Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Love & Cakes

The Story: Lucy ... eh, Lottie bakes a cake without understanding American units of measure
A cup’s a cup’s a cup … right?

Oma playing in the snow. When she and Opa were dating. He took the photo.

Opa looking handsome in the Alps. (Oma's view)

When Oma first moved to America, she worked very hard to blend in as an American wife.  She spoke English. No, I don’t think you understand, she spoke English English … like the queen. She used words like lift and loo, which had been taught to her in Germany.  Now, remember this was pre-Beatles, early 1950s America.  So Americans, more appropriately southerners, would just look at her funny. Who’s Lou?

Along with ditching German, she also threw out the metric system.

The new bride decided to make a sweet treat for her American husband. Oma, then called Lottie, set out to follow her first American (English) recipe for a beautiful cake — with pink icing, of course.

The recipe called for a cup of this, two cups of that. 

"What are they talking about a cup? I have all kinds of cups," Oma said she remembered thinking to herself (while telling the story and reenacting the confused look she had on her face).

And, she did add one cup of this … And, two cups of that. But, she used glasses, like tall milk glasses.  The whole situation was very reminiscent of an Amelia Bedelia children’s story.

Her cake looked beautiful.  It was a nice shape and meticulously frosted.  She set it on a cake stand and even took pictures (that are now in a box somewhere).

My grandfather, John, came home and they ate dinner together.  She brought the cake out to him as a surprise. She was so proud of herself. 

John cut the cake with a sharp knife, and some difficulty.  He jabbed the cake with his fork and put it to his lips, Lottie eagerly staring at him.  And, he took a bite.

He broke his tooth. 

Not really. Oma said she worried he had because the cake was "as hard as a rock."

I feel like I should close here with some kind of lesson, like you see kids that’s why you don’t …  But really the only lesson that is appropriate here is that love makes you do crazy things.

I’m sure when John saw his new bride’s forearms trembling as she carried the cake, he disregarded the hint that it was a brick and thought it was all nerves.  When he hardly sliced the sucker, he saw her face eagerly awaiting delicious confirmation.  And when he took a bite, he did not complain. He just appreciated his lovely dinner and his even lovelier wife who had worked so hard to make it for him. 

Yes, as Lottie would have said in ~1950, they truly fancied each other.

The Recipe: Oma’s famous Chiffon Cake

The recipe below was typed by Oma in 1967.  I think it may have been for Oma’s sister-in-law (married to Opa's brother Ellis), but now my mom has it and scanned it for me.  

Oma and I baked this chiffon cake a couple of years ago.  She likes to top it with marzipan fruit.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Chinese New Year & Dumplings

The Holiday: Chinese New Year, Beijing, China
My good friend Bowei moved back to his hometown just in time for the New Year

I first met my dear friend Bowei (more appropriately, saw him) on my very first day of college at LSU. I was sitting in geography and he walked in wearing an ironic made in the ‘80s t-shirt and black-framed glasses.  He looked so cool.  I thought to myself, “Man, I have to be friends with this guy!”  Sadly, I was too intimidated to talk to him. 

But, on the second day of school, we were introduced by a mutual friend and spent the evening together eating store-bought brownies in my dorm. As they say, the rest is history.

Me and Bowei freshman year of college. 

Bowei is still one of my best friends and is my pop-culture touchstone.  He taught me about Skins (the superior British version, of course) and everything I know about online shopping. 

Yes, Bowei is an American boy.  Except, he’s not.

Bowei was born in Beijing and is quite proud of his heritage. He actually just moved back to China for an eight-month internship in Beijing. Bowei, a college senior, hasn’t lived in China since fifth grade and is now an American citizen; but he has stayed close to his roots, traveling to China several times and speaking Mandarin at home. 

Bowei on a family trip back to China, December 2010. 

Bowei is moving to his hometown just in time for Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on January 23. This will be Bowei’s first New Year in China since he moved.

He likened Chinese New Year to American Thanksgiving. He said his extended family meets at his grandparents’ house in Beijing. The women cook a delicious feast together and the children help.

Dumplings, he said, are the signature dish, and toys and money are customarily hidden in the dumplings for good luck.

After dinner, everyone sits down together to watch CCTV’s New Year’s Gala — similar to Dick Clark’s bash.  The show provides family entertainment from music performances to stand-up comedy.

"When I was growing up, the entire country was watching it on TV,” Bowei said.

After the special, at about 9 or 10 p.m., Bowei said he remembers the city lighting up under a colorful blanket of fireworks.

Bowei called Chinese New Year the country’s biggest holiday, and like Christmas in America, there is a season devoted to it.  He said in the four weeks leading up to the big day children start visiting family, friends and even their parents’ co-workers, from whom they receive envelopes of money.  Bowei explained that when you pay respect, you receive this gift.

During this time, he said a lot of adults receive oversized calendars for the New Year, often adorned with the year’s symbol (this year’s is the dragon) in “good luck colors” — gold and red.

He said everywhere you go — public squares and in front­ of businesses ­— before Chinese New Year there are dragon dancers. He also excitedly explained Temple Festivals that precede the holiday.

Bowei said Taoist and Buddhist temples are turned into fair grounds.  For me to visualize the event, Bowei asked me to recall state fairs I visited as a kid.  He joyfully described the prizes, crowds, food and art he had not experienced since childhood and was looking forward to seeing again.

He said people return to the temples after the New Year to burn the first incense of the season, some temples even sell this coveted first position to businesses or individuals. According to Bowei, burning the first incense brings good fortune.

Lastly, Bowei and I discussed the ancient tradition of decorating doors with Chinese couplets, or handwritten poems in paired lines “asking for a good year, good health [and] good fortunes."

Bowei said the ritual dates back to when people lived in hutongs, or courtyard residences.  The word hutong first originated in the 13th or 14th century and these homes recently decreased in popularity, in mid-20th century. Bowei said people would decorate their hutongs with couplets.  Today, the couplets are not limited to hutongs.  

Bowei warned that his northern customs may vary from other regions in China, but the sentiment of being with your family and blending of the old and new is the same throughout the country.

"The most important thing is to be united with your family," he said. 

And he will. In addition to his extended family, Bowei’s mother and father will be joining him in China for the New Year. They will all be together at home for the first time in more than 10 years.

The Recipe: Bowei’s Dumplings
While Bowei’s mom and aunts make the dough from scratch, Bowei provided us with a shortcut.

Bowei with a tray of his famous dumplings at his 2011 Chinese New Year party.
- Small amount chopped ginger
- 1 pound ground pork
- 4-6 grams of salt per pound of pork
- Splash of white wine
- 1 tbs soy sauce (Bowei says not the dark soy sauce)
- 2 tbs of water
- 1-2 bunch green onions (scallions)
- 2 tbs of sesame oil
- Dumpling Wrappers (the shortcut)

Dumplings (By Bowei):
The Filling ...
Mix all of the above ingredients for a good 5 minutes until the meat and onions are evenly mixed. (Mix the meat and other ingredients for a little while before adding the green onions.)
Now, scoop out small, one-inch sized balls of filling and put them in the dumpling wrappers.
After your done wrapping the dumplings ...
Boil a pot of water.
Once the water comes to a boil, you can drop the dumplings into the pot. (A good way to know for sure the dumplings are cooked is to let the water come to a boil 2-3 times, adding cold water in between each boil.)

“The recipe is very flexible ... If you don't like onions, [you] can add a little less.”

Monday, January 9, 2012

Red Beans and Rice & Monday

 Special Monday Post!

I thought that today would be a good day to celebrate my New Orleans heritage as Louisiana State University (my school) is taking on Alabama in the National Championship game tonight! And what dish is better for a Monday than red beans and rice?

My boyfriend Robert and me in about ~100+ degree weather in Tiger Stadium at the first game of the season.
I  feel like I am going to get struck by lightning saying this, but I never went to an entire football game
(only 1/3 of one freshman year) until this, my senior, year. Robert is a big fan —
he only requested I go to three games.  And, I had a good time.  We'll be cheering tonight!
Geaux Tigers!

The Dish (figurative): Why do we eat Red Beans on Monday?
And my cousins almost die on a railroad track …

My best friend in high school, Brittany, once told me that red beans and rice was a super food. We then, with all of the combined brainpowers of two giddy 16-year-old girls, decided to make red beans.

We did not consider it was a two-day process.  In fact, I remember us driving to the store (poorly), putting the groceries in the kitchen, singing show tunes from Rent and returning to the kitchen later to maybe chop things?

Then, somehow the beans were done hours later. Thanks to Brittany’s saint-like mother.  But, we were so proud that we made a food that contained every food group:

-       Meat: sausage and ham
-       Fat: I already said sausage
-       Vegetable: celery
-       Fruit: ehh …
-       Dairy: ?
-       Carbs: rice

 Yeah, I don’t think we had a great grasp of the food pyramid yet.

Now, as an (air quotes) adult who (air quotes) cooks, I am nervous to tackle my Gammie’s famous red beans and rice recipe. 

Throughout my childhood the beans were a holiday staple.  Gammie lived in New Orleans, worked in Hammond for my uncle and commuted through my parents’ house in Mandeville. Depending on where she made them, they would get dropped off frozen across the state.

Impressions of Gammie between cousins often included the saying “I got beans on [the stove].”

The cousins at Gammie's 90th birthday party, October 2010.

My favorite story about Gammie’s dish is captured on film during a movie my cousins and sister made, charmingly titled “The Bum.” (As the “Caboose” in the train of cousins, I was too little to act.)

My Hammond cousins lived beside a railroad track, thus the creation of the gross out vagabond character portrayed with almost no overacting by my cousin Greg. 

Gammie was babysitting during most of the filming and our parents were surprised by some of the antics caught on tape.  Most notably, the climactic scene in which two of my cousins are tied to the working train track.

The scene was a little too realistic as the boys couldn’t wiggle themselves free, but they never stopped having fun.  One of the littler boys gets nervous, breaks character (and the fourth wall) and calls for Gammie. 

Gammie walks out with a giant knife to cut them free, disregarding the authenticity of the film completely: calling them by their real names, admonishing them for calling her miss, asking the pre-teens why the heck they would tie themselves to the tracks and that they took her away from the kitchen while her “beans were on!”

That's more like it. 

But that’s my family’s modern love for red beans. My Aunt Linda (my Dad’s eldest sister) guessed that Gammie’s recipe dates back to my great-great-grandma Meyer (remember her from last week’s post).

My Aunt Linda also explained why red beans and Mondays go together in New Orleans like … well, red beans and rice.

Apparently when laundry was done with a crank and wringer, and took all day, the women would cook something that didn’t need a lot of TLC.  And, women traditionally did the wash on Mondays.

"It took them all day to do the clothes and the beans could just cook themselves," Aunt Linda said.

Linda said she remembers when her mother got a washer; it predated the family’s TV set. She said she and my uncle would watch the clothes spin through the washer's glass window when they were small.

The laundry was no longer a tedious, mechanical process and Monday didn’t hold the same significance, but people still keep up the tradition. Restaurants have specials for red beans on Mondays and many moms still make it a weekly staple.

The Dish (literal): Gammie’s Red Beans & Rice
As dictated by my Aunt Linda, at 91 Gammie doesn’t cook anymore

-       1 pound red beans
-       1 onion
-       3 stalks celery (sliced into thirds)
-       2 or 3 toes of garlic
-       1 pound of sausage (Gammie used smoked)
-       1 ham bone (Full disclosure: I used chunks of ham instead because my butcher didn’t have hambones)
-       ¼ cup flour
-       Rice
-       Optional: 1 can of New Orleans Blue Runner red beans, and yes, it has to be Blue Runner

Soak the beans overnight
Throw water off
Cover again in 2 quarts water with a ham bone and three stalks celery (cut in thirds)
In a separate pan cook sausage (sliced in ~1 inch pieces)
Remove sausage and sauté chopped onion and garlic in juices
Combine all ingredients in the pot with the beans
Put flour on top
Simmer the pot with beans on low for a minimum of two hours
OPTIONAL: When it’s almost ready, add a can of Blue Runner red beans (a new Orleans tradition) – I also prefer a thicker consistency so I added more flour here too
Season with Tabasco and Tony’s (creole seasoning)

Photo by Robert Giglio

I was nervous to tackle Gammie’s recipe. But, I have to say it came out great.  I was so proud of myself! My boyfriend and I both ate generous servings of it last night, he took a Tupperware to work and we still have leftovers! It was an inexpensive meal that will last you a long time. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Superstitions & New Year’s Lunch

The Question: Why do we eat cabbage and black-eyed peas on New Year?
My Louisiana family with roots across the state can’t pin down the tradition.

In the South, black-eyed peas and cabbage are a New Year’s tradition.  On New Year’s Day, most families eat the beans for luck and the greens for money. But, no one in my family seems to know why …

I did some googling and only found some unofficial guesses that the dish possibly dates back to the Civil War … maybe?

My mom, dad, boyfriend, sister, brother-in-law and I sat at my parents’ kitchen table discussing the custom on New Year’s Day.  We all have roots in different parts of the state (New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lake Charles), but we all ate greens and beans.

So, it wasn’t specific to New Orleans culture, right?

My dad said he didn’t think he had the dish as a kid, my mom told him he was crazy and we decided to call his sister, my Aunt Kathleen in Lafayette.

My dad asked her over the phone if they ate black-eyed peas and cabbage on New Year’s and I could hear her on the other end say “For sure!”  (As a kid, I called her Aunt Caffeine, an appropriate nickname for my fun, candid aunt who still has big sister powers over my dad).

He put me on the phone. Aunt Kathleen explained that black-eyed peas and cabbage were foods you “had to have” on New Year’s.  They represented luck and money, and no one wanted “to miss out on either.”

She said my Great-Grandma Gerdes made the New Year’s feast, and the dining room set she served it on is the same one we use for Christmas dinner today at Aunt Kathleen’s.

My adorable big sister Julie, recently married, the day she got engaged.  And a close-up of the ring. Julie's husband Andrew had to reconstruct the band, but he kept the original diamond and floral theme. She got engaged two-months before Kate Middleton but they both wore wrap dresses to make the big announcement. 
The only other things I know about Grandma Gerdes are the following: she looked like my dad in a dress (I need to find that picture), she was feisty, my sister’s engagement ring was hers, she smoked cigarettes like a chimney, got egg shells in her pecan pie and had a pretty morbid catchphrase, “This world, the next and then the fireworks.” 

I asked my dad what it meant and he laughed and said, “I don’t know. Everything just gets worse?”

The conversation continued the next day in Hammond at my uncle’s house. Here, my 91-year-old Gammie said her Grandma Meyer made it for her as a girl in New Orleans.  Gammie said during her childhood everyone was superstitious and that’s why her family ate the black-eyed peas and cabbage.  She remembered her great-uncles and uncles (she lived with about seven uncles during the depression, more stories on that later) also banned sweeping after dark, because it was bad luck. 

The little girl in this picture from ~1889 is my great-great-grandmother (with my great-great-great-grandparents, The Ortets); she was later known to my Gammie as Grandma Meyer. Her superstitious brothers are also pictured, with Uncle Ham on the stool. Ham would grow up to own a popular speak-easy turned bar where Fats Domino got his start ... but that's another story.
And many people in New Orleans still see it as bad luck.  My friend Amanda, a New Orleans native, moved into a new place in August 2010.  Her mom forbade her from buying a broom because it was bad luck to buy one in the month of August.  Her mother reminded her of a relative who bought a broom in August 2005 … Amanda broke a glass one morning that month and called her mom to tell her what a hindrance this whole no-broom thing was becoming.  Her mother told her not to move and drove across the city with her own broom to sweep Amanda’s apartment.

A lot of New Orleanians may not be superstitious, but they are a littlestitious.  They eat black-eyed peas, sweep in the daylight and don’t eat oysters in a month without an “r” (there may actually be a science behind that).  No, it’s not voodoo, it’s just fun.

But, where the heck do the black-eyed peas and cabbage come from?

If you know, please email me at!

The Dish in Question: Black-Eyed Peas and Cabbage
This year, I couldn’t get enough lunch. But as a picky kid, my dad made me eat my age in beans.

Corned beef, cabbage, black-eyed peas over rice and garlic bread.
My dad (Bob) serves this lunch with corned beef, which is not traditional to New Year’s, but St. Patrick’s Day. Corned beef and cabbage is a St. Patty’s institution, but it just kind of gets lumped in with New Year’s cabbage.  I’ll save the corned beef recipe for March.  So, let’s talk cabbage …

This year, the cabbage came from my dad’s garden, which he says is “on the assault.” The assailant: rabbits. 

The bunnies are so well fed from his greens, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower that they can no longer fit through his wire fence. 

He’s not quite Bill Murray in Caddyshack … yet.  But, he has set up a critter cam as it’s “about time for another litter.”

Preparing the Cabbage, according to Bob:
Cut the cabbage up”
Use a small amount of ham or sausage to grease the pan
Stir in cabbage and add a cup of hot water
Add Tony’s, or creole seasoning  (But seriously, if you don’t know Tony, befriend him)
Let it cook for a couple of hours (What can I say, Bob is brief)

The Beans, according to Bob: 
Prepare pork, tasso, sausage or ham (or as Bob suggests “any combo there of”)
Cook it down with onions
Then you add black-eyed peas
Let them cook for 2-3 hours
Add the holy trinity: salt, pepper and Tony’s
Serve over white rice

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