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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Cooking Life: When Jeremy Was the Fastnacht

Today is a very special and very Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, as I knew it growing up in Reading. In Food-dom it ranks right up there with one of, if not my very best, culinary memory. And it's directly because of my Pennsylvania Dutch roots and dare I say, Fastnachts, that I became involved in food and am a chef. 


Do you have special family traditions for Fat Tuesday? I hope you'll  share them!! 


For those unfamiliar with them, Fastnachts are the heavier Northern doughnut cousine to the beautiful beignet. Their soft dough is made from mashed potatoes, and is cut in squares, and then fried in lard. So the Pennsylvania Dutch habit of feasting on fried baked goods to use up the “fat” in the house before the Lenten season begins is basically the same as for any Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras tradition. And even though Fastnacht Day has received less publicity than New Orlean’s parades and uh, festivities, the Pa. Dutch are racing each other to get out of, instead of into, bed. The poor soul to arise last on Fastnacht Day is called the fastnact and must remain as the chore-doer all day for everyone in the house.  My brother, Jeremy, was the perpetual Fastnacht. 
On Our Possibly, Eighth, Birthday with Doctor Mom at the Crystal Restaurant. 

I count my grandmother, Nana, as the main reason I am in the food business today. Life was lived in her kitchen. I was raised on Fastnachts, shoofly pie, liver pudding, pickled red beet eggs, souse, AP cakes, pepper cabbage, apple butter, apple dumplings, milk tarts (slop pie), chicken corn soup, and chicken pot pie in no particular order! Every Monday was bake day. Not just one cake but three of each kind was the minimum we would make. We ate pie for breakfast amongst other things. My great grandfather, Howard Rishel, ate liver pudding and souse for breakfast, and any other time of the day it suited him. The seven sweets and sours were a huge part of my life. 





German Style Cold Cuts at the Farmer's Market

 By the time I was ten I was dragging the "old lady" cart behind me down to Ciotti Markets, to do the family shopping. I also walked up to Wenger's Bakery on tenth street for bear claws and baby cakes, tea biscuits for Nana.  We often visited Muard's luncheonette at the corner of Fourth and Spring Street, for italian and cheese steak sandwiches. Nana and Jeremy, my brother, the aformentioned "Fastnacht" and I would often visit Penn Street. The Farmer's Markets, Pomeroy's and Whitner's lunch rooms, and the counter at Woolworth's and Kresge's were all great haunts of our youth. When I was very small there was a small candy factory behind us on Rose Street. One of my grandmother's good friends, Edna, lived up on Mulberry Street where Schmoyer's Rye Bread was made. 

Trays of Everyday Dutch Treats at Wenger's Bakery in Reading



Not as Pretty as My Childhood Memory, What's Up With That?

I was also heavily influenced by my mother, and her ambitions. She was an M.D. and, for a time, had her own practice in Reading. She was in a high pressure male dominated profession and her success gave me have the confidence to enter the male dominated world of the professional kitchen. In 1980 "celebrity chef-dom" had not yet cracked open the peanut butter Easter egg, and I am glad! Glamour was hardly the reason I chose the kitchen. Mom abhorred the toil of the kitchen, (and she never cooked even in her last years, she did "heat things" however) but I am grateful she exposed me to the world of fine dining and restaurants. We ate at the Crystal Restaurant every Saturday at noon after my brother, Jeremy, and I finished dance lessons at the Mickey Norton School of Dance, then on Penn Street. We often went to Moselum Springs and Ye Old Iron Master (something like that?) in West Reading. We also visited Screpesi's on Penn Avenue, and she enjoyed a seafood dinner at the Guardhouse at the coner of Sixth and Spring, which was run by our neighbor's the Tarantino's. She took us to the Waldorf Astoria in New York and we ate at many hoity toity restaurants there. Seafare of the Aegean was one. 

But oh no, it didn't stop there. 


 Dad and Jackie and Moi, 2010

The Menu Board at the Seafood Counter, Fairgrounds Market

My father, who just passed away last November, was a produce manager for Acme Markets, and loved the fried haddock sandwiches at the Green Dragon Market in Lancaster as well as at the Fairgrounds Farmer's Market in North Reading. Whenever I visit an outdoor farmer's market, whether it's Hilo, Hawaii, or in Nerac, France or in Carrboro, North Carolina, he is with me. I remember when he first brought us this strange fuzzy fruit, the kiwi.

My step mother, Jackie, made spaghetti and meatballs, and I learned about stuffed pig stomach from her, as she told me tales of her parents and their farm in Mohnton, and the days of a hog slaughtering. 

With Sundays spent at their house, it was a peaceful nourishing time. A friend of theirs Mrs. Hilbert had a robust home baking business on Pricetown Road, just outside Reading. One of her specialties was a horseshoe shaped birthday cake and they were scrumptious!

At Easter time we enjoyed Wilbur Buds and chocolates of all kinds from their store. More specialty items came from Richard's Fruit near downtown, maybe Washington Street.



Kissinger Market in Downtown Reading, circa 1950's, I am Guessing


In a nutshell, you get the picture. What else was I to do with my life? I was surrounded by food!
But I didn't give up, I grew into an understanding that with good food and hard work anything was possible. 



Old-fashioned I know. But I still believe it.

Today food is a huge business. There are food stylists, food writers, and food phtotographers to mention only a few of the profession's new jobs. We are often treated to stories of the latest gossipy biographies from the New York chef scene, why Syrah grapes are being planted in all the Sonoma vineyards, how the most mouth watering proscuitto is produced in a small village in Italy. 



But for me, my life in food began on North Fourth Street in Reading. It began on the eve of Shrove Tuesday, the night before Fastnacht morning. It began when Nana placed the huge green bowl of yeasty potato dough on the table by my bed, because of the heating register there. During the night I would sleepily wake, every time she would come in my room to poke the dough and punch it down, releasing its potato sweetness into the room. Oh, I thought I was clever, sneaking a taste by pulling out a ball of dough from the underneath. In the morning I would wake to the heady and glorious scent of frying Fastnachts. The tradition of Fastnachts is that the last one to wake up on Shrove Tuesday gains the title of the Fastnacht, the lazy one. Well, my dear brother Jeremy was ahead of me on many other things, but not on Shrove Tuesday. No way!


Fastnacht Central, 820 North Fourth Street, Reading, Pa.




Maybe I am an early riser to this day, hoping to wander in to find Nana, still in the kitchen, frying up a bunch of Fastnachts. 



What about you? What are your food memories, and how have they shaped you? Won't you share with a comment?





Nana and Jeremy, Christmas 1972 



Nana's Pennsylvania Dutch Fastnachts

This recipe comes directly from Nana’s red and white metal recipe box, the one that stilll bears the price sticker of 29 cents. If you can't use 5-6 dozen doughnuts - do cut the recipe in half. Now Nana wasn't in the habit of being around folks who can't cook or bake so she never included little things like a frying temperature or timing. It was normal to make dozens of everything and refer to the process in terms of, “Ach! Don’t be a dum-kopf, chust like Aunt Effie made.” I feel fortunate to have learned the basics from her. But since you might not have, try heating the fat to 375 degrees and fry for 3 minutes per side for each the fastnachts. Enjoy.

Makes a 5-6 dozen, large doughnuts

2 cups mashed potatoes
4 cups potato water
4 cups granulated sugar
5 scant T yeast
½ cup warm potato water
14 –16 cups flour
1 ½ cups butter (they used to use shortening, margarine or lard)
6 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt

for serving:
honey, molasses or Turkey Syrup (only available in Pennsylvania Dutch County) 

Mix the potatoes, sugar, and potato water. Add butter and cool. Gradually add the beaten eggs. Add yeast dissolved in warm potato water. Gradually add flour and mix well with a wooden spoon. When that becomes impossible turn the dough out on a large floured surface, and knead in enough remaining flour to make a non-sticky pliable dough. Think of the texture as being similar to an earlobe. 

Place dough in a very large greased bowl or allow to sit on counter, covered with a linen tee-towel. Punch dough down after it has doubled in size. 2-3 hours. Let rise again for 2 hours, punch down and roll out ½ inch thick. Cut into rectangles, about 3 by 3 inches.  Place on floured baking sheets and let rise on the back of the stove or in another warm place for 20-30  minutes. 

Heat and then fry in oil at 375 degrees. Okay you can use canola or vegetable oil instead of lard. Fry till a medium brown or about 3 minutes per side. It works well to use a bamboo skimmer to turn them, but if that is unavailable wooden chopsticks or a wooden spoon will do as well. 

Drain on brown paper bags and invite the hoards. 


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