Washington is full of sojourners from the far corners--politicians, poets, football players and media stars all gathered together in various degrees of temporary domicile. Although a few years on the rubber chicken and obligatory dinner party circuit tend to homogenize the sojourners' regional longings into a taste for the generic, behind the assembled faces there's still a tangle of lines leading to home.
Leslie Stahl, for instance, misses the lobster in Swampscott, Mass. Rep. Carl Perkins of Knott County, Ky., longs for his apple orchard and his vegetable patch, New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici for the posole of home. Marta Istomin remembers the holiday pasteles and the exotic flans of Puerto Rico, Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming the pickled beans from the Maverick Supper Club back in Sheridan.
And when Presidential Press Secretary Jim Brady visited his mother in Centralia, Ill., a few weeks ago, his first dinner at home started, as usual, with mom's vegetable soup. Breakfast the next morning started the same way, with more of mom's vegetable soup.
Dexter Manley, the mohawked Redskin who spends Sunday afternoon tippy-toeing into the faces of opposing quarterbacks from his position at defensive end, finally gave up the south last year to move permanently to the more northern lights of Washington. Home was Houston, and in some ways it still is.
Manley has a very succinct theory about the differences between northern and southern cooking. "People in the south can cook better," he says, in a tone that does not seem to solicit argument. Mrs. Manley's boy Dexter grew nicely on her home cooking, her peach cobblers, her potato pies and especially her pound cakes, to his officially complete NFL size, 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. "My mother," Manley reminisces sweetly, "made the best pound cake I've ever tasted."
"Well, I hope I did," says Jewellean Hewitt Manley from her present home in Louisiana. "They didn't say much about it at the time." A mother's lament.
But that's the nature of home cooking. It's good at the time, but it tastes even better when it's sifted through a few years of experience with stamped-out fast-food hamburgers and ready-mixed restaurant flapjacks. Mrs. Manley doesn't cook much any more now that everybody is grown up and gone, but she does remember putting a lot of vanilla in her pound cakes, and maybe that's why they were so good. Or maybe they were so good because they were Mrs. Manley's pound cakes.
Now, with Dexter 24 years old and a football star, Mrs. Manley watches him on television, worrying with every pounding step he takes but "thankful he's made it this far." And Dexter is taking occasional refuge in Washington's Florida Avenue Grill, the only place around where he can find stuff that reminds him of home.
Washingtonians are a transient lot. Although most transplanted Washingtonians are grateful for the range of foods available here, and many wouldn't trade places for anything with the folks they left behind, there's still a dimension missing, an irreplaceable aura taken on by home food eaten at home.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anthony Hecht is in Washington temporarily, doing his bit to preserve the language as poet-in-residence at the Library of Congress. Hecht was raised in New York City on classical French cuisine prepared by the family cook. That was good stuff, he remembers, but so was the homey family recipe, now lost, for sweet-and-sour red cabbage.
Hecht came to Washington from Rochester, N.Y., where he teaches at the University of Rochester. While New York City was delightful with its French restaurants and specialty food stores, "There is nothing that I miss," Hecht says, "about Rochesterian cuisine." Hecht is fortunate enough to be married to cookbook author Helen Hecht, who can reproduce the sweet-and-sour red cabbage, so all is not lost in that department either. When Domenici of New Mexico goes home at holiday time he tucks into the posole, a pork, dried corn and chili stew, the mere mention of which sets Domenici's staff to excited reminiscing. Like many of the best remembered dishes, posole teases the nose by taking all day to cook. Not only does it taste good but it's also good luck, the way black-eyed peas are in other parts of the country.
Stahl, a television correspondent who covers the White House for the CBS network and has a chance to dine with the great and near-great--and to eat great and near-great food--views things from the northeast end of the country. "I grew up in Swampscott, Mass.," Stahl pronounces proudly, "the lobster capital of the world."
And if you grew up in the lobster capital, it's pretty hard to eat it in the provinces. So even though lobster is fairly plentiful in Washington and now costs an arm and a leg even in Swampscott, Stahl usually saves her lobster eating for when she's home, within sniffing distance of the sea air.
How did you eat the lobsters back in Swampscott? Stahl is asked. There is only one answer to the question. "Boiled. With lots of butter." And there was a great seafood restaurant in Swampscott, too, she recalls. What did you eat there? Stahl is asked. "Lobster. Boiled. With lots of butter," she says.
"We used to go the fish market two or three times a week," Stahl remembers. "The market was on the beach and there were people clamming right there in their big floppy boots." Before the lobsters were cooked there was magic when Stahl's parents hypnotized them by "rubbing them somewhere, I don't know where."
More or less content to leave the magic at home in Swampscott, Stahl maintains she doesn't touch them, even to hypnotize them. "I make Aaron touch them," she says, talking about her husband Aaron Latham, a writer who has family connections not to lobster but to chicken-fried steak.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, where the phrase "back at the ranch" really means something, Lionel McEwan is chef and owner of the Maverick Supper Club in Sheridan, Wyo. McEwan's pickled beans are the first thing Wallop mentions when he's quizzed about home food.
"That was practically the first place I ever went out to eat," recalls Wallop, a member of a distinguished bi-cultural English family that settled in Wyoming three generations ago but maintains ties to England through Wallop's uncle, the Earl of Portsmouth. Wallop's grandfather served both in the Wyoming legislature and the English House of Lords, surely some sort of record for civic responsibility.
Nevertheless, he's still Malcolm to the folks at the Maverick. "Yes," says McEwan, "We always enjoy Malcolm when he's home. He lives right down the road from us." Wallop, who has a ranch in Big Horn, maintains that people come from all over the world to the Maverick to share the joys of the pickled beans, which are served to every diner as part of a series of appetizers.
Besides serving them his famous pickled beans, chef McEwan accommodates his customers in a way that no Washington chef would dream of. Any Washingtonian who wants to test his clout in this town should try carting his own elk into a fancy K Street restaurant for the chef to cook up. That's what Wallop and other McEwan customers do at the Maverick Supper Club every hunting season. Wild game can't be sold in Wyoming, but it can be prepared and served in restaurants if customers bring their own.
There are other treasures back at Wallop's ranch, too. The morel, a wild mushroom treasured by connoisseurs on several continents for its dusky, distinctive flavor, grows wild on Wallop's ranch, "and I won't tell you where, either." When Wallop makes the rounds on horseback a little sack goes with him, the better to collect morels, meadow mushrooms and the big boletus that "sliced thinly looks like elegant boots."
As far as childhood home foods go, our longterm memories seem to be triggered into action by things that required longterm preparation, either by cooking or by sitting around in crocks in the larder. Wallop remembers the cucumbers that tasted like "old, dead, salty cucumbers" after two weeks in the brine and spices, only to metamorphose over the next weeks into magnificent dill pickles.
Perkins, who was born and reared in the 7th District of Kentucky and has spent the last 35 years in Congress, talks about his 100 apple trees and his vegetable garden back home. But Perkins' wife, Verna, who also grew up in Knott County, says what her husband really liked were the pickled things, especially the beans preserved in brine in big stone crocks. Corn was pickled the same way to preserve it through the winter but the kids thought it was a treat, Verna Perkins says, to lift it out of the crocks and just stand there and eat it off the cobs.
Then there were the gingerbread stack cakes, sweet concoctions halfway between gingerbread cake and cookie, and layered with cooked dried apples, applesauce or apple butter. The cakes are supposed to sit and season for a couple of days before they're eaten, but it must have been difficult.
Istomin, who gets the whole world to come to her thanks partly to her position as artistic director of the Kennedy Center, remembers the Christmas pasteles at home in Puerto Rico. "If you have a Christmas without pasteles, something is wrong," says Istomin. Pasteles are little packages of plantain dough filled with ground meat, almonds, raisins, prunes, spices and "garlic, always garlic," then wrapped in a plantain leaf and boiled.
She also remembers with fondness the flavored flans, custards that in Puerto Rico are more than what we in the United States think of as flan. They are easier to reproduce than the pasteles, which require ingredients that are difficult to find here.
Although Istomin, who is married to concert pianist Eugene Istomin, has a chance to travel all over the world and can sample pasteles where ever they occur if she wants to, home food like pasteles "is never as good anywhere else."
That's what Brady found out about his mother's vegetable soup. "I've never been able to duplicate it," says Brady, whose cooking expertise is by now legendary in Washington. Brady's mother, Dorothy, back in Centralia, says one of her secrets is a little finely chopped cabbage added to the other vegetables in the soup.
But mostly the secret is that it's mom's vegetable soup made in a special gallon-and-a-half soup pot "whenever Jimmy's coming home." NEW MEXICAN POSOLE (About 8 to 12 servings)
A mail-order source for posole, which is a dried corn similar to hominy, is listed below. Using canned hominy, says Domenici's staff, "is like using horse feed." 1 pound raw posole 1 1/2 pounds pork from the loin, cut in 2-inch cubes 3 to 4 dried hot red chili pods 5 to 7 inches long, plus about 10 chili pods for sauce 1 onion, sliced 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse posole and soak overnight in water to cover. The next morning, boil posole gently in water to cover for about two hours. Add meat, onions, garlic salt and chilis, and more water to cover. (The really hot parts of the chilis are the seeds and veins. For this recipe, use chili flesh left whole and as many seeds as you want. You can add more later if posole isn't spicy enough. Ground chili peppers may be substituted, but not regular chili powder.)
Let simmer for six to eight hours or longer. When posole is ready sauce will be thick and posole kernels soft and opened like flowers. Serve posole with chili sauce on the side. (To make chili sauce, boil 10 dried red chilis without seeds in water barely to cover for 4 or 5 minutes, then pure'e with cooking water in blender or food processor. If sauce seem too mild, add seeds.) Tortillas or bread, especially on Christmas or New Year's Eve, go nicely with posole.
Posole and chilis are available by mail from the Pecos Valley Spice Co., 142 Lincoln Ave., Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501 or phone 800-HOT--TACO. Dried red chilis are available in most large supermarkets and in specialty stores. MAVERICK SUPPER CLUB PICKLED BEANS (6 to 8 servings) 1 pound dried small red beans (found in Latin American sections of large supermarkets) 1 small onion, finely chopped 2/3 cup white vinegar 2/3 cup dill pickle juice 3/4 cup corn oil or olive oil, preferably olive oil 2 heaping tablespoons garlic salt (or substitute very finely chopped garlic mashed with salt) Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cook beans in about 4 quarts of water until tender but still firm. Time will vary according to how fresh beans are. (Chef McEwan doesn't soak the beans first.) When beans are cooked, drain them and combine with other ingredients. Let marinate for a day or two, refrigerated. Chef McEwan says they should be a little on the peppery side. Serve as a salad or side dish. DOROTHY BRADY'S MIDWESTERN VEGETABLE SOUP (Makes about 6 quarts of soup) 1 large soup bone with marrow About 1 1/2 pounds brisket or other "stewing" beef, cut in small pieces 2 large onions, chopped 1-pound, 13-ounce can tomatoes, chopped, with their juice 1-inch wedge of cabbage, chopped fine Some or all of the following fresh vegetables, chopped in bite-size pieces: turnips, parsnips, tomatoes, carrots, peas, green beans and celery 1 teaspoon sugar Salt and pepper to taste
In a large stockpot or soup pot, cover soup bone and brisket or other beef with three quarts water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 2 hours or more. Remove soup bone and skim fat off top of broth. Leaving brisket in place, add onions, cabbage, canned tomatoes, fresh vegetables in any combination you want, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for several hours. Dorothy Brady notes that the soup is even better the day after it's made, and can be frozen with great success. HELEN HECHT'S BRAISED RED CABBAGE (6 to 8 servings)
"This is a German-style recipe," Helen Hecht says. "It goes particularly well with pork, duck, game or sausage. It can be prepared the day before serving and reheated in a covered casserole." 1 medium-large red cabbage, about 3 pounds 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 medium-sized red onion, peeled and sliced thin 3 tart apples, peeled, cored and diced fine Pinch of ground cloves 1 cup beef stock or broth 3/4 cup dry red wine or apple cider 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or cider vinegar 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice Salt
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage, quarter it and cut off the core. Slice the cabbage 1/4-inch thick. Rinse under cold water and drain.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy dutch oven and saute' the onion over low heat until soft. Do not let it brown. Stir in cabbage, apples, cloves, stock, red wine and vinegar. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove and then cover tightly and place in the oven to cook at 325 degrees for about 2 hours or until the cabbage is tender. Remove from oven, uncover and boil on top of the stove, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid is evaporated. Add the sugar, lemon juice and a little salt.
If you are not serving the cabbage immediately, cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate. Remove from the refrigerator a couple of hours before serving. Reheat, covered, at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. MARTA ISTOMIN'S PINEAPPLE FLAN (6 to 8 servings) 2 cups unsweetened pineapple juice, frozen or canned 2 cups sugar 8 eggs Pinch of salt 1 cup sugar for caramel 5 tablespoons water
The flan will be baked in a 9-by-5-inch flameproof loaf pan placed in a larger baking pan. Before beginning the cooking, place the loaf pan in the larger pan and measure enough water into the larger pan to come 1/4 of the way up the side of the loaf pan.
Combine 2 cups sugar and the pineapple juice in a a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook on medium-low heat without stirring until a light syrup is formed (222 degrees on a candy thermometer). This will take 20-25 minutes. Let cool.
Remove loaf pan from larger baking pan. To line loaf pan with caramel: Mix 1 cup sugar and about 5 tablespoons water directly in pan. Cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves, then stir with a wooden spoon until caramel is a light golden color. Protecting hands with heavy heatproof mitts or potholders, tilt pan around to coat all of inside with caramel. (Alternatively, mix sugar and water in a heavy saucepan, rinsing down the inside of the saucepan with fingers repeatedly dipped in cold water until no sugar crystals remain on sides of pan. Cook until caramel is light golden color, then pour quickly into mold.)
Let caramelized mold cool.
Stir eggs lightly to mix without letting foam form. Add pineapple syrup and a pinch of salt, stirring lightly. Strain mixture through a strainer into caramelized mold. Place mold in prepared pan of water and skim off any foam that may have formed. Bake at 350 degrees until just set (metal tester inserted a few inches from edge of mold will come out clean), about an hour.
Remove from hot water bath and let cool, then refrigerate at least three hours or overnight. At serving time, loosen sides with a knife and unmold upside down on a serving platter. KENTUCKY GINGERBREAD STACK CAKE (Makes a 9-inch cake to serve 8 to 12) For cake: 3/4 cup brown sugar 2 tablespoons dark molasses 1 egg 2/3 cup buttermilk 1 teaspon baking powder 1 teaspoon soda 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1/4 cup melted shortening 4 cups flour For filling: About 2 cups well-flavored applesauce, or cooked dried apples, or apple butter
Blend together all ingredients except flour. Put flour in a large bowl (if you were making this cake in olden-days proportions, you'd use a round, galvanized dish-washing tub.) Make a "nest" in the center of flour. Add sugar-molasses mixture to the nest. Start kneading with the hands (this is easier if the dough is turned out onto a floured board) and knead until "when you punch it the dough will bounce back." The more you knead it the better it will be. Divide into two portions and roll each portion out into a nine-inch circle. Bake the circles either in a cast iron skillet or heavy cake pan at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until the cakes are springy to the touch.
Spread half of applesauce on top of one layer, then put the second layer on top of that. Spread top and sides with remaining sauce (it won't adhere very well to the sides) and--here comes the hard part--let the cake stand, covered loosely, for a day or two before eating.