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Seriously buttered.

I’ve been considering it for quite a long time, starting from when I read the chapter on tea-time in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Cooking of the British Isles (1969, Time-Life Books). Great Britain has a reputation for producing dreck,* I know. But I’ve made over a dozen classic dishes so far, in and out of the cookbook, with nothing but great results.** To my (increasingly educated) mind, this is a simple cooking tradition that has put centuries of practice into fighting against the rain, and has figured it out. It warms the belly and fortifies the soul. I’ll believe the reputation only if my winning streak runs out.

In the tea-time chapter, the author tells of a conversation he once overheard between two elderly Englishmen. One loves crumpets, crackled and steaming on a platter. He always went for the bottom crumpet, knowing it would be utterly saturated with butter.

I’d never made crumpets before, let alone eaten them; New Jersey doesn’t really know from British food.*** But that visual was enough to sell me. Here’s what I did.

  1. The recipe calls for short, round tins, top and bottom lids removed, as you are to butter them and set them right in the pan as molds for the frying crumpets. Flan rings or large, round cookie cutters are recommended. I have neither, but it also suggests tuna cans with the tops and bottoms removed. Three cans of Bumble Bee Chunk Light later, I learned that tuna cans aren’t made with identical tops and bottoms anymore, as presumably they were in 1969****, and the modern rounded bottoms are virtually impossible to remove with a can opener.
  2. But! I had individual tarts with removable bottoms. That sounds very saucy, I know, but the truth is, they worked.
  3. The recipe is very easy to put together; it’s basically yeasted pancakes with a pinch of sugar, just enough for the yeast to snack on. What was a half-plastered Cirque du Soleil act was cooking the crumpets one by one, since I (also) don’t own a flame spreader (is that that term?). I have a huge skillet I could have used but only an average-sized burner. The butter in the pan kept wanting to burn, so I switched off between two average-sized pans. By the time I finished drips, splats, and assorted smears decorated much of the stove top and the big bowl. Dried, the batter is much like Gorilla Glue. Same color, no less.
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You just sit there and think about what you’ve done.

4. You’re also supposed to remove the molds once the crumpets set, but they’re scalding. The recipe just says to remove them, but offers zero clue as to how to do it. It’s worth noting that this cookbook was written for an American audience. I’m picturing the English author and staff giggling as they thought of the panicked antics we’d use remove those hot molds, trying not to burn our fingertips. ‘Make fun of our cuisine, will you? Yank wankers!’

This wanker used a set of tongs, which kept slipping and dropping the mold back into the gooey raw crumpet.

Most did turn out lovely, though, those I didn’t drop or dent, and I buttered them all. Look at the pretty scalloped edges; that’s the fancy tart pans. As far as taste and texture, I don’t agree with what I’ve read about crumpets, that they’re similar to an English muffin. These are very light, crisply browned on the outside and fluffy and tender inside, with a pleasantly sour taste. But I must agree with the Englishman who always went to the buttery crumpet on the bottom. He’s right on.

*Points for working a Yiddish word into a post about British food? Anyone?

**Okay, once, but it’s because the recipe wasn’t explicit enough. I’m trying it again.

***Our claim to fame is the three Ss: Sinatra, Springsteen, and summer traffic.

****I was in utero for all but 2.5 months of that year, but should have had the foresight to have taken notes. Curses.

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My neighbor, Mr. Cook, is to me an example of how to live.

That’s his flag above, which he puts out at dawn, and takes in at dusk, every single day of the year.

Mr. Cook tells me he’s lived in his house since the 1950s, when he was our tiny town’s fire chief. In those days, many of the houses along my street were home to firemen. When the bell sounded from the fire house across the street, the men would hear it and run to gear up and go. To this day, when he sees activity there, he slowly heads over to get in on it. And our fearless boys, young enough to be his kids and grandkids, treat him like a returning hero.

Retired for many years now, Mr. Cook keeps active in dozens of ways. Dancing is his favorite pastime. Every spring he drives to a handful of different town halls up and down the shoreline and picks up a copy of their summer events schedule. Then he goes home, sits on his little porch in one of those white plastic stackable chairs you can buy outside the Home Depot, and details where and when all of the senior dances will be held. He never misses one, and let me tell you—as a single, mobile gentleman in his 80s, his dance card gets filled. Each morning he tells me how it went. Music, socializing? Not a big deal. To him, it’s pretty much a numbers game: ‘I danced with eight ladies last night!’ he’ll say. I think ten is his personal best.

Mr. Cook also travels annually to visit the surviving members of his company from his days as a World War II soldier. (That’s not a typo. He still keeps in touch with his comrades—over sixty years later.) He had a bonus a few years back when he went to the southwest for an army reunion and danced with, as he put it, ‘lots of cowgirls.’

He makes pancakes for himself every Sunday morning without fail. (You’re getting a sense of what kind of man this is, right?) I like to bring a piece of whatever it is I bake to him. Later I’ll ask how he liked it. He always has the same response: an eye twinkle and a ‘Keep practicing.’

And Mr. Cook is the only one I know who doesn’t blink when I say my coffee cake contains wild mulberries that I picked myself. I really think he’s one of the last great outdoorsmen, so to him there’s nothing strange about picking fruit off a tree. He grew up in nearby Asbury Park, NJ, a seaside city flanked by Deal Lake on its north and west ends. A natural lake that once flowed from the ocean, its expansive arteries and narrow, shady fingers stretching further west must have thoroughly enchanted adventurous boys in the 1920s and 30s, with no electronics or malls to distract them. He tells me he canoed every inch of that lake.

A fisherman to this day, when he was in his early 80s he regularly trekked out to Sandy Hook, about 1/2 an hour north, to teach kids how to fish. He still goes in September to pick beach plums, which he collects in a plastic grocery bag and presents to a friend who cooks them down into his very favorite kind of jelly.

He also likes to bag his own turkey for Thanksgiving. The rest of us go to Shop-Rite; Mr. Cook goes to Pennsylvania. He bundles up, packs a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sits down in the woods, and waits. And waits. I asked why it takes so long to get a turkey, and he said, ‘It’s because they’re smart, and very fast. You move just an inch, and they all fly up into the trees.’ We think of turkeys as being slow—in the head and otherwise—because if we have any association with them at all, it’s of farm turkeys. They’ve had all the brains bred out of them, and to add insult to injury, they can no longer fly, either. But wild birds, now—everything is intact. Sharp vision, sharp minds, and they can fly up to 55 mph.

I asked Mr. Cook if wild turkeys make good eating and his eyes lit up. ‘OH, yes,’ he says. ‘They make the best soup you ever had.’

Well, those are the times when he’s able to catch one. He says his Thanksgiving meal is always a 50/50 toss-up. Many’s the Thanksgiving when I’d call out to him, ‘So what’s for dinner?’ and he’d sigh and smirk and say: ‘Franks and beans.’

Independent, adventurous, happy with the little things in life. That’s him all over.

But my favorite image of Mr. Cook is one I have of him on the Fourth of July, in the evening, a few years ago. Just after dark, Asbury’s fireworks were visible over the trees south of us. I climbed out onto my roof just as they started and caught a glimpse of him on his tiny porch, on one of his white plastic chairs, watching and eating a dish of plain vanilla ice cream from Carvel.

Happy Fourth, everybody.

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