Food & Drink · Health · Lifestyle

The World According to Weber: My Grandmother Rosalie and the Season’s Coziest Cookbook

Illustration by Sheila Phalon.

Illustration by Sheila Phalon.

Miracle! Corky Pollan and her three daughters have brought my grandmother Rosalie back to life.

At first glance, The Pollan Family Table, the season’s coziest cookbook, may seem to be not at all about my family and rather much about them, a food-obsessed clan twenty-one strong. Corky, former longtime New York Best Bets columnist and Gourmet style director, shares the byline with her three daughters: actor Tracy and fitness entrepreneurs Lori and Dana. Actor Michael J. Fox (Tracy’s husband) and food philosopher Michael Pollan (Corky’s son) contribute introductory words.

Hovering benevolently about the enterprise is the paterfamilias, Stephen, who ingeniously sacrificed a length of driveway at their Long Island country home so the dining room could be reconfigured to seat the clan at a single table. Many photogenic children/grandchildren appear in the book as recipe-mongers and characters. And there are ancestors who grace the pages with their philosophies and kitchen secrets.

But unlike many other celebrity cookbook authors, who relentlessly pepper you with their wonderfulness, the Pollans clearly want you to reflect on the riches of your own family culinary history. Instead of growing weak-kneed over their recipes, you’re meant to think, “Oh, I can do that.”

bookWhile the Pollans were ahead of the curve—helped invent the curve—in preferring local, organic, and altogether wholesome marketing, there’s no preciousness or outrageous expense in their menu ideas and ingredient lists. Sometimes, it seems, they bend over backwards to be unsophisticated, as in a hero melt [p. 78] with canned tomato sauce plus a lot of onion and garlic.

For my taste, there’s too much garlic in the book altogether (and not just because I’m allergic to it), especially in the many Italian-style main and small dishes.  It’s garlic or onion in the pot, never both, for many Italian chefs and home cooks—as I learned from my late friend the great Abruzzese cookbook author Anna Teresa Callen. And if you must use garlic, why garlic powder, ever? That doesn’t seem a Pollan-pure ingredient. Their health claims for garlic don’t mention that it interacts with certain medicines. Ward off colds? While the National Institutes of Health agree, their data reflect studies with standardized garlic extract capsules. But, sure, fewer kisses means fewer colds. 

But turn the handsome, highly readable pages past the dishes not to your personal taste, and you’re apt to find clues to a childhood culinary treasure that was never codified, that you’ve hungered after for decades. That’s where my grandmother comes in.

Rosalie Fox, a widow who lived with my parents, brother, and me, made two desserts that I was mad for. One was a sweet noodle pudding (never called “kugel” in our Yiddish-phobic New England home), the other a cakey but crisp twice-baked cookie that somehow kept its mittel-European name, Mandelbrot—literally, “almond bread.”

When I asked Rosalie (never Grandma or Nana; even in the formal 1950s she was Rosalie to grandchildren, our friends, her son-in-law, the postman) how she made these heavenly sweets, she said, “A little of this, a little of that.” She wasn’t being coy or withholding—it was her m.o. I never saw her with a cookbook. Perhaps, like the cook I grew up to be, she considered it wrong to follow a recipe exactly—a form of copying and therefore immoral, just as she always changed the buttons or added a pocket to a new dress.

My freshman year in high school, our English class did a deep analysis of the mythic centipede who could no longer run because a mischievous toad asked which leg moved after which. I stopped beseeching Rosalie for her non-existent recipes, lest the mandelbrots stop coming out of the oven. And then she remarried and moved to Florida, where we ate a lot of ice cream on family visits: not a place for baking. When I was 16, Alzheimer’s claimed her; and Rosalie’s mandelbrot crumbled into history.

My mother, a first-rate baker, never made mandelbrot because—well, it would take a platoon of shrinks to figure out why. She missed her mother too much? She was too competitive to go head-to-head with a ghost? Or because she was (to my mind) pathologically dependent on recipes, and there wasn’t one?

Yes, my mother the former anarchist, the superbly original painter, followed recipes as if they were the word of God. She was a brilliant and adventuresome cook, introducing Steak Diane to West Hartford, but when I once offered puréed fresh pumpkin for a Thanksgiving pie, she snarled at me, “The recipe says ‘canned.’”

After chefs’ boot camp at the French Culinary Institute and a six-month stint as a pastry chef, I became a passionate, almost compulsive, maker of biscotti. Pecan with ginger and bourbon; spiced pumpkin (from fresh pumpkin, of course); vanilla-issimo. I made vegan biscotti, low-fat biscotti, gluten-free biscotti (cornmeal), no-nutters. Reading every source but devising my own recipes and often deviating from even those.

When I read Lori’s reflections in The Pollan Family Table, an insight pierced me. The biscotti madness was an attempt to conjure Rosalie’s mandelbrot. And here at last was my chance. A recipe, but not exactly. The way it had to be.

“Mary baked by feel and by eye—the old-fashioned way—and never used written recipes,” Lori writes of her maternal grandmother [p. 7]. “So when I asked her as a teenager to teach me some of my favorites, I had to observe carefully and translate her instructions into cooking terms I was familiar with—a handful of nuts (lets say a quarter cup), add flour ‘until it’s workable—not too wet, not too dry’ (my guesstimate was 3 cups), 30 drops of vanilla (I noted ½ teaspoon). My grandmother Mary taught me a powerful lesson: Cooking is not a science but an art, mistakes are okay; messes are fine—the pleasure is in the creating and the sharing of the result.”

I flipped the book to page 279: grandma mary’s mandelbrot cookies. I was charmed right off by the lower-case recipe title, an absence of braggadocio, the opposite of set-in-stone. The recipe looked sound, although it seemed to contain a lot of sugar—1-1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons. My biscotti always use 1/2 cup of sugar. But, hmmm, maybe, could be right? I tasted backward through time. Yup, Rosalie’s mandelbrot-biscotti were sweet-ish. I turned on the oven. Heart going pit-a-pat.

But walnuts? Not sure Rosalie used walnuts in hers, and not my favorite nut. Almond extract, yeah, probably she did, but I find it overbearing and don’t stock it. And what’s with canola oil? Probably didn’t exist in Mary’s, and Rosalie’s, day. Anyway, it’s too high in vitamin K for a household where someone takes Coumadin, so none here. It would have to be olive oil.

Art, not science, right? So okay for me to fiddle the quantities to suit my personal, admittedly compulsive metric, in which only the numbers “2” and “1/2” are permitted. So half a cup of Malawi sugar, half a cup of pale raw sugar, 2 tablespoons honey, 2 tablespoons brown raw sugar. Two extra-large eggs plus 2 yolks. Two and a half cups of all-purpose flour (instead of 3-1/4) plus ½ cup of “00” flour.

Because copying is wrong.

Somehow (Mary and Rosalie smiling down on me?) I ended up with a dough that readily formed into the classic logs for the first baking. And into the oven they went—not at 350, of course not, but at 375, turned down to 325 after ten minutes; 325, the number of my childhood home. Rosalie’s kitchen.

Reader, the mandelbrot were brilliant. Not exactly Mary’s and not quite Rosalie’s—but a lot of sugar is definitely key. I’m on the way. Dammit, I may even buy almond extract. Or not.

I hope the Pollans will happily take credit for inspiring me with a new definition of a great recipe.  It’s a matrix so basically sound, you can leave out the walnuts (or whatever) and still end up with a brilliant success.  Like riffing on a jazz standard.  With due respect to Lori, I think cooking is both science and art.  The Pollans are at their best factoring in the science, so you can have the fun of making art.

 

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