A Family History: Bagna Cauda
July 15, 2009
The other day, as I was looking through my mom’s collection of cookbooks, searching for some recipes to deal with our cash crop of zucchinis, I stumbled upon a blue binder clasping thick, yellowed pages and stuffed with wrinkled clippings. I quickly leafed through the clippings and turned to the first page. “Fern Eunice (6/22/1905 – 7/25/1977) m. Joseph Welle” ran across the top in my grandmother’s all-caps handwriting and below that a list of names, Marguerite, Sharon, Barbara Jo, Kenneth, Scott, Douglass. It seemed to be a family tree of sorts, though its logic was obtuse and the family members obscure. As I flipped the page, I realized what I held; it was the Davis Family Cook Book, inscribed by my grandmother, “With family love and tradition to my daughter Lauri, Mother 1979.”
The Davis Family Cook Book says a lot about my family—and about 1979. For instance, here’s the order of the table of contents. Appetizers, Beverages, Candy, Desserts and Breads, Meats and Main Dishes, Salads, Relishes and Preserves, Soups, and Vegetables. Clearly, there’s a sweet tooth running through my family tree. Not to mention that there are thirty pages of desserts, yet only ten sorry pages devoted to main dishes.
I love the titles of these recipes, like the opening one for “Truly Different Cheese Ball.” What, I wonder, makes one cheese ball different from another, and what makes this one truly different? “Sure Thing Roll Out Cookies” is quaint, and you know “Everybody’s Favorite Cheese Spread” must be good.
The salad section makes me nostalgic for a church potluck in the Midwest, where my grandmother’s family comes from. There are layered salads, a few recipes for coleslaw, some fruit salads, and of course, Jello salad. In fact, there are eleven recipes for some sort of Jello salad, though my favorite horror is this recipe for “Pineapple Salad,” which calls for pineapple tidbits, miniature marshmallows, and Velveeta cheese.
Casseroles, also, were then at their peak of fashion, and recipes abound. There are six for broccoli casserole alone in the, as I’ve mentioned before, relatively brief savory food section. There’s even one for “Casserole Bread,” a mix of bread stuffed with cottage cheese, minced onions, and dill.
My Aunt Lynda’s contributions, however, are my favorite. My aunt, in 1979, was twenty-five years old, and her recipes, like “Lynda’s Health Drink,” which calls for banana, strawberries, apple juice, and ice, or “Graham Cracker Crisp,” whose ingredients are a box of graham crackers, butter, brown sugar and chopped nuts, hardly warrant being written down. There’s something endearing, however, about my twenty-five year old aunt and her “Whip Cream Delight Cake,” especially because she’s a central cook in the family now.
What I love about this cookbook is this frozen glimpse of my family thirty years ago. I can hear my aunt reading aloud her instructions to “Lynda’s 7 Day Sweet Pickles”: “Slice cucumbers real thin.” My mother’s contribution of “Heidelburg Cake” is clearly a result of her recent study abroad experience, and my grandmother’s recipes for icings hint at her soon-to-be profession as a cake maker. The recipe for “Springerle (Anise Cookie),” which my mother still makes at Christmastime every year, was first written down here.
I haven’t made any of these recipes. The Velveeta and Jello seem dated for our modern palates. So I won’t leave you with one of those, though I know you were probably tempted by the “Truly Different Cheese Ball.” So what I will leave you with is the recipe for Bagna Cauda, a dish I thought my family invented (and which I also thought was spelled “banyacotta”), until I saw it one day in The Joy of Cooking. This recipe is a staple at family gatherings and also the reason why we plan family gatherings around not having to speak with other people any time soon (garlic, anchovies—need I say more?). So here, in my Aunt Lynda’s words, is the recipe for Bagna Cauda…
Dip cabbage and bread into the Bagna Cauda to eat it.
6-7 cans of flat anchovies (drained)
3-4 boxes of Land o Lakes unsalted butter
Garlic, 10-12 bulbs chopped or garlic pre-chopped
Fresh Italian bread to catch drippings
Cabbage/ Chinese cabbage
Get an electric skillet, put it on medium heat. Not too hot or it will burn your garlic.
A LOT of garlic…you can cheat and buy the chopped (NOT MINCED) garlic but it doesn’t have the same flavor, not as good. If you do buy fresh, you need to chop it not mince.
Melt butter, sautéing the garlic half way golden brown, then add more butter (I use only Land o Lakes – not salted). Then add your anchovies, about six cans (I drain the liquid off of them first). Add more butter, stir constantly.
Let the mixture cook down. It will get like a crust around the edges of the skillet, just push it down and stir more.