I was at Carnell's Funeral Home the other day, eating chocolates with a good friend and talking about how much her mom loved food. Her mom was with us. It was her wake.
The family had decided, since her mom was such a foodie, that food would play a role in the celebration of her life. That's why we were munching on chocolates. Two big boxes of Pot of Gold (her favourite) were placed next to her in the visitation room.
After the funeral, the following day, everyone was invited for coffee, tea and desserts - loads of them. Again, all of the desserts were ones her mother had enjoyed during the eight-plus decades of her life. Nanaimo bars and snowballs (yum) figured prominently.
Food is life. It's what fuels us, consoles us and helps us celebrate the good times. The choice to celebrate a life with foods that a person adored in life seemed like a fabulous idea to me.
When I got home I began thinking about the role food played in my family.
I wanted to trigger more memories of the food of my youth and my parents' generation. So, I began dusting off old cookbooks I'd acquired from my mom. That's when I found a real family treasure.
For several years of my dad's life, he was a cook. He cooked at Ferry Command in Gander during the Second World War, in the private car of the Reid Newfoundland Railway (for people like the late Ches Crosbie and Judge R.S. (Bob) Furlong), and at the Buchans Hotel. Someone gave him a cookbook while we were in the mining town. It has an inscription with the word "Buchans" written across the bottom.
The book is called "Prudence Penny's Cookbook." I liken it to discovering a time capsule, if a 1947 culinary guide with handwritten notes, gravy stains and other forensic evidence can be a time capsule.
The home-economics editor of the long-defunct Los Angeles Examiner wrote the book, published by The World Publishing Company. Prudence Penny was actually a copyright name owned by William Randolph Hearst. During the '30s and '40s there were many Prudences working all over the U.S for Hearst papers.
Have you ever heard of blanc mange? That's a cold, moulded dessert made from not much more than cornstarch, milk and sugar. It's deceivingly delicious. Other vintage recipes include things like prune whip, breaded carrots, potato puffs, chicken liver paste, stuffed celery and chicken a la king. However, the section of the book that really grabbed my attention was "Favorite Recipes of Movie Stars."
Imagine how excited I was to be given an unexpected glimpse into the personal eating habits of stars like Wallace Beery, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Johnny Weissmuller, Don Ameche, David Niven and Clark Gable.
The "Gone with the Wind" star had the simplest taste and recipe. Gable's favourite was a broiled steak that had been seared directly on a preheated broiling pan and then finished in the oven.
David Niven's palate was the most adventurous. He offered a curried veal recipe from his British Army days.
Eager to taste the food of the stars, I gathered the ingredients for Gary Cooper's pancakes, Spencer Tracy's stuffed fish, and nutty raisin pie by Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller. (I was thinking, swinging from vine to vine in those Tarzan movies must have really worked up an appetite.)
Each dish was easy to make and all tasted great.
Gary Cooper's recipe involved folding beaten egg whites into the batter. The result was beautifully light pancakes. Tracy's delicious stuffed fish tasted very retro and brought back memories. So did Weissmuller's raisin pie, although I don't remember the raisin pie of my youth containing walnuts. Well, the recipe said they were optional.
Having curiosity about, or a need to return to, simpler dishes from a less-complicated time seems to be in fashion these days. In a recent interview, California Culinary Academy graduate and restaurateur Beth Casey was quoted as saying, "Trends of the restaurant business are going back to the 'Donna Reed Show' (1958). Home-style cooking, everyone eating together, more personal, small restaurants."
I'm more of a "Father Knows Best" kind of guy myself, but I'm sure Donna Reed's meatloaf was as good as Jane Wyatt's ... Hey, Beaver! Pass the mashed potatoes.
Gary Cooper's Pancakes
3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup pancake flour (I used all-purpose flour)
3/4 cup table cream
1 tbsp. melted butter
1. Beat egg yolks until thick and lemon-coloured.
2. Add flour, stirring constantly. Then add cream and melted butter.
3. Beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry, and fold into flour mixture.
4. Cook on greased griddle (I used a fry pan) until bubbles appear. Turn and brown other side.
Spencer Tracy's Baked Stuffed Fish
1 whole fish, gutted (I used a 2-pound trout)
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/3 tsp. salt
1/6 tsp. teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup melted butter
1 beaten egg
1 tsp. minced onion
1 tsp. minced parsley
1 tbsp. chopped pickles (I used gherkins)
1. Mix above ingredients thoroughly.
2. Leave fish whole. Put stuffing in cleaned-out cavity and close with toothpicks. (I used string).
3. Bake fish uncovered at 400 F, allowing 15 minutes to each pound.
Johnny Weissmuller's Raisin Pie
For the filling, you need:
2 cups seeded raisins
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 cup chopped walnuts
1. Cook raisins in the boiling water 5 minutes.
2. Mix cornstarch and sugar; add raisin mixture and cook until thick. Remove from heat and add other ingredients.
The ingredients for the pastry are:
2 cups flour
2/3 cup shortening (I used very cold butter)
1 tsp. salt
4-5 tbsp. ice water (I used 8 or 9)
1. Sift flour and salt together.
2. Cut in shortening with two knives or pastry blender. (I used my food processor for the entire process.) Leave shortening in pieces about the size of small peas.
3. Water is to be added a tablespoon at a time, mixing and pressing ingredients together with fork until dough is moist enough to hold together; handle as little as possible. Roll on a floured board.
4. Fit half into pie pan. Put filling in pan. Use balance of pastry as top crust. Bake for 15 minutes at 450 F and then 15 minutes longer at 350 F. Total baking time: 30 minutes.