Kenneth Roberts: Nothin’ like Grandma’s cookin’!

As mentioned in a previous post, Kenneth Roberts, an already opinionated man, was very opinionated about food.  Nothing, it seemed, was as good as Maine food, and in particular his grandmother’s cooking.  In an essay titled “Grandmother’s Kitchen” in The Kenneth Roberts Reader (originally titled “A Maine Kitchen” in Trending into Maine), Roberts’ states:

It was in Grandma’s home that I developed a fondness for Maine cooking … and to the end of my days the simple foods that were the basis of most of our meals will seem to me more delicious than all the ‘specialties of the house’ that can be produced by the world’s most famous chefs.

Strong words coming from one whom, I’m sure, had access to some of the finest restaurants of his time.  These words, however, ring true with many of us, I assume.  Many times when we eat outside of the home, comparisons are made to how someone, particularly mom or grandma, in our family cooks.  For me, it’s my mom’s Cajun cooking.  (Mmmm, I’m hungry now…)

In the essay “Grandmother’s Kitchen,” Roberts gives the account of when he and a dinner party visited a well-known restaurant in Palm Beach, FL.  Despite his reluctance and doubt, and on the word of the restaurant owner, Roberts ordered the hash of which only his grandmother could make correctly!  Unfortunately for Roberts, the chef did not live up to Grandma’s standard:

There was considerable talk about that hash when the guests arrived.  The thought of genuine Maine hash inflamed them; but when at last it was brought, the potatoes were cut in lumps the size of machine-gun bullets: the meat was in chunks; the whole dreadful mixture had been made dry and crumbly over a hot fire.  Beyond a doubt the guests talked about that hash for the remainder of the year, but not in the way the restaurant owner had anticipated.

It makes me wonder what Roberts would say about today’s hash, especially of the likes sold at McDonald’s during breakfast.

In the midst of his discussion on his excursions into eating hash made by people other than his grandmother, Roberts takes a side trip into discussing the way ketchup ought to taste, for “[k]etchup is an important adjunct to many Maine dishes, particularly in families whose manner of cooking comes down to them from seafaring ancestors.”  Ketchup, according to Roberts, must not be sweetened, for it would be “an offense against God and man, against nature and good taste.”

For the Roberts family, Grandma’s ketchup was famous and highly sought after.  According to Roberts,

…we could never get enough of it.  We were allowed to have it on beans, fish cakes, and hash, since those dishes were acknowledged to be incomplete without them; but when we went so far as to demand it on bread, as we often did, we were peremptorily refused and had to go down in the cellar and steal it – which we also often did. 

For Roberts, such was his craving for his grandmother’s ketchup that he “became almost a ketchup drunkard; for when I couldn’t get it, I yearned for it.”  Roberts had to beg her for the recipe, which had never been published, until he shared it in his essay (mentioned earlier, “A Maine Kitchen”) “for the benefit of those who aren’t satisfied with the commercial makeshifts that masquerade under the name of ketchup.”

Interestingly, Roberts’ grandmother’s ketchup recipe is still used today, as evidenced by Nora at  The Great American Project Cooking Project and her post titled “Ketchup’s Secret Ingredient.”

Roberts, a man known for his tenacious search for historical fact, carried this tenacity into his search for the re-creation of Grandma’s home cooking.  In doing so, we get another glimpse at Kenneth Robert the man.


Kenneth Roberts on Diets: A Satire Against “Experts” and Their Gullible Followers

It is well documented that Kenneth Roberts was a very opinionated man, whether he was railing against politics, historians, or the current culture.  Perhaps not as well know, though, was his love for food and his never-ending quest for food cooked like his grandma’s (see his essay “A Maine Kitchen” in Trending into Maine, or “Grandma’s Kitchen” in The Kenneth Roberts Reader).

In his essay titled “An Inquiry into Diets,” Roberts tells of his foray into the crowded forest of diet books (it seems that even in his time, Americans were vainly obsessed with their figure).  Roberts gives the account of an acquaintance approaching him with the request to procure for her the best diet books available at that time (I am unsure if this actually occurred or not).  What ensues is a humorous, satirical story of Roberts’ dizzying journey amongst the leading diet “experts” and their contradictory, nebulous, unfounded advice.

Roberts provides much material worthy of being quoted here; however, due to the lack of space, time and the concern of breaking copyright, here are only a few:

…every diet, in the opinion of one or more diet experts, is either based on the erroneous ideas of a faddist, or is downright dangerous.

Hitherto, in consulting references on any given subject, I have usually been able to discard the majority as inaccurate, biased, unreliable, or untruthful … Diet books are different.  Most of them are written by medical experts who have studied for years to find out exactly what happens to seven cents’ worth of liver when it meets a Welch’s bacillus in the upper colon of a sedentary worker aged forty-five.

I further discovered that although a person may consider himself in perfect health, and may feel comfortable and happy, he is – unless he is eating foods that the diet books say he ought to eat – as effectively poisoned as though nurtured for years on poison-ivy salads with bichloride of mercury dressing.

 Lastly, Roberts tells of his discovery from the dietitians that starches, sugars and proteins, if mixed in a meal, causes intestinal fermentation, which leads to acidosis, which, according to Roberts

…is too large a subject for me to handle, in these few notes, except in the sketchiest manner.  Not even the authors of the diet books are able to handle it satisfactorily.  However, all of us are suffering from acidosis; and so far as i can tell, everybody has suffered from acidosis since the beginning of the world – unless he has been so happy as to stuble upon the proper diet.

However, if one were to just follow the proper diet,

he becomes tranquil, thoughtful, and philosophic; overwork is impossible; business worries are unknown; irritation vanishes.  It was all to clear to me that I was in a bad way; for whenever my eye struck a newspaper report of the activities of the House of Representatives, I became irritated.  Almost everything that was done in the House of Representatives seemed irritating; but the most frequent and explosive irritation was caused by that body’s eagerness to wreck the finances of the nation; its delight in wasting more and more of the people’s money; its inability to balance the budget in any sensible manner…

When I read about such things, I not only become irritated: I become profane – so profane that my language sometimes shocks even myself.

This, of course, is another sure indication of acidosis.  If I were on a proper diet, nothing could irritate me.  I would remain tranquil and philosophic while reading about the House of Representatives.  I would continue to be tranquil and philosophic, even though the House of Representatives should be successful in its efforts to bring the nation to insolvency and ruin.

(Note: this last quote gives a little glimpse into his politics as well.)

Not even the dietitians – and by implication their gullible, too-accepting followers – escaped Roberts’ searing gaze upon the culture of his time.  A great glimpse into Kenneth Roberts the man, and even a timely word for us today, as we are still flooded by advice from many “experts” that conflict with each other and even themselves.

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