I remember a special visit when I was about 12 years old to Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum tucked between Madison and Milwaukee. It was autumn—time for bringing in the harvest, butchering pigs, and putting the gardens to bed. One historic home was drying strips to pumpkin into leathery, chewy snacks that could be stored all winter. The folks at the hog butchering site were making pickled pigs feet jelly and head cheese. Anther home was baking bread in a wood-fired oven.
At the bread-baking site, the warm, yeasty smells mingled with the scent of the fire from the stove. The interpreter managing the hot iron beast wore a long, prairie-style dress and creamy muffin cap with knitted shawl. She shared with us the story of the farming family that once lived in the old wooden house during the settlement days and how certain days of the week were for washing, ironing, mending, baking, etc. This was baking day.
But then she mentioned something special. “Memories around food are some of our strongest recollections. You’ll remember what I said for a day, what you saw for a week, but you’ll remember the smells for the rest of your life.”
Humans, compared with dogs and other mammals, are not particularly known for their keen sense of smell. But there are certainly many arrays of fragrances that can bring our minds to particular memories, events, or places. This is especially true of food.
For instance—the smell of homemade stuffing. Throughout the year, our family roasts poultry, but usually we stuff the birds with apple quarters and lemon slices. Authentic, bread-based stuffing is a treat for Thanksgiving or Christmas. First, there is the cubing of the bread and drying it in the oven. Then the sausage must be browned on the stove (all spiced and sizzly). Then comes the celery and herbs and all the rest stirred up in a big bowl. Pull up the sleeves, grab it by the handful, and pack that beautiful turkey full to bursting. The stuffing helps keep the turkey from drying out on the inside while roasting, and the stuffing likewise becomes infused with the essence of the turkey—turning those disparate ingredients into a bowl of steaming deliciousness. At our holiday table, it’s common to hear, “Please pass the stuffing.”
Making gravy is an art of special talent for my grandmother. The pan drippings from the turkey are carefully saved (in good farming tradition, nothing is thrown away!) and transferred to the biggest skillet we own. The warm browns and golds of the steamy liquid are carefully stirred and thickened while the boiled chunks of snowy-white potatoes are pressed through the ricer and whipped into perfection with a little milk, butter, and salt. A cloudy puff of homegrown mashed potatoes on the Thanksgiving plate with a well made in the center by your spoon (poured full, of course, with the homemade gravy) is another special treat in our home. Coined by my sister when she was a little girl, “smashed potatoes” is one of those fabled dishes where you better take what you wanted from the bowl the first time around—or it’s likely to be gone!
And then there are the cranberries, of course. Forget anything out of a can—making your own cranberry relish or chutney on the stove is easy. Try cranberry and apple variants or cranberry and blueberry twists. Add some nuts for a bit of a crunch and try using honey instead of sugar. Cranberries are one of the few fruits actually native to Wisconsin, and this year we’ve managed to source regionally grown Certified Organic cranberries. (We’re buying several cases, so if you haven’t procured your cranberries yet, we have extra at the shop!) Cranberry apple pie is a favorite of the family—sweet and tart with that tangy kick, making it a great partner with ice cream or gelato.
But or course, you can’t outshine the pumpkin pie. Someone once asked us, “how come your food tastes so good?” Before we could reply to the question, the friend sitting at the table with the inquirer offered, “Well, you start with your own chickens that lay the eggs, then you go out to the garden to harvest the vegetables, and then you have your own pigs…”
Similarly, a good pumpkin pie must start as sugar pie pumpkins from the squash patch. Lop ‘em in half, scoop out the seeds, place them cut-side down on a foil-liked cake pan with a bit of water and bake them until they are fork tender and the domed skins begin to wrinkle up and brown. Pull off the skins, run the cooked flesh through a Foley Food Mill, and here is the base for your pumpkin pie. To this add the necessary eggs, milk, sugar, flour, etc. to make that delicious custard, pour into a homemade pie shell, and bake to perfection. I love the steamy puff of spiced pumpkinness as you open the oven to test the firmness of the custard with a butter knife. Whip up some fresh cream once the pie has chilled, and this is the heavenly end to a perfectly delicious and memorable meal with family and friends.
Perhaps these reminiscences of flavors and fragrances have brought back a few food memories for you as well. And if your mouth is watering for a seasonal treat, here is a recipe you might enjoy giving a whirl.
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread
2/3 cup shortening or 1 cup vegetable oil
2 2/3 cup sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups pumpkin puree
2/3 cup water
3 1/3 cups flour
½ tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 ½ cups chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together the shortening or oil and sugar. Beat in the eggs, pumpkin, and water. Add the remaining ingredients through vanilla and stir to blend. Fold in nuts and chocolate chips. Spoon the batter into two lightly greased 9x5-inch loaf pans. Bake for one hour or until cake tester comes out clean. Allow to cool. You can even drizzle icing or serve with cream cheese, if desired.
This week, take a moment to share a food memory or recipe with someone special. As we all run around shopping for the ingredients for our Thanksgiving meal, please take the time to choose local and organic. It’s a special way to say “thank you” to your farmer this season. Enjoy the smells. Enjoy the flavors. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com