100 24th Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
100 24th Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
When I wrote fiction as a kid, my characters lived idealized versions of my own life. I must have been interested in food as long as I can remember, for the characters in my stories always ate my favorite foods, starting their meals with sauce chicken and brown-butter noodles and ending with the dish in the photo above — strawberry bread soup.
Strawberry bread soup is a simple concoction made of slivered fresh strawberries (local only — any other strawberries are imposters), cubed bread, sugar, and milk. My mother used to measure the farm-fresh milk out in quart canning jars and served the soup in a large bowl as a dessert for our family of six. I loved this soup for the unusually sweetened milk, the milk-soaked bread, and tangy bite of the fruit.
I honestly thought everyone in the world dunked stuff in milk and called it soup (kind of like I thought everyone ate cottage cheese with apple butter) until I found this dish to be a subject of much teasing. However, a few weeks ago, I found a recipe for “Cold Bread Soup” in my cookbook From Amish and Mennonite Kitchens (next to “Coffee Soup”), along with a nearby note that reads: “These recipes probably came about during the Depression. But I still get hungry for a bowl of Coffee or Cold Bread Soup at breakfast or lunch!”
So bread soup — just another sign of the Mennonite’s incredibly thrifty background.
I felt incredibly vindicated.
Both recipes follow.
Cold Bread Soup
Cut bread into chunks or cues. Sugar to taste and pour cold milk over bread and sugar. Huckleberries, cherries, or peaches in season can be added. Serve in large soup bowl.
Break 1 piece of bread into a cup. Fill cup with hot coffee: add sugar and cream to taste.
— From Amish and Mennonite Kitchens by Phillis Pellman Good and Rachel Thomas Pellman.
“Pancakes! Get your free pancakes!”
The voice is loud and authoritative, and it cuts through the crisp morning like a fishmonger’s. Danny Santoro, a junior computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University, bends over two hot griddles on his front lawn, pouring scoopfuls of batter from industrial-sized mixing bins and waiting until the pancakes bubble and sizzle. Roommates Chad Miller and Adam Britton along with a handful of neighbors gather around, exhaling steam into the morning air. It’s week 11 of Free Pancake Friday on Oakland Ave.
“They’re free, like, for real? I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” says a passerby, leaning over the griddle and accepting a hotcake and a cup of hot chocolate. “I figured you were a bunch of boys doing a science experiment. Thank you so much!”
“Yeah, they’re free,” says Santoro. “No ulterior motive. Well, we have a tip jar.” He flips a few pancakes and then adds, almost as an extra thought, “For charity.”
Past charities have included the Pittsburgh Food Bank, breast cancer research, and Hurricane Sandy relief, but raising money was not the original point. Free Pancake Friday began first as a mistake.
“The first week happened because we were trying to have a house breakfast, and Chad made way too many pancakes,” Santoro explains. “So we just kind of stood out on the street and gave them out, no plates or anything. Hot and free, like America in the summertime.”
Today, they not only have plates; they have syrup, hot chocolate, a lawn table to lounge at, and pancakes whose flavors vary per week, ranging from pumpkin to buckwheat to red velvet. The group plans to keep making pancakes through the winter and through the snow. “Who doesn’t like pancakes?” Santoro says.
It’s 9:30 PM on a warm evening in June, and my father is yawning in the bright circle of light surrounding my parents’ kitchen table. I’m wearing an ill-fitted T-shirt the color of the spring fields beyond our house, and I’m staring out the darkened windows and seeing nothing but our reflection: me seated with no make-up, chin cupped in my palm with one elbow on the green tablecloth; my father, leaning back across from me, silver-haired and tired.
“Did you milk this morning?” I asked, meaning: “How many hours have you been awake?”
This is a normal question. I’ve long since lost count of which morning is his to wake up at 2 AM or which morning is my uncle Jeff’s, but the question still is always on my mind, charting the status of the man who, at age 59, still works harder than me.
Dairy farming runs in the blood, he says. Our farm is on the western edge of Shippensburg and was purchased by my stern great-grandfather Edward sometime around World War I. After that, the farm was bought and run by Edward’s third youngest boy Walter and his wife Anna, who gave birth to three daughters and two sons that could run the farm solo by the time Daddy was 16. Today, the farm is still run by my dad and my uncle Jeff and is home to 230 milk cows, one of the first carousel-style milking parlors to be installed in Franklin County, and 425 acres of wheat, barley, alfalfa, and corn. I used to sit to Daddy’s left at mealtimes and hold his hand for the prayer, tracing the 425 acres in his calluses.
“Could I take you out to breakfast tomorrow for Father’s Day?” I ask, and Daddy barely manages a smile.
“Breakfast? Sure, that would be nice.”
The next morning, I drive us into the Shippensburg Select Diner that sits overlooking the square. “Let’s sit near the window. I like to see the world moving,” says Daddy, looking slightly rested.
“So do I,” I say. I lead him to the booth in the front corner, but he remains standing, watching a tractor and disk-bine being driven up King Street. He laughs. “That’s Tom Elliot,” he says. “See, I know people already.”
Breakfasts always make me think of him, whether I want to or not: dippy eggs with toast and mint tea, pancakes and crisped bacon. Early mornings on the farm have a certain way of spiking hunger at a speed more violent than the sunrise, and so we both know my mother’s repertoire of breakfast foods by heart: French toast made from homemade bread, Cream of Wheat with brown sugar and raisins, scrambled eggs stretched with a dash of tap water. I have been off the farm a decade, but I still cannot smell bacon in the morning without being conscious of whose early-morning labor I butter onto my bread.
The waitress brings us coffee, and we both order omelets, the one breakfast food my mom rarely makes. Daddy begins to talk about the roofs that the farm just replaced due to the same storm in the spring of 2011 that downed a tree one block away from my Harrisburg apartment; he explains the adjustments made to the loafing barn to increase air circulation, and he takes a call from someone about a new truck the farm may want to buy.
He’s a solid businessman, keenly aware of circumstance and open to change. I realize I am not. I cling to the familiar as if it were the branches of my favorite maple tree; I revere tradition like the first picking of summer sweet corn. The farm taught me the solidness of the seasons, the regularity of milking rhythms that thump through the pumps in the milking parlor, but life by definition is different when it hinges on the measure of the rainfall or the storms that do or do not pass you by.
“It sounds like you’ve done a good job at teaching,” Daddy says, and I look at him. “Peggy’s told me what your students said.” I didn’t exactly intend for this conversation to be about me. He’s chewing on toast slowly and without jelly because we both know it’s inferior to my mom’s homemade strawberry jam. “You’re going to love grad school. It’s everything you’re interested in. You’re curious, you’re interested in new people, new things, new ideas. It’s going to be great for you.”
I notice suddenly that he’s wearing the same worn-blue sweatshirt that he worked in when I was in high school. In my Harrisburg apartment, I still have an old pair of sneakers that I threw away then dug right out of the trash and a hoodie that I purchased in 1999 with the threadbare cuffs, and I save these things in case I have a pasture that I need to run through or a flowerbed I need to dig. But at this point in my life, I have no fields or flowerbeds. I don’t even have a yard. I am ashamed of myself, but my father is not.
“You have to keep trying because you never know what you might be,” Daddy continues. I realize that he’s also talking about himself — the man who left college to plant fields, who carried the burden of the family’s land, who joined the board of directors of Adams Electric Cooperative and is now serving as board president. I remembered when they asked him to lead — he was hesitant. He is a man comforted by open fields and by silence, the same silence that was always between us when we milked together or went out for ice cream at Diffy’s or made butter-soaked air-popped popcorn to watch movies with. But he went forward.
During the early years as board president, I helped to edit his annual meeting speeches and applauded for him when he stood on stage, looking crisp and regal in a new suit. I now meet him sometimes in Harrisburg for dinner after his legislative meetings where neither of us smell like fresh air or open spaces, and we talk about his travels with Adams Electric to meetings in California, Costa Rica, Texas. He listens as I speak about teaching high school and traveling to France, Trinidad, and Chile, and he asks questions that have nothing to do with milk prices and mastitis. He is my father of the cornfield, but he carries with him the sense that, in each moment, he is where he needs to be. Now he’s looking at me across the table with eyes as blue as cloudless skies, overlooking the fried potatoes that I cannot finish, and giving permission to do the same.
And I wonder if he knows all the things I’ve never told him: that when I wake up early to write I still think of him, or that when I got into the University of Pittsburgh he was the first person I called, or that my curiosity in the world is only possible because of the wide open pastures beyond our farmhouse, strongly anchored yet rolling forward toward the mountains.
I stopped eating Cheerios somewhere around middle school. This was because somewhere around this time, Post Foods released their Selects line of cereals, which included products with alliterative names like Cranberry Almond Crunch and Blueberry Morning. These cereals were chock-full of nuts and dried fruit and appealed to me much more than a mono-color cereal stuck on a single letter of the alphabet. However, last week, I found myself standing in an aisle at Karns in Lemoyne with a glossy box of Honey Nut Cheerios in front of me. At 21 ounces, it was the size of a small wall, the kind I used to hide behind when building cereal-box forts at the breakfast table, and it was a box that I hadn’t taken note of in years. I threw the box triumphantly into my cart and marched toward the check-out counter.
Who knew that Cheerios float on the top of your milk instead of sinking to the bottom like granola? I do. I used to pretend that Cheerios were little inner tubes, thrown into a milk pool for a colony of children who lived in my cereal bowl. As a five-year-old, I ate the Cheerios in layers, from the powdery dry Cheerios on the top of the mound, unspoiled by milk, to the moist rings beneath that held up the weight of the others. These Cheerios sopped up milk like sponges and clung to the bowl’s edges until you broke them apart with a spoon. Once I had eaten the Cheerios down to a single layer, I’d marvel at the difficulty of separating one Cheerio from the others, for in my milk colony, one Cheerio needed to stand solo on Sunday mornings because he was preaching. I’d eat all the O’s around the preacher and then note how the last remaining O would scoot naturally to the edge of the bowl, driven by hidden milk currents or loneliness; then I’d eat him with a certain definitiveness before drinking the remainder of the milk and wiggling out of my chair to play.
Cheerios has recently dedicated a portion of their website to explain why children still love Cheerios, citing that the cereal is, among other things, a comfort food, a food to play with, and a family tradition. I loved breakfast cereal, Cheerios included, because of imagination. In my world, the big biscuits of Post Original Shredded Wheat that my Grandma Charles flaked apart and drizzled with honey were actually bales of hay. (The cows on the family farm had packaged them up for us to eat as a sign of secret rebellion, and I was the only one who was noticed.) Sifting flour over Chocolate Whacky Cake — one of the first Mennonite-inspired items I learned how to bake — I created a landscape of falling snow flecked with cocoa powder dirt that I then flooded with oil, vanilla, and vinegar, drowning all those who lived within. Even after cleaning out paintbrushes into a glass of water that turned an odd shade of purple, I would carefully pour the liquid into the kitchen sink and wonder if the people who lived in my drain (they were imprisoned) would drink the water because they thought it was grape juice and die of poisoning. (They would have deserved it.)
But where has this imagination gone? As a high school teacher, I push myself to be in touch with the way I used to feel as a child — the curiosities, the misunderstands, the aggravations — in order to better relate with my students, and I’m realizing my imaginative timeline in a way that I hadn’t sensed before: the me I’m trying to tap into (the one of hay forts and secret clubs) changed drastically around the time of lockers and junior high lunch. Due to peer pressure, the need to become critical and logical, and the different commitments of a teenage life, it seems like a child’s active imagination shifts to something more internal, perhaps, or for some, disappears entirely — although I do vaguely remember pretending that my life was a movie up until high school.
“A Child’s Creative Mind,” a blog post written by Pamala Kinnaird, explains that imagination is a very important tool — it aids children in exploring their relationship with themselves and the world around them, allowing them to better understand their own likes and dislikes on a hypothetical level. Through imagination, the mind’s ability to create something out of nothing seems to me to be deeply connected to an individual’s later ability to think outside the box, develop new solutions to old problems, and push boundaries.
But how do we, as adults, as teachers, tap into this? Michelle, author of the blog “Scraps of My Geek Life,” presents one solution. “Where does our imagination go?” she writes. “Do we lose our imagination as adults or are we just afraid to let it soar? I hope we are just afraid to let it soar because that means if I let myself think freely, all that great imagination I had as a kid will come flowing back to me.”
She taps into the idea that losing our childhood imagination is connected to fear. We all need to see the world as attainable and to be able to distinguish fact from fiction.
But I still want to see Cheerios as inner tubes and Shredded Wheat as bales of hay. If imagination can’t start at breakfast, where will it?
It’s likely that we Americans get the coffee-and-pastry breakfast from France, where baguette slices are spread with Nutella and dipped into bowls of morning Joe, and fresh croissants are eaten with hot chocolate by afternoon. However, mass-produced Starbucks pound cake or stale Panera stick buns (with a dark roast in a travel mug) shouldn’t cut it for you. Return to the pastries of your grandmother with a rustic apple tart made by Short & Sweet Bakery, Lemoyne, and served at Little Amps Coffee Roasters, Harrisburg. It’s fresh apples folded into a flaky crust about then sprinkled with sugar for just a touch of sweetness — perfectly paired with the richness of one of Little Amp’s house-roasted coffee or espresso drinks. Also available for breakfast (and equally delicious) are biscotti, cookies, granola, macaroons, and quiches.
Little Amps Coffee Roasters
1836 Green Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102