Ode to Fat: Schmaltz, Salt Pork, Olive Oil & Ghee

 

Home cooks around the world rely on one essential ingredient to bring out food’s flavor: fat. Late January, when it’s cold and dark, seems the perfect season to sing the praises of fat. In our next Lowell Folklife Series program, we explore four forms of fat with deep cultural associations: schmaltz, the kosher poultry fat used in Jewish cooking; salt pork, the French Canadian ingredient so critical to fresh-made pork scrap and baked beans; olive oil, the healthy staple of Greek and Italian cuisine, and ghee, the clarified butter used in South Asian cooking.

 The free public event takes place Friday January 20th at 7:00 p.m.  in the Visitor Center of Lowell National Historical Park. Joining us for a lively discussion will be Sam and Gail Poulten, both of whom grew up in Lowell’s Jewish neighborhood where schmaltz was a staple, Lucia DiDuca of Framingham, a founding member of the Ciociaro Social Club, Kurt Levasseur of Lowell’s own Cote’s Market, and Yogesh Kumar, owner of Sai Baba Market in Chelmsford.

 

Come hear these culture bearers share their take on the flavorful fats in Jewish, Franco-American, Italian, and Indian cooking. David Blackburn, Chief of Cultural Resources at Lowell National Historical Park, will moderate the panel discussion, which is sure to touch on foodways traditions, family recipes, stories, and religious associations surrounding these fundamental culinary fats.

 

 P.S. — Jane Dornbusch, correspondent to The Boston Globe attended the event and wrote a wonderful review. To see the article, click here.

The King (and Prince) of Beans

The reason why we exist is because of pork scrap and Lowell’s famous baked beans. Pork pies. We have a little niche that has kept us in business since 1917.

Roger Levasseur, owner of Cote’s Market

“I’ve been doing beans since forever, almost. It seems forever. We started buying [beans] from Frankie Rochette and then he took in my father, who was like a son. Frankie Rochette, who pioneered the Lowellian type of bean, was known as ‘King of Beans.'”

So what makes Cote’s beans so special?

Perhaps it is the use of small Californian white beans, which have been aged for up to three years. Or the extremely fresh salt pork imported from Canada. Whatever it is, the beans made at this local corner market have found a way into local’s hearts for generations. Customers include elderly people who have been shopping at Cote’s for sixty or seventy years. Even people who have moved away will come back every Saturday to get their beans and their brown bread. Kurt Levasseur: “Recently, we had one woman who was moving to California, not out of choice. She was beside herself that she could not get Cote’s beans every Saturday.  It was something that she did as a child, something that’s ingrained in her French-Canadian roots, and she was literally in tears. . . she liked my grandfather’s homemade sauce. We sent her off with six quarts of sauce; I think she had more food than luggage.”

When Frankie Rochette handed the recipe over to Roger Levasseur of Cotes market, he told him, “Don’t ever change the recipe. And always keep my secret.” Roger adds, “Of course, the secret is pretty obvious. The secret is use the best ingredients and you’ll be in business 30 years from now.”  Roger is now in in early 60s and his son, Kurt Levasseur, is helping to carry on the business. While big chain supermarkets have all but put small local grocers out of business, Cote’s is thriving. 

Some of Kurt’s earliest memories are of helping to make beans in the store. “I started when I was very, very small. [My father] would make the beans at night around seven, eight o’clock. Which would seem really late to us at night.” From helping his father scoop the dry navy beans, to pouring the beans in the pot, or stamping bags, Kurt has been in this store since he could walk. Below you see him holding the “special scooper” used in measuring out the beans. “Gosh, if I lose that scooper it would be World War III. That thing has to have a GPS on it. It’s like an heirloom.”

“My father is 62 years old. He’s worked really, really, really hard his whole life. I’ve watched him work, watched the sweat roll off his forehead,to give us a good childhood. He worked hard, so I want to give back now and take care of my mother and father, just like he does with his.”

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg