Among the many notable contributions of immigrant communities is how often they preserve foods and food customs that have fallen out of fashion in the native country, including those that may have disappeared altogether from the homeland’s culinary landscape. I suspect that if a modern Pole, or Hungarian, or Lithuanian were to sample the ethnic dishes being served in the church basements, legion halls, and picnic groves of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Region, they might find the fare quaint, perhaps alien.
Certainly, the butter-rich, starch-heavy dishes my Polish-American grandparents cooked regularly are not something I would feel confident eating everyday. This is not to mention how much time it takes to prepare a great batch of homemade pierogi (filled dumplings), a pan of galumpki (stuffed cabbage), or a kolachi (Polish kołacz, a light, flaky pastry dough spread with fruit, nut, or poppy seed paste and rolled…yum!).
Haluski is one dish that can be cooked on a weeknight and made surprisingly healthy. In its traditional preparation, the dish gets most of its flavor and mouthfeel from ample amounts of butter. In my version, flavor and texture are achieved by carmelizing the cabbage and onions and deglazing the pan with stock toward the end of cooking.
(makes approximately 4 servings as main course)
1 small head of savoy cabbage, cored and sliced
1 small to medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp unsalted butter (reserve 1 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup of chicken stock (Vegetable stock works if you wish to make the dish vegetarian, though I find chicken stock gives a noticeably richer flavor.)
7-8 oz (approximately one half box) of dried bow tie pasta (I have used Barilla Plus with good results. For what it’s worth, this brand adds some protein to the dish.)
1/2 tsp of paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large cast iron skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 Tbsp of butter and 2 Tbsp of olive oil. (For best results, do not use a non-stick pan.)
2. Add cabbage and onions. Toss to coat.
3. When cabbage begins to soften and bottom layer begins to brown, add salt, pepper, and paprika. (I use approximately 1/2 tsp of each at this point.)
4. Continue tossing ingredients in pan, allowing time in between tossing for cabbage and onions on the bottom of the pan to brown.
5. Boil pasta according to package directions.
6. Add chicken stock to cabbage mixture and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any carmelized bits. (The mixture should not be soupy, so you may need to reduce the liquid somewhat.)
7. Using a slotted strainer or pasta ladle, scoop pasta from boiling water directly into frying pan. (Allowing a small amount of the pasta water to drip into the cabbage mixture is a good idea).
8. Toss to coat while adding reserved Tbsp of butter and more salt and pepper to taste. (Adding this last Tbsp of butter is optional. I sometimes find I’ve achieved enough flavor to forego it.)
This year, I kept my vintage 50s and 60s glass baubles in their boxes, and created the woodland-themed Christmas tree that has occupied my imagination for some time now. (I grew up in the woods. Woodland themes are imprinted on my brain.) The beauty of this tree is that many of the decorative elements were found in my backyard, including purple Beautyberry branches and an abandoned bird’s nest. I discovered a few more pieces around the house, for example, dried pink larkspur and blue globe thistle left over from my 2010 wedding and bundles of twigs that served as decorations at a birthday party. Finally, I picked up dried mushroom ornaments at my local florist shop and ornamental birds, spanish moss, and winter berries (didn’t want to hack at the bush in the backyard) at the big box craft store, spending less than $40 total.
For this project, the less full and more spindly the tree, the better, since the decorations can get lost amidst the greenery of a full tree. These trees are often the ones that nobody else wants, so make an offer. My husband got this one for only $15.
Sadly, these photos do not do justice to how beautiful this tree actually looks in our living room, morning and night, or how much interest it has both up close and from afar.
I happened to marry a man who has opinions about decor—opinions that occasionally conflict with my own. So when we both agreed that an elegant Redouté botanical print that belonged to his mother would look good on our living room wall, up it went. But I was a little uneasy. A mass-produced print, matted and behind glass, can sap a space of intimacy. (I think of chain hotel art.) Also, these nineteenth c. botanic illustrations were intended to be anatomically literal. I wanted to pair it with something frameless, conceptual, and with some texture. So I created the custom arrangement on left using gold acrylic paint and a laser cut stencil, both purchased at my big box craft store for less than $20. I began by taping three pre-fab 8×10″ art canvases together vertically along their backs. I then mixed the blue color for the background (using the acrylics I always have on hand) and quickly applied it with a mini-roller. Once dry, I taped my stencil down and used a sponge brush to dab on the Liquitex acrylic paint in Light Gold. I applied two coats of the gold, allowing the paint to well up at the edges of the stencil pattern. This created a raised-edge, embossed texture.
On the wall, I hung the arrangement so its center aligned with the center of the botanical print. When I hung the print, I used the old eye-level rule that states that the center of any art work or installation should hang at approximately 57″ from the floor. To achieve this, measure 57″ from your floor and mark your wall with a pencil. Then measure the height of the work you are hanging and divide by two. Use that number to measure up from your pencil mark and determine where the top of the work should be positioned.
I chose the blue seafoam background color of the arrangement to complement the sofa and the damask pattern to correspond to the throw pillows. Any color scheme or oversized pattern can work for this project. Also, while I happened to find a damask stencil that I liked, any pattern can be made into a stencil using an inexpensive stencil making kit available at your arts and crafts store.
As for the Mister’s assessment, he let me know that he really likes how the gold paint draws together the other gold accents in the room. Success!
It’s been too long since I’ve posted something new here. Among a swirl of other tasks, I’ve been trying to finish up this large-scale decorative painting, Ghosts of Autumn, before another autumn is past. This is acrylic on plywood measuring about 4’x2′. I intend it for a large (currently) blank wall in our living room.
White birches are ubiquitous in the Anthracite Coal Regions, most especially on the huge culm banks (i.e., minor mountains of coal dust and slag left over from pit mining). There was a grove of white birches in the woods behind my childhood home that always felt hallowed, as if the trees were themselves ghosts of bygone generations. I went there on many gray fall evenings for comfort and connection.
I’m considering adding gold leaf to the background in the manner of Eastern Orthodox iconography. I will post the finished work, but my muse is presently so weak and frail from lack of nurturing, she stammers and falters.
Chef Hector Ruiz’s Sofrito Gastro Pub is an island breeze blowing fresh air into the Greater Reading restaurant scene. While so many Berks County establishments are peddling mediocre fare at top dollar prices, Sofrito is serving up pan-Latino perfection for around $10-12 an entree.
My husband and I first visited last Friday night. We paused to find the place empty inside, but that was only because everyone was out back at the cabana bar. We joined them and took a lime green formica two-top under a lamp. The enclosed patio makes you forget you’re in a residential neighborhood of Reading and feel as though you’re on vacation in the tropics (the unseasonably warm weather helped).
Our server, Christina, was also the bartender. Even while busy, she was pleasant, accommodating, and patiently able to answer all of our menu questions. We started with the Aguacate Frito (a half avocado tempura-style). This dish had my husband and I fork-fencing for the last bits of battered avocado, crabmeat, and pico de gallo on the plate.
We also tried a steaming bowl of the black bean soup. Rather than the insipid mud that passes for black bean soup elsewhere, this had whole beans and tender chunks of celery. It was as if someone’s abuelita was in the back cooking it up.
Not only are the entrees at Sofrito astonishingly affordable, they include a salad. My husband munched down the Urban Salad with its rosemary and brown sugar vinaigrette, while I went for the Chipotle Caesar. We both felt our salads had a little too much of the spine of the Romaine lettuce, but the entree course more than compensated for any diminished expectations.
My husband’s crab cakes were all sweet meat with little trace of filler. He wanted to try the muranos (sweetened plantains) for his side dish, but they were eighty-sixed, so he opted for the fluffy yellow rice. I went for the mussels. Completely fresh without a bad one in the batch, they were swimming in buttery, garlicky, green sofrito goodness. I lapped this up with my coconut bread, which was the pièce de résistance of the entire meal. Can I order this stuff by the pound, please?
Sadly, Christina told us they don’t have any desserts (not sure if only for that night or for all times). She did mention that she takes the coconut bread home and eats it with vanilla bean ice cream. Oh, sweet temptation! Like a siren’s call, that coconut bread is beckoning us back!
Last night, the husband and I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild held over at the local art house cinema here in Reading. It is a tale—often frenzied in its pace—of a six-year-old girl called “Hushpuppy,” her alcoholic father “Wink,” and their Southern Louisiana bayou community named “the Bathtub” for its tendency to fill up with water during storms. The film has been praised by critics. As someone who hails from a distressed and endangered region like the one being depicted, I appreciated this film immensely. However, it fell short of my expectations of great art by merely communicating and reinforcing inherited cultural values and assumptions rather than stretching or pushing beyond them.
Beasts taps into our current cultural affection for place and fascination with fading American subcultures. In the post-Katrina era, this fascination has occasionally fixed upon the Louisiana Delta. While the popular HBO series Treme makes New Orleans appear so exotic as to be in a different country, the bayou in Beasts looks like it could be on a different planet. Or rather, its bleak, water-logged landscape—which Wink tells his daughter is “the prettiest on earth”—appears to hang on the edge of this world. To the north lies the levee that keeps the rest of the delta dry while turning the Bathtub into a sodden backwater. To the south, there is only the melting Antarcrtic ice sheaths and prehistoric aurochs of Hushpuppy’s fertile imagination.
Here at the bounds of civilization, the residents of the Bathtub live a primal, post-apocalyptic existence amid revolting squalor. Their grimy bodies look as though they’ve not seen an actual bathtub in ages. When the rains arrive, you’re certain they’d be safer (and cleaner) outdoors rather than in their ramshackle hovels piled to the ceiling with assorted refuse. One can just imagine them collecting this junk as it washes upon their shores from the lands beyond the levee. In spite of the filth of poverty—or perhaps because of it—residents fete regularly, often drinking themselves into a Dionysian ecstasy. Tearing and sucking the flesh of their abundant Gulf catches during alcohol-fueled, zydeco-charged crawfish boils, they conjure to mind the Maenads of myth.
Beasts’ creators self-consciously portray the Bathtubbers as noble savages who would be living in total harmony with nature if not for the levee. The levee and the constant allusions to the melting polar caps suggest that the filmmakers wish to make a statement about the cost of development and climate change to people living in low-lying coastal areas. The Bathtub dwellers are neither innocent nor ignorant of the price. For them, it is as Wendell Berry recently surmised,”there is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people.” When FEMA-like agents arrive to evacuate the island, the residents must be dragged kicking and screaming from their homes into a shelter. If their land disappears, so do they.
The official name of The Bathtub is Isle de Jean Charles, and that is also the real life island that inspired the fiction. I’ve learned that the twenty-five families who live on the gradually subsiding island in Terrebone Bay are largely American Indian. Perhaps that is why the filmmakers chose to ascribe a universalist spirituality to the Bathtub’s inhabitants rather than the Catholic or Baptist Christianity that dominates Southern Louisiana. However, the ethos of the fictional inhabitants—a non-theistic revisionist paganism—more reflects the metaphysical beliefs of certain strata of white America that it does any actual tribal beliefs. When Hushpuppy fears, in her prescient voice overs, that the storm and her father’s mysterious illness might be the result of something she did to cause “the universe” to be “out of balance,” you wonder if she hasn’t been spending time at Carl Sagan’s summer camp for kids.
While many critics have lauded the film as having an optimistic view of the human condition, the humans on both sides of the levee appear fatalistically slavish to a nature that is “red in tooth and claw.” Rather than shake their fists in rebellion at the chthonic gods, Bathtubbers capitulate to the dark earth deities. In what appears to be a school lesson, the local medicine woman/teacher tells the children, “all animals are made of meat, and that includes y’all asses too.” That meat—stinking, decaying, disembowled—is often the focus of camera close-ups.
Life is brutal, ugly, and short, and Hushpuppy is taught that survival is its ultimate goal. Despite a soaring musical score, a glorious fireworks scene, touching moments between Hushpuppy and her father, and a visit to a brothel named “Elysian Fields” where Hushpuppy encounters a surrogate for her (likely) deceased mother, this bleakness lurks. Even Hushpuppy’s final voice over following Wink’s death—wherein she affirms that “scientists of the future” will one day know “there was a girl named Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”—fails to vanquish the specter of nihilism.
And art, as Nietzsche avowed, is the “only superior counterforce” to nihilism.
According to my husband’s imprecise undergraduate German, the above means something like “Praise God for good eats!”
Good, inexpensive eats are what we enjoyed a few nights ago at Alexander’s German Restaurant here in Berks County.
While Berks is a renowned hub of Pennsylvania Deitsch culture and cuisine, deitsch and deutsch are not the same thing.
You’ll have to look elsewhere than Alexander’s for the chicken & waffles, hot bacon dressing, and shoefly pie of the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” (I recommend the inimitable Deitsch Eck restaurant in Lenhartsville, PA.)
Alexander’s serves up authentic Bavarian fare (the chef, Hansel, is a native). Instead of the smoked sausage favored by the region’s deitsch-speaking denizens, Alexander’s offers an array of wurst spread out on a bed of kraut made smooth by the addition of Riesling. Instead of yeasty white dinner rolls, there’s crusty brown bread and warm bretzel served with sweet mustard and butter. Instead of sarsaparilla and birch beer soda, Alexander’s features an unusually good selection of German, Czech, Danish and Belgian beers, with several on tap.
At the suggestion of our dirndl-clad waitress, I went for a pint of the Warsteiner Dunkel. This mellow brew was semisweet like an ale, malty like a porter, and light and crisp like a lager in spite of its dark amber color. For all of $3, it had everything I crave in a beer and none of what I don’t (that is, it is not bitter).
After a few sips on an empty stomach, I could hardly control my Cheshire grin when the waitress announced the special for that evening: the wurst sampler.
I once heard that it was Einstein’s love of wurst that kept him failing in his humanistic attempts to live as a vegetarian. I am also much too attached to the cuisine of my German-Slavic heritage to give up meat entirely. I did feel ill, however, to learn the next day that the weissewurst I munched on was a veal sausage. I don’t care how tender the meat, I draw the line at eating baby flesh. These links were tender though—and oh so juicy.
Which brings me to my next observation: there are no vegetarian selections on Alexander’s menu. I always view this as a missed opportunity. The husband’s not a meat lover, so he enjoyed an enormous, buttery stuffed flounder. A true vegetarian, however, would be forced to piece together a meal of side dishes.
Alexander’s offers traditional German sides: rot kohl, spaetzle, sour cream dill cucumbers, potatoes dressed with white vinegar (the latter was served refrigerator cold, which made the vinegar too biting). The creamy roasted dill dressing on top of my green salad (garden fresh and substantially-sized at $2.50) was homemade and craveworthy, as was my husband’s sweet poppy seed dressing.
Part of Alexander’s charm is getting to and from this old country hotel via a relaxing drive through rolling farmland. Inside, the decor is an eclectic mash-up of restaurant surplus and flea market finds—of overstock and antique. Depending on your expectations, this can make for comforting warmth or a feeling of decrepitude. For me it is more of the former, though I’d love to dig in with my DIY decor tools and polish this diamond in the rough.
Today is a milestone birthday for me. I say “milestone” because it is one of those that ushers me into a whole new age demographic. (Never you mind which one.)
At this age, there’s no use in denying—not to myself nor anyone else—that I am an adult. It is high time to face some fears. First on my list, starting my blog.
It’s not going to be pretty at first. I’m still mastering WordPress. But I’ve always been a quick study, and before too long, I’m sure I’ll have something here that someone, somewhere, may actually wish to read.