If Memory Serves: Cepelinai

If Memory Serves chronicles moments from my dining past, perhaps explaining what's wrong with me.

It's a common dish in Lithuania, though not one that really sells the cuisine.

The dish consists of wet dough grated from raw potatoes, molded around gristly meat and boiled for however long it takes to turn the dough into porridge and meat into dripping gray stuff. Call them dumplings if you will, but each one weighs about 45 pounds.

Well, maybe they just seem that heavy.

I had "zeppelins" (that's how it translates) for the first time on a visit to the city of Alytus, cooked in a tiny private kitchen. The family wanted to introduce me to the cepelinai because--according to the country's tradition--the massive blobs of potato and meat were served to guests and working men. And I was a guest.

They also told me men sometimes engage in cepelinai eating contests, which probably explains why life expectancy was so much lower there, at least at the time.

You see, as appetizing as many pounds of potato mush wrapped around gristle the color of a battleship sounds, Lithuanians typically dress zeppelins in a "sauce" of bacon grease and sour cream. That's as "heart healthy" as a sit down dinner of 20 chicken fried steaks...though I shouldn't give them short shrift. When my ex made them, every raw potato grated (and it took about 20 for a small meal) also took a few layers of her skin and uncounted ounces of blood.

Had to be good for the immune system.

They are not at all easy to make without the aid of a food processor. Only the "right" potatoes--meaning those with the most starch--will work, so a more than passing knowledge of spuds helps. They must be scraped across the smallest holes on the grater. And because there's no binding agent to hold the mass together as it boils, the cook is required to squeeze out as much of the natural liquid as possible.

Yet cepelinai was a dish of purpose, if not convenience. In a working class world, bulk and value mattered more than any of our cushy Western ideas--you know, food pyramids, vitamins, leafy green vegetables and such. This was fuel, pure and simple.

And they can be made palatable by slicing cooked zeppelins and then pan frying the slices until golden brown, by seasoning the potato dough or by whipping up something besides bacon grease-sour cream for a dressing.

Oh--two was the most I could stomach in one sitting.

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries

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