Sunday, April 6, 2014

Not born this way...a prequel

I haven't always been like this.

That is to say I haven't always been gaga about food as art, culture, language, spiritual path. After all this life, who knows what my natural palate discerns and prefers and what I have acquired. It may be that one's palate is always a bricolage. Many people (perhaps most) want only to duplicate the menus of childhood. The rest of us somehow have become more curious than suspicious.

I believe that my parents were very conscious of having and giving us the widest variety of experiences possible. Typically we moved from coast to coast and, each time, we took a different route. By the time I was 15, I had been in every US State, Protectorate and Territory, except American Samoa. You may not remember Burma Shave but I do..."If you / Don't know / Whose signs / These are / You can't have / Driven very far"

And always the food. We were required to taste everything at least once but were not forced to eat what we disliked. There was the hope that we would clean our plates. I recall not caring for lima beans (except in succotash), winter squash or poi.

Jason, on the bridge of a destroyer escort

My first meal was a gauze wrapped finger dipped in sugar syrup. It's purpose was to distract me while someone sliced off my foreskin, (a hanging chad as it were.) I had a sweet tooth before I had a tooth. After that we wandered the country from San Juan to Guam; we ate locally, as well as from family archives and recipes that were printed on calendars.

Barbara, the ante bellum belle

I must have been a joyous celebration since I emerged nine months and one day after VE Day. My parents met when both were in the Coast Guard. My father was at sea doing graduate research in marine biology. War was declared and he was already on a Coast Guard cutter. Meanwhile, mother was also in graduate school. She went to enlist in the Navy but ended up as one of the original 15 SPARS. Ultimately, my mother and father became the first American military officer couple to be married in uniform, under crossed swords at the Old North Church in Boston.

They both got out after the war. Mother applied herself to mid-century modern motherhood Short on hugs, long on reasoned conversation before ending with, "Because I said so!" The rod was spared but Carolyn and I were not spoiled. She was born on an even day and I was odd and thus the chores and privileges were apportioned. This, of course, established the unfairness of life. As you are aware, most months end in 31 and they all begin with odd numbers...dishes two days in a row,

no connection to my life
Father worked in advertising for a few years. He had fun but concluded that the Coast Guard was our place and re-upped. We had been living in White Plains and suddenly it was San Juan and all in spanish. Saltines with cream cheese and guava paste, empanadillas and rice with gandules. Herman the dachshund and the lizards basking together in the sun..

as I said, the Seventh Regiment

It was too early for me to sort things out then (and now, it's too late) but the blocks off which I am a chipped, are as confusing as grammar.  We Koblers have not practised ancestor worship although I am beginning to see its merits. Father had had enough of New York and mother had finished with southern California and therefore details are scarce. But this, I do believe...

Mother, Barbara, was the daughter of an Episcopal Priest. Her father, the Reverend Philip Ayers Easley (from New York) became rector of St. Stephen's in early Hollywood (about 1920, it was Cecil B. Demille's church.) His widow, Martha, followed us around the planet: Hawaii, Seattle, and finally, Connecticut. They both were at least third generation pink (Scots-Irish-French). My great grandfather was a tea broker for A&P and a member of the New York Seventh Regiment.

Mother was a swimmer, trained for the  1930 Summer Olympics. Instead it was polio, a year in a full body cast. She must have been tougher than I remember and she fully recovered. Although we didn't see each other some years, we were pals until the end (cooking shows and coffee.) I sometimes feel badly that I think of him more than her. He was somehow less diminished by death than she.
home for nine months

And him? Just look at the picture. Don't you want to know more about him and wouldn't you want his approval? Furthermore, he was a stitch; we laughed all of the time. I was with him often. In fact, I spent a whole school year on his ship from August of 1957 to May of '58.  He was captain of  USCGC Basswood (WLB-388), 186 feet and about 80 men. I turned 12 somewhere between Guam and Japan.

I've already mentioned my father's father, Albert John Kobler. Vienna, Jewish. Somewhere after 1900, Albert converted to Christianity. I don't know if his family put up a headstone but they did disown him. He was a fabric designer when he moved to New York but soon got into publishing for the Hearst organization. He was known as a collector and there are a few paintings in museums that came from his estate. (Grandfather Albert was the only one of us who has produced an "estate". Sadly, all that is left is the silver and 5 Capodimonte cups with six saucers.)


Both Mother and Father had one brother each. I recall only two gatherings that involved each of them, one at a time. They both had arrogance issues.

I remember eating outside in very picturesque Connecticut with father's brother. Mussels, steamed in seaweed, true love. There were tiny, crunchy crabs in each one. At one point the four children (from his first two wives) sat around John to hear some ongoing stories he made up spontaneously. It seemed that previous sessions had set up an insurmountable barrier of facts and it was too much trouble to bring me up to date. I felt left out. Uncle John was a writer who eventually wrote the biography of Al Capone (still in print.)

Jim Easley was a nuclear physicist. In the early 40's Jim and Peg lived "near Albuquerque" wink, wink. You know, when they were doing "experiments." Out the desert. Years later, during a Christmas break from college #1, we all gathered in the pretty part of New Jersey, the horse country. They served goose. I remember how much I loved the skin and the wonderful fat.

Neither Mother nor Father enjoyed the company of their sibling. Later I did spend time with John. As a freshman at Haverford our first mixer was with Bryn Mawr. I danced with a junior who turned out to be my first cousin, Karen. We did not become close but I did spend a memorable Thanksgiving with the Connecticut/New York branch (later.)

This is a meal with which I was raised. The recipe is so simple it's more of an idea than directions. The dish seems to have come from the Kobler archive, maybe Austria. It doesn't seem as if it would be enough for a meal but it is very satisfying on hot summer nights.

Schmierkase mit kartoffel

Boil some new potatoes, waxy, thin skinned and small. Do this just before dining. Have ready: several bowls of toppings: grated carrots, chopped chives or green onion, caraway seed, crumbled bacon, diced cucumber...anything of this sort that appeals.

Mix one part sour cream with two parts cottage cheese, you'll want at least half a cup per person.

When the potatoes have boiled to tenderness, lightly crush a few on each plate, top with a good pat of butter, salt and pepper. Serve and let the diners add the toppings they like.

A digression: I prefer conversation to speeches and dialog to statements. There is a space at the bottom of each post for you to tell me something. Just ask if there is something further you'd like: clarifications, more information about something I've said, food questions about which you've always wondered, questions about ingredients (What's asafoetida used for anyway?), equipment, or techniques  I promise to respond to any question at all, even if only to say, how DARE you ask that!)