Every time I pour crêpe batter into my 8-inch Teflon*-lined crêpe pan, I see deep scratches, the ones that Habiba made with the fork she used while cooking a three-egg cheese-and-herb omelet one wintry Moroccan morning. The scratches don’t affect the pan’s performance, just as wounds and scars don’t fundamentally change who we are and how we function in the world.
Pots and pans, like sugar-burned hands and fingers cut by dull knives, bear pale scars. These blemishes remind me of past meals, of feasts gone by. They conjure up the spirits of people whom I knew, in the kitchen and out. They provoke contemplation of the cooking process, the use of ingredients, and the culinary ingenuity that occurs when the sow’s ear goes into the stew pot and not to the milliner for crafting a silk purse.
In a way that so often happens when I slow down long enough to do some pondering, the pan also reminds me of the enormous crêpes that I ate in France, where that magical combination of milk, eggs, and flour underlies a number of other dishes as well.
Yes, another Holy Trinity of the kitchen, three ingredients that work gastronomic miracles.
When I think of the combination of milk, eggs, and flour, I see – rightly or wrongly – rural housewives facing the daily challenge of feeding their hungry families and anyone else sitting at their tables, if they even had a table or a place to sit.** They almost always had those three ingredients on hand and they found many ways to use them, adding variety and diversity to their often monotonous food.
When I reflect on eggs and milk, I realize that these foods are the first foods of other creatures, like mother’s milk is for us.
Testimony to the inventiveness of those cooks over the centuries, the flour-milk-egg mixture or the blancmange trio (sounds like a band, but whatever) – for the lack of a better term right now – represents something, I think, beyond the gruel of the poorest European peasant.
Having access to milk meant at least one cow mooing softly on foggy mornings, urging the farmer or his wife to pull on a sweater and go milking, relieving the pressure on the cow’s udder before the calf could get at it. Owning a cow meant richness indeed: Meat and milk.
And eggs? Seasonal, true, but still available, with all the hens darting around, pecking at anything everything, inside and outside.
Provided, of course, that enough surplus feed existed for both the cow and the chickens, these basic ingredients – protein-rich and perishable milk and eggs – served up a freshness I can’t even imagine, even as I buy range-free eggs and organic milk in sterile American grocery stores . No smell of the barnyard there, no need to wash the chicken poop off the eggs, no chance of a tiny embryo attached to the yolk, undulating slowly around in the egg whites. No, I live far removed from the source of my animal-based food.
As for white flour – stored in cloth sacks out of reach of crawling, clawing vermin and the wetness of rain – well, it’s a relative latecomer to the common table. Although white flour certainly existed for thousands of years, produced in the Middle Ages for the wealthier classes through a process called “boulting,” it became widely (and cheaply) available only with the technology of industrial milling in the nineteenth century. And I am far from the miller and the wheat farmer, too, although I grew up in western Washington State, where “amber waves of grain” undulated with the wind and draped the rolling hills of the Palouse in golden finery.
Whatever their origins, the following dishes evolved in the West, requiring deft proportioning of the blancmange trio:
Cream sauces and soups enriched with eggs
And so, when I pour milk into a pot to create pudding or whisk the batter for popovers or spread stone fruit like plums or peaches or cherries into a pan for clafoutis, I sense the women who wondered daily what they would feed their broods, often after hours of working in the lord’s fields or in the kitchen of his house. I imagine their joy in finding four eggs in the straw nest, the blessing of rich creamy milk on yet another tiring day, and the priceless feel of a tiny packet of precious flour, hoarded and measured out carefully.
Sometimes the smallest things trigger memories, remembrances, and fleeting thoughts that might remain forgotten forever.
Like scratches marring an old crêpe pan.
*Note: In culinary terms, the phrase “Holy Trinity” is used to refer to certain combinations of ingredients, such as onions, bell peppers, and celery in Cajun/Creole cuisine; onions, celery, and carrots or soffrito in Italian cooking; garlic, ginger, and chiles in Chinese cuisine; onions, celery, carrots or mirepoix in French cooking. And I want to mention that there’s some controversy over the use of Teflon, overheating it to high heat and using scratched pans because of flaking (which is not digested as flakes pass whole through the digestive tract) , BUT nothing definitive has been concluded in reputable scientific literature. Please be aware that I am telling a story here and not encouraging people to use defective cookware of any sort!
** An acquaintance recently told me that his rural Virginia family consisted of 13 children, one adopted after the eleven-year-old child’s parents left him standing on a dusty road with only his neighbors to turn to, holding a pillowcase full of his clothes. This 57-year-old man recounted how his siblings took their food one by one, ranked by age, and ate at a table large enough for twelve. Being the youngest, he got his food last and sat on the floor in the corner to eat it.
***For crêpes, I measure the flour, running my hands over the silky whiteness, and sift it into the milk before I beat in the eggs. Ladling the batter bit by bit into the crêpe pan marred forever with the scratches, I watch the crêpes curl slightly around the edges, as light and lacy as a lady’s handkerchief. Such a simple recipe with such an amazing result. For more on crêpes, and a recipe, see my previous post “Heavenly Marriages.”
© 2012 C. Bertelsen