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Food Care Packages From Relatives


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How do you know your brother married well? when his mother-in-law (who I have never met!) sends you a package of home made daikon radish kimchi.

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So who else gets care packages from the relatives? Ethnic food stuffs that are only good when homemade? Regional delicacies not found in DC? Childhood favorites that only mom (or dad) can make right?

Spill the beans...

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My mom grew up in upstate New York, in a place called Pittsford that was apparently settled primarily by people from Schwabia in Germany. Schwabes are stereotyped as being both stingy and practical to a fault; they're like German Scottish people. This makes my care package story strange, yet oddly fitting.

There was a Schwabisch baker in Pittsford that made Laugenbrotzeln (I'm skipping so many damn umlauts typing this entry) which are thick soft pretzels that have been given a lye bath before they're boiled. I've heard that Auntie Anne's tries to replicate this with a baking soda bath and so have I, but it's really not the same. I have many childhood memories of pulling these lye-zapped pretzels out of the toaster oven and then sitting down with a tub of salted butter for dipping... oh, it's so very good. Some people eat them with mustard. Bah.

However, this baker had a good racket going as he was the only one in hundreds of miles who knew how to make these pretzels. Maybe he was just the only one with enough lye lying around. Either way, he was making a killing on these because they're addictive. He didn't tell his kids the recipe or write it down anywhere, which became problematic when he died seven years ago. There was a pretzel drought that withered the pretzel hopes and dreams of not just Pittsford, but the large "Let's Get the Hell Out of Pittsford" diaspora that had been receiving care packages of these pretzels at a pretty steady clip.

Fast foward to myself, the scion of a pretzel addict and an initiate into pretzel devotion as well. I hit every german/austrian restaurant for miles, then the cafes/conditoreis, and finally walked into the Heidelberg Bakery in Arlington. I smelled something. Something I had not smelt since...

There, on the bottom shelf of one of the display cases, was a stack of three perfect lye-blasted Schwabian pretzels. I was briefly struck blind. I may have picked up a marzipan frog and kissed it in joy. When I came to, I ordered one. They even let me have a little tub of butter, perhaps they saw something in my eyes. It was truly the real deal. I bought the stack and asked if they could make more. The nice lady said that they make a couple dozen in the morning, but there are hardly ever any left by noon. They do take special orders, however.

Periodically, I get a phone call from my mom to tell me that she ordered 6 dozen pretzels from Heidelberg Bakery and could I be a dear and pick them up? She packages them up and mails them to relatives still in Pittsford, where I had assumed that they were hoarded like country hams for special occasions. It was only recently that I discovered that these care packages were being sold off to local pretzel fiends at oktoberfests and euchre games at an extravagant markup.

You can argue that this is unfair to Heidelberg Bakery, and I agree. You can argue that this goes against the spirit of the care package, but I disagree. Who among us didn't sell off some choice bits of home at camp or while abroad? I got top dollar for my pop-tarts in England; I curried favor with the ladies at band camp using mom's molasses cookies. Care packages create a bridge to home; it just so happens that in the case of these pretzels, home is filled with stingy, clever-like-a-weasel folk.

My mom grew up in upstate New York, in a place called Pittsford that was apparently settled primarily by people from Schwabia in Germany. Schwabes are stereotyped as being both stingy and practical to a fault; they're like German Scottish people. This makes my care package story strange, yet oddly fitting.

There was a Schwabisch baker in Pittsford that made Laugenbrotzeln (I'm skipping so many damn umlauts typing this entry) which are thick soft pretzels that have been given a lye bath before they're boiled. I've heard that Auntie Anne's tries to replicate this with a baking soda bath and so have I, but it's really not the same. I have many childhood memories of pulling these lye-zapped pretzels out of the toaster oven and then sitting down with a tub of salted butter for dipping... oh, it's so very good. Some people eat them with mustard. Bah.

However, this baker had a good racket going as he was the only one in hundreds of miles who knew how to make these pretzels. Maybe he was just the only one with enough lye lying around. Either way, he was making a killing on these because they're addictive. He didn't tell his kids the recipe or write it down anywhere, which became problematic when he died seven years ago. There was a pretzel drought that withered the pretzel hopes and dreams of not just Pittsford, but the large "Let's Get the Hell Out of Pittsford" diaspora that had been receiving care packages of these pretzels at a pretty steady clip.

Fast foward to myself, the scion of a pretzel addict and an initiate into pretzel devotion as well. I hit every german/austrian restaurant for miles, then the cafes/conditoreis, and finally walked into the Heidelberg Bakery in Arlington. I smelled something. Something I had not smelt since...

There, on the bottom shelf of one of the display cases, was a stack of three perfect lye-blasted Schwabian pretzels. I was briefly struck blind. I may have picked up a marzipan frog and kissed it in joy. When I came to, I ordered one. They even let me have a little tub of butter, perhaps they saw something in my eyes. It was truly the real deal. I bought the stack and asked if they could make more. The nice lady said that they make a couple dozen in the morning, but there are hardly ever any left by noon. They do take special orders, however.

Periodically, I get a phone call from my mom to tell me that she ordered 6 dozen pretzels from Heidelberg Bakery and could I be a dear and pick them up? She packages them up and mails them to relatives still in Pittsford, where I had assumed that they were hoarded like country hams for special occasions. It was only recently that I discovered that these care packages were being sold off to local pretzel fiends at oktoberfests and euchre games at an extravagant markup.

You can argue that this is unfair to Heidelberg Bakery, and I agree. You can argue that this goes against the spirit of the care package, but I disagree. Who among us didn't sell off some choice bits of home at camp or while abroad? I got top dollar for my pop-tarts in England; I curried favor with the ladies at band camp using mom's molasses cookies. Care packages create a bridge to home; it just so happens that in the case of these pretzels, home is filled with stingy, clever-like-a-weasel folk.

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So who else gets care packages from the relatives? Ethnic food stuffs that are only good when homemade? Regional delicacies not found in DC? Childhood favorites that only mom (or dad) can make right?

Spill the beans...

My (Korean) mother-in-law sends us home-made beef jerky. Wonderful when quickly heated over flame from the stove and then served with pine nuts and good Scotch.
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One of my dad's best recipes is an Indian veggie dish called "labra" (some called it panch phoron torkari, which literally translates into 'five spice vegetable). You simply cook all sorts of veggies with panch phoron (seeds of cumin, nigella, mustard, fenugreek, and fennel) and a some water. But what makes it special are the addition of "dal boris". These are little dried lentil duimplings that take forever to make, but store easily.

A few times a year, my dad makes literally hundreds of these little boris and sends them to me so I can make truly authentic Bengali labra. What a difference it makes!! These things break down in the simmering liquid and provide a depth of flavour that's hard to describe.

Of all the gifts my dad has ever given me, these are the best. I'll take these over an iPod any day!!

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I never knew there were so many upstate-NYers on the board! I last visited my parents (near Schenectady) over Labor Day weekend - on our last day there, at about 11:00 am, we had more or less packed up the car, gotten the oil changed and were ready to go, when we discovered that my Italian-born mother had started making homemade pasta and pesto. Not wanting to be rude, :) , we stuck around until the end of the process - then took the sum total of the results home in two large plastic containers (along with all the farm-stand tomatoes available within a 20 mile radius, since Mom's own tomatoes were largely washed out this year). We ate nothing but pasta, lunch and dinner, for a week (there are definitely worse things).

When I lived in Montreal during college, we had a reverse care-package system - if I visted home during the summer, I was encouraged to bring with me -- not cheese, not pastries, not Montreal bagels -- leeks from Atwater market.

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When I lived in Montreal during college, we had a reverse care-package system - if I visted home during the summer, I was encouraged to bring with me -- not cheese, not pastries, not Montreal bagels -- leeks from Atwater market.
You mean nobody asked for smoked meat or blackforest cake from Schwartz's Hebrew Deli?
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There, on the bottom shelf of one of the display cases, was a stack of three perfect lye-blasted Schwabian pretzels.
As a fervant devotee of Laugengeb├Ąck myself, I really enjoyed this story. There is NOTHING like a Laugenbrezel or a normal Brezn fresh from the oven. I do like mustard with mine, though. :)
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The mother-in-law makes sure to bring down Uncle Henry's PA Dutch handmade pretzels (regular and extra dark) from Chambersburg, PA whenever she visits. They are available over the web but kind of pricey. Man can not live on Utz and Snyder's alone (and don't even suggest that Roll Gold are "OK". It insults my intelligence and makes me very angry. A day's work is not complete without a Godfather quote :) ).

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When I was in college Mom sent homemade caramels. After college we'd get together early every December to make them and send them to relatives. Some years we made a dozen batches (a batch has 2 c sugar, 2 c corn syrup, 2 c evaporated milk and 1/2 c butter). The really time consuming part was cutting and wrapping the damn things.

I'd swear that when Mom died the biggest concern was, who's going to make the caramels this year? :)

As a side note, it's thanks to these caramels that I've never had to rely on a thermometer for cooked sugar syrups. Whatever I'm making - buttercream icing, candy - if I have to cook it to the soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, whatever stage, alls I need is a small bowl of cold water and a spoon. Works every time.

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After we left New Mexico seven years ago, my mother regularly sent us good, thick Bueno flour tortillas. Lless frequently, she would also send Peyton's chorizo. It is very crumbly, has a great balance of cumin, garlic, and red chile, is an utterly unnatural shade of red, and mixes perfectly with eggs. Tastes great with cheese in the aforementioned tortillas. She also sends biscochitos, Mexican Christmas cookies, almost every year.

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