Sunday, August 15, 2010


    Today, I gathered fresh tomatoes from the garden and made one of my favorite summer dishes: gazpacho. I first had gazpacho while visiting a friend in Spain more than a decade ago. That memory lingers and the smell of the fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and cumin bring back some wonderful memories.
     In Lily Springs, gazpacho was Abelia Brody's favorite dish.  Not too well-known in the United States at the time, Abelia learned about the dish from a neighbor while growing up in Cincinnati:

After gathering garlic and onions from the root cellar, she next headed to the kitchen and pulled a ceramic jar of cumin from the pantry. She had been making this gazpacho recipe for years. It was one of her favorite things to make and the ability to produce it in early summer was a bonus. And every time she crushed those plum tomatoes in her hands, she thought about Rima, her neighbor in Cincinnati back when she was a child. Although she and her mother stood out in the heavily German neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, they found a common soul in this small yet feisty immigrant from Spain----Andalusia, to be specific. Rima Reiniger was her name. She was married to Heinrich Reiniger, a local brewer. Although Rima provided plenty of hearty German meals for her husband, she also introduced him to the finer aspects of Mediterranean cooking and, in the process, introduced Colleen and Abelia to the wonders of the tomato.
     Although tomatoes were always growing in the Brody backyard, it was Rima who gave the tomato character. She told Abelia stories of Aztecs and conquistadors, of Moors and Castilians, often while crushing the “wonderful fruit,” as Rima called it.
    “It was my people, the Moors who invented this dish,” she told Abelia while pounding herbs with a mortar and pestle. “But we didn’t have the tomato at first. It was the Aztecs who grew this fruit and the conquistadores who stole it.”
     She told stories about the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice, often punctuating the tale by squeezing a tomato over a bowl as if it were a human heart. The tales frightened, yet fascinated Abelia. And she sat long hours in Rima’s kitchen, watching her cook and listening to her stories.
     It was there, in that small kitchen in Ohio, where Abelia tasted her first spoonful of the fragrant and delicious Andalusian gazpacho. And she has been making it ever since, using the same progeny from the seeds of Rima’s tomatoes given to her on that very day. Those plants grew in her greenhouse and Abelia tended to them with special care.
     “When making gazpacho,” Rima told the young Abelia, “don’t worry about the tomato seeds. The tomato is the fruit of love and the seed------”
     At this point she held up a tiny yellow seed, coated in sweet red flesh that dripped from her fingertips.
     “----has tremendous power. Passion. It has the power to set our hearts on fire.”
     And with that, she crushed another in her hand, the chunky flesh oozing between her fingers, dripping into the large wooden bowl on the table. Abelia stared in fascination, her mouth and eyes wide.
     “The Church banned the tomato,” Rima continued, picking up another red orb from the counter. “They called it the ‘Devil’s fruit.’ And you know what? They were right. Eve picked this from the tree of knowledge.”
     Abelia frowned.
     “Ah,” said Rima. “You don’t believe me. You think that Eve stole an apple.” She smiled and leaned forward, her bosom hovering over the bowl. “That’s what they want you to believe. They don’t want you to be tempted by this fruit. So, it was banished from the Garden just like Adam and Eve. It was banished to the furthest reaches of the globe.”
     Rima was very theatrical. The kitchen was her stage; the only place she had true freedom and she used it.
    “The Aztecs were not afraid of this fruit,” she continued. “Neither were my people. The Spanish called this pome dei moro--- ‘apple of the Moors.’ And we used it to tell the devil that we were not afraid of him.”
     Although Rima and her husband were Roman Catholic, she often told tales of the Moors as if she were not merely of Moorish decent, but still actively fighting to conquer the Iberian peninsula in the early Middle Ages. Abelia knew that much of what Rima told her was highly exaggerated. No doubt her Moorish bloodline ran dry a thousand years ago or so and she wasn’t at all related to the Moorish general who was defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732, but she enjoyed the stories nonetheless. And Rima enjoyed telling them, that was for sure.
     “Before the tomato we made ajo blanco---which I will make for you one day. It is made from garlic and almonds. But the tomato----” She handed Abelia the last tomato from the counter. “The tomato changed everything. It is the fruit of life. It is the fruit of love.”
     She stood up and wiped her hands on her apron. “Go ahead. Crush it.”
     Abelia squeezed the firm fruit in her hand. The tomato exploded around her fingers as chunks of cool, red flesh fell into the wooden dish. Rima took hold of Abelia’s hands, submerging them in the viscous mound. She squeezed her fingers together and swirled her hands in the bowl, demonstrating the proper technique to thoroughly blend the mixture. The tomatoes, seeds and all, swirled against the dark wood, the chunks of tomato getting smaller, becoming absorbed into the liquid. Rima removed her hands, once again wiping them on her apron before pouring in the cumin and garlic. A fragrant cloud wafted from the dish, and Abelia felt sweat beading on her forehead. Rima then dropped cucumbers, onions and peppers into the bowl and drizzled oil over the mixture, scolding Abelia if she slowed down the mixing process. Finally, Rima added stale breadcrumbs and topped it off with a squeeze of lemon and a stream of red vinegar, which she poured from above Abelia’s head. It splashed off her arms and into the deep dish. She counted out loud to five and then told Abelia to stop her mixing.
     “It is done,” she said. “Now, we let it sit.”
     Rima handed Abelia a towel to wipe her hands. Before covering the bowl with a cloth, she placed a wooden spoon into the concoction and removed a taste. With a smile, she handed it to Abelia. “First, you must try,” she said.
     Rima studied Abelia’s face, anticipating her reaction as the red, clumpy mixture entered her mouth. Abelia closed her eyes, letting the spice penetrate her taste buds. The fragrance floated into her sinuses, a simultaneous sensation that was unlike anything she had tasted before.
     “See,” said Rima. “It’s powerful. Nothing compares to a good gazpacho.” She picked up the bowl, pulling the cloth over the rim. “How do you think I got my husband?” she added with a smile.

Gazpacho is the perfect summer dish.  Back in Abelia's day, everything would have to be diced and crushed by hand.  Luckily, food processors make the creation of gazpacho effortless.  The following is a traditional gazpacho recipe, modified from that first gazpacho I tasted back in Spain.   I think Abelia would be proud.

 Abelia's Gazpacho Recipe

3-4 large, ripe tomatoes
1 large cucumber, peeled and seeded 
1 medium white onion
1 large green pepper
1 large red pepper
1 large garlic clove
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 lemon

Grind together the salt and cumin with a mortar and pestle.  Crush the garlic clove and mix with the salt and cumin.  In a bowl, add the olive oil and red wine vinegar.   Add the garlic mixture to bowl and set aside.

In a food processor, blend together the peppers, cucumber, onion and tomatoes.  Add the oil mixture.  Mix until smooth.

For smoother consistency, add water.  For thicker consistency, add stale bread.

Finally, squeeze juice from 1/2 lemon into mixture.  Let sit in refrigerator for at least an hour before serving.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Fate Marable and Riverboat Jazz

Fate Marable was arguably the most important of the early jazz pioneers. It was Fate Marable who introduced jazz to the Mississippi riverboat culture outside of New Orleans. In fact, Fate Marable's band, which played for over a decade on the Streckfus Steam line, became the training ground for such icons as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

By the early 20th century,  the feasibility of riverboats as a means of commerce had been destroyed by the railroad. However, riverboats would continue on the Mississippi in the form of excursion boating, tenuously keeping alive the romanticism of Huckleberry Finn's world.   Day trips. Moonlight cruises. Overnight cruises. Riverboats became a popular place for young people to meet and such excursions were often sponsored by groups such as the Elks, the Red Cross, churches and schools.

In 1917, Fate Marable was playing aboard the S.S. Sidney on the upper Mississippi with a band he personally put together featuring African-American musicians from his native Kentucky. Captain Streckfus gave Marable much leeway in regards to the music aboard the steamer, but insisted that in addition to jazz, Marable had to play other songs as well, such as traditional waltzes and other popular dance music. Marable obliged, but most likely lived for those moments when jazz flowed through his fingers and ignited his piano.

Stealing aboard the S.S. Sidney in the summer of 1917 with his new friend Billy Miles, Robert Bishop came face-to-face with the music that would soon take Chicago by storm:

Muffled conversation filled the air. The stomping of hundreds of feet kept beat to the fast-paced music coming from the large orchestra up on the second deck ballroom. It was loud aboard the Sidney and young people moved and weaved around posts, hung over the railings and chased each other up the stairs. Most held bottles in their hands. And they weren’t drinking Bevo, that was for sure.
     “Isn’t this great?” exclaimed Billy.
     “I don’t know what to say. How much----?”
     “Don’t worry about it. It’s my birthday and this is exactly what I wanted.”
     “At least let my buy you a drink,” offered Robert.
     Billy wrapped an arm around Robert’s shoulder. “Never can I turn down a drink, my man. Let me lead the way.”
    Billy guided Robert into a flow of people moving up the grand staircase to the second deck. The ballroom was huge and newly refurbished. Now advertised as the “Mirror Palace,” the highly polished wood of the dance floor stretched 180 feet down the length of the steamboat. American flags hung from the low beams and the electric lights were turned down, glowing gently from several chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. Even so, the shapes of hundreds of people fox-trotting to “Walkin’ the Dog” reflected on that floor as if it were water. The large windows were open and a nice Mississippi River breeze drifted through the crowd.
     Robert bought two cold Potosi lagers and handed one to Billy. “Happy birthday,” he said as they clanked bottles together, foam running down the sides. It had been a week since he last had a real beer and the lager tasted good. Granted, it wasn’t Edelweiss, but it was good enough.
     Billy grabbed Robert by the arm, leading him down the dance floor so that they could get an unobstructed view of the Kentucky Jazz Orchestra. A redheaded Negro with light skin and freckles pounded the keys of the piano while several other Negroes played along almost oblivious to the large crowd dancing in front of them.
     “That’s Fate Marable on the piano,” said Billy. “I first saw him about ten years ago on the J.S.  He played ragtime back then. He personally put together this band.”
     Robert had heard this song before. It was popular about a year ago. However, he had never heard it quite like this. The tempo was faster, to be sure. But there was something else. There was a certain intensity coming through the rhythm. The musicians all swayed with the music, eyes closed. Sweat glistened on their faces and foreheads. The large bass player tapped his foot loudly on the floor, each time lifting his entire foot off the ground. The clarinet carried most of the melody and the man playing it moved fluidly, his entire body oscillating gently with the tune, his instrument a mere appendage. They played harmoniously together, each man doing his own thing in his own way but never losing touch with what the others were doing. There was no sheet music to be found; no music stands. They were speaking to each other in a language only they knew.
     Robert was mesmerized and found himself unwittingly tapping his own foot along with the beat. And before he knew it, the song was over. Roaring applause erupted from the dance floor. Someone whistled loudly.
    The musicians all took out white handkerchiefs and briefly dabbed their brows. Fate Marable then counted to three and soon a standard waltz filled the room. There was an audible groan among the dancers, which brought a slight smile to the piano player’s face. And Robert knew instinctively that Fate Marable and his band were not born to play waltzes.  (Chapter 14, Lilac Wine)
Unfortunately, not much is left of Fate Marable and his contribution to early jazz.  He made only one recording, well after jazz had already exploded onto the national scene.  Nevertheless, there is something magical about listening to Fate Marable on "Frankie and Johnny," recorded in the summer of 1924.  In that brief melody, one gets a sense of what it must have been like sitting aboard a riverboat on a warm summer evening, the sounds of jazz echoing among the cliffs and bluffs of the upper Mississippi.

Fate Marable's Society Syncopators, "Frankie and Johnny" (1924):