By Mark Wieser
As much as I like to eat and have prepared a few meals, I really am not a cook. I would rather partake, and like most children I grew up having a mom who I thought was a pretty good cook. I only mention this because my interest in cooking first dawned on me while beginning to watch the French Chef. In ’64, I was living in Austin attending the University of Texas earning a second major in German and totally unaware that I might beginning to have an interest in foods.
On Sunday evenings, I had a few hours to watch television. We didn’t have that while I was at Texas A&M—that had probably been a good idea as it so easily can distract one from studying. Plus being in the Aggie Corps was entertaining enough. There wasn’t a minute to waste watching TV, had our dorm even had one. So, after four years of living in the Brazos River bottoms, I had a lot of catching up to do. PBS, then as now, offered some great television on Sunday evenings. That was when I was first introduced to the French Chef hosted by Julia Child.
There was something about her way of teaching that attracted me. She was such a natural. If her spatula got caught in the mixer and it flew across the room—so what! She knocked over bottles of wine and never missed a beat demonstrating her recipes. To make this short, her style of teaching interested me. To teach, I was soon to discover, one must know how to act. Watching her was a joy and so unlike every other TV cooking class, then or even now.
I spent most of the summer of ’64 in Europe where my older sister introduced us to finer dining or as she would often say—a need to broaden one’s horizons. I returned a changed young man, but never thought food would become so important in my life. You may remember that this was the trip from which we all returned home with a Fondue Pot and recipes for sauces.
I began teaching in the fall of ’65 and discovered I could actually spark interest in subjects in my students. Julia continued her television series and demanded PBS broadcast them in color or she would quit. Hers had become a popular show and so they relented. I opened das Peach Haus in ’69 and began selling my mom’s jams and jellies and discovered people would come back for more. Case Fischer came along in ’79 and was inspired to find even greater and more interesting flavors. With his introduction of the Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce, the rest became history.
We had already begun participating in national and international food shows. America’s largest was the Fancy Food Show, held in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York each year. The Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce was nominated as the Outstanding New Bestseller in ’97 winning us our first Sofie Award, an award in the food world equal to winning an Oscar. We’ve won 11 more since thanks to Case’s and our team’s ability to create exciting new flavors.
The only reason I mention all this is because one year the Fancy Food Show’s guest was Julia Child, and I finally had my moment to tell her how I had begun to watch her early shows in black and white nearly three decades earlier. She put down her pen, shook my hand and autographed her cookbook for me. What a fantastic lady she truly was. She had, singlehandedly brought French and American cuisine to life with her show. My autographed copy still enjoys a safe location near my desk, but I have never made a single recipe from it.
So, now on to Scalloped Potatoes! Some in my World History classes might remember how many foods from the Americas were introduced to Europeans after 1492. It really makes one wonder what Europeans were eating before Columbus returned. Potatoes were not readily accepted before then, perhaps because they were believed to be poisonous since they are in the purple nightshade family—a deadly poison. Nevertheless, an explosion of popularity finally won them acceptance.
More than 200 varieties are cultivated in Peru. They come in all colors—red, white, yellow, brown, blue, and purple—also in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps, we still think of them as being only white, red, Idaho or Irish. Among the 39 countries I have visited, perhaps the discovery of so many kinds of potatoes available startled me. I now am pleased to find some of those finally being introduced here. Rather than museums, when I travel, I prefer to visit local produce markets. I have taken thousands of photographs of fruits and vegetable displays in fresh markets. Teaching others to display fruits and vegetables, incidentally, is the most difficult task I have ever encountered. The care taken by farmers all over the world to create astonishing display with all sorts of fruits and vegetables is truly amazing. Perhaps, it’s because their livelihood so depends on that.
The word “scalloped” derives from the old English word, collop, which itself comes from the Old French word, escalope. Collops meant sliced meats, perhaps prepared with cheese and cream. I also discovered that some claim that scalloped potatoes are reserved to be served only at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not in the Wieser household – I distinctly remember even having them in the middle of summer. It wasn’t a dish reserved for major holidays. As prepared by most Americans, this dish is made up of thinly sliced, peeled potatoes. Once the layering process is finished the entire dish is topped with cheese and baked. There are, of course, hundreds of variations. Incidentally, with the addition of cheese, the dish actually becomes au Gratin, a culinary technique in which an ingredient is topped with a brown crust, often simply with breadcrumbs, eggs or butter.
A recipe provided by Mrs. Edgar Klett can be found in the 6th edition and later of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cookbook and differs little from those that can be found elsewhere. There are unlimited variations that can personalize your dish to create a family classic that will last for years and, hopefully, provide you with some lasting memories.
6 medium-sized raw potatoes
2 tbsp pure putter
1 tbsp flour
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
¾ cup grated American cheese
Slice potatoes thinly
Layer in a greased 2-qt baking dish
In a separate dish, melt butter
Add flour and stir until smooth
Bring milk and cheese to a boil
Continue stirring until cheese is melted
Pour over potatoes
Cover and Bake 30 minutes at 350ºF
Uncover and bake another 1 hour or until potatoes are tender.
Rest 5-10 minutes before serving.