Monday, December 19, 2005


Truman Capote remembered a beloved aunt, Miss Sook, in a short story--almost a prose poem, really--called A Christmas Memory. Every year, as the weather grew cold in rural 1930s Alabama, Miss Sook would exclaim, "Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!" thus initiating a frenzy of Christmas baking of individual fruitcakes for the strangers she thought of as friends.

I've never liked fruitcake, but reading about it through the mist of Capote's nostalgic reverie for a world and a youth long out of reach, I almost do. Perhaps it's the way he describes Miss Sook's devotion to the task, the effort of rounding up the ingredients, the boldness of sending one of the cakes each year to President Franklin Roosevelt, the joy of getting a letter of thanks on White House stationery. Perhaps it's the way his memories seem to twin my mother's reminiscences of summers in southeastern Missouri as a girl, where the changes in season brought persimmons and walnuts, blackberries and honey. One summer, long after my mother's girlhood, my brother and I visited our Missouri grandmother. She took us blackberry picking; or rather, she sent us over a wooden fence into the pasture where the best blackberries grew. "Watch out for the bull," she said, as she handed us our pails. "He's a mean one, but he won't charge as long as you keep to your business."

I loved my Missouri grandmother. She knew all the birds and all the flowers in her part of the world, and she not only ironed her bed linens, she starched them too. At the top of the steps leading from the kitchen to the second story was my favorite bedroom in her house, which was her parents' before her. It had a three-quarter bed--not a double, not a queen, but somewhere in between--in whose crisp sheets I would fall asleep with the windows open to the magnolias and the scent of the damp earth below.

She was a hard woman, though, with a rigid outlook on life, and my mother's sensibilities--so fluid and so highly attuned to nuance--were generally outside her mother's scope. I don't know that they liked each other much, but they had a fierce, dark love. The sort of love that creates a tension without which a person collapses from lack of self-sustaining support. I sometimes think my mother began her final collapse the minute her mother died.

After my mother's suicide, my sister and I went to the same Italian bistro every Tuesday night for two years. The fare there is simple--pasta salads, fettucine alfredo, green salads, minestrone, stromboli, pane cotta for dessert, and even a very un-Italian Key lime tarte with shavings of white chocolate on top. We spent hours over our dinners, remembering our mother together, repeating the same stories over and over, laughing at her wild humor, raging at the wounds she'd left, weeping for her suffering and for ours. This December, the third anniversary of our mother's death, we realized we hadn't been to the bistro in months, maybe even a year. So the Tuesday evening of the anniversary week, we met for dinner there and ordered Tuscan pot roast.

At first, it seemed an odd choice. But every December, I give blood in memory of my mother, and since I tend to run low on iron, I eat a lot of beef in the week or two before the scheduled blood donation. So, that night, Tuscan pot roast was the obvious choice. It was delicious. Cooked slowly in a tomato-garlic broth and served with horseradish, the meat yielded under the slightest pressure of the fork. We ate in almost complete silence.

Afterward, as we mopped up the juices with our bread, we began to recall pot roast recipes. There aren't really many, and they're all a variation of the same key ingredients: a cheap cut of beef, carrots and potatoes, and a liquid of some sort, all cooked slowly in a roasting pan at a low temperature. My mother, a gourmet cook, always swore by Lipton's onion soup mix in her pot roast. But the pot roast recipe I like best is from Elizabeth David, an English woman who wrote a number of classic cookbooks starting in the 1950s. My mother's French cooking was pulled straight out of Elizabeth David and Julia Child, and she passed her love of them to us. In her memory, at pot roast season, I'm making Elizabeth David's pot roast (which she calls a "daube").

POT ROAST (or Daube)
4 -6 ounces bacon, cut into cubes
1 tbsp olive oil
a large onion, sliced
3-pound beef roast (a cheap cut is fine)
2 cloves garlic
a bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, and a bayleaf tied up with cooking twine)
8 ounces of red wine
8 ounces of water or stock (beef, chicken, or vegetable)
2 tsp salt

Begin to saute the bacon in the olive oil in a large cast-iron dutch oven. When the bacon fat begins to run, add the onion. On top, arrange the beef and cut lengthwise into thick pieces. Add the garlic and the bouquet garni. Heat the wine separately and pour over the beef. Let it come to a boil and continue cooking for about 3 to 4 minutes. Add about the same amount of water or stock and bring to a boil again. Add the salt. Place the dutch oven in a 300-degree oven and cook the beef for about 3 hours. Serve with potatoes. (No need to thicken or reduce the juices in the pan. They'll be delicious as is.). Serves about six people.

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