Writing, Food, and Family History

My dad inside his deli.
My dad inside his deli.

Sometimes writing triggers an unexpected trip down memory lane for me. Once in a while, these little side voyages are inspired by very simple things that still bring a wealth of almost-forgotten memories to light.

This happened to me recently while working on my second Sir Kaye book, The Lost Castle Treasure. It’s an adventure novel for kids set in medieval times. Without giving away any of the story, in one scene, a frightened Reggie is making a quick getaway from an unoccupied part of the castle and rushes headlong down the stairs. When he gets to the bottom of the last flight he trips over his own feet and goes rolling head over heels across the wide floor of a room that just happens to be the kitchen. Red-faced and out of breath, Reggie looks up and sees the castle cook and three kitchen boys staring down at him. The startled stares of the kitchen boys is interrupted by Abelard, who asks, “Well, Master Reggie, what brings you to the kitchen?”

Embarrassed, Reggie blurts out the only thing he can think of to explain his sudden arrival. “Do you have anything to eat?” he asks.

And that was the takeoff point for my trip down memory lane.

When I was a boy, all my neighborhood friends and I expended tremendous amounts of energy playing outside—exploring, bike riding, digging holes (another story), playing football, and hundreds of other things. When you use that much energy you just have to refuel. Frequently. So every few hours, one of our unfortunate mothers would discover several red-faced, grass-stained, mud-caked boys standing in her doorway and demanding, “Is there anything to eat?”

Although we tried to be fair and invade each house in turn, my house was generally the last on the list. In all the other homes there would be popsicles, Cheetos, moon pies—the usual junk food type snacks. In my house? A popsicle or a moon pie would be considered heresy! For a quick snack my mother would say to grab an apple or a banana or some other seasonal fruit we had on hand. And if we were really hungry, there was always a pan of kibbeh in the fridge, which I particularly loved—but my friends? Not so much.

I can see Reggie loving kibbeh too. It’s a middle eastern dish that I can only very simply describe as fried, stuffed meatballs made of spices, ground meat, and bulgur wheat. Here’s a recipe for kibbeh which might help explain it a little better, although my family’s recipe was slightly different. My grandfather put his own spin on it.

Both of my parents were excellent cooks and there was always a wide variety of different types of food available. At a very young age I experienced ethnic, even exotic foods that many adults at the time had never tried.

Outside the deli.
Outside the deli.

In the nineteen-forties and early fifties my dad owned and operated Edewinns Delicatessen in downtown Tulsa. In addition to the standard deli fare, he developed many of his own recipes. He was even granted a US Patent for an invention that he called “Cheez-Dillites,” which were big, hollowed-out, stuffed dill pickles. The patent was granted for the process he used to make them.

My mother loved to cook as well and had an almost uncanny ability to discern every ingredient (including spices) in whatever she tasted. She came by it honestly. Her father had been a master chef in his younger years. My grandfather emigrated to the US just prior to WWI and to his chagrin ended up a cook in the US Army during the war. In the 1920’s and 1930’s—during the Great Depression—he was always able to find work as a chef in some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the northeastern United States. By the time I was born he was semi-retired and owned a chain of stores in Battle Creek Michigan—it’s amazing what talent and a lot of hard work can get you.

When it comes to food today, some parts of the world have an abundance, with access to practically anything a person could want for most of the year thanks to refrigeration and fast transportation. We can buy fresh cherries at the grocery store in January, and winter greens all summer long.

But what about during medieval times, when food choices depended more on seasonal availability and there were limited ways to store and transport food?

Since food is an important part of the Sir Kaye series (just ask Reggie!), I wanted to have a better understanding of food and cooking in the Middle Ages.  How did they manage without refrigeration?  What kinds of food and spices did they consider staples?  What were some of the common recipes of the time?

In next week’s blog I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about food in the Middle Ages and I will even try my hand with one of Reggie’s favorite recipes—meat pie. I’m confident that, unlike my boyhood neighbors, you’ll enjoy what I’ve cooked up for us.