Red-flannel hash and the sunset of American cuisine

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Were i to opine, which isn't always a sure ticket to popularity, I would opine that the American home has so declined in the culinary sense that children growing up have no knowledge whatever of molasses cookies and things like that. They are brought up on just-as-goods, and when it becomes time for them to cook, either professionally or domestically, they have no quality to relate to, and proceed accordingly. "We miss her," said Lute Griscomb of his departed Aunt Clarice, "She baked lovely biscuits."

Lute's Aunt Clarice had feminine traits on an equal with a wheelbarrow and wore size 15 men's boots. She spoke like Train Eight blowing for the Hardscrabble grade crossing, and she'd left school just between two-times-two and recess.

Everybody loved Aunt Clarice because she knew how to cook. "Have the water b'ilin'," she told me about bursting weenies, "stick in your frankfurts, and then shove the pot to the back of the stove." Hot dogs cooked on a descending heat don't bust open, she said. Aunt Clarice didn't have a timer. I used to wonder how she kept her timing right when the recipe said to "let stand for 20 minutes." She'd slap things into a bowl, wallop them with a whisk, look at the clock, and go upstairs to make the beds.

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When I asked her one day how she knew when the 20 minutes were up, she said, "Charley Smith always toots when he puts the mail in the box." Charley, of course, was punctual and always came at 10:20 a.m.

Always except once. Lute told me, "One day Charley had a flat, and the angel cake was like rubber."

There was one morning when we were on a canoe trip down the beautiful Allagash River, and while the rest of us tidied the place, my wife and Flats Jackson were making breakfast. The porridge was bubbling, and it was time to heave the pancakes on the spider. She had measured things out, and Flats had "whupped" 'em with a batter-bat. I heard my wife say, "What happens if I toss in an extra egg?"

Flats, a top-notch woodsman and a lumber-camp cook, said, "'Twon't hurt it none." He was correct. The egg is by nature a "risin' ingredient," and what the new-day "nutritional information" never tells today's home cook is what an egg does by itself in an oven. We always kept hens, and saved somewhat on baking powder. When Domestic Science (now humorously called home economics) appeared, my sister was involved, and our mother was horrified to hear the girls were learning to make cookies with one-quarter of an egg.

The girls worked four at a table, and the cookie recipe called for one egg. There was thus a preliminary exercise that divided an egg (and the other ingredients) into fourths, and my mother wisely observed that for some reason a hen didn't work that way. The next day, she had a two-dozen box of beautiful Rhode Island Red brown eggs for my sister to carry to the teacher. A note tied on with grocer's string (now extinct) said, "Don't ever skimp on cookies." My father considered a moment, then said, "Why is your daughter learning to cook in school? Why ain't she teaching the class?"

Here at this supreme authority on institutional food, we sometimes find a "New England Boiled Dinner" on the promised list, and that sounded good to me. In times past, every local meat shop had a "hardness cask" where meats were corned and you'd buy a bit of beef brisket. It was easy to corn beef at home, in a salt brine that would float a potato; the flavor depended on how long it soaked. The meat was always gray.

The vegetables depended only on the season. Potatoes, onions, cabbage, turnip, carrots, onions, sometimes green beans but no corn, maybe a parsnip, and now and then an onion. Always beets. So here at our last resort we do get an occasional New England boiled dinner, but there are no beets. This is like dill pickles and no cucumber. Dumfounded, I finally asked, "How come?" I was told nobody ever heard anything as silly as that, and they ruddied the plate, causing an unpalatable spectacle. "How do you know that?" I said. "You never did it!"

I was told, "Everybody knows that!"

So I'd say, pleased with my overwhelming logic, "Without beets, how do you plan to make red-flannel hash?"

Now I was told they didn't plan to, and what is red-flannel hash?

RED-FLANNEL hash is what the gods on Mount Olympus prepare as a special on cook's night off. It is superlative, and as it fades in a culinary sunset, the joys of ingestion slide downhill in a heap and a thump.

For red-flannel hash you first have a New England Boiled Dinner, all brought together in the common weal. The next day or the next you make red-flannel hash in a family-size fry-pan. You chop (or grind) all the left-over vegetables with loving care, and also the left-over corned beef. Either way, the product is mixed and commingled until it is difficult to tell the cabbage from the participating co-equals, but you can see the particles of beet because they are red and are by no means an unpalatable spectacle.

They make the red-flannel hash red, and no home should be without it. Make patties and fry in salt-pork fat. Before serving, drop a poached egg on each patty, then leave me to my deserved pleasures. What, indeed, is nectar and ambrosia? Just another way of saying whatever it was I had in mind.

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