After what seems like a lifetime of ham ingestion, I decided to move on to other animals. While I never knew Gima, I can sense her disappointment in me for not devising a plan for that remaining Ziploc of thinly-sliced Virginia country ham. But Gima, I have never known the ravages of war and rationing! I am craven and spoiled! In honor of you, I have eaten ham cold, in eggs, with pasta, on biscuits and in soups. I have eaten ham when hunger called me to the refrigerator, and familial pride caused me to masticate it grumpily while thinking about just making a damn taco. I can eat no more ham! No. more. ham. I thought about it, though. I looked at Gima’s recipe for ham and veal pie, but then all I could think about was veal, and how long it’s been since I’ve had veal, and how much I wanted to eat any farmyard animal other than the pig.
I realize that veal is a controversial meat for many. I could give a flip. I grew up eating veal. Baked veal cutlet was my traditional birthday dinner. As a chef at Pie in the Sky Café, I sautéed, sauced, and served hundreds of orders of veal marsala and veal picatta. I’ve never tired of veal. If it makes you feel better about it, then buy the even more expensive “free range” veal available at Whole Foods; I’m sure that prior to their inevitable brutal slaughter, the baby cows are allowed to watch a live feed of a sunny pasture while their gelatinous little legs dangle from the comforts of a sling. If it makes them more delicious and tender, then so be it.
Of course, Gima would blanch at the price of veal today, and even if you won’t eat veal no matter how tasty those little legs are, At Home on the Range provides a valuable history lesson. Now uncommon in American households, veal was once cheaper and more widely available than poultry. Regarding curry, Gima says, “made with chicken, it is expensive, but cooked veal or pork can be used to eke out the bird.” I had always assumed an abundance of poultry recipes in Gima’s cookbooks and newspaper articles, but I was wrong—poultry was paltry in her pantry. Her talk of pricey fowl brought to mind a wonderful image I discovered while researching eugenics: a 1940s-era sign for the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest, which was an effort to interest poultry farmers in selectively breeding chickens for meat quality and flavor. While the disreputable events of World War II put a damper on the American Eugenics Society and their better baby contests, genetics did wonders for making poultry palatable for the American table.
If you ever wish to horrify yourself, read cookbooks that came out just before Gima’s time. They’re all about singeing the feathers off the bird and removing lung tissue. It was up to the average housewife to pluck and eviscerate what was usually a stringy old bird past her laying prime. And while I know that Gima handled this chore with aplomb, most housewives of the day were happy to do without chicken in favor of a few ready-to-bread veal cutlets.
So we’re agreed that veal is tender, versatile, and delicious? If you remain unconvinced, then do try Gima’s Veal à la Mama. It’s an easy introduction to the world of veal for beginners, and a homey reminder of the veal of yesteryear for advanced cooks. Veal à la Mama is a meal that makes me imagine little scenarios of my great grandmother and me in the kitchen in Rehoboth, preparing dinner for our “sunburned trio.” We would make fun of all the wan little vegans that refuse to eat veal out of some confused sense of moral obligation. I would pantomime a veal calf in its darkened Skinner box while she pounded out a cutlet. I would question her, for the hundredth time, as to why my eggplant tastes bitter and hers delicious, even though she doesn’t salt and drain it. Secretly, I would worry about her sneaking wine when she thinks I’m not looking, and she would worry that I’m not taking advantage of my intellect—inherited from her, no doubt—at a time when a woman can do something with it. Neither of us would voice these worries, however, and instead we’d pass our time in happy communion over our shared joy in preparing food for those we love, or at least are vaguely fond of.
And then we would tuck into our veal, which captivates the palate even before it has the chance to leave the oven, as the combination of onions and stewed tomatoes baked low and slow results in a delicious aroma. While I normally abhor the term “mouth feel,” this dish has a great one, thanks to her clever directive to cut the veal and eggplant into comparable slices. Everyone has experienced going to a family-style Italian restaurant with all the hope in the world of eating something worthy of the Italian granny you never had. It smells good—it may even look good—but it’s never quite right. The pasta is overcooked, the sauce too runny or too sweet, and if you’re foolish enough to order the veal parmesan, it’s always reminiscent of something you had the misfortune of finding in your school cafeteria (I’m talking about you, St. Olaf College). Gima’s recipe is worthy of any Italian kitchen. As an added bonus, the leftover sauce, which you will have, is a fantastic addition to plain pasta. Gima would be pleased to know that this recipe is one that keeps on giving well into your workweek.
When I first started cooking from At Home on the Range in earnest, I envisioned a rating system that should have been assigned to the recipes, based not on stars but kidneys, that being the ingredient I most associate with Gima. Veal à la Mama remains my highest rated recipe to date, making it a four-kidney veal meal.