Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dinner Then and Now

I suppose because it's Ramadan, or perhaps that it's because I'm once again looking to reduce a little (or perhaps because Peenee has been so grocery-obsessed of late), but things food-related have been much on my mind this week.

And not just any food, mind you, but the food of my youth: the vanished foodways (as the magazine writers say) of a lost Middle America, one with roots in the Depression and even further back, one that was swept away by the final triumph of supermarkets and convenience shopping. it's the food that was part of a way of life that was far more seasonal, time-intensive, and (on the whole) just plain heavier than one can imagine from this remove; also one that made do and even thrived, in its way, on what would seem to us now (in this world when hot sauces alone can crowd most of a long aisle at the Harris Teeter) on a startling lack of choices.

When, for example, was the last time you had city chicken*? And yet once upon a time it was a weekly (at least) regular on the menu back home. And very tasty, too, accompanied always by someone saying, "well, you know, when I was a girl, chicken was more expensive than veal!" And everyone would be amused at the thought of those far-off days.  Served with some nice green beans (boiled for something like 45 minutes, and then tossed in bacon fat), scalloped potatoes, and with a tomato aspic salad - well, that was a lovely meal, especially when followed by one of mother's fancier desserts - Charlotte Russe, say, or Floating Island.

Of course, not every dinner was that elaborate - there might be ground-beef goulash, or its sour-cream variant, Stroganoff (which I still run up every now and then, and much appreciated it is, even now, although we tend more to quinoa than egg noodles, alas). Neither of those dishes, I quite realize, would make much sense to a Hungarian or other Slav, having much more to with recipes in McCall's than the cuisines of Central or Eastern Europe, but we enjoyed them a great deal. Meatloaf was a regular, and on the busiest nights (at our house, although never at the grandparents', where dinner was always a three-course affair at the very least) we might even have hotdogs (with potato buns, very Pennsylvania Dutch, and Grandmother's homemade relish).

Not just the food, but how we acquired it, was entirely different from today. For one thing, a great deal of it arrived to the house, as it were, on its own steam. Not just milk came via delivery from the eponymous man, but almost all the dairy (lashings of cream, pounds of butter), eggs, lard, and other necessities. In season, a man with an open truck would cruise slowly around the neighborhood with baskets of fresh fruit and produce on offer, great flats of berries or peaches or corn or apples as the summer weeks went by.  Of course, a great deal had to be shopped for as well, but it wasn't until well into the '70s that mother, the grandmothers, and the aunts relied mostly on one outing to the supermarket. No, until then shopping wasn't so much a weekly event as an ongoing, near-daily process.

Staples came from a tiny, crowded, fascinating shop at the edge of downtown run by Mr. and Mrs. Petrone and Mr. Petrone's old-maid sister Giovanna ("It's Italian for Joanne, dear," whispered Aunt Edna). They were very nearly as much a part of our lives, the Petrones, as the more-distant cousins, or certainly as the other regulars in my childhood life, Alice at Grandmother's house or the other long-toiling ladies who took such good care of all of us.   Both my brothers worked, in high school, delivering groceries for the Petrones (on a bicycle, back in the days before bulk-shopping and super-sized packaging).  On her wedding day, my sister stopped on the way from the church to her reception to make sure Giovanna (who was minding the store; her brother and sister-in-law were guests) could see the dress. The whole family held off on going to supermarkets until the Petrones passed the store on to a younger cousin, but until Giovanna finally retired they kept appearing in the old store fairly regularly and always felt, I think, vaguely as if they were cheating on it with the A&P.

Delicacies of various kinds were the province of a succession of what were invariably, at least by Grandmother Muscato, referred to as Little Men and Lovely Women. Grandmother's days were studded by quick stops here and there, as she made her rounds to the bridge club, beauty parlor, garden club, and other features of her week, in Grandfather's stately Oldsmobile, at unlikely storefronts and far-flung bungalows, to confer with "my Little Man on Plum Street who has those heavenly porkchops" or "a Lovely Woman I know near the Orthodox Church who makes perfect Borscht." Mother would roll her eyes at her mother-in-law's pursuit of the ideal piece of Parmesan from Little Italy or a really good sausage from Polish Town, but there was no question that one ate well and far more variously than one might imagine at the grandparents'.

Baked goods were the province of one or another overheated German-named bakeries, each with its own specialty.  I remember one such, known as moon cakes although with nothing at all to do with the Chinese confection; they were instead impossibly light little crescents, each iced with the most delicious orange glaze imaginable. One rang up several days in advance for a dozen or two, and their presence or absence was one of the bellwethers of just how much effort had gone into a given ladies' luncheon or dainty coffee afternoon. Most things were baked at home, though; for years, even after she'd gone back to work in the mid-sixties, Mother made her own bread and rolls, and I imagine that Grandmother, with Alice's steady help, turned out more in the way of cakes, pies, cookies, and other treats in a week than I have generally attempted, even in the pre-cardiac days, in several years.

These days, now that I think of it - and particularly in Ramadan - some things aren't really all that different, moon cakes aside, from those long-gone years. There may be no milkman, but to meet the many and various needs of the season still almost always requires a succession of shopping trips.  This Asian grocery store may have mangos, but that Afghan one has better lamb; and the usual suspects, the Giant or the Harris Teeter, are usually woefully short on edible flatbreads or acceptable baklava (which is usually the closest we can get to true heaven, what in Egypt are referred to as helawayat sharqqia, or Eastern sweets - of which the Greek/Lebanese variation is but the palest substitute).

And I was grateful for my food-upbringing back in the days when we lived in places a tad more exotic than Our Nation's Capital. It was rather fun, living in Cairo or one or another of the  African or Sandlandische capitals in which we dwelt, to have a reputation for knowing just where to go, of having at one's fingertips, so to speak, a Little Man in Zamalek who makes divine strawberry juice or a Lovely Woman near the Vatican Embassy who will reserve a dozen or so perfectly fresh eggs for one. I learned at the feet of masters, when it came to eating well, and their lessons stuck. I've known, if not quite at the same level of connection, more than one family of Petrones, although they might have been Al Humaidis or Gbehos (and I'm amazed how many little family grocery stores, around the world, have their Giovanna).  Always be as nice as possible to the Little Man or Lovely Woman, for they are doing a valuable service; even so, always look for the best and kindly decline anything less. And most of all, be discreet with whom you share your secrets; there is nothing more trying in the world than the disappointed look from a Little Man when he's been having to put up with that nightmare from the library committee to whom you gave in and gave his name. That's as true in Accra, I found, as it was back in Our Hometown, if not more so...

I wonder what Mr. Muscato would make of a nice plate of city chicken for a festive fast-breaking Iftar. And how do you suppose it would go with quinoa?

* As close as WASP cooking comes to kabobs: chunks of veal (or sometimes veal and pork) on wooden skewers, baked in a cream sauce and served with rice or potatoes.  None of the examples I've found online look much like Mother Muscato's, but this may give you some idea if this is a novel concept to you.


  1. Lovely reminiscences, as always, my dear - even if such things as "city chicken", "aspic salad" and "Harris Teeter" remain a complete mystery to moi. When we were growing up - in a relatively small Welsh village - local shops, the milkman and "Jones the Van" (the equivalent of your "man with an open truck" - he stocked veg, bread and fresh stuff) were our staples too. Although our Mother did occasionally like to make a "special trip" to town to Marks & Spencer food hall for treats. It was many years before "supermarket shopping" really took off. Jx

    1. Harris Teeter, for what it's worth, is vaguely Waitrose-like, while Giant is a step below Tesco. And, oh, how I miss M&S food halls! They were a joy of life in the Sandlands, even those out there are a shadow of the one's in Blighty...

    2. Interestingly, although I wondered whether it was related to the French "Géant" hypermarkets, it appears that "Giant" is in fact part of a Dutch conglomerate that includes the ubiquitous "Albert Heijn" supermarkets in Holland... Jx

  2. Im food orientated too......just lost 28 lbs!

  3. Thank you, I enjoyed this.

    And I started thinking. I shop as your Grandmother did but only for special feasts (alas, no Petrone family). For such festivals I will go to the butcher, the bakery, the patisserie, and special trips to the Farmers' Market to purchase from "my apple guy",or the "Italian" deli for the right porcini mushroom (alas, they have retired and closed the shop). Sometimes it is more than a commercial transaction. The Butcher who came up with the most extraordinary veal shanks one Thanksgiving when the family decided to have Osso Buco instead of turkey required a report back.

    However, as you note, one cannot live like that every day, so God in his infinite mercy, wisdom and kindness invented quinoa, black beans, and salsa.

  4. Lovely.
    I grew up in a very blue-collar Connecticut city, and there were a selection of Italian food shops back then. Specialists for pastries, meat and cheeses, bread, you name it. There's only one left, my late Mother's favourite, and I was there two years ago. It was like stepping back in time. Nothing had changed, including the shouting and drama. Heaven on earth.