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Austin Chronicle Oh, Oh, Those Summer Bites

JULY 12, 1999:  After a long, mild spring, the shimmering heat of summer is finally here, evoking memories of special treats encountered in exotic locales, raucous outdoor cooking events, and treasured family recipes. While it may be too hot to cook, it's not too hot to read about food, and some members of the Chronicle food staff are serving up delicious summer memories, à la carte. Ronna Welsh recalls the liberation of swearing and eating sugary cereals at camp, Rachel Feit shares a story of love blossoming under Russian cherry trees, I discover a genuine family heirloom, Pableaux Johnson recounts how his parents' divorce forever expanded his culinary horizons, and, as the life of the original Liberty Lunch draws to an end, Mick Vann takes us back to the 1976 Bitecentennial Burger contest that was held at the beloved downtown nightspot. Dinner's ready! --Virginia B. Wood


Camp Food

With the onset of summer, I feel oddly displaced. Disorienting heat aside, summer prescribes for me a potent dose of nostalgia which rattles my sense of the present. I ache for specific things: misty mountain air dusted with campfire smoke, toasted marshmallows. The memories of childhood and my first taste of freedom.

It was at overnight camp that I saw my first starlit sky. I was nine years old and clinically shy about advertising my myopia in public. I'd tote thick glasses to the occasional softball game, but never to the social canteen or anywhere else for public purview. Before I first wore glasses at night, my eyes had counted only three stars in the entire central Pennsylvania sky, a canvas permanently peppered with light. Once magnified, the web of constellations paralyzed me like a trapped insect. I remember standing and gazing at the field of storybook blue and gold and feeling true awe for the first time. Just as this moment acutely enlarged my universe, camp profoundly broadened my world.

At camp, I discovered bras and Maxi-pads, perfected schmugee making (wet toilet-paper pods that stuck to the ceiling), wore blue eye shadow and pink tube tops, and teased my friend's permed hair. Camp was about ear piercings, wedgies, pre-pubescent boys, and an aching devotion to Harry Chapin. It was about bad musicals that we all loved and great acoustic guitar. And camp was about Julie and Jamie, my seasonal best friends, and the solidarity of bunk number eight.

But mostly, camp was a study in kid spirit, sparked by the greatest freedom ever experienced by this young, shy girl. My world of chalkboards and suburbs, of mean boys and bratty girls, disappeared at the arbored entrance to this secluded space. At camp, I acquired a fluency in curse words and gave a go at humor. I led the Nutella Chocolate Sandwich Spread Movement, which left peanut butter stuck in the jar. And in an act of famed defiance, I consumed enough sugar cereal to compensate for what my parents refused me at home. Sure there were consequences: I eventually lost a filling to taffy sticks and a slim figure to Snickers bars. I invariably shamed my grandfather with my dirty mouth. But my disrepute was mine. I wore it proudly.

Camp was not about food, surely, but food inspired our greatest excesses. I consumed my weight in corn fritters each week, followed by binges on blueberry blintzes and sloppy joes. At camp, I roasted umpteen marshmallows and ate my first Neapolitan ice cream bar. But if camp food was indulgent (think sugar, think fried), it was also often disgusting. The top three worst things I've ever eaten in my life are Camp Reeta's brisket, green beans, and chicken pot pie.

Mealtime at Camp Reeta wasn't about the food, anyway. The dining hall became a forum for chanting and singing, for gossip, for food fights, and for girl chats. It was a place to break challah and drink "wine" juice on Shabbat. It was where we acquired domestic skills (how to scrape and stack plates) and where we practiced table decorum, including proper pleasantries ("Pass the *!#*! Corn Puffs, PLEEEEZE!").

Generally, meals were a comfort, and only occasionally, like the time they served undercooked chicken in the summer of '78, a source of pain. "The bird," I wrote home, in what was to be the infamous birth of my food writing career, "was defective."

Maybe the "food poisoning" letter smacked of a familiar family satire or unveiled a precious attempt at precociousness. Maybe it reflected an endearing naïveté. In any case, my mom saved it. For me, today, it conjures up images of crisp rolls of white paper, unfurled atop mess hall tables. It evokes the smell of wet wood benches, soaked in Kool-Aid, and of chants from spirited girls, caught up in just being themselves.

I fold the letter with care. It belongs to my parents, and I implore them to preserve it well. "This is more of my childhood than you'll ever know," I want to explain, acutely aware, now, of the shortcomings of adult words in expressing kids' complex emotions. I want to tell them that camp was about becoming more of myself than my parents or schoolteachers or school friends ever realized, how it was my initiation into real girlhood, a community closed to shy preteens the rest of the year. I, at least, will cherish this letter as an artifact of immunity, a time when the choice to eat sugar cereal in defiance of a parental prohibition, much like the choice to leave my parents for two months each year, was a notably independent act. --Ronna N. Welsh



illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

Cherries Jubilee

In the garden, under the dripping fruit trees, we ate cherries. ... Tart and sweet, seductive and juicy. Ruby-skinned and firm-fleshed, the hard ones are the best; these usually taste the sweetest. Voluptuous, luxuriant, cherries evoke leafy summer gardens tucked behind Old World cottages. There is a window, sometime between the end of May and late June, when the cherries come into season. The solstice, endless sunny days, the season of summer fruit. It is a time when memories, like evening summer shadows, fall lightly across the threshold of the mind. On my porch, eating cherries, I remember the fruits of summers past, in foreign lands, amidst the ruins of Taurians and Greeks, Romans and Tatars.

Looking out across the Black Sea, we sat under the dripping fruit trees. Together, we watched the sun set and listened to friends explain the difference between vishnye (sour cherries) and chereshnye (sweet cherries). The Ukrainians love the sour cherries best. For them, the sweet ones are too cloying, too decadent. Perhaps they feel as Chekhov did, that the taste of a sweet cherry is corrupt. For him, the ancient leviathan orchard symbolized the denouement of the Russian aristocracy. The sound of their fall, like that of the orchard (a sound as crisp as a snapping string or the bite of an ax) still reverberates a century later. For our friends, the sour cherries bear the comfortable tang of suffering, the taste of sweat. Bitter and untamed, unlike their sugary cousins, they endure.

But for us, two Americans, cherries had no such connotations. We devoured the ruby-fleshed fruit with naïve enjoyment. The sweetness of the chereshnye seemed to mirror our own thoughts, which drifted out toward all things impractical. Sitting in the garden under the dripping fruit trees, looking out across the Black Sea, we ate cherries. The markets were full of them at that time: two pounds for less than a dollar. The roads were red from fallen fruit, laid flat under the relentless tires of Ladas. Trees hunched under the strain of cherries, along the roads, in the backs of houses, in apartment courtyards. Every babushka had a bucket for sale. Pits littered the streets and sidewalks.

Once the others were gone, we continued to gorge ourselves on the plentiful fruit. We talked about ourselves, of food and of home. Side by side we sat on the bench, eating cherries and spitting out the seeds. We played a pit-spitting game. I always won. You have to curl your tongue around the pit, you see. You form a little hollow and shoot the pit, like a cannonball. As I showed him how, macerated bits of uneaten cherry came hurling from my tongue, dribbling onto my chin. He licked the cherry juice from my chin and kissed my mouth. Lips and teeth stained red, I fell in love ... In the garden, under the dripping fruit trees, amidst the ruins of Taurians and Greeks, Romans and Tatars, a new life sprang from a cherry pit. A cherry kiss on the bench at sunset blossomed into friendship, into love. Here in America, I buy cherries every summer when they come into season. Eating them, seductive and juicy, I fall in love again. --Rachel Feit



illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

Detective Summer

I'll remember the summer of 1999 as the year I became a detective. Squinting at microfilmed census records in the State Archive library, chatting with county clerks and family history librarians across the South, and surfing genealogy sites on the Internet, I'm searcing for ancestors and trying to find clues to what they ate. Some lines of the family stubbornly refuse to reveal themselves, but through persistence and real luck, I've recently become acquainted with one of my great-great-great grandmothers. Orphaned at three, Nancy Warren married in her early teens and came to Texas in a covered wagon in 1851 with her husband David Partlow and their two small children. They settled on a farm in Hunt County, where Nancy raised six children of her own and two of her grandkids.

Studying the sepia-toned photograph of Grandma Nancy (shared by a distant relative who turned up in the research), I'm overwhelmed with questions. "What did you feed Edney Jane and William on the trail?" I want to ask her. "What did you plant in your kitchen garden at the farm? Did you like to bake, like I do? I bet your cornbread didn't have any sugar in it, am I right?" She can't tell me, of course, and it's not likely any of Nancy Partlow's recipes were passed down in our family. Her oldest daughter died as a young mother, and the two grandsons she raised, one of whom was my great-grandfather, married and followed the land rush to Oklahoma not long before Nancy herself died. I can study historical foodways of the area and the time period, but Grandma Nancy's cooking will probably always remain a mystery I can't solve.

Enamored as I am with Grandma Nancy's largely uncharted life and times, there's plenty of detective work to be done right here at the house. Last fall, my sister Anhara handed me a package of old cookbooks she'd found in a box of our mother's things. I barely glanced at the tattered old spiral-bound Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks before I put them away, thinking I'd get to them after the holidays. One month stretched into six and the two antiques became my summer reading. The newest of the two books has a red-and-white checked cover and my mother's name, Laruth Wood, written boldly inside it in her always perfectly legible handwriting. It dates from the Fifties, the decade when my parents moved to Midland to open the drugstore and raise a family. She's written some recipes on the extra pages, pasted in a few newspaper and magazine clippings, and there's the occasional list of ingredients jotted down on notepads from my dad's drugstore or on the backs of envelopes. She'd saved some faded recipe sheets from cooking classes at the Pioneer Natural Gas Company, my grandfather Walden's longtime employer. The Banana Nut Layer Cake I remember as one of Mother's specialties is written inside the back cover. This is definitely her cookbook.

The other book turned out to be a surprising reward and an even greater mystery. The conventional wisdom in our family has always been that my grandmother, Winnie Kelly Walden, was a good down-home cook who left exactly one written recipe behind when she died: an ingredient list for refrigerator cookies. Every holiday season after Nana died, Mother would complain that she just couldn't get the cornbread right for dressing and she didn't have the recipe for Osgood pie. If I heard those things once, I heard them a hundred times. If all that was true, then who does the older cookbook belong to? No name is inscribed in the fragile old gray volume, an earlier version of the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook so popular with American housewives during the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. The binding is tattered and the pages browned with age. Throughout the spiral binder, recipes clipped from BH&G magazines dated from 1937 to 1948 have been carefully pasted in along with handwritten recipes in the blank pages and the margins.

Some of the recipes are attributed to names I don't recognize: Elizabeth Davies, "Mother" Underwood, Mayrene, and, occasionally, "Mamma." Whose mama would that be, I wonder? Though one or two of the notations were obviously written by my mother, most of the handwriting is a kind with which I'm not familiar. My grandmother Walden died when I was 12, and though I spent summers with her every year, I don't have any samples of her handwriting. There are some good clues, however. The pickled peaches that always appeared on the Walden holiday table are here. The cornbread recipe made with buttermilk, no sugar, and shortening heated in an iron skillet that is the traditional version prepared in our family is written in a margin. There's one for the skillet and one for corn sticks. And in the pie section -- Eureka! -- the recipes for both Chess and Osgood pies, Nana's specialties! Reading gave way to hours in the kitchen. I've made these recipes and my childhood taste memories suggest that I'm holding our family's culinary equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a cookbook that belonged to Winnie Walden.--V.B.W.



illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

Custody Cuisine

"And what on it?" The first slice of summer was always perfect. Across the Formica countertop and glass divider, the rectangular oven door made its spring-loaded creak and filled the room with radiant heat and the garlic fumes. With a quick flip of the long-handled peel, the pizza guy would flick the slice from the recesses of the oven to a well-dented circular aluminum pan, then to a waiting Styrofoam plate. Big as a saddle blanket and dripping molten mozzarella, the slice -- 90° of a perfect Neapolitan pie -- would slide across the counter and into my hands.

Of the good things to come out of my parents' divorce, one of the big ones had to be the pizza. Sausage with extra pepperoni.

Actually, it was the near endless parade of foods that I loosely defined as "city foods" -- a group of exotic dishes that could only be eaten during summer vacation and were available only within the confines of New York. This in the days before Lender's bagels were available in your grocer's freezer or the Nathan's Coney Island franchises appeared in mallside food courts.

For roughly two weeks every summer, an amicable custody agreement provided for an early education in edible American culture. We kids -- myself and sisters Charlotte and Elaine -- loved it. Upon reaching an age of relative responsibility (approximately eight years old), we could visit our father in the Big City -- at least a million miles from our hometown in rural Louisiana.

These trips gave the kids their first taste of city life and provided my newly bachelorized dad with a dose of round-the-clock parental responsibility. We'd shoehorn ourselves into his one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment and try not to bounce around too much. During the daytime, we'd walk the streets between tourist attractions and learn the Rules of the City. (No eye contact on the subways. Most people don't own cars. The third rail is not a toy.) At night, watch the harbor lights through the apartment's huge picture window and ... of course ... jump around until the downstairs neighbors complained.

In between our many adventures (Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Central Park), we'd walk through the neighborhood, shopping at the tiny storefronts. Early in the morning, we'd march down to Moishe's Bagels, where the air was always humid and yeasty from the boiling kettles. Apples from the little greengrocer's stand. Glittering cookies and mysterious cannoli from the Italian bakery. Milk from the tiny corner store. All without a supermarket in sight.

And then there were the walking foods -- delicacies that emerged from stainless steel carts stationed on just about every street corner. These magical mobile cafes could provide foods to satisfy almost every possible eight-year-old whim: Meaty, messy hot dogs for lunch. Soft, doughy pretzels for afternoon snacks. Brightly colored Italian ices and synthetic Good Humor bars for any time in between.

As soon as we learned how to recognize the different kinds of carts, Charlotte and I would spring into full tag-team parental erosion mode ("Pleeeeease? Canwecanwecanwecanwe?"), hoping to trigger an appeasement snack. And Dad, our beleagured temporary authority figure, quickly learned to dread the carts' multicolored umbrellas.

But the best of the lot had to be the pizza. It was perfect.

Back home, on the rare occasions when you could get to the chain parlors, there was always a ritual of compromise. Charlotte liked her pizza plain. I liked it with pepperoni. So we'd fight. Our mother would break us up and decide on a swift Solomon-like compromise. Twenty minutes later (at least two lifetimes), the waitress would bring us a small pie topped with mushrooms -- the topping that Mama liked.

In the City, however, there was no need for compromise, patience, or any other drawbacks of communal eating. When Dad would take us to one of the million "Pizza by the Slice" joints that pepper the boroughs, we could choose our own slab of pie, then add whatever toppings we wanted. With a creak and a blast, the oven swallowed our cold pizza and spit it out seconds later too hot to eat and made to order. Immediate gratification from our favorite food. For a brief moment, there were no fights, no negotiations, and no problems. We kids couldn't have been happier, and Dad relished the mealtime lull in the action. When our mouths were full, at least we were quiet.

After the "grab and go" meal, we'd gather our stuff and head back to the bustling sidewalks. You could see Dad frantically doing the logistical math as we started the walk home. "Three blocks down and two over to the subway, then across the river to Brooklyn, then down for a nap."

"I just hope they don't see that damn umbrella ..." --Pableaux Johnson



illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

The 1976 Burger Bitecentennial

It was the consummate summer food event, one that combined roaring barbecue pits, blazing solar heat, loud and raucous music, mass quantities of properly chilled beverages, unruly and slobbering mobs, herds of competing cooks, exploding fireworks, and even the red-white-and-blue. The year was 1976 -- a glorious period for the laid-back, beautiful, and funky Austin that used to be. We were at Liberty Lunch in its majestic days. It was the 200th birthday of the good old U.S. of A., and the perfect opportunity to hold the first annual Burger Bitecentennial.

We were Team Bean Palace, composed of Raymond "T.R." Tatum, his lovely sister Debo (a damn fine baker), and me. For you youngsters and transplants out there who might be wondering what the Bean Palace might have been, let me say that it comprised the eastern -- and much saner -- half of Succotash Central. It was the bungalow on West Sixth that was decorated with the cumulus clouds against azure sky, with the floating pinto bean and crawdad above the porch. Our neighbors to the west were the Corn Palace, inhabited by Art (Art Eddy), Artly (as in Snuff), and Artist (Tommy B.). Their domicile was an artistic homage to maize and site of the largest collection of corn memorabilia in the free world. The Shiner delivery guys would make a once-weekly stop to replenish the beer supply, and it also held the world's only Lid-O-Matic dispenser. Together, as Succotash Central, we put on some of the most outrageous parties and marathon Risk tournaments this burg has witnessed, rivaled only by Cliff and Ellen (Turner) Scott's famous insect and clown costume theme parties across the street. For those location freaks in the crowd, the whole block is now a barren wasteland inhabited by the Heartless Bank, just before MoPac.

A challenge had been issued by our zany pal Emil Vogely for us to enter the competition at the Burger Bitecentennial being held at Liberty Lunch. It was the first year open, and the Lunch was as much a lumber yard as it was a nightclub or cafe. Emil was the chef, and the cookoff craze was developing into a national mania. So he and Shannon Sedwick (one of the Lunch owners, now the big cheese at Esther's Follies) decided to commemorate the Fourth with a cookoff. What could be more American on July 4th, especially during the Bicentennial year, than honest-to-God burgers?

Emil had threatened to kick our collective butts -- the weapon of choice being the humble hamburger. In normal hands, this would have been an idle threat and easily dismissed, but in the hands of a tastemaster like Emil, the challenge was serious enough to warrant our complete attention. He would attack with his spicy New Orleans Burger, straight off the menu at the Lunch (and no slouch at that). His sister Anita would counter with a tofu burger. She was beautiful and effervescent and a great cook, but tofu was no match for what we had in mind. Culinary history had to be made, victory must be ours, and it had to be done emphatically. I have the photo on my desk: Emil in his "Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Lunch" apron with matching chef's cap; Ray and I both wearing Uranium Savages T-shirts, me (a shadow of my present self) with my Happy Chef apron on; Debo looking especially gleeful in some sort of eyelet lace ensemble; Anita in bare-midriff tube top, emblazoned with a star tattoo over her navel. All proudly standing in front of Old Glory.

Team Bean chose to make three separate burgers: one Hawaiian (in favor of the Royal Hawaiian Prince, our pal Jimmy Hughes), one with artichokes, oysters, and shrimp, and one "gourmet." They would all be nestled within the soft yeasty goodness of Debo's famous homemade buns. The "Kona Kruncher" was an Oriental marinated burger with grilled pineapple, except we had managed to sneak a little ground venison into the meat mixture. It was beyond reproach. The seafood "burger" we named "Neptune's Nemesis," since it featured several of Neptune's little pals. It had grilled oysters, shrimp, and artichokes, bathed in basil and garlic lemon butter. A piscatorial delight that wowed the crowd. I still have the exploded-view drawing I did for the last entry, the "Bleu Bonzo Burger." The meat patty rested atop a bed of sautéed mushrooms, then was sprinkled with bleu cheese crumbles. On top went asparagus, and homegrown tomatoes, red onion, and red romaine. A bleu cheese and sour cream dressing bathed the buns. We couldn't cook them fast enough to please the masses.

Somehow, in the substance-addled brains of the judges, we weren't chosen as the ultimate winners. Later investigations would prove that bribery and voter fraud were more than likely involved in this miscarriage of justice. Those curs from Mad Dog and Beans had unveiled their Bovine Burger -- a stuffed burger patty -- and had taken first place. I am happy to report that Team Bean Palace finished a close second, with Emil's Nawleans Burger third.

As the glowing embers in the Ol' Smoky gave way to the aerial explosions of the fireworks show overhead, I somehow managed to tilt my head back a little too far, disrupting what little equilibrium I had left, resulting in me falling backwards onto the fire pit. Amid the smell of charring flesh and the angry report of concussive fireworks, a third-degree burn the size of a large rat magically appeared on the back of my right calf. But I was having such a grand Fourth that I didn't feel a thing until the next morning. --Mick Vann


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