Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Books and Food: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This article is part of a special series called "Books and Food". I have loved books long before I ever got interested in the culinary arts. Short stories, novels, biographies and travelogues, I love them all. Human life is inextricably linked to food, and books often use descriptions of feasts and famines, dinner rituals and food memories to bring a point across to the reader. In this series, I talk about my favorite books and the food passages therein, and make a dish or a meal inspired by the book.

Today's book: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The food: Breakfast strata

For the fourth of July, I chose an American classic. Betty Smith's "A tree grows in Brooklyn" is the story of a girl named Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. A fascinating portrait of life in an impoverished neighborhood, the story ends up so unexpectedly heartwarming and realistic that it stays with you long after you are done reading the book. Even during hard times, Francie's mother, Katie, stretches her resources to provide hot meals for her family. It is far too easy to go shopping and cook impressively on a big budget. The truly creative and resourceful cook is someone like Katie, working with the stale bread that is the staple of their diet:

"The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread amd what amazing things Katie could make from it! She'd take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over, was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.
Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named
Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny's worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn't quite melt and that made it wonderful"

In honor of every last crust of stale bread, I put together this breakfast strata. It is a fridge-cleaning "recipe", if you even want to call it a recipe. This is just a "Throw in whatever you got" kind of dish. I love making this on Saturday mornings to clean out the fridge before I head out to the Farmer's Market for my weekly groceries. It gets me off to a fresh start on weekends.

Breakfast Strata

(serves 2-3)
3 eggs
Stale bread, cut into small cubes (about 2 cups)
Splash of milk or cream
Some sliced onions
Assorted veggies (peppers are good if you have any) (1 cup in all)
Assorted cheeses (shredded) (1/2 cup)
Salt and Pepper
Herbs (optional)
1. Saute the onions and veggies together. Set aside.
2. Beat the eggs together with cream/milk, salt and pepper.
3. Coat a gratin dish with non-stick spray. Layer with veggies, then bread cubes.
4. Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes so that it soaks into the bread.
5. Top with the shredded cheese and herbs, if using.
6. Bake at 350 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, till egg is cooked (knife should come clean) and cheese is golden.


You never need to throw out any old bread: Stale Bread was the theme of a recent IMBB (food event) hosted by Derrick of An Obsession with Food. Read the round-ups here, here and here for a plethora of ideas on what to do with left-over bread. Another dish I love making with stale bread: Bread Pakoras!


  1. That looks delicious Nupur! Happy 4th of July!


  2. Lovely! What a lovely way to use bits and pieces, Nupur :)

  3. hi. grt to read how a poor mom could serve such 'rich ' meals so creatively and lovingly made with one common unappetising ingredient - stale bread.
    yr recipe looks equally attractive. grt idea to use all leftovers.some other ideas...sun-dry stale bread and make bread crust which can be used to dip patties etc before frying., mix bread with leftover veggies or just boiled potatoes with some masala , roll into patties and fry., simply crush the bread and make bread upma with simple vagar, and fried onions., fry bread fingers as soup accompaniments or fry chunks and put them in soup., pat a dry vegetable [cooked bhaji] on a slice, wet slightly so it sticks, then shallow fry to make crisp veg toasts etc..
    luv, yoma.

  4. That looks fabulous and yes, I do have everything needed to make it (although our bread is whole wheat rather than the luscious looking white bread in your picture). Problem is, the kitchen's all torn up, so into the "make this someday" pile it goes. Thanks for the post!

  5. that's a brilliant combo nupur...I may try this some day...breads becoming stale is a frequent episode for me...

  6. Hello Nupur,

    Very thoughtful post and that's a great idea for a series of posts: books and cooking are my great passions too! Thanks for that recipe!


  7. Hey Nupur,
    On weekends I have bread and egg omlette to clean up my fridge but these days i was getting quite bored of it,but urs is quite different to my routine so i guess i should give this a try!!!

  8. This is a wonderful post. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a book that made a huge impression on me when I read it as a young girl, and I reread it as an adult, and found it stood up very well. I had actually especially remembered the passages you quote on food, in particular.

    It reminded me a lot of the descriptions of food in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. It seems that for people who have actually gone hungry because they did not have enough food, certain sensory food memories are particularly vivid and sharp.

    And like the mother in the B. Smith book, Laura's Ma was especially good at turning nearly no food at all into memorable meals for her family.

    So much of the world, through so much of our history, has lived through cycles of famine and "feasting." All of my grandparents went hungry at times; how lucky I am not to have experienced anything worse than eating too many ramen noodles as a college student, when I was low on cash!

  9. Thanks, Faffer!

    Vidya, thanks for sharing your recipe!

    Shammi, thanks for stopping by!

    Yoma, nice ideas :)

    Hi PatL, whole-wheat bread would be delicious! I used a left-over Italian hoagie roll.

    Indianadoc, Nav, BDSN, thanks for your comments!

    Lindy, thanks for taking the effort to leave such a thoughtful comment. I must look up books by Laura Wilder. Like you said, we are perhaps the first generations to not experience hunger as a whole (though we witness it around us unfortunately).


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