Let Them Eat Concrete
By David Wantz, University of Indianapolis
So the story goes, my granddad came up from his basement office one evening to join a family dinner already in progress. As he reached the threshold, he exclaimed, “Good Lord, it sounds like a concrete mixer in here!”
The family was eating a dinner of smoked neck boiled together with new potatoes and string beans. Served with the hot food were sliced fresh tomatoes and sliced sweet onions. What made it sound like concrete mixer was the furious cutting up of the ingredients. Forks and knives raucously played over the china clinking and scraping the bits of food together.
Once everything was diced and then mixed together in one colorful heap, it was seasoned to taste with a little pot liquor and a dash of vinegar. There on the plate was a masterpiece of summer color: deep red tomato bits, flecks of creamy potatoes, earthy greens from the beans and sparkles of onion. As the stones scraping against the side of the concrete mixer are raspy, so the sound of knives and forks scraping and blending the various ingredients made my granddad think he was back on the jobsite. “It sounds like a concrete mixer.” The name stuck. Now in the summertime, we eat concrete whenever the tomatoes are ripe and the green beans are plentiful.
The colors are amazing on the plate: food fireworks! The tastes explode in your mouth as the tongue senses each flavor in turn. A deep umami surrounds the experience giving you home-comfort. The sharpness of the onion and vinegar’s tang are soon replaced by the sweetness of the tomato. The salty meat carries the bland potato, whose job is to provide the feeling of fullness. And it’s not just the tastes you experience, but the definite sensation of separate textures and the extremes of hot and cold mixed together in each forkful. On one plate you get the variation of an entire set of meal courses.
Despite being a taste miracle, concrete is a humble meal. My grandparents grew the vegetables in a garden, most likely carved from a few square feet of lawn. The smoked meat was a cheap and fatty cut. Later, as money improved, my grandmother could afford a pork shoulder, a smoked picnic. We have never used a real ham for concrete. And in-laws trying to experiment by using kielbasa or smoked sausages may as well call it something else; concrete calls for falling-apart, stringy, smoked neck.
Food is, perhaps, the most enduring vestige of a family’s heritage. What was once a meal prepared and eaten by people who were scraping by on a carpenter’s wages, concrete has become a centerpiece of celebration in my family.
To make your own concrete:
- Boil together slowly a smoked neck or picnic with a potato for each person and one for the pot.
- When the potatoes are tender and the meat is falling apart, remove them and set them aside. Add the green beans. You will never have enough green beans, so add more than you can imagine.
- Slice the tomatoes thick and the onions thin.
- When the beans are cooked through, but not mushy, serve each item in its own bowl. Draw off some of the liquor and try to de-fat it. You won’t succeed, but you can say that you tried. Serve with apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper.
- When you have the ingredients on your plate, make like a concrete mixer: slice, dice, and mix them all together.
- Enjoy with a nice glass of iced tea.
Maybe you have some thoughts about food as well. Let me invite you to share them during the 15th annual Spirit and Place Civic Festival this year. The theme is Food for Thought and will run from November 5 through 14. I am David Wantz and I am a member of the S&P board. I hope you will join us.