‘Delicious’ details on parents of Rockefeller
Western New York was/is a strange land, and yet very typically American. It is where many convergent currents of American life come together.
It was not so long ago the howling wilderness, barely civilized until the 1850s after the Senecas accepted the Buffalo Creek treaty, and since the first settlements, prone to various fevers of religious revivals and the grifters who attended those revivals as sure as the moon follows the sun. Many will remember that Emerson called it the “Burned Over District.” Just over 100 miles from Chautauqua, 14-year-old Joseph Smith was called to the Hill Cumorah by the angel Moroni to find the golden tablets, the Fox sisters communicated with spirits by table tapping and the Millerites moved near after their End Days Prophecy proved errant by 180 years and counting. Don’t even get started on the Amana, Oneidas, Shakers and their Roycroft progeny.
The perfect person to represent these strands of earnest belief and the grifters who fed off that belief likes remoras on a shark is John D. Rockefeller. Were he not a real person, we would have had to invent him.
He grew up a little further east of us, just south of the Finger Lakes, but both currents swirled and swelled within him. For anyone who wishes to understand America, I cannot recommend enough Ron Chernow’s 1998 book, “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.”
His mother was pious, praying and raising her boys with strict Baptist labors. His father was a carouser, often gone, leaving his family alone with little information or money.
He went from backwoods burg to backwoods burg selling patent medicines with his steady gallop of quackery.
It’s entirely likely that he worked the Chautauqua farm towns — not far from the railroad, yet insular and ignorant of the wider world. A fast-talking hustler speaking of miracle cures could make bank, selling out a wagonload of brown bottles full of grain alcohol and opium tincture. Then he’d eventually return home to Tioga County, showering his neglected wife with cash, often knocking her up again, then just as quickly as he came disappearing again for months.
He brought his supposed long-lost “niece” to live under the same roof with his wife. He had apparently found himself another wife in Canada, just across the lake from Chautauqua County in St. Catherine. Bigamy apparently was no big deal as long as no one made a big deal about it.
It was nearly pre-ordained that his son would become both of his parents; a lifelong pious Sunday school teacher and a rapacious, insatiable hustler. He kept a simple diet his whole life; none of the Diamond Jim Brady school of indulgence for him. Tea and toast were his favored fuel. That’s not to say a simple diet can’t taste good. One thing about my mother, in all her complicated layers, is she knew how to take something basic and make it transcendent.
In 2011, the New Yorker magazine (for which you could do much worse if you had only one curated source of information) published a profile on Rene Redzepi, the superstar Danish chef of Noma, with his reliance on foraged ingredients and scientifically fermented processes by which he could make pine cones not only edible, but delicious. At the time, Noma has recently supplanted El Bulli in the north of Spain as the world’s finest restaurant as designated by food writers and other chefs. On his rare days off, Redzipi often would make himself a simple lunch of a cabbage half, boiled in his wife’s leftover tea. With a little salt and pepper, and a knob of butter, it was simple and delicious and nutritious.
It was a shocking wave of revelation to me, my Marcel Proust madeleine-with-tea moment. My mother did the same for her lunch when we were kids! After pouring out the dregs of the percolator coffee for my dad’s red-eye gravy, she’d brew up a 2-quart pot of strong black tea and sit there on the sofa watching her shows, “Midnight Storm,” “Days of Our Lives,” and “All My Children.” Then she’d boil up her leftover tea with a cabbage half for lunch with a little, and by little, I mean generous, dollop of butter. I remember thinking then it was odd, but the floral scent of the orange pekoe or black tea went surprisingly well with the brassica funk of the cabbage with its sprinkling of salt and pepper. Even the Earl Grey’s oil of bergamot went surprisingly well with cabbage. Try it yourself.
Take half a cabbage for each person. Slice in half lengthwise. Boil in a quart or so of tea water, enough to submerge the most of it. Steam can take care of the rest. It doesn’t have to be particular strong, the flavors carry well. Boil about 8-10 minutes or until a sharp knife easily pierces through the thickest part.
Let a generous slice of butter melt into the layers. Grind fresh pepper and salt to taste. Enjoy. For a simple weeknight dinner, add bacon. Actually, add bacon to anything and it will taste better.
My mother had a sophisticated appreciation for layers of flavor which I did not myself appreciate until many years later. We so very rarely ate at restaurants when I was a kid, that I remember clearly the half dozen occasions when we did — my older brothers’ engagement parties and pre-wedding dinners, or the family gatherings at the Swedish smorgasbord on the lake closer to Buffalo. I can count on one hand the meals we ate that we did not prepare ourselves. It seemed an exotic luxury to go McDonalds, in which we had eaten as a family precisely once, and that was when it first opened in the mid-1960s. When I was a teenager that was the first destination on my freedom trail after buying for $50 my first car — a rusted hulk of what was once a Pontiac Bonneville. I overpaid.
“The secret to restaurant-quality food is that you season the food with at least salt and pepper every time you add another ingredient,” she said more than once. “First when you saute the garlic and onion, then again when you add the peppers, then again when you add the meat, then again when you stuff the meat and sofrito into the peppers. See?” Spooning me a forkful. To this day that simple wisdom has served me well for thousands of meals. She’d add cumin to that flavor base sometimes, cinnamon every now and again, or even allspice, the only commonly used spice native to North America. She was no Rene Redzepi … but then neither was he she.
Bret Bradigan is the editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk of the Town.”