Today I’m going to talk about good, good food. I am just as passionate about good food and music as I am about politics. I’ll get to music at another time.
Just like my politics, my taste in food can differ from yours. We can disagree about different entrees and recipes, but you are not allowed to tell me what I like is no good or that I ought to change my standards to suit you. Now that I think about it, I’m likely to get angrier over food differences than most political differences. I reckon that reveals something about my values.
Granted, I was turned on to a lot of wonderful fare during the early Roberta days of the Pattee, back when Chef Larson deservedly held court there. Say what you will of the man, there was never any food like it to be had in Perry before or since. His Sous Chefwas no slouch either. Indeed, Chefs North and Kirtan were more than worthy of their positions when they came in later. They were all very good men and wonderful chefs. Still, nothing quite compared to the cuisine Chef Larson offered. I will speak in more detail about food at the Pattee in an upcoming installment.
No doubt about it, I was quite fortunate to have a lot of great cooks in my family as well. My mother and her siblings were taught the art of downhome cooking by my wonderful Granny Parrish and, yes, she insisted upon being called Granny. We’re talking about meat, taters and gravy at least twice a week. No restaurant or buffet can even come close to the Thanksgiving and Christmas spreads Granny put together. Thankfully, my mother and aunts acquired Granny’s expertise except for three entrees.
The first entree I speak of is fried fish. While she could easily clean the fish herself, Granny preferred my cousins, uncles or yours truly to gut and skin whatever was caught at the Des Moines River, said river being a scant 100 yards or so from where Grampa and Granny lived.
Regardless, Granny performed some kind of magic with the carp and catfish she was given. I don’t know if it might have been her old, cast iron skillets. It might have been something with her breading. It’s possible it was the lard or bacon grease she used. Most likely, her secret ingredient was love.
Before anyone says anything, yes, I said we caught and ate carp. I was 16 years old before I learned carp was supposed to be bottom-feeding garbage fish. We didn’t care. We loved just about any kind of river fish you could think of. Shoot, I never knew what crappie, bluegill or walleye tasted like until I was introduced to lake fishing as a teen.
Now we were of simple stock and learned how to deal with eating bony fish. I still think catfish is best fried and served on the bone and that catfish never tastes any better than when it’s pan size. I’d been fishing and cleaning fish on my own a few years before my Uncle Porky — yes, he insisted being called Uncle Porky — my mother’s only brother, taught me how to filet the larger carp.
This wasn’t to say there were not still a few bones remaining, but one could eliminate most of them. The deal was we learned how to eat such fish despite the bones. The ladies would shred the meat from the bones for the little kids but by the time we were in kindergarten, we were expected to eat fish without choking to death, just like the adults.
We took our cue from my Granny’s table. Grampa was partially blind, so we knew not to move the funky looking saucer near his plate. He would use his tongue to find the bones in his mouth and would extract a mouthful of fish bones every few minutes. Hence the funky looking saucer where he placed them. In like manner, the other households in the family adopted the same custom. It may seem gross to some, but it was standard practice for us. We never gave it a thought until perhaps a guest at the table said something.
The second entree I speak of is custard pie. I’ve never had such good custard pie since Granny left us 40 years ago. The only thing that has come even remotely close is the fresh flan Nacho has available at his taqueria across from the theaters here in Perry.
That’s an unapologetic plug for Nacho, but I don’t care. When it’s nice and fresh, the flan at his place is absolutely divine. Still, it’s not in the same exact league as Granny’s custard pie. His flan is easily a first runner up to Granny’s pie though.
I’ve seldom sampled pie crusts as good as Granny’s either. Unfortunately, my aunts and other older family members started harping about how bad fat and cholesterol were and how we all should be using vegetable shortening and oleo instead of lard and butter. Though they were still excellent pie crusts, the ones Granny made with Crisco instead of lard were just not the same.
The third entree is something I’ve seen only very rarely since my childhood. I’m sure many have heard about old-fashioned deep-dish peach cobbler but have never sampled it. I don’t know exactly why the dish is relatively seldom seen but in speaking with those younger than myself, most know of it in name only if they know of it at all.
I’ve had cobbler a few times since Granny passed, and they were all quite good but not nearly as good as hers. One that I will certainly give honorable mention to was the cobbler served at the Pattee during the first couple of weeks of the Harvey’s era. I don’t know where Katy got the recipe, but the stuff was excellent.
Granny’s was better yet. Instead of a deep baking pan, sometimes she’d use one of those big blue enamel roasting pans. There was no way to slice her cobbler. Granny would spoon it out then she’d scrape a little crust and peach goo from the side of the pan to put on top.
When I had the cobbler at Harvey’s, it was served with good vanilla ice cream. It was quite the treat but not quite traditional. The way I liked it at Granny’s was with warm, heavy cream poured on it. I reckon ice cream wasn’t commonly found when Granny was growing up. Peach cobbler is a dish that probably goes back to the Colonial days. Before refrigeration technology existed, heavy cream was the way to go for pie and cobbler.
Enough of my gastronomic journey for now. Next up will be my Mother’s cooking with a side of pasta.