Taste Trekking

Canned, sealed, delivered

Canners, those brave souls who sweat it out over stoves in August, will take an ingredient at its very peak and suspend it in glass – a snow globe of summer, where it showers dill leaves and mustard seeds. It’s a compact little world, protected from the forces of ageing that nab the rest of us on the other side of the glass.

With a pry of the lid, this world spills out, catapulting you to different lands and different seasons, some foreign, others familiar. Wild blueberry jam can carry you to the forests of Maine; San Marzano tomatoes can plant your feet in the volcanic soil at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius; oil-packed anchovies can sit you down in a smoky Spanish tavern.

Canning has always been a matter of survival: transforming summer’s bounty into winter rations, taking the perishable and making it almost immortal on the supermarket shelf. But for all of its practicality, it’s an intensely nostalgic chore. People seal memories and places in with fruits and vegetables to revisit later on – they make these feelings edible.

Greg Brown says it best, in his half-song, half-campfire story kind of way:

She cans the pickles, sweet and dill
She cans the songs of the whippoorwill
And the morning dew and the evening moon
‘n’ I really got to go see her pretty soon


A few weeks ago, four jars landed on my doorstep: two pillars of heirloom tomatoes, and dill pickles and pepper jelly – summer globes from Whiting, Vermont. They had made the journey from a place where chickens cross the road as they please and a hound dog asks you constant questions with her curious wet nose; where dud tomatoes go flying in the air from a trap and twigs glow in the dark.

That place is Fast Hitch Farm, a colonial-era property in western Vermont. It’s probably the only organic farm I know where Oreos are plunged into a deep fryer.

To my friend Donner Carr (the smilin’ sunglasses-wearer above), it’s home. After graduating from McGill, Donner bought the farm with his dad, Donner Sr. They raise chickens and turkeys, and grow tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillos, sweet corn, cabbages, hot peppers, garlic, and basil – with the goal of someday outputting their own homemade pesto. And all of this is done in whatever free time they manage after their day jobs. While they gradually gear up to make the farm commercially viable, Donner works as a nutrient management planner, crop advisor, and fertilizer applicator to pay the bills. 

When I twist open the jars, I’m transported to Fast Hitch’s red barn. Looking out at me from just across the road is the main house; from this angle, you wouldn’t guess it could hold the fifteen plus people that come to stay each New Year’s Eve. The side porch of the house spills out onto the lawn, with its wildflowers and pear trees, and chickens running from stray croquet balls. If you wander off a little farther, you can sneak through the patch of woods that hugs the big pond, which sounds like bullfrogs in the summer and skates slicing through the ice in winter. On the other side of the house, there are the rows of vegetables that soak up all these sights and sounds and scents and eventually find their way into jars. I think to myself: I’ll take some more tomatoes and a ride in the back of a pickup, some more hot peppers and a crackling bonfire, some more pickles and a midnight swim.

The jars remind me of all of the work that the Carrs put into their farm in their spare moments – all of the elbow grease that goes into building this world tucked behind the main road that cuts through Whiting, and their generous impulse to share it. The life of a farmer is hard, but the Carrs make it look easy to those of us who stop by.

So it’s with a big thank you to the guys at Fast Hitch Farm that I share these recipes; may they help get you through the tail end of winter like they did for me.


Fresh-Canned Pizza Sauce
Fast Hitch tomatoes speak for themselves – they barely need any seasoning – so they’re a perfect reason to make this incredibly fast pizza sauce (you can use other good quality canned tomatoes, but they may not have the same taste of lawlessness as the Fast Hitch variety). Drain the tomatoes, reserving the liquid to use later in a soup. Crush the tomatoes with your hands, then add some torn basil, a few pinches of salt, and a generous glug of olive oil. Spread in a thin layer over rolled-out pizza dough, and top with slices of fresh mozzarella or burrata cheese. Bake at 450° for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the crust, until the crust crisps up and turns golden brown. A few minutes before you pull the pizza out of the oven, add some fresh whole basil leaves on top.

A bonus recipe for another Fast Hitch favorite: Don’s Brie Bomb. Spread a generous layer of Fast Hitch Farm serrano pepper jelly over a round of brie. Then wrap the cheese in puff pastry dough (crescent roll dough works fine), tucking the ends underneath and setting it on a baking sheet. Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, or until the dough turns golden brown. Serve immediately, with a bunch of crackers or bread. The lack of a picture is testament to how this flies off the plate.


A tale of two nonnas

People say that to learn how to cook, you must find a grandmother.

I never met either of my grandmothers, since they died before I was born. So when I came across an article from the 1970 Waterloo Courier tucked between the pages of a scrapbook, I thought I had struck gold.

clip collage final

In this “Shop Talk” featurette, my grandmother, Mary, stands in her kitchen, sharing her trademark Italian recipes: ricotta and spinach ravioli, spaghetti sauce, zucchini casserole. Here was my culinary ancestor preserved in print, offered up to the world (or at least the townspeople of Waterloo, Iowa). I began to see the ravioli already, piled high in her painted bowl that I took with me to college – ricotta-filled pillows for my dreams of maternal heritage.

“Italian-American Auxiliary Presents Fashions of Today and Yesterday.” Grandma Mary Amelang (nee Stabile) is seated center-right, in peasant dress and shawl.

“The Italian-American Auxiliary Presents Fashions of Today and Yesterday.” Grandma Mary Amelang (née Stabile) is seated center-right, in peasant dress and shawl.

I knew that my grandmother was part of that defining story of melting pot America from the early 1900s. Her Campania-born parents passed through the fabled gates of Ellis Island, where her maiden name became “Sta-BILL” instead of “STAH-bee-leh.” Then they moved from a tenement on Little Italy’s Mulberry Street to the greener pastures of the meatpacking Midwest. Love, or something like it, struck in the form of goofy Merle Amelang, who hailed from a ramrod-straight German family in Iowa. And from this, the world as I know it began to take shape: three boys and a girl, the motley crew of uncles, aunt, and Dad that has witnessed my own growth – just high-schoolers in this article.

I asked the four siblings about Mary’s Courier-worthy ravioli but, as I made my way down the list, I realized that the flat responses weren’t just worsening senior moments; these ravioli were simply not a thing in the family. Spaghetti sauce was a common enough sight on the dinner table, and lasagna and mostaccioli made appearances on special occasions, yet no one remembers seeing their mom stuff dough with this filling. Instead, my aunt recalls Mary borrowing the ravioli rolling pin for the article photo shoot – and she’s pretty sure they didn’t even have ravioli for dinner that night.

Beyond the “Mamma Mia!” beehive-and-pearls kitsch, there was a real mystery. Maybe my grandma was playing the writer, or the writer was playing the reader, but somewhere, something had been lost in translation.

1 Portraits

Left: Mary Stabile Amelang, Right: Liliana Lavino Minato

I began to think of my other grandmother, Liliana, on my mother’s side, who was born, raised, and died in a two-horse town called Cossato, nestled in the Italian Alps. This is a woman who spent a week cooking in preparation for a visit from a Roman telephone operator; she had invited him to the mountains for a hunting trip as a thank-you for putting her in touch with my mom, who was at college far away in the Midwest, long before the age of Skype. Lavish Piemontese spreads of antipasti were Liliana’s strong suit. I wondered how she might react to Waterloo’s idea of “typical dishes Italian cooks are expected to prepare.” Indigestion was a strong possibility.

I looked at the recipes through Nonna Liliana’s eyes: what were meatballs doing over stuffed pasta? Is “raviola” even a word? Why would someone need a whole can of tomato paste? Who in God’s name would put sugar in tomato sauce? Were they trying to ruin it by cooking it for four hours?

I realized that these nonnas would have probably butted heads if they had ended up in the same kitchen. I needed to break up this fight.

2 Skis

From the Plains to the Alps, the nonnas on skis.

3 Gals

A young Mary Stabile and Liliana Lavino.

All the trouble lies in that single word: “authentic.” It will turn an Italian into a snob, an American into a sap.

Italians starting over in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century created a whole new culture, one that was a natural offshoot of the traditions of the homeland and an adaptation to new conditions in turn-of-the-century America. Whole cans of tomato paste were stirred into a sauce to embolden the watery taste of standard-grade tomatoes (in Italy, instead, paste is sold in tubes like toothpaste, meant to be used in small amounts). Sugar found its way into the pot in an attempt to resurrect the sweetness of formerly local San Marzano tomatoes. Vast quantities of meat from the American heartland took center stage in new renditions of pastas and mains. Sauces were simmered for hours with handfuls of garlic cloves to coax as much flavor possible out of less-fresh ingredients. This was Italian-American cooking, not Italian – equally valid, just different. And Italians will get testy with slip-ups in this vocabulary.

4 Families

Left: Mary & the first three of the brood standing in front of their home in Waterloo, Iowa, with snow goddess sculpted by Merle (my dad is on the left). Right: Liliana & her three children posing in front of the family home in Cossato, Italy (mom is on the bottom step).


The women and their men: Mary and Merle to the left, Liliana and Giuseppe to the right.

But even when you’re careful with your definitions, authenticity is tricky. Are Grandma Mary’s “raviola” authentically Stabile family fare? Where is the line between authentic Italian and authentic Italian-American?

These truths are hard to pin down, maybe even impossible. Sometimes recipes fail us. And sometimes we forget that, behind the glossy page, there is much measuring, glazing, carving, browning, and skimming at work. Life is never as neat and effortless as a recipe on a food blog might have us believe – just like the rest of social media.

My hunch is that the Courier writer learned of Mary’s family background and upcoming trip to Italy through the Waterloo grapevine, and then pitched an idea for a feature, envisioning something along the lines of The Godfather kitchen scenes. She probably wanted to spice up the usual spaghetti-and-meatballs routine that had already began to charm its way into the heart of Americans – hence the ravioli. And Grandma Mary would have called around, asking friends and family for a recipe. Tack on some mentions of the Old Country, and you’ve got yourself an exotic write-up. No one specific’s fault, just a reflection of the times. It’s an editorial mistake that has been made countless times as we explain immigrant kitchens from all over the globe.

6 World

Curious spirits: Mary and Liliana on their travels.

But there is sincerity in the article, perhaps just not in its measurements. Grandma Mary wanted to affirm her connection to the country of her forbearers, with the same curiosity that has me turning the pages of old scrapbooks. As the Courier reports, it led her to host an exchange student from Turin named Raffaella.

Less than an hour’s drive from Turin sits Cossato, where Nonna Liliana encouraged my mom to take off for the States. Mom ran into Dad, and with my arrival the Italian and the Italian-American became even more muddled.

Years later, I retraced my mom’s steps and moved to Turin, where I met up with Raffaella. She led me through the porticoed walkways of the city and gave me my first taste of burrata cheese. As she told me what a great time she had in Waterloo, Iowa, the sap and the snob battled it out inside me. I knew more about my grandmothers than I had thought.

And so the strange dance between homelands continues, always with plenty to eat.