Saturday, May 29, 2010


It’s a Southern thing, I suppose, of my generation, that we just naturally learned how to plant, harvest, cook and serve almost anything that went onto our tables, and our cuisine is of the homey sort, mostly---pots set to simmer early in the day, to avoid the heat of those sun-blasted afternoons. Baking was done early or late---way late, in the furtive hours when the house was silent and the air conditioning pouring out cold air to combat the oven’s Vulcanic glow.
We’ve also branched out, a bit, from the little church cookbooks and the Campbell’s casseroles, delightedly devouring plates of kibbeh and dolmas and mole at the various little family restaurants which sprang up in our small towns. We eagerly awaited the Tamale Man’s bell, as he strode the streets and favored certain corners with his fragrant cart. He dispensed who-knows-what in those rustly shucks of masa and mysterious tomato-tinted middles, and we scarfed them up as eagerly as kids and candy.
And there was more than one of him, with the Saturday route delineated and adhered to like the Blue Line---ours was a big, bustly guy, past middle age, whose as-white-as-Clorox-could-make-it-between-spills chef’s jacket and glistening ebony cheeks were a welcome sight as he hauled tins and boxes and coffee cans and trays out of the depths of that white steamer. We embraced the exotic and the spicy and the new, adopting the latugie and ravioli of our Italian neighbors, and The Good Church Ladies vying with each other to follow Mrs. Kowalski’s recipe perfectly and set down the most beautiful golden varnishes onto the table at Second Saturday Church Suppers.
And the little Chinese places---Oh, Those!!! We eagerly gobbled all sorts of wonderful new flavors---soy and sesame and anise and all the crisp delights of bamboo shoots and water chestnuts and bean sprouts, as well as the glories of "our" little flappy-screen cafe's General's Chicken and the most sublime Fried Rice in the history of Time. We always said that if we ever struck our fortune, we'd just build the famly a house beside us, support them all their days, and get them to cook for us every day.
But of our own recipes, aside from fried chicken and perhaps the shrimp-and-grits flurry of several years ago, there's still a whole big world out there, uneducated and unenlightened to the sumptuous dishes of the Southern Table. There are palates which never tasted hushpuppies straight from the big black fishcamp pot, eyes which never beheld a Red Velvet cake or a golden-meringue-topped ‘nanner puddin straight from the oven in its oblong Pyrex, vanilla wafers standing proudly like soldiers against the sides. There is somewhere, I'm sure, a dear soul deprived of the tongue-curling scent of REAL barbecue, the smoke rising from the crusty rungs of that pit like praise to Heaven.

Whole nations go through life without biscuits and molasses, or a glimpse of that crusty-topped baked corn coming steaming out of the oven in its own black skillet, the same skillet which every day turns out fried chicken and okra and catfish to make an emperor swoon. Lives are lived, inventions patented, work done, educations sought and achieved, music composed and books written, all by people whose own lives would be changed and enhanced by mere introduction to the wonderful, rich heritage which is the Southern Kitchen.
Our Southern roots are ingrained, but we are more and more every day being inundated and saturated with all the wonderful cuisines from all around the world, the sushi and the greens and wok-cooking and tagine-cooking and so many luscious amalgams and mixtures and spices and grains---it seems selfish not to share and keep sharing the glorious table spread by Southern cooks, no matter what their locale.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Miss Lucy is a Louisiana institution, like the powdered sugar on your shoes at CafĂ© du Monde and the century-simmered LSU/Ole Miss rivalry. She was raised in the good ole Cajun Cookin’ tradition, with homage paid to the Kitchen Trinity in every dish save that Strawberry Thing.

She’s a petite woman, looking much like a cross between Diane Keeton and Loretta Lynn, and quite attractive behind those 80’s glasses, which she pushes up almost as often as she stirs a pot. And stir, she does!!! I’m USED to Southern Cookin’ and except for the great wonderment at all the carbs and grease, the only thing which perturbs me about her cooking is the way she shows off her wonderful non-stick cookware, then drowns out her dialogue with loud, metal-utensil skritches and scrapes of the pot through every recipe.

I used to watch her on RFD TV, somewhere between the cattle auctions and the HeeHaw re-runs, and stepping into her kitchen, across the counter from those pots and pans redolent of simmering peppers and onions and seafood and lots of seasonings, is a step into another kind of cuisine entirely. She is so welcoming and homey, you’re time-transported to childhood and feel as if you’re sitting there watching your favorite aunt cook supper for the family---you wanna get up and start setting the table and pouring the tea.

I cook with butter; my many recipes involving Philly caused me to be christened Goddess of Lily-Gilding on a very well-known cooking website, and Heaven help me---I’ve put a can of Campbell’s Cream Of into more casseroles and gravies than you can shake a spoon at, but Oh, My!!!

The constitution of those dishes on her dashing red stove must be that of wall-spackle; by the third ingredient, that big spoon just stands there upright until she returns with yet another richly-thick item to add.

I’ve looked up her Crawfish Etouffee recipe, and the one online is not QUITE the recipe I watched her make one cold evening several years ago (before we got this new-fangled TV system which looks DOWN on country matters like the folks in 5-7-9 look at me). That pot grew and grew, from the two sticks of melted oleo to saute the peppers and onions, and start the “light roux” with some flour, to the can of Campbell’s, the blocks of Philly (scritch becoming scrape as she tried to incorporate all that paste) and then the seasonings and a coupla pounds of picked-out crawfish tails.

And she’s no wilting lily, herself---she goes out to those big metal buildings on the ponds--- those gifts to the local economy and lots of rural families; she walks in where those ladies are picking that meat, puts on her own apron and hairnet, and sits right down. You can tell a cook who knows her ingredients---and knows where they come from. She’d no more quail at dressing game or gutting a fish than she would at putting on those waist-waders and manning the nets.

I like her; I wish I could still get her program---I’ve poked fun and shown her to the family and we’ve laughed at all the folderol, but good cookin’ comes out of that kitchen, and that’s what counts. And if you broke your leg, she’d be at your door with a 9x13 of Shrimp and Cornbread Dressin’ before the plaster cast had set.

I’d love to taste some of the food which comes from her cheery red kitchen; I know it would taste good. And rich. And spicy. I’ve just wondered if maybe instead of headin’ down there to try, it might save time to just throw some creamcheese, Campbell’s and a pound of butter in the blender, and just mainline the calories.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


A remembrance not my own, just written down from memories of long talks over coffee with an Aunt in Alabama.

I’ve known only two people in my life who didn’t like chocolate. One was a bit strange in other ways, as well, and the other came by her dislike honestly.

One of the Aunts on Chris’ side married very young---she was fifteen and her husband nineteen when they ran away and got hitched---they had been forbidden to see each other until she was sixteen, and it finally got the best of them. So, when all the younguns got all dressed up in sheets and charcoal-smudge whiskers and GrandDad’s oldest clothes on that still-warm Halloween night, they dressed up, too. She had worn clothes-under-clothes for several days, sneaking them out into the barn and stashing a couple of outfits and her best dress and shoes in a pillowcase beneath some old stuff stored out there.

On Halloween, she put on a long gingham skirt and and one of her Daddy’s old shirts over a dress, crammed her stockings and her Bible into her purse, and then “went walking” with the rest of the young people of the community. They were, indeed, of the soap-your-windows era, along with the tip-the-outhouse and some skylarking young gents were known to have opened the front door of a rival’s house and turned two pigs and a turkey in on his Mama’s best India rug.

Aunt Birdie Mae met her sweetheart down the road and they set out on his horse for the next county where he had kin, and where they had visited the church, and knew the preacher. So they were married the next day, staying with his kinfolks for a while, then coming home to a very cold reception from her family.

One of his married brothers had just finished building a new little house for himself and his own bride, and they asked the newlyweds if they’d like to stay with them for a bit until things cooled down. And they did, with nothing but his steady job and the clothes she had carried from home, and apparently they lived on there for quite a little time, for the main part of the story occurred on over in the hot Summer down there in Grand Bay.

The two young women got along pretty well, with the division of labor around the house and yard and milking-barn divided about 70/30, Aunt B said, in favor of the hostess. Aunt B did most of the cooking, all of the kitchen work, a lot of the animal-tending and the milking, whilst her sister-in-law quilted and tatted and made clothes all the Winter through.

Then, in the Spring, the menfolks plowed up the garden plot, and Aunt B. planted and hoed it, then canned everything that wasn’t needed for the three-meals-a-day for the four of them. It got hotter and hotter, she said (and I believe her, for we’ve lived in southern Alabama, too) and the canning seemed to stretch on forever.

The BIL and SIL would go to town almost every Saturday afternoon from the farm, getting the week’s staples such as coffee and sugar and tea, and perhaps some fabric for a new dress, and they’d spend the time visiting up and down the streets with friends and shopkeepers, always stopping at the drugstore, where they’d have a cold Cherry Phospate, sitting on those high fountain-stools and crunching that real cracked ice til the last sliver was gone.

Aunt B., seldom invited on these trips, would stay home on the place, week after week. And every Saturday, she’d pray for the couple to just get gone for a little while, just a breather from the constant companionship, so she could wash her hair and dry it in the sunshine of the yard, and sit in the swing in the shade a bit without a pan of peas to shell in her lap. The noon dinner dishes done, the floor swept, the shoes polished for church in the morning, and a bit of respite in sight, she hoped.

BIL would pull the buggy up to the yard, while SIL checked her hat in the mirror, then she’d walk out onto the porch. Aunt B. would watch her go, relief almost overtaking the fervent prayer that she’d just GO, and then it would come:

Every week without fail, SIL would stop on the porch and turn, or she’d get all the way up the step into the buggy, settle onto the seat, turn to Aunt B., tuck her head coyly, and say, "Chock-littt CAAAAAAKE, Birrrrdie,” in the most annoying voice in the universe. She’d blink her eyelashes beseechingly, with a little smile that knew she couldn’t be refused, since they were so beholden to her and her husband for the roof over their heads.

And so, Aunt B. would plod into the kitchen, get out the bowls and the spoons and the sugar and the Hershey’s can, throw some more wood into that already-glowing woodstove, and start mixing batter and frosting. I can only imagine that sometimes she didn’t plod. I like to think that some days she'd bang things around some---stove-lids and sifters, or yell out what she REALLY wanted to say in the stillness of that empty hot kitchen, or even have to go all the way out in the yard to get those cakepans and spoons from where she’d hurled them.

But she made that cake, every blessed Saturday that they lived there. She worked in that stifling kitchen every week, baking the layers and cooling and frosting, heating the whole house past bearing in that Summer sun, doing her part to help with their upkeep.

And I never DID see Aunt B. eat chocolate---not once.