It is difficult to start a discussion about food without bringing up family. Almost every cook’s story I have heard begins with memories of helping in the kitchen while their mothers were cooking, or of growing up watching their grandmother shaping pasta, of the cookies their mothers baked for them, or the steaks their fathers grilled. Cooks seem to pull inspiration from an arsenal of memories relating to their cultural food heritage. American chefs carry on a food heritage from their family and their respective culture while simultaneously adding personal touches and new flavors, bringing the traditional foods they grew up with into a new age of cuisine. This is what I consider to be American food. What is cooked or baked is representational of where the chef comes from but also of who they are, and where they are, now. Food is in this way a part of identity (or at least this is the way that I have come to understand it). Hearing those stories always made me feel like I was missing out. I don’t have a specific cultural background. I am a product of an amalgam of European immigrants who did not hold onto their traditions and instead forged new ones in America.
I have always felt as if I have no food heritage unless, of course, you count dessert.
My mother grew up in a house with parents who weren’t enthusiastic about cooking. She became a vegetarian as a teenager after an ill-fated incident with a raw chicken that my grandparents had left for her to cook when they went out-of-town. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, is Dutch. She grew up outside of Amsterdam during the Great Depression and was an orphaned teenager during the Nazi Occupation of WWII. She rarely ever spoke to us about Holland, or the Depression, or WWII, and from what I picked up from my mother she rarely spoke to her about it either. The only thing my grandmother ever told me about it was that if there was food to eat at all, it was beans or it was cabbage. As far as I know she refused to do so much as look at another bean or another cabbage for the rest of her life.
Once I appeared on the scene my mom was late 80’s health-food obsessed. She wouldn’t buy the sugary cereals or the hydrogenated peanut butter that my sister and I constantly begged her for. She wouldn’t buy prepackaged foods with preservatives because she swore they gave her hives so she cooked almost everything from scratch. She was part of a food co-op with a bunch of homeschooling moms she was friends with. She was no longer a strict vegetarian, as she would eat poultry and seafood, but we never had red meat in the house. My sister and I grew up eating steamed broccoli and actually enjoying it. Looking back on my childhood I consider myself extremely fortunate to have a family that cared about what I was eating. I recognize my extraordinary privilege in that I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from, or what it would consist of. Not only did we have enough food but my mother actually cared about what we ate for the nutritional value above all else. She made one exception to this rule regarding desserts. When my parents made dessert, both the quality of ingredients and flavor were of the utmost importance.
My father grew up in a household with a grand tradition of “from-scratch” homemade desserts that were often (if not always) topped with real whipped cream. He was the youngest of five siblings. His mother (my paternal grandmother and my namesake: Alice) would cook dinner and make a dessert for her family every night. Her recipes are legendary. Her love for the tradition of homemade dessert was passed down from her children , to my sister and I and as far as I know every single one of our cousins. This love was shared with my mother when my parents got married and luckily for my father she turned out to be a fantastic home baker. Equipped with the best Rohrbacher family recipes (and a wealth of Italian bakeries in Connecticut to draw inspiration from) my mother was well on her way to becoming a dessert savant.
Before I was born my parents moved to the Memphis Tennessee, from the Northeast. Memphis is the epicenter of what is referred to as the Mid South. This was certainly an adjustment for my parents but by the time they had me they had settled in and made a happy home for themselves. In regards to Southern desserts there are many great recipes to note: pecan pie and any desserts with pecans (like pralines), sweet potato pie, fried hand pies, chess pie, chocolate chess pie, and the list goes on. There is one element of modern Southern desserts, though, that I feel deserves a slight rant.
In the American Mid South there is a product generally known as Cool Whip that is in my opinion without a doubt one of the most loathsome ingredients in the Southern pantry. It is also referred to as “whipped topping” and it is essentially imitation whipped cream. It is similar to whipped cream in the same way that imitation crab is similar to fresh crab meat. Wait. No. At least imitation crab is still a fish product. Cool Whip is dairy free and the ingredients list includes: hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives. This sorry excuse for whipped cream has unfortunately tainted Southern dessert tables for far too long. Now, I am not trying to disparage or insult you ambrosia fans out there, by all means eat what you like. My problem is that entire generations of Southerners are growing up never having even tasted real whipped cream, unless if came out of a “Reddi-Whip” can, and this is just a taste-travesty of monumental proportions.
I realize I have gotten a bit carried away and I need to take a moment to define my terms. When I say “real whipped cream” I mean heavy cream, skimmed from cow milk, that has been whipped. Usually this task can be easily accomplished with an electric handheld beater, or by an old-school version hand crank beater, or by hand with a whisk. Air is incorporated into the cream until it is fluffy and aerated. It can be sweetened, vanilla can be added, or it can be used as is. Personally I think it is hard to go wrong.
Around the time of almost any special occasion, and almost always on birthdays, my mother would make a cake that included layers filled with macerated strawberries and peaches and whipped cream. Almost every time she made one she would recount a story to us of the time she was planning my 3rd birthday party. I must share it now to predicate the following recipe post and to emphasize the drastic seriousness of dessert consumption in my family.
It went something like this:
Mom: “Ali, have you thought about what you want to ask for, for your birthday?”
Ali: “Whipped cream!”
Mom: “Of course you’ll have whipped cream on your birthday cake but what do you want for your birthday gift?”
(At this point my Mom would describe how I put my hand on her shoulder and stared at her with a deadly serious expression and said:)
Ali: “Mommy, ALL I WANT IS WHIPPED CREAM.”
If you have read this far, thank you. I know that that wasn’t a brief introduction. The majority of my following posts will not be epic personal monologues. Considering that I haven’t written them yet, though, I probably shouldn’t make any promises. I guess we’ll see. Either way you made it this far. It is finally time for some actual food blog action. My first real food-post will be covering the basics of one of my favorite go-to cakes. The recipe was inspired by the cake my mom used to make me for my birthday all those years ago!
Photos by Simon Hua, 2016