Chester Martin Remembers Some Good Food - Both Foreign And Domestic

Monday, August 15, 2016

When I was a kid my mama did all the cooking 24/7/365. Period!  We ate well, even through WW2 when a lot of the goodies (like meat and sugar) were rationed. What we ate would most likely be classified today as "comfort food" - which can have a slightly pejorative meaning. But we ate what both my parents had learned to like as children and had nothing to compare it to. Occasionally we would be gone on a trip of some kind, i.

e., the New York Worlds Fair of 1939, when my parents would discover some new delicious dish that my mom would then try to copy when we got back home. But basically we ate "comfort food" 24/7/365, and we were not alone.

I too loved the ordinary food of the time - the good cornbread, green beans, steak and potatoes. (Back then you could buy absolutely farm-fresh vegetables and fruit at our local Farmers Market’ that was frequently called the “curb” market). My dad, for sure, could not bear to sit down at the supper table without his ration of dry and crumbly cornbread. Uff! How I hate even the thought of that! My own preference was that the cornbread should be steaming hot, have a nice golden brown crust on top, and a moist white cake-textured center (but definitely not sweet). A good slathering of butter and you had Perfection! All mom's cornbread was oven-cooked in a large cast iron "skillet".

"Skillet"? Do YOU know that word? The friendly Chinese people at the restaurant near my Philadelphia apartment had never heard it, so we had to search for it in their Chinese-English dictionary and it could not be found! They called it a "frying pan", and I fear that is the modern replacement for mom's good old-fashioned "skillet". Too bad; old customs do change. Same goes for the "breakfast, dinner, and supper" of my day, which long ago changed to "breakfast, lunch, and dinner". (Although a New Englander I knew in Philadelphia used the same terminology as me).

Those friendly Chinese people (above) once invited me for a tour of their kitchen - a rare experience. For all the wide variety of items on their menu I found that they knew how to cook a great many dishes all at once using only ONE immense (approx. 3.5 foot diameter) copper or brass cooking pan which they manipulated by hand over an open flame. Those good people "gave" me (literally) my retirement party when I left the U.S. Mint.

It was amazing what my mom could cook up in her old skillet and it was one of our most-used kitchen utensils. Aside from all the thousands of breakfasts she cooked in it, she occasionally used it to recycle a piece of cheese which had hardened in the fridge. The tooth-breaking block of cheese soon melted, spread out and bubbled in the skillet. The idea was to get it all thin and runny - and wait till the edges began to blacken. THEN you took it out of the skillet using a spatula, waited a few seconds and ate it while still warm. The blackened edges were a gourmet’s delight, adding that extra touch that skilled chefs strive for in their presentations. If you want to give yourself a real treat some day, just try that! It is known by the highly creative name of "fried cheese", but I can guarantee that you will like it!

(Another tip from my mom's 1930's kitchen would be to season your beans - green, pinto, white, or etc., with "fat meat" from your local butcher. You simply ask the butcher for "fat meat" and he will be so glad to hear someone ask for it that he might not charge you a penny! [Don't hold me to that!] He will cut you a small cube of it, palm size, and you just put it in the bean pot while it's cooking. It will give your beans - or crowder peas - or collard greens - a flavor you can't get any other way.)

In my time there were a lot of lunch counters and "cafes" around Chattanooga, but not of the Parisian variety. They would turn up in dime stores, drug stores, etc., and would be open only for lunch. After 5:00 p.m. everyone would scurry home from downtown to enjoy one of their mom's good (but very ordinary) meals, because there was no other choice. Not very many restaurants even existed back then. They were considered to be a luxury and the few that there were thrived on Sunday traffic (only). Fehn's in North Chattanooga was one of these highly popular places and their lines would be so long that people who had driven for miles would simply turn around and go home. But, if you chose to wait in line for an hour then you would be served their specialty "house" chicken, fried, with the most delicious crust you ever tasted. People said it was made out of cornflakes batter. Eddy's Grill on Brainerd Road had a similar chicken dish, served in a basket with a red and white checkered napkin folded over it. But mainly “rich folks” ate there.

BREAD was really pretty plain back in the 1940's and '50's, too. All my earliest after-school sandwiches were made on white bread. Brown bread was also available, but I preferred white for a very long time. You could also find "half & half" bread in loaves: white at one end of the loaf, and brown at the other. Nowadays I generally prefer brown "wheat" bread - unless I can find a loaf of good Italian or German Rye (which MUST have caraway seeds!) Gosh, how my tastes have changed through the years! When in Philly I could easily walk down to South Street where there was a great variety of mom-and-pop specialty shops - including an Italian bakery. Your nose could lead you directly to it and you cannot believe the different types and shapes of bread they made there. They did all their baking in immense concrete kiln-style ovens that looked like they came over with Columbus in 1492! Reading Terminal Market, also in Philadelphia, had a large area devoted purely to Italian breads. (That is the former terminus of the “real” Reading Railroad that you know from your Monopoly board).

Not sure how I did it, but I left out AMISH bread - and all their other variety of home-made and home-grown foods! They (the Amish) had a stall in the terminal where two or three lovely young Amish women did nothing all day but bake those large delicious soft pretzels which they salted and buttered before your eyes. There was always a long queue of people waiting to snatch these up, and I have eaten many a full lunch of only those pretzels and a drink.

"SALT RISING BREAD" was a specialty of my parents' generation. It is an old traditional Southern product which is rapidly disappearing - virtually gone. Not even many bakers have even heard of it. I once took all my Engraver colleagues at the Mint an individual loaf from here in Chattanooga. They first viewed their loaf with suspicion, but one bite of it - spread with butter and jelly or jam - and they fell for it! I still find it occasionally at the Jackson Bakery in Brainerd Village, but it is a lot of trouble to make and is getting scarcer all the time. It also makes superb toast, especially when you cut the slices with a serrated kitchen knife so the crumbly (or slightly ‘stringy’) edges will blacken in the toaster!

As American style restaurants have multiplied on the local scene in recent years, so have the ethnic restaurants. Nowadays we have Greek, Italian, East Indian, Mexican, Thai, German, Chinese, and an English tea-house! There are possibly others that I don't know about, but those are the main ones. Folks, those simply did not exist just a few years ago! I enjoy them all from time to time - except possibly for the ones where the food comes with curry sauce. (I am slightly allergic to that).

And these ethnic foods keep on improving, and new items are added to the menus frequently! Many years ago Chinese restaurants only served two main items: Chop Suey and Chow Mein and little more. Italian restaurants only served Spaghetti, good bread, and little more. I do not have to explain the rest; you already know about the large varieties you find now.

The good ol' American hamburger cannot be beat, either! I like good hot-dogs as well. One of the bad things about foreign travel USED to be that you craved American food while you were overseas - but you need not go hungry for it anymore. NOW you can enjoy a Big Mac while viewing sculpture at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid or while people-watching in Budapest! Your own homemade hamburgers and hot-dogs are probably the best, although "George" used to make the best commercial hamburgers in town for many years. He was located on East 8th Street at Georgia Avenue. Bill Shores, the picture framer, was across the street - and also Vanderstoops Shoe Repair was downstairs next door to Shores. George put ALL the right stuff on his burgers, then put a sprinkling of salt over their tops and flattened them on a grill. Never saw another burger done in such a way, but that short grilling added just the perfect touch! "GEORGE!  WHERE DID YOU GO???"

And SEAFOOD???   Yikes! THAT is another great fave of mine! Will only mention that while stationed at Keesler AFB on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, our training squadron employed CIVILIAN cooks at our chow-halls. THOSE gentlemen knew how to cook fish – in the true Cajun way – and the tartar sauce they made, with boiled egg whites plus all the other ingredients, was out of this world. That tartar sauce could have made an excellent “side” all by itself!

Now I am really hungry, folks, so ‘bye’ till next time!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )


Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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