Last Saturday I had a bucket list experience: I spent two hours with in a high-end kitchen supply outlet store with my daughter, who works there, and her employee discount. I realized that I bought things not only because I needed them, or wanted to replace an older version, but also because the words used to describe them were too delicious to forgo. The “corn zipper” is a case in point. This tool allows a cook to strip an ear of corn right from the root of each nib. The promise of efficiency is delivered in the word “zipper” and I can only hope I hear that zipping sound when I first use it to make succotash. Succotash is a Narragansett Indian word for “broken pieces”, first cooked along the coast of New England where corn and lima beans were plentiful. It’s a simple mixture of the two vegetables, a little salt pork for the fat, and some milk or cream to hold it together enough to make it a dish. It was an inexpensive meal, a thrifty way to put leftover corn to use.
I also bought a tube “umami paste”. Umami is part of the flavor spectrum (sour, salty, sweet, and bitter) and first was known to the Japanese, whose cuisine traditionally combines foods to produce a savory taste like that’s found in fish, mushrooms, cheeses, and fermented foods like soy and fish sauce.
Yesterday I came across a food I hadn’t seen in quite some time: cucumber sandwiches. I’d been invited to a local couple’s home for “a Pimm’s in the garden” in honor of two poets who were in Stonington for Merrill House events. Pimm’s is a gin based liqueur made with citrus fruit and spices, very popular in England. Our host was a well-travelled Irishman who had set up an outdoor bar alongside a table of food. There were nuts and corn chips, a large pitcher of flowers, and two enormous pewter trays lined with triangles of cucumber tea sandwiches. My friend the poet Richie Hofman took this photo. Traditionally, cucumber sandwiches are very delicate. Made only with thin slices of peeled cucumber on the very thin white bread (trimmed of crust) with a scrim of butter on the inside so the sandwiches stay crisp, they’re a food more about effort, precision and texture rather than flavor. A cucumber sandwich is a gesture toward the older, more languid times (and places) when people met in the afternoon to chat as the day cooled.
Succotash, umami, and cucumber sandwiches. Three very different flavors with background stories as complex as the etymologies of their names. The words themselves when used in a poem have very dense specific gravities, carrying as they do connotations both cultural and personal.