Category Archives: Food

Foods of Home — Make Some Chili Mac

Mac and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, chili mac–the comfort foods of the midwestern America. Pasta has a surprisingly long history in American cooking.

Macaroni swept London in the 1770s as fashionable young men did the Grand Tour of Italy and brought back macaroni dishes. The craze for Italian, art Italian fashion, and Italian food carried across the Atlantic into the colonies as well.  British satirists had a field day with Italy-crazed young men, calling the wearers of foppish fashions “Macaronis”. A drinking song satirized the stupid Yankee Doodle dolts (as they were seen in England). The American soldiers, the British sang, didn’t know the difference between a feather and fashion.

For a detailed explanation of the phrase, “Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni”, see this web site on political satire of the American Revolution period.  Just as Hillary Clinton fans gleefully took the title “Nasty Woman” and Donald Trump fans adopted “Despicables” during the 2016 presidential campaign, the American revolutionaries purloined the English song that mocked them.

Our Love Affair with Pasta Goes Way Back

Meanwhile, American housewives imported macaroni (and other pastas) and found new ways to use them.  Later, Italian immigants opened restaurants where they catered to American tastes and American Italian food strayed from the original. Mrs. Beeton‘s wonderfully thorough household guide, published in 1860, explains the differece between various pastas, the wheat used to make the best pasta, and gives numeous recipes for using pasta–in soup, in macaroni with Parmesan cheese, and in macaroni puddings. According to Paul Freedma in Ten Restaurants that Changed America, macaroni was a mainstay on restaurant menus throughout the 19th century.  Even the classiest New York Society hang-outs offered macaroni and cheese.

Chili Mac and Johnny Marzetti

Although I have been able to document the absolute origin of Chili Mac, most sources seem to think it came from Cincinnati, where the famous cinnamon-flavored chili is served on spaghetti to this day.  But there is that little nagging problem of “Why is it alled Chili MAC if it is really Chili GHETTI?” The chili part is never in question. Originally, it probably depended on canned Hormel chili, a cheap and quick way to get a filling meal into a family. As you will see in my recipe, I eschew the old familiar canned stuff and strike out on my own. Cincinnati or not, there is no doubt in my mind that Chili Mac is a typical middle western dish, as is Johnny Marzetti.

Marzetti's Restaurant

Marzetti’s Restaurant Coumbus, Ohio, home of Johnny Marzetti

Johnny Marzetti is easier to trace. Marzetti’s restaurant in Columbus Ohio near the Ohio State University campus mixed noodles with canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, ground beef and cheese and baked the mixture. (That link takes you to the original recipe).  Ms. Marzetti the restaurant’s owner, named the dish for her brother Johnny.  She popularized the comfort food in the 1920s, right when my mother was attending Ohio State University. No wonder Johnny Marzetti became a staple on our dinner table.  The nutrituous, make-ahead casserole, also starred on school lunch menus (all that government donated cheese!) and still shows up on Midwestern potluck tables. Every cook may have a different recipe–my sister and I differ on the kind of noodles to use–I prefer flat noodles for Johnny Marzetti and when I use macaroni the dish becomes chili mac.

I suspect that although both variations of noodles-beef-tomatoes may have originated early in the 20th century, they both got a big boost because of the Great Depression.

Chili Mac soothes and fills the empty tummy on a chilly MidWestern winter day. It is inexpensive, easy on the cook and a perfect comfort food.

Chili Mac

Serves 12
Prep time 20 minutes
Cook time 25 minutes
Total time 45 minutes
Allergy Wheat
Meal type Main Dish
Misc Child Friendly, Freezable, Pre-preparable, Serve Hot
Region American
Comfort food form the mid-west, Chili Mac makes an easy economical and filling meal.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 bag Macaroni (uncooked)
  • 1/2lb ground beef
  • 1 bell pepper (diced)
  • 1 stalk celery (diced)
  • 1 can beans (kidney beans or black beans, seasoned or unseasoned)
  • 8oz canned corn (optional)
  • 1 can tomatoes (diced)
  • chili powder or hot sauce (to taste (I use Cholula hot sauce))
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • garlic salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro (chopped)
  • 1/2-1 cup grated parmesan/romano cheese

Optional

  • 1 onion (chopped)
  • 1 can kchopped Hatch green chilis

Directions

1. Cook macaroni according to package directions, drain and set aside. (Under cook slightly since the noodles will be cooking for a short time in the sauce.)
2. Meanwhile, saute the bell pepper and celery and onion in a large skillet, using a small amount of olive oil.
3. Add ground beef, crumbled, to the vegetables in the skillet and cook until browned. Pour off grease if accumulated.
4. Add the canned beans, tomatoes and corn (if using) to the browned hamburger and stir in the seasonings. Stir in the macaroni. Taste and correct seasonings if needed.
5. Sprinkle cheese on top and put a lid on, turning stove down to low. Leave until cheese is melted into the rest. This dish will hold until everyone gets to the table, and can be served diretly from the skillet.
6. If you do not have a very large skillet that will hold all these ingredients, put the cooked macaroni in a casserole dish and then stir in the cooked hamburger and other ingredients. Add cheese on top, and put in 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes--until cheese is melted in.

Note

Feel free to adapt and use what you have on hand. This recipe is abundantly flexible.

Grandma’s Lemon Sponge Pie or Chess Pie?

Lemon pies

Grandma Vera’s Lemon Sponge pie squares off with Joy of Cooking’s Lemon Chess pie.

When a neighbor offered to let me pick as many lemons as I wanted from his lemon tree, I went a little crazy.  As I juiced those lemons on a 55-year-old electric  juicer, I pondered how I would use these lemons. I wanted to try something other than the standard custard lemon pie with meringue. The winners were: Lemon Bars, Lemon Chess pie, and Grandma Vera Anderson’s Lemon Sponge Pie. The two pies held a competition. By the way, I would have made my favorite lemon pie with whole slices of lemon rather than a custard filling. But these lemons were small, and seed-filled.  Not appropriate for that pie. So let the Bake-Off begin.

Read below the recipes what the taste-testers had to say.

electric juicer

Proctor-Silex electric juicer 1960

 

 

I got my electric juicer for a wedding present, and other than the fact that the strainer insert melted when it dropped onto the heating element in the dishwasher, the juicer is still kicking.  It is much easier than juicing by hand, and I have no need for those enormous juicers that are all the fashion now.

I wish I could find another one of these, just like the vintage version. (Gives me pause to realize something I have used personally all its life is now vintage.)

 

Perfect Pie Crust

Both these recipes were made with my not-so-secret recipe for perfect pie crust, but with the chess pie the crust turned cumbly and more like a cookie crust. All that butter and those eggs. However, the pie dough was as easy as ever to make and manipulate. So if you haven’t tried it, take a look at the most popular recipe on this site–perfect pie crust.

 

Lemon Chess Pie

In Joy of Cooking, I found a recipe for Chess Pie, followed by a version that makes it Lemon Chess Pie. It is described as having a “sparkling translucency and a smooth, soft, and melting texture.”   That wasn’t the way I saw it. It was translucent, but so sticky sweet I could only eat two bites. Others who ate it actually loved it, though.

Basic Chess Pie (without lemon) comes from the Southern states, where it is a staple. Although I searched and searched, I could find no definitive explanation of the name. Several theories, but no one knows for sure from whence came the name for this sweet Southern treat.  The Joy of Cooking recipe diverges from traditional Chess Pie recipes I found on line, particularly in the method of dotting butter on top instead of mixing it in.

Recipe follows.

Lemon Chess Pie

Serves 10
Prep time 25 minutes
Cook time 45 minutes
Total time 1 hours, 10 minutes
Allergy Egg, Milk, Wheat
Dietary Vegetarian
Meal type Dessert
Misc Child Friendly, Serve Cold
From book Joy of cooking.
This recipe for Chess Pie from Joy of cooking is very rich. You will want to serve it in small slices.

Ingredients

  • 1 egg (large)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar
  • zest of one lemon
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 pie crust, baked

Directions

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Warm pie crust in oven while you are mixing filling.
2. Mix egg, egg yolks, sugar and lemon zest in bowl and whisk (Joy of Cooking suggests setting the bowl in a skillet with simmering water as you whisk.)
3. Whisk in liquids
4. Lemon Chess Pie
Pour into pie shell and dot the butter over the top. (The dotted butter resulted in a freckled top for me. Alternately, you may follow the more traditional method of mixing softened butter into the sugar before step one.)
5. Bake at 350 degrees, until edges are firm and center quiers like Jell-o when shaken gently. ( Joy of Cooking called for 45 minutes at 250 degrees, but I don't think that is warm enough. My oven took over an hour and I raised the temperature to 350 for the last 15 minutes.)
6. Top with meringue if you wish.

Grandma Vera’s Lemon Sponge Pie

Unfortunately, I have far too few recipes from my grandmother, but I have had this recipe for lemon sponge pie in my recipe box for years, and just never got around to trying it out. In checking for other versions of this pie, I found an identical recipe on line labeled as a traditional Amish recipe. I do not know where Grandma got the recipe, but the probable Amish source did not surprise me.  Killbuck, Ohio, where Grandma lived, lies in an area of Ohio settled by German and Amish immigrants,and familiar foods there tend to come from either England or Germany.

I doubled the recipe for my larger pie pan and got a bonus of two dishes of custard. I also reduced the sugar a bit, knowing that grandma had an insatiable sweet tooth.  I prefer to emphasize the lemon in lemon desserts.

When I make a dish with egg whites folded in, I always want to call all my friends and relatives to see it the moment it comes out of the oven. Because they beautiful pillowy effect is going to disappear in a minute.

Lemon Sponge Pie

Serves 8-10
Prep time 25 minutes
Cook time 30 minutes
Total time 55 minutes
Allergy Egg, Milk, Wheat
Dietary Vegetarian
Meal type Dessert
Misc Child Friendly, Pre-preparable, Serve Cold
A vintage Lemon Sponge Pie from my grandmother's recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 pie shell, unbaked
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 2 heaped tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • lemon peel (from one lemon (lemon zest, grated fine))

Directions

1. Put pie shell in refrigerator while you prepare the filling.
2. Mix sugar and melted butter.
3. Whisk in egg yolks
4. .Stir in half the milk, add the flour, then stir in the rest of milk
5. In clean bowl with clean beaters on electric mixer, beat egg whites until stiff.
6. Mix the lemon juice and peel into the batter. Then fold in the egg whites until there are no streaks of white.
7. Pour into pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Raise temperature to 375 degrees for another 15 minutes.

Note

The recipe as Grandma wrote it looked a bit small for my 9" pie pans, so I doubled the recipe. That way it yielded one large pie and two dessert dishes of custard. The only thing I did not double was the sugar. I like the lemon to shine through, so I used 1 1/2 cups of sugar instead of the full 2 cups. Your call.

Grandmother's instructions for making the pie were simply, "Cream together like cake. Add milk and fold in egg whites beaten stiff." I went into more detail than Grandma, just in case readers needed more help.

Grandma calls for "lemon peel", which we nowadays call lemon zest. That's what she meant--just the yellow part of the lemon peel, grated fine. I don't recall ever hearing the word "zest" in Ohio when I was growing up--it was always "lemon peel" and everyone knew that didn't include the bitter white lining of the peeling.

Don't be alarmed when the pie raises very high and then quickly sinks. That's the nature of the beast with puddings with so much beaten egg white.

The Votes Are In

Male #1: The sponge pie doesn’t taste lemony enough. It is not nearly as good as the other pie. The crust on the other pie was delicious. [As I mentioned above, it was actually the same crust on both pies, but  the ingredients made the Chess Pie crust more sugary.]

Female #1: The Sponge Pie sort of had the texture of a cheesecake, but lighter. But the Chess Pie was more lemony. I liked the crust of the Chess Pie–it was crispier and thinner. Definitely preferred the Chess Pie. It was like a Lemon Bar cookie.

Male #2: Definitely preferred the Chess Pie.  The crust was better and it tasted more strongly of lemons.  The texture of the Sponge Pie looked nice, but it was a let down after the Chess Pie. There really was no comparison.

Female #2: Preferred the Chess Pie.  Both were good, but I liked the calories (ha,ha) in the Chess pie. [the sweetness] The Sponge Pie had a tangy, lemony aftertaste which I enjoyed. The Sponge Pie was kind of like eating cheesecake, with a lemon flavor.

So there you have it. Sorry, Grandma Vera, I’m the only person who actually preferred your pie. I thought the Chess pie was cloyingly sweet (you would have loved it!). I would have preferred a stronger lemon flavor in the Sponge Pie but it would take some experimenting to see how to get that without messing up the texture.

Book Review:Restaurants in American Food History


Recommended reading for food and genealogy buffs: Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman

Restaurants and History

Today we take restaurants for granted. We ask “where do you want to go?” when celebrating birthdays, anniversarys and holidays.  Families have a multitude of choices for a quick meal. More upscale restaurants provide baby chairs and booster seats to accomodate the kids, assuming they will serve families. We expect five minute service, food that is predictably the same in any region of the country and refillable drink cups in fast food restaurants.  In finer dining establishments we take for granted they will offer a wide range of foods, many sourced from outside our country. Or they will offer seasonal, locally sourced food. The decor will be individual: calm, exciting, or exotic depending on the restaurant.

We can easily forget how recently restaurants as we know them today arrived on the scene.

Early Restaurants were Taverns

Old etching of Red Horse Tavern/ Wayside Inn, used with permission of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn archives.

The taverns that welcomed stagecoach riders came first in this country. My Howe ancestors ran Howe’s Tavern in Sudbury Massachusetts, and I have written about that tavern, and stayed at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, the descendent of Howe Tavern, now the oldest operating inn in the United States. And the header photograph on this page shows the family restaurant operated by my grandmother and grandfather in the 1930’s in Killbuck, Ohio.

The Restaurants That Changed America

A new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman traces the path by which we traveled from taverns to, for instance McDonalds or Chez Panisse. I highly recommend the book to family historians who want to know more about how the every day lives of their ancestors.

Clearly, this is not about the ten best Restaurants in America–a subject that could be argued vociferously at your next dinner party.  Instead, it is an analysis of what trends developed in our eating habits, and who started those trends. Freedman digs deep to find out what lies behind trends in dining out. The book is enlivened with insider information about incidents and people and the reader can visualize choosing what to eat from the historic menus that illustrate the book.

What restaurants would you put on a list of the innovators?  When I asked friends, they had a little trouble getting past the idea that I was not asking for best– I was asking for innovations that influenced the development of the way we eat today.

Where Did Your Ancestors and Family Dine Out?

Of course you can also play the game of “how many of these have you eaten at?”  Although some expired before you were born.  So a better game is, “do you have ancestors who might have eaten at these restaurants?

Delmonico’s

Delmonico's Restaurant

Supper after the Opera at Delmonico’s, New York, 1898, engraving by Albert Sterner, public domain

I think particularly of Delmonico’s in New York City, the place to be seen in turn of the century America, when emphasis was on elegant and lush surroundings and meals consisting of a bewildering number of courses and amounts of food.  My great uncle, William Morgan Stout and his wife Jean lived in Manhattan and were in the social class that could afford Delmonico’s.  I can imagine them dining there, and now have a better idea of what they might have ordered.  I knew oysters were popular in that period, but was not aware how people would choose wild game and duck, something I learned from the text and  the menu illustrations. Also, lush paintings of people give me clues about hair styles and clothing of the period.

Schrafft’s and Antoine’s

The section on Schrafft‘s in New York made me focus on how differently women were treated, even in the early twentieth century.  Antoine’s in New Orleans brings forward the dominance of French cooking in the United States and a “destination restaurant”.

Mamma Leone’s

When in college, I traveled with a friend from Ohio to New York City in 1959 and we dined at Mamma Leone’s. (While this qualifieds as current history for me, for my younger readers, it might be the experience of grandmother.)

At the time, I had no idea the restaurant  was setting new expectations for an ethnic restaurant. I just knew that Mamma Leone’s fame had spread all the way to Ohio. There Italian food, while not completely unknown, did not feature on many restaurant menus. I remember Mama Leone’s restaurant served a huge numer of people (4,000 a night according to Freedman). Dining here was an experience– huge portions food comfortably Americanized Italian. Noise and excitement characterized the atmosphere.

Freedman says:

Mama Leone’s combined many of these images {love of music, amorous appreciation, spontaneity, and volatile personality} refining them into an early example of a “theme” restaurant, a place where the staged ambience is as important as the food.

In its forty-year heyday, 1930-1970, it provided staggering portions in a setting that offered huge capacity, strolling musicians and distracting surroundings.

The authors points out that Italian food as transformed from its early small family-run places appealing to the “artsy” crowd, to mass dining for the middle class to the point where Italian food is now “the preferred cuisine of the upper class.”

HoJo’s Restaurant

Howard Johnson's Restaurants

Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, U.S. Alternate Route 1 (on the by-pass), Fredericksburg, Va. 1930-1945, Boston Public Library

My family has always loved road trips–going back to my grandfather and grandmother’s car camping and my mother’s summer trips with fellow teachers. Perhaps we should count great-great-grandfather Jesse Morgan and his insatiable wander lust in that group. But those road trips had something in common. The miserable food, either cooked over a campfire or poorly prepared stuff in a rooming house.

Road trips had changed by the sixties. My husband and I and our three sons set off for Washington D.C. and to Cape Cod. The New England portion of the trip included my husband’s parents and sister. Any trip with my father-in-law inevitably included stops at Howard Johnson‘s.  Paul Badertscher took a conservative approach to life and liked the predictability of Howard Johnson’s restaurants. You could count on the food from place to place. You could count on the cleanliness. And there was a comfortable hominess in eating in the familiar turquoise and orange collored surroundings. Besides, an Ohioan indulged in adventurous eating by ordering fried clams. Wayne County, Ohio menus did not include clams.

Freedman sees Howard Johnson’s restaurants known by the nickname HoJo’s, as pioneers.  Without Howard Johnson’s we might not have the roadside fast food places we have today like McDonald’s and Denny’s.  Johnson pioneered central food production sites that shipped food to individual restaurants. The operation included detailed instructions on preparation that guaranteed every site would be serving identical plates of food. In addition, the decor and architecture would be designed to be identical. The restaurants with their brightly colored, angled roofs could be found along major highways. The architecture attracted travelers because of their brightly colored, angled roofs even before you were close enough to read the sign.

Other Restaurants That Changed the Way We Eat

I have mentioned only a few of the ten restaurants Freedman talks about. The others, in roughly chronological order are:

The Mandarin, San Francisco, that took Chinese food upscale.

Sylvia‘s, Harlem, brought Southern black “soul food” to a white clientele.

Le Pavillion, New York, the New French cooking in mid-century.

The Four Seasons, New York, combining a modern aesthetic with the concept of seasonal foods.

Chez Panisse in Oakland, starting the strongest trend in today’s dining–locally sourced foods.

I hope you will leave a note and tell me if any of the restaurants in this list strike a note with you. Realizing that the restaurants are almost all in New York, your ancestors may not have eaten in that particular one. But in their time period, do the innovations shed light on how you family might have eaten?

Note:  I am not under the illusion that many people sit breathlessly waiting for a post from Ancestors in Aprons. However, for those who might wonder about my absence in the last few weeks, I would like to reassure you that all is well. And thanks for sticking around. I have pulled back from writing regularly in order to go deeper in some research.  I do have one more letter related to Jesse Morgan to share with you before I move away from his fascinating life. If you have not read about the wandering Jesse, please type his name in the search bar and decide whether he was a scoundrel or something less damning.