Family Food Traditions
Sunday is Ellison Spaghetti Night
My husband Sean and I live with our three children (Michael, Julia and Madeleine) in Potsdam. Every week we host a Spaghetti Party for anyone who is free at 5:00 on Sunday nights. I make homemade sauce and homemade bread, pasta, brownies and Kool-Aid each week and people tend to bring extra desserts (you can never have too much dessert!)
Spaghetti Parties started in the fall of 1997 when my college roommate and I decided to invite a few people over on occasional Sunday afternoons to eat with us in our dorm. The easiest thing to cook in an illegal hot pot is spaghetti! This soon grew to a weekly event with students from Clarkson and Potsdam attending, as well as some professors and other community members. I moved off campus, got married, moved into a house on Gilmore, bought a house on Elm St. and still the people kept coming. I felt sure that Spaghetti Parties would phase out of their own accord, but each year new people crop up and keep coming back.
I haven't lived in the North Country all my life, but the main reason my husband and I plan to finish our lives here is because of that sense of community. There have been nights when the sauce didn't come out that well or we ran out of bread, but still people keep coming back. Many of our college friends who have stayed in the area as well still attend, with their young families. Last year we regularly had half a dozen little people under the age of 4! The college students seem to love a place that feels like home, where a family is living everyday. And our family loves to be a part of what makes this a special place to live- a sense of community that extends to whoever happens to be there and would enjoy a good meal in good company.
This summer we are hoping to have a "Spaghetti Party Reunion" for anyone who has ever been to a spaghetti party. We're looking forward to bringing back some of our old friends who have built their own lives with families, trips overseas, military service, etc. Imagine if all the people over 11 years were able to come back! I'd have to start baking bread now :)
Andrea Ellison, Potsdam
Shore Dinner for Five or More
Beginning in the late 1940s our parents vacationed at an island cottage on Loughborough Lake, three miles by boat from Battersea, Ontario, just north of Kingston. The two of us, John and Mark, and our sister Gwen spent our summers there forever. Mom and Dad have retired to the great cottage country in the sky, but we continue to compose creative variations on the theme of a Canadian fishing guides shore dinner learned by Dad from his friend and guide Clifford Convery. Who knows how long ago guides in Upper Canada came up with this cardio-challenging cookout, but this is a version that has migrated south to Rossie.
Invariably, the evening winds down well after dark, with a swelling chorus of bullfrogs in the distance and everyone gathered closely round, our bodies and souls nourished by the essential ingredients of a traditional shore dinner--good friends, good food, and a crackling warm fire.
John & Mark Scarlett Rossie, NY
Switchel: an old fashioned drink
Probably back in the 1970s, Marilyn Henderson of Cornell Cooperative Extension wrote this about Switchel:
"Old-timers used this drink as a thirst quencher during the hot summer months. They made it with cold, cold spring water, and said nothing quenched a thirst or cooled a dusty throat in haying time so well as this homey drink. It's a good energy restorer without promoting 'cotton-mouth' in athletes; cross-country skiers or snowshoers should drink it with the chill off, though."
A 1923 Webster International Dictionary has this entry:
My recipe for Switchel is from my old farmer friend Stanley Northrop of Potsdam.
Farmers would carry a gallon jug of Switchel when they went out to work in the fields.
Mary-Ann Cateforis, Potsdam NY
The request for stories about family food traditions reminded me of the origins of an annual cookie exchange party that I'll be hosting for the fourth consecutive year next month. When I was in the 4th grade, I told my mother one year around early December that I wanted to have a cookie exchange party for my friends. I have no clue where I got the idea for a cookie exchange party; I'm not sure if I'd heard of someone else having one, or if the idea developed out of my love of sweets and all the time I spent helping my mother in the kitchen. My mother helped me make a guest list (I think I invited 8 girls), and each guest was instructed to bring a shoebox with enough of her favorite cookies to share with each guest, as well as 9 copies of the recipe for her cookies. (The recipe cards ended up being the best part; I still have those cards in my friends' 10-year-old handwriting!) That first cookie exchange was a complete success, and I think I hosted one or two more similar parties before I became a teenager and developed other interests.
In Schroon Lake back in the 1930s through 1950s my family's favorite holiday dish was salt codfish. My father was an Irish Roman Catholic, and my Protestant mother seemed happy to accommodate her cooking to the many days of abstinence from meat in the pre-Vatican II era. That was easier said than done in the wintertime Adirondacks, where the only fresh fish came up through a hole in the ice. We needed a festive holiday meal, we couldn't have meat, and the fish sold in stores came in cans or boxes.
We were saved by Gorton of Glouster, which packaged salt codfish in wooden boxes. Mother soaked the fish overnight to get the salt out, then made a white sauce to which, ironically, she added salt. The dish was served piping hot over freshly baked potatoes. We loved it, and I still make it sometimes for Christmas Eve dinner.
Some of my friends of Greek, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese heritage use the same fish for holidays, but they are more likely to buy big pieces of dried salt codfish in grocery or fish stores. They call it Bacalaoa, and their sauce is tomato-based. But Gorton is silll going strong, and they'll be pleased to sell you boxes of salt codfish on-line. They say it has an unmistakable flavor and they're right.
Salt Cod with Potatoes
Serves 4. Fresh winter vegetables and a salad add color to the meal.
Naomi's Birthday Waffles
As my youngest daughter's birthday approaches on September 19th, our family plans for an annual family birthday food tradition. We enjoy waffles (usually with thawed and sauced strawberries) for breakfast every year on my daugther Naomi's birthday. This is a great way to celebrate a very special day and remind us of her rather spectacular coming into this world. My daughter ended up being a surprise home birth early morning on the 19th of 2003. She came into this world quicker than expected and I delivered her in a main level room of our old wonderful farmhouse (circa 1860). Our midwife, my mother, a friend and my husband were all there and all went well - just fast.
After the excitement died down, family members phoned and baby and I settled for nursing, my husband made the whole birth team fresh homemade waffles. After all the energy I used in labor and giving birth, it had to be the best waffle I have ever eaten in my life (plus my husband is a great waffle maker). We all sat around in our home, eating waffles, adoring the newborn and watching the sun come up. We did wonder how many other North Country babies have been born in our home since the 140 years or so it has been standing. Now, my soon to be four year old requests waffles for breakfast on her birthday and the re-telling of her birth story. What a wonderful tradition! Below is the recipe for Naomi's Birthday Waffles as made by my husband, David. His own recipe based on the waffle recipe in The Joy of Cooking.
Naomi's Birthday Waffles
Sift whole wheat pastry flour with the baking powder, salt and sugar. In another bowl, beat the egg yolks well and then add the melted butter and milk into this same bowl. Pour the liquid ingredients into the sifted ingredients and combine - but do not over mix. Beat the egg whites until stiff. My husband says it is very important you FOLD, not stir, the egg whites in. Serve with pure maple syrup. Now, as part of her birthday, we thaw strawberries and heat them gently in a pot until somewhat sauce-like to add to the top of the waffles.
Learning to appreciate "slow food"
There were no food traditions in my family. Ours was an Irish Catholic household; and this meant fish on Fridays and family meals on the holidays, but there were no special recipes passed down through the generations or unique rituals beyond saying grace. We were also an American family living through the sixties and seventies, an era of great advances in fast, processed foods. A meal was time for us to gather around the table together, but it was a speedy affair. Food was fuel that staved off hunger pains and gave us the energy to get through the day. A particular line of processed foods cooked in "boiling bags," I recall, were very popular fare. From one pot of steaming water, a meal of Salisbury steaks, corn in butter sauce, and macaroni and cheese could be produced.
This was my gustatory inheritance. Through college and graduate school and into the start of professional life, food was a necessity requiring very little thought. I actually liked cafeteria food. Fast food first shaped and then fit this ethos. The first crack in this tradition occurred when I met my wife. Sunhee is Korean, a nation with food traditions as strong as the hot sauce that finds its way into every dish. It was clear from the beginning that the success of our relationship hinged on my ability to adapt to her dietary habits. That is, I had to begin to consider food seriously. We are still together.
With our move to North Country we fell in with a wonderful group of people who responded to the long winters by making meals the focus of social life. Food and wine shared around a long table invited laughter, conversation, and ever-deepening friendship. I can mention meals I enjoy most - Hugo's paella and bouillabaisse, Maria's homemade chocolate ice cream and flans, Sunhee's vegetable pancakes - but my underdeveloped palate leaves me with a wider sense of what makes a good meal. It is the unrushed tempo of an evening with friends, the sensation of being in the warmth protected from the cold wind and snow outside, and the awakening that comes with new flavors and smells. To me, this pace and intimacy is the great gift of North Country cuisine. No doubt there is truth in the old saw, "You are what you eat." But the pace of eating and the company you keep are of equal importance.
Chris Robinson, Hannawa Falls
My half Italian, half English/Scottish father married my all Celtic mother in Windsor, Ontario in June of 1944. Soon after, my parents were separated while my dad served in the Canadian Army. Then, they moved to Madison, Wisconsin so my dad could do his Ph.D. in Economics. Holiday celebrations back in Chatham and Toronto were always important. My grandfather was one of twelve so my father always would brag about his 100 cousins. And my maternal grandfather was also one of nine so my mother had a large family to visit as well.
North Country Food Book page
I'm a sixth generation NNYer. Here is a very traditional recipe from a family of long-time sugar-makers.
Maple Syrup Shortcake
At one point in my peripatetic life I was engaged to a Norwegian, so I thought it behooved me to learn to make one of their favorite national dishes. To make a long story short, I did, and it's now become one of my family's favorite winter/comfort meals.
Connie Meng, Canton NY
Lamb and Cabbage Casserole
Eating this pizza has brought much joy to our family. When our sons David and Theo were growing up in the '70's and '80's, I made it often and always had individual pepperoni pizzas in the freezer for them to put in their lunch bags along with carrot sticks and an apple. By noon the pizza had reached room temperature. I've been told that one of these pizzas would fetch seventy-five cents (for Theo) in the lunchroom.
This past Christmas (2007), our daughter-in-law Margaret suggested that we make our pizza again. She and her ten-year-old nephew (our grandson), Alex, helped put it together. I had made the dough ahead of time.
Alex rolled out the dough and patted it into olive-oiled cake roll pans. We brushed the top of the dough, especially around the edges, with more olive oil. (A touch of pressed garlic imparts an inviting fragrance to the oil).
Then we spread it with tomato puree, to the brink of the crust, and sprinkled it liberally with Margaret's homegrown dried basil and my homegrown Greek oregano. Then grated part-skim mozzarella and whatever else anyone wanted. I had a bag of washed, sliced, lightly olive-oiled and individually frozen mushrooms in the freezer, to save time at the last minute. Chopped onion and green pepper can also be tossed in oil to keep them from drying as the bake.
When the pizzas were assembled, we let the crust rise in the turned-off warm oven until it looked twice as thick and felt soft when touched. We baked them at 375 degrees for about seventeen minutes, then cautiously lifted one end of the crust with a spatula and peeked at the bottom of the crust to be sure it was toasty.
It is the crust that makes this pizza distinctive. I use the same recipe for pizza (three pizzas) or bread (two loaves) or rolls (about three dozen).
I will tell you frankly, this recipe sounds daunting. But I believe that if you are brave enough to try any part of it - or all of it - you will be glad you did.
First: several days (or weeks) ahead of time, make a small batch of diastatic malt. This is the malt you see on bread labels. It is made by sprouting wheat or barley kernels. Look for wheat kernels in a natural food store.
If you've ever made sprouts, you know what to do. The key is to sprout no more than a quarter cup of kernels, so the air can reach them, and keep them well rinsed and well drained, so they stay fresh.
When the sprouts have dried crisp, pulverize them in a blender or other such device. You may catch a pleasant whiff of malt fragrance. Store the ground malt in a small, tightly lidded jar in the refrigerator. It lasts a long time because you use less than a teaspoon per batch of bread. And it keeps very well. Malt gives this bread a rich, nuanced aroma, as well as extra rising power.
If you're not ready for malt, don't give up yet. There's still the wheat germ and the sponge.
I always begin bread - making by setting the sponge. This is essentially soupy dough (the consistency of pancake batter), which bubbles away without climbing out of the bowl.
In a saucepan, bring to a boil one cup of water. Dump in one cup of RAW wheat germ (which you've kept in your freezer). Remove from the heat, stir briefly to soak all the wheat germ, pour in two cups of cold water, and empty into a large glass bowl. (I use a punch bowl).
The resulting mixture is just the right temperature for yeast to wake up. Stir in about a cup of unbleached (maybe high gluten) flour to provide starch for the yeast. Also stir in a scant teaspoon of malt. If you have sourdough starter available (at room temperature), add a half-cup or so. It's absolutely wonderful. The more the merrier! Then pour a tablespoon (or less) of NON-instant baking yeast on top of the mixture and do not stir again for a few minutes until you see the yeast bubbling. Then stir, and set in a cozy warm place overnight or several hours, to ferment and get all yeasty and boozy and develop character and to get ready to make your bread dough rise with gusto.
A couple of hours before baking time, add a tablespoon of salt. (We didn't want salt in there earlier, spoiling the fun of the sponge). Then stir in as much flour as you can comfortably add. I use unbleached flour, but whole grain is even better.
When the dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticky, it's time to stop kneading and cover the dough with a dishtowel and let it relax for ten to twenty minutes so it will be easier to form into loaves or rolls or pizza crust. There is no need to punch it down and let it rise a second time.
You can refrigerate or freeze the dough at any point, buttering it all over and being careful to allow room for expansion, because it will expand even when cold.
Back to our Christmas pizza.
That, dear Reader, is why I decided to write this down for you.
Mary Ann Cateforis, Potsdam NY
Driftwood Cod Stew
I grew up on the west coast of Newfoundland (NF) and spent nearly every weekend at the family camps (called cabins in NF) at Madores Cove. My father was one of eleven children so there was always a large collection of aunts, uncles, cousins and even a few friends present all watched over by Poppy and Nanny Madore.
Saturday afternoons the men would organize a group of kids to collect driftwood and build a fire on the beach. Uncle Walt would put an iron pot on top of the fire and start by frying pork fat and onions. My father would cut the potatoes and put those in too. To complete the fish stew Uncle Jerome and Uncle Norm would fill the pot with fillets of fresh fish (in NF fish means only one thing - cod fish). If you were lucky you got to help catch the fish that morning. Sometimes wed go out in the dory to catch a fish that afternoon just for the stew. Of course they seasoned the stew with salt and pepper.
While it cooked every adult and child would find a piece of driftwood and try to whittle a wooden spoon. There was much struggling with pocket knives. It seemed that each of my uncles could produce a large beautiful spoon that sometimes looked more like shovels. Every one of us kids had much smaller and but still (somewhat) effective utensils that were frantically completed just as the pot came off the fire. The rule was that if you didnt make the spoon yourself you couldt use it. You had to have a spoon if you wanted to eat the fish stew!
The lid was lifted and the amazing aroma drew us in. Everyone gathered around the pot and fought for their share. Sometimes, I got only one or two mouthfuls. It tasted like the ambrosia of the gods. All too quickly the pot was empty and the precious spoons were added to the fire. The children ran off to play while the men cleaned out the pot and put out the fire. Next week, wed do it all again.
Dr. Blair Madore
Italian Night and NCPR
The sabbatical year we lived in Genoa we became addicted to Italian food and the way of cooking with seasonal ingredients and shopping at small specialty stores for each item.
Wednesdays and Saturdays are now our special Italian nights and NPR is definitely involved. For Wednesdays we tape Car Talk on our VCR following Radio Bob's advice of years ago. Saturday A Prairie Home Companion accompanies our cooking and feasting. Dennie makes homemade pasta while Libby works on the sauce and salad. Red wine is a must during preparation and consumption.
Pasta Con Pepperoni Fritti
Serves 2 and is easily doubled. Buon Appetito!
Libby and Dennie Brandt, Canton NY