Each spring, when the Easter and Passover season arrives, Hannah Benoit is flooded with memories of growing up on Captain Thompson’s 18th-century estate on Beach Street, where her father’s bountiful horseradish crop filled the sprawling garden. back.
This Easter, Benoit, a former Westerly resident who worked for decades as a journalist, writer and editor, decided to share some of those memories in “A Nothing Sandwich with All the Trimmings: Stories of Food and Family, with 90-Plus Heirloom Recipes,” her soon-to-be-published memoir.
One of the book’s chapters centers on two culinary traditions that “have enlivened our family’s Easter celebration year after year: kielbasa and homemade horseradish,” Benoit recently said over the phone from his home in the Dorchester section. of Boston, while discussing his memoir.
Also a watercolourist, Benoit included her artistic work in the book, which sort of began, she said, when she and her sister, Cordalie, asked their German grandmother to write some of her “old world” recipes for his signature dishes. , like her potato salad.
His grandmother was from cooking school “a bit of this and a bit of that,” and didn’t use recipes, Benoit recalls with a laugh.
“So many memories revolve around food,” Benoit said. “Sensory memories…happy memories…memories that bring you back.”
Benoit said she learned her love of food and cooking from her mother, the late Gertrude M. Langheld Benoit, an accomplished chef, businesswoman, cookbook author and longtime Sun columnist who ran a catering business and ran several popular restaurants – including Gert’s Country Kitchen at the Fantastic Umbrella Factory – and the lunch concession at the Watch Hill Yacht Club.
Benoit, who graduated from Westerly High School in 1969 before leaving for Boston University, said her book “tells the story of my life through food, and many essays relate to Westerly, where my parents, Gert and Richard Benoit, lived for 40 years.”
The Beach Street home — the big yellow farmhouse across from the Pawcatuck River — remains in the family, she said. Cordalie and her husband David now live there, she said, “and the horseradish field is still thriving.”
“The harvest is still there,” Benoit said with a laugh.
Her parents bought the house – which was vacant, needed painting and full of broken windows – for $9,000 in 1963, she said.
“On winter weekends, we’d all pile into the car and drive to Westerly to ‘fix’ the house,” she said, which to her parents was “a marathon of scrubbing, scraping, plastering, painting and wallpapering”.
At the time, they lived in Colchester, Connecticut, “on a piece of land in town with a small backyard.”
“At Westerly we had three acres, a barn, two sheds and a three-seater outhouse,” Benoit writes. “For me and my five siblings, coming to Westerly was like opening the windows on a warm spring day. After five summers, we moved there year-round. Dad commuted to work in his business environmental consultancy in Norwich, and mum’s catering business flourished over the summer, when seasonal residents of Watch Hill and Stonington held various gatherings.”
Throughout her childhood, she says, horseradish was always ready at Easter, ready to serve alongside kielbasa, the “garlic-smoked Polish sausage”, which took pride of place on the holiday table. of the Benoit family.
The kielbasa “was a staple at this springtime feast. The horseradish was so hot and tangy it stung your sinuses. Dad added cooked beets to the mix, turning the colorless mush into a gorgeous magenta that eclipsed the Easter eggs. dyed,” writes Benoit.
“For about 40 years, making horseradish was one of my father’s springtime rituals in our Beach Street home,” Benoit wrote in his memoir. “On the sloping ground between the house and the barn, Mom and Dad created a sprawling garden for vegetables, daylilies and irises. Horseradish was one of Dad’s most prized crops, and every spring he transformed the root into a spicy sauce and put it in jars.
“My father was thrilled with kielbasa. Dad had lost his mother, born Frances Krukowski, at a tender age (his and hers). Although his mother was gone, his Polish roots were deep and the family food traditions are enduring. Kielbasa held firm.
“At Easter,” she continues, “dad would ask my mom’s Aunt Hannah, who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, to stop by a local business called Chicopee Provision to pick up some of their Blue Seal kielbasa before I didn’t like kielbasa much then, but now I love it, although it’s a guilty pleasure (like any sausage, I guess).The Chicopee Provision Company , a family business founded in 1920 as the Sitarz Manufacturing Company, still makes its famous kielbasa.”
While recipes abound for “various kielbasa-based stews and casseroles,” Benoit says she prefers “mine sliced thick, browned in butter and served with homemade horseradish — especially at Easter dinner.”
“Horseradish also figures in the Spring Passover Seder,” writes Benoit, “serving as the ‘bitter herb’ required for the meal.”
Quoting the Chosen People Ministries website, Benoit writes that “horseradish…completely overwhelms the senses when eaten over a small piece of matzah:
According to Jewish tradition, one must eat enough bitter herbs (maror in Hebrew) to bring tears to one’s eyes. The tears and the bitter herbs remind each participant of the Seder how much the great affliction endured by the Jewish people has brought tears to their eyes.
“Even a puff of my father’s horseradish can bring tears to your eyes,” writes Benoit. “It went well with hard-boiled eggs.
“Commercial and home chefs make horseradish sauce from the ground root of the plant, vinegar, and sometimes a little sugar,” she writes in her book. “The Horseradish Information Council (yes, there is one) reports that 60% of the world’s crop is grown in and around Collinsville, Illinois, where German immigrants settled in the late 1800s.
“The advice notes that the root kick comes from isothiocyanate, ‘a volatile compound which, when oxidized by air and saliva, generates the ‘heat’ which some people say cleans their sinuses’, and that this bite is ‘almost absent until [the horseradish] is grated or ground. During this process, when the root cells are crushed, isothiocyanates are released. The vinegar stops this reaction and stabilizes the flavor. For a milder horseradish, vinegar is added immediately.
“I guess dad took his time adding the vinegar,” she wrote, “because his horseradish was anything but sweet. Some people couldn’t handle more than a little taste, others couldn’t handle it. , but our great-aunt Hannah loved it and always brought home a jar on Easter Sunday.”
Benoit, who works as an editor at Education Next, an education policy journal, is the mother of a daughter, Emelia Benoit-Lavelle, and a son, Mischa Benoit-Lavelle. She said she hopes her book will be ready for publication within the next few months.