Considering my heritage, a prison feast to honor George Floyd, and jammin’ for all
This board would certainly be left at the messy end of any garage sale, when everything gets loaded into the car, either for donating or trashing. Look at it: gouged, nearly broken in half, stained and rough around the edges. I don’t use it, but this cruddy-looking piece of wood is one of my dearest possessions.
This board belonged to my maternal grandmother, a woman who died long before I was born. She raised my mom, aunt and uncle on a farm not far from Rochester, N.Y., a beautiful hilltop site where the winters were brutal and the neighbors far. Mary (for whom I am named) baked bread every morning for her family and the farm hands, using this board to knead and shape.
My mother, who also has passed, got that bread every day in her school lunch — just one of the many aspects of farm life she worked so hard to escape. Her friends had enviable store-bought bread, and she was stuck with homemade. It makes me smile to recall that complaint in light of the bread-baking craze that blossomed during our corona sheltering.
When I show my bread board to people, they generally shrug with indifference. I’m always a bit baffled that they don’t see the amazing thing that I see. To me it’s full of wonder and questions: Who made it for my grandmother? Was it new to her? Did she like baking, or was it farmwife drudgery? I love baking, but every single day? I’m not so sure.
I brought my board out recently during a Zoom event put on by the Women’s Foundation California. The speaker — Nikiko Masumoto, a farmer and artist — talked about our connections to our past. Her family lost its farm when they were interned as Japanese Americans, and rebuilt it after World War II — investing again in a country that had told them they were unwanted. The Masumoto Family Farm, 80 acres in California’s Central Valley, is famous for its stone fruit and for its farmers. Nikiko performs and has written two books; her father, David Mas Masumoto, has written 11.
Masumoto asked the participants to show off something that connects us to our past. No surprise that my object would be related to food. I wasn’t the only one: The chef Minh Phan held up a big bag of rice — an absolute essential in her Vietnamese American family. Another woman held up a keychain in the shape of a Mexican molinillo, a wooden tool used to froth hot chocolate.
My Grandma Daley and her bread could have been stars on 2020 Instagram, her daily chore on a Depression-era farm having become a sign of leisure in the era of Covid-19.
If you’ve any doubts about the way food and politics are as entwined as a double helix, the story of the way inmates at a Michigan prison celebrated the life of George Floyd might convince you.
This remarkable story, written by Tara Ganeva and published in the online food journal The Counter, has so many layers: the inhumanity with which we treat incarcerated people, the depth with which Floyd’s death struck so many people, the perseverance and ingenuity of people on a mission.
Michael Thompson — serving 40 to 60 years for a marijuana conviction — and Robert Cannon Jr. set about making a meal to share with 50 inmates to honor Floyd’s life.
If you’ve ever cooked a feast, imagine doing so with a microwave, plastic knives and empty popcorn bags. No other equipment. Thompson and Cannon got help and eventually bought ingredients and had others donated for their menu of bagels, fried rice and beverages.
I loved what one diner said afterward: “My favorite part was just everybody being together as one.” Isn’t that what all of our feasts are about?
It’s tomatillo week in my house.
I planted one young plant in my small raised bed, and it’s prodigious. Tonight, we’re having a green gazpacho; we’ll also have a white bean and tomatillo stew, and a chicken and tomatillo dish. And husband made green salsa.
The fruit is ripe when it starts to burst out of its papery shell. You can also buy them at supermarkets or stores that sell Mexican foods.
The gazpacho is a cinch, and perfect for a last-minute meal because it takes almost no time to make. Peel about a pound of tomatillos and put them into a food processor. Add a small onion, coarsely chopped; a handful of cilantro; a peeled garlic clove or two; two or three cucumbers, peeled and seeded; a couple of hot or mild peppers, based on your preference; four tablespoons each of white wine vinegar and olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. And that’s it. Gorgeously green, delicious and healthful.
Remember when flour and yeast were hard to find? We’ve apparently moved on. To canning — yet another of our ancestors’ chores that’s becoming so popular that supplies are hard to find. Have we all been assigned to Home Ec class?
Jamming is hot,
notwithstanding the moldy vats of jam at the hipster L.A. café Sqirl that captivated social media. It’s harvest time — time for canning tomatoes, peaches and all sorts of other produce … if you can find the jars and lids.
Among those on the hunt for jars is my friend Carla, who makes great jam, most recently peach with vanilla and peach with thyme. But also blueberry, strawberry, blackberry and many more. I’m lucky enough to be a recipient of her wares. I return the favor when I make jam — far less often than she does.
There are two chapters to canning food. The first is making the jam or the sauce or whatever is going into the jars. The second is the processing, commonly done in a water bath, my choice among the methods.
You can make jam without processing. I had enough figs for a few jars of jam, which I put in the fridge, where they’ll last a couple of weeks or so. Processing is too labor-intensive for so small an amount. But I also make big batches of marmalade and process them so they can live on a shelf.
It’s not hard, but it is time-consuming and hot work. And it’s crucial to process the jam correctly if you plan it to be shelf-stable. County extension services often have directions, and there are many good books out there.
My recommendation is plunge in and give it a try, but get authoritative directions. The supplies you really need are not expensive. A dozen half-pint jars with lids are usually under $10. You need a big pot and a few other items, such as a tool to lift the jars from boiling water, and a gauge to measure from the top of the jam to the top of the jar.
Sound like too much? One alternative is your freezer. I made tomato sauce this summer, portioned it in plastic bags and froze them. One tip: Lie the bag flat and carefully press out all the air. Freeze it flat and it won’t take up much space.
I also roasted several colors of sweet peppers and have them in the fridge in olive oil. They won’t last nearly as long as processed jars —but they won’t need to.
Thanks for reading. Find joy, wear a mask and be good to those around you.
Mary MacVean has been cooking for half a century. And writing about food for a few decades. She also has been an urban farmer. When her day sucks, she finds her equilibrium by coming in the door and starting to cook.