Eine Kleine Nachtramble


Between 1980 and 1989, my family made a two-hour trek, twice monthly, to my maternal grandmother’s house for Sunday tea. My grandmother, an extraordinarily gifted cook of the Julia Child mould (J.C. from now on) would present “a quick little spread” for the family. Grandma was a Seriously Practical Rhode Island Yankee who swore the meals existed solely to use up the leftover produce from the farm stand she and my grandfather ran. The teas were eloquent and impressive affairs, and though nobody believed Grandma’s insistence that the “quick little spread” had been assembled casually, nobody challenged it for fear of being disinvited.

At each gathering, a blue-checked hand-knit tablecloth would cover the serving table, swaybacked like an ancient mule beneath at least half of the following: deviled eggs, deviled ham, sliced roast turkey with rhubarb chutney, fresh-made yogurt, new apricot preserves, lemon curd, Aunt Jean’s sweet-pickle relish and mortar-crushed whole mustard, fresh snap peas and beans, fresh carrots braised and steamed in mint, spinach salad right from the garden (never washed; organic before the word ‘organic’), a plate of razor-sharp cheddar, hot tomato and chive crackers baked to order, spinach and fresh-husked sunflower seed salad, herbed and marinated zucchini with summer squash, chard with lardons and shallots, corn-on-the-cob from the backyard, Grandpa’s bread and butter pickles, Grandpa’s canned peaches, hummel und erde (butternut and apple puree) bread pudding, spiced plum sauce, indian pudding, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie, apple crisp, cinnamon doughnuts, german chocolate cake, linzer torte, an assortment of nuts — mostly filberts — and my mother’s root beer barrels.

The sideboard would be a bit more restrained, featuring only Grandpa’s homemade root beer, his birch beer, his ginger ale, his dandelion wine, his fresh-pressed cider, two pots of tea, milk, orange juice squeezed by a grandchild, and coffee.

As the Sunday teas were not meals, they would last as rolling celebrations from barely noon until seven or eight at night. There would be constant new dishes arriving from the kitchen, in casseroles carried by kith and kin happening to pass by, stop in for a quick nibble, with breaks for dog-walking, tree-climbing, beach-combing, corn-husking, hill-sledding, and a number of other hyphenate activities, seasonally dependent. But the focus always, inevitably, returned to the food. To bite a line from Papa Hemingway, these were moveable feasts: but moving in time and company and never in space. The blue-checked table was then, and remains in memory, sacrosanct and inviolable, the nexus of all that things nutritive and nurturing, the hub of comfortable long-fled childhood.

Hence, comfort food –– as I image it –– must be saturated with the spirit of that place: it must convey they limpid sensory detail of antediluvian afternoons, must be pregnant with sights and sounds and smells and touches of things long-past and nearly-forgotten. Often for good reason. My comfort food must create a false nostalgia, but never overbearingly. It should evoke by taste and texture Uncle George’s reeky cologne, Great Uncle Raymond’s teal flannel shirt, sister Erika’s page-boy haircut baretted with crappy pink plastic, Patrick teasing the call ducks with a stick, Grandma in hip-waders retrieving a kite from the goose-pond, or any of a thousand other weird private moments.

Every step in the creation of a comfort dish should be tasty and unpretentious. It should be food for nibbling, plain eating, spatula-licking, and crumb pinching. Nothing about it should be surprising, nor should itbe boring. So, here is my approximation (after several dozen batches of refinement) of

Cream together:
3/4 c. butter, room temperature
1 egg
1/4 c. molasses (not blackstrap) or honey
about a cup of brown sugar, packed

In a separate bowl sift together
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/4 – 1/2 cup chopped candied ginger

Add butter mixture to flour mixture and combine until just homogenous.

Divide dough into thirds, roll each third into a 1″ diameter logs.

Wrap each log tightly in plastic, refrigerate until firm: 30 minutes at least.

Preheat oven to 350º F.

Remove one log from refrigerator and cut into 1/8″ slices. Place on greased baking tray, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar, bake for 10-12 minutes until set.

Allow to crisp before transferring to a cooling rack


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4 Responses to “Eine Kleine Nachtramble”

  1. remybean Says:

    Anybody wish to tell me how I can post a ‘read more of this’ link w/o throwing the whole overwitten kit-and-caboodle onto the front page?

  2. Jaq Says:

    Go to edit it – there’s a button in the toolbar. Put the cursor where you want the break, click the button. There’s a key shortcut too, I think it’s Alt-Shift-T? Might be something else though.

    Beautiful post!

  3. mcoleman Says:

    this is like hl mencken’s essay on his boyhood eating in 19th century baltimore. awesome!

  4. boxofbirds Says:

    sounds like a lovely feast!

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