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America the beautiful

(article, Christina Eng)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] Should my sister meet Bonny Wolf, I think they would get along. Evelyn is a Bundt-pan fanatic; she uses hers nearly every other week, creating simple round cakes for friends and colleagues. Have boxed mix, will travel. Or so she says.

In “The Little Cake Pan That Could,” the first essay in Talking With My Mouth Full, Wolf takes a delicious look at Bundt cakes, “perfectly shaped, evenly browned, and consistently moist.”

The Washington, D.C.-based journalist pays proper tribute to H. David Dalquist, who with his wife, Dorothy, founded Nordic Ware in 1946 in the basement of their Minneapolis home. Roughly four years later, they developed their signature mould. 

After a Texas woman placed second in the 17th annual Pillsbury Bake-Off in 1966, for a Tunnel of Fudge cake prepared in a Bundt pan, the Dalquists’ creation took center stage. Its popularity soared. Production orders rolled in quickly. It is now considered a bakeware icon.

“For a while, everyone made Bundt cakes,” Wolf writes, “blueberry cream cheese, walnut rum, even one with 7-Up. The Harvey Wallbanger Bundt cake . . . used yellow cake mix, vanilla pudding mix, eggs, oil, orange juice, vodka, and Galliano liqueur, just like its namesake cocktail. The Margarita cake involved margarita mix, orange liqueur, and tequila.” The possibilities seem endless. Doesn’t my sister know it?

The author, a frequent contributor to NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” describes in straightforward prose foods she has always eaten: the old-fashioned dishes of her childhood in Minnesota, the crab cakes of her college days in Baltimore. 

Avoiding fancy or fussy presentations, she concentrates instead on homey comfort fare. She examines family classics and regional specialties, easy-to-make entrees as well as tried-and-true sweets. They are items we have had before or would no doubt hope to taste in the future. 

She punctuates these 30-plus discussions with cooking instructions for meats and vegetables, fancy drinks and frozen desserts, all recipes she has collected religiously over the years from a variety of sources.

Should my brother meet Wolf, they would get along, too. To her credit, Wolf looks beyond the kitchen, to kitschy county fairs and thriving food halls across the United States. In “A Day at the Fair,” for example, she describes greasy grub at the annual Minnesota State Fair, which features “forty-nine foods on a stick . . . (representing) the good, the bad, and the truly gross.”

It is a scene I think my brother would appreciate. With his friends in southern California, Anthony has gone to the L.A. County Fair seven years running. He has downed deep-fried Oreos, Snickers, and Twinkies; fried green tomatoes, zucchini, and mushrooms; curly fries, garlic fries, and chili-cheese fries. Presumably on different afternoons.

In the piece “Market Pleasures,” one of my personal favorites, Wolf takes us to the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, an institution she cherishes. 

“It is where (we) shop every day, like European housewives, for fresh fish, meats, poultry and bread,” she explains. “This is where we go for cold cuts and cheese, fresh pasta and sauces. If we wanted to, we could even buy pigs’ feet. On Monday, the one day the market is closed, we suffer.”

The Eastern Market is similar in many ways to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, the Pike Place Market in Seattle, the West Side Market in Cleveland, the original Farmers' Market in perpetually sunny Los Angeles, and the renovated Ferry Building Marketplace along the San Francisco waterfront. 


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“It’s at a city’s market that you come to understand the city,” Wolf writes. “When you see how real people shop for food you begin to understand who they are and how they live. It’s the ‘life’ part of city life and the ‘heart’ part of heart of town. If you’re very lucky, you live nearby.” I want someday to be that lucky.

Other essays — on ice-cream shops, perfectly roasted poultry, and what the author calls “the holy trinity of Texas meat cooking” (chicken-fried steak, chili, and barbecue) — prove equally rewarding. Accessible topics such as these help give Talking With My Mouth Full a strong sense of familiarity and a certain cohesiveness. 

By looking at things we all have encountered, Wolf reminds us of the bonds we inevitably share, the common threads that run through our lives at the table. She celebrates the items that nourish us time and time again, offering insight on a host of uniquely and traditionally American foods.

p(bio). [ "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California.

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