Sunday, July 8, 2012


For the food historian with a taste for all things unusual, delicious and linked to a long and storied past, there is no place in the world more pregnant with promise than America. With its beckoning call of new-found freedoms, fertile land and room to prosper, the New World opened its arms to enterprising people of many lands, each of whom brought with them the unique cultural heritage of many centuries. In no aspect of daily life was a cherished part of their ethnic, religious and agricultural roots so manifest as in the food traditions they brought with them. Today, two and three hundred years after their arrival on these shores, that continues to be true.
            From the rugged coastline of Cornwall in the far southwest of the U.K. came a long line of miners in the mid 1800s as the tin and copper mines began to play out.  Some settled in Australia where they were welcomed as “Cousin Jacks”, but most came to the U.S., attracted to the iron mines of the upper mid-west and the coal country of Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Accustomed to the 18-hour underground drudgery of their homeland, their wives had long fortified them with hearty meals encased in a crusty dough for long-keeping and easy handling, often with the worker’s initials pressed into the half-moon-shaped outer crust. Stuffed with a filling of cooked potatoes, cabbage, Swede turnip and meat and known as “Cornish Pastees”, sometimes “oggies” or “tarmut, tates & mate” they are still with us today. (In fact back in Cornwall, their retail sale represents 6% of the local economy.) In the U.S., they were also adopted by arriving miners from Finland who carried them into Mineral Point, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as well as to the mines of Butte, Montana.
            From Russia, Poland, Ukraine and parts of Germany came another “Old World” savory pie known as the “pirogi” or “piroshki”, revered across America in the kitchens of several generations of the descendants - even distant ones – of those food-loving Eastern European immigrant forbears. I served with an overseas comrade named John Garbacik whose eyes would practically glaze over when he described his grandmother’s pierogis.
            In the 1850s, amid increasing persecution in their homelands, growing numbers of Anabaptist congregations, including Amish, Mennonite, Amana and Dunkard Protestants began settling in religion-tolerant Pennsylvania, the Ohio River valley and into the prairie country of the mid-west, bringing with them Germanic, Swiss and Alsatian food traditions. One group of German Mennonites from the Volga River region settled in Kansas and Nebraska where their hard-working devotion to farming pitted them against the challenges of wind-swept prairie soils. Accustomed to long hours of hard labor away from family dining – much like those Cornish miners – these “Schwenkfelders” or field workers carried with them each day complete and self-contained dinner “packages” known as “Bierocks” or “Runzas”; meat, cabbage and potato-filled baked pocket-rolls. Already a fan of calzones and panzarotti from Italy and Kosher Jewish kreplach – all in the same family of “meals-ready-to-eat” - I decided to explore the world of “Bierocks”.
            I sautéed and set aside the onions and shredded cabbage (both green and red), browned and defatted 90% hamburger and cooled the combined mixture while preparing the dinner roll dough. The latter took flour, milk, an egg, salt and a small amount of sugar, with proofed yeast for leavening. Once  doubled, I separated the dough into six equal parts which were then shaped into rounds and rolled into six-inch circles.  Before packing the cooled filling into half-cup patties, I added shredded Colby cheese along with seasonings. Centering the patties on the dough, it was only needed to finish and pinch shut the roll dough, laying them pinched side down on a parchment-covered baking sheet for a final rise.  I brushed an egg-yolk glaze over the assembled “Bierocks” before baking them for about 50 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven.

Photo No. 1     With a half-cup of packed savory filling in each “dinner roll” wrap, every finished Bierock is a complete meal for diners. Extras can be refrigerated or frozen for future use.                        

Photo No. 2     In Al Cooper’s Bierocks, the precooked sweet-and-sour red cabbage shreds turned out
                        to be a winning innovation.              
                                                                                                                                    Photos by the author

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


In November, 1958, a team of British engineers surveying potential oil fields in the Kufra District of Libya’s vast Calansio Sand Sea came upon the wreckage of a WWII American B-24D Liberator bomber, surprisingly intact.  On its front starboard side was the stenciled name “Lady Be Good” and on the opposite side the large white-painted number “64”. Inside the torn fuselage they found food and water, a working radio, machine guns still in operable condition, and a thermos of perfectly drinkable tea.  The parachutes were missing and there was no sign that the plane’s crew had ever been in the immediate area of the undisturbed piece of surrounding desert.
            When the first news clipping describing the mysterious discovery found its way into my hands, I was both a private pilot and still active in the U.S. Air Force Reserve with a special interest in aviation safety and crash scene investigation.  My interest was immediate, and the unfolding story would be on my personal radar screen for the next twenty years. It would be that long before all the pieces of the puzzle would come together.
            To begin with the Sahara desert of North Africa is the most desolate and inhospitable piece of real estate on earth, covering an area the size of Europe, and secondly there was no record of a lost aircraft in an area so remote from any logical flight course in WWII operations; the wreckage was therefore uncharted on any wartime maps.
            In fact, “Lady Be Good” belonged to the 376th Bomb Group of the U.S. Ninth Air Force headquartered at Suluk AAF near Benghazi, and had supposedly gone missing over the Mediterranean Sea while returning from a bombing mission to Naples, Italy on April 4, 1943, its nine-man crew reported as “missing in action” to stateside families at the time. Why did the B-24 show up 400 miles from the sea, fifteen years later, and where were the nine men who had left behind not so much as a footprint in the undisturbed sand?
            Unlike its much-admired four-engine Boeing counterpart, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the Liberator was a literal “bear” to fly, requiring the manual strength of both pilots every minute of its time in the air. For lst Lieutenant William Hatton, from Whitestone, N.Y. and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Toner from No. Attleboro, Mass., the afternoon of April 4th was even more of a challenge. It would be their first combat mission since arriving at the bomber base from the States just days earlier, and probably nearly the first for B-24 serial No. 41-24301 which was new and “just out of the box”. Weather conditions with blowing sand produced visibility so bad that most of the thirteen planes on the mission aborted and turned back, leaving “Lady Be Good” alone, and running too far behind to catch up with others still en route to Italy. In the end the long mission was a failure, with most bombs dropped on secondary targets or jettisoned into the sea.
            Just after midnight, Hatton’s navigator, 2nd Lt. D.P. Hays from Lee’s Summit, Mo. radioed the base at Benghazi to say the plane’s direction finder was not working and asking for a compass heading, without realizing they had just flown over the base and would now be flying away from safety and into the dark unknown; and into the history books.
            What we now know is that as fuel drained away, the crew parachuted into what they thought was the just-offshore waters of the Med., the abandoned B-24 continuing on its course, its engines failing one-by-one, eventually flying into the desert at a shallow angle with one engine still running, 440 miles south of its home base.
            A USAF-coordinated search in 1960 uncovered the bodies of the crewmen, first a group of five and then, 26 miles farther on, three more. Together they had survived for eight days, traveling more than 100 miles, sharing a single canteen of water. Unfortunately they had mistakenly traveled north. The body of S/Sgt. Vernon Moore of New Boston, Ohio who is believed to have died on impact when his chute failed to fully open, was never found.
            If my travels ever take me to the village of Lake Linden, Michigan, home to T/Sgt. and radio operator Robert LaMotte, I will visit the town hall where one of the propellers from “Lady Be Good” stands guard.

Photo No. 1     A nose view of “Lady Be Good” as seen by Air Force search teams in 1958. By the way, it was American composer George Gershwin who first gave meaning to that name with the 1924 lyrics to a song featured in a 1941 motion picture.                                        U.S. Air Force Photo

Photo No. 2     The only photo I know of picturing the proud crew of “Lady Be Good”.  From left to right pilot Hatton, co-pilot Toner, navigator Hays, bombardier Woravka, flight engineer Ripslinger, radio operator LaMotte and aerial gunners Shelly, Moore and Adams.              U.S. Air Force Photo


In the first half of the 20th Century into which I was born, and especially in small-town America, there were certain features of residential architecture that were so commonplace as to be thought of as “timeless”; features we might have taken so much for granted as to suppose they would always be with us.  As I look around me in the “cookie-cutter sub-division” neighborhoods which characterize so much of the residential landscape characteristic of post-world-war-two” America, I see that the backyard patio together with its outdoor grill and trampoline have all but replaced the old fashion front porch my generation grew up with. (Nothing against patio-living, which I practice and wholly subscribe to!)
            A large part of the “sense of neighborhood” my generation grew up with was played out every time I was sent on a family errand to McFarland’s store, Shuster’s butcher shop, the town Shoemaker, or simply (and daily during WWII), the village post office. In that one-mile walk I would run the gauntlet of several dozen homes where I would be under the direct observation of people who knew who I was and kept a careful – if silent - vigilance over my movements from their front porches.  Perched in creaking cane rockers, glissading “gliders” and cushioned Adirondack chairs would be the Brallas, the Stephensons, the Bragaws, Donovons, Bridenbergs, Normans, Woods and a small legion of others whose names I may have forgotten, but whose presence in my life I never will.
            Come to think of it, a lot of informal visiting went on under the cover of those venerable verandas on any warm summer evening, where ice cubes clinked in glasses of ice tea or lemonade poured from sweating pitchers, and where neighbors and passers-by shared the latest war news and family trivia. Air conditioning was still in the distant future, and the coolness of an evening filled with the sparking of lightning bugs and the singing of locusts was an invitation to slow down and enjoy shared relaxation on the veranda. For kids like me, it was a magical hour.
             One historian has noted that porches connected people and communities, and other social observers add the idea that it was the view seen from under the protection of that rain-proof overhead “umbrella” which encouraged a new appreciation of the natural environment, out of which sprang succeeding generations of hikers, bikers, campers and outdoor enthusiasts. It was perhaps no coincidence that at the same time as the “Hudson River School” of  artists led the shift to flowing natural landscape portrait styles in American art, residential architecture was emphasizing the idea of connecting the indoors with the great “outdoors”.
            Among my young Italian-American friends, it was their “piazza” where parents rocked and children played marbles and dominoes, while the descendants of Dutch settlers sat on their “stoops” to watch the sun set. Old 18th century Victorian estates still thought of their regal attachments as “porticos” or even the more formal “port-cullis”. By whatever name, it was that architectural attachment which made the transition from the home inside to the home outside, and which became a cherished piece of Americana for a people whose economical and social progression rewarded hard work with hours of leisure and the need for a connection with others. With all of this in mind, we were careful to design our home in Zion with a wide front porch which connects us year-round with the wonders around us.
            As I drive today beneath the canopy of century-old elms and maples shading streets and lanes laid out before the coming of bull-dozers and back-hoes, I experience a special sense of peace and harmony as I admire the verandas, piazzas, stoops and porches of an age whose graces I fear we are slowly losing.

Photo Caption No. 1    Two sisters and a farm wife share an afternoon porch chat at “Nickwacket Farm” near Chittenden, Vermont.

Photo Caption No. 2    A generous expanse of gallery-like porches makes possible near-unlimited views from a Utah mountain cabin.


Almost as indigenous to Vermont as Ethan Allen and maple syrup are that state’s red barns, even today after the virtual demise of the once predominant “family farm”, reminding us that until the 1950s, there were more cows than people “grazing” on those green hillside pastures. The story is even told that a one-time Vermont governor distributed free buckets of red paint to farmers as encouragement to spruce up some of those weather-worn artifacts to keep the tourists happy.
            I was lucky enough to do some of my growing up on such a farm, and much of that working in or serving around such a barn. When our family first took physical possession of the “Old Bowen Place”, the agreement was that we would continue to house and care for Squire Bowen’s hefty pig until butchering time in November. When still a youngster, the Chester White had been moved inside to a pen located in the unused rear part of the venerable barn, where first its equally-venerable owner, and then we continued to feed and tend it. At the time we assumed duties, Squire estimated that the squealing giant had reached over 400 pounds in weight. (Old-time Vermonters like the Bowens grew their pigs with salt pork or sow belly in mind!)
            One morning, late in the enterprise, I went to deliver the bucket of swine food to our tenant only to find nothing but a huge gaping hole where the pig pen had been, and loud squeals coming from somewhere far below.  Built probably in the last decade of the 1800s, ours was what is known as a “bank barn”; an edifice actually built into the bank of a hillside so that it is a single story structure in the front where the milking parlor and hay loft are situated, but with a rear section built on a high stone foundation with storage space below.
            The long-abandoned “downstairs” of our barn had been filled with old discarded farm equipment, horse-drawn implements, and dust-enshrouded junk, including a bulky wagon shaft and ancient molasses barrels. When we opened the long-disused sliding doors, what met our eyes was a noisy and thoroughly enraged sow “trapped” within a cocoon of junkyard litter. Anyone who has worked around members of the swine family would have a healthy respect for any adult critter, let alone one as “ticked off” as Squire’s sow that fall day.
            It was obviously a job for “experts”, and soon a battalion of farm-bred neighbors had come to the rescue, each with a strongly-held strategy for coaxing the victim out into the real world. It was finally decided that a strong pole inserted behind the enraged animal might work, and so a nearby piece of spruce-wood fencing was brought into play. The angry porker soon chewed the end of the offending pole into matchwood, while grown swearing men did their best to force a reasonable outcome for a situation which steadily deteriorated as the day drew on.
            At some point in the afternoon, everyone went up to the house for a cool drink before resorting to the only remaining option: a clean shot to the head with a Winchester 32.40.  It was then when Squire’s sow decided to amble on out all by herself, thereby postponing her pre-ordained destiny by another month, and leaving us all with a tale to recount.
            For me, the most memorable part of the story came 35 years later, when on a vacation whim, I asked the current owners of the old farm for permission to walk my young son around the property, showing him where I had lived and worked as a boy his age. I told him the story of the pig “cave in” and even walked around to the back of the now-sagging and derelict barn. We entered the cavernous underground passage as I pointed out the details of that long-ago event. Looking around, I felt a shiver run up my spine when I discovered the old spruce pole with its chewed end still leaning against the stone wall where it had been left all those years before; the day that Squire’s old sow took a tumble.

Photo No. 1     Meticulously restored and lovingly maintained, this old “bank barn” is still an eye-catcher at Furnace Brook Farm in Chittenden Vermont.

Photo No. 2     Because it takes a lot of summer hay and forage to carry a herd of milkers through seven or eight months of winter, Vermont barns were typically built large. This one, with its “coat of many colors” is sheathed with a slate roof designed to keep out years of weather.