I was raised for a time in a place you have never lived, and have likely never visited.
Williamsburg is an off ramp of I-80, in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the Midwest.
Settled by German immigrants a million years ago, this was the pure heartland; family farms, not yet overrun by corporate monster farming enterprises.
The thing I remember most vividly about this time of my life, as a very young child, was the food.
My father was a farmer then, in partnership with my grandfather. We grew food, and we ate much of what we grew.
By all accounts what we ate you would judge to be unremarkable. It was our version of peasant food, simple in design and in presentation.
We butchered our own cattle and hogs. Our bacon was as thick as a 2×4. The steaks and roasts were the size of a coffee table. We did slow food before it became a 50 dollar a plate entrée. My mom and my grandmother both had gardens. I want to say they were about a half-acre in size, but at 5 years old, they felt like a massive Garden of Eden. I frolicked through those gardens, smelling the earthy mustiness of the potatoes and onions, both as big as softballs. Snap peas flourished on large vines, any number of vegetables comprised row after row of this mini-farm. I remember making frequent trips to the raspberry bushes, sneaking innumerable snacks during my visits.
The food was simple, largely organic, and came out of the ground in mammoth yields. The meals served in our kitchens and dining rooms were nothing short of monstrous. These farmers worked incredibly long days, burning many thousands of calories during a typical day. They refueled with massive portions of fresh vegetables and mountains of meat.
I can’t recall anything ever being served with a garnish, or a sauce, or even many spices, save the simple ones like garlic powder and salt/pepper. It was simple and good and served up in mega-portions at the hands of the talented women who created it.
During the summer months, the cousins would visit from Chicago for a long weekend and help the men bale hay. I can smell it now-like a freshly mowed lawn on steroids, the dust from the clovers hanging in the humid air. Grandma and Mom and I would make the big schlep from the house out to the fields, carrying a giant picnic basket, a red and white checkered towel covering up these unbelievable summer sausage sandwiches. We’d sit on the hay rack (a trailer pulled by a tractor), and devour those sandwiches, slaking our thirst with gallons of ice-cold, fresh lemonade.
I started drinking coffee when I was 5. Black, hot and delicious. The one and only “fancy” thing I ever remember Grandma doing in the kitchen was making coffee by hand – hot water poured over ground beans into a large glass decanter.
When the families entertained, the food remained uncomplicated, but still overwhelming in quantity – the crudite was homegrown pickles and celery and carrots. Drinks were whiskey and 7-Up, Budweiser from a can. Dad would let me sneak a sip of beer while he and the cousins and Grandpa played cards. To this day, I prefer no Coke in my Rum, no soda in my vodka, and not a drop of cream in my coffee!
Our bread was baked fresh. The smell filled the house with that tremendous perfume that made one want to hurtle themselves toward the pantry counter, snag a full loaf, tear it in half and sink your choppers into it. Grandma was the best baker in our universe. She made sweet rolls that would make Cinnabon blush with humility.
She also crafted a German pastry called kringles that we would wolf down with abandon. The pretzel-shaped delicacies were created by rolling butter between layers of yeast dough and letting it rest for hours before baking.
This food was sturdy and solid; hearty and pure, consistently satisfying. It would never have been featured in a foodie mag or a TV show because it was not elegant, but it was so very, very good.
Mom watched Grandma, and she learned a lot from her. As the years went by, many of Grandma’s masterpieces continued to show up on our family dinner table, even after Dad retired from farming and we moved to “town”, when I was all of 6 or 7 years old. I remember it like was yesterday. I remember the taste, the texture…and the pleasure of it.
I would sit on the counter, watching my mother prepare meals, peppering her with questions – what’s that, why are you putting this on that, can I have a taste…
I made my own little recipe box, to archive my simple creations that I was occasionally allowed to manufacture. Not long ago, a package arrived in the mail at my home; it was that little brown box, the artistry of an enthusiastic child preserved, to be cherished forever.
To this day, when I come home to visit Mom and Dad, we still eat this way. My Dad can’t cook much of anything, so Mom performs every task except Grillmaster. They don’t have a garden anymore but what remains consistent is the way we eat when I’m home. It’s good and it's made by hand. I know when I ask, “What’s for dinner?” I already know the answer. “Dad’s picking up a beef tenderloin, we’ll stop by the farmer’s market for some Fincel’s sweet corn…”
I’ll challenge anyone on the planet to grow better corn-on-the-cob than these folks. It's sweet in a way that's indescribable.
Mom and Dad have a couple hundred thousand reasons to be snobby, but I’ve never witnessed it. The way I was raised as a young child, and the way my parents comport themselves to this day, remains authentic. Mom and Dad know a little something about values like generosity, kindness, civility and honesty, those sadly antiquated notions of what we are supposed to be as a people. The food represented a way of living that I’m so proud to have been a witness to- sturdy, free of pretension, void of facade.
One of the great joys I experience in this life is to cook for family and friends, break open the wine, and sit down to share a fabulous meal.
My skills in the kitchen have evolved over the years, and while I can make a horseradish/parmesan souffle so light it practically floats above the ramekin, and whip up a pretty awesome panko-breaded halibut filet with curry and coconut milk, garnished with a mango/cilantro chutney, I have to be reminded to plate the entrees.
I still default to serving everything up in big plates and bowls, family style – a nod to the past, with great respect.
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