Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Unpacking" My Mother's Blue Cheese Dressing

This post is for a graduate class in American and New England Studies at USM called Food, Politics and Culture with Professor Ardis Cameron.

In recent weeks I have begun to realize my mother, a straight-laced, educated Republican, was a subversive. As far back as I can remember, Mom seemed ahead of her time and possibly a contrarian, but I figured her votes for Nixon and Reagan (for governor and president) as well as membership in the Ojai Country Club, Symphony and Tennis Auxiliary told the bulk of her political story. Seems I was wrong.

Born in 1920--weeks before American women got the right to vote--she died 78 years later after running a gauntlet separate from most of her age-mates. Graduate class readings designed to help me explore the world of American food, politics and culture have lately convinced me that not only did she choose a path apart, she worked to undermine the dominant culture and lay groundwork for a local, whole food revolution she would not live to see bear fruit. The shelf on our refrigerator door might have held a clue had I known how to see it.

The only child of an intrepid Midwestern woman with Puritan New England roots and her second generation German-American husband who worked as an inventor and engineer for Bell Labs, Alice Elizabeth Siegmund bucked her between-the-World-Wars generation. Most of her peers, even those with similar education, married with abandon before during and especially after WW II, giving rise to the biggest population bubble in history. During those years Mom earned a B.S. in chemistry and a master's degree in home economics, developed a lucrative career, worked overseas and postponed marriage and her paltry two children until well past the female sell-by date determined by her peers.

Just days before WW II's official end, she began to travel the world with the Red Cross, first zigzagging across the Pacific on a troopship burgeoning with American soldiers destined for Perth, Australia, then on to India with a handful of Red Cross coworkers or "girls." As a photography teacher she honed her skills on the Taj Mahal in moonlight and fell in love with a tall married OSS officer who shared her image capturing vocation. With the Red Cross, Mom also worked in Japan and Germany before returning to the states in 1949. A slide from that era depicts her in an Audrey Hepburn-esque scarf, sunglasses and swing coat parked at a hairpin-turn overlooking some snowy alpine scene. She stands between a teeny sports car and a handsome dark-haired man, an Italian painter named Salvatore who became a lifelong friend.

After the war, she used her image-making skills as a food photographer and editor for Family Circle magazine. Started in 1932 Family Circle is one of the Seven Sisters of American women's magazines and her work as food editor and food photographer in the early-50s helped inform ideas of American food and cooking for her readers with kitchens full of children and Tupperware. (In a cynical moment decades later, as one of our bed and breakfast guests fairly swooned over a tragically simple dish, my mother described the American palette: "Americans really only like food that is either hot and salty or cold and sweet.") When the OSS officer cum international oil executive broke her heart, my mother left New York for sunnier climes. Sunkist, then a growers' cooperative, not today's multi-national corporation, hired her as a recipe developer to promote the use of California's citrus fruit, now available in more places across the country thanks to the growing Interstate Highway system.

Some of her work at Sunkist can be found in a long index-card box full of recipes. This box and its predecessors have held recipes, handwritten or typed, from my mother, her mother, Leola Meachum Siegmund, and her Aunt Pauline Kunkel, her father's sister, as well as those cut from magazines, newspapers, flour bags and tortilla wrappings, given by friends and copied from books. With its 250-odd recipes, this box sits at my house between another smaller one and a gaggle of vitamin bottles atop my microwave, an appliance my mother helped develop and market some 40 years ago.

Examples of my mother's apparently anachronistic focus on real food fills her recipe box. Though Mom failed the uber-foodie tests of today in that she bought our tortillas, pasta and peanut butter, and her coffee came in a vacuum packed Chock Full o’ Nuts can, most of the recipes in this box require discreet food items and only a handful originated on a printed package. Always suspicious of margarine, she never brought anything approaching convenience food into our home, and, except for a brush with liquid protein meals and anorexia, I have inherited her disdain for food fads and pretty much anything advertised on television.

That said, I remember vividly the chill in her voice in 1970 when, while shopping at the local Safeway, I suggested we buy a box of Hamburger Helper. The commercials made it look beyond delicious to my pre-teen eyes and I had whined. Mother said we were not a family that bought that "kind of food," food from a box, prepared food, convenience food. Needless to say we never bought Hamburger Helper. The only time I ever ate it was when I was left to my own cooking devices on babysitting jobs. Mother was right. It was salty and riddled with clots of a tangy, onion-y substance that was supposed to pass for cheese.

The irony of my mother's stance struck me as I read Sherrie Inness' estimation of the 1950s and 1960s domestic science movement's attempt to disguise and hide food and dissociate what went on in the modern kitchen from the messy, antiquated process of preparing healthy meals throughout history. While my mother worked for magazines and companies that seemed to have modernization and commodification as goals, at home she moved us in what I understand now to be an antithetical direction. One of my most vivid memories is my mother pulverizing leftover meat in a hand cranked grinder attached to the counter by a two-inch wingnut that might have come from a furniture-making workshop. If she was going to eat processed meat, she would process it herself, seemed to be the message. Maybe it was her work in the food production industry, her chemistry undergraduate degree, her own Minnesota farmer's-granddaughter mother, her stern, skeptical, yet techie father or some combination of the four that made her hold processed food at arm's length.

The best examples of my mother's rejection of prepared food were her salads. Though we lived in California and ate our body weight in salads every week, the closest thing to a prepared dressing in our house was the occasional envelope of herbs and spices developed by my mother's home economist friends working for spice companies like Lawry's to be mixed with oil, vinegar and water. We had salads created by my mother and her Sunkist colleagues that mixed weird (to my sister and me, anyway) ingredients like citrus, onions and olives. My mother put nuts (!) in salads back in the early 1970s, and she was no hippie.

Until my sister and I learned how, Mom made all our salad dressings. None of my friends' mothers made their own salad dressings, and in that young, dumb way of children I envied the insides of their fridge door shelves, lined with phalanxes of bottles of all label and hue. These homes seemed more modern, more in touch with the television-imbued scene I thought ought to be our touchstone. It seemed to me other foods could be associated with families that used bottled dressing and I could make assumptions about what might be in the cupboard based on what I saw on the refrigerator door. Though I never actually liked to eat Kraft's burnt orange-colored “French” dressing, our next door neighbors served it and there I learned that houses with this concoction in the fridge were more likely to also have Coca-Cola and potato chips on hand, neither of which ever crossed our Formica counter tops. Well, never is too strong a word. Every Fourth of July, cousins, my father's brother's family from Anaheim, brought all manner of junk food and my sister and I would cheer, then chow down.

The recipe I want to explore, or unpack, is a blue cheese dressing my mother developed for Sunkist, the California Fruit Growers Exchange.

Blue Cheese Dressing
2 c. sour cream
½ c. mayonnaise
⅓  to ⅓ c. blue, Roquefort or Gorgonzola cheese
¼ c. lemon juice
1 garlic clove
⅛ to ¼  c. olive oil
½ t. salt
ground pepper to taste

Developed about 1956, this recipe seems emblematic of the upwardly mobile post-war 50s. Blue cheese, though ubiquitous and varied these days, then seemed exotic. At the Ojai, California Safeway--our local market--there was a single brand of blue cheese available by the time I was shopping with my mother in the late 60s and early 70s. We lived for a couple of years in England during this time while my father attempted a PhD, and my mother reveled in the access to European food, especially cheeses. In her case, this represented a return to food she had learned to love as a young proto-jetsetter in the late 1940s.

Mom’s 1971 glee in response to the cheese section of London’s Harrods Food Court makes me wonder whether the rise in popularity and sales of other smelly foreign cheeses like brie, Camembert, even Limburger through the 50s, 60s and 70s might be linked to soldiers’ experiences in Europe during WW II. British war brides and bachelor soldiers who frequented pubs in the UK must have brought a tolerance for what Americans would have considered exotic cheeses. Today I can find Roquefort, Saga Blue, Gorgonzola and at least one or two other blue-mold cheeses in such humble markets as the Waldoboro Hannaford.

In any case, my mother and others like her helped blaze blue cheese’s path from tony cocktail parties to American steak houses and on to sports bars as a de rigeur chicken wing condiment. Blogger Chris Padgett, who claims to be blogging about the “simple things in life,” insists, “All orders of hot wings should include blue cheese dressing.” He includes a comprehensive list of fast food chains that do just that. Sadly most blue cheese dressings bear little resemblance to the tart rich mix I grew up with. Too often they are an oily mix of second rate mayonnaise, vinegar and a little cheese.
My mother’s recipe includes raw, fresh, crushed garlic in this dressing. This might have seemed daring in the 1950s, but now garlic is nearly ubiquitous in American kitchens.

There may be many ways to measure garlic’s rise in American cuisine, from the availability of bottled dried garlic in supermarkets throughout the country in the 50s to the popularity of roasted fresh garlic heads in the 90s to the sales of alarmingly cheap bags of Chinese garlic at bulk box-stores today. One measure that comes to mind is the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, the self-proclaimed center of the American garlic industry. In the 32 years this festival has run visitor numbers jumped from a few thousand in 1979 to 25,000 in 1981, the first year I attended, and on to over 100,000 in 2010. Will Rogers is said to have described Gilroy, as “the only town in America where you can marinate a steak by hanging it on the clothesline.” Garlic has moved, in my mother’s and my lifetime from merely a marinade ingredient to a condiment in itself. At John’s Pizza on Bleeker Street in New York City, waiters ask every pizza patron whether he or she wants garlic as an extra topping.

Another ingredient, olive oil, like garlic, for most of American history has been relegated to the Italian food aisle. Like garlic, olive oil can now be found in most kitchens and its uptown cousin, the green, fruity extra-virgin olive oil has been raised in some circles to lofty enough heights to garner contests, tastings and medals. Its perceived nutritional value received a boost with the media’s promotion of the Mediterranean Diet as a guard against heart disease.
However, its Silver Bullet status has been sullied by stricter interpretations of what actually makes the Mediterranean Diet protective. Researcher Jeff Novick, who works for the famously abstemious Pritikin Center, argues that olive oil is far from the critical part of the healthy part of the way Greeks and Italians eat. He says it is the volume of fresh vegetables, not the volume or type of oil that makes the difference.

In either case blue cheese dressing, with most of its calories from fat, cheese, sour cream and mayonnaise, could hardly be called healthy. This may explain its popularity as part of the stereotypical anti-health food menu found at sports bars. I would argue that my mother’s version, nevertheless, is rich, whole food, and in these early days of what some of us hope is a local food boom, could, except for the lemons, be made from local ingredients almost anywhere in the country. As for the lemons, we had two lemon trees and a grapefruit tree in the back yard of our Ojai home. My mother, a New Jersey native, marveled that she could step past the clothesline and pick such an exotic fruit. Citrus was strictly seasonal and infrequent at that for most of her life. When she moved to California, she fell in love with the state and cherished her work at Sunkist. I am lucky to have creations contained in her recipe box to tie me to her across miles and years.