rattails and screams

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

There are few things that disgust and terrify me as much as a rat.  Anyone who has lived in a city knows the sight: that revolting tail, dragging in the filth, disappearing just seconds after that fat, wriggling body behind a garbage can or scrubby clump of weeds.  They signify suspicion, paranoia, spoilage, disease, sneakiness, thievery and uncleanliness.  (Sure, your pet rat doesn’t — shudder — but I’m talking wild Norway rats here.)

So I was thinking, for my Halloween post, what could be truly, personally scarier, what could be more American Gothic, than a recipe featuring rats?

When I lived in SoCal, we had (still have?) a rat epidemic, which was treated in that cheery, dismissive way so many social issues are in Orange County.  I once threatened the housing office in my graduate ghetto apartment with notifying the Health Department and the Regents of the University of California if they didn’t do more than just put a notice in the weekly flyer with a cute drawing of a squirrel asking residents not to leave birdfood out “or critters might be attracted to it.”  When I lived in Baltimore, one of the last straws in our decision to leave the city was seeing a dead rat in the street a block away from our house. When I was in Vietnam, I remember sitting blearily at a café one morning for a tour of Halong Bay, and looking up behind me, and seeing a rat clinging to the picture frame next to a railing, slipping, falling…


I blame this almost irrational loathing on a book my mother would read to me when I was little, a book I loved.  It was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning’s poem, which is quoted above and can be found in its entirety at a site through Indiana University.  (The cover image you see here is also from this site.)  If you’re unfamiliar with the tale, it’s about a German town called Hamelin in the Middle Ages that is overrun by rats (boo!), then a mysterious Piper comes and seduces them all away with his music into the ocean, where they drown (yay!), but then the greedy town council won’t pay him (boo!) and so he lures away the town’s children in a similar fashion (um, boo?).  The graphic description, done in iambic tetrameter singsong, of rats infesting the kitchen was one horrific image that I’d study over and over, thinking about how awful it would be.

So as you might imagine, me being of the perverse persuasion and all, I was thrilled to find a recipe prepared in the German town of Hameln called “Rattails,” a pork fricassee with vegetables and a sweet and sour sauce.  It seems to be a preparation for tourists, mainly, and it features a very complicated sauce of apple brandy, two kinds of wine, “brown gravy,” dribs and drabs of mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and other things. The whole thing is flambéed (and you know how I feel about that), and served over rice.  It tastes like a fancy, more subtle, ten thousand times more complicated version of sweet-n-sour pork.

But here’s the gross part:  the pork loin is prepared in strips, so it looks like rat tails, and cut up chunks of baby corn and red peppers resemble spinal column chunks and sinews, and button mushrooms look like joints, and the green olives with pimientos are nothing more than rat eyeballs.

Quite frankly, the sauce is too complicated for weekly meals.  And even with the flambé, the writhing, dismembered-body-parts-in-brown-sauce look of the final dish is not, um, fancy enough for guests.  But if you want to try it, check out the recipe in the extraordinary Culinaria Germany cookbook, or by clicking this link.

I’ll be cowering in the corner with my cell phone, trying to 911 the Pied Piper.

Happy Halloween to all!

brew of black(berri)est night

In my continuing efforts to stop the addition of sugary tastes to every single thing we eat as Americans, I make berry vinegars.  They are lovely as salad dressings, of course, but I find they add a pang of lost love to root vegetables, soups, and meat deglazes, a haunting undertone that speaks of berries gone by.

By far, the simplest concoction I’ve brewed up is marionberry-thyme vinegar.  I put up a mason jar or two during blackberry season, using fresh berries or berry pulp I have left over from making jam, but it is completely acceptable to make the vinegar in the end days of fall from frozen berries.  When berries freeze and thaw, their cellular structure is compromised, so they release their juices into the vinegar easily and thoroughly.

The method is easy and offers endless creative possibilities:  fill your clean jar with no more than a third with blackberries, add three fresh sprigs of thyme and a half-dozen black peppercorns, and top off with white wine vinegar.  You may subsitute other berries or herbs.  Use a plastic cap, since metal jar lids will rust with the acidity of the vinegar.  (I use the white plastic lids they sell with canning supplies.)  Let sit in a dark, creepy place for a month or so before using, shaking gently once every other day for the first week or so.

The reason I like to use fresh blackberries is because they hold their shape, and then I can punctuate my campaign against sugar with a zombie pickled blackberry in dishes I serve to unwitting guests.  Exhibit A:

To normal people, this looks like a perfectly gorgeous fall-colored side dish of roasted Chioggia beets and yellow peppers dressed in a vinaigrette with thyme leaves…with a blackberry garnish?  But to those of us with vinegary agendas, it’s an explosion of dark, earthy, smoky, piquant flavors.  The pickled blackberries work as counterpoint to the caramelized sugars in the beets and the peppers, and the fresh thyme sprinkled on top picks up the thyme notes in the vinaigrette.  It’s a sophisticated mix of tastes, and gorgeous to boot if you use multi-colored beets and peppers.  This dish is like Harvard beets (sweet and sour boiled beets, pickled with onions and lots of sugar) on steroids, and prettier than that old battleaxe.

Try berry vinegars whisked together with olive oil over any sweet root vegetable, and let me know what you think!

café zenon closed, not with a bang but a whimper

Just heard on the news that Zenon closed suddenly today.  Apparently, it had been on the market for a few months, but they decided to shut the doors for good abruptly.  Let their manager know this morning.  I don’t know the whole story (obviously), but that sounds like a pretty shitty way to treat loyal employees, if you ask me.  We won’t hear that on the news, so I thought I’d say it here.

fungus among us

Retrogrouch and I went to the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival yesterday.  I like this festival more than others, since it mingles the usual Eugenian tchotchkes, Peruvian handknitted sweater-wearing tots, and environmentally-aware folkish guitar music with poison.  And the whole place smells kind of musty and funky, and I don’t mean play-that-funky-music-environmentally-aware-white-boy funky.  It’s all about mushrooms, the edible kind and those that will wipe you off the face of the planet.

We bought four bags of various kinds, including giant white puffball-shaped lion’s mane, yellow oysters, maitake, and elongated buttons called butter caps.  Then we spent a great deal of time shuffling along the tables of all the specimens one can find in our area.  It’s amazing how many mushrooms are out there.  The Cascade Mycological Society provides the specimens of mushrooms and their ilk, including a lichen table, a section on slime molds, and another on truffles. There’s also a table, staffed by an expert, for look-alikes and poison mushrooms.  I listened to her patiently explain to a couple that a certain perfectly respectable mushroom could be bad-tasting when grown on a certain tree and sickening when grown on another.

There’s a certain element of fear — and for good reason — in eating wild mushrooms.  It’s not surprising that mushrooms aren’t used much in American cuisine, and that we rely on the standard European varieties like chanterelles and porcini, or giant portobellos, when we use mushrooms.  I like that idea, flavoring your soup with the scent of fear, something wolves can sense but your husband…yes, YOUR husband, the one that announced to all present in the crowded room that “SURE, EUGENIA, YOU CAN TAKE UP MUSHROOMING, AS LONG AS YOU BRING A DOCTOR TO GIVE YOU A LIVER TRANSPLANT AFTERWARD!”…can’t taste from umami.  Something to consider.  Yes.

In that vein, I was most pleased to see a real, live Wiccan dude in a witch hat pointing out the fried chicken mushrooms to his companion.  Because witches don’t eat KFC.

But embracing the edible wild mushroom is a duty for all PNW residents, I feel, and there are many American native mushrooms that can be incorporated into cooking.  We’re fortunate in Eugene to have fresh wild mushrooms of several varieties available to us in season, and they can really transform stocks, rice, pasta, burgers, stirfries, etc., etc.  Embrace the fungus among us.  The musty, earthy, meaty flavor is probably the best example there is of American Gothic cuisine.

The festival also features a scarecrow contest, and this year there were not one but two Joe the Plumber scarecrows, and several others that were actually quite lovely.  The cider press was set up, too, with proceeds going to a charity whose name completely escapes me.  I thought we were particularly fortunate that the weather has been so fabulous, we usually have to trudge through the festival in the rain.

We ate our maitake, yellow oysters and butter caps in a sauce over penne made with garlic, butter, onions, chopped chicken breast, tomato, tarragon and a touch of sour cream, by the way.  Yum yum.

vampire comfort food for your halloween table

Vampires need comfort food, too.  Researching ways to use up my gallons of fresh sauerkraut, I found this warm, cozy, homely Transylvanian casserole in the Culinaria Hungary cookbook (one of my absolute favorite cookbooks).  It’s a buttered baked dish layered with sauerkraut, ground pork, sausage, rice and sour cream.  In short, it would pass no health inspection.  But it is delicious and an unusual, inexpensive dish for a potluck, and won’t scare any Americans afraid of garlic, strange spices, or vegetables.

A specialty of a region now in Romania that has been called variously Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvar, and Klausenburg, depending on the controlling power, layered sauerkraut is popular in Hungary.  I even found a packaged version of the stuff online.

Casseroles are always difficult to photograph well.  I thought I’d make this dish using red cabbage sauerkraut and red onion, which would inflect it with pretty, rosy colors that would complement the kielbasa I was using.  I’m not sure if I succeeded with my old camera and lighting issues, but I’d eat a piece of this.

The traditional recipes I’ve found for this dish substitute lard for butter, add hard-boiled eggs, other kinds of pork, and sometimes cook the rice in the casserole (with a couple cups of added chicken stock).  All of these things would be good, of course, but my version is quick and relatively easy.

Transylvanian Layered Sauerkraut

6 cups fresh sauerkraut (red or white), rinsed well in cold water
half stick unsalted butter (1/4 cup)
4 cups cooked, long grain rice
1 lb. ground pork
2 spicy Hungarian sausages or Polska kielbasa links
1 small onion (red or white)
2 t. sweet paprika plus ¼ t. for topping
1 c. sour cream
¼ c. dry Riesling or other white wine
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook rice by your usual method (I use a rice cooker) until al dente.  If you’re using a pot on the stove, remove when rice is still a bit hard but all the water is gone.

Rinse the sauerkraut well to remove some of the salt.  If you are using red cabbage, it will also help to remove some of the purple color so it won’t bleed into the rice.

In medium saucepan, braise the rinsed sauerkraut by melting 1 T. of the butter, adding the Riesling, covering the pot, then cooking on low heat until the rest of the ingredients are prepared and the sauerkraut has softened.  Watch to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Slice the sausage into 1-inch chunks, set aside.  Chop the onion.

Brown the ground pork and onion on medium high heat in a tablespoon of the butter.  When meat starts to brown, add the sausage and 2 t. paprika to the pan, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the fat from the meat and set aside.  Spoon a little bit of fat on the bottom of a 8 x 8 Pyrex baking dish, then add 1/3 of the sauerkraut.

Add half the rice and half the meat mixture, then spread 1/4 of the sour cream on top of the meat.

Add another layer of 1/3 of the sauerkraut, then add the rest of the rice and meat mixture.  Spread another small portion of the sour cream on top, then add the rest of the sauerkraut.

Wipe out the saucepan, then melt the rest of the butter.  Remove from heat, then add the rest of the sour cream and another 1/4 teaspoon of paprika.

Bake for 40 minutes.  You may broil the top for a minute or so after baking, if it doesn’t look brown enough for you.

Let the casserole sit for a little while before slicing.  If you serve it directly from the oven, it will not hold its shape.  It will still be delicious, though.

american gothic cuisine: an introduction

My October food column, a meditation on the zombie art of fermentation, is out in the Eugene Weekly!  This week I’ll be featuring my thoughts on what I call American Gothic cuisine, or the non-sweet, non-soft, vinegary, preserved, meaty, dark-colored, unsettling, uncanny, jarring side of American food.  Some of the truly scary stuff of American food actually *is* sweet:

Of course, it could be worse:

…but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the dark side of relatively healthy, relatively normal American cuisine.  If I were writing about Japanese Gothic cuisine, I’d surely discuss natto, the fermented soybean condiment used liberally by crazy many people.  (Just click the link and look at the picture.  Then be glad I don’t have smell-o-vision, because the picture makes the stuff look like caramel…and caramel it ain’t.)  If I were writing about French Gothic cuisine, I’d include (as Joyce put it) mitey cheese.  Yessirree, I could do an around-the-world tour of every rotting, slimy, fermented science experiment served up for dinner!

But I’m a good American, no matter what Sarah Palin might say, and I’m writing about American Gothic cuisine.  The dark, haunting juice of blackberries on a bite of rare steakDeceased grandma chocolate chip cookiesHome-corned beef (pic below).  Broken Heart Coeur à la Crème (a French dessert gone wrong).  Twinkie people (c.f., two video clips above).

In short, it’s all about the food that just seems a little bit creepy.

The night is young.  There.  Will.  Be.  More.

P.S.  And for those of you who are visiting here for the first time, checking out my sometimes funny, sometimes annoying little corner of the food paradise we call the Willamette Valley…VELCOME!  You can find the sauerkraut recipe mentioned in the EW article by clicking here or here.  If you’re interested in other methods of preservation and recipes, click on the category called “preserving” in the list to the right.


The past few mornings, we’ve awakened to the fog.  I love this time of year so much.  My Norway maple dons its gold costume and the air is damp and ready for rain.

I hope the good weather holds through the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival, an intimate little celebration of fungi at the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum that we enjoy each year.  Someone brings a cider press and makes hot cider from the freshly smushed apples, and a local restaurant serves up steaming mushroom soup (and other warming delicacies), so you can walk around with something fragrant and toasty in your hands as you look at the mind-boggling array of mushrooms plucked in our area.  Retrogrouch’s favorite table is the DANGER POISON DON’T EAT THIS OR YOU’LL DIE TABLE!!!!!  I’m more of a romantic.  It’s all about the Biggest Mushroom in Oregon display for me.