Until recently, I, like most New Yorkers, thought that cuisine in states without a seacoast was basically a choice between chain restaurants and chain supermarkets. If you wanted a regional specialty, you'd have to settle for casseroles made with canned Campbell's soup, Jello salads, or Frito pies. Even after much time spent in Tulsa, I wrote a post about typical Oklahoma restaurants, and all of them used ingredients that could have come from anywhere. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/140283 But recently I discovered a whole new dimension to middle American cooking, and I am posting this account of a meal I had last night in order to share that revelation with you.
One of my mom's nurses lives on a farm about fifty miles east of Tulsa. You drive along back roads and byways to get there. "The street is named after her!" I cried when we drove out there last year. And indeed a signpost by the road bore her name. "It's not named after me, it's my husband's grandfather", she said. Her family has been in the area a long time. Just beyond her farm, the road wound past the old brown Mennonite church that serves the region. Most of the people there are Mennonite or Amish.
Once a year, in early July, Liz, the nurse, drives about seventy miles to the small farm community of Porter, where she picks a bushel of a variety of peaches, called Red Haven, which grow only there. A delicious peach, redolent of the robust perfume of life. She makes those peaches into pies, with a light ethereal cream sauce and a crust as subtle as an epiphany. Lots of heavy existential metaphors there, but it's easy to write like that when you taste her pie. We wait for those pies all year long.
Yesterday she cooked dinner. Sort of a Fourth of July meal, a day early, and starring the pie. She got up at sunrise, put on rubber boots -- that endless rain which has hit eastern Oklahoma has turned the land into marsh and mud -- and trudged out to the farm. She dug up a lot of potatoes, picked some cucumbers. She got corn from a neighbor. A nearby farmer had just killed a cow, so she bought a few steaks. At our house, she peeled and boiled the potatoes and then seared the edges in a pan. She boiled the corn. The cucumber got sliced and served with a creamy yogurt-like dressing that a German grandmother had taught her to make. The steaks went on the grill. We ate and ate until we bust and then we ate the pie. It was a lovely meal, a family meal, a meal not unlike what a family would have had on a good day a hundred years ago and more. Everything on the table came from her farm, and the neighbors' To a city boy, those rich explosive flavors were a revelation. "You could never get a meal like that in New York," I told her. Yes, we have some of the finest cooking schools, and chefs, and restaurants in New York. But that food didn't come from a fine cooking school or chef. It came from generations and generations of family meals, carefully cultivated and lovingly prepared. It came from an American farm.