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photo:Alicia Solsman

Out of the Past, Pasta
By Laura Leon

Hunting down a childhood memory in recipes for macaroni salad

Blame it on Metroland. After the paper went and named Oliver’s as having the best burger (again) in the Capital Region, I simply had to give it a try. Immediately. My husband by now knows not to question his pregnant wife’s quirky food cravings, so off we went, and, yes, the burger was spectacular. But what really grabbed my attention was, of all things, the accompanying macaroni salad. I inhaled my side before commandeering my husband’s. The children quickly yielded their portions; they knew better than to argue with their mother, particularly when she had that maniacal gleam in her eyes and a sharp fork in hand.

More typically, macaroni salad is an inedible clump on the side of the plate, maybe camouflaged somewhat by pink tomatoes and limp lettuce, more likely shoved into the kind of plastic cup you’re offered to use when giving a urine sample. Reminiscent of the gobs of paste you used back in first-grade art class, macaroni salad as it is served many places these days comprises three parts mediocre mayonnaise to one part pasty elbow macaroni. It makes the dishwashy coleslaw side that’s often offered as its substitute look downright delicious.

But at Oliver’s, the macaroni salad was a nostalgic perfection. Proust had his madeleines. I have my mother’s macaroni salad, which I remember her serving toward the end of our long days at the lake, which began early enough in the morning when it was often still chilly, and the grass was always wet with dew. We would eat as many as three meals there, since we often stayed into the evening. In the mornings, we’d eat freshly baked blueberry muffins; for lunch, sandwiches and fruit, maybe some chips. In the evenings, my parents would retreat to the picnic area, fire up a grill, and prepare a feast that often included chicken, burgers and dogs, corn on the cob and tossed salad, with brownies and pie for desserts. And, yes, macaroni salad. Somehow, my mother managed to pack it in such a way that it would still be chilled when she served it. Elbow macaroni and tiny dices of celery, radish and scallion and flecks of parsley, bathed in just the right amount of creamy dressing. Enjoying this deliciously cool-crisp combination of textures while watching the sun sink lower toward the lake was something I had sort of forgotten about.

Until that visit to Oliver’s. Suddenly, I had to make this dish, even if I couldn’t re-create the exact ambience of memory. The problem was, how? Mom, always niggardly when it comes to sharing anything (especially recipes), feigned memory loss—that is, when she didn’t taunt me with would-be clues that, ultimately, were dead ends. “Oh, I think I remember,” she would exclaim over the phone. “It was the salad with the little chunks of pineapple, right?” Wrong.

Not to be deterred, I perused my cookbook collection. Nothing printed in the last two decades, it seems, includes any reference to something as mundane as “macaroni,” instead offering numerous, often good but usually fancified takes on “pasta” salads. So I looked to James Beard’s seminal American Cooking, figuring that at its date of publication, 1972 (around the time I was no doubt savoring my mother’s macaroni salad), macaroni salad was surely a must for any cookbook. Wrong again. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts cookbooks from the early ’70s also failed me, as did a few specialized slim volumes (e.g., Entertain the Easy Way!) from the ’50s. A search through the files of epicurious.com revealed mostly newfangled ways with the old standard: the additions of chevre, arugula, cannelloni, jalapenos.

Here I had been updating my mother’s old standbys for years, using such ingredients. Now, when I wanted the old standby, I couldn’t find it. Part of the problem seemed to be a nationwide fear of using mayonnaise in the summertime combined with the culture’s rush to exchange flavor with nonfat products—OK, that’s simplistic, but it’s the gut feeling I had when studying Good Housekeeping magazine’s version of macaroni salad, which substitutes nonfat cottage cheese and lowfat milk for mayo. Eww. Martha Stewart’s online recipe finder came a little closer, in that at least it used mayonnaise, but combined with sour cream, white wine vinegar, sugar, nutmeg and black pepper. Instinctively I knew that the dish I was after included something besides mayo, but I just doubted it was sour cream, and I knew darn well that my mother never would have put nutmeg, or, for that matter, Martha’s petite peas or Black Forest ham, in her macaroni salad.

I finally hit pay dirt in a 1942 edition of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, edited by Dorothy B. Marsh. There, on page 304, just to the right of Guest-What Salad, was a recipe for Best-Ever Macaroni, and it included the requisite diced celery, scallions, radishes, parsley and, yes, mayonnaise. The instructions called for mixing a cup of mayo with two tablespoons vinegar, a half teaspoon of celery seeds and salt and pepper. Nervously, I set about preparing my memory dish one morning when the rest of the family was still asleep. I figured if I failed, they wouldn’t be around to witness my frustration. By this time, I felt like Rapunzel’s mother, only instead of a prenatal craving for something healthy like broccoli rabe, I was near tears over a fattening side dish.

As I poured the dry pasta into boiling water, I noticed that even Muller’s has gone gourmet; the package of elbow macaroni proudly proclaimed “perfectly al-dente in 7 minutes!” The diced veggies gave me my first gasp of happy surprise: I had a vivid recollection of looking at that red, pale green and white mixture, decades before, and being reminded of pictures of the Italian flag in Mom’s faded Let’s Cook Italian! cookbooks. At first, the mayo mix looked like too much (like my mother, I omitted the celery seed), and I feared I’d end up with a gloppy mess such I have described above, but when I blended in the finished and cooled pasta and vegetables to the bowl, it looked like just the right proportion.

Later that night, as we feasted on this decidedly old-fashioned meal, my sister observed, “Mom, this macaroni salad tastes just like yours!” She grew excited about this—not so much the dish itself, but the memories that it brought forth. “It’s just like what we used to have in the summertime, at the lake,” she continued and, catching my eye, happily joined me in a trip back to that time in our lives. My mother, meanwhile, said nothing. In her silence, she betrayed on one level her annoyance that I had somehow “beaten” her by mastering this recipe that had once been solely hers. But more than that, her silence conveyed her unwillingness to travel back, to wax nostalgic for the family moments that my sister and I found so warm and wonderful. I had recaptured a memory in a dish, but in so doing, made the bittersweet realization that our mother, now in her 80s, had no desire to revisit the past or share in our memories.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Microbrewed beer is back at the Van Dyck (237 Union St., Schenectady), with 60 kegs of ale already in the fermenters and another 20 being brewed this week. The first batches, now on tap, are an unfiltered pale ale and a full-bodied brown, with a blond ale to follow next week. A porter, amber and wheat beer will be on tap in the weeks to come. Troy’s Michael Beauchea is the Van Dyck’s brewer, and the brewery itself is the only true German brew house in the Capital Region, with the precise temperature control necessary for the production of pilsner-style beer. Brewery tours will be available, as well as beer tasting for private and corporate groups. The Van Dyck is open 4-11 Tuesday-Thursday and 4-midnight Friday-Saturday; for more info, call the restaurant at 381-1111. . . . Also in Schenectady, the Farmer’s Market continues until the end of October, with local farmers selling their wares Tuesdays at St. Luke’s Church at 1216 State St. and Thursdays at City Hall on the corner of Franklin and Jay streets. You’ll find everything from vegetables to flowers to handcrafted candles, and there’s even a chair massage available. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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