Friday, January 8, 2010

Dinner in Woodstock: A Tribute to My Grandmother

Since my subject is the old-timey menu served up today by my 98-year-old grandmother, I’m using the word “dinner” in the old-fashioned sense of the midday meal. My grandmother, Mescal Hornbeck, who will turn 99 in June, honored my visit with a highly genteel and refined luncheon with four of her closest friends, plus the fiancĂ© of one of the ladies. The theme of the menu was food from her childhood, and so we had Oyster Stew and Indian Pudding. Those members of the party who were over 60 – three of our guests, as well as Mescal herself – recognized right away just what she was trying to do here, saying they hadn’t had either of these dishes in ages.

Grandma Mescal was born in 1911 in West Shokan, a rural outpost in upstate New York. She has lived in New York most of her life, except for a period spent in Lexington, Kentucky, for my grandfather’s career. (That’s how I come to have a family from Kentucky and a family from New York.) Bemoaning the demise of oyster stew in popularity, she says that oyster stew used to be “the big thing” served at “all the restaurants all around the country.” When I suggested that perhaps it was a northeastern thing, she said, “You wouldn’t know, you’re too young to remember.” (This is one thing I love about my grandmother, she always reminds me how young I am!)

Indian pudding, well, maybe it has a more PC name nowadays, but I’ve never tasted it before by this or any other name. It was tasty, and reminded me of my great-grandmother’s puddings I used to have as a child.

Grandma Mescal talks a lot about how different things are from when she was growing up, which is endlessly fascinating. It’s remarkable that she has such detailed memories of so many of her past experiences. She tells me that “a woman 50 years ago wouldn’t have been caught half dead” serving string beans dry scattered around on a plate and only half cooked; veggies were cooked until they were "DONE - not mushy" and served in their juices, and you often had a sauce with them, based on milk being added to the cooking juices to bring out the flavor. “A lot of things tasted better then than they do now,” according to Grandma; there’s no denying that cooking styles and tastes have changed considerably.

After dinner I served a bowl of my candied walnuts that I had made for Mescal, and her friends honored me by saying I had inherited my grandmother's love of cooking. Thank goodness for good genes.

Grandma Mescal’s Oyster Stew

Quantities are determined by the number of people dining. Start with at least 5 oysters per person (6 or 7 per person on average), and the oysters have to be FRESH! Get them shucked specially for you. Grandma thinks the ones that come pre-shucked in the market (which are much cheaper) aren’t worth spit.

Cook the oysters and their juice in the top of a hot double boiler, cooking them just until the edges get a little crinkly – not very long.

Meanwhile heat your milk – about two ladles full per person – and add a chunk of butter and some salt and pepper. For the milk you can use whole milk, two percent, half-and-half, or whatever you like.

Then pour the oysters into the milk and get it warm, but you MUST be sure you DON’T BOIL THE OYSTERS! There’s nothing worse than overcooked oysters.

That’s all there is to it!

Indian Pudding

Mix 5 Tablespoons stone-ground corn meal to 1 quart of cold milk; scald the milk, then cook in the top of a double boiler 20 minutes. Then add 2 Tablespoons of butter, 5 oz. molasses, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 eggs well beaten. Turn into buttered pudding dish [she used a glass loaf pan] and pour 1 cup cold milk over mixture.

Bake 1 hour in moderate 350 degree oven. Delicious served with vanilla ice cream. Servings: 8.

(The recipe called for a cup of molasses, but Mescal thought this was way too much; she used just over half a cup and it had a very nice flavor.)