Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Food, Glorious Food!


It's "Fat Tuesday". Interesting that a day is named after a national epidemic, no? I wrote that very tongue-in-cheek, as I realize "Fat Tuesday" is the literal English translation of Mardi Gras, which is today. The photo is a photo of paczki, a rich deep-fried doughnut popular first in Poland, and now in certain areas of the midwest. (It's pronounced "poonch-key" and this is the plural. A single doughnut is a paczek, pronounced poonch-ick.) The parish where my family resided during my childhood was populated by Polish-American families. My late pal Marty Murphy and I used to call ourselves "token Micks". But man, every year, the day before Ash Wednesday, we'd gorge ourselves on paczki. Packzki dough must be made with real butter, according to one of our Polish-American classmates, and does contain some yeast, so the dough has to rise. In the greater Detroit area, bakeries selling paczki begin working around-the-clock the weekend prior to Ash Wednesday, to meet demand. Many folks will bring them into their places of work, so they'll order boxes of a dozen ahead of time. The doughnuts are always deep-fried, as I mentioned, never baked, and after they cool, they're filled with all kinds of different fillings: bavarian cream, cream cheese, lemon, and many different fruit fillings like apple, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and prune. New Orleans may have King Cakes(which I've sampled and found delicious), but the part of the country where I reside is Paczki Heaven. After the fillings are inserted, paczki are often either glazed with a clear sugar glaze or granulated or powdered sugar.

All this has been my big build-up to a discussion on cookbooks. Now I have to tell you my parents had really different temperaments, making life in my childhood really interesting, but one of the most acrimonious arguments they ever had was about cookbooks. My mom had quite a collection of them. I remember fondly the Christmas Cookie cookbook that my mother, sister and I seemed to pour over each holiday season, and it served as the impetus for most of the sweet treats coming out of our kitchen in December. I also remember that Mom had an "encyclopedia" set of cookbooks, and if I recall there were at least a dozen, perhaps even eighteen in the set. They ran alphabetically, so in the volume with the letter "S", one would find recipes for sauces, soups, and stews, for example. Well, my parents moved from my childhood home to a smaller house in the early 1980's. Mom had many of her cookbooks in one box, and Dad threw the box out. Deliberately. I don't know if this was his not-so-subtle way of telling Mom that her cooking was either not great (which I'm sorry to say is the truth) or much too absent (which was also the truth, as Mom loved to order take-out), but the fury and uproar his action caused was legendary.

The incident made me realize something, though, about cookbooks. My mother lived through the Great Depression in another country. As the eldest of four, she sometimes passed up meals because her family didn't have enough food to feed the entire family, and she had a couple of younger siblings she adored and sacrificed for gladly. My mother did have a very reliable repetoire of recipes she could turn out well for company at our house, however, and as a hostess she was generous and gracious to all visitors who stayed for meals with us. (My father was also a host who was famous for saying to guests "Please, eat up! Have more! Give the house a good name!" and I can say without fear of contradiction, if you left our home hungry, it was surely your own fault.) The Great Depression shaped my mother's psychological make-up and she began to hoard, I think because of it. I am still throwing out food in the basement of the last house my mom lived in--there are cans and jars of things so old they've exploded and I wear rubber gloves every time I'm down there pitching things into trash cans or plastic trash bags.

The acquisition of cookbooks, and always having a lot of them around, was every bit as important to my mother as having all the food itself had been. They formed part of my mother's "Scarlett O'Hara" moment of saying "As God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again!", something I never actually heard my mom say, but something she obviously felt and lived out throughout her entire lifetime.

I hope sometime in the future to blog in a bit more detailed manner about cookbooks and share with you some of the ones I've enjoyed using. But I wanted to share this blog with you so you might understand that a cookbook isn't always just a place for recipes. To my late mother, it also served as a psychological safe haven of sorts.


  1. I shall remain anonymous, but I am the author's older sister. Great blog, sissy !! Interestingly enough or perhaps it's ironic, I too have a fairly extensive cookbook collection. Guess the acorn doesn't fall too far from the oak tree.

  2. Oh yes, count me in on that list of those who love their cook books. I have so many, I had so many more but with our move out of the country, a few had to stay behind. It was a difficult goodbye.
    I am now very involved in discovering online cooking blogs and this helps with my cookbook addiction.
    I have the Betty Crocker cookbook from 40 years ago that someone gave me , I never use it anymore but can't let it go. I pretty much learned to boil water with her directions !.