Whether for comfort or revenge, some dishes have deep cultural roots.
Nearly all of us have at least one friend we would call a “foodie.” You know, the person who makes it a point to be the first to visit the hot new restaurants and is constantly posting reviews on Yelp. While I enjoy fancy dining as much as the next person, what I find more fascinating are the simple dishes – like the comfort foods mom made when she sensed you were unhappy – and what these dishes say about who we are and where we come from.
Signs of Who We Are are everywhere. One of my favorite courses in college was called the Social History of American Architecture. I went in expecting to learn about architectural luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei. Instead we learned to look at ordinary structures – malls, bungalows, saltbox houses, mobile homes – to see how these buildings reflected what was happening in America when they were built.
And so it goes for food. My family comes from Kaesong, a small town in what is now North Korea. Until 1492 it was the capital of Korea. But that year a general staged a coup, murdered the royal court, and declared himself king. Sensing that he wasn’t safe in Kaesong, he moved the capital to Seoul. It was like Tom Barrett beating Scott Walker and then moving all governmental functions from Madison to Green Bay. It was an economic disaster and my ancestors were unemployed virtually overnight.
In Korea we have a traditional New Year’s dish called ttok. It’s like the gnocchi that Italians eat – little dough lumps made of flour in a heartwarming stew. My resentful hometown ancestors decided to commemorate their undying desire for revenge on the traitor general by rolling the dough lumps so that they looked like a body being strangled. As a child living in New Orleans the story was repeated to me every New Year’s and the act of forgiveness is still not something that I do well. And I’ve found signs that my family isn’t the only Kaesong family to have nursed this 520 year old grudge all the way across the Pacific. Last month I visited a Korean grocery store in Chicago and spotted these gruesome things in the freezer section. The package said they were made in Skokie.
Looking closer to home, fried green tomatoes stand out as another dish that points to the past. I’ve been told that the first people to eat them were African American slaves. Tomatoes stopped ripening after the first frost and folks were hungry and they had all these tomatoes still on the vine that weren’t going to ripen. Hunger and poverty can drive ingenuity, and these folks learned that intense heat from frying could turn these hard green things into something palatable. And they used cheap ingredients that were readily available: lard, salt, pepper, cornmeal, flour, and eggs.
Many North Side Milwaukee families still love fried green tomatoes. They remind folks of home. Three years ago I learned this recipe and made it for my (then) reluctant wife. Now the springtime refrain in our house is “are there any green tomatoes yet?”
Fried Green Tomatoes
- Three medium-sized green tomatoes
- Two eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce (optional)
- ½ cup flour
- ½ cup fine cornmeal
- Oil for frying
Cut green tomatoes into ¼” slices. Beat eggs in a shallow bowl and season with salt, pepper and optional Tabasco. In another shallow bowl, combine flour and cornmeal. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add oil to a depth of 1/8”. Coat tomato slices with egg mixture, then dredge in the flour-cornmeal mixture. Shake off excess and place in the hot oil. Fry for about 2 minutes or until golden brown, then flip. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with salt, malt vinegar, or a simple remoulade sauce (recipe below).
Variations: Some families first coat the tomato slices with a thin coating of flour before dipping into the eggs and flour/cornmeal mixture. Some families omit the flour altogether and dredge in nothing but cornmeal.
There are many variations on this sauce. What follows is a basic starter recipe. Combine in a small bowl:
- One cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 4 tablespoons chopped pickle relish
- 3 scallions, chopped fine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Tabasco (to taste, optional)