The foods I learned to cook came in this order:
1) Chocolate whacky cake (a cake made with no milk or eggs)
2) Macaroni and cheese (a version made with uncooked noodles and Farmer’s cheese)
3) Salmon cakes (because you needed something to eat with the mac and cheese, duh)
4) Deviled eggs (because Samantha Parkington ate them)
5) Chocolate peanut buddy bars
6) Zucchini cake
#4, Deviled Eggs, were my favorite on this list. My mom tells me that I used to jump at the chance of making them for every family reunion and church potluck. I kind of remember this, although I remember more loving the pleasurable delicate feel of hard-boiled whites beneath my fingers, and the disappointment I felt for not owning one of those Tupperware deviled egg carrying trays to display the finished eggs in. You know, the tray with little egg-sized gorges molded into the plastic so the eggs wouldn’t roll around and smash up your handwork. Those things were rad.
This Labor Day, I made deviled eggs for the first time since leaving for college–where I had had no devils or eggs or community picnics of which to speak. In the kitchen of some friends, I took out a Tupperware of eggs that I’d hard-boiled and expertly shelled, and I halved them with a steak knife with childlike solemnity. My fingers carefully separated the yokes from the delicate whites in the way I used to love, and my thumbs mashed and mixed and spooned the filling back in. I piled the finished eggs on a plate and presented them to the group with supreme six-year-old pride.
No one ate any for two hours.
I asked myself: Had I committed a culinary faux pas? Was I the only one who still liked these things? Maybe deviled eggs were actually an antiquated dish, as unappetizing to most modern 20-somethings as a mold filled with lime Jell-O and fruit cocktail. I fretted and dumped a can of chopped green olives over the top, which only made the eggs look stuck with green alien eyes. I pushed the eggs into plain view next to my friend’s taco dip, and I pouted when my boyfriend Jon asked me to please put the eggs back in the fridge; no one was ready for them.
“Deviled eggs are an old, old dish,” said my Grandma Grove. I had approached her to ask if she had made deviled eggs when she was younger in an attempt to determine how old the idea really was (she had owned a Tupperware deviled egg carrier and therefore I trusted her opinion). She responded in the same way my memory served me: “Yes, yes, we always made deviled eggs for potlucks and church picnics.”
According to some sources, the practice of boiling eggs and removing their yolks was introduced by the Romans, and deviled eggs appeared pretty regularly in cookbooks by the 17th century. Multiple other cultures have their own version, like the Germans, who are said to make their deviled eggs with anchovies or capers, or the French, who choose pepper and parsley. As for me, when I was younger, the filling didn’t matter; the presence of any kind of deviled egg at a picnic was simply, in my mind, indispensable, and, though I didn’t realize it, helping to define a social expectation.
Looking further, these eggs that regularly appeared at public suppers also help to characterize the women who continued, decade after decade, to make them. Deviled eggs are an attempt at elegance using a common household item. At one time, could a woman have been judged by her ability to make a good set of deviled eggs–her ability to spin something graceful out of the mundane–as a sign of her readiness to run a household, in the same way that my Grandma Grove once told me, beaming, that once I could roll a pie crust, I’d be ready for a man?
The history of food draws varying portraits of women’s roles as providers, entertainers, caregivers, and trophies, depending on the geography and generation. My list of foods above, for example, betrays Mennonite cookbooks and one-pot wonders, garden vegetables and stale powdery spices, Saltine crackers and canned fish, as well as the women who cooked this food: probably mothers with several children working off tight budgets with little room for creativity, women made sturdy through their resourcefulness.
In the introductory to the anniversary edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2001), Julia Child’s depiction of the cooking atmosphere of the 1960’s helps define the women in a different way:
“I remember aspics. Jellied madrilene was a favorite fancy soup of the period, a beef consommé flavored with fresh tomato and topped with a splash of whipped cream–that was before sour cream came upon us. Melba toast was a standard accompaniment to the soup at ladies’ luncheons–and there were many of them then because running a household rather than having a career gave many women the leisure time. These carefully orchestrated meals often featured a large molded ring of tomato aspic, its center filled with chicken, crab, or lobster salad” (vii).
Her words — “careful,” “leisure,” and “luncheon” — outline a different shape of feminism, one in which women who have too much time on their hands and little other options, attempting perfection and self-definition through the cuisine they could replicate.
In recent years, deviled eggs have seen a resurgence onto upscale menus like the Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, and today, the requirement of a woman to be a proficient cook is less obvious due to practical reasons. Most Americans spend around 5.7% of their budget on the cost of food as apposed to 15% in the 1970s and upwards to 40% in some developing countries, meaning that I don’t have to spend days after school making pickles or freezing sweet corn to account for the financial difference.
I still hear rumors about “Doadi Rockwell’s pizza” and “Melinda Hoey’s cheesecake” and “Anna Grove’s cherry pie,” but they seem to mark a different trend, or at least, I hope they do: one of pride that shows that food does really mark a legacy, and the people who make them, female or not, can be defined, like an artist, by their creation.
At the end of the Labor Day picnic, my deviled eggs were eaten–all of them. I was pleased, because in the end, that is the purpose of food anyway: nourishment, giving, sharing, and, occasionally, an excuse to break free. Yet as I ate my own deviled eggs, I was wondering if any woman in my past had refused to cook for a social gathering, just for spite, and I wondered about what kind of women she would have been.
Let’s assume that you don’t speak German, or at the very least, speak it fluently. Then you would be as surprised as I was last week whenever I saw two brightly-colored tubes on my kitchen table and was told that they were not filled with toothpaste. The mind spins:
“Süßer senf”: a phrase intended to help clear the nose of blockage during a cold? “Mittelscharfer senf”: a relation to John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?
No matter — a Google translator tells me one of these is a Bavarian sweet mustard; the other “medium-hot mustard.”
A few months ago, I bought a tall can of organic dried peppermint from the Broad Street Market and tucked it into my cabinet next to the espresso machine. I think I bought the peppermint tea purely out of nostalgia. I hadn’t drunk mint tea in years. I, in posh old age, had graduated to chicer beverages like green tea or French pressed coffee, or–my usual at The Scholar in Harrisburg (the only place where I have a “usual” of anything)–an americano. In 2005, I had learned to drink coffee on my aunt Colleen’s back patio in Holland while eating some gourmet European chocolate dessert and watching the sun set, and afterwards, I used to boast that learning to drink espresso was somehow intimately connected to growing up, alongside other admirably adult tasks like learning to eat with chopsticks or driving aggressively in heavy traffic.
But mint tea was actually my first hot beverage. About every other morning when my farming father got up early to milk cows at 3am, my mom would treat our entire family to a big breakfast–“dippy” eggs, toast, and homemade strawberry jam. She had one flowered teapot that she’d fill with dried mint leaves picked from bank at the end of our lawn, and she’d fill a teacup and place the sugar bowl next to my plate. Cradling the cup of weak-colored liquid in my palms, I’d sit with my siblings on the kitchen heat register that pumped the room full with boiling warmth. I’d wonder what could ever be better in the world: I had a family around a kitchen table lit with yellow light, the sweetness of pink-red jam, and the way the butter-soaked toast buckled beneath the weight of egg and yolk.
In the summer, my mother would pluck fresh tea leaves from the bank and boil them in an open kettle on the stove, eventually filling a pitcher with the sugared liquid and ice cubes as a breeze fringed with the smell of cut alfalfa blew in and out of the kitchen screen door. In July, when my grandmother picked sweet corn to sell by the dozen under the shade trees in front of my cousins’ farmhouse, my brothers, sister, cousins, and I capitalized on the increased in traffic and sold the same cold mint tea in plastic cups for 25 cents each. One year later, when we set up the business again, we adjusted the price to 30 cents for inflation.
My older brother Chris once gathered armfuls of mint leaves and spread them on newspaper in our garage like my mother would lay out peaches to ripen, and when the tea dried, he packed the leaves carefully into plastic freezer quarts and stashed them somewhere for my mother to use. For the rest of my junior high and high school days, dried mint tea seemed never-ending, like the Biblical story of the woman with the bottomless jar of oil which provided everything for her until she had no more pots left to fill.
But my parents eventually graduated to Eight O’Clock Coffee and I to chai lattes and Maxwell House International Cafe Decaffeinated Sugar-Free Swiss Mocha, piling the red-lidded tins around my dorm room to display my intellect and my taste in fine things. Tea bags marked my growing up which then were replaced by fair trade coffee in wide-mouthed mugs at the Kind Cafe in Selinsgrove, Italian hot chocolate drunk with Ellen Witoff while overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, then Vietnamese coffee at Garden Vietnamese in Harrisburg, as if beverages could map the footsteps of a departure.
In 2007, after accepting an English assistantship position in Talange, France, I bought espresso at 5:30am during my layover at the airport in Milan, Italy, due to a promise I’d made my boyfriend, and I sipped it standing up while surrounded by dark-haired businessmen. From there, I flew to Luxembourg where I took a train north to sleep off my jetlag at my same aunt’s familiar home in Holland. When I woke up–proud and adult for having traveled from Philadelphia to Milan to Luxembourg to Brussels to Rosendaal, the Netherlands, in a single day of French, Dutch, and Italian–Colleen and I drank Dutch koffee from black and white patterned mugs while sitting again on her back patio. Afterwards, she walked me around her backyard and garden to show me the new landscaping that I hadn’t seen in two years, and Pennsylvania peppermint was there.
I don’t really remember the details–how the plants had been brought through customs, or whether or not they’d been a gift from my grandmother–but I remember that they had been from the farm in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Harrisburg in 2009, the first gift I asked my younger brother to bring was a plant of peppermint from the bank from my family’s backyard. He brought it to me in a grocery bag with the dirt stripped from brittle roots. I placed it carefully in a pot in the sunroom next to the Thai basil, like a ceremony. I just watered it a moment ago.
These days, I drink peppermint tea only at nights, especially cold ones, cupping my hands around the little black and white mugs that Colleen bought me in Holland to match hers. I drink mint tea only with honey. As I sip, I remember making tea in the evenings in Talange with my German roommate Tobias as the French winter wind blew desolate around our apartment. I remember the raw honey given to me that same year by a French teacher named Catherine, who had a family member had a beehive, and how certain she had been to make sure the glass jar was always refilled when I wanted more. I remember the Moroccan tea ceremony that was performed for me on the day before I left France in 2008, with its imported mint leaves and frosted tea glasses and ritual pouring. I think about drinking tea with Rachel Fetrow after she returned from Senegal during our junior year in college, or the tea shared with Alli Engle on the frosted winter morning when I arrived in Chile this past June.
I think about the voyages away and home again.
So, I know I grew up eating liver ‘n onions, Central-PA proud, but I’ve still never seen crabs served on a cafeteria tray before Dave & Jane’s Crabhouse in Fairfield, PA. For $36.95 a person, enjoy all-you-can-eat crabs, Alaskan crab clusters, and steamed shrimp along with salad, soup, hush puppies, and broasted chicken if you think you have room, which I did not.
If the sound of your mallet-whacking, crab-cracking, seafood-slurping neighbors aren’t enough to break the atmosphere, you also won’t be bothered by this restaurant’s fluorescent lights, Styrofoam tableware, and tables covered with brown paper that can be easily removed, along with your mess, once you leave. As you wander out, delusionally full with seafood, you will undoubtedly be surprised to see green rolling hills around the parking lot and not crashing waves about some dark ship’s hull.
In July, about 60 students at the Hansel and Gretel Early Development Center in Susquehanna Township were offered a challenge that sounded like a training schedule: read a collective 50,000 minutes in six weeks and win.
The students, ages 4-12, weren’t daunted. They faced the summer reading project head on and overwhelmed the goal, reading 56,169 minutes — in 900 collective hours, a total that was revealed the week of Aug. 19.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that they could do it,” said Katie Weaver of West Hanover Twp., who helped organize the program with her mother, Cathy Hutchins, and her stepfather, Hutch.
The project was a joint effort among parents, teachers and students, designed to …
A version of this article first appeared in The Patriot-News on Friday, September 9. Click here to read more.
It’s mid-afternoon on a Friday, and a group is gathered at a pavilion at the Memorial Park, Lemoyne. One young man flips burgers by a grill. A woman arrives with her husband, carrying a bowl of macaroni salad. A third man begins reading the clues of a crossword puzzle out loud, and the members of the pavilion chime in with potential answers. This is not a family gathering, however—at least, not really.
This is the Central Pennsylvania Literacy Council’s Annual Corn Fest, held this year on August 12.
“We’re like a family,” says board president, MaryAnna Borke of Rutherford.
The literacy council, a collaborative partner of the Tri-County OIC Adult Learning Center based in Harrisburg, is an organization that provides individualized instruction in reading and math for adult learners. Presently, the CPLC hosts 34 volunteers and tutors and 28 learners who study at the council between 1-8 hours a week. About half of the adult learners hail from countries outside the U.S. The remaining half are learners who may have simply struggled in school as teenagers and are now redefining their education. But all of them are bound together by the rule that defines the Lemoyne-based center—say hello to everyone, no exceptions, each time you enter—as well as the desire to better their lives.
The Corn Fest, a summer picnic featuring corn-on-the-cob, is one of two annual CPLC gatherings for volunteers, learners, and families. The Council was founded in the 1970s as a response to census data, which had been released by county for the first time. With these numbers, “we saw there was a huge number of people within our area who didn’t know how to read,” explains Carole Sawchuck, director. “We realized it was just normal people who needed reading skills. It was the neighbor down the street.”
Running on the slogan, “individualized instruction for all,” the CPLC advertises itself as being open 24/7 and designed for learners whose needs can’t be met in a traditional classroom. “People who work odd hours aren’t able to show up for a class three days a week,” says Borke. The CPLC maintains an “open entrance, open exit” policy, meaning the learner’s experience will last as long as he or she is available. Each learner also receives a battery of placement exams and is paired directly with a personal tutor.
In addition to providing tutoring in reading and math, the CPLC also offers help in other disciplines, such as word attack skills, phonetics, writing, keyboarding, computer usage, preparation for citizenship exams, practice in written driver’s license exams, and prep for the GED.
Occasionally, a learner just needs help negotiating a job application, a medical bill, or a car insurance claim.
Sawchuck explains that as little as 12% of people who are eligible for state services receive them, a fact which depends partially on an individual’s lack of reading skills. “If you can’t read, you can’t understand your society: the rules that govern you, and the rules that don’t,” she says. “People can tell you anything, but you have to read in order to confirm. That’s what we’re here for.”
Working with the CPLC also can increase a learner’s verbal communication skills, as was the case for Patrick Scott of Susquehanna township. Scott remembers the first time he answered the phone at the CPLC—an act most volunteers are required to do to build telephone skills—as a milestone. “I was nervous and I stumbled over my words,” Scott says. “The person on the other end asked, ‘Is this your first time?’ and then told me it was okay.” Scott has since volunteered with the CPLC for almost 14 years.
Ralph Owens of Penbrook explains that the CPLC, combined with his faith, has given him a new outlook on his life. “My whole character changed. I got a lot of encouragement, got to be around a lot of different people, and now, I’m no longer afraid,” Owens says. At age 56, Owens has been working with the CPLC for five years and is now a member of the board of directors. He is working toward his GED and hopes to work with the elderly and the mentally disabled.
Operating at an annual budget of $12,000 is a challenge, admits Sawchuck, as is the constant need for volunteers. The CPLC is currently seeking tutors with specialized skills in reading, math, and phonetic awareness, and who have a solid grasp of the English language, good communication skills, and the willingness to be patient.
“Often the learners come without dreams, and they don’t see themselves as moving ahead,” says Borke. “But we want to help learners realize their own potential.”
CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA LITERACY COUNCIL
225 Bosler Avenue (rear)
A version of this article first appeared in The Patriot-News on Friday, September 9, 2011.
Over 30 million Americans have reading skills beneath basic literary level, according to an about.com article regarding literacy. Looking at the figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics, that included 13% of adults aged 16 and over in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in 2003.
The importance of reading may not surprise you, but, if you’re reading this post, it’s unlikely that you’re among the members of your neighborhood who would struggle to do so. And trust me, they’re there.
Because September is National Literacy Month, this week’s blog posts will be dedicated to local organizations who have emphasized reading as more than just a key to creativity or curiosity–but as an essential component to gaining life skills, social mobility, and job security.
You know, the stuff much of us usually take for granted.
So this isn’t the $26 burger (served with maple bourbon glazed cipollini, rouge bleu cheese, applewood bacon, and foie gras), but I did eat this light, airy, beefy burger, available with an egg on top, from the same restaurant–the Village Whiskey in Philadelphia. Also try the pickled herbed cherry tomatoes served on black olive tapenade, whipped ricotta, and toasted sourdough.
I have been homeless once before.
Okay, okay, not in the dirty-in-the-gutter kind of homeless, where the money in my pocket is all I have to my name and I am sprouting an unshaven beard. And as I write this on a dreary, barely-raining day, my cat is purring in my lap and I’m sipping coffee out of a mug bought on clearance for an exhibit of Roberto Cappucci’s innovative dress designs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that ran in the spring. But outside my window, the Susquehanna River is rising due to Tropical Storm Lee and is anticipated to crest at 29 feet by tomorrow evening, bringing the water, by some estimates, to my front porch. School’s been canceled for today, and I have packed a suitcase to leave.
The packing process reminded me of last summer, when I stuffed all I deemed important into a hiking pack and set off with my friend Lynn Palermo on a 15-day walking trip along the Western Front from Belgium into northern France. The walk in itself was amazing: our path curved through farmer’s fields, wound along country roads between pointed-steeple villages, marched up mountainsides, and stomped across borders. We passed through Ypres, a Belgian city that was 90% destroyed by 3 battles; through Aizy-Jouy, a tiny French town where most of the young men were killed in combat; la Caverne du Dragon on the Chemin des Dames where the fighting took place underground, the underground tunnels chiseled at Arras to hold 24,000 men before a surprise attack. I was stunned at the scale of destruction experienced by normal people whose descendents described the effect of growing up beside the graveyards, the effect of still unearthing shells when planting flowers each spring.
But what also struck me about Lynn’s and my trip was the process of displacement. After day 1 in France, I knew I had packed way too much to be carrying: I had too many water bottles (read: heavy), despite the heat; too many extra snacks (also heavy), despite the need for energy. By day 2, I had thrown away tour books, ticket stubs, any extra maps, and the heels I had cut off from my insoles to make them fit better. I think I even tossed a couple tissue packs which could have weighed, like, less than the change in my wallet (Euros are freakin heavy), but in my mind, they had become ludicrously unnecessary. (Why would I ever have packed such silly things “just in case”? Well, if I ever came to a toilet without toilet paper, well, I’d figure out a way around it, that’s for sure.)
But when you are carrying the weight of your possessions, your mentality changes. Every item which I kept in my pack was selected deliberately, a process which whittled my belongings down to what I deemed essential: my journal, my camera, one water bottle, a rotation of clothes, some toiletries, and my portion of food. On day 3, I was longing to be among those who had a key to their own apartment and who slept in the same place every night, but by day 15–when we walked into Reims, France, the city of champagne and the crowning of French kings, I abhorred the idea of owning more than what I had on my back. I had determined my difference between luxury and necessity. I realized I was capable of living with very little, less than I’d anticipated. It was liberating.
When I packed this morning, it’s too easy to say that I packed the sentimental (a tin box with stones from Ireland, my journal that my sister purchased in China that I filled with writings on Chile) along with the necessity (clothes for school, toothpaste, ungraded eighth grade essays). Of course I did.
But what I noticed this morning, my choosing what to leave and what to take–just like my act of packing for voyages before–wasn’t a panicked take-only-what-you-can-carry. My packing took over 3 hours with a couple of coffee breaks with Roberto. I am not in a refugee camp in Kenya. I am not fleeing as bombs are dropped on my home. I am not displaced for my ethnicity or religion. I’m not even one of the residents evacuated from Shipoke this morning, and, frankly, I have enough money to buy a night in a hotel room or Chinese take-out or a half-gallon of Turkey Hill graham slam if I find my relatively-undramatic situation too depressing.
Layers of luxury still shield me from true deprivation.
When reading Robinson Crusoe with the 11th grade lit class last week, I asked them to consider the commentary of Rick Steeves in his book Travel as a Political Act, which states: “In the midst of relative affluence, Americans seem to operate with a mindset of scarcity–focusing on what we don’t have or what we might lose. Meanwhile [impoverished people] embrace life with a mindset of abundance–thankful for the simple things they do have” (89).
I then asked the eleventh grade to consider the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor.”
I had meant to show them the lesson that I already learned. But now, sitting with my suitcase and car keys and an empty mug, I ask myself if I am still willing to do the same.