Cooking On A Budget: The Blue Plate Special

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Blue Plate Special

How I began this blogger site was due to this article I wrote for a now defunct website. One of my husbands clients knew how much I loved to cook and also that I was recuperating from one of the worst years of physical hell that I had had to endure. It was she that recommended to me that I might want to give the site a try as they were looking for food writing contributions.
This was my very first article that was centered around food memories. I thought I would bring it forth and share it upfront with all of you. Some of you have seen it, read it already; others may have not thoroughly searched this blog site and it will be new.
At any rate, this article is how the journey began and the foundation on which my blog site was created. When the article was actually accepted for publication and I was acknowledged with high praise, I followed it up with more articles and recipes from my past. It was also a period of time that I wanted to leave something of me behind for my children - building in a legacy of food recipes and my new found love of writing. Hope you enjoy it.

Back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s my Mother and Stepfather owned a local tavern in the tiny village of Chester, Connecticut. The tavern itself was steeped in local tradition. Built in 1850 it served local residents for many, many years as a typical tavern where gentlemen could come in for a draft beer and shoot some billiards. When my parents owned the Pattaconk Inn, it no longer housed a billiard table (although the glass paneled door still had "billiard room" etched on it). With my mother behind the helm of the kitchen, the Pattaconk Inn became the place to go for a hot or cold daily lunch special. Served up on a divided three compartment blue willow patterned plate were such homemade meals as, Yankee Pot Roast, Beef Stew, Meatloaf or Roasted Turkey. For a mere $3.25 you could get pot roast served with mashed potatoes and homemade gravy, and a choice of two vegetables.

When you walked into the building with its tin ceiling and old wooden floors you were instantly transported back in time. The fact that the lunch was served on the typical diner blue plate and the seating was in rustic booths, added to an ambiance liken to the 1920’s diner experience.  In fact, Blue Plate Specials date back to the 1920’s.  Generally this reference was to the low priced daily special that was served on a divided blue plate. The Blue Plate Special consisted of a meat and 2 or 3 side vegetables. Many diners and cafes used divided plates that had the “blue willow” pattern on them or a similar style that was produced by either Spode or Wedgwood. Nowadays many restaurants serve up a “daily special” which mostly refers to a chef’s choice outside of the regular menu. It does not however necessarily mean those meals are lower priced. 

Eventually my folks sold the building and the business bringing with them some of those divided plates. After my mother passed I inherited those precious few plates. While visiting Cape Cod I happened in on an antique shop and picked up more to round out my collection. All of them have the blue willow theme, but there is one original Pattaconk plate that has held its dark blue color. My children, now grown, still argue over who will get to use that darker blue plate, as most all of our family dinners are served on them.

With a wealth of recipes handed down from my mother and grandmother my cooking has leaned more toward old world or as we say here in Connecticut, “Yankee” style menus.  Those recipes are generally what I consider my go to meals. Of course I don’t limit myself to just homey, comfort meals as I love to try new things and be inventive with food. Where I live gives me endless opportunities to explore new dishes as many of our grocery stores are now carrying ingredients that were once very difficult to come by.

Living in New England there is a true sense of the four seasons. The fall and winter seasons weather provides a good background for cooking hearty, healthy and cozy warming meals. Spring and summer are the perfect seasons for outdoor grilling utilizing the best of the locally grown produce – whether you pick from your own back yard garden or visit a local farmer’s market.  Many of the dishes I prepare in the colder months are like those “blue plate specials” that would have been served in the 1920’s or in my mom’s kitchen.  There is nothing better than escaping the cold outdoors and walk into a home that is filled with the aroma of a Pot Roast braising away in the oven, the smell of homemade meatloaf, or a Turkey that is roasting and just begging to be basted until a deep golden brown skin forms.

Many of the “wintry” meals taste as good, if not better the second day after all of the flavors have had a chance to settle in and meld together. Whether we repeat the meal or use the main protein to make something completely different, left over’s from blue plate special meals are never a problem.  The pot roast and gravy can become beef, pepper and onions over rice. Perhaps you will use the beef to make chimichangas or a beef pot pie. The possibilities are endless.

Whether you serve these meals on a divided blue plate or any plate in your kitchen, you too can be transported back in time to an era where home-style cooking was the rule, rather than the exception. So instead of relying on grocery prepared separates, frozen meals or meals in minutes from a plastic bowl; take the time over the weekend to prepare hearty, healthy and cozy meals right in your own kitchen. The aromas that will emanate might just keep your kids coming back to the dinner table – even after they have “left the nest”.

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