Television is full of food fights these days, and I don’t mean funsters pelting each other with pudding, gravy and roast chickens.
I mean the fights over cooking techniques among fledgling cooks and authoritarian chefs. The competitive cooking shows testing cooks against each other remind me of the Iron Chefs in the farm kitchens of my childhood.
During harvest season, those farm wives went to the mat over who was the best neighborhood cook, who fried the best chicken, whose pie was the favorite, who created the most massive mountains of mashed potatoes covered with rivers of chicken gravy.
It’s not quite the same as the cooking wars on television today. They pit flashy professional prima donnas against each other in head-to-head competition to see who can make the most remarkable meals out of surprise ingredients. The contests involve weird challenges such as using shrimp in the dessert.
Most of us, whether cook or chow hound, can tell what ingredients work well together by tasting them in the mind before we agree to stuff them into our pie holes. For instance, you can guess with almost complete accuracy whether split pea soup will make a great ice cream.
You know that’s true because we occasionally weaken and, at the insistence of a friend (who drinks too much while cooking), will persuade you to try a toad tongue salad with almond butter dressing. A thing like that could destroy a person’s taste buds.
However, on rare occasion, you get a pleasant surprise. For instance, some years ago, back in my drinking days, while serving as an amateur wine judge at the county fair, I was asked to taste a wine made from Walla Walla sweet onions. Bear in mind, nothing smells worse than a rotten onion, and the fermentation involved in wine making is just a fancy form of rot.
Nonetheless, I tasted that onion wine because it was my job and I was very brave.
To my astonishment, it was not only drinkable but pleasant.
That emboldened me to be ready for more such surprises. One day I saw an advertisement for a blender that recommended making tomato ice cream. That sounded ludicrous. I almost gagged when tasting it in my mind. But what the heck? I gave it a try.
I immediately and involuntarily spit the first bite out onto the tablecloth. Somebody in that blender ad agency has sniffed too much glue in his sorry life.
But the farm wives of my youth were nothing like that. The small family farmers joined together each summer season and gang harvested each other’s wheat and hay.
The tradition required that, on the days your farm was being harvested, the workers ate their noon meal at your farm, cooked by the mom and daughters of the house.
Those meals were masterpieces. They tasted great not only in your mind and mouth but also in your nostrils as you walked into that farm home for a feast fed to men who had earned it.
The meal was literally larger and more wide-ranging than a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It included roast beef, pork chops and fried chicken, plus potatoes and gravy, home-baked rolls, green beans, corn on the cob and three kinds of pie, all washed down with fresh milk and iced tea.
Those farm wives were the original iron chefs. The harvest workers were the judges who declared them all winners.
And as a child, I never felt more pride in my heritage than watching the stunned expressions on the faces of those hard-working men as they experienced my mother’s cooking and realized they were in the presence of greatness.Bill Hall can be contacted at email@example.com or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501