How many of you retired folk wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll buy me an old house, turn it into a restaurant, and get it registered as literary landmark”? Not your ordinary retirement activity, is it? Not quite sitting and staring at the middle distance waiting for a daughter to ring, or wandering down to the Old Folks’ luncheon club, or waiting for someone else to organise a daytime coach trip to the seaside, is it?
But that’s what eight civic minded, local-food passionates did. At breath taking speed they started the [Salinas California] Valley Guild in 1971, raised $80 000 in 49 days, bought the old Victorian Steinbeck house in 1973, had it re-modelled with fully equipped kitchen, and designed the rest of the house to give a flavour of what it must have been like when Steinbeck was born, lived as a boy, and wrote two of his novels. Only a year later (1974, keep up with me) it opened as a lunch-only restaurant on Steinbeck’s birthday. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. You can be led on a tour of the house: in order to get to the toilet you go through the room where the famous man was actually born. But don’t worry if you didn’t take the tour, for the cellar gift shop has a huge doll house in perfect detail, where you can play to heart’s content.
The number of volunteers stands at 81 these days. Many are octogenarians, which seems to make no difference to their energy levels, their friendliness, their delight in good food, and their detailed knowledge of John Steinbeck’s early childhood. All (except the chef) are volunteers. Extra funds go to local charities.
The turn-of-the-century house looks palatial, surrounded as it is by spacious well-kept lawns and gardens, but it’s really no bigger than my Aunt Harriet’s house was back in New York State, about the same vintage. As soon as we entered the Steinbeck parlour, the atmosphere, the scent, and all the furniture reminded me of her house, and I felt loved and at home. We were greeted by a bank of silver-haired women in white lacy blouses, long dark skirts, full aprons, and sports shoes. They sat us down to an elegantly laid table (lacy floor length tablecloths, flowers, glistening cutlery) and sumptuous food.
“Remarkable” is mild for such powerfully effective women.
Have a look at their website: www.steinbeckhouse.com .
Apricot Chiffon Pie
Their cookbook is full of recipes from bygone days when it wasn’t a sin to love cream and butter. It’s reminiscent of my Grandmother’s precious cooking notebook and my Aunt Harriet’s dinners. This recipe is a great company-coming pie because you make it the day before and let it set in the fridge. I made it for an evening supper meeting. Further tasters gave this an anxiety-relieving thumbs up.
Pulverise (with rolling pin or liquidiser) 140grams (5 ozs) of ginger nuts (snaps) into a powder – about 14 of them make 1 ¼ cups. Add 4 tablespoons (4 ozs) melted butter and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Stir. Press the mixture onto the bottom and sides of a 9 inch pie pan. Bake for 12 minutes (no more!) in a moderately slow oven. Cool completely.
Soak 1 pkt gelatine in 2 tablespoons water, and set aside. Cook 1 cup dried apricots (160gms chopped) with a bit of water into mushy submission, leaving a few apricot chunks. Cool. Combine in a saucepan ½ cup sugar (115 gms 4 ozs) ½ cup apricot juice (nectar 4 ozs) ½ teaspoon salt, and 3 egg yolks. Cook over low heat until thickened, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, add soaked gelatine, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and cooled apricot mash. Cool until mixture begins to set.
Meanwhile, beat 1 cup whipping cream (8 ozs) until thick. In another bowl beat 3 egg whites until stiff with 2 tablespoons sugar. Fold the cream, then the egg whites into the apricot mixture. Pile gently into the cooled crust, and chill overnight. If you remove the pie from the fridge about half an hour before you serve it, the pie crust will attach to the filling, so that you don’t see it leering tauntingly at you, still in the pie dish after you’ve served yourself.
My comments: Cut down the sugar in the egg whites to 1 tablespoon. Unsulphured apricots may give a stronger flavour. Or try it with intensely dried mango and thick mango drink, adding lime juice instead of the lemon…might be nice!