A series about foods we miss and our quests to recreate them.
In elementary school, back in the 70s in Tempe, Arizona, one of my favorite meals was something called Farmers Fritters. On Friday nights, our mother whipped up a batch of the thin, crisp, tangy-sweet cottage-cheese pancakes, which were actually more like little crepes. She used to put her huge rectangular electric skillet in the middle of the table, and my sisters and I sat around it while she made fritters in batches, sliding them around onto everyone's plates.
While we ate these fritters with homemade applesauce and huge puddles of Aunt Jemima syrup, we sometimes told stories, with the sliding-glass door open to the patio and a warm desert breeze making the candles flicker. Someone started, and then we took turns continuing the story, going around the table until it was finished. (I remember my baby sister Emily's dramatic climax to one creepy ghost story: "And then the toaster popped up." She was about 5 at the time. We all fell off our chairs, laughing.)
Now in her mid-40s, Emily lives in New Zealand with her husband and four kids. She has the old egg-spattered recipe card—she copied it down and emailed it to me last spring. The original recipe was written in our aunt's handwriting, our mother's deaf and mentally handicapped older sister, Aillinn, with parenthetical additions by our mother.
1 cup Blossom Time cottage cheese
1 egg (2 are better)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 (is that really an 8?!?!) cup milk
(or a very little cream)
1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel
2 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 cup flour (+ a little wheatgerm)
Place first six ingredients in bowl and beat well with rotary beater. Stir in flour, drop by tablespoons on greased griddle. Serve with butter and hot syrup. Serves 4.
I never got around to making a batch until the end of this past summer, when I woke up one morning with a sudden nostalgic hankering so strong I could almost taste that particular tangy sweetness again on my tongue.
We had everything in the house to make them except the cottage cheese. No one ever has cottage cheese in the house anymore. Back then, we always kept a plastic tub of white, cold curds in the fridge. Whenever we ran out, we immediately put it on the shopping list. It was a staple, like margarine (another thing no one has anymore). I used to eat bowlfuls of the stuff with salt and pepper. But now, it's gone out of style, along with Triscuits, Vienna sausages (those pinky-finger-sized wieners in a can with a pop-top), and Graham crackers—my favorite childhood after-school snacks.
In our local supermarket, after scouting for a while, my boyfriend Brendan finally located a very narrow, very small cottage cheese selection in the dairy case, wedged between the much larger kefir and sour cream sections. He bought a 16-oz. tub, and home it came.
And so the next morning, with a certain sense of defeat in advance, convinced I couldn't replicate my mother's version, I got down to it. Because I can't eat gluten, I had to use Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flour mix. I interpreted "Milk (or a very little cream)" as a "blump," as my mother always called it, of half-and-half. I nuked the butter to melt it, and then I grated the lemon peel.
As I was mixing the batter, I noticed weird threads of something in the mix. I pulled one out—it looked like a shard of paper with something printed on it. I found another one, and another. After a few minutes of sleuthing, I realized that I'd grated the oval plastic bar-code sticker on the lemon peel right into the batter. I debated for a moment. Did I care if I ate some plastic with ink on it? Not really, but what if it contained gluten? I'd be screwed for the next 24 hours. In the end, it was a simple decision: I threw out the first batch and started over. Farmers Fritters batter is so easy to make, the ingredients so minimal and cheap, it was definitely worth the waste not to risk being depressed, bloated, and foggy-brained for the next 24 hours.
Once the second batch was mixed, I fired up the stove burner under a skillet and added some peanut oil. When it was hot, I turned down the flame and spooned the batter into the pan in tablespoonfuls, just as my aunt and mother had instructed all those years ago. Our dog, Dingo, helped by licking the beaters, just as I had done as a kid, before we knew about salmonella in raw eggs; those were the days.
As I watched the fritters cook, I wondered: who were these farmers? And how did my aunt get hold of their recipe? I Googled "Fanny Farmer," thinking maybe it had come from one of her cookbooks, but nothing turned up. I returned to the stove and tried flipping the fritters, but they stuck, so I waited a while longer. Finally, they formed a crust underneath, and then they flipped easily. When they were brown and crisp on the other side, I slid them onto two plates.
I had laid in a couple of apples, which I had intended to cut up and boil into a mush with cinnamon, but I happened to have on hand most of a jar of excellent, organic applesauce, so I got that out instead. In the pantry was a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup, my authentic childhood brand, but the expiration date on it said May 2006, and the first ingredient was "high-fructose corn syrup," which, as we all know now, is deadly. Back in the 70s, when I was 8, I didn't know or care, I could glug gallons of the stuff. Now, I poured pure maple syrup onto the hot, fresh fritters, and we dug in.
I hadn't really expected them to taste the same, I realized as I chewed my first bite. Somehow, childishly and superstitiously, I hadn't believed the recipe would really work. But it did. The recipe, magically, really and truly made exactly the same fritters I'd loved all those decades ago.
Also, "serves 4," my ass. Maybe if those four are a young mother and three small kids, it does. All I know is, two gluttonous adults gobbled up the entire batch.
Previously: My Doomed Attempt To Make Jjajangmyeon At Home
Kate Christensen is the author of six novels, including "The Great Man," which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner award, and, most recently, "The Astral." She blogs about food here. She lives in Portland, Maine.