Heirloom dishes

By Jim Duncan

Old soul Iowa cooking that you simply can’t resist

One hears a lot these days about heirloom fruits and vegetables. Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah popularized the phrase before any grocery store knew how to exploit or misrepresent it. In its purest sense, it meant foods from
varietal seeds that were vanishing after generations. Seed Savers and the World Seed Bank near the north pole are
preventing that from happening now, but one wouldn’t know it from a look at supermarket produce sections.

Even more endangered are heirloom recipes, often made with heirloom foods. George Formaro owns Centro, Django, Zombie Burger, Gateway Café, Malo and South Union Bread Company, and is one of the biggest supporters of heirloom recipes in town. For Restaurant Week last month at Centro, he and chef Derek Eidson served an entire menu of recipes from old, mostly bygone Italian restaurants in Des Moines.

They offered stuffed peppers from Tony Lemmo, whose  family tree includes Noah’s, Lemmo’s, Mama Lacona’s, Café di Scala, Aposto and Gusto; fried peppers from Ralph Compiano of Compiano’s on Ingersoll, Compiano’s on Douglas, Rocky’s Steak House, and White Shutter Inn; Noah’s butter garlic pasta with egg and parsley; Formaro’s mother Gina’s eggplant; Italian heirloom peppers, from the Riccelli family, that only exist in Des Moines; chicken a la Maria from Vic’s Tally Ho; pasta sarda from Barrata’s made from a rare worm shaped fish of Calabria plus egg and bacon; Polito’s (La Pizza House) pizza from the 1940s; pepperoni cheese bread from Scornovacca’s; and a Graziano Brother’s recipe for sausage, potatoes, onions and peppers.

 

Pepper steak from Ralph Compiano of Rocky’s Steak House

Formaro and Eidson spent a month worth of hours researching this project, for which they made less money than if they had done nothing at all for Restaurant Week. That is how seriously some people take heirloom recipes here
in the heartland.

The Midwest Foodways Alliance is our Library of Congress for heirloom recipes. Headquartered in Chicago, the MFA supports all things nostalgic and historic about Midwestern cooking. They host numerous state fair competitions in which a family story accounts for the largest percentage of a judge’s vote, more than taste even.

The last time they came to the Iowa State Fair, Shelby McCreedy of Atlantic won the top prize with a pie that she learned to make at her grandmother’s knee more than half a century ago. Her story was the best I heard or read in several years of judging and observing such things.

“As a child,” she wrote, “I always preferred to work outside with the farm animals and did my best to stay out of the kitchen. I loved that Grandma would always have food on the table mid-morning and mid-afternoon for break, (it always just magically appeared), and at least once a week, that coffee time treat would be pie. I always looked forward to whatever pie Grandma conjured up in the kitchen.

 

Beef braciole from Maria Baratta of Something Italian

“When I got older, Grandma decided it was time I started to help in the kitchen, and she asked me what I wanted to learn to make. My first (and only) choice was cherry pie. I remember Grandma telling me that was a good place to start since the cherries were ripe, so she sent me outside to pick cherries off the tree. I knew the pie of the week was always whatever was ripe at the time, and I was just grateful I didn’t have to head to the raspberry patch. Of course, I learned the hard way that picking cherries was the easy part, and that they didn’t come off the tree already pitted.

“As long as I can remember, I never saw Grandma look at a cookbook. Her mind was the treasure trove of all things delicious, and I asked how she remembered everything. Her response was simple. ‘I have been making this stuff all of my life, so it becomes routine.’ I had watched Grandma cook for years and it was always just a touch of this and a bit of that. I needed a bit more direction, so I asked for a recipe. Grandma rooted around in a comer cupboard and came out with an old tattered cookbook. The recipe for her cherry pie was written in the margins of this late 1930s church cookbook that no longer had a back cover.

“I asked Grandma why it was written in this particular book and she said my Mom had asked her to write down some of her recipes, so one day she decided to do it and this was the only thing she could find. As I looked through the old book, I found recipes for more of my favorite things … fried chicken, dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls. It was like a maze to follow as Grandma had written in margins, up and down sides of pages, upside down, and not all of the directions were complete. Grandma explained she got distracted so a few of them weren’t quite finished. A little bit of translation was needed for her cherry pie scribblings, but once she explained to me what some of the jibber meant, I was ready to get cooking.

 

Chicken Maria, from Maria Talerico or Vic’s Tally Ho

“Grandma told me that the secrets to good food are really quite simple. She rendered lard from hogs they raised on the farm, and her instructions were quite clear when it came to what made ‘good’ lard. Grandma responded to my questions by explaining pig fat from around the kidneys and liver made the best lard, and to NEVER buy it pre-packaged from a grocery store. Grandma also emphasized picking your fruit just before you are going to use it. Once picked, she said to either use it, freeze it, or preserve it because there was no need to have it sit around in the refrigerator because, in her words, it would never get better with age. Grandma’s final words of advice were to keep it simple — no need to be fancy and put more things in the pie than were necessary. ‘Let the fruit do the work, and don’t mess it up!’ Grandma constantly reminded me the basics were good enough. ‘Just some fruit, sugar, and a little thickening and throw it in,’ she told me. That advice is something I still follow today.

“Grandma had been making that pie for over 50 years by the time she taught me how to make it, and it was one of
the first pies I showed my daughter how to make after she experienced picking and pitting a gallon of cherries. After
my Grandma passed away, I was lucky enough to find that cookbook in her cupboard. Today, I keep it in my cedar chest with all of the blankets she made for me, and cannot think of anything I cherish more. I sometimes look at it just so I can be reminded that ‘fast and easy’ isn’t the best thing for me or my family.

“One of the first trees I planted when we moved to our acreage 16 years ago was a cherry tree. I wanted to make sure I could continue to make her cherry pie exactly the way I was taught. It is one of my favorite pies to make, and every
time I make it, I remember that day in the kitchen and all of Grandma’s golden advice,” she concluded.

McCreedy also used Grandma’s pie pan to make this for the contest — metal, not glass. To see other heirloom, prizewinning recipes, look for the “state fairs” section at http://greatermidwestfoodways.com. ♦

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