Our family car trips to Mississippi always included side trips. My mother would pack a cooler with foods that were good for grilling, and we would generally find small charcoal grills we could use at rest stops. This was back in the day before fast food restaurants, and with our budget it was unlikely that we would have been indulging in such luxury! Home cooked foods like sausages, meatballs for sandwiches — along with hot dogs, cold cuts and potato salad — were kept in the cooler with the milk. Meanwhile, my brother Anthony and I were on the lookout for blueberries to pick. We loved to eat them right off the bush, but they also went well with our Cheerios the next morning. Maybe I am romanticizing the memory, but it seemed as if it only took us 20 minutes to fill our quart-sized pail with the luscious plump fruit.
When I hear people talking about their vacations, they seem to focus on tourist attractions or museums. For me, travel, like everything else, is always about the food. My first deep fried frog legs, for example, were from Grandmommy’s pond on her plantation in Mississippi. When I told my girlfriends back home in Beachmont about them they nearly died, but for me the delicious experience had been burned deep into my memory.
When Nono and I went out into the woods at Breakheart Reservation and picked mushrooms, I loved spotting the good ones and — even better — when we went back to his house and cooked them, sopping up the juices with Italian bread. That was the best. Looking for crabs under big rocks on Revere Beach was another adventure with Nono. We found periwinkles, too, and Noni would simmer them with the crabs in a jar of her canned tomatoes for several minutes with garlic and oil, then pour the whole thing over spaghetti. With a toothpick we would pluck out the meat from the periwinkles. Together with the crabs, they made the tomato sauce taste so delicious.
Daughter Danielle and I spent several weeks together on Nantucket when she was about five. A customer at my restaurant knew how much I loved the island and offered a deal I could not refuse. We would use his rented cottage near the beach during the week and vacate it on week ends for him and his guests to take over. Friday afternoons, the fancy New Yorkers would arrive by plane with necklace-wearing poodles and carrying Louis Vuitton luggage (the people, not the poodles). Danielle and I would pick blueberries, which were abundant in those days. At the Thrift Shop I found an ice cream maker for three dollars and we made blueberry buttermilk ice cream. Dani was just learning to make pies and loved the process, fluting the crust and making mini-turnovers from the scraps. We made the New Yorkers a pie which they fainted over, incredulous that we had picked the berries. “Where, how?” they demanded. And when they found the homemade blueberry ice cream treat I left them in the freezer they almost needed to be hospitalized. I still have the thank you note they left that was addressed to Mother Earth and child.
One favorite food that I am not supposed to indulge in is lemons. I have always enjoyed my salads with just a little olive oil and fresh lemon juice but the acid is not good for me now. So I make a dressing with blueberries and olive oil, honey and buttermilk. If I happen to have it I put in a little fresh mint. It all gets blended together in the food processor. For a salad, it is great with greens and I put a few slices of pear, according to my food rules. Still, rules are meant to be broken, so I grate a little lemon zest over the salad.
Blueberries, the nice small pungent and dependable Maine blueberries in particular, continue to please me. God was good to me recently when one of my doctors gave me a list of the foods that would not hurt my sensitive bladder, and the only fruits that were safe were pears and blueberries. Hallelujah! How nice it will be when fresh, good tasting berries return to the market and blueberry crostata and blueberry soup can go back on the home menu! In the meantime, I keep a bag of Maine berries in the freezer and when the mood hits me I make a quick dessert.
Our favorite treat on a Sunday morning are my Mississippi grandmother’s buttermilk scones. My grandmommy is the one who taught me to make frequent use of buttermilk, but even she might be shocked at some of the ideas I’ve tried out. Panna cotta, for example, is made much more exciting with the tartness of buttermilk. I hope she would have loved me introducing the two cultures, Italian and Southern U.S., something my Italian relatives would never abide. In Italy, food rules are treated like the Ten Commandments, except that the food rules are never violated.
BUTTERMILK BLUEBERRY SCONES
Although I don’t recall blueberry picking at Grandmommy’s in Mississippi, she would have combined one of the beautiful fruits grown on her property like figs, peaches and from a huge tree in the yard, pecans.
2 C flour
1/3 C sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1//4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
In the food processor combine 2 cups of flour, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1/4 tsp. baking soda and 1/4 tsp. salt. I like a few grates of nutmeg, but not necessary.
Pulse to combine and add 6 tbsp. cold butter cut into six pieces and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
In a large bowl combine a large egg with 2/3 cup buttermilk and a tsp. vanilla or almond flavor. Whisk to combine.
Transfer the dry ingredients from the food processor to another bowl. Add a cup and a half of blueberries to the dry ingredients, carefully coating them. Make a hole in the center and pour into the egg mixture and with a fork combine until just moistened. Do not overmix.
Pour mixture onto a floured bowl and spray a little coconut or vegetable oil on your hands to keep the dough from sticking to your fingers.
Very gently knead the mixture for fifteen seconds and then pat it into a nine inch circle.
Cut into eight pie shaped pieces and with a spatula place on a greased sheet pan, about two inches apart.
Using a pastry brush, brush tops with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for about twelve to fourteen minutes until golden brown.
Cool slightly and remove to a dish and serve with, ideally, clotted cream or whipped cream.