Teacher Robin Somers writes: "Rene Tanaka, a history major at UCSC, writes about a favorite Christmas dish, her grandmother's ham pot pie, which isn't she claims isn't really a pie. You'll have to read her story to discover why. Old family recipe included. Thank you, Rene. With whetted appetite, I'm going to give it a try."
"The Food of My Family: Ham Pot Pie"
by Rene Tanaka
It’s Christmas morning, and my body is pulsating with excitement. At seven in the morning, I am the only one awake in my house, and I wander the hallway somewhat loudly to “accidentally” wake up my parents and sister. I get to the tree and peruse the presents. Slowly, the rest of my family begins to lumber out of their rooms. “The quicker we get through the presents, the faster we can get to Grandma’s for breakfast,” I shout.
However, the best part about the twenty-fifth of December are not the presents from Santa Claus, it’s the breakfast my grandmother would make for us. It wouldn’t be anything fancy or flashy, it was just plain, good, wholesome cooking, which is to say the best kind of food imaginable.
Getting together with my family means good food. It means seeing relatives that live far away, swapping stories, and having some good laughs. It means coming together and being a full, happy family while circled around my grandparent’s cramped, oval dining table, and passing dishes heaped with warm, home-cooked food. In my life, food and family are inter-related because, in all of my most precious memories, one is never far from the other. The holidays were the only time when my family would gather as a whole group and, coincidentally, that’s when the good food would come out.
For me, good food is any meal that my grandmother makes. For whatever reason, her food always tastes the best. It doesn’t matter if my mom makes the identical meal. I will eat my grandmother’s and pick at the rest.
My grandmother, Doris Stever, was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which means she was raised on hearty food. She made all her food from ingredients picked fresh or butchered recently. Because she was born during the Great Depression, she reuses all leftovers and everything is salvaged. She still cooks this way. After every meal whatever hasn’t been eaten, she will push and prod into a small Tupperware container that she has had since the 1970s, and the food will get eaten in a couple of days.
For holidays, however, my grandmother’s cooking goes above and beyond. The two biggest holidays in my family are Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only time during the year when my family, my grandparents, and my aunt’s family all come together as a large group. This makes these holidays very special for us, which means the meals that accompany them are monumental. For example, most Thanksgivings in my family involve more than just turkey. One year, when I was still in elementary school, we had turkey, ham, and London broil. I remember thinking it was the craziest thing: to have three different kinds of meat for only one meal. Along with the meats we had our usual mashed potatoes, white rice, green bean casserole, yams, peas or corn, a green salad, homemade cranberry sauce, Jell-O, an assortment of pies, raisin filled cookies, a fruit tort, and possibly a cheesecake. All of our holidays resemble that Thanksgiving; we always had a large variety of food with multiple meat dishes, and multiple side dishes, with several kinds of dessert. Between the good company, and the good food, each one complimented the other to make the holidays extra special.
However, after all the holidays of exceptional food, one dish has always been my favorite. We call it Pot Pie, but for whatever reason, it does not resemble one’s usual understanding of the Pot Pie. First, our Pot Pie is not at all a pie. My grandmother cooks it in a very large pot, but it has no crust or bread products. It consists of ham, potatoes, an onion, and homemade flour noodles. This dish is one of the examples of my grandmother’s brilliance in reusing leftovers. Pot Pie is usually made after a holiday meal that involved a large piece of ham. My grandmother takes the delectable ham bone and cooks it down for a few hours. Once it’s done, the bone is removed and diced potatoes and chopped onion is added. While that is cooking, my grandmother makes a simple flour noodle dough that she divides into smaller, manageable mounds. She rolls each dough mound out until it is about half a centimeter in width. She then takes a butter knife and cuts through the flattened dough to make square or rectangular noodles. Once all the noodles are made, she very gently places them in the cooking concoction and lets them simmer. By now, the potatoes have begun to cook down a bit, which creates a creamy base, and the ham has cooked through everything, making it somewhat salty.
There is something about our Pot Pie that makes it my favorite dish. It could be its hearty good taste, and the fact that it fills me up for days. Or it could be because it reminds me most of my grandmother. However, I love Pot Pie because it ends every gathering on a high note. Instead of being sad that I won’t have my whole family together for another 12 months, I anticipate every Pot Pie that ends my holiday season.
Through the years, Pot Pie has gradually made more appearances at our dinner table, at times not related to any holiday gathering. This past summer, right before I left to go back to school, my mother and sister and I made Pot Pie. My sister and I had been asking my mother for years to teach us how to make it. She finally did. As for my mother, a sudden sense of urgency to pass on this family dish came over her. In a year she’ll be an empty nester. I haven’t made Pot Pie on my own yet, but now that I have my own kitchen, I have this urge to go out and buy the biggest ham bone I can get my hands on. I want to share this slice of my family with my roommates and someday soon begin my own family cooking traditions, starting with Pot Pie.
Doris Stever’s Ham Pot Pie
4 medium size potatoes
1 medium onion (white or yellow)
3 cups flour
¼ to ½ cup water or milk
Slow cook ham bone either in regular Stock Pot for 1.5 hours, or in Pressure Cooker for 45 minutes. Meat needs to cook away and off bone. Use enough water or broth to cover meat and bone. Taste broth to make sure it is not too salty, dilute it down if necessary.
Peel potatoes and cut up into small chunks. Dice up the onion.
Put potatoes and onion in hot ham broth after bone and meat has been removed.
Pull meat from bone; discard cartilage, fat, skin and bone. Reserve the meat until noodles are done.
Mix noodle ingredients together. Roll out the dough and cut into 2-inch wide squares. Lay noodles into the onion, ham, potato and broth mixture and cook until the noodles are done.
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THOUGHT FOR THE DAY:
Ham’s substantial, ham is fat,
Ham is firm and sound.
Ham’s what God was getting at
When he made pigs so round.
— Roy Blount, Jr., "Hymn to Ham"
Thanks for visiting. More tomorrow from the students in Robin Somers' "The Meaning of Food" writing class at UCSC.