Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Raising The Bar: Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars, A Real Halloween Treat

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
~William Shakespeare

The Druids celebrated a form of it. So did The Aztecs. The Spanish had their rendition, as did every other former agrarian society (including those barbaric Germanic tribes I'm forever teasing my husband about since his Dutch-German roots are most definitely Goth, Visigoth or Ostrogoth. He's a born Vandal.) Even the Catholic Church had to recognize the pagan rituals of the harvest that conflated harvest time with the dawning of the dead, the placating of the harvest gods, the advent of winter; though officially Halloween is considered verboten by the Church fathers. We won't see the Pope wearing a Freddie Kreuger mask anytime soon. It took good old Yankee know-how, however, to turn it into an industry.

I feel it incumbent upon me to say (by way of apology) in some ways there's a huge disadvantage being a writer born and raised in the inner-city, chiefly when it comes to writing descriptive passages about a subject as beloved as Halloween. Unlike my pastoral and suburban peers, I have no idylls to describe, no pumpkin patches I sat in during the long fall nights waiting in the tall cool grass for the moon to rise. No demon spiders spinning their webs in the barren branches of dead elm trees. No haunted houses. No scarecrows with raven eyes staring out into the blackness. There is no bucolic wonderment that seized these moments ingrained in memory. All my landscapes are interior. Mostly in the wooly dandelion fields that constitute my mind. This renders my writing about my Halloween experiences a distillation of ink spill. Of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once very rightly said where there is no imagination there is no horror, and one thing I did not lack as a child was imagination - I still remember the disembodied styrofoam mannequin heads that stood bald with eyeless faces on my mother's dresser. My mother had so many wigs and falls. All colors. All textures. The wigs themselves resembled wounded animals to me... the sight of them alone was frightful, trust me, especially when she bragged about those wigs being made from human hair, so that I would stand there paralyzed before passing them, seeing those heads as alive and screeching their resentment at being shorn every night, it really was a house of horrors. Add to that my poor aunt who thought she heard a chorus of demons and all the religious iconography scattered allover the place.... The Sacred Heart of Jesus with eyes that always followed you, the pictures of devils & pitchforks, of saints being mutilated, but this was a year-round terror. Nothing to do with All Hallow's Eve fright.

Nor do I associate food with Halloween. Not as such. Not directly.  I don't personally associate much with Halloween except maybe tooth decay and razor blades in apples. (Both things to be assiduously avoided at all costs.) Although pumpkin pies, fruit-sweetened breads laced warm with exotic spices like ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon, and toothsome candy apples (whose sticky red glazed shells crackled under my teeth keeping my tongue and lips tinted with their goodness days afterward) were delicious indulgences as a child, I considered them part of autumn's bag of tricks, not necessarily Halloween’s. I suppose I can borrow from To Kill A Mockingbird and offer you, my discerning reader, a possible Halloween menu: dinner for two with Boo Radley; or swipe a line or two from Calvino's Under the Jaguar Sun, or DBC Pierre's Lights Out In Wonderland,  and proffer titillating recipes that will raise your hairs and goose your taste buds for all that is taboo from braised human tongue to spotted owl stew. Or I can do as my spouse suggested and write a review comparing the nuances in the most popular Halloween candies - write the definitive guide for the candy consumer with a discriminating palate. But let’s not and say I did.  Let's discuss the day itself instead.

The author doing her best to terrorize the 'hood

When I think of Halloween, what do I think of?  I think of the wanting... The wanton seed that plants its insatiable need in an infertile ground whose harvest renders little more than a cache of disappointment masquerading as mini-Reese's cups, Snickers and Nestle's Crunch bars (if you were lucky), tarnished pennies (a magic trick would have been preferable), or candy corn (a particularly unctuous unpalatable variety of fake sugary treat that resembled kernels of corn no right-minded costume-wearing child in East Harlem would ever eat).  No kids I knew ever felt they got enough candy, no matter how much their little plastic pumpkins or brown paper bags rattled with extorted goodies from weary adults who met our maniacal shouts of "trick or treat!" with the grim-faced resignation of a snaggle-toothed Jack-O-Lantern. Halloween was more burden than fun in the East River Projects. Times were hard, families poor. Buying bucket loads of candy to fulfill the glutinous tastes of hundreds of strange little grubby-palmed gluttons dressed in goblin garb was simply beyond most residents' ability.

Most neighbors wouldn't even open their apartment doors, and my family was a cornucopia of complexes, riddled with an inherent and abundant paranoia that made them unwilling to allow me to venture up and down the tenement halls anyway - even in the company of our neighbor's teenage daughter, Lizzy, who appointed herself my personal guardian angel. I hung up my gypsy shawl and princess tiaras by the time I was eight because I simply lost my taste for a holiday that every adult within my ken looked at with extreme trepidation, tempered with a practiced boredom. My personal ambition was to be adult in all things, so I wrapped Halloween in cobwebs and stored it in the back corner of my closet, but I never lost my taste for things macabre. Ghosts, demonic possessions, witches, monsters from the vasty deep and from the deeply psychotic always fascinated me and continue to do so. This penchant likely derives from my Catholic upbringing. You can't expect a child to believe in a sexy blue-eyed zombie ex-carpenter who hung out with fishermen and preached love, whose very body and blood we were meant to consume every Sabbath to save our immortal souls, and not have her develop a taste for all things morbid and grotesque.

Halloween itself -  an early 20th century American invention - has liturgical roots in the sacrament of harvest and death culture. Its masquerades, its Jack-o-lanterns, its offering of sweets to ghoulish little beggars... A quick internet search will tell you Halloween was derived from a Celtic tradition called Samhain. The Celts used the day to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and also believed that this transition between the seasons was a bridge to the world of the dead. Samhain. This ancient festival, the first day of winter. For the Celts, it also marked the first day of the new year. The vigil of the feast is Halloween, the night when charms and incantations were powerful. Up to recent time this was a day of abstinence, when according to church ruling no flesh meat was allowed. Colcannon, apple cake and barm brack, as well as apples and nuts were part of the festive fare. Colcannon was cooked in a skillet pot which had a large round bottom, three little legs and two ear-like handles at the sides, and consisted of potatoes mashed and mixed with chopped kale or green cabbage and onions... How over the millennia the holiday transitioned from a somber pagan ritual to a day of mayhem and merriment for children and adults is anyone's guess, but when westerners moved from an agrarian society to an industrialized one, our emphases obviously changed. However, Halloween as celebrated in America (specifically) whilst having its traditions rooted in the old is its own species altogether. A celebration of mass conspicuous consumption more than anything. A way for candy companies to sell their newly minted confections in the early 20th century.  Halloween parties for both children and adults had become a common way to mark the day. Candies made in the shape of corn kernels and pumpkins commemorated the harvest season. The Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia was the first to commercially produce candy corn in the 1880s.

The custom of begging for food from house to house on Halloween came from the old Catholic soul-sale custom. Once charitable in nature, "souling" took a popular turn as it evolved over the years. Irish Halloween begging always involved a masquerade... but who did the begging and what they were after varied from region to region. In Ireland's County Cork, a mummers' procession marked All Hallows. Prosperity was promised to those who gave food, drink or money to the revelers. Masquerading from house to house and asking for food or money was once practiced in America on Guy Fawkes Day, and for some years even on Thanksgiving. The Irish Halloween masquerade proved so popular it eventually evolved into 20th-century American trick-or-treating.

Halloween takes place on October 31st. The word Halloween is shortened from “All-hallow-evening,” the eve of All Hallow’s Day, which is now known as All Saints Day. (All Saints Day became was placed on November 1 by Pope Gregory IV in 835; All Souls Day on November 2 in 998.) Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31 the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them.

October 31 was New Year's Eve, a night of evil and terror when all hell broke loose. Literally. Goblins and ghosts were abroad that night, while witches celebrated their black rites as the spirits and souls of the dead roamed the earth. To frighten the evil spirits and to bolster their own sagging spirits, they created a din with bells, horns, pots and pans, (just as we still do at midnight on December 31st), and built fires to frighten the witches or perhaps burn them if they might get caught. On the afternoon of October 31st, village boys would go from house to house collecting fuel for the midnight fires. Everyone was expected to contribute some peat or "coal pieces" to help burn the witches. Those who did not received dire warnings of the evil consequences that might follow.

Naturally, such traditions that merge the reaping of crops with death and its appeasement are not the sole purview of Western Culture: when I was walking through the Higashiyama District along the lower slopes of Kyoto's eastern mountains - one of the city's best preserved historic districts - there were specialty shops filled with hollowed out gourds which had a special significance in Taoist culture. In fact, the gourd, one of the most ancient of plants to migrate around the world from Africa, was heavily used in divination. Outside of Africa, evidence of gourd shards were found in Thailand's Spirit Cave. In the earliest versions of the deluge mythology (of which there are many in Asia), the gourd was always featured as the magic fruit of salvation. Millet and gourd are believed to be of sacred provenance from heaven according to the beliefs of the Taketaka tribe of Taiwan.

In Japan, the gourd is also associated with divinities and features in the earliest genealogical semi-mythical chronicles, the Kojiki.  The gourd is found in the names of deities in section “The Birth of the Deities” after the creation of the Japanese islands by the primordial pair Izanagi and Izanami, they were born from the deities who governed the river and sea domains: “…next, they gave birth to the sea-deity, whose name is the deity Great-Ocean-Possessor next, they gave birth to the deity of the Water-Gates, whose name is the deity Prince-of-Swift-Autumn ; next they gave birth to his younger sister the deity Princess-of-Swift-Autumn. (Ten deities in all from the deity Great-Male-of-the-Great-Thing to the deity Princess-of-Autumn.) The names of the deities given birth to by these two deities Prince-of-Swift-Autumn and Princess-of-Swift-Autumn from their separate dominions of river and sea were: the deity Foam-Calm; next, the deity Foam-Waves; next the deity Bubble-Calm; next, the deity Bubble-Waves; next the deity Heavenly-Water-Divider; next, the deity Earthly-Water-Divider; next, the deity Heavenly-Water-Drawing-Gourd-Possessor; next, the deity Earthly-Water-Drawing-Gourd-Possessor. (Eight deities in all from the deity Foam-Prince to the deity Earthly-Water-Drawing-Gourd-Possessor.)” — The Kojiki, Chamberlain 

The Irish brought the tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack O'Lantern to America. But, the original Jack O'Lantern was not a pumpkin. Pumpkins were a New World discovery. Ancient Celtic cultures in Ireland carved turnips on All Hallow's Eve, and placed an ember in them, to ward off evil spirits. We now place candles in ours, a tradition even I, The Grinch of Halloween, keep. "The vegetable most associated with Halloween...the jack-o'-lantern, which also had its roots in British folklore. Stingy Jack was a perennial trickster of folktales, who offended not only God but also the devil with his many pranks and transgressions. Upon his death, he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell, though the devil grudgingly tossed him a fiery coal, which Jack caught in a hollowed turnip and which would light his night-walk on hearth until Judgement Day...The Oxford English Dictionary gives a date of 1663 for its first printed record of the phrase "jack-with-the-lantern," and 1704 , "Jack of lanthorns," both referring to a night watchman...the jack-o-lantern is definitely associated by 1817 with spooky pranks--but not explicitly with Halloween or hollowed turnips. Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chroniclers of British holidays and folk customs makes any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween....The Oxford English Dictionary provides no clue as to when the Halloween association began; it credits the United States as the primary source of the modern definition of the jack-o'lantern, followed by England and Ireland, but without dates or citations." ~Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, David J. Skal [Bloomsbury:New York] 2002 (p. 31-2)

The Catholic Church being the savvy marketers and assimilators of culture they always were certainly capitalized on it: "Early Spanish observers...remarked on the fabrication of idols from edible grains and their distribution as talismans or articles of communion...pre-Columbian practices were simply annexed to the festival of All Souls'; sometimes with a conviviance of Franciscan friars who wished to encourage the rapid conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity...Writing in 1580, Father Diego de Duran was troubled by the way in which indigenous cults of the dead were transposed to All Saints' and All Souls'. He was particularly concerned that All Saints' had become a festival devoted to little children who had died, thereby emulating the pre-Christian feast of Miccailhiotontli...which had traditionally take place two months earlier. Mexican scholars disagree over the influence of these ancient festivals on the popular practice of Todos the Day of the Dead is sometimes called. But an overemphasis on the continuities with the pre-Columbian past can easily elide the fact that there are also striking similarities between the rituals of the Day of the Dead and the early modern observance of All Souls' Day in Europe. Yellow flowers of mourning were common to both sixteenth-century Spain and Mexico...In the old Castilian province of Zamora...ofrendas and banquets were a customary aspect of funeral rites. In Barcelona, food stands routinely sold seasonal sweets called panellets del morts or All Saints Day. A variety of other cakes and sweets also formed part of the festive fare in Catalonia, Sardinia, Portugal, the Azores, and Haute-Saone in France, just as soul cakes were widely distributed in pre-Reformation Britain. What seems unique to the Mexican Todos Santos...was the widespread consumption of anthropomorphic foods, or foods in the shape of humans. These included sugared skulls and figurines in the shape of humans. These included the sugared skulls and figurines that now attract international attention, and the pan de muertos, ' bread figures in the style of angels and human beings,' which took on 'a ritual character'...These kinds of foods---breads in human or animal form, in particular---were also made throughout the Iberian peninsula, though rarely for this holiday. There are grounds...for suggesting that the Mexican Day of the Dead was a complex mix of Mesoamerican and European influences, rather than a holiday onto which Christian observances were superficially imposed. In this respect, the Day of the Dead was not so very different from Halloween. Both shared a common European legacy as well as a dynamic fusion of pre-Christian and Christian belief. If this is the case, then their differences may be grounded not only in the peculiarities of that syntretism, but also in the ways in which the two holidays subsequently developed in the New Worlds." ~Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers [Oxford University Press:New York] 2002(p. 143-146)

I must admit as an adult now in San Francisco where supermarkets and farmer's markets alike overflow with gourds of every variety from long and cylindrical to a prolate spheroid - the Cucurbita Pepo being the variety we love to carve and toss in Punkin Chunkin' contests-  I have reconsidered my position with regard to things Hallow Eve-d.  There's something about the light here by the bay that seems to tinge autumn days with a gilding the grey dingy concrete streets of East Harlem lacked, and I discovered that Halloween was more than just a date in the calendar one marked to remember to avoid  going out at night, but one that meant as much to the residents of this foggy city as any holiday could. It is Christmas, New Year's Eve & Easter all rolled up into one... Still, though here we are enmeshed in this kiddie culture turned cash cow spawning whole new industries, I could sense a deeper spirit. Particularly in the gay community.

The traditional Castro Halloween street party was first established in 1946 by Cliff's Variety Store owner, Ernie DeBaca, who decided to hold a costume contest for the local children. The kids came dressed in mostly DIY outfits and with items purchased from his all purpose store. They assembled in front of Cliff's., a stool was produced to serve as the stage, and the kids hopped up on top to show off their outfits. The one who earned the loudest applause from the crowd won. Simple democracy at its best. Afterwards kids paraded around the neighborhood trick or treating at other local businesses and homes. The children's costume contest and parade continued until 1979 when the crowds grew to the tens of thousands and were filled with drunken party-goers who turned the once quaint family affair into a Mardi Gras encrusted bar fight. Store shop windows were broken and Mr. DeBaca suspended his sponsorship of the children's contest.

By 1979 the Castro had become the epicenter of the growing SF LGBT movement and community for almost a decade. The Halloween party took on a decidedly adult air. Costumed revelers tried to outdo each other with elaborate and imaginative get ups and an air of mischief, sex, and fun that might turn into trouble was always in the air. During the 1980-1990's era the diverse and eclectic crowds expanded with numbers reaching nearly 150,000. Real problems began to surface by the early 1990's. Fights, muggings, gang violence and assorted random acts of violence were common place. Neighbors and locals alike began to avoid the party and Castro businesses who'd once welcomed the financial bump the party brought began to close early instead of staying open to reap the monetary rewards. In 2006 the massive street event came to a tragic halt when a gunman/men shot nine people in one evening. City Hall had enough and decided to end the 60-year-old Castro Halloween tradition once and for all. But in 2014, enough supporters overturned the decision and the revelry began again.

In my neighborhood, the stores on Union and Polk Streets welcomed grade school children so openly that a tradition began where public schools created a de facto but unofficial Halloween parade of cute little kiddies in costume taken to get candy during school hours in all the local shops because those children might not otherwise receive treats in their own neighborhoods. For a few years, when we had the first and only house we ever owned in a lovely neighborhood filled with children, for three glorious years, we opened the house up to trick or treaters. I'd empty out the local Walgreens and buy proper chocolate candy bars, M&Ms (with and without peanuts... I didn't want the kiddies whose parents decided they were allergic to nuts to go into Anaphylactic shock) with absolutely NO candy corn and decorate the house a week before. On the day itself, hubby and I would sit out in the entry hall in dining chairs, I'd order in sushi, so there would be no need to cook and we entertained every child within a 7 mile radius - the tall and the small. Children were bused in from other neighborhoods, from the Tenderloin, from the Mission, from Bayview, from the Sunset &  Richmond districts - from the poorer sectors.

We kept our doors open from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. It was the best time of my life. Those kiddies were sweet. Their parents shy and standing in the background. Some had store-bought costumes, some had homemade ones, some had none... but all of them had big eyes and bigger smiles and even though I offered them an enormous bag full of candy, and allowed them to dip their hands in the bag to draw out as much as they wanted, they would rarely take more than one candy bar each... The sweetest child I met was one who was not quite schooled in the art of trick-or treating... He was just about two years old, when I offered him my bag full of candy, he reached into his own bag & put a cookie in mine... His mom smiled, I smiled, I thanked him, kissed him, and keep him still right here in my Jack-O-Lanterned heart.

As far as traditional American foods for the holiday are concerned, there are none. So I don't feel badly for stumbling as I try to come up with the quintessential Halloween meal. When contemplating what to devise for the home cook to serve as a perfect Halloween treat for those (s)he loves that doesn't come in a wrapper, I think of Keats and his Ode To Autumn with its season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
          To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
        With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
  Until they think warm days will never cease,
          For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.


  Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
      Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
  Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
      Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
  Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
      Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
          Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
  And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
      Steady thy laden head across a brook;
      Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
          Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


  Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
  While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
      And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
  Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
      Among the river sallows, borne aloft
          Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
  And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
      Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
      The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
          And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Nothing says I love you in the fall like a freshly baked something made from a crisp tart apple or dear old Keats' swollen gourd  *insert canned laughter from obliging 1970s studio audience*

So who am I to argue with Keats? Pumpkin it is. Pumpkin swirled into a cheesecake batter with a gingersnap crust poured into a baking dish, baked until just firm, and cooled in the fridge. Heaven. It's the only way to combat all those hellacious demons from Hell.

Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars


2 cups finely crushed gingersnaps
1⁄4 cup finely chopped pecans
1⁄4 cup butter, melted
1⁄4 cup brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon


1⁄2 cup canned pumpkin
1 tablespoon flour
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1⁄2 teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs


Preheat oven to 325°.

Line bottom and sides of a 9"x13" baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.

CRUST: Blend cookies, sugar, and cinnamon in a food processor until finely ground; add pecans and butter and combine. Transfer crumb mixture to prepared pan, and press gently into bottom. Bake until fragrant and slightly firm, 12 to 15 minutes.

PUMPKIN BATTER: In a medium bowl stir together pumpkin, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves until combined; set aside.

CREAM CHEESE BATTER: In a large mixing bowl beat cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and vanilla, beating until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating at low speed after each addition just until combined.
Stir 1/3 of the cream cheese batter (about 1 1/2 cups) into the pumpkin batter until smooth. Pour remaining cream cheese batter over crust.
Place large spoonfuls of pumpkin batter randomly over cream cheese batter. Using the tip of a table knife or a thin metal spatula, gently swirl the two batters together. This should have a marbled look.
Bake for 25 to 30 or until center is just set.

Cool completely in pan on a wire rack. Cover and chill for 4 to 24 hours before lifting out of pan and cutting into squares or bars. Store any remaining bars in the refrigerator.

Will serve 12-15 little goblins or ghouls. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Burger Heaven

It's 6pm. Men's night out. The back patio of Barney’s Burgers has been commandeered. Serious business is about to commence. Animal sacrifices and other forms of bacchanalia are on the agenda. The Beach Boys are loudly and wistfully wishing all the women in the world could be California girls. The relative delicacy of children scarfing down McDonald's Chicken McNuggets versus a live chicken eaten by a python is being hotly debated.

"I want another lemonade!" demands a small voice. "Me, too." chime the two youngest boys of the group, pitch perfect, in stereophonic sound. Everything their big brother does is worth mimicking. They know this.  "Okay," says Daddy.

"Poor chicken!", says grandpa. Grandpa is not quite finished having gotten across his points made earlier in the debate, “Yanno, back in New Yawk your mommy never ate at McDonalds.”

Two boys simultaneously grab at the same fry from the communal plate overflowing with crisp potato wedges. They do so with the precision of synchronized swimmers and the ferocity of great white sharks.

“Yeah, so your Mommy's working tonight, huh? That’s too bad, but we’ll have lots to tell her tomorrow.” Grandpa now says this from a standing position. He has just tried to adjust the restaurant's patio heater.  Again. First he's too cold, then he's too hot.

"Cold. Hot. Cold. Hot. Cold. Hot." chants the wee-est one with a mouth full of potato.  "I'm going to get my jacket." says the eldest.  This is intoned gravely, with true conviction. The donning of his jacket apparently has been burdening his young mind.  "Me, too." is screeched with great enthusiasm from the wee one. "You don't need your jackets.” is the paternal response, but Daddy asserts this a little too weakly for the kids to buy it. They immediately spring out of their chairs and wrestle into their outerwear.

The middle boy is munching on onion rings, alert to all possibilities but doesn't participate in the banter, nor in any other of the table's orchestral maneuvers. He is focused on Grandpa. Grandpa is telling the table how the Sir Kensington  ketchup served here is also sold at a burger joint he frequents on 83rd and Broadway.

"Oh, I thought it was the restaurant's house brand. We usually have Heinz. Cheers, guys!"  Daddy says this amiably, not necessarily intending to contradict Grandpa, and gets ready to sip from his Sauvignon Blanc - "the one with that girl's picture on it?" is how he ordered it from the Russian waitress.  All the men at the table clink glasses.

After the toast, the waitress materializes out of the ether to try to re-adjust the patio heater for Grandpa a third time, and instantly dematerializes again. “I don’t think she knows how that heater works", suggests the eldest as Grandpa updates everyone, letting us know he is “perfectly fine now”.

Grandpa is visiting from NY. This is immediately evident even without the Brooklynese and the constant evocations of his beloved hometown. His careful coiffure, loudspeaker voice, and incessant need to control his environment is as telling as his casual but highly tailored outfit. "This place is so California!" says grandpa as he rises to adjust the patio heater once more for good measure. "It's like one of those southern Cali beach shacks!"

There are no patio heaters in Manhattan restaurants.

For good reason. I offer Grandpa up as Exhibit A.

"Hey, it's the Beach Boys!" Grandpa announces this to the restaurant as the Mamas and Papas sing about California dreaming. The kids join in the chorus. Daddy, who is obviously Grandpa’s son-in-law (there is no way such a laid-back California dude grew up with the well-intentioned but angst-ridden dis-ease of the Gucci-shoe wearing septuagenarian he was entertaining for dinner) starts to correct Grandpa but checks himself - because now Abba is on, and instead he tells his boys “This is Abba. They're from Sweden." "Really?" says the oldest with interest. "I want dessert!" shouts the wee one.  As more songs play, Grandpa and Daddy continue to engage in a battle of  "Name That Tune", much to the delight of the boys. "This is burger heaven!” beams out of the middle boy. Everyone at the table agrees.

Grandpa is still not quite comfortable enough with the ambient temperature, though; his black Ralph Lauren Polo tee and khaki shorts are no match for the chill of San Francisco's fog (even the little yellow polo guy in the Polo insignia seems to be shivering), so he throws his black leather jacket over his shoulders, and as Daddy fiddles with the patio heater settings for Grandpa, compliments his grandsons on how much they ate, assuring them that their daddy is going to drop him off at a market to buy strawberry shortcake for dessert.  Daddy appears to be surprised with Grandpa's pronouncement of this unscheduled stop.

I’ve been witnessing all this from the next table, picking at my fries. I should be home making dinner for my husband, but I'm here eating a late lunch. Actually, it's really breakfast. I've not eaten all day. Summer days used to be so meaningful, but no more. I suppose I'm depressed at the moment. It's not something I ever bother dwelling on. I feel what I feel when I feel it. I don't analyze it. A wave of nostalgia hits me as that New Yawk Grandpa talks about strawberry shortcake. I suddenly remember my Aunt Meyda buying it as a special summertime treat in East Harlem when I was a little girl. Her monthly S.S.I. check would arrive, I'd accompany her to the check cashing place on 105th Street and then she'd take us right to the colmado. It was an authentic thrill. The airy cream, the sweet thick strawberries that would stain your tongue and fingers, the spongy cake that held it all together. Seems like another lifetime ago. I'm afraid the boys’  grandpa is going to be disappointed. I've never seen the Saralee Strawberry Shortcake he no doubt is accustomed to buying at any colmado, Duane Reade drugstore or Gristedes supermarket in NYC sold here in organically-correct San Francisco. I doubt even Safeway with all its 'conventional' food stocks it.  He’ll have another adjustment to make.

 The boys really are ready to go. Their tiny pants are crawling with metaphorical ants. It's John Milton's Pandemonium all of a sudden -- if those boys don't get outside soon, Paradise will fall! Daddy is telling the wee one to finish his chocolate shake. "No strawberry shortcake for you later, Casey, until you do." Casey is explaining how he ate much more than it seemed he did. Somehow the laws of physics work differently in his little belly than they do anywhere else in the universe. The boys leave the table and start to explore the waiter's station.  The eldest is delivering a lecture to his siblings on the proper way to pour water into a glass. He is reaching for a pitcher of water to demonstrate the how of his what; suggesting to his brothers that they pretend to be empty glasses. Grandpa tells Daddy and every other customer at Barney's his chicken sandwich was great. "Wait til I tell grandma she's gawna be jealous!" he yells out at the boys. The boys all laugh conspiratorially.

Grandpa pays the check. The two older men finally get up. Everyone makes their way to the door. "Casey, zip up your sweater!" Casey is wearing a hoodie with Brooklyn stitched in big bold white letters across a field of Mets blue. He grabs daddy's hand & leans on him a little. His small blue-hooded head resting on daddy's jean-clad hip just for an instant. He's tired. It's been a heavenly day.

Those three generations of males were a sweet sight to see. Their daddy was beautifully patient; so was grandpa, really, despite his imitation of a weathervane. They brought me out of my funk by making me look outside of myself. I suppose that's what children force adults to do and it's a good thing they do. I went into that restaurant feeling pretty low and came out of it sky high. That family changed my perspective on things as I immersed myself into their little story, so I thought I'd share it & maybe uplift a few others people's spirits - people who find these kind of stories up-lifting. Though, of course, eavesdropping on others has become second nature to me. Writing really is a form of voyeurism, perhaps it's time one of us wrote about literature as the fetish it really is!

Whilst these lovely gentlemen were gorging on that most male rite of passage, bonding over the ground meaty beast flesh formed into rounds and slapped over fire, charred to perfection and then slid between a sliced sesame bun - honoring the universal practice of patriarchal origin- I sat solo at my little table in that renown San Francisco burger joint eating a salmon sandwich on French bread with goat cheese, avocado and arugula - a highly improbable combination of ingredients for any meat sandwich that required some pretty deft deconstruction before it was actually consumable - it is a sandwich special that the lovely Russian waitress pointed out was quite popular with female patrons.  Why is this? Why the dichotomy between men and women about the consumption of the almighty burger? When did it become the sole province of the so-called stronger sex? A man may never be able to boil an egg, or know how to work his coffeemaker, but give him an outdoor grill, a few slabs of ground beast & a spatula and he is suddenly Gordon Ramsay & Bobby Flay rolled up into one unappetizing package of chef hubris!

Even Ernest Hemingway, not the first person you'd necessarily think of when contemplating culinary prowess, has his own secret hamburger recipe. Although in fairness to Hemingway, his "A Moveable Feast" demonstrated he was quite the gourmand: “Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary... " "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” 

 He'd even have his favorite foods shipped to his Havana home—Finca Vigía, or “Lookout Farm,” a large house whose sprawling tropical gardens were filled with avocado, mango and almond trees. Courtesy of the Hemingway Collection of the Museum Ernest Hemingway of the Republic of Cuba, I offer Exhibit B: an April, 1957 order to Maison Glass, a gourmet emporium in New York City, requests that tins of smoked sturgeon, smoked trout pate', whole pheasant, cèpes, crab soup and lobster bisque along with dozens of jars of preserves such as rose petal jelly and  bar le duc be sent to Finca Vigía “by Air Express as you usually do.”

A picky eater with a refined palate, his recipe for hamburger reads more like steak tartare. Hemingway's hamburger recipe resurfaced only recently, one of 2,500 pieces of ephemera digitized in 2013 by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The typewritten page is a testament to the meticulousness with which Hemingway approached food. Titled “Papa's Favorite Wild West Hamburger” and covered in handwritten marginalia, it's a literary work in its own right. “Let the meat sit, quietly marinating,” he writes. “Now make four fat, juicy patties with your hands.”

(Evidence below that America's manliest, man's man writer of prose with a powerful punch, took no prisoners in his kitchen; although his burger with its 'middle pink' would be too well-done for this fish-eating feline. I like my burgers to moo as I bite into them):

Now the ground meat patty did not originate with America, of course, the ancient Egyptians and even Genghis Khan's Mongol "Golden Horde" ate them. The army needed food that could be carried on their mounts and eaten easily with one hand while they rode, so ground meat was the perfect choice. They would use scrapings of lamb or mutton formed into flat patties and softened by placing them under the saddles of their horses while riding into battle. When it was time to eat, the meat would be eaten raw, having literally been tenderized by their bodyweight, the saddle and the back of the horse. Ground meat was the food of the fierce and ferocious. Kublai Khan then took it to another level when his hordes invaded Russia one hundred years later in the middle of the 13th Century. The Russians adapted it and it became part of their cuisine calling it Steak Tartare - Tartars was their name for Khan's invaders.

By the 15 century, minced meat was seen as a delicacy and eventually made into sausage throughout all of Europe. German ships from the port of Hamburg, brought back steak tartare, calling it "tartare steak" because Germans are notoriously backward thinking (I jest, mostly... I'm married to a Dutch-German, and enjoy ribbing him at every opportunity because such opportunities rarely arise, so, dear reader, you must make allowances for me).

In the 18th century, Germany had the largest 'ports of call' in Europe, and her sailors from the German Hamburg-Amerika line ships were courted when they landed in New York's harbors by eating stands in the streets of New York City who began offering them steak cooked in the "Hamburg-style" to ensure their patronage; these stands were mostly run by German-speaking Jewish immigrants of the time. Hamburg steaks had by then been relegated to the fare of the lower working classes. Salted, hard, often stretched with soaked breadcrumbs and chopped onions these patties traveled well over the long voyages over the Atlantic Ocean, but immigrants now living in New York made theirs with fresh patties, much as we do today.

The original Boston Cooking School Cook Book, by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln (Mary Bailey), 1844 had a recipe for Broiled Meat Cakes and also Hamburgh Steak:

Broiled Meat Cakes - Chop lean, raw beef quite fine. Season with salt, pepper, and a little chopped onion, or onion juice. Make it into small flat cakes, and broil on a well-greased gridiron or on a hot fring pan. Serve very hot with butter or Maitre de' Hotel sauce.

Hamburgh Steak - Pound a slice of round steak enough to break the fibre. Fry two or three onions, minced fine, in butter until slightly browned. Spread the onions over the meat, fold the ends of the meat together, and pound again, to keep the onions in the middle. Broil two or three minutes. Spread with butter, salt, and pepper.

At the 1904 St. Louis World's fair, Hamburger Steak, Plain and Hamburger Steak with Onions were served in the Tyrolean Alps Restaurant.  There are many claimants to the first actual hamburger sandwich that is now associated with American cuisine, none of them can truly be substantiated. Some authorities give the nod to Oscar Weber Bilby in 1891 whose Oklahoma farmstead was said to have placed the patty between a sliced bun. Apparently Michael Wallis, travel writer and reporter for Oklahoma Today magazine, did an extensive search in 1995 for the true origins of the hamburger and determined that Oscar Weber Bilby himself was the creator of the hamburger as we know it. According to Wallis's 1995 article, Welcome To Hamburger Heaven, in an interview with Harold Bilby:

The story has been passed down through the generations like a family Bible. "Grandpa himself told me that it was in June of 1891 when he took up a chunk of iron and made himself a big ol' grill," explains Harold. "Then the next month on the Fourth of July he built a hickory wood fire underneath that grill, and when those coals were glowing hot, he took some ground Angus meat and fired up a big batch of hamburgers. When they were cooked all good and juicy, he put them on my Grandma Fanny's homemade yeast buns - the best buns in all the world, made from her own secret recipe. He served those burgers on buns to neighbors and friends under a grove of pecan trees  . . . They couldn't get enough, so Grandpa hosted another big feed. He did that every Fourth of July, and sometimes as many as 125 people showed up."

Simple math supports Harold Bilby's contention that if his Grandpa served burgers on Grandma Fanny's buns in 1891, then the Bilbys eclipsed the St. Louis World's Fair vendors by at least thirteen years. That would make Oklahoma the cradle of the hamburger. "There's not even the trace of a doubt in my mind," say Harold. "My grandpa invented the hamburger on a bun right here in what became Oklahoma, and if anybody wants to say different, then let them prove otherwise."

 We do know that by 1906, they were already so ubiquitous that American novelist, Upton Sinclair, told of the horrors of Chicago meat packing plants in his book, The Jungle, causing Main Street America to distrust chopped meat, and slowed its consumption for several years. Sinclair was surprised that the American public missed the main point of his impressionistic fiction and took it to be an indictment of unhygienic conditions of the meat packing industry.

I wonder if I should delve into the abortion that is the ubiquitous burger chain - McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, In-N-Out Burger.... Atrocities, all of them. I hesitate to do so yet one cannot discuss American hamburgers without mentioning McDonalds. The first McDonalds restaurant was run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California. In 1954, Ray Kroc visited the restaurant and was so impressed by their efficiency of their operation that he pitched his vision of creating McDonalds restaurants across the US. By 1958, McDonalds had sold 100 million hamburgers. Kroc once said of his four business goals: “If I had a brick for every time I’ve repeated the phrase Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value, I’d probably be able to bridge the Atlantic Ocean with them.”

There are now 36,258 McDonald’s restaurants in 119 countries, of which 29,544 are franchised
Some 350 McDonald’s restaurants have been closed down so far this year - mostly in the US and China. Still, 69 million customers are served every day. McDonalds was the first job I ever had, manning the cashier faithfully for 6 months as I did, super-sizing many a hungry customer who couldn't afford to have "fries with that" before super-sizing meals was ever a gleam in a greedy ad-executive's eye. I was 15. I was fired for being insubordinate and questioning the tactics of management, because I was appalled by the daily waste. Food that was not sold would be thrown in the dumpster, I knew so many people in East Harlem who could have used the free hot meal, but management preferred to serve it to the rats instead.

The last McDonalds I was in was in Kyoto. I didn't eat anything I just wanted to see the menu. They had an ebi filet-o-shrimp burger among other unique menu variations.  I went into a Starbuck's too. For the record, I never go into Starbucks here at home. Their drinks are swill, but I was thirsty. The line was beyond long. It took an eternity. I swear the Apollo missions to the moon were done in less time.  Every teenager in Kyoto was queued up for their java jolt.  I ordered some iced concoction.  It was so sweet I couldn't drink it. The Japanese Kawai culture is ridiculous with everything taken to the point of cultural diabetes. Cutesy to the max. Barf. Yet, their versions of our mass-produced American classics were far more carefully made, even if they weren't to my tastes.

So, how do I make my burger? 

Very simply.

I use American Wagyu beef from my favorite butchers in Bryan's Grocery, a small family-owned local market that has been in San Francisco since 1963. The American Wagyu Association promotes and upholds the standards for Wagyu beef in the U.S.A. Highly prized for their rich flavor, these cattle produce arguably the finest beef in the world. Wagyu cattle's genetic predisposition yields a beef that contains a higher percentage of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than typical beef. Making it extremely rich, flavorful, tender and healthy. The omega profile is similar to that of wild salmon.

Now if you have no access to Wagyu beef, I would recommend grinding your own in a food processor, but if you'd rather not, ask your supermarket butcher to do it for you. They will usually do it willingly, if you ask politely. Vogue Magazine's popular food writer Jeffrey Steingarten reports that most of New York City's best burgers are a blend of chuck and brisket, with some chefs adding hanger steak or short rib meat. His personal house blend is two parts chuck, two parts short rib, and one part brisket. But that is insanely fussy. Grind a choice chuck steak. This is the cut most of the top burger joints use. Chuck steaks come from the shoulder. You can get either boneless or bone in, it doesn't matter. But get chuck steaks not chuck roast. Chuck roast has too much sinew, and if you try to grind it yourself the leathery sinew will just clog the grinder. Look for steaks that have, to your eye, 20 to 30% fat. The esteemed cookbook author Michael Ruhlman says the cut is not as critical as the ratio of beef to fat. "Beef is beef and, unlike pork, beef tastes like beef no matter where it comes from on the animal. I know people will disagree. I believe the only critical ratio is the meat to fat, so I buy a nice fatty relatively inexpensive chuck steak, and that gives me a great burger every time. Short ribs will give you a great burger as well. So will sirloin and brisket if you've got the right amount of fat."

As for seasoning? Absolutely no salt in the meat or on it... salt sucks the moisture right out the meat and turns the patty into a hockey puck. Need salt? Sprinkle it on after you cook, or add a dash of sea salt to the grill pan. I like to sprinkle granulated garlic powder (NOT garlic salt) and freshly ground pepper on the meat, AFTER the burger is formed, not before... it is imperative that you handle the actual meat as little as possible. Despite outward appearances, ground meat is not dead. From the moment you lay your hands on it, it is changing dynamically, reacting to every knead, every sprinkle of salt, and every change in temperature. Working the meat unduly will cause proteins to cross-link with each other like tiny strips of velcro, making your finished burgers denser and tighter with every manhandling of the grind.

The perfect burger has two parts: the exterior and the interior. You want the exterior as dark as possible, but not black, and you want the interior juicy. The surface is significantly impacted by the cooking method. If the meat is cooked on a hot griddle, as it is in most diners, the surface is in direct contact with the heat and it cooks by conduction, browning evenly across the surface. If it is cooked on a grill, most of the meat cooks by radiant heat. The small amount of surface where the meat is in contact with the grates cooks by conduction. I use a cast iron grill, so it falls somewhere in-between. Many cooks recommend frequent flipping for more even cooking, but I personally like to allow a patty that is 3/4" thick and 5" long to sit for 5 minutes on a hot grill on one side, then flip it for another 3 minutes on the other, but I like a rare interior with a charred exterior. Keep in mind, too, that burgers will lose their diameter length and increase their thickness as they cook. This is why I prefer not to have a raw patty that is thicker than 3/4 of an inch to 1" thick, or smaller than 5" wide.

According to the USDA, ground meat must be cooked to at least 160°, or well done.  They consider anything else unsafe to eat. This typically takes from 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness or size of the hamburgers. I don't dispute this, but I have never gotten ill from my mooing burgers. This is killing a perfectly good piece of meat to me. One may as well just get a pair of scissors and cut the tongue off of a pair of leather sneakers and stick that inside a bun.

Here is a list of varying degrees (temperature) of doneness (in Fahrenheit) for burgers:

Rare: 120 to 125 (perfect)
Medium Rare: 130 to 135 (okay)
Medium Well: 150 to 155 (huh?)
Well Done: 160 to 165 (why bother?)

Now we must discuss the bun, the bun is an essential part of every burger. Buns come in all shapes, sizes, densities, and flavors. Make sure you've got the right one for the job at hand.

For smaller, thinner patties, like a fast food In-N-Out-style griddled burger or small Northern Jersey-style sliders, soft, sturdy, and slightly sweet Martin's Potato Rolls set the benchmark, although any soft, squishy, standard-issue supermarket bun will do.

A bigger, pub-style burger can overwhelm a soft bun with juices, soaking through and dissolving the base before the burger even hits your table. Toasting the bun can mitigate some of these effects, but for the most part, you're better off selecting a sturdier roll, or if you've got one nearby, a custom burger bun from an artisan bakery. Brioche has its proponents, but I prefer my buns to be a little less rich, so as not to compete with the flavor of the beef.

Do avoid anything with an overly chewy crumb or a tough crust, unless you want your burger to suffer from the dreaded backslide which will cause you to wear your burger as an unintended fashion accessory. I always toast the buns in the oven, and if adding cheese to the burger,  I slice the cheese by hand. I place the slices of cheese directly on the bun halves & broil them for 45 second until they are melted. Grating the cheese first is a nice way to ensure a quicker and more even melt.

Toppings vary. I find a nice sharp aged English, Irish cheddar, or Australian cheddar stands up best, adding a much needed bit of piquancy and bite to what is already a fatty sandwich. Caramelized onions are wonderful. They add sweetness and are easy to eat within the bun. Occasionally, I will use a favorite Kansas City-style barbecue sauce and add it to the onions after they have caramelized. I'd rather not add competing meat like bacon, I will occasionally add very thinly sliced avocado, and I always add a beautiful slice of tomato... ketchup is not necessary for me. When I do choose to use ketchup, it must be Heinz - it may have a few objectionable ingredients (like high fructose corn syrup), but it has the best balance of tomatoey sweetness to vinegary tartness for me.

Of course, burgers are also made from ahi tuna, mahi-mahi, scallops, turkey,  chicken, lamb, salmon... there is no limit to what you can stick inside a nice toasty bun. I love all and any variations. There is only one thing I am an absolute stickler for - it MUST be eaten with your hands.

There are two types of people in the world:

Those who eat burgers with their hands (properly), and those who don't (affected nincompoops). Here is where domestic bliss is tested at Casa Gomez.

The Battle of the Kobe Beef Burgers:

THIS is how I eat my burger (which tastes beyond, if I do say do myself). I say it requires no more than two hands and one napkin to eat the classic American dish

El Esposito, on the other hand, requires the careful implementation of fork and knife to conduct his culinary symphony, AND laughs at me for chomping into mine! WHO is right?!?!?

I'll let YOU decide.

But, honestly, add anything you like, eat it anyway you like.
After all, it's your ticket to Burger Heaven.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Cookery 101: Leftover Magic

MFK Fisher once wrote, “Central heating, French rubber goods and cookbooks are three amazing proofs of man’s ingenuity …”

There is an implicit understanding in the relationship between the cook and the recipe. Recipes can provide a point of departure. A place to begin the odyssey. An organizational tool. A record of progress. A diary. They are guidelines, not commandments.

Cooking requires some intuition, the ability to improvise & adjust, a good memory, the understanding of technique and a whole lotta something more, something that can be described as passion, a desire to please, to give, to love. Yes, to love. Love is the most important ingredient in any dish. Recipes are a road map to a new place. They guide, they don't drive. They don't buy your car. They can't teach you to drive it, make sure you filled the tank, kicked the tires, had a recent tune-up, can read road signs or break for animals.

Because I am of the school of philosophy whose credo is "If it ain't broke don't fix it!", I will take an excerpt from the beautifully written and absolutely essential book, The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman, which should be required reading by anyone who professes an interest in the culinary arts or just plain cookery, baby. His definition of the recipe is so eloquently described here that there is no improving on it &, by itself, offers a rebuttal to those who decry the noble attempt to document that which is essentially a cultural history.

Here it is on page 200:

"Recipes are not assembly manuals. You can't use them the way you use instructions to put together your grill or rec room Ping-Pong table. Recipes are guides and suggestions for a process that is infinitely nuanced. Recipes are sheet music. A Bach cello suite can be performed at a beginner's level or given extraordinary interpretation by Yo-Yo Ma ----same notes/ingredients, vastly different outcomes.

How to use a good recipe: First read it and think about it. Cook it in your mind... try to know the outcome before you begin. Read a recipe all the way through... Taking a few minutes to read a recipe, acting out each step in your mind as you do, will save you time & prevent errors. Measure out or prep all your ingredients before you begin. If you're unsure about an instruction, use your common sense.....

How to perfect a good recipe: Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again. That's what chefs do. Often great cooking is simply the result of having done it over and over and over while paying attention. Great cooking is as much about sheer repetition as it is about natural skill or culinary knowledge.”

So why am I yammering on in defense of recipes? Because far too many would-be cooks seem to be intimidated by them, and far too many meals have been spoiled for an over-adherence to the letter of the cookbook author, without an understanding of the spirit behind it - spoiling their carefully planned meals, and causing the frustrated cook to reach for telephone, instead of spatula come dinnertime to order in a meal that they themselves could make for a lot less dollar signs with a little confidence, if they had any.

This is especially true of the average singleton who often staves off preparing his own meals, especially the dishes he likely grew up with because of that dreaded surplus of food known as 'leftovers'. Let's talk about leftovers.

Leftovers are given a bad rap. They are the red-headed stepchild of the culinary family - the broken mule everyone beats to death, even though they need him. There is certainly a thriving industry built upon the modern human need to contain and store the vitality in vittles: plastic storage bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil and that Clydesdale of a food storage workhorse invented by Earl Tupper which every mid-20th century middle-class hausfrau found herself subjecting (oops… I mean inviting) her friends to celebrate the purchase of, in hen-clucking collectives all over American suburbia, known as the Tupperware party. Tupperware's resealable, reusable products littering every kitchen drawer from Anchorage, Alaska to Zanoni, Virginia. The introduction of the microwave oven also made the maxim "Waste not, Want not” easier to follow.

Of course, enterprising American companies did their best to convince the "typical" 1950s American homemaker to purchase time-saving appliances and serve her family new convenience foods. Did the average home cook buy into all this convenience? Yes, but not immediately. She also liked to experiment and was intrigued by new flavors and recipes introduced by returning GIs.

1950s cookbooks, food company brochures, and popular women's magazines confirm the popularity of casseroles, frosted meatloaf (frosted with mashed potatoes!, served with peas) and anything grilled...though mostly red meat...on the barbeque (a popular "new" suburban trend). Main meals were accompanied by frozen vegetables, with lots of butter or sauce. Canned soup reigned supreme as the ultimate combination of convenience and versatility, explaining the proliferation of casseroles. Three bean salad was ubiquitous. Chex Mix (also known as Trix Mix, TV Mix) was the "signature" snack.

This decade also marked the beginning of ethnic foods entering mainstream America. GIs returning from tours in Europe and the Pacific developed new tastes. Food companies were quick to supply the ingredients. "Americanized" versions of sukyaki, egg foo yung, chow mein, enchiladas, pizza, lasagne, and barbecued meats with Polynesian sauces regularly appeared in 1950s cookbooks. I recently found a cache of my dearly departed mother-in-law's recipes from that era, all carefully inscribed on 3 x 5 inch index cards in her own print and cursive handwriting. These treasures were handed down from her mother to her and now to me because she had no daughters - only sons, and I was the only daughter-in-law she loved. Since we have no children, I will pass them on to my husband's niece, her granddaughter. Vladimir Nabokov would no doubt have used these index cards as a foundation for a new novel - so intricate, detailed and nuanced are they in their descriptions and suggestions from appetizers to aperitifs, I could picture the stories behind each selection.

Now, this philosophy of repurposing meals is hardly unique to America or the mid-20th century, but nowhere in history were its results more dire. Categorized under the euphemism “comfort food” (surely one of the most diabolical and shudder-inducing misnomers ever created, even if it was in the name of Holy Sustenance), the classic American casserole was a basic weapon in the arsenal of every woman who donned an apron and wore a gold band on the second phalange of her left hand.  We had the dreaded/beloved Tuna Casserole - a nuclear family detonating device that combined egg noodles with a rich blend of cream of mushroom soup, evaporated milk, canned tuna, American cheese and chopped onion, baked to a crisp with a toxic crust of potato chips and paprika. Chopped meats, sour cream, and foods were substituted interchangeably, but the result was same "shit on a shingle"-like consistency that, hopefully, we 21st century homecooks now look upon with an indulgent (if slightly disdainful) eye as a relic of our past that can be relegated to its own culinary Smithsonian.

But, honestly, just reheating Tuesday night's grilled chicken breast/pork chop/tofu steak with some cold cooked broccoli is not exactly appetizing, this is why it is imperative that every person with a kitchen actually keep a cache of staples in their cupboards and refrigerators at all times. The clever cook knows that a cup of some dry starch: rice (carnaroli or arborio for risotto, brown basmati, jasmine) couscous, quinoa, or pasta (all shapes & sizes, I especially like my squid ink fettuccine - terrific with shrimp or ahi puttanesca, but I also keep a few cartons of high quality braised veal and cheese ravioli from my local Italian deli, Lucca, in the freezer), any of them anointed with a nice fruity extra virgin olive oil, a few capers, olives, and a couple of cheeses like gruyere, feta and parmigiano -reggiano, a few fresh herbs and aromatics like Italian parsley, tarragon, cilantro, basil, chervil, onion, shallots and garlic can transform any leftover/meat vegetable combination into something truly palatable.

I always have on hand a few types of spices: red chili flakes, curry powders, cumin, smoked paprika, dried mushrooms (especially dried porcini to pulverize into powder for flavoring/coating or to steep & reconstitute for a risotto). As well as a few items in the refrigerator: soy sauce, dijon mustard, Thai fish sauce, refined peanut or grape seed oil (for high heat cooking) sesame oil, sriracha sauce, tamarind paste, hoisin sauce, mayonnaise; a few different vinegars: rice wine vinegar (which is very mild, imparting a subtle piquancy to a dish), balsamic (richer, sweeter, more full-bodied, excellent in raw salads, but good for a final bite of acidity in a cooked dish - buy the real barrel-aged stuff, not the cheap vinegar that's been doctored with corn syrup and food coloring), raw apple cider vinegar, sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar, etc. low-sodium broths: chicken, vegetable & beef; a box of whole fresh Italian tomatoes like the POMI brand that are sodium & sugar-free. I make sure I have some leafy green in the veggie drawer at all times like spinach, arugula, or kale... and one harder vegetable that stores well like zucchini, cauliflower, or broccoli; they all can be quickly tossed into a salad with any of the above or sauteed with pasta, olive oil & cheese & whatever leftover meat or mushrooms for a quick meal after a frantic day.

These pantry staples offer you great flexibility when crafting a meal from leftovers. I always save bits of meat, cooked veggies, even leftover cooked rice or pasta. My husband calls such dinners my "Clean Out The Fridge Dinner", and says he'd put me up against any chef on the planet when it comes to making a feast from what seems like a famine.  Of course, this was the same man who was willing to eat the most ill-conceived dish I ever served him: duck cakes. Duck cakes are like crab cakes, only terrible - mine were worse still in that I substituted chicken legs for the duck meat because the grocer didn't have any duck, not even roasted duck. Allow me to assure you there is an enormous difference between the succulence of duck confit ( a portion of duck which has been slow-cooked and preserved in its own savory juices and fat) and the rubbery consistency in the tenacity of the sinew of a chicken leg that has been hastily cooked & mixed in with breadcrumbs, red peppers, coated with hazelnuts & fried into hockey pucks. I served them so happily - this was early in our relationship, and at that point, I did precious little cooking because I worked until quite late into the night, it was often midnight when we sat down to a dinner cooked by him, never me.

This was my first real foray into making him a home-cooked meal. The first display of my capabilities as a potential wife.  He took one bite of the duck cake, served up in its sun-dried tomato beurre blanc (which came out really lovely), hesitated for a moment before saying, "mmmm...." I was so happy, his hesitation didn't really register with me as the tacit plea for mercy that it was... so I dug in, chewed into the cake, spit it out immediately, and said , "OH MY GOD, this is HORRIBLE! I'm ordering in pizza!" to which my sweet man said very quietly, almost under his breath, "Thank god..." and relinquished his fork and knife, lowering his head in gratitude like a man who had just been reprieved from the hanging scaffold.

Anyway,  you have more options than your cereal box, local Chinese menu, or pizza joint. Do NOT throw out those leftover bits of cooked chicken or broccoli! You are wasting food and money as well as casting aside a tremendous opportunity to participate in a grand American tradition! Of course, some days you simply want to order in, but isn't nice to know you don't have to?

Fusilli with Leftover Rotisserie Chicken,  Shiitakes & Asparagus in Heirloom Tomato Truffle Butter Sauce

I am going to write this very informally to demonstrate the ease with which one can make a leftover meal.  I had leftover chicken from a Whole Foods rotisserie chicken, half an enormous heirloom tomato that I used in a sandwich for lunch and half a package of fusilli already opened from a previous dinner. I started to boil a large pot of water, put in a pinch of salt (I'm partial to Alaea's Hawaiian coarse-grained sea salt at the moment - a sea salt baked in Hawaiian red clay). While the pasta cooked, I assembled my ingredients:

My ingredients were what I happened to have in the fridge and cupboard: olive oil, some truffle butter (just plain unsalted butter will do nicely), Parmigiano, red pepper flakes, a couple of shiitakes, a shallot, some asparagus that needed to be used,  half a large heirloom tomato (Brandywine), the leftover supermarket chicken. I chopped the vegetables into uniformly-sized pieces and diced the tomato.

When the pasta cooked, I drained it, left it in the sink in the colander and put the pasta pot back on a medium heat, added the oil, added a pinch of red pepper flakes, when the flakes looked and smelled toasty, I added the asparagus, sauteing them for a minute, before adding the shiitakes, when the shiitakes softened, I added the tomato, then the cooked chicken which I just tore into pieces with my hands, but you can certainly chop them, just make sure they are bite-sized. I splashed a bit of the wine I was drinking into the pan (a Chardonnay that we make from the California Central Coast). I could have easily added a bit of chicken or vegetable stock instead.  When the sauce looked like the right consistency, I turned off the heat and added the truffle butter:

I stirred until it was incorporated, then added the pasta, grated the Parmigiano, plated it in one large bowl for us to share (because I think it's romantic to fight over every forkful with the husband), and we sat to eat. The whole process was 20 minutes. If I had a lemon & spinach, instead of a tomato & asparagus, I would have used those instead. See? These ingredients are interchangeable... I could have easily made a risotto instead with these same ingredients or a Chinese stir-fry... ingenuity and flexibility are key, but a well-stocked pantry is your best dinner companion.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What Foods These Morsels Be

Animals fill themselves; man eats. The man of mind alone knows how to eat.
~Brillat Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

Few men knew the mind of man better than William Shakespeare. No mere refugee from the 16th century whose tomes are only occasionally dusted off by scholars wearing moth-eaten raiment, Shakespeare remains the best known author in Western history and is quite rightly regarded as a cultural icon, if not the cultural icon. Some of Shakespeare's plays were published individually in his lifetime, but most were printed for the first time in the First Folio of 1623. This was a collection of 36 plays, divided into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, in one printed volume. It is arguably the most influential and important literary publication in Western History. The sonnets were published for the first time in 1609. A true genius who made remarkable analyses on the human psyche, Shakespeare's observations were unique, although his early work was likely grounded in and influenced by the ancient Latin morality plays and comedies like those of Terence and Plautus that he undoubtedly enjoyed performing as a young student in the grammar school attended by the children of Stratford-upon-Avon. Unlike those plays which contained protagonists depicted merely as abstractions of human emotions, Shakespeare presented his literary characters as fully fleshed human beings - naturally expressing their inner mental conflicts and behavior in an aesthetic form that we still enjoy and relate to today.

The Bard of Avon had an exclusive ability to grasp the dynamics of the human mind and decipher the dysfunctions of the human psyche 400 years before anyone else had catalogued them. Indeed Shakespeare was exceedingly comprehensible and comprehensive in his descriptions of various psychological and psychiatric symptoms. Shakespeare’s influence on psychopathology was immense.  Many of Shakespeare’s lead characters seem to suffer from mental disorders, neuroses and even psychoses, from depression to substance abuse to post-traumatic stress syndrome to sociopathy. His extraordinary insight into the psychology of human beings extending to the emotional effects that manifested themselves physically on the body. Perhaps Shakespeare qualifies to earn the title as the first true psychoanalyst in history. Freud, Jung & then Lacan certainly owe him debts of gratitude. His brilliance is as immeasurable as space, we may have some idea of it, but no true capacity to fully fathom it.

Shakespeare had a working understanding not only of human nature, but also of its history, its art, its culture. "Thus, while in London’s bawdyhouses and taverns his body fulfilled its destiny as body, the soul that dwelled in it was Caesar, failing to heed the augurer’s admonition, and Juliet, detesting the lark, and Macbeth, conversing on the heath with the witches, who are also the fates. Nobody was ever as many men as that man, who like the Egyptian Proteus managed to exhaust all the possible shapes of being. At times he slipped into some corner of his work a confession, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his single person he plays many parts, and Iago says with strange words, “I am not what I am.” His passages on the fundamental identity of existing, dreaming, and acting are famous." ~JL Borges, Everything and Nothing

He invented 1700 words... all of them words we still use in our everyday lexicon. The English language is obliged to Shakespeare. His neologisms created words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. Words like arouse, lonely, moonbeam, impartial, skim milk, zany... It is that love of language he embraced that made me first fall for him when I was a young child - just sounding out the music of his sonnets was enough to bring a smile to my face and to the face of every adult within my ken who indulgently endured a six year old's illiterate but impassioned recitals of the great poet's works from an old book that somehow never quite got returned to the 110th Street branch of the New York Public Library known as the Aguilar Library. The Aguilar is one of the oldest branch libraries in New York and was a sanctuary for me back then, when things became unbearable at home. It was founded in 1886 and was named for Grace Aguilar, a Sephardic Jewish author. After World War II, an influx of Puerto Rican immigrants (like my family) led to the creation of an extensive collection of materials in Spanish. We never did borrow any books in Spanish, but Shakespeare's complete works somehow became a permanent part of our own personal 'collection'.

G. K. Chesterton once said of Shakespeare,

"The souls most fed with Shakespeare's flame
Still sat unconquered in a ring,
Remembering him like anything."

Feed my flames he did. As a 13 year old, my poetry was profoundly influenced by his poems and plays - me always so greedy, so hungry for vocabulary - selecting favorite words from them, then incorporating those delectable morsels into my own little scribbler's confections. Silly things like taking the words paragon and effigy from his 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' which we performed in Miss Shomenuchi's English Lit class, and using them in Young Girl's Lament, an unsympathetic poem I wrote about my mother to my mother on Mother's Day. Needless to say, my poem wasn't as well received by my mother as Shakespeare's plays were by Queen Elizabeth's court, but I still feel like repaying the favor today by creating a menu as homage to his great works -- treating him to the kind of banquet someone being honored by the aristocracy might enjoy, but before I do I think it important to discuss what sitting at a table and breaking bread with friends and family actually entailed during Shakespeare's time.

Gastronomy reveals as much about a particular culture and era as does any shard of pottery, or fragment of scroll. Dig into a cookbook, delve into a recipe and learn from these food archives something about the mores and manners of their original readers' and authors' place and time. Menus provide us with a form of time travel. If Shakespeare were to thumb a ride on a time machine to the present day and surfeit the current culinary landscape, I wonder how many slings and arrows of outrageous fortune he'd fear he dodged before finding a meal he'd consider digestible despite the glut of fast food chain restaurants, Tescos and Whole Food Markets that abound in this so-called civilized modern world.

In seeking appropriate recipes for my homage to the Bard,  I was certainly transported back even without Dr. Who's TARDIS. The machine I rode was called Early English Meals and Manners : with Some Forewords On Education in Early England by Frederick James Furnivall, published in 1868. Old Freddy tried his best using bibliographical references and indexes that re-introduced 15th and 16th century classics such as John Russell's Boke of Nurture - which begins its exegesis into all things gastronomical with a prayerWynkyn de Worde's Boke of Keruynge; The Boke of Curtasye; R. Weste's Booke of Demeanor; Seager's Schoole of Vertue. --The Babees book. --The lytylle childrenes lytil boke; For to serve a lord. --Old Symon... among many others, including an interesting boke titled The ABC's of Aristotle. All of them covering everything from deportment to haberdashery to medical & dietary advice to the best way to pluck a peacock, as well as furnishing the good little homemaker with recipes and appropriate menus of service. It's like Martha Stewart's Good Living Magazine on steroids. Furnivall was something of a literary connoisseur, as well, and includes many poetic verses with which to regale the discerning reader of the time.

The Elizabethan era that Furnivall and Co.'s advisories depict was in many ways a golden one for Great Britain. Queen Elizabeth's reign emerged from a period of strife to begin and sustain a flourishing of economic, artistic, and political achievements that can be easily referred to as the British Renaissance. She entered the Crown an illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII, at the tender age of 25, succeeding the infamous Bloody Mary,  but reigned for 44 years and died a beloved monarch, one who is considered by many historians the greatest ever to rule the realm.

Elizabethan society was above all else hierarchical. Men above women. Adults above children. Rich above poor. The highborn above the lowborn. Inequalities abounded. Its cookery varied according to one's station in life, not so unlike our modern era, but with one huge exception. The Little Ice Age brought colder winters and significant and severe climate change to all the continents. NASA defines the term as a cold period between AD 1550 and 1850. Much of Europe was quite literally under ice.  This obviously affected agriculture and animal husbandry adversely. Shortages in livestock, vegetation and grains caused privations among the people of the time, and, unlike our era, in Shakespeare's England changes in diet protocols were imposed - "Sumptuary Laws" that specified what could be worn and eaten by whom (including two days per week of fasting) were strictly enforced, transgressors of the laws found themselves incarcerated for reasons of maintaining the hierarchal feudal social and religious structures unquestioned and intact. The poorest were prohibited many types of textiles and foods, especially silks, satins, fowl and meat - even if they could manage to afford them (which many couldn't, but it wasn't a question of affordability, they absolutely weren't allowed them under any circumstances) so that the royals, aristocrats and nobles could clothe their bodies and fill their bellies to their glut's content.

"They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing." wrote Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. And so it was, with a diet that was up to 90% meats (the remaining 10% being consumption of sugary sweets and refined flours), the aristocrats of Queen Elizabeth's court ate foods that made them relatively unhealthy to modern eyes vs. the peasantry's meals that consisted of 90% whole grains, vegetables, potages, soups, some limited dairy, including eggs and cheeses -- black teeth became fashionable at The Royal Court (its members often choosing to blacken their teeth cosmetically) because the high amounts of sugar consumption by the Queen had rotted and blackened hers... talk about the folly of fashion!

Desserts and crystallized fruit and syrup were the root cause of the tooth decay. The Tudors were especially fond of sugar and marzipan and on special occasions such as banquets, all kinds of specialities would be made out of them such as animals, birds, fruits or baskets. Sometimes wine glasses, dishes, playing cards and trenchers were made out of a crisp modelled sugar called sugar-plate which would be elaborately decorated. Baked pastry dough used as trays and service platters somewhat grimly called "coffins". Guests brought their own utensils when they dined outside of their homes, with the exception of forks which were not widely used then. The idea of being able to eat everything including your serving plate was well ahead of its time. All the hipsters that go about polluting today's planet would applaud such sustainable practices.

The meals eaten by all classes were influenced by seasonality. What was freshly foraged or grown often limited according to the whims and vagaries of Mother Nature.  Coffee, tea, chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines were rare being New World products imported from the Americas. Salt was scarce, not the commodity it is now - hence a thing being "worth's one salt" was one that was highly valuable. “Sallet” greens like sorrel, spinach and mustard were important parts of the Tudor diet, although they were rarely eaten raw: raw vegetables and fruits were distrusted and (rightly or wrongly) considered carriers of contagions, so were often stewed, baked & preserved in sugar. Root vegetables such as turnips, carrots, and parsnips were seen as peasant food since they grew in the dirt. The aristocracy ate things that grew above ground, dangled off trees, or could be picked from shrubs. Dairy products produced in the Elizabethan era included milk, cream, butter and cheese. Milk was used as a beverage and cream, curds, whey, butter and cheese was a by-product of this basic commodity. Strawberries and cream was already a staple on the menu in Elizabethan England. Eggs were also consumed. Butter was stored in wooden barrels called firkins but only used by the upper classes for cooking food. Several types of cheese was available. Hard cheeses were made from skimmed mild, soft cheeses were made from whole milk. All of these dairy products were deemed inferior foods and therefore only to be eaten by the poor.

The variety of game, meat and birds eaten by the wealthiest would be astonishing to our modern sensibilities. Seagull, crane, heron, swan and peacock were commonly roasted; peacock feathers were especially prized and used to decorate plates and dishes. In fact, meal preparations were quite elaborate, even among the middle classes. Live blackbirds baked in a pie and flying out when the pie was sliced is more than just a nursery rhyme.  Bakers would outdo themselves creating such contrivances to delight and entertain the courtiers at the highest levels of society. Hedgehogs were served alongside lamb, beef, veal, pork, venison, and rabbit. Every bit of the animal was consumed. A variety of fish and eel was eaten on 'fasting days', but not overly enjoyed by the general populace. Music and drink were common features accompanying meals. There were four alcoholic levels of ale of varying strengths, and copious quantities of it were consumed - a weaker type of ale was commonly drunk in the mornings, instead of water. Potable water was available in wells, of course, but it was precious, so mead, ale & fortified wines quenched one's thirst, instead.

Spices from the Near East along with various vinegars, honey, sugar and the precious salt were used to both season and preserve meats. Today's love of charcuterie hearkens back to those days when meat was scarce and storing it fresh impossible. Many savory dishes contained elements of the sweet and might seem overly so to today's palates. Sauces were served with everything, and Elizabethan cooks were very particular about proper sauces. Three meals a day were not uncommon. According to A Book of Cookrye printed by Edward Allde in 1591.

The order how Meats should be served to the Table, with their sauces

The First course.

Potage or stewed broth.
boiled meat or stewed meat.
Chickins and Bacon.
Powdred Beefe.
Pyes, Gooce, Pigge.
Rosted Beefe.
Rosted Veale.

The second course.

Rosted Lamb.
Rosted Capons.
Bakte Venison, Tart.

The Service at Supper.

Potage or Sew.
A Sallet.

A Pigges petitoe.
Powdred Beef sliced.
A shoulder of mutton or a brest.
Vele, Lamb, Custard.
The second course.

Capons rosted.
Cunnies rosted.
Chickins rosted.
A Pye of Pigions or Chickins.
Baked Venison, Tarte.

The Service at Dinner.

The first course

Brawne and Mustard.
Capons stewed in white broth.
A Pestell of Venison upon brewes.
A chine of Beef & a brest of mutton boild.
Chewets or Pyes of fine mutton.
Three green geese in a dish, sorrell sauce.
For a stubble goose, mustard and vinagre.
After Alhalowen daye a Swan, sauce Chaudron.
A Pigge.
A dubble Rib of Beef rosted, sauce Pepper and Vinagre.
A loyne of Veale or brest, sauce Orenges.
Half a Lamb or a Kid.
Two Capons rosted, sauce wine & salt,
Ale and Salt except it be upon sops.
Two Pasties of falow Deer in a Dish.
A Custard.
A Dish of Leash.

The second course.

Pecock, sauce wine and Salt.
Two Cunnies or half a dozen of rabbets.
sauce Mustard and Sugar.
Half a dozen of chickins upon sorrel sops.
Half a dozen of Pigions.

The average home was not furnished with an oven: breads, pies, puddings and meats (such as they were) were prepared at home and then taken to a local baker to be baked and roasted. There were specialty shops that sold ready-made breads, scones, and pies, In 1577, Holinshed's Chronicles described bread as follows:  "...The bread throughout the land is made of such grain as the soil yieldeth; nevertheless the gentility commonly provide themselves sufficiently of wheat for their own tables, whilst their household and poor neighbours in some shires are forced to content themselves with rye, or barley, yea, and in time of dearth, many with bread made either of beans, peas, or oats, or of altogether and some acorns among, of which scourge the poorest do soonest taste, sith they are least able to provide themselves of better..."

Manchet was the fine white bread consumed by the 'Haves'. Cheat or wheaten bread (with its coarse texture, grey in color),  Ravelled bread - containing less of the "pure substance" of the wheat, as well as Brown or Black bread were eaten by the "Have Nots". Stews, pottages, soups were cooked over fires & hot irons in hearths. Castles and manor homes, however, were replete with all manner of kitchenware, ovens, chafing dishes and culinary gadgetry of the time; evening meals were often served buffet-style and cold, tables filled until overflowing because the distance from the kitchens to the dining halls was too far to serve food individually as true courses.

All those masterful Dutch and Flemish paintings of the time did not exaggerate the cornucopia of delicacies proffered to the Elizabethan era guest. Of course, the station of an actor and playwright might not ordinarily afford him the greatest scope for gastronomical pleasures at the dining table.  Which brings us full circle back to Brillat-Savarin's marvelous quote about the man of mind alone knowing how to eat, how to be discerning about his culinary choices, rather than merely being satisfied with the animal need to fill his gut. Tempted though I might be to offer William a slice of pepperoni pizza, I'd have all those careful chroniclers of 'Books of Cookrye' haunting me like Hamlet's ghost so I will proceed with a bill of fare that would satisfy the meanest gourmand of the time.  Sadly, in Elizabethan England, actors/playwrights/poets were officially classified as vagabonds and routinely despised by their 'betters' (although because of their unique work they were allowed to wear clothes as costumes,  and eat meals onstage that others in their low station were prohibited to).

However, I won't be serving the 'upstart crow'  crow - as playwright and critic Robert Greene did when referring to Shakespeare in 1592 in a scathing review of Shakespeare's very first play, Henry VI Part One.  No,  I'm taking a page from el esposo's book: when we were dating one of his favorite games to play with me was "If you..." The 'if you' was always followed by a provocative question that would require us both to respond thoughtfully about the criteria of the query and explain why we chose what we chose...

I remember the first time we played the game. One night, he decided he wanted to cook me dinner. It was my first time eating at his little bachelor pad. We hadn't been sexually intimate yet... and, in fact, I had treated him more like a friend up until that point, than a potential lover.  I was always rather standoffish with him. He was a member at the health club I was employed in. It was against company policy to date the members, not that anyone ever let that stop them from dating members or vice-versa, except me. I made what I thought was a tremendous concession by dating this man, so whenever he would stand in front of me on the gym floor where I worked, I'd pretend not to see him. I'd look right at him and pretend I could see through him.  It was grand fun.

At dinner that night, over a creamy plate of tortellinis with Alfredo sauce and fried veal cutlets, expertly cooked and dished out by him, he asked me what kind of vegetable I would be and why. I said I would be corn on the cob because I loved to be buttered and nibbled all over. He dropped his fork on the bare wood floor in response. I can still hear that clatter. I picked up his fork, handed it to him with a wry smile  He was always Joe Cool, so it was especially sweet to witness him stymied that way.  It was a corny response, I know. The man dropped his fork for that? Yes, incredibly, I'm afraid he went all Hugh Grant, but only because it was ME, the iceberg, purring it - even the slightest bit of flirtation from me lit him up. I play games with him still...

And now I will play this with Shakespeare and with each course be inspired by my favorite characters from his many wondrous plays - trying my best to exemplify each character's 'humours' (or psychological traits, if you prefer), matching them to the choice of dish :

Serving him an Elizabethan dinner using my favorite characters of his as inspiration for each course.  Essentially asking them what dish they would be and why...

What Foods These Morsels Be

Le Menu:

Ophelia's Vegetable Pottage

MacBeth's Blancmange

Iago's Hashed Tongue Sallet Served Two Ways

Malvolio's Stewed Hedgehog
Petruchio's Roasted Peacock
Hamlet's Roasted Lamb with Cameline Sauce

Falstaff's Raspberry Trifle


 Ophelia's Vegetable Pottage

"Frailty, thy name is woman."

We will begin the meal with Hamlet's Ophelia and serve a vegetable pottage. In the 16th century, vegetables were often called herbs. A pottage is a simple stew of water, vegetable, herbs, perhaps some bone & scraps of meat thrown in a cauldron over a low fire, and then once the brew is sufficiently flavored from the cooking of its ingredients, a thickening agent was used: oats, bread, wheat, rice... anything when mixed with the broth that will blossom and make it hearty. It was a staple at the peasant's table and often the only course served, but also found its way into the nobility's dishes as a first course.   Pottage was either thick or thin depending upon the ingredients available. Frumenty and morrews were types of thick pottage eaten mainly by the upper class.

I chose this dish for obvious reasons. Ophelia drowns in the play, whether she committed suicide or not is still a matter of debate. That she is driven mad by  the murder of her father by Hamlet - the man whom she loves whom she believes both loves her and loves her not (in typical vacillating daisy-petal pulling fashion) we know, but Shakespeare never specifies that she killed herself.

Feminists deplore her, calling her weakness and inability to stand up to the men in her life a sign of patriarchal tyranny, a will-less repressed version of Hamlet- a depiction of womanhood as little more than a man sans the almighty phallus; seeing Shakespeare as a misogynist who perpetuates the myth of woman as weeping willow.

Lacan calls her a piece of bait casting her off as a device to reveal Hamlet's secret plot, even as Lacan describes her as the ultimate fetishist object desired by the perverse Prince only when she is unattainable; seeing Hamlet's cruelty toward her and rejection of her in the second stage of their relationship as emblematic of his own denial and postponement of manhood, the object destroyed to save himself, but then reinstated to its rightful place when in his mourning of her death, he chooses to sacrifice his own life and is reintegrated with her as object.  All being well that ends well, one supposes, in that fateful tragedy known as human desire?

I am more Jungian in my thoughts about Ophelia, seeing her as perhaps a female Peter Pan, one who has reached the threshold of adulthood, but not quite up to coping with the responsibilities that being a woman entails. In the modern world, Ophelia could easily be depicted as an anorexic or bulimic, trying to forestall the inevitable by willful control manifested as starvation - keeping her pre-adolescent body intact.

The action of Ophelia her last appearance onstage is, in absence of stage directions by Shakespeare, a matter of conjecture. The role, as commonly enacted at the present day, has been described as follows:

"Ophelia enters with her hair and whole figure entwined with chains of flowers; and in her thin outer skirt, she carries a mass of them. She advances slowly with the strange light of insanity in her eyes, sits down upon the floor, and plays with the flowers in a childish way, as she sings. Then she arises, distributes rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbine and rue, sings her last song, loiters a moment after her parting benediction, and runs out in a burst of mad laughter."

The language of flowers is an ancient one, and was to Ophelia a fond subject of study. Rosemary is emblematic of remembrance, and was distributed and worn at weddings, as well as at funerals. The pansy is a symbol of thought, of pensiveness, and of grief. The daisy represents faithlessness and dissembling. Fennel designates flattery, or cajolery and deceit; and columbine, ingratitude; and these two flowers Ophelia befittingly presents to the guileful and faithless Claudius. Rue is a bitter plant with medicinal qualities, and was in folk lore a symbol of repentance.

She calls it "an herb of grace on Sundays;" because the wearer when entering a church on that day, dipped his rue in Holy Water, which always stood within the portals, and blessed himself with it, in the hope of obtaining God's "grace" or mercy. "There's rue for you," she says to the Queen, and "here's some for me." The Queen, however, is to wear hers with a difference, that is, in token of repentance, while Ophelia will wear it in regret and grief at the loss of her father and her lover. In the distribution, the demented maiden is seen naively but seemingly unwittingly to choose the flower most suited to each person.

Her death happens offstage and in Act 1V, Scene V11 is described by Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, to Ophelia's brother (and Hamlet's friend), Laertes, as follows:

QUEEN: One woe doth tread upon another's heel, So fast they follow; your sister's drown'd, Laertes.

LAERTES: Drown'd! O, where?

QUEEN:  There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Ophelia's Vegetable Pottage

The word pottage comes from Old French and in fact means contents of a pot. Pottage was a common dish in the Middle Ages and would typically include ingredients such as peas, carrots, leeks, onions, cabbage and beans, oats, herbs, saffron and sometimes meat. All and any of the aforementioned can be substituted.


3 pints of stock (about 6 cups)
10 oz. of dry lentils 
1 oz. of thick-cut bacon, chopped (salt pork, pancetta or guanciale can be substituted)
1/2 onion
2 peeled garlic cloves, halved
1 leek
1 fennel bulb
1 carrot
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander or ground cardamom
1 large whole sprig of rosemary
1 bay leaf
Fresh ground pepper to taste
A pinch of salt

Cooking Instructions:

Begin by sauteing bacon until crisp in a large saucepan... when the bacon is crisp & all the fat is rendered, remove the bacon & set aside (as garnish). Add the stock into the saucepan and bring to simmering point, meanwhile coarsely chop the leek, onion and the carrot. When the stock is simmering add lentils, the chopped onion and the chopped carrot together with the sugar and the salt. Bring to the boil, then gently simmer for about one and a half hours or so, until the lentils are soft.

Next remove the rosemary sprig & bay leaf, discard, then carefully pour liquid into a blender (or use an immersion blender) to puree the ingredients until thick and uniformly smooth. Then return the soup to the saucepan and very gently reheat. Before serving taste to see if the pottage needs a little more seasoning, and garnish with reserved bacon bits.

 MacBeth's Blancmange

"too full o' the milk of human kindness"

Macbeth is the title character of "The Scottish Play" so-named by those in theatrical circles because many a production is purportedly to have met with misfortune since Shakespeare (or the play's revisers) are said to have used the spells of real witches in his text, angering the witches and causing them to curse the play. So, to say the name of the play inside a theatre is believed to doom the production to failure, and perhaps cause physical injury or death to cast members. There are stories of accidents, misfortunes and even deaths taking place during runs of Macbeth. It's a quaint urban legend. I've no idea whether or not it's true.
True or not, Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, and is full of his most famous and oft quoted scenes. It tells the story of a once brave Scottish general named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia, and is forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion until he eventually has his own head handed to him, so to speak, by Macduff.
Blancmange started essentially as a chicken dish with almonds and cream, a minced chicken mould. Around 1600 it dropped the chicken, and kept veal gelatine that was the only meat left in it. Francis Bacon said that it is a great health food - it has almonds, milk, gelatine, a bit of ground rice. Spices too, cinnamon, crystallised cloves. Since like the King, blancmange lost its meat as well as its appeal to those subjected to it, I thought I'd dedicate it to Macbeth, and all those who see ambition as their own end.

Macbeth's Blancmange

A capon or hen and a calves foot were boiled together, and the stock drawn off and strained. Before it set, beaten chickenflesh, rosewater, ground almonds and breadcrumbs were added, creating a thick jelly.

 Iago's Grand Sallet Two Ways w/ Hashed Calve's Tongue

"But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am."

John Keats, in a letter to his brother George, made one of the most trenchant observations about Shakespeare’s technique and art in the whole mountain of Shakespeare scholarship:

"At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

Nothing proves that statement more than the play Othello. Othello's Iago is in my estimation the greatest villain of all-time. It is not his Machiavellian-like tactics that make him so, but rather his inscrutability. We see and know what he is doing as his nefarious plot is put into action, but why, why did he risk his ruin for such a convoluted (albeit successful) treachery?

"Demand me nothing; what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word."

So ends the play... yet demand of him we do. We see how he uses his understanding of human nature to turn his targets' best qualities against them, and in so doing against each other... it is not jealousy alone that "doth mock the meat it feeds on."  We know that Iago is charming, calm, cool, calculating - his sociopathic nature seems to bring to mind the fable of the scorpion and the frog... the scorpion stings the frog who carries him across the pond, despite knowing that he, too, will drown; the frog carries the scorpion knowing he will be stung - both of them victims to their own nature... Iago claims to love Othello and desire Desdemona, to admire Cassio, despite also revealing his envy that Cassio was promoted by Othello over him, his jealousy that Desdemona desires Othello over him, his misogyny that makes him accuse his own wife Emilia of having an affair with Othello, his racism that makes him hate Othello's rise to wealth & power thereby putting Iago in the position of  being Othello's servant... we see all of this as the play unfolds. We hear all of it from his own lips. Some of his motivations seem obvious - too obvious, yet we are still left wondering why...

Since Iago is such a mixed bag of tricks with a poisonous tongue that did ruin all those he loved best, I offer this Tongue Sallet (Salad) served two ways both raw and cooked in his honor from A new booke of Cookerie by J. Murrell in its nearly inscrutable Middle English parlance: 

Raw Sallet

Take your hearbes and picke them very fine onto faire water, and picke your flowers by themselves, and wash them al cleane, and swing them in a strainer, and when you put them into a dish, mingle them with Cowcumbers or Lemmons payred and sliced, and scrape suger, and put in vineger and Oyle, and throwe the flowers on the toppe of the sallet, and of every sorte of the aforesaide things and garnish the dish about with the foresaid things, and harde Egges boyled and laid about the dish and upon the sallet.

 Diuers Sallets Boyled:

Parboyle Spinage, and chop it fine, with the edges of two hard Trenchers vpon a boord, or the backe of two chopping Kniues: then set them on a Chafingdish of coales with Butter and Uinegar. Season it with Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and a few parboyld Currins. Then cut hard Egges into quarters to garnish it withall, and serue it vpon sippets. So may you serue Burrage, Buglosse, Endiffe, Suckory, Coleflowers, Sorrel, Marigold leaues, water Cresses, Leekes boyled, Onions, Sparragus, Rocket, Alexanders. Parboyle them, and season them all alike: whether it be with Oyle and Uinegar, or Butter and Uinegar, Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and Butter: Egges are necessary, or at least very good for all boyld Sallets.

To Hash Calves Tongues:
Boyl them tender and pill them, then lard them with Limon Pill, and lard them also with fat Bacon, then lay them to the Fire and half rost them; then put them in a Pipkin with Claret Wine, whole Spice and sliced Limon, and a few Caraway Seeds, a little Rosemary and a little Salt, boil all together and serve them in upon Toasts. Thus you may do with Sheeps Tongues also

Malvolio's Stewed Hedgehog

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

The name hedgehog came into use around the year 1450, derived from the Middle English heyghoge, from heyg, hegge ("hedge"), because it frequents hedgerows, and hoge, hogge ("hog"), from its piglike snout. Hedgehogs are easily recognized by their spines, which are hollow hairs made stiff with keratin. Their spines are not poisonous or barbed and, unlike the quills of a porcupine, cannot easily be removed from the hedgehog.  This is called "quilling". When under extreme stress or during sickness, a hedgehog can also lose spines.  A defense that all species of hedgehogs possess is the ability to roll into a tight ball, causing all of the spines to point outwards. However, they are much more likely to try to run away and sometimes even attack the intruder, trying to ram into the intruder with its spines; rolling up into a spiny ball is used by those species as a last resort. They are solitary creatures. They pair only to mate. They will separate thereafter and the male takes no part in rearing the family.

The Elizabethans had a fondness for dramatic presentations at the table & hedgehog with its round form & spiny quills suited their taste for serving up the bizarre. I chose Twelfth Night's Malvolio because he is harmless, solitary, even with all the spines that stick out of him & and into those he considers beneath him as he swanks about Lady Olivia's manor as her head steward of the household, but despite his imperious Puritanical manner and his ridiculous ambitions,  he just rolls up into a big hairy ball when he actually is challenged... finally receiving his comeuppance in the play at the hands of detractors. I always felt a gentle pity for him. When Sir Toby and company lock him up in a dark room and perform a mock exorcism, Shakespeare raises the point that the trick is like a bear-baiting, an Elizabethan blood-sport that involved chaining a bear to a post and setting a pack of dogs on it. In this sense, Malvolio's comeuppance is a bit like what happens to Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew. Malvolio and Sly are both abused for the entertainment of others – including Shakespeare's audience, which itself becomes a cohort with the pranksters.

Hedgehogs (Yrchouns)

Take Piggis mawys, & skalde hem wel: take groundyn Porke, & knede it with Spicerye, with pouder Gyngere, & Salt & Sugre; do it on the mawe , but fille it nowe to fulle; then sewe hem with a fayre threde, & putte hem in a Spete as men don piggys; take blaunchid Almaundys, & kerf hem long , smal, & scharpe, & frye hem in grece & sugre; Take a litel prycke, & prykke the yrchouns, An putte in the holes the Almaundy, every hole half, & eche fro other; ley hem then to the fyre; when they ben rostid, dore hem sum whyth Whete Flowre, & mylke of Almaundys, sum grene, sum blake with Blode,& lat hem nowt brone to moche, & set forth.Serves 6-8

2 lb (4 cups) minced (ground) pork
2 tbs breadcrumbs
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp mace
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 tbs sugar
1/2 oz (1 tbs) softened butter
2 egg yolks
2 oz (4 tbs) butter
4 tbs vegetable stock or water
2 oz slivered almonds
vegetable colouring

Modern Translation: Mix the pork, breadcrumbs, spices, seasonings and softened butter. Bind with the beaten egg yolks and form a ball. Place in a buttered pan. Cook, covered, for 1 hour, basting at intervals with the rest of the butter melted in the vegetable stock or water. Stick the slivered almonds, dyed with the vegetable colouring, all over the pudding, so that they look like the quills of a hedgehog or a sea urchin (recipe from Seven Centuries of English Cooking).

 Petruchio's Roasted Peacock

"Tush! tush! fear boys with bugs."

Peacocks are large, colorful pheasants (typically blue and green) known for their iridescent tails. These tail feathers, or coverts, spread out in a distinctive train that is more than 60 percent of the bird’s total body length and boast colorful "eye" markings of blue, gold, red, and other hues. The large train is used in mating rituals and courtship displays. It can be arched into a magnificent fan that reaches across the bird's back and touches the ground on either side. In courtship, vocalization stands to be a primary way for peacocks to attract peahens. Some studies suggest that 'intricate song played whilst birds displayed prove to be impressive to females, whereas other studies show high call 'rates' to be more successful which brings us to Petruchio.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio is a gentleman from Verona. Showy, proud, loud, boisterous, daring, eccentric, quick-witted, and frequently drunk, he arrived in Padua “to wive and thrive.” by marrying wealth. He announces this to all and sundry. Katherine's shrewish nature has made her father up the ante and offer an enormous dowry to the intrepid suitor who would woo & wed her. Disregarding everyone who warns him about her infamous temper, he eventually succeeds not only in wooing Katherine, but in silencing her tongue and temper with his own. I could wish for no better embodiment of Petruchio's spirit animal than this bird which even roasted, was served proudly and triumphantly by the Elizabethan cook with feathers and all.

I've no doubt that dear Kate would have gladly cooked Petruchio up in like manner, even after he allegedly 'tamed' her shrew. 


Take a Pecok, breke his necke, and
kutte his throte, And fle him, the skyn
and the ffethurs togidre, and the hede
still to the skyn of the nekke, And kepe
the skyn and the ffethurs hole togiders;
drawe him as an hen, And kepe the bone
to the necke hole, and roste him, And set
the bone of the necke aboue the broche,
as he was wonte to sitte a-lyve, And
abowe the legges to the body, as he
was wonte to sitte a-lyve; And whan
he is rosted ynowe, take him of, And
lete him kele; And then wynde the skyn
wit the fethurs and the taile abought
the body, And serue him forthe as he
were a-live; or elle pull him dry, And
roste him, and serue him as thou
doest a henne.

Or you could always just make a pie made up with peacock

meat and then stick the head and tail feathers into it.

Hamlet's Roasted Lamb with Cameline Sauce 

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

If you called Hamlet Oedipus Rex on steroids you would be wrong, but not too far off the mark. Sigmund Freud himself spoke of the guilt in Hamlet's oedipal conflict being the cause of his hesitation to avenge his father's death by killing his uncle and stepfather who did what Hamlet himself really wanted to do. His existential crisis was built upon an all too keen self-awareness - something that Oedipus, poor guy, never had being blinded by the fates as he was. No, Hamlet KNEW... therein lied the tragedy. He was the philosopher Prince. He continued to delay what he knew obsessed him... what gave his existence meaning and purpose , in a world he saw as purposeless, even as he continued to go through the motions of his plots - haunted as he was by his father's ghost, but he was the ultimate procrastinator, alternately punishing and pleasuring himself with the torturous desires that would perversely tantalize and taunt him, until the end was achieved. Feeling his desires were base and made him no better than the man he wished to avenge himself against - a man who ultimately turned out to be himself... He saw himself in Claudius, in Laertes, perhaps even in Pollonius. Perhaps in everyone and everything. His empathy prevented him from acting.  His pretense at madness was not at all a pretense, but a true escape until Ophelia's death. The mirror cracked. He was what he knew he had always been - his own sacrifice.

"However contradictory the coroner's report — whether he pronounces Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide to be the cause of death — isn't it plain how the true artist-seer actually dies? I say that the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience.” ― J.D. Salinger

Although, an atheist, when thinking of sacrifices, I think first of the story of Christ, the Lamb of God, but in many ways, Hamlet is a story of sacrifice. The sacrifice of love, of desire, of truth - for honor, or some idealized version of it... therein lies his real perversion, and yet in Act 4, Scene 4, he says,

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do;'
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

Still, Hamlet's course will be Roasted Lamb with Cameline Sauce.

Cameline was one of the most common sauces used in the middle ages. It was so common that it could be purchased pre-made from vendors in late 14th century Paris. When the Ménagier was instructing his new wife about shopping he wrote, "At the sauce-maker's, three half-pints of cameline for dinner and supper and a quart of sorrel verjuice."

The following recipe is a typical one, based on a 15th century English source. I've added salt (common to over half of the sources I consulted), and boiled the sauce (which was sometimes done, and other times not). The result is a sweet and zesty sauce that is more than a little like modern steak sauce.

3 slices white bread
3/4 cup red wine 
1/4 cup red wine vinegar 
1/4 tsp. cinnamon 
1/4 tsp. ginger 
1/8 tsp. cloves 
1 Tbsp. sugar 
pinch saffron 
1/4 tsp. salt 

Cut bread in pieces and place in a bowl with wine and vinegar. Allow to soak, stirring occasionally, until bread turns to mush. Strain through a fine sieve into a saucepan, pressing well to get as much the liquid as possible out of the bread. Add spices and bring to a low boil, simmering until thick. Serve warm.

Source [Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, T. Austin (ed.)]: Sauce gamelyne. Take faire brede, and kutte it, and take vinegre and wyne, & stepe þe brede therein, and drawe hit thorgh a streynour with powder of canel, and drawe hit twies or thries til hit be smoth; and þen take pouder of ginger, Sugur, and pouder of cloues, and cast þerto a litul saffron and let hit be thik ynogh, and thenne serue hit forthe.

Lamb to make like Venison

PERIOD: England, 17th century | SOURCE: The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex, 1696 

DESCRIPTION: How to prepare lamb to taste like venison

Lamb to make like Venison.

Bone it, and take the side or quarter, and dip it in its Blood, sprinkle it over with Salt, Cinamon and Pepper, rowl it up, and parboyl it, adding some Vinegar to the Water you boyl it in, a sprig or two of Hysop and Thyme, let it stand six hours in the water when it is off the Fire, put it into a coffin, and pour to it when half Baked, Claret and Melted Butter, with some Cloves Mace and dryed Rosemary, finely beaten.

Note: Many recipes require "coffins", the somewhat doom-laden medieval term for a pastry case. Medieval cooks were perfectly aware of the technique of pre-hardening open pastry cases in an oven before adding the filling, and directions for such a process can be quite elaborate. The 15th-century Harleian MS recipe for Doucetes, a custard tart, requires the cook to "take þine coffins, & put in þe ovynne lere, & lat hem ben hardyd; þan take a dysshe y-fastenyd on þe pelys ende; & pore þin comade in-to þe dyssche, & from þe dyssche in-to þe cofyns." The purpose here is apparently to avoid cooling the hardened cases by removing them from the oven; the baker's peel, a long-handled flat shovel for moving items in and out of the oven, here has a bowl attached so that the filling can be poured into the cases while they're still in the oven. I'm not quite sure what difference this makes; I've always removed the pastry cases from the oven to fill them, and the skies have not yet fallen.

There seems to be little or no notion in the medieval recipes of filling the case with anything (we'd use beans or rice in modern kitchens) to keep it from rising while the empty case is being hardened. The one exception is Martino's elaborate live-bird pie (Italy, 14th century), which requires pre-baking the shell filled with flour, subsequently removed through a hole in the bottom. And just for fun:

Flying pie 

Make a mold for a large pie, and in the bottom make a hole large enough that your fist can pass through, or even bigger if you please, and the sides around it should be slightly higher than the common usage; fill it with flour and cook in an oven. Once it is cooked, open the hole on the bottom and remove the flour; beforehand, prepare another small pie filled with good stuff that has been well cooked and seasoned and that has been made as big as that hole in the large mold; place this pie through the hole into the mold; and in the empty space that remains around the small pie, put some live birds, as many as it will hold; and the birds should be placed in it just before it is to be served; and when it is served before those seated at the banquet, you remove the cover above, and the little birds will fly away. This is done to entertain and amuse your company. And in order that they do not remain disappointed by this, cut the small pie up and serve.

This, however, is a very specific use of pastry for effect, rather than a standard procedure, and also presupposes a particularly deep covered pie which needs to stand alone without filling (live birds being a bit dodgy for purposes of support). It thus seems safe to assume that the standard pastry tart case was not filled during pre-baking.

Falstaff's Raspberry Trifle

"The better part of valor is discretion"

Sir John Falstaff, one of the most famous comic characters in all English literature, appears in four of Shakespeare’s plays. Falstaff is the embodiment of rebellion and disorder. Literary critics frequently link his character to "carnival," a religious festival season that celebrates the inversion of social order and the indulgence of unruly and riotous behavior. Much like Mardi Gras, it was seen as a temporary way for ordinary folks to cut loose and engage in rebellious behavior without getting into permanent trouble. And, much like a "Lord of Misrule" (one who was appointed to reign over carnival festivities, which included drinking, eating, and raucous theatrical productions), Falstaff presides over the Boar's Head Tavern.

"He [Falstaff] is a man at once young and old, enterprising and fat, a dupe and a wit, harmless and wicked, weak in principle and resolute by constitution, cowardly in appearance and brave in reality, a knave without malice, a liar without deceit, and a knight, a gentleman, and a soldier without either dignity, decency, or honour. This is a character which, though it may be decompounded, could not, I believe, have been formed, nor the ingredients of it duly mingled, upon any receipt whatever. It required the hand of Shakespeare himself to give to every particular part a relish of the whole, and of the whole to every particular part. "

~Morgann: The Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff.

The word trifle means a literary, musical, or artistic work of a light or trivial character having no great or lasting merit; bagatelle, and yet, like Sir John Falstaff it is a substantial dessert, its deceivingly light fluffy appearance, notwithstanding.

In Elizabethan times the name ‘trifle' was applied to a thick cream flavored with sugar, ginger, fortified wine, and rosewater, which became part of the banquet course. Later trifles consisted of custards poured over wine-soaked sweet biscuits (usually macaroons), and topped with syllabub. In this one, which is simplicity to do, I have reverted to the cream topping. Serves 6 people

1 Swiss roll
2 Bananas
225 g (7.9oz) Raspberries
1 Sherry glass sweet sherry (or as much or as little as you like!)
115 g (4.1oz) Raspberry jam
300 ml (10.6fl oz) Double cream
25 g (0.9oz) Caster sugar
55 g (1.9oz) Chopped pistachios
300 ml (10.6fl oz) Milk - for the vanilla custard
300 ml (10.6fl oz) Double cream - for the vanilla custard
300 ml (10.6fl oz) Double cream - for the vanilla custard
1 Vanilla pod, split - for the vanilla custard
4 Egg yolks - for the vanilla custard
2 Eggs - for the vanilla custard
115 g (4.1oz) Caster sugar (or superfine sugar) - for the vanilla custard

Cut the Swiss roll into slices or chunks and lay in the bottom of a large glass bowl or individual glass bowls (it used to be the best crystal bowl). Peel and slice the bananas, and sprinkle the slices over the Swiss roll. Scatter the raspberries on top, and leave to one side.
For the custard, put the milk and double cream on to boil in a medium pan with the scraped vanilla pod and seeds. Put the egg yolks, eggs and sugar into a bowl and beat well together. Pour the hot cream mixture on to the eggs and mix well.
Put this mixture into a clean pan and heat gently, stirring carefully, to allow the custard to thicken slightly. Do not let it curdle. Pull off the heat, put into a cold container and leave to cool.
When the custard is cool, pour the sweet sherry over the fruit and sponge in the bowl or bowls. Now pour the cooled custard over. Refrigerate and allow to set (overnight is good).
Warm the jam then allow it to cool a little, but whilst still runny, pour it over the custard. Allow to set.

Whip the cream with the sugar and put into a piping bag. Decorate the top of the trifle with this, then carefully sprinkle the pistachios over the cream. Serve.