If I had to pick out my half dozen favorite possessions, one would be a 60-year-old, permanently blackened device known as the Toas-Tite. My mother bought it around 1950, she gave it to me when I got married and moved out, and I still use it — as recently as today.

The Toas-Tite consists of two cast-aluminum “clam shells” joined with a hinge and opened and closed with two long handles. In the most basic use of this gadget, one puts a slice of bread on one of the shells – with a little butter on the down side to prevent sticking. Lay on some cheese, maybe a slice of tomato, and then put on the second slice of bread  — again with a little butter on the outside. Close the handles and cut away the excess bread. Then grill the contents over whatever heat source is handy, turning the Toas-Tite frequently to avoid burning the bread while the cheese melts. When the Toas-Tite is opened, the result is a sealed round hot sandwich.

Of course there is no limit to the type  of bread or the nature of the filling one can use  in a Toas-Tite. I stick to the traditional melted cheese, sometimes adding ham and bacon and — just this afternoon — olive loaf. But I saw a recipe today that involved bleu cheese, figs, and prosciutto, and another that called for bananas and peanut butter. I also saw a variation in which already–prepared crepes were used instead of bread.

Recently, we introduced another generation to the Toas-Tite — namely, our ten-year-old granddaughter Alexa. She’s hooked.

The patent for the original Toas-Tite was issued in 1949. A later version, which used sheet instead of cast aluminum, was inferior because it was too easy to burn the bread before the filling was melted or thoroughly toasted. Although the Toas-Tite hasn’t been manufactured for many years, it is possible to buy the original model on the Internet.

Except for being blackened by repeated heating, the Toas-Tite I have is just as it was when Mom bought it and probably will last long enough for Alexa to spring it on her own kids. I don’t think it’s simplistic to say that it’s a testament to the manufacturing standards of the past. I like that about it, but what I like most is that it’s a tangible, useable link to my mother, and one that she would have appreciated.

You can find a lot of information about the Toas-Tite, including recipes, at THIS LINK.


ice-cream-15It was an everyday experience in the newsrooms I once worked in to receive mail addressed to folks who no longer worked there — who, in some cases, had not worked there in decades and who, in other cases, were already partakers in glory. This phenomenon, which I presume occurs in other kinds of business offices, was a function of both the turnover in our shop and the failure of other organizations to update their mailing lists.

The oddest incident of the kind occurred in the 1960s when our newsroom was in Perth Amboy. A package arrived from a food company, addressed to an editor who had left the newspaper before I arrived. The package, sent by a marketing flak at the company, contained a half gallon of blueberry ice cream packed in dry ice. There was a note in which the flak apologized to the editor because it had taken so long “to get around to this” — which raised issues both about the ethics of the editor and the efficiency of the flak. Both issues seemed moot, so we gave the ice cream to the newsroom librarian, who was about to leave for home and was expecting company.

ice_cream_cone_from_stewartsKeeping the product cold is, of course, an expensive burden on the ice cream industry but one that, until now, seemed unavoidable. According to The Times of London, however, at least one company isn’t willing to accept what appears to be obvious. Unilever, owner of the Ben & Jerry brand among others, is trying to develop an ice cream that will be sold at room temperature. The consumer will take the stuff home and freeze it. This ostensibly is Unilever’s attempt to be more environmentally responsible — a goal it has already addressed by improving the energy efficiency of its plants and by upgrading the refrigeration units it supplies to its retailers. Manufacturing and delivering a frozen product results in significant carbon emissions, the company says, and those emissions would be significantly reduced if the ice cream were, well, not really ice cream until it reaches the customer’s kitchen.

imagesThe first question this idea is likely to raise in the mind of a consumer is, “Is this stuff still going to be ice cream?” I’m not sure a statement by a Unilever spokesman is reassuring: “The key question which has yet to be fully answered is: how do you ensure that, when the ambient ice cream is frozen at home it will have the right microstructure to produce a fantastic consumer experience?” Ambient ice cream? Microstructure? Hand me my pitchfork, Gert, there’s gonna be a fight.

The Times story is at this link: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/consumer_goods/article6807139.ece

Puffin at the westernmost point in EuropeI photographed this puffin two years ago at Latrabjarg, Iceland, which is the westernmost point in Europe. Puffins, as the photo makes clear, are cute. Too cute to live, apparently, because the Icelandic people eat them. The puffin population isn’t in any danger due to this, because the taking of puffins is controlled, and there are plenty of them.

We were talking at a dinner party the other night about the odd contradictions in the way many of us respond to food. I was a good example. I won’t eat rabbit, for instance, for which there is no rational explanation. I would eat game birds that I have not ever tasted – say, pheasant – but I wouldn’t eat a pigeon. Well, for me, puffins fall into that category.

So it didn’t set well with me to read that a visual artist named Curver Thoroddsen has opened a pizza restaurant in a lighthouse near the cliff where I took this picture, and that one of the most popular items on the menu is puffin pizza. Thoroddsen said he was inspired to open the restaurant – which he pointed out is as close as one can get to the United States and still be in Europe – while he was doing graduate work in New York, where there is a pizza joint on every block. I wonder if, while he was in the city, he took advantage of the abundant supply of pigeons.

olive-oilToday I am making sfiha, a meat pie of Middle Eastern origin. I don’t know what a regulation sfiha consists of. I have seen many recipes in our cookbooks and on line. No two of them are the same, and none of them are like the ones I make. I learned to make sfiha from my mother, and she learned it from her mother. If my mother and grandmother made it this way, this way must be legitimate, I figure. Even if that weren’t true, I wouldn’t change anything. I make them this way partly because we like them this way, but also because it is a means of perpetuating the palpable presence in this world of my Lebanese grandmother – whom I did not know – and my mother. Perhaps it’s part of a larger neurosis, but I am very conscious of things like that. In order to make sfiha – the way I make it and they made it – I have to cut a whole bunch of celery into thin slices. Before I do, I remove the leaves. My mother said the leaves have a taste – not unpleasant but a little bitter – that the stalks do not have, and that taste has no place in sfiha. Not the way we make it. It’s just as well, because my Italian grandmother taught me to save celery leaves and eat them with olive oil and a little salt. A simple thing, but a great delicacy. I eat celery leaves that way because I like them, but also because the taste of them makes my grandmother’s influence on me and her care for me alive again in a material way. For the same reason, I eat cold, sliced, boiled potatoes with olive oil and a little salt. Grandma taught me that. There’s nothing quite like it because, as she told me, the neutral taste of the potatoes is a perfect medium for the subtle tastes – plural – in virgin olive oil.  For a similar reason, I prepare hard-boiled eggs by mashing  them with a fork until they are the consistency of powder, and then eat them – lightly salted – with a spoon. I learned that from my Lebanese grandfather, who sits with me whenever I have hard-boiled eggs. And I learned from my Italian grandfather to baste a grilling steak with a mixture of vinegar and olive oil. He stands there a step or two behind me while the aroma of the drops hitting the flame take me back to summer afternoons long gone and a man never forgotten.

“… and unto dust …”

February 25, 2009

pizza1I always feel a little guilty right about now in the rolling year. No, not because we’re supposed to feel guilty during Lent. Not exactly, anyway. I get a little self conscious about all those Lents in my childhood, the Lents everyone in my house and people of our acquaintance couldn’t wait for. In those days, the emphasis in Lent was on the “giving up,” at least in popular culture. For me, that meant a hiatus in the constant gorging on candy and ice cream and Yoo Hoo as I worked, if you can call it that, in my family’s grocery store. Naturally, I looked forward to resuming that self-destructive behavior, but I wouldn’t have traded all the candy and Yoo Hoo in the world for what was unleashed in my grandmother’s kitchen when this day came.

Like many women of her generation and background, Grandma had a repertoire of Italian meals that she cooked only during Lent. Besides being restricted to the season, they were parsed out on certain days during the five weeks of “penance.” My favorite was the hand-made pizza with wild mushrooms Grandpa had picked up in Ramapo. I even loved the spaghetti with anchovy sauce, though I don’t think I could stomach it now. Of course, whenever she was cooking – and when wasn’t she cooking? – Grandma would call me into her kitchen and slip me whatever preliminary scraps were available – a clear violation of the fast. While some people, including me, still practice some material sacrifices during Lent, the season has a much more positive spin now than it did in the 1940s and ’50s. Presumably, those who endured the trials of those days piled up treasures in heaven, as we used to say. I piled up IOUs.