making process, you might imagine that it was brewed in large quantities and kept for long periods. Not always so. Early recipes use exactly the same technique as modern Turkish coffee: a quick boil-up of water and powdered grounds followed by an even quicker pour into a tiny bowl-shaped cup. No sugar. No milk. Ethiopians were adding a bit of salt, but Europe was still taking its coffee straight.

Many reporters at that time described a coffee drink made from the boiled husks of the fruit. This would give you a sort of spicy, tea-like drink with the same properties as coffee. Today, those husks are rarely consumed as a drink, and experts talk of using them as a raw material for biofuel.

While there is some dispute about the exact location — some people say Oxford in 1650 and others London in 1652 — coffeehouses were thriving in England by the seventeen hundreds. Men would go in for a cup (called a “dish” back then) of coffee or perhaps much more, for games, conversation, networking and even serious business transactions. What they drank though, was a couple of spoonfuls of ground coffee boiled in water for ten minutes or more. It must have had a brutal taste.

Before milk and sugar were settled upon as the standard seasonings for coffee, all sorts of other things were tried including wine, beer, cardamom, spearmint, and cinnamon. These things might not sound good to us, but we have the benefit of hundreds of years of culinary experimentation. The first person who put milk in coffee had no reason to believe that it would be any better than the other items on the list.

You have to imagine yourself in the London of 1700. The city had two sorts of places to sit down and get something to drink: the pub and the coffeehouse. Walk into a pub and you’d be met by customers in varying states of drunkenness and no way to predict the mood of the place. Nobody was drunk at the coffeehouses. Instead, there’d be intelligent discussion. Science at some, or maybe literature or arts at the shop down the street. Around the corner, business might be the order of the day. This discourse was so important that newspapers had reporters at the coffeehouses to summarize it.

Coffee reached Italy in the 1650s where it was sold by street vendors alongside liquor, chocolate (in drink form), and lemonade. In 1683, Venice was the first city on the Italian peninsula to get its own coffeehouse. However, it wasn’t until the invention of espresso a couple of centuries later that classic Italian coffee culture came of age.

The first successful coffee shop in Germany opened in Hamburg in 1679. Called “The English Coffeehouse,” it catered to sailors and other travelers. By 1725, however, it was popular among all classes of people. Even then, an ad for a coffee seller reminded buyers that it was owned by an “Italian.” It seems that the cachet of an Italian sold coffee before the nation of Italy even existed.

The French were learning about coffee at roughly the same time as the Italians were. However, they were far more experimental. Not only were they drinking the boiled grounds, they also gave enemas with the very same liquid. Thankfully, this practice has died out. Imagine what Parisian sidewalk cafes would be like today if it had caught on!

Even though the enema thing didn’t quite work, the French continued to try new ways of preparing coffee. It was their idea to infuse the ground, roasted beans in boiling water and then strain the liquid through cloth. Parisians took to drinking it with gusto. By the mid-seventeen hundreds, they were consuming it in several different forms; a cup of the infusion with milk or a tiny dose of a grounds-and-water mixture so thick that it could almost be described as a paste.

The other European country famous for its coffee culture is Austria. Closer to coffee-loving Turkey, Vienna saw its first cafe, the Blue Bottle, before 1700. Started by one Franz Georg Kolschitzky, he got his original supply of coffee after Viennese won a military battle against the Turks. While his fellow soldiers grabbed almost everything the defeated army left behind, they missed the sacks of coffee beans. Legend has it that Franz recognized them as coffee after his fellow troops tried to set them on fire. The distinctive smell of the roasting beans tipped him off and he brewed up a batch on the spot. The Viennese were hooked.

Coffee lovers emigrated to America from all these countries, and although we Americans preferred beer or cider with our meals, it quickly caught on. Soon it was being brewed at home and on the campfires of pioneers. They introduced it to Native Americans who liked it so much that it was believed they were attacking wagon trains specifically to obtain it. Our forefathers drank this stuff as often as they could.

Union soldiers during the Civil War boasted about just how much coffee they drank. It was so extreme that quantities were claimed in quarts rather than cups. In fact, a memoir of the Civil War written in 1887 was titled Hardtack and Coffee (by John Billings). It’s been said that the Union Army had consumed more than forty million pounds of coffee by the time victory rolled around. A popular Civil War rifle, the Sharps Carbine, had a coffee grinder built into its stock.

Thanks to global imperialism and slave labor, the cost of coffee beans was plummeting and the role of the drink was changing. Instead of being the sophisticated social stimulant of the rich and famous in London, Paris, and Vienna, the industrial revolution saw coffee as the fuel that could keep factory workers going for long hours. A cup or two and twelve hours at a steam-driven loom might have been exhausting, but it was doable.

It didn’t take long for American food to catch up with its favorite drink. As the Industrial Revolution came on in full-force, wagons (we’d call them “food trucks” today) opened selling hamburgers and coffee. They were all you needed to do your job.

The notion that coffee was cheap turns out to be relative. Menus of the 1880s show meals and cups of coffee to often be the same price; roast beef platters and cups of coffee each priced at ten cents. Imagine walking into a diner of today and ordering the twelve dollar roast beef platter and washing it down with a twelve dollar cup of coffee.

As the twentieth century began, two inventions were to set the stage for how coffee was consumed in the United States and Europe respectively. Americans embraced the percolator, a device that used steam pressure to repeatedly spray water and partially brewed coffee over the grounds. This ensured a bitter and over-extracted cup. As awful as it tasted, the sight of the percolator remains a symbol of coffee and coffee shops. Today, collectors fawn over them at swap meets and antique stores. In Europe, Melitta Bentz punched some holes in a tin cup and then lined it with blotting paper. It was the first filter coffee maker. Soon, the Melitta (TM) brand of filters and filter holders were ubiquitous in northern Europe, giving Continentals a superior cup of coffee for decades before Americans caught on. Caught on we did though; in the seventies, an electric filter coffee making device called “Mr. Coffee” unseated the percolator and filter coffee became America’s choice too.

Coffee in Italy traveled on a whole different track. While Americans were first getting the hang of the percolator, inventors in Italy were trying to figure out a way to brew with high-pressure steam. There were two distinct advantages to this. First, the resulting beverage would become thick and unctuous without their being pieces of coffee grounds in the liquid, and second, that blast of steam could brew a single, tiny, potent serving at a time. A cup expressly for each customer — espresso.

As Italy urbanized, bars opened to serve espresso and espresso-and-milk drinks. With a government-mandated low price that applied only if you stood at the bar and an extortionate price for those who sat at tables, a class-sensitive stand at the bar or show-off at a table culture took root. Tourists in the great cities during the twenties were treated to extravagant service at tables while locals stood at the bar watching carefully.

Back in the States, The New York Times reported that “men who drank one cup of coffee before prohibition take two now” and described this situation as “jazzed up.” During the Roaring Twenties, Americans were consuming half the world’s coffee beans. This was also the time that supermarkets took hold. A&P, the first big chain, sold whole roast beans and ground them for you at the checkout counter, a practice that continued for decades.

Along with supermarkets, cars and car culture begat a whole new range of places where a person could buy a cup of coffee; gas stations, roadside snack bars, diners, motels, and campgrounds all introduced the now normal practice of offering coffee, sometimes for sale and sometimes as part of a larger purchase in all sorts of places. The now normal practice of offering free coffee in motels began back then.

During the twenties, Brazil was our major coffee supplier, but that didn’t last through the Depression. Insisting on maintaining a sort of cartel with huge quantities of warehoused beans, it was beaten in the market when its neighbors refused to go along. By the onset of the Second World War, coffee was coming into the United States from almost every country in South and Central America. This set the stage for coffee becoming the world’s most traded edible commodity. And soon, coffee growers in Africa and Asia were clamoring for a piece of the market they could call their own.

The widespread downhill slide in food taste and quality that began in the late forties was most obvious in two coffee products: instant coffee and large, vacuum-packed cans of pre-ground coffee. The pressure to offer them at lower and lower prices forced manufacturers to use lower and lower grades of coffee. The Robusta bean, which grew faster and yielded more than its fancier sibling the Arabica, found its way into these products, first, as a few percent of the blend, and later as half or more. In a final blow to coffee quality, vending machines offering hot cups of coffee began appearing in places where a friendly human being would have brewed a pot twenty or thirty years before.

In the fifties, Americans weren’t enjoying a cup of coffee, they were forcing it down so they could stay awake. It seemed like the only places where people actually enjoyed coffee were on television. The mythical characters of early TV appeared to be drinking the same bland, reheated, brown water as the rest of the country, only with far better results. Nobody was looking for something better because they had no idea that better was possible. Even espresso, the drink that would start the revolution a few decades later, was often so bitter that it was served with a twist of lemon peel to help it along.

Today, the tone of coffee consumption around the globe is set by the Starbucks chain. So ubiquitous that many people believe they invented the concept and at least a dozen times larger than its nearest rival, Starbucks is so big that many Americans are shocked when they go to a new or strange place and don’t find one. In fact, the espresso/coffeehouse trend had its beginnings at Peet’s — today, a chain with a respectable number of stores of its own, but back in the sixties, it was a single shop run by a guy named Alfred Peet. His first store, in the part of Berkeley, California, now known as the “gourmet ghetto,” had high-quality coffee beans that were roasted in small batches.

Peet’s soon became a gathering place for America’s first espresso fans. And in a very real way, he was appealing directly to the drug culture of the time. When you visited Peet’s, you bought a drug that was perfectly legal, very strong, and surrounded by a veil of esoteric knowledge. To the rest of the world, Mocha was an ice cream flavor, while at Peet’s it was one of the many points of origin for his coffees. Indeed, the coffees came from many places that were classic hippie destinations and others that seemed like they should have been.

Fine coffees grew high in the remote mountain regions of tropical third-world countries. Imagine how hip it would have been to sip espresso in a tiny, smoky shop while discussing Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya or Jamaica! Your mind awakened by the caffeine and camaraderie. You could do all the things that pot smokers did and never fear arrest. Even better, unlike those other drugs, artisan coffee offered business opportunities that were actually legitimate. Yes, a pothead could make money selling, but the risks were pretty great; a coffee fanatic could open up a shop that drew in addicts like flies, never risk a bust, and if he was robbed, he could call his insurance company and file a claim.

This combination of legal drugs and esoteric knowledge led to coffee’s modern age. Some guys from Seattle opened a shop near the Pike Place Market and began selling Peet’s beans; they called their place “Starbucks.” Other folks tried out the same idea all across the country and then all around the world. Chains of espresso bars, supermarket coffee packaging that proudly displayed countries of origin, and cappuccino in gas stations are now America’s coffee reality. In Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, locals now down espresso drinks. In Asia, people who had noodles and tea for breakfast a decade ago start their mornings with Danish pastries and cappuccino. And in a full circle business challenge, chains like Korea’s Paris Baguette are opening shops in American retail locations near the Starbucks shops that started the whole thing not so long ago.

So much coffee is consumed today that measurable amounts of caffeine are found in lakes, harbors and other bodies of water that are near towns and cities. Boston Harbor is said to have the equivalent of one million cups of coffee per day dumped into it via sewage and runoff. No wonder everybody is rushing around!

As Justin, my auto mechanic says, “we are awake and sufficiently caffeinated.”

****

Brian Yarvin
Author, Educator, Photographer

_______________

Brian Yarvin is an author and photographer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While most of his time is spent producing cookbooks and stock photos, he also writes food and travel articles for publications throughout the United States.

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Happy New Year 2018

By Tuesday, January 2, 2018 Permalink 0

May the angels be with you all the year long.

 
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A Taste of Paris, by David Downie

By Wednesday, December 27, 2017 Permalink 0

A History of the Parisian Palate

by Jonell Galloway

 A Taste of Paris is a delicious promenade through the Paris of times past and present with David Downie, guide par excellence. History and the senses are intertwined as Downie leads us through the City of Lights he knows so intimately, with many an unexpected turn, making it a suspenseful story that unravels the preconceived ideas we’ve woven about the history of French cuisine. Downie is not a tourist who spends a few weeks in Paris a year. He has dedicated his career to French gastronomy and Parisian history and is one of today’s foremost authoritative voices on these subjects. While this is a most entertaining French food history, it is much more. You come away understanding how and why this grande cuisine rose to such heights. Like the ancient Romans, the French, with all their pomposity and refinement, have a very sensual, down-to-earth relationship to life and land, and hence to food. This is a 12-course feast of words, and I wouldn’t skip a single dish.

***

Our Rambling Epicure Book-a-Month Club discussed the book at length in November.

 

 

 

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Pumpkin and Anchovy Pudding

By Wednesday, December 27, 2017 Permalink 0

I baked my “yellow pumpkin,” my zucca gialla, which the greengrocer recommended as being the sweetest for my baked pumpkin pudding. While pulling out the seeds and flesh with my fingers, I noted some little hard, dark bits, so I pulled them out as best I could, all the time thinking it strange that they were there. When I went to my cutting board to get the chopped anchovies to add to my liver pâté, they were gone. I had kneaded them into my pumpkin. This may be the beginning of a new and improved (?) pudding. Some people like sweet and savory together, right?

 
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Venetian Hours: Window into the Past

By Friday, December 15, 2017 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

We all have to let off steam from time to time. I do it through words, sometimes harsh, sometimes sweet; Venice does it through windows and steam-pipes.

Hand-shaped bricks were laid onto this marshland over a thousand years ago and still stand, the alder wood foundation stakes digging deep to reach the bottom sands of this shallow lagoon.

This wall tells a tall story, filled in over the centuries with newer bricks and stones, later covered with plaster, itself now crumbling with age, like family stories that change tones with the times and are embellished with black or white lace as we choose. Windows were carved out, later filled in and plastered over. A small window inside the older, larger one — for ventilation? — now itself bricked in, a simple steam pipe serving the purpose of ventilation today. It reminds me of that story about my great great grandmother who was kidnapped by an Indian chief for her beauty and the posses went out to look for her. It’s changed several times during my short lifetime, and I asked my mother: “maybe it was she who ran off with the Indian chief?” My imagination could go wild.

New-green plants nestle up close to darker, old ones. A half-timber overhang at the top recalls that Venice is in so many ways the door to the East and a city where old and new, East and West, uninhibitedeness and reservedness, have always lived comfortably alongside each other despite the natural elements being against her. I could study this façade for the rest of my life, unfolding its timeworn story, imagining the joy and the agony that went on behind this wall. Venice remains a city full of mystery, even after all these years of snuggling up tight with her.

 
 
 
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Italian Hours: Struffoli in New Haven

By Thursday, December 14, 2017 Permalink 2

Long Lost: The Archeology of an Italian-American Family and its Struffoli

by Jocelyn Ruggiero

I’m flipping through a thirty-year-old community cookbook by the Saint Ann Society of St. Michael’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, when a recipe for struffoli, the Italian pastry, catches my eye. Crispy on the outside and cakey on the inside, these marble-sized balls of dough are first deeply fried in vegetable oil, then drenched in warm honey laced with tangerine peels. Every year at Christmas time, they are served piled high in a mountain of sticky goodness. And for me, struffoli are inextricably tied to my great Aunt Chris.

I tasted her struffoli just once, when I was very young. I sit on a green and gold velvet couch in the living room of another great aunt, from another side of my family. I place the struffoli in my mouth in bunches. They are sweet and syrupy. I know, because my father told me, that my Aunt Chris made them, and that they are special.

struffoli Italian Neopolitan Christmas fritters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born in New Haven to Italian immigrants, Christine Angelina Zito was one of seven children, growing up in her family’s little house in the then-Italian neighborhood of New Haven known as Fair Haven Heights. Her sister Antoinette was my grandmother; she died in 1972, nine months before I was born.

Chris was the only unmarried daughter in the family and lived at home with her parents. She inherited their house after they died. Like many other uneducated working class Italian-Americans in New Haven at that time, she worked in factories: Gant Shirtmakers and later Calabro Cheese. One of rows and rows of women lined up at machines, a community of workers.

Image result for Calabro Cheese new haven factory newspaper clippings

In the 1950s and 1960s, Aunt Chris took a city bus to my grandparents’ house once a week and she and my grandmother would spend the day together, shopping and doing errands downtown. My uncle Joey remembers Aunt Chris always laughing and making jokes. He would lie awake in his room, evading his nap while his mother and Aunt Chris were out, because he knew his aunt was sure to bring him home a candy bar after their day out.

Making dough for struffoli Italian Neapolitan Christmas fritters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aunt Chris and my grandmother also cooked together. Uncle Joey watched them spreading a sheet over the dining room table, upon which they would roll out the long rows of dough for struffoli. She also made struffoli in the house on Farren Avenue with my great-grandmother, Maddalena. Like my father, my Uncle Joey loved my Aunt Chris’ struffoli. He recalled: “It was Christmas Eve, 1962, your dad and I were coming home from Grandma and Grandpa’s and Aunt Chris’ house. We were in Gramps’s new 1963 Caddy on Chapel Street. I was holding a sacred bowl of struffoli! The light turned red and the road was icy . . . we rear-ended a car and there was struffoli stuck all over the dashboard and windshield!”

frying struffoli by Emma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time I was born in 1973, Aunt Chris’s existence was very different. Her mother Maddalena died in 1965, her father Vincenzo and then her beloved sister Annette in April 1972. New Haven also changed drastically during those years. The devastating urban renewal led by Mayor Richard Lee in the 1960s resulted in the demolition of old neighborhoods, the insertion of miles of highway across residential communities, and the displacement of more than 22,000 people, many of whom relocated to the suburbs surrounding the city. Manufacturing plants left. And downtown was no longer the golden destination it used to be. The small neighborhood of Fair Haven Heights that Aunt Chris, along with many others, called home, changed entirely, along with the rest of the city. Old family businesses closed. Young people moved away. People started driving more cars and stopped taking city buses.

East Haven Calabro Cheese Corp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recall Aunt Chris coming to our house in the country outside New Haven only once when I was very little. She sat at our dining room table, her back to the china cabinet, facing the entrance to the kitchen where I stood. She was heavy and hearty, and she laughed. She called me “honey” in her low, caramel voice. I admired her red nail polish.

Aunt Chris Sisters Children Jocelyn Ruggiero

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother tells me this didn’t happen. That Aunt Chris was too nervous to leave New Haven. I wonder if it matters what the truth is. She either came to our house once, or she never came at all. Either way, she wasn’t really a part of our lives. And, for whatever reason, that side of my father’s family was fractured, with no matriarch, and no web of cousins. No big holiday gatherings. For me, the heart of my family was my grandfather’s side of the family. Aunt Chris was on the periphery of my life.

Aunt Chris would regularly talk to my father “long distance.” I’d eavesdrop from the hallway outside the kitchen while he stood by the mustard-yellow wall phone, laughing with her through the long curly cord as she told fresh but harmless jokes. My father always told me about her struffoli, long after she stopped making them. For me, they were a golden food made during a golden era that preceded me.

At some point, Aunt Chris fell on a city bus and injured her leg so badly that she could no longer work. She accepted a paltry settlement from the city and lived in poverty the rest of her life. Asking for more than what she was offered was unthinkable to her.

the italian american experience in new haven by Anthony V. Riccio, Philip Langdon, Mary Ann Carolanfarms, factories and families Connecticut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was in elementary and high school, we occasionally visited her duplex house in New Haven. She lived upstairs and her sister Arlene and niece lived downstairs as tenants. She didn’t charge them enough rent to get by. Aunt Chris never invited us upstairs to her floor and she wouldn’t let us up when we tried. She always came downstairs to her sister’s. She sat and visited and drank a small glass of Foxon Park strawberry soda. She was friendly, but somewhat ill at ease. She was stiff when I hugged her goodbye. She was, as my mother says, “odd.”

St. Michael Church Cook Book New Haven New Haven Connecticut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aunt Chris sent me Hallmark cards on holidays, her pen underlining certain words in the card she felt were important, signing with old-fashioned careful cursive. No matter how little she had, she included a small check on my birthday and once sent me a rosary and a small plastic bottle of holy water from Lourdes.

After her sister, my Aunty Arlene, died, she was alone in the house with her niece downstairs, and my cousin was inexplicably angry with her for the rent she charged, measly as it was. Her younger brother Gaetano (“Guy”) kept an eye on her, but Aunt Chris was increasingly isolated.

Chapel Street Postcard New Haven Connecticut Jocelyn Ruggiero

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was just out of college, living in New York City, auditioning for plays and flinging myself at my new life, I would sometimes call Aunt Chris to chat. She urged me to get onto one of the soap operas she watched on Channel 8 every afternoon. She demurred when I suggested that I come and visit her.

After my parents’ divorce while I was in college, my father slowly annulled his relationship with me, and with that annulment, eroded the part of my history that was fabricated from his stories.  In 2001, he briefly emerged to let me know that Uncle Guy had found Aunt Chris days after she had fallen onto the floor in her apartment. The roof of her house was in such disrepair that the ceiling inside her kitchen was crumbling. I took the train and went to visit her in the convalescent home. Her hair was gray and she looked very tired. She smiled at me while I chattered, but didn’t say much. I talked about the old stories my father used to tell, about her trips downtown and her struffoli. I rolled her compression stockings up her legs for her and put an ornament I had brought of a tiny red cardinal on the mirror facing her. I propped up an 8 x 10 photo of my father as a little boy where she could see him and then I hugged and kissed her goodbye. She didn’t embrace me back.

Stuffoli Recipe Theresa Argento New Haven Church Cook Book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soon after, I called the floor nurse to see how she was, and she told me Aunt Chris had died the week before.  My father had not called to tell me. I cried angry tears for her, and for me, in my Little Italy apartment, heartbroken that I had not said goodbye, and not paid my respects.

I’ve engaged in a kind of archeology lately, trying to piece together memories and stories about Aunt Chris’s life. I left an unanswered voicemail for someone with the same last name, whose number I found in the phonebook. I spoke to the Greater New Haven Labor History Association and W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass to find records of Aunt Chris’s time at Gant, unsuccessfully. When I called Calabro to see if they had any records of Aunt Chris’ employment, the person I spoke to laughed at the idea. I searched for her obituary, but there wasn’t one.  I went to New Haven City Hall and paid $20 for a copy of her death certificate and saw that she had died finally of colon cancer, and that she was buried through Maresca’s, a funeral home both sides of my Italian family have used for more than 50 years. I called its third-generation owner Neil, who told me Aunt Chris had a small service at St. Rose’s Church, in the Fair Haven neighborhood, and was buried in a family plot. He gave me the location of her grave on St. Theresa Avenue at St. Lawrence Cemetery in New Haven. When I visited, her resting place was near her parents, her grave unmarked.

family archeology photo art by sandee art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I haven’t been able to find people who can tell me about her. My father is gone, now totally estranged from his former life and family, with a new wife and small children, none of whom will visit the house on Farren Avenue, know my Aunt Chris, nor, I suspect, hear stories about her struffoli. I’ve lost then any photos of her my father might have, as well as his stories, now locked away forever.

I have only two photos of Aunt Chris, both with her family. In a box buried somewhere in my basement, I have some Hallmark cards with her handwriting. And somehow, I have her struffoli. My memory of her struffoli is formed by an alchemy that combines my memories, my father’s memories, my uncle’s fifty-year-old stories, my imagination and my research.

history nuns struffoli naples christmas cookies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Struffoli originated in the Naples region of Italy in the seventeenth century. Nuns made them each year at Christmas as an expression of gratitude for the patrons who supported them. Each December, the hands of these women reached out through the bars of their convent to the open hands outside to offer their gift, created in the warmth, seclusion, and camaraderie of their kitchens.

Rolling struffoli dough

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made struffoli myself for the first time last year. I rolled the dough over my kitchen table into long ropes, cutting it into tiny slices, then rolled the dough into small balls. I discovered that it is a time-consuming task to undertake alone and asked a friend to help me. We made the struffoli, talking and laughing, and I could see that it is meant to be made with others. I imagined when Aunt Chris did the same with her mother and her sister. And then after they died, alone in her second-floor apartment, and, eventually, not at all.

I place a handful of the struffoli in my mouth and feel a communion with Aunt Chris, a woman I didn’t really know, a woman who died very much alone and is—almost—forgotten.

This article first appeared in the New Haven Review.

***

Sources:

Struffoli church cookbook recipe (cover and recipe shown above) by Theresa Argento.

History of Struffoli.

Struffoli recipe with some history.

Another struffoli recipe by Lidia Bastianich.

History of Gant in New Haven

Calabro Cheese Corp.

Greater New Haven Labor History Association

W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass 

Maresca & Sons

The Italian American Experience in New Haven (Suny Series in Italian/American Culture), by Anthony V. Riccio.

 

 

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photo by: judywitts

BOOK REVIEW: BAKING POWDER WARS

By Monday, November 13, 2017 Permalink 0

BOOK REVIEW: BAKING POWDER WARS

by Margie Gibson

Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking, by Linda Civitello 

If baking powder doesn’t seem substantial enough to merit an entire book, that’s only because its history and background have not been widely explored and remain generally unknown. Linda Civitello’s carefully researched book has finally opened a window onto a fascinating subject and era in U.S. history. The book is interdisciplinary in nature, shedding light on the science and chemistry behind baking powder, the international exchange of ideas and scientific knowledge that enabled the powder’s development, the history of chemical leavening agents, politics and corruption, suspicion of foreigners (in this case, Germans), and insights into the role baking powder played in the economic history of the U.S., as well as marketing, feminism, and social issues. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found especially interesting the book’s exploration of how baking powder revolutionized women’s lives, freeing them from the necessity of spending long hours kneading and baking bread for their families. The popularity of baking powder in the US  also explains how baking styles here developed differently from European baking — U.S. cooks relied much more extensively on a chemical leavening action while more traditional European cooks relied on beating bubbles into the batter and using eggs as a leavening. This difference created new American baked goods such as cookies, quick biscuits, cobblers, and light, fluffy cakes.

Baking Powder Wars provides fascinating insights into a unique American product — insights that will change the way you look at a marvelous invention that we have too long taken for granted.

Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking, by Linda Civitello, University of Illinois Press

https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/98ppx5cp9780252041082.html

 

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Venetian Hours: Bistrot de Venise

By Monday, November 13, 2017 Permalink 1

Stained glass isn’t only for churches. It’s also for temples of cuisine like the Bistrot de Venise.

 
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