“Wasn’t it made clear that civilization is not an end in itself but a theater or gymnasium in which the evolving individual finds facilities for practice? And when it comes to themes, how about the – but wait a minute. Hold on. I’ve been trapped.” -- Still Life With Woodpecker, A Sort of Love Story, by Tom Robbins
A couple of weeks ago I ordered a pound of salsify and brought it home so I could experiment with different recipes. What a lark, I thought, cooking for fun!
As a single person, and not an especially domestic one at that, I must confess to a slight sense of the Why-Would-Yas when I visit my tiny kitchen with its orderly row of hanging pans, the sink empty of all dishes but this morning’s coffee mug: why would I mess this up to cook for myself? This is a question directed toward one of my arachnid roommates, a long-legged spider crossing the ceiling, too busy to answer. She’s probably on her way to confront her terror of being trapped, yet again, in the bathtub. (Note to self: check tub before taking out contact lenses.) Because I cook professionally for hundreds and hundreds of strangers, I don’t spend much time feeding myself, though when I do, I garnish the plates. It's not that I don't like to cook, it is more a matter of fatigue and my innate unwillingness to take a busman’s holiday: thinking about cooking for one makes me feel tired enough to just go to a restaurant.
Anyway, I’d managed to convince myself that this would be a good experiment, so, as always, I turned to the cookbook shelf and began digging for information.
Escoffier, naturally, had some recipes tucked into the Larousse Gastronomique. You know how he gets. And McGee illuminated the family relationship that exists between salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), scorzonera (a.k.a. black salsify), burdock (a.k.a. gobo) and other members of the lettuce family, including thistles (a.k.a. artichokes) and sunchokes (a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes) and talked a bit about fructose chains and carbohydrate stores, so there was that. Online sources were keen on the above-ground appearance of salsify, because it looks so much like a fluffy dandelion when it has gone to seed. On a recent walk around town, as I passed stands of feral fennel, rosehips ready for jams and teas, nettles sprung up in vacant lots, chestnut trees that will litter the ground with sweet knobs of proteins and carbohydrates in about six weeks, blackberries galore and fruit trees, productive but twisted from age, I reflected on the usefulness of knowing what salsify looks like above ground, should one ever have to forage for food in a post-apocalyptic Seattle. Arriving home after said jaunt, I confronted the as-yet-untouched bag of salsify languishing in the corner of my half-fridge. It was time to knuckle down and have some fun, dammit.
In appearance, salsify resembles a well-chewed stick abandoned by a forgetful Labrador. In name, Salsify may as well have been one of the rabbits left behind to fend for themselves in the Sandleford Warren, along with his glum, mathy friend Celeriac, and the long-lashed doe, Lamb’s Quarter…
And then the truth hit me.
I didn’t care about salsify. The most fun thing about it was its Latin name. I prefer the knobby, humble sunchoke and the sweet cynar flavor of artichokes. Hell, I prefer lettuce. But, I didn’t want the roots dissolving into a loosely contained pool of brown goo in the fridge (how wasteful) so I continued marching along.
Salsify is also known as “oyster plant,” which does nothing to inspire me, either – as much as I love oysters, I do not think about the details of molluskular anatomy and texture as I devour half a dozen Kushis in as many minutes. Perhaps it was a mark of the times that canned salsify was labeled “Oyster Plant,” as though sophistication was but a crank of the can opener away. As though a root that tasted of oysters was good news to the homemakers of yore. At last! All that goodness trapped in an easy-to-use canned form!
I mention yore homemakers because in my desultory search for either a recipe for salsify, or a new angle from which I might view the root and maybe even catch my ankle on something inspiring, I turned to Favorite Recipes of America, a collection of cookbooks made charming by age, sentimentality (my sister found them and gave them to me), the food, the photos of food, past owners’ pencil ticks next to some of the recipes, and the surprising amount and quality of ephemera that slips from between the cookbooks’ pages as I flip through.
I could digress, thinking about what it must have meant to Mrs. Antone Zelasko, of Tamaroa, Ill., to have her Illinois State Fair winning recipe for “Pineapple Secrets” included in a Volume I: Desserts, including party beverages. Or the frisson of pleasure that must have tickled Mrs. Sheryl Beckmann, Home Economics Teacher, Coleman, S. D., when her recipe for “Heart Stroganoff” found a place in Volume II: Meats, including seafood and poultry. Mrs. S. A. Hunt, Jr. of Columbia , S.C., must have been delighted when her recipe for “A Man’s Salad” was selected from the many offerings at the Favorite Recipes Food Fair for Volume III: Salads, including appetizers.
(Having read this last recipe – Lettuce; Pickled beets, sliced; Hard-boiled eggs, sliced; Bermuda or red onions, thinly sliced; Mayonnaise. Make bed of crisp, very green lettuce. Place slices of pickled beets on lettuce, adding slices of hard-boiled eggs and onion rings. Top with mayonnaise. Lemon juice may be substituted for mayonnaise and asparagus for beets – I have to wonder what one does with A Man’s Salad, either the beet or the asparagus version, when one has finished its preparation. Should I leave the salad outside on the porch and peer through the curtains, ready to pounce? Shall I place a plate next to a concealed pit and watch from a blind up in the trees? And what do I do if I catch one? To each her own, whispers the spider as she disappears into a corner.)
These women, their communities, their food: all so evocative of time and place. If one truly wanted to avoid writing about salsify, one could go on at some length about the sense of connectedness that forever comes from sharing recipes, and how, through these collections, one can catch a glimpse of lives – the newly wedded Mrs. Garrett Ballew, stationed on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., writing about “Veal With Vegetables,” perhaps her mother’s recipe, tucked into a hope chest and pulled out when Mr. Garrett Ballew brought some of his pilot buddies and their wives over for dinner. Or the Midwestern wholesomeness and hint toward the proximity of a decent kitchen garden, maybe a small orchard….maybe a few hens…seen in Mrs. Chris Jacobs’, Topeka, Kansas, recipe for “Cauliflower and Apple Salad,” from Volume III, a salad recipe made more notable by the absence of gelatin, a key ingredient to many favorites, including “Celery-Pepper Congealed Salad,” by Virginia L. Langston, Baton Rouge, LA. Please do not bring that salad to my next dinner party.
Of course, that’s what these cookbooks are for – the sheer number of contributing Home Economics Teachers is a dead giveaway – these books are meant to assist young people, almost exclusively women, with the making of home and keeping of family, with developing a sense of community, and the delicious sense that comes from cooking and sharing the feast that one is contributing to the greater good – that sharing actually is caring. These are “Tuna Unusual” casseroles (Mrs. John J. McHugh, Salt Lake City, Utah) carried to homes struck by tragedy. These are celebratory “Marshmallow Christmas Wreaths” (Sue A. Arnhold, Denver, Colo.) handed out to earnest carolers.
If I wanted to really stray from the salsify path, just wander right off into the woods, I could describe the section in the back of each volume that introduces the reader to Foreign Foods, like Mrs. Charles M. Thomas’ (Dover, N.J.) recipe for “Sjomansbiff,” and how the increased availability of certain ingredients in the heartland, combined with the culinary adventurousness of military wives, made dishes like “Nasi Goreng ” available to homemakers besides Mrs. Edward W. Sznyter, Jr. (Officers’ Wives’ Club, Honolulu, Hawaii). And then I wonder whether the... what? condescension? contempt? comraderie? we might feel toward our community cookbook-contributing forebearers and the evolving definition of "Conventionality" have anything to do with our attitudes about food.
Instead I try to stay on track.
Volume V: Vegetables, including fruits yielded results. Tucked in among recipes for “Sweet Rutabaga” (Fran Mollet, Conde, S.D.) and “Baked Spinach” (Elizabeth Curry, Home Economics Teacher, Marianna, Fla.), there are two recipes for salsify.
Mrs. Kenny Lehto, of Burbank, Cal., gave us “Boiled Oyster Plants,” which sounds tempting in a late Medieval sort of way, and Louise Hunt, of Kevil, Ky., offered “Salsify Casserole” (which was conspicuously absent from Volume IV: Casseroles, including breads), a wintery dish of oyster plants – canned or fresh— layered with crumbled crackers and then baked with salt, pepper, margarine and milk. If it were nuclear-winter cold outside I might try this, perhaps with a bit of shaved nutmeg and a bit of goat cheese. I’d also use butter instead of margarine, but that’s how I roll.
But it isn’t cold outside. It’s high summer here in Seattle, with temperatures rising well into the high seventies, the city sluggish beneath the heat. The patch of dirt outside my apartment has yielded a bumper crop of nasturtiums, mint, thyme, rosemary and various inedibles. It would be fun to try to incorporate some of these ingredients, as well…..
This train of thought is interrupted by the phone’s quiet announcement that a text message has arrived. And look! An invitation to a dinner party! What fun! I am galvanized, utterly relieved that I won’t be cooking salsify for one. I feel ready to participate, contribute, cook for others in an unpaid capacity! I look around to tell the spider, but she is nowhere to be found, not even in the obvious places like shoes and hairbrushes.
Without her vote of confidence, then, I text back an offer to Bring A Dish to share. Because suddenly I did care about salsify, after all.
Frog Pond Pasta with Salsify Slivers
1 box pearled cous cous or pastini
¼ cup olive oil, plus 2 Tbs for drizzling and 2 Tbs for cooking
1 Tbs lemon zest
1 tsp Rosemary, picked and finely chopped
1 tsp Lemon Thyme, picked and finely chopped
3 Tbs Mint, chiffonade
1 English Cucumber, peeled, halved, sliced on a medium bias
½ cup dried Cranberries, rough chop (currants would have been better, but I’m fresh out)
½ a Shallot, brunoise
½ # Salsify, peeled and “whittled” into slivers (if you’re not cooking these immediately, keep them in a lemon water solution to prevent browning)
1 tsp fresh cracked Black Pepper
1 tsp Red Sea Salt
5 Bug-free Nasturtium leaves and blossoms
1. Cook pearled pasta/cous cous until just done. Drain, spread in a thin layer on a cookie sheet or shallow baking dish, drizzle with 2 Tbs of olive oil and cool completely in the fridge.
2. As the pasta cooks, heat 2 Tbs of olive oil in a frying pan and cook the salsify slivers until golden brown, about 4 minutes over medium-high heat. Remove from pan and let drain on a paper-towel on a plate. Lightly salt while hot.
3. Combine ¼ cup Olive Oil, with herbs and lemon zest.
4. Assemble your mise en place.
5. Combine all ingredients – except for the Nasturtiums – with cooled pastini.
6. Dress and taste. Correct seasoning if necessary (this may need more salt if you like salty things).
7. Transfer pasta salad into a pretty bowl and garnish with Nasturtium Leaves and Blossoms in a whimsical, lily-pad sort of way.
Note: Almost any ingredient in this recipe may be substituted with an analog, though that’ll make it less frog-pondy.
Ms. R. R. Posey, BOH Booster Club, Seattle, W. A.