Monday, August 2, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: 'Burgers. Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake and Why the Food Revolution Must Become Political

Google the phrase “old-fashioned German chocolate cake,” and you’ll find three pages of hits.  Admittedly, a few of these sites discuss recipes supposedly developed by German cooks in Germany—chocolate cake recipes passed down, so some of the sites maintain, in German families, which have nothing to do with the “old-fashioned” cake known as German chocolate in the U.S.

Google articles providing accurate history about the latter, and you’ll quickly discover (if the sites you’re visiting are accurate), that the recipe for what now call “old-fashioned” German chocolate cake was developed by a housewife in Dallas, Texas, in 1957, sent to a local newspaper, and then picked up and distributed by General Foods.  Which happened, at the time, to own the Baker’s German sweet chocolate brand.  Which was named for Englishman Samuel German, who invented it in 1852.

German sweet chocolate is, indeed, old-fashioned.  German chocolate cake is anything but old-fashioned.  It dates from the final decades of the 20th century in the U.S.

My sister-in-law and I happened to be musing about this history yesterday.  She first remembers seeing German chocolate cake at the eighth birthday party of her sister in 1964.  I seem to recall it showing up around 1960.  Prior to that time—for most of my childhood—it was simply not to be found.  Our cake recipes tended to the old reliables like pound cake or long-established layer cakes such as coconut cakes, white cakes with chocolate or lemon seven-minute frostings, pineapple upside-down cake cooked in a black iron skillet, rich black Christmas fruitcakes, or my favorite, a spice cake my mother made when I was little, with a sea-foam frosting.

I can distinctly remember, too, when hamburgers hit American tables.  They, too, were anything but a fixture of my childhood, though my sister-in-law recalls her family eating them fairly often for supper.  For my family, they were a special meal eaten under special circumstances.

They were a summer al fresco treat to be eaten when grilled outside at a cookout (which wasn’t a barbecue, as the grill on which the hamburgers were grilled was not a barbecue).  They were accompanied with huge platters of delicious sliced fresh tomatoes, onions, lettuce, pickles—with relishes and sliced vegetables that overshadowed the grilled meat and made it palatable in hot weather.  Often they came along with a big bucket of homemade peach ice cream, sweating in the bath of ice and salt in which it had been churned and set aside to ripen, as we said.

I do remember when McDonald’s first hit our area.  And I remember, again, our stopping very occasionally to eat a hamburger when the adults were out shopping and we were accompanying them.  As at cookouts, they were special-occasion treats when we ate them in these circumstances, something we didn’t expect or even crave, given the much tastier vegetable- and salad-rich meals waiting for us at home.  We were aware that there were hamburger restaurants in many urban areas, and our little town had two of the drive-in variety that used to be scattered through rural areas of our part of the country.  But we didn’t live in the urban areas in which there was a more well-established hamburger culture.  And we didn’t eat at those drive-ins near us, either.

For whatever reasons, my mother simply never cooked hamburgers for us as a meal.  Well, the reason is obvious to me now: they weren’t a meal, in her mind.  Meals were pot roast with carrots, potatoes, onion, and celery on Sunday, or fried chicken (our other Sunday staple) with mashed potatoes, several vegetables, and biscuits and honey—both prepared before church, since they could sit on the stove and wait until we had returned home for dinner.

Or they were pots of pinto beans lovingly cooked with a chunk of ham or salt pork, served with crusty cornbread, stewed cabbage, smothered summer squash, fried okra, corn on the cob, platters of sliced tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumber, and cantaloupe.  Ground beef just wasn’t really on the horizon for us as I grew up, and when my mother did begin collecting and trying recipes for it in the 1960s, it seemed alien, something outside the parameters of our traditional family meals.

Most of those recipes came from members of her bridge club, and some were hideous.  I remember casseroles of noodles and what-not glued together with salty cream of this or that soup, laced with fried ground beef.  And then there were the good recipes—a recipe for delicious stuffed grape leaves from an Armenian friend in the bridge club, one for stuffed cabbage cooked in a piquant tomato sauce with a few raisins in it from a Jewish friend, several for rich-flavored spaghetti sauce that was long on vegetables and short on meat. 

(As I think about it, it’s interesting that one of my mother’s bridge buddies and a favorite source of recipes, a Cajun woman who grew up in south Louisiana, never cooked anything based on ground beef.  And why would she, when she had wonderful gumbos, jambalaya, couscous, maque choux, fish court bouillon, chaurice, boudin, tasso, and so forth to pull from her traditional culinary store?)

The point I’m winding around to here, if it’s not perfectly obvious already, is that what we’ve fast come to think of as “traditional” American fare—hamburgers and ground beef above all—is, for some of us, a very recent development.  Not traditional at all.  And a highly ambiguous development. 

I don’t crave hamburgers because I didn’t grow up with them.  I’m dubious about the quality of most ground beef I see offered for sale in the stores.  I suspect my mother was, as well.  What I crave, when I think about that last supper before the executioner comes, are fresh, home-grown, ripe tomatoes, Kentucky wonder pole beans cooked down to the very essence of pole beans with new potatoes, fried corn and fried okra, vegetable soup, potato-leek soup, soup, beautiful soup, soup of the evening.

And my paternal grandmother’s fried pies, bursting with fresh peaches or chocolate.  Or her turnip greens with little cornmeal dumplings added to the slightly bitter, utterly flavorful pot liquor just before the greens came off the heat.  Or Cousin Lois’s deep dish green-apple pie in early June, swimming in butter redolent with cinnamon, just sweet enough to counter the tartness of the small green apples from which it was made, and to point up their flavor.  And Kat’s lemon meringue pie with its high crown of beaten egg whites and biting lemon interior.

Or give me fresh, homemade pimiento cheese made with homemade mayonnaise and a pinch of cayenne, a baguette to accompany it, and I will follow you from my cell to the gallows with only half a regret for the ending of my days.

It bothers me that so many younger Americans today crave hamburgers as comfort food, as the “old-fashioned” food of their grandparents’ tables.  Or that they imagine German chocolate cake is a venerable hand-me-down tradition. 

It bothers me that our minds have been so messed with by purveyors and producers of food whose primary interest is not in seeing us well and properly fed, but in seeing us gorged (for their profit) with their unhealthy products, which have little connection to food in any shape, form, or fashion known to human history prior to the late 20th century.

And so I was delighted to read Michael Pollan’s article at Alternet last week, noting that the food revolution has now become a political issue.  That we who care about the state of our culture’s foodways can come out of the closet and own in public and collectively our real intent in focusing so intensely on real food and its necessity: an intent that is not about eating high on the hog and snubbing those who don’t know (or can’t do) better.  But an intent to see that everyone on the planet has access to healthy, substantial, clean food, on an ongoing basis. As a human right . . . .

And an intent to challenge the corporations and governments colluding with them, which don’t intend to help provide people with real food, but which want to continue nudging us, everywhere in the world, in the direction of ‘burgers and chemical-laden mixes of God knows what.  And then slapping us in the face by telling us that we’re eating the old-fashioned foods enjoyed by grandparents who would have known better than to put these messes into their mouths.

Addendum, later in the day: it suddenly hits me that I have one other familial measure for when hamburgers, as a commercial foodstuff, began to become significant in the American diet.  My grandfather died in 1930.  As my grandmother struggled through the Depression to make ends meet for their six children and her step-son, she added, in the small crossroads grocery store that was their livelihood, a counter to sell hamburgers.  This was, I know from family stories, around 1940, the same year in which I believe McDonald's started as an official business in California.  From that time until she sold the store in 1947, she sold hamburgers for five cents each at her little counter—mostly to working men and school children after school hours.

It's interesting that neither my grandmother nor her daughters ever served hamburgers as a meal after this enterprise ended.  What's clear to me as I think about that fact is that obviously considered hamburgers as a convenience food, something to be grabbed by working folks looking for a quick snack.  My mother did in her later life cook hamburgers as meals for her grandchildren.  But they had grown up thinking of a hamburger and french fries as a meal . . . .