It’s Friday night at Wally’s Spot, and we've already hit the snack table. I’m nibbling liver on rye toast, bright orange cheese spread, and a variety of pickled things. Waiting for the server, we glance at the menus, but I knew what I wanted when I walked through the heavy oak door. In Wisconsin, Fridays are Fish Fry nights, and that’s why we’re here. For fried perch. Well, fried perch and cocktails.
When the waitress returns, I don’t hesitate. “Perch, please. And a whiskey old fashioned, sour, with mushrooms”.
Old Fashioned drinkers choose their garnishes: olives, pickled mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, or maraschino cherries. Fish comes with buttered rye toast and onions, and potatoes cooked in every possible way. Tiny pots of butter stay warm above votive candles, beside bowls full of tartar sauce, sour cream, and pats of cold butter. A basket of rolls glistens in the light, gleaming with… more butter. I love this state.
Wally’s is a Supper Club, a distinctly Wisconsin blend of upscale and down-home, where locals come to dress up and eat comfort food. When I visit the Schmidts we make the rounds, and I’ve sampled cocktails and tartar sauce at a few of Green Bay’s many Supper Club options. From the plush carpeting and brocade curtains at Eve’s to the unselfconsciously retro aesthetic at the Out-O-Town Club, Supper Clubs vary widely, but you could order with your eyes shut in any given one.
From drinks to dinner, pickles reign supreme. In addition to the spears of pickled veggies floating on the cocktails, some establishments start meals with a relish plate that leaves your tongue stinging and furry. At the Out-O- Town Club, pickled turkey gizzards star at the salad bar.
The menus are generally straightforward, though I’ve never strayed from the fish fry. Steaks, chicken, and a few seafood specials are straight from date night 1973. Portions are generous, and that’s the rub- I’m always sorely tempted by the options, but I just can’t make it to dessert.
At the Out-O- Town Club, I swabbed my plate with rye toast and saw trays of jewel-bright, booze filled ice cream drinks float by on trays. Grasshoppers and Brandy Alexanders sound like the perfect end to a Supper Club meal, but by the time I finish my baked potato, I’m stuffed, and leave the ice cream for another day.
When we step outside, the late October rain has stopped, and I take a photo of Wally’s sign which is frozen mid-rotation and casting a neon glow on the wet parking lot. I am in heels and a dress, and my father-in-law opens the car door as I slide in beside my husband.
All dressed up in the backseat, chatting with his parents, we briefly discuss a stop for frozen custard at Zesty’s. After two cocktails and a mountain of fish, though, we’re soporific and full and we head home to the couch, where I will nod off in the television glow. Which is all as it should be. After spending the next week digesting, maybe I’ll mix up a Brandy Alexander in my Vermont kitchen, and when I do, I’ll raise my glass to Supper Clubs. Long may you run.
“Are we really supposed to eat that?” Daniel held a clam between his thumb and forefinger, peering into its tiny belly like a soothsayer. “Is that poop? I think that’s poop. I’m not eating that”.
I hate to admit it, but I feel the same way. Except for the butter and the garlic, everything about this bowl of clams says: “don’t eat me, I’m gross”. We are sitting on the deck of my cousin’s house on an island where my family has come for 8 generations. Islesboro is a wasp-waisted sprawl of land in Penobscot bay, fourteen square miles overflowing with new money and old stories. As we drive around the island with my great Aunt Mildred, she points out the land her father farmed, growing potatoes in fields that look out towards the Atlantic. Another great-grandfather filled his larder from the sea, harvesting the shellfish and lobster that helped islanders through the lean years of the depression. “He’d fill one, two rockers of clams on a tide”, my cousin told me. “When he was alive, Grampy could out do all of us”.
Daniel and I continue to inspect our meal. “Do you think we’re supposed to eat the neck?”, I wonder. “No way”, said Daniel. “There’s no way. It looks like an elephant’s trunk”.
My grandmother would be horrified, and I’m a little surprised myself. How could I be so squeamish?
With a sigh, I set the rubbery little creature back into the bowl and pick up a piece of bread. It’s not just my Mainer forbears that would raise an eyebrow at our pickiness; among foodies, loving odd dishes is a badge of honor. We strive for a casual tone as we order the pickled turkey giblets and chicken livers, followed by fiddlehead ferns in a bone marrow consommé. In my great-grandfather’s time, some of these foods were standard fare for the down-at-the-heel, and harvesting wild foods was for poor folks or eccentrics. In this day and age, though, it’s the sophisticated types that suck crawfish heads.
And I buy it, mostly. I won’t vouch for the pickled giblets, but I gather fiddleheads every spring, and chicken livers on toast are a good reminder that some wonderful foods have been left on the margins. There are lots of reasons to eat the things that fast food forgot, but I can’t shake the sense that there’s a healthy dose of class and identity mixed in with the wild asparagus.
As I consider the revolving door of food prestige, I’m reminded of the scene in Peter Pan where the Indians hunt the pirates who are hunting the Lost Boys, hunting the Indians. As the green revolution and the industrial food system provided increasingly cheaper food, America’s poor were able to leave behind food traditions based around cooking with ingredients that the wealthy spurned. Chitterlings and squirrel soup, liver and onions, as soon as white bread and chicken breasts were available for a pittance, the old recipes got chucked on the heap like moldy leftovers.
Once the hoi polloi could buy the white flour and sugar that had been strictly uptown, values began to shift. At Peasant restaurant in New York City, entrées start at $30, which is comparable to the Peasant Bistro in Atlanta, or The Peasant and The Pear, in Northern California. White sugar and flour? Please. In this day and age, the wealthy want rustic wood-fired sourdough crostini with pickled ramps.
Of course, I like sourdough and ramps, too, and for good reason. I adore the restaurants whose menus start with essays about traditional food values, because they’re right. When food is made by hand and processed using deep, generational knowledge, it connects us to our humanity, our earth, and our community in a way that I truly value. Part of returning to a sustainable food system means cherishing foods that the last half century have deemed “gross”. Whether or not this new, old food smells a bit like classism and exclusivity, I’d like it to stick around.
So where does that leave me, Daniel, and the clams? If I could find a way to love them, I’d feel like a full-fledged member of a long-time island family, and of my cohort of fearless, sophisticated foodies. Plus, we spent an entire morning digging them from Islesboro’s mudflats with our bare hands, bringing back a cooler full.
I pull one out of the broth, wondering about the brown stuff I can see through the bivalve’s translucent flesh. There really is no way I’m going to eat these things, so I grab some cheese and an apple from the kitchen, which I wash down with a cold can of beer that would go great with clams.
The next day, Daniel and I pull over at the Narrows where the Main road comes close to the shore. The tide is halfway out, exposing muddy, salty earth pocked with clam holes. Without a word, we set the cooler between us on the scrubby marsh grass, and reached down into the clams.
I shouted, “go free, clam!” and threw one as far as I could. Daniel shot his arm out, and another fat shellfish sailed through the sea air. “You’ve won this round!”, he yelled. As the sun set over the mainland, Daniel and I threw clams until our cooler was empty, then we washed the sand from our hands and headed home.
On the brink of the solstice, the view from my balcony is tropical, lush. Towel pegs in the bathroom are hung with swimsuits. My farmer's tan has begun in earnest. Spring's demure buds have come and gone, eclipsed by blowsy, vivid roses.
I've fallen hard for Vermont's Summer.
So Happy Solstice. You'll find me celebrating out back, at a table laid below criss-crossed clotheslines and leafy boughs. These things are impossibly beautiful to me: the feel of bare feet under a white tablecloth, vase full of blooms robbed from our backyard plants.
And for dessert, syllabub. One of my favorites, a froth of cream and booze, a little bit of this and that, whatever you have in your fridge. If you've got a handful of berries, even better. It's that kind of recipe. It is a cousin to the fool, with a frivolous flavor and a silly name that belie a long history- syllabub has been around since the 16th century.
This is a flexible recipe, and I suggest that you add liquor and sugar to taste- just make sure to use some lemon juice, since it sets the cream into a soft curd.
3 tablespoons Apple Brandy, or other flavorful liquor
3 TB lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream (not ultra-pasturized)
freshly grated nutmeg
Combine the lemon juice, zest, and brandy in a small bowl. Whip the cream and sugar in a chilled bowl until the cream begins to thicken. Slowly pour the juice mixture into the cream, while continuing to whisk. Continue to whip until light and fluffy, but not grainy. Cover the mixture and chill until serving time. Serves 6 people.
This summer, I say to hell with creemees- break out the syllabub.
“Adam might be the fastest bread baker I’ve ever seen.” I am sitting on my kitchen counter, mashing butter into a hunk of rye bread.
My housemate B. nodded. “I think he bakes like a farmer”.
In a bright, airy kitchen that looks out on undulating pastures, Adam bakes German-style breads in a massive wood-fired oven. He moves quickly and smoothly, sliding loaves in and out of the 600 degree heat. I took 400 photos during two hours in the kitchen at Bread and Butter Farm, and Adam often appears as a streak, a blur in a blue shirt and red hat, swerving past loaves in crisp focus.
I chewed on the bread, thinking of the afternoon when I watched B., a farmer herself, plant our entire garden in 45 minutes of frenzied activity. She knows from farming. “That must be it,” I agreed. “Adam bakes like a farmer”.
And Bread and Butter Farm is aptly named. The farm store is lined with loaves of fresh bread, leaking steam, speckled with flour and seeds. A cooler is stocked with jars of raw milk from the herd of jersey cows grazing in the fields below, whose milk is a rich yellow topped with a generous line of cream. All of this- the farm, the bread, the milk- have a solid, sustaining quality to them. There is also a clean, simple aesthetic woven through the entirety of the beautiful working landscape that Adam, with partner Erik and co-farmers Corie and Chris, have created.
When I arrived at the farm on a chilly spring morning, Adam and Erik were shaping dough at an expansive table. The oven was a blistering 639 degrees when Adam swept the remaining embers with a long-handled mop. The fire had been burning since the day before, with 12 hours for the oven to “mellow”, for the heat to sink into the walls and distribute evenly to the farthest corners.
After the first loaves had finished their long proof, Adam slides them into the deep oven using a home made belt loader- a beautifully simple mechanical system for evenly and gently placing loaves in the oven. He lays the dough out on a kind of cloth conveyor belt, then draws it back, dotting the oven floor with floury rounds. Once the cycle begins, bread comes in and out every 6 minutes, and Adam lines the cooling racks with blistering hot loaves. Erik works in tandem, using a huge brush to sweep flour from the steaming rounds.
The timer counts down a final batch, and Adam dons a sturdy jacket, warm hat and rubber boots. If he bakes like a farmer, it’s for a good reason. Once the farm store shelves are lined with loaves, he heads to the milking barn, where huge-eyed dairy cows stand patiently under handpainted name tags. They have gently curved horns and glossy coats. As they emerge from the barn one by one, they turn curious looks in my direction, then trot ahead.
With coats in the same golden and nut brown hues of baking bread, the jersey cows file across the pasture. Adam, a baker and farmer, moves behind them, walking fast.
In addition to their amazing bread, milk, veggies, and meat, Bread and Butter Farm has a burger night with delicious food and music. Starting in May, they will add a Monday burger night- good news for Saturday morning bakers like me!
The town of Izamal is painted the same rich yellow that stains my palms after grinding achiote seeds for recado . Horse drawn carriages line up in the central square festooned with garish boughs and bouquets of plastic flowers. The tall windows of colonial houses are left open to the street, so while passing by we heard bits of music and conversation drifting from strangers' kitchens. Wandering past fruit sellers and cyber cafés, we turned a corner and came upon the wide base of a massive pyramid, so wide that from where we stood I could not see the top. A low fence seperates the ruins from the living town, a thin line between ancient stones and the hubbub of schoolchildren and bicycle taxis and blaring speakers.
I first tasted sikil p'ak at a tiny café in the square. It was not on the menu. The rich, nutty paste came in a small dish, accompanied by crisply fried wedges of corn tortillas. We were the only customers, and as we nibbled our antojitos and drank tall glasses of cold tamarind juice, a young man arrived on a motorbike carrying a steamy bag full of the fresh tortillas we would eat with our meal.
In Yucatec Maya, p'ak are tomatoes, and sikil are squash seeds, what Spanish speakers call pepitas . These are ancient foods here. Pre-Colombian codices depict the plants, which can also be spotted in the small kitchen gardens that abut rural homes. Painted stucco at ruins show women grinding corn and seeds in stone molcajetes like those that many modern Mayan cooks use each day for food preparation.
In sikil p'ak, squash seeds are ground into a smooth paste, then pounded with charred tomatoes, roasted onion, garlic, and cilantro. The result is like a vegetarian paté- rich, smooth, and fully flavored. On a recent night in Vermont, I tried to recreate the flavor that has lingered in my mind since Izamal. With each ingredient, I nibbled a bit of the chunky paste, and as I added more cilantro, or a squeeze of lime, the taste came into focus, and with it the colors and smells of that turmeric-colored town. This is one to try.
Make this in a molcajete if you're feeling patient, but if you're feeling hungry, a food processor works great.
2 cups pepitas
¼ of a white onion, left whole and held together at the root
2 cloves garlic
3 tomatoes, or 12 ounces of fire-roasted canned tomatoes, if it's March in Vermont
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 jalapeno (optional)
salt and lime to taste
In a heavy skillet over medium heat, toast the pepitas until the are fragrant and nutty smelling, and just beginning to brown. Set aside to cool. On a comal, or a cast iron pan, dry roast the ¼ onion and unpeeled garlic cloves until they have blackened somewhat on the outside, let them cool, then peel and roughly chop. If you are using fresh tomatoes, char them on a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, or on a grill. Let cool, then chop roughly.
Blacken the optional jalapeno over a gas flame, then let cool in a small covered bowl. Scrape the black skin off with a knife, then cut in half and remove the seeds.
In a food processor or molcajete, grind the peptitas until they form a smooth, thick paste. While still grinding, add the tomatoes a bit at a time so that the liquid emulsifies in the oils of the seed paste, giving the mixture a whitish color. Add the onion, garlic, cilantro and chile and continue grinding until they're completely incorporated. Add salt and lime to taste, adding only enough lime to balance to flavors- the citrus should not be pronounced.
Serve with chips, as they do in Izamal, or spread on sandwiches, crackers, toast, tacos, eggs... It turns out that sikil p'ak is good on everything.
On the Saturday afternoons when they make pibi pollo to sell in town, Rafael and Elia cook together in their small, airy kitchen. The stripped-pole walls filter light onto a packed dirt floor. The posts provide storage for cook pots, woven baskets, vivid cloth, and bundles of onions trussed with sisal. A cloud of nervous chickens drifts around the perimeter, tangling with wiry dogs and children. Clusters of beans dangle above the cook fire.
Elia is the family matriarch, but the kitchen is Rafael's domain. With a perpetual smile and the enthusiasm of true gourmand, he flourishes pans and swipes his finger through bubbling sauces. Like many in the Yucatán, he is an impeccable host.
He served me a plate of fried pork and onions before the gate swung closed. The family joined me at the table: Rafael, Elia and several of their 24 children and grandchildren. Moments later, another son arrived on a bicycle carrying a steaming bundle of paper-wrapped tortillas.
We ate slowly, talking, using tortillas as utensils to scoop up the meat. Rafael passed a small bowl of crushed habanero peppers and poured me a glass of coke. When I finished eating, his twenty year old son offered me more; I thanked him but refused, stuffed. Rafael frowned and cleared his throat.
“Guests are like Gods!”, he announced. “You don't make an offering, then ask if the God wants some more. They won't answer”. He seized the metal spoon from the pot. “You just make the offering”. He piled my bowl high, once more.
Mexico's pasteleras fill their glass cases with extravagantly gaudy sweets. Meringues the color of Barbie's Dream House. Dumplings that are fried, then dunked in sweet syrup, rolled in sprinkles, coconut, chocolate, and fondant icing: bright pink. Mexican confections are not for the weak of tooth.
In Yucatán, one classic treat is mazapán, a marzapan-like sweet made not from almonds but from semillas de calabaza, squash seeds. The flavor of the seeds is rich and nutty with a hint of bitterness that takes the edge off their considerable sweetness. They are ground, then mixed with sugar and a bit of cinnamon, then formed into dozens of bite-sized shapes. Tuná, the fruit of the nopal cactus, is painted pink and green. Maize appears everywhere. At one booth at the mercado central in Campeche, I spotted rompope, plantains, and fat orange carrots. The pasteleras of Valladolid opt for animal shapes: colorful tortoises, hens, puppies and brilliant fishes with cross-hatched gills
Mazapán is incredibly labor intensive. The semillas have to be soaked, dried, and hulled before they're ground. Every single seed. The pasteleras laughed when I asked how long it takes to make them. Bastante tiempo. Lots.
Curious to learn the technique, I asked each woman how they'd learned to make mazapán. The answer was unvarying. Mi abuela, mi abuelita. In every town, every time I asked the question, the pasteleras of the Yucatán said the same thing: they'd learned from their grandmothers.
I am the lookout, perched on the front of a three-wheeled trici traveling down a dirt road in Pomuch. Rafael is pedaling. His head swivels from side to side. We are on the hunt. He is a gregarious and enthusiastic gourmand, who spent the day cooking and sharing recipes, including this one for a free-range meat source: iguana. This is what he told me:
1) Attrapelo! First you have to catch it. Find the iguana's hole, and you set up a wire, a noose around the hole. Then you wait, wait, wait for the iguana to come out. Then you grab it! Squeeze it tight, though, because iguanas like to fight.
Or, if you don't want to wait, you take your ule, your slingshot, and you take a rock and tak! You better hit it in the head, too.
2) Matelo! Kill it.
3) Quemelo! You take the iguana like this, and you lay it in the fire, until the skin is all burned and you can scrape it off. You see?
4) Abrelo! Cut him like this- slowly draws hand from throat to navel- like you were performing an operation.
5) Cortelo, y Salelo! Chop your iguana into several large pieces. Salt to taste.
6) Cocinelo! Oh, you can put the iguana in a delicious soup, with onions and chiles, or if you want to you can fry it in oil, then squeeze a little lime on top! So good! You can put it in tamales, or in stew. Anything!
“There, there's one!”. Rafael waves his hand towards a pile of rocks. I missed it entirely. We turn around, approaching slowly, silently. To no avail. The iguana has retreated to the safety of his hole. “Be-ey”, Rafael sighed in Mayan: that's the way it goes.
Note: Wondering what to do with the moles that are tearing up your garden? Rafael recommends serving them in adobo sauce.
Aside from a startling number of bakeries, there's not much to do in Pomuch, but there's plenty to look at. I had come for the pan de pomuch -more on that later- and after meeting the bakers I took a slow wander down the town's main street. The hot, hard-packed dirt road was dotted with sleeping dogs. Men relaxed in the shade, shirts rolled up to their armpits. Groups of students in neat school uniforms crowded onto the benches in the central plaza. A few vans passed, and the streets were crowded with trici-taxis, bicycles that have been chopped and welded onto two-wheeled benches with bright awnings and curtains.
In front of one house I spotted a hand-lettered sign advertising Tamales de Holoch. I pushed past the metal gate, which opened onto an lush courtyard and a traditional thatched wood home. A woman appeared in the doorway and gestured for me to follow her inside, where she sat at a small table loaded down with bowls of food.
Gérard Rubaud's bakery is perched at the top of a swooping road overlooking the Westford valley. Concerned about the two black labs that circled my car as I crested the hill, I hesitated at a crucial moment, then retraced my tracks in reverse before taking another shot. The drive continued upward, between undulating walls of stacked firewood.
The interior of the low wooden building where Gérard works is filled with burnished golds and warm browns that conjure bread's wheaten hues. The walls are lined with wood and the shelves with cookbooks. A battered Larousse Gastronomique sits on the expansive surface of a work table. The windows frame a grey and snowless landscape; its harsh lines underscore the glowing warmth inside the room. Smiling, Gérard comments that “this is a church of baking!”, and it's true. As his hands have shaped many thousands of loaves, baking shapes his life. He follows the nocturnal schedule of his lévain, a carefully nurtured wild yeast culture. When I arrived late in the morning, he was preparing his final batch of loaves, ending a work day that had started at 10:30 the night before.