Last Thursday was Mountain Day at Smith College. How do I know? Was I wandering the streets of Northampton when the bells began to ring? Did I happen to be in an apple orchard in a nearby farm which was suddenly overrun by Smithies? No, it was much more mundane. I received an email from the president informing all alumni she’d given student and faculty the day off. I didn’t give myself the day off, though I was tempted. Instead i took some time to enjoy a view of the hills from behind the town library. My own Mountain Day moment.
It’s funny the things you remember about college. With our eldest daughter in her freshman year at University of New Haven I’ve been thinking about my alma mater often. Especially the quirky little food memories which have stuck with me for more than a quarter of a century.
Every Thursday night Smith would serve us a family style dinner by candlelight, complete with linen napkins and tablecloths. I loved those cloth napkins and so did my mother. She was so entranced with the tradition she got me my very own cloisonné napkin holder. The cloth napkins took a little getting used to since unlike paper napkins where you use and dispose of them after every meal our linen napkins had to last us for a week. If it became too grubby you could put them in the napkin hamper, then use paper until the following Thursday when you got a fresh cloth napkin. We even had our own individual napkin cubbies in the dinning hall.
Smith’s food was what we referred to as “grade A institutional food”. Great food considering it was made in such large quantities, but by no means home cooking. Every so often I’d go on the hunt for something that wasn’t made for 100+ students or that was rare enough to be a considered an out-of-dining-hall treat. One fall, around this time of year, one of my best friends Jim Ferguson and I were wandering around the farmer’s market in Amherst, Massachusetts. As much as I loved Smith, it was nice to occasionally get off campus and cross the river to visit Ferg and his friends at Amherst College. One booth was selling small boxes of what were probably the last of the fall raspberries. We bought two. Half a pint of heavy cream, two bowls, and two spoons later we locked ourselves in Ferg’s room. No sharing. No talking. Just gobbling fresh raspberries swimming in heavy cream. One small box each. It was perfect.
I’m sure many of the meals we ate were amazing, after all with Julia Child and Charlotte Turgeon as two of our illustrious alums college dining services had something to aspire to. The funny thing is it isn’t the fancy food I recall (and still eat) but the simplest. It is the humblest of desserts. Probably something thrown together when the cooks were just so tired of feeding us they wanted to weep and throw their ladles in the soup. And we loved it. We acted like a bunch of hungry sharks circling around a hurt fish. It required no cooking and no prep. Are you ready? Cream cheese,
Ritz Saltine crackers and jelly. If you think about it it’s almost like a deconstructed cheesecake. Don’t believe me about how good this is? I dare you to try it.
What are your favorite college food memories?
I think the all time scariest Dr. Who episode is Weeping Angels. Weeping Angels are stone statues who will kill you if you blink or look away. So don’t blink – don’t ever, ever blink. Sumac is the plant version of a weeping angel. Some people mistakenly think it is a decorative shrub, which is like saying weeping angels are just statues. While sumac may not kill you like a weeping angel would, you have to be careful because if ignored it will take over your yard. I’m not just talking a little bit, it will become the equivalent of a jungle. Plus it likes to invite its friends – other invasive species such as bittersweet and wild grapevine.
Sure the birds love it. I will admit it does look pretty in the fall when its leaves turn a brilliant red. In certain cultures they cook with the dried sumac fruit. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright even used sumac as a design motif in one of his houses. Here’s the newsflash though – I am willing to bet cold, hard cash Mr. Wright never ever had to deal with a sumac invasion himself. Either he had a team of gardeners to prune and cut everything back or he left the sumac infected area to go design another house before the invasion became apparent.
I vaguely remember my parents not liking the sumac in our neighbor’s yard. At that point though I was eighteen and didn’t understand their concern/disdain for the plant. Then twenty years ago my husband and I moved to our house and decided there was really too much lawn to mow. So we seeded a wildflower garden. That was pretty for a few years. While we were lulled into those first few years of flowery abundance the sumac saw its chance. It crept underground from the edges of our property to this open field we had created and started sprouting up. We ignored it because we were busy with other things. So the sumac grew and Grew and GREW. Suddenly we realized we could no longer see our garden or the beehives. In fact the garden itself was getting a lot less sun than it used to. Our wintertime sledding hill had become a dense maze of sumac trunks. We had done the long, slow blink, and the sumac had taken over.
So 2013 has become the summer of what I am calling The Sumac Deforestation Project. My kids and some of their friends have been hacking, chopping, digging, pulling, and uprooting all the invasive plants that have done their best to take over our yard. Along the way we’ve come across a few treasures among the weeds. These include clumps of blackberry vines, wild rose bushes, some really delicious black raspberries which we’ve been munching this last week, and an awesome blue stone which will eventually become a step into the playhouse. So deep in the forest of sumac there have been a few jewels, they just haven’t been spectacular enough to justify maintaining the invasive forest.
So thanks Isabelle, Russell, Eamon, Addie, Milo, and Shawn. The deforestation project is coming along nicely.
Oh and those black raspberries I mentioned? They’re going on some buttermilk waffles with a drizzle of maple syrup – yum!
Sometimes you come up short. Not enough change for the parking meter, not enough milk for your cereal, not enough batter to fill all your cupcake cups. For the first challenge I suggest looking under the seat, asking the kids, or if those two ideas don’t result in a handful of change, getting back in your car and finding some free parking on a side street. For the second problem I have been known to go with the bizarre (and some would say disgusting) solution of pouring orange juice over my Wheaties. Or switching to toast. Either one works. The answer to the third kerfuffle is water. A little H2O. Not mixed into the batter, rather poured into any empty cupcake wells. Just a small splash. It keeps that part of the pan from overheating by being unfilled. Surprisingly this little bit of moisture has the added benefit of producing well-rounded tops on the cupcakes.
Click here for the chocolate cake recipe.
Click here for the frosting recipe.
My Christmas music list is pretty eclectic. It all started with a vinyl record my Dad brought home, Twas the Night Before Christmas by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. My brother and sister and I played this album non stop as we decorated the tree each year. Someday they will release it on CD and I will feel my Christmas music collection is complete. Until then all Christmas music in our house is in some weird way or another compared with Fred Waring. What are some of your favorites?
Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanian’s awesome Christmas album
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 TV version)
The Piano Guys “O Come, Emmanuel”
GRP Christmas Collection, Vol. 3
Wynton Marsalis Crescent City Christmas Card
Mambo Santa Mambo
Angel Voices by the Liberia Boys Choir
*I do realize this is not a food post, but it’s important information for another post I’m writing. Stay tuned.
My advise is mix it up. When you’re baking an apple pie mix up your apple varieties. If you’re making raspberry jam try to find different types of raspberries. When you’re filling your pepper mill add different peppers. Red, white, green, black, even a few allspice berries. It will give your freshly ground pepper a depth it didn’t have before.
Top Row L-R red peppercorns, black peppercorns, green peppercorns
Bottom Row L-R allspice berries, white peppercorns
You can buy premixed packages of peppers here or go to a store or co-op that sells dried herbs in bulk and create your own custom pepper mix. Your taste buds will thank you.