A Celebration of Books, Articles & Stories About Food & Agriculture
By Joline Godfrey
Science Fiction, Seed Banks and Grammie’s Apple Crisp
The apple crisp made my synapses spark and the novel jolted my anxiety level.
For Christmas my aunt sent me an old recipe book. It was a vanity cookbook, self-printed by a neighbor who was an old woman when I was growing up. But it contained familiar recipes, including one for an apple crisp that was so simple, so unadorned, a bell rang in my head.
I should explain I’ve been on a quest to replicate my grandmother’s apple crisp for years. I had a distinct flavor memory I hadn’t been able to match. In repeated experiments with countless recipes the texture was too mushy, the flavoring too strong or too bland. Try as I might, I could not bring back the experience of biting into a crispy crisp—a tasty, apply, fruity, spicy sensation. After years of failure, I had pretty much come to the conclusion that my memory was wrong, that I had a fantasy taste that was not to be re-experienced. I had given up.
But something about this recipe caused a little shiver to tickle my unconscious. The recipe is, to say the least, minimalist (see sidebar). And on a recent Sunday, returning from the farmers’ market with my weekly supply of Pink Lady apples, I remembered the recipe and had a sudden impulse to try one more time. Within minutes I had sliced those apples into a pan and added the ingredients as directed by Grammie Boofie (the source of the recipes in the old book). Fifty minutes later, I stuck my fork in the pan and took a bite of the hot, tart, sweet goodness.
WHAM! There it was. Sense memory come to life! I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen. As I lingered on the next few bites I thought about why, after a quest that had taken years, I had finally nailed the experience—the recipe was important. Indeed, I’m now conscientiously tracking down old recipes from my aunts and grandmothers. And Cook’s Illustrated has published a new collection called Lost Recipes, which includes a recipe for Boston Brown Bread dating from the 1930s—in Boston, of course—and there’s a mid-century Ranch Chicken and Dumplings from California that I’m eager to try.
These old recipes are a treasure, old knowledge we need to safeguard and steward.
Call your mother; write to your grandmothers: Let them know you want them to leave their old recipe boxes to you. But as important as these recipes are, they won’t work without authentic ingredients. This was the lesson of my apple crisp.
As I savored apple crisp, I realized that what made the recipe work was the source of the apples. The Pink Ladies came from Fair Hills Farm in Paso Robles. They’re organic. Every now and then I bite into one and find a worm— and rejoice. Worms were standard in apples my grandmother used to bake her pies and apple crisps. The apples have flavor and texture; grown for eating, not so much shipping, these apples have character!
And that was the big difference. I realized that for a very long time, I’d had a prejudice for Granny Smith apples. Regardless of origin or season, I shopped for those tart green apples. Rarely as tart as I wanted, I added lemon—to try to get flavor. And of course, I now realize, the flavor is bland because the apples from Chile and Australia are not local, or organic. Those green beauties I’ve been buying are grown for symmetry and shipping, not flavor. I could have gone through another hundred recipes and it would not have mattered. The apples were all wrong. So to Nancy and David Rydell, the Fair Hills Apples owners: thank you—my quest is over. Now that I have the right recipe, I need the kind of organic, local apples my grandmother routinely used for her baking—apples like those from today’s organic farmers.
That organic is better is not news. Indeed, farmers’ market regulars take access to organic products for granted. But an unorthodox sci-fi novel, very much about food, reminded me recently that we should not be too complacent. The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is a strange and disturbing fantasy (I hope) of a time in the not-so-distant future when ag companies have become “calorie companies.” “Gene ripping,” as genetic modification is referred to in the book, has resulted in plagues impervious to any defense; and seed banks only exist underground in a few far-flung, hidden corners of the universe, subject to destruction by agents of the calorie companies intent on maintaining control through the production and distribution of calories—which have become the universal energy source. It sounds fantastical—and the book is probably only interesting to those of us who think immersion in the alternative realities served up by science fiction is a good way to spend a plane ride. And I hope the scenario Bacigalupi has conjured up, is. But the book is powerful enough that I’ve started to wonder where the seed bank in my own town is kept, or if we have one. No doubt there are smart farmers who have their own. But how many communities have a policy related to building and maintaining seed banks? In a world where seeds for potatoes are patented, the story of The Wind-Up Girl does not seem quite as far- fetched as it might have a few decades ago.
I’m lucky: I’ve rediscovered antique recipes and have access to ingredients that make them come to life. But I want to make sure that future generations don’t have to rely on luck. For more on seed banks I suggest “Seed Banking” by Adrienne Shelton in Orion Magazine (http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/ articles/article/2870/).
Grammie Boofie’s Apple Crisp
Boofie was not my grandmother, but she was my grandmother’s neighbor, and I expect they shared recipes, which is why this is, in a way, my grand- mother’s recipe
About 8 apples, sliced (peeling is good, not imperative)
Butter baking dish. Fill with apples and water. Sprinkle the cinnamon. Mix the flour, sugar and butter with your fingers and spread over the apples. Bake at 400° for 30 minutes. Serve with ice cream, whipped cream and/or maple syrup. Time travel to childhood.
Joline Godfrey lives in Ojai, is CEO of Independent Means Inc., has made dinner parties for friends an avocation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org