I think that since I read it for the first time at age 9, I must have read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about a million times. I’ve read it so many times that verbatim phrases of it sometimes come to me unbidden, exactly when they are relevant. The story of Francie Nolan, her parents, Katie and Johnny, her brother Neeley, and their struggles at the turn of the 20th century in Williamsburg, will never leave me. There’s even a musical version, which is mostly not very effective, except for this song, which is glorious.
The first copy I owned came from a used bookstore on Long Beach Island, and for years it lived under the sink in the kitchen so that I could read it while I ate. Then when I had to read it for school in eighth grade, I had to buy a shiny new Barnes and Noble copy and write my name on the side of the pages–but I was cranky about having to read my favorite book for a grade and persisted in “losing” that copy so that a new one needed to be bought. By the time I cleaned out my closet in Phoenix last October, there must have been four identical copies on the bookshelf. I’ve gotten rid of all of the old versions; now the one in my portable library is a beautifully bound volume that I bought for $12.50 in Tempe, Arizona, in 2002. (I know this for sure because there is a little “11/02” pencils onto the flyleaf.)
Anyway. I have always had a fascination with book food, even when I was little–fried apples-and-onions and rye-‘n-injun bread in Farmer Boy, scones and clotted cream and hardboiled eggs in The Secret Garden, Sara and Becky’s magical feast in the attic in A Little Princess, treacle tarts in Harry Potter. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn has, for a book about people living in abject poverty, some really great book food, from the description of the store with the charlotte russes in the window, and the tea/coffee/spices store, to the novel that Francie starts writing to spite her English teacher where she describes a sumptuous feast and all of a sudden realizes that she’s just writing about being poor and hungry in a roundabout way.
But tonight, after two long and excruciating train trips and a walk home in the snow, I looked at the contents of my fridge and one word popped into my head: FRICADELLEN.
It’s a funny word, I’ll grant you, and I’ve never really been sure what it means exactly. But to my brain, it means something that Katie Nolan could make out of stale bread:
“Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meatballs had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.”
No recipe required, just follow the book! (With slight alterations–I had no stale bread, so I mixed bread crumbs with hot water, and I also left off the parsley.)
The sauce I made by draining most of the oil, reserving as many onions as I could, and adding ketchup that I had already zhuzhed up with salt, pepper and garlic powder.
And voilà! A red letter Wednesday-night meal.
P.S. I wrote about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for my SAT II in Writing–on which, by the way, I got a perfect 800. At the break, the girl next to me asked what I wrote about, and I told her, and she said, “You wrote about a tree?” *facepalm*