Eating Authors: Merrie Haskell

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Categories: Plugs
Merrie Haskell

Here in the USA, it’s Memorial Day, a national day of recognition for the many men and women who died in service to this country. When I lived in Wyndmoor, PA, there would be a parade that passed right in front of my house, and members of the local chapter of the V.F.W. would drive by in old-style cars, waving and throwing candy to the kids lining the street. There would be cook-outs in the park, and a general feeling of joy and celebration because the day marked the “official” start of summer, which is fair enough, but I always feel that some of the true meaning of the holiday gets lost.

It’s a turbulent world we live in, and maybe it’s always been so and I just notice it more frequently as I move ever deeper into that “you-damn-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn” mindset that seems to come with growing older. I guess what I want to say here is that while it’s fine for you to smile and laugh and kick off the summer season today, to fire up the grill and overindulge in hot dogs and beer, before you start in that or other festivities, take a moment, a good, long moment, to appreciate what you have and express some thanks to the people whose sacrifice makes your life possible. Thanks.

Moving on now to the regular Monday feature, today’s guest, Merrie Haskell offers up a loving recollection that strikes me as very fitting for today. But before we get to that, a bit about Merrie herself. She recalls writing her first story at the tender age of seven, and somewhere around eleven a Langauge Arts teacher noted her ability and recommended to her mother that Merrie be encouraged to write. A very fortuitous moment for the rest of us. Merrie’s first book was a Junior Library Guild selection back in 2011, and her lastest, Handbook for Dragon Slayers comes out tomorrow morning.

LMS: Welcome, Merrie. So, tell me, what’s the best meal you remember having?

MH: My maternal grandmother was an amazing cook. Not a chef, but a cook, the kind of cook that reforms resolute carnivores into vegetable-lovers and strict vegetarians into sometimes-omnivores. I spent more time with my maternal grandparents than the average 80’s kid, living with them for months at a time in the summers due to some idiosyncratic custody arrangements understood by no one, and I have many, pleasant memories of the meals Grandma put on the table strictly at 7AM, noon, and 5PM.

You asked me the best meal I remember having, and my mind dashed around the world — decadent red velvet French toast at Yolk in Chicago? My 29th birthday dinner of fresh scallops caught from the sea firth in the shadow of Ben Nevis in Scotland? My first Scotch egg at one of the (in)famous Portland bruncheries? — until it returned home, to the 80 Michigan acres my grandfather bought after the Great Depression, farmed for fifty years, and then built a cozy house on for his retirement. The best meal I remember having is breakfast with my grandparents. Any breakfast with them; all breakfasts with them.

My (Prussian/Swiss) grandmother had been given her (Dutch) husband’s family pancake recipe when she married my grandfather, and strict instructions on how to proceed on a daily basis: nightly, mix up the yeast, buckwheat, and buttermilk batter , then refrigerate overnight. In the morning, take the doughy batter and thin with with a mixture of water and self-rising flour. Grease a cast iron skillet with bacon drippings, and then spoon out the batter in a circle, spreading it thinner and thinner with the back of your spoon. When bubbles appear, flip. Golden brown concentric circles adorn the flexible pancake. Keep cooking until there is a giant pile of flapjacks in a brown, stoneware bowl.

In the meantime, of course one must cook up the salt pork or sage sausages; lay out the butter, the preserves, the honey, molasses, Karo syrup, the latest fruit fresh from the garden–macerated and sugared, possibly boiled to a sauce — and the syrup that Aunt N. eked out of the sugar maples on the back 40 in the Spring. The last few pancakes go directly onto the breakfast attendees’ plates, bypassing the pile. Coffee for Grandpa. Tea for Grandma. Water for the children, cold from the reused milk jugs in the fridge, where the sand that got pumped up by the well could settle out.

The Princess Curse
Handbook for Dragon Slayers

The butter was always cut from a large cylinder wrapped in wax paper; the smaller cylinder was always served on an orange plate. Always, always, one had to butter the pancake first. Then it was dealer’s choice, though a wise person went with the tartest accompaniment first, and worked their way up to the sweetest.

Tartest would be rhubarb sauce — it always seemed that no matter how much sugar Grandma stewed rhubarb with, it made my mouth pucker. But I liked it, so my first pancake every morning was rhubarb-soaked, until rhubarb season gave way to sugared raspberries in the Corningware bowl with the glass top.

The second pancake was for preserves. The preserves varied, though it was usually strawberry freezer jam in a square plastic container, that Grandma put up in early June, before I got to Michigan, while I was still stuck in school down in North Carolina — but later in the season, we might have moved on to the stores of peach jelly or raspberry jam from the root cellar. I usually skipped preserves once the raspberries were gone, but Grandpa was a man who savored variety — he had one of every kind of pancake, it seemed. I let him go through the molasses and Karo and maple syrup on his own, while I moved directly to honey, and Grandma stuck to fruit.

Once you were full — and you really needed to learn to say you were full when really you were ALMOST full — Grandpa would ask if you wanted another pancake. You’d say “no” of course, and twenty seconds later, he’d say, “Well NOW do you want another pancake?” Twenty more seconds: “NOW do you?” And so forth, until you took another pancake. For politeness’s sake, there was always a final capitulation. The last one was always soaked in honey. Always.

After the pancake ritual was over and the salt pork rinds were gnawed clean, Grandpa would finish up with a sliced banana (salted), a bowl of watermelon (salted), or a fresh orange (not salted). You could have any of those, too — salt optional.

This is the meal of my childhood and my heart. I, like the rest of the children in my family, experienced a traumatizing moment the first time I was offered pancakes in the so-called real world. Thick and doughy, chokingly dense, they are nothing but discs of homesickness that make me yearn for Grandma’s perfect pancakes and an epic, endless breakfast at a sunny table in central Michigan.

Thanks, Merrie. And may I just say, you have forever spoiled pancakes for me. Fortunately, there’s still waffles.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!


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