It may seem hard to believe, but way, way back in the day, when the world was so much bigger, Europeans chose the Jerusalem
Artichoke as their principal starchy tuber, and they continued to enjoy it (dug out of the ground just before or just after the frost) until the Spanish conquered central and South America, when the potato berry (I have named it Berry) was discovered to be much more starchy, fluffy, tastier and easier to prepare. Those who have eaten Jerusalem Artichoke will understand how superior the potato is. Once ten or fifteen years go, I planted some and they still grow in a narrow patch of dirt, just outside a fence, part of what I might call a grove of rag weed, if it had happened to be a good-looking plant. Back in that day I mentioned earlier they ran amuck in everyone’s garden, and because they were this reliable source of carbohydrate people liked them. I can hear them saying,
That was a mighty fine mess of artichoke, Mrs. Smith.
But that was then. It’s been years since I dug any for dinner. They are knobby little things, the size of a plum, white with brown edges as if they had been toasted, the bland flavor did nothing to help the quality of the bite, crispy and watery like water chestnuts when slightly cooked in a stir fry, to near mush when accompanying some meat.
It’s a different story for the tomato. I feel they didn’t so much replace something as to add a whole new category. Since tomatoes were thought to be poisonous when the Spanish sent the first batch home, people were very careful of their preparation. Here in New England they were called Poison Apples but somehow people clung stubbornly to the idea that they might turn out to be good, continuing to take their chances, and rightly so.
Personally I think it was the beginning of a whole new way of cooking that could take another hundred years or so to be finally recognized as Cooking American Style. My reason for meandering down this mental path is that it’s the weather. In spite of the fact that it is only the middle of August the chill and rain bring to mind the nostalgia of October. I’m dreaming of getting over to Pie in the Sky for corn to freeze and peaches for jam. Aunt Fern liked to flatter me into doing her bidding. She called her technic The Iron Hand in the Velvet Glove. I was aware of this by the time I was eight, but unable to resist it and always fell willingly into her plans while wondering at the same time whether she really did think I was that great.
Our neighbor, Mrs Hay, drove us in her Ford to the market at 6:00 in the morning. I walked around smelling all the stuff while the ladies bought whatever they would be canning on that day. Tomatoes cost a dollar a bushel and that was cheap even for 1934 Aunt Fern always put up 100 quarts of tomatoes. Some of them would make chili sauce. Some of them would make vegetable soup, and some of them would be plain. My day of canning began when I carried the bushels full into the house and lasted all day as I picked the tomatoes out of the hot water, slipped off their skins and tossed them into one of the big kettles getting ready to go on the stove. Aunt Fern used the open kettle method and she would be shocked to hear how dangerous that was considered to be, as she believed herself to be very modern with all her concern for sanitation. (She always said in a smug tone that she did not can string beans because they were not acidic enough to resist the bacteria that could kill whole families at dinner.)
Aunt Fern was a very fine cook who obviously knew what she was doing, and yet she did not really follow other people’s recipes. I wonder now if there was some absolute order to the way she put up the tomatoes. I know that the soup had green pepper, onion and celery. She made her spaghetti sauce with it. Aunt Fern believed firmly that she was cooking Italian. But it was not really Italian sauce. It was Aunt Fern sauce created from her early days in North Dakota, days soon after the cowboys had brought both tomatoes and sauce from Texas. To prove it she bought the spaghetti noodles from the only Italian grocery store in Minneapolis. I realize now that the pasta was homemade and dried over a rack. I loved it more than almost any thing in the world. The double strands of pasta were as tall as I was–or so I thought. Looking back I understand that there were no pots that could stand four feet tall for the spaghetti, and I really did think (and did until this very minute) that when I sucked up a whipping strand of spaghetti from my plate, a string that whipped it around and spattered my cheeks, that it was an actual five foot strand of pasta.
Aunt Fern thought it was Italian, but it wasn’t. The only difference between the sauce and chili sauce was the amount of red pepper and the fact that there was hamburger in the spaghetti. Once mother got a red pepper by mistake and she screamed. This pasta was more like traditional chili sauce that grew out of the long cattle drive north of the vaqueros. This long tale explains for me the concept of an American Style of Cooking. It isn’t so much that the ingredients are new. After all the ingredients were new to the rest of the world too. It is that the use made of the new ingredients and the old came out of a new experience, the long immersion in places where there was virtually no interaction from the outside, and after all, it was the same condition that in China and France resulted in their storied cuisines.
Meantime, our tomatoes are recovering from the latest deer attack; we’re getting plenty of squash and cucumbers, and lots of greens. I’ll be experimenting with all I’ve found in our vegetable garden sinpce it hasn’t produced as well as expected, and I hope to come up with something new and strictly American, for us to enjoy.