Saturday, March 26, 2011

Claussen dill pickles, the eternal quest

People often ask me what I miss most about "home" (though Italy is now "home," too). There are things I expected to miss, so they don't bother me as much, but the ones that didn't even cross the farthest dustiest corners of my mind are the ones hardest to endure...More......

I should have seen it coming.

It's something 'just in the air.'

Everyone somehow knows that it's favorite foods, the comfort foods, the ones that make you all warm and fuzzy inside (even without alcohol), that are missed the most, that make being far away from "home" so hard.

I can only say that it's true, and that it only gets worse, not better.

Some foods, like Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Oreo cookies, have finally made it over here (WRITER'S NOTE: I get no kickbacks of any kind from mentioning any of these brands!). In this particular case, too bad for me because I can hear a package of siren-like Oreo cookies calling my name...repeatedly...from over 5000 feet away. Much better than the look-alikes, Ringo cookies, because the bitter chocolate cookie part of the Oreo balances the super sweet sugary filling better. And Phillie is always protein, right?!

For some foods, hold onto your hats, I actually have turned to making it from scratch...and it's SOOOOOOO much better (and really not all that hard): pumpkin pack (though it can be found now and then, there's such an abyss between freshly prepared pumpkin mash and the canned that, well, even when I have the cans of it under my nose, I keep on pushing the cart down the aisle, and am not tempted in the least).

Some foods are available, but because they are "exotic" (such as plain white burrito tortillas!!!, as someone regardless of race coming from Southern California, who considers Mexican-American her native food, calling white flour tortillas, or any of these foods, "exotic" makes me laugh, but I am in another country, after all) cost an arm and a leg (and besides, my favorite sauce, Herdez, isn't available, either: despite the fact that it's an industrially made product, it tastes so very fresh). I'm tempted to try making my own white flour tortillas, though I'm told it's a lot harder than it looks. No way to know til I try. That's on the unwritten "Remember To Do That" list, which is why it never gets done.

For others, such as Laura Scudder's no sugar crunchy peanut butter, I have found acceptable substitutes (also in this case too bad for my waistline): the brand Calvè, is, like Laura Scudder's, just peanuts and salt. I'd make peanut butter cookies for potlucks, but the Italians are a funny sort: they eat salted peanuts as snacks, but don't like peanut butter. Go figure.

For others, like corned beef and pastrami, I have resignedly learned to live without. Especially after having tried--fully successfully--to make my own corned beef. It takes FOREVER. Ya' gotta emerge the hunk of raw beef in a heavy brine (that's why it's called "corned"...not because of corn, the vegetable, but because the large grains of rough salt were called "corns" now you know), keep it in the fridge (hogging up an entire shelf because making a small single serving isn't worth all the bother), take it out once a day, flip the meat over, make sure it's completely covered by the brine, seal it back up, and put it back in the fridge, for some infernally long time period like two weeks (I'm going by memory here, folks, maybe it's less), then when this brining period is over, ya' gotta take the hunk of beef out of the fridge, dump out the brine, rinse the beef, and REPEAT THE WHOLE EQUALLY LENGTHY PROCESS REFRESHING THE CLEAN, SALT-FREE WATER EVERY DAY. Not having my own personal large garden shed, I wasn't able to do the smoking of the corned beef to make pastrami. I make due with memories of succulent Reuben's, and have given up.

Bagels, aahhh bagels. There WAS an industrially produced product that was not really up to snuff, and I would have turned my nose up at it had I found it at "home," but now that I can't find it in Italy any more I miss it because it was the only closest thing to that wonderfully chewy, slightly salty bread. There is a pretzel bread, which is saltier, but kinda close, but it costs an arm and a leg, too, and is too skinny to spread Phillie on it, and then there's a local bakery chain, which shall remain nameless, that CLAIMS to make bagels, but they're nasty things, and I even wrote to tell them so (wasn't that nice of me?), and, as a (self-appointed, but experienced) bagel expert, gave them indications for how to make their product better, more authentic. (Did they listen? No, of course not.) (I have tried to make these...twice...and keep promising myself to try,'s a LOT harder than you think it is, and I've even made yeast breads in the past, but ended up with flat hard things that I determinedly ate because I had dedicated so much time and effort and desire to the process, but they did sit like rocks in my stomach, if I have to be honest.)

Another thing that haunts me...graham crackers. "Ah, you're just a weakling yearning for comfort food," I can hear you say. Hey, I admit it, that's perfectly true. When down in the dumps, a (big) handful of graham crackers and a big glass of milk makes a great dinner. But without Honey Maid graham crackers, there's something else tasty that can't be made right: cheesecake. And now that Phillie finally is available here, the urge is upon me, and I can't do anything about it...until I try making my own graham crackers, that is, if I can get the graham flour! (There is another graham cracker brand available, but it's nasty, tasteless...once burned, twice shy.)

Jello. Let's talk about Jello. There are other brands of sugared gelatin available, and they come out perfectly as one expects. The problem is, I can't find one single box of sugarless gelatin. "Who ever would want sugarless gelatin?," you ask? Me! Sugarless lime gelatin is a perfect base for a summery savory salad. And the sugarless version in all sorts of flavors can be fancied up with fruit and fruit juices, so diabetics can eat it, too.

But dill pickles...ah, dill pickles. In Italy and Switzerland, I only have been able to find sweet pickles, you know, the kind with all sorts of spices and sugar. Blech.

I once did find dill pickles in a can (so they also tasted a bit like a can, but I was/am desperate), and would keep buying them, if I could find them, again.

But the eternal quest is for not just any dill pickle, but Claussen dill pickles...ahhhhhhh, those I really do miss. I tried to make dill pickles, once...the "easy eat'em quick without all the boiling and muss and fuss similar to jam-making" kind. They were O.K., and maybe I should try, again, but they just weren't Claussens (I once was pinpointed as an ex-inhabitant of Southern California because of my faithful attachment to Claussen pickles; could it possibly be that such a fresh and crisp wonder of the table is not a favorite elsewhere?????).

"Exotic" food stores come and go in Milan. I always keep my eyes peeled. I've even started a list of them for my ESL students, but most of them (the stores, not my students) are Chinese, and so the products tend to be Asian with a few English-English things tossed in. One of them is pretty good though, and there are two Italian stores I've found in town that each have one, or two, of the things that I like, want, need, but have to stock up on when in that part of town, or spend the whole day going from place to place. No one-stop shopping.

I have tried giving my (how many pages long?) list of foods I miss terribly (a list, mind you, complete with addresses and web site addresses...I know my lazy busy Italians) to the owners of these local stores. Zippo.

There are online stores for English-English food products, but I can only imagine the costs, and so haven't even bothered to look.

When friends come to Milan, they kindly (and innocently) ask, "Can I bring you something?" Their eyes glaze over a bit at the thought of the weight in their luggage when I say, "Well, so kind of you to offer, yes you can: a jar of Claussen dill pickles!"

I do have a conscience.

I have taken to saying, "just a small jar would be perfectly fine."

I'm just going to have to keep on looking.


Margaret said...

When I spent a semester in Siena twenty years ago I missed Doritos. I never even ate them in the US, but I just craved them. That and good Mexcian food.

Jeanine in Canada said...

Perhaps you could make tortillas if you can find the flour and someone will let you use their pizza oven?

I can send you a box of Honeymaid graham crackers, they will be just right for cheesecake crust by the time they get to you!

Let me know!

Star said...

Dear Margaret, I'm with ya'...I crave good So Cal style Mexican food, and miss my favorite place (south-east corner of the intersection of Santa Monica and Overland long as I'm getting so specific, I should have mentioned missing terribly frozen yoghurt--in particular that of the Bigg Chill, a bit further down Overland at the corner of Olympic...parking is a nightmare, but it's really worth it--there's only a pale imitation of frozen yoghurt availalbe over's all plain, with flavorings to add, and doesn't taste of much). Corn tortilla chips finally are available in a local brand, but no Herdez, and, should one want to make it oneself, the cilantro--considered an odd exotic taste by all the native Italians with whom I've spoken--is not easy to find. Neither is fresh (or dried) dill, by the way. I should just post my list and be done with it. It might be entertaining to see how much one takes for granted.

Dear Jeanine, so kind of you to offer to send me HoneyMaid grahams(are your eyes glazing over, yet?), but I really didn't mean to cast even a hidden plea for, with the Italian post, there's no guarantee that they'll get to me, anyway, and the cost of the postage probably would be more than the worth of the graham crackers, so it's not really practical. Thanks, anyway, really! I'll just have to keep searching and handing out my list, until someone tires of me enough to stock some of the things on it. (fat chance, but hope springs eternal)

Thank you both for reading my blog!

Melissa said...

I ran across your blog since I am planning a move to Italy and I already know that I am going to miss pickles! But I wanted to let you know that flour tortillas are actually easy to make. The hardest part is rolling them out, which isn't very tough at all.

Star said...

Melissa, I even have tried substituting white flour tortillas with the similar Italian product, piadinas (pl. in Italian: piadine), but even the "thin" version is still too thick and stiff, and even they are darn expensive (in fact, at least in the metropolis Milan, almost everything is more expensive than in the States, except good table wine and good extra virgin olive oil, at least that's my impression, though, by now, my U.S. day-to-day experience is from days long gone by, so I could be seeing my wallet through rose-colored glasses; in any case, comparisons of prices within Italy almost always show prices higher in the north, middlin in the middle and cheaper in the south, except maybe for fish...funny, but fish caught in the sea by Italian boats goes first to Milan to the central fish market before being re-distributed back to the local cities' sales points, supermarkets, at least, though I bet expensive local restaurant owners get their fish, directly). Speaking of piadine, there's a very VERY good piadine take-away place (with a few stools) on via Unione almost at the corner of Via Torino (in Milan, of course). By now, we'd probably call them "wraps," in English. Very fresh, very good. All of this to get to the point: thanks for the encouraging words about making tortillas. It has now moved up a notch, or two, on my unwritten "To Do" list.

Bells Semyorka said...

I feel your pain when it comes to pickles. I have been on a quest as well for American Treats. My husband and I found an American Market in Livorno. it carried thing like poptarts and sodas not found in Italy. Lidl also sometimes has American Week. I also found our Conad carried tortillas. I'm Hispanic and cook haphazard Mexican food when the craving strikes. I'm only missing Cheddar Cheese.

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