Saturday, November 29, 2008

BOOKS IN MY BAG

Yesterday was long and covered many, many miles. We drove down-down-down through Indiana of the early morning, stopping for a chicken-in-a-biscuit half an hour south of home. That was a first for me---that chunk of crispy, steamy-tender chicken inside crumbly biscuit---I'm a something-on-a-"croissant" kinda girl, liking the thin scrim of ham, the too-bright little blanket of egg, the small square of goldish cheese plopped down every-which-way by the hurrying hands of the early-person at McDonald's.

But this was nice; it was just the right amount---of meat, of biscuit, of salt, to complement the big mug of coffee-brought-from-home. We draped a sheet of two paper towels down our chests, behind the seatbelt, another across our knees, and I opened the sack, distributing the fat hot packets, opening his and crumpling the crisp paper just so to reveal the first bite. And the biscuit faces OUT---no biting it with the crust on top---oh, no. Your top teeth have to sink through the buttery top crust first---it's the LAW.

We settled in, two chilly diet Cokes in the console, my dwindling mug scrunched between thigh and door, bookbag and paper towels in easy reach in the back seat, and away we flew. Later, crumbs swept, paper gathered and crumpled back into the bag, we put in a Stuart Woods CD and became immersed in the story, letting that white line flow behind us like the wake of a boat. I reached out a big flat party cookbook, using it for a desktop to work several crosswords---I love the Cryptic Crosswords by Aeronaut.

Late lunch WAY down the road, in the place of the original, first-in-the-nation Cracker Barrel, though the store itself is way across the road---the new model is twice the size, though properly seasoned into a facade of age and rusticality to delight the heart of anybody who ever pulled up a chair to an oilcloth table.

And on to Atlanta; Chris and two of our sons have gone to the shootin' range, and I'm about to take an iron to our Sunday clothes, relegated to the wrinkling smush of the trunk for those many miles. Tomorrow will be a special day, and I'm also awaiting the coast-kin---Chris' Mom and our dear cousins who are her escorts and chauffeurs. We're taking everyone to one of those rompin-stompin' roadhouse places for dinner tonight, and we'll be heading home right after lunch tomorrow.

And so a Motel-Post; I'm enjoying the quiet, after the long, cooped-up day of travel, and another in the offing, with lots of talk and laughing and family stuff and hugs in between. Meanwhile, when the little bit of pressing is done, I have a bright, colorful big book of canapes and starters and lovely little tidbits in all their simple, complicated glory, nice for looking and anticipating and enjoying. The latest Ann Rule, with about eight true-life mysteries; another called "Deadly Divorces"---I swear, if folks could see what I read, they'd never let me near their families.

And Laurie Colwin's "Shine On, . . ." I have no patience with machines that just WON'T Obey!!! I've never used a laptop, and cannot get rid of the italics. And even at home, I've composed several posts lately that I lost completely into the ether before hitting "send" so I'm gonna close out this one.

Hope everyone has a lovely weekend!!!

Moire non,

rachel

Friday, November 28, 2008

AFTERMATH

Yesterday veered from too much rich Southern food, to a spirited Conga-Line around the tables to Joe Cocker's "It's All Right," to dressing up fancifully and making pictures for the Christmas Cards.

I hope your day was all you wanted it to be, all you needed it to be, and all you dreamed it to be.
And I hope today's even better.

And now, we're off to be the Wizard.

Moire non,

rachel

Thursday, November 27, 2008

TRAVELERS OF ANOTHER TIME

Getting all this good food onto the table, with all the conveniences and ease that have come to be taken so lightly, I think of the past cooks whose lives and kitchens and cooking and hours were filled by the simplest of chores---the gathering and the finding and all the grim, hard FACTS of feeding a family before electricity, before stores, before stoves.

We went to the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon a couple of years ago, and were just enthralled by all the anachronistic costumes and weapons and the carved furniture, the carpets and various hand-made home and kitchen items. We strolled among the crude kitchens and firepits which were created by the participants, there for several days, and living in the manner of the past.

Great black pots of beans, of sauerkraut stew a bit the worse for wear, with its days’-old countenance and the primitive stirring stick in the cauldron. One sign advertised croquinoles and buffalo stew---the fried bread and the game medley of whatever they could shoot, trap or catch.

The stew was one that caught my eye, because of the little couple who purchased two flimsy white bowls of the stuff. They carried it and their swaddled baby over to a shady spot, sat down, and began to spoon up the steaming red stew. Perhaps it was the absolute authenticity of the event, in that there was no modern food-for-sale---no tacos, no hot dogs, no grill-immolated burgers, just beans and stew and fried bread.

The pair and their child sat and ate their supper, quietly speaking, taking turns holding the baby in their folded legs as they sat in the dirt. They wore rough clothes, and the wee one wore a long-tailed dress. Their demeanor was that of a subdued, hard-driven young couple, making their way along the trail to new horizons, not that of young folks out for a sunny afternoon of fun and games, who would toss off those hot clothes for shorts and tanks, and crank up a sizzling CD as soon as they hit the parking lot.

I noticed a dropped pink pacifier at my feet. I caught the mother’s eye, signaled to the lost passy, and she looked at it, at me, and back at it, with a puzzled look of one who gazes on an artifact unknown. With a little frisson of amazement, I had the absurd feeling that I was gazing at people of another age and time, lost in this strange place, finding others familiarly dressed and grubby, just having a meal and a rest before passing through.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

SCENTS OF THE SEASON

When we came home just now, the only scent that we descended into as we came downstairs was that of the "air machine"---that ozoney, heavy something that hits your breath immediately when you click the little remote to turn it on.

The air was oddly bereft of all the scents which usually accompany all that hectic Thanksgiving preparation---the steamy waft of chicken simmering for stock or gravy or sauce; the crisp greenth of the just-snapped beans, and the sizzle of bacon and onion in the pot that will receive them, cook them long and low with a bit of garlic, a spoon of sugar, and then later, the tiny pink pearls of baby potatoes, one-curl-peeled all round, the better to soak up that luscious bean liquor as they steam atop. Yesterday was the day for the beans---I snapped them at the breakfast table, holding the tray on my lap, as our littlest Granddaughter toddled up time after time, filling her wee hands with long green extra fingers---she took on the look of Edward Scissorhands, with all the projecting bits, and today when I ran the vacuum, I'm sure I accounted for an entire whirring, buzzing serving making its way through the beater-brush.

I "canned" the beans in the old way, fresh though they were---our family's beans have always been canned in a brine with the vaguest hint of vinegar and sugar, recipe courtesy of my first Mother-in-Law. The kitchen then filled with the scents of a Summer morning, just for half an hour or so, with all the ease of filling a grocery bag and none of the hoeing and picking in that hot sun. The two clear takeout quarts are chilling in the fridge, as well, to be cooked for a long time tomorrow.

The sage I picked this afternoon, surprisingly springy and green despite all the tens and 'teens of the thermometer of late, was overmatched by the big cushions of parsley, lying low in the leaves, still as fresh and springy as in May---the sage has yet to be rolled like a wee green cigar and chiffonaded into threads for the dressing, and so has not yet let free its menthol breath of a Mediterranean hillside. I washed and towel-wrapped and bagged a handful of sage and a great bouquet of parsley; there are but six of us, and so we're breaking tradition and NOT breaking out Mammaw's milk-glass devilled egg plate this year. The eggs and some crisp little pale yellow tenders from the very center of the celery will go onto a small platter, cushioned in parsley and bringing green for the eye to this carb-rich meal.

The sweet potatoes for the casserole were yesterday simmered in the skins, which pulled free like fat limp mittens from the golden velvet of the insides. Whisk-beaten warm with a glob of butter, a scatter of sugar like round crumbs of molasses, a glug from the Watkins vanilla bottle (with a tiny dab behind each ear, for Old Times' Sake), they wait in Tupperware in the fridge to be spread into the buttered Corning Ware and covered in a snow of plump baby marshmallows.

The cornbread DID perfume the whole downstairs this afternoon, with the deep note of crisping corn and tang of buttermilk. It, too, waits, snugged into a plastic bowl, for tomorrow it will be hand-crumbled, seasoned with the already-minced-and-bagged sweet onion and equally-small-cut celery, a few hearty grinds from the peppermill, the exotic scent of the sage, and sluices of the stock which is now thawing on the counter.

And no spices. Oddly no spices, save for an apple-potpourri airwick thing that copes with the ozone. No cinnamon, no cloves, no nutmeg---not in anything. No mulled cider, no ginger cookies, no nothing with a whiff of the caravan road or Christmas cheer. Not this time. And I don't know why, really; it seems an odd house this season, though we've chosen, as always, what we've always chosen--cornbread dressing and beans and corn and sweet potatoes---quite a few pretty close to the Original Feast, I would think, though our choices are more habit than commemoration.

There will be a platter of just-steamed broccoli and cauliflower, with the a point colors arrayed on the same orange-rimmed platter as in a dozen other years, a boat of yolk-rich blender Hollandaise alongside, and some of those easy-peasy crescent rolls, cause we have two guys who really like them. And the sound of cans popping was heard in the Land.

Maybe it was the AHEAD of the thing, as I made allowances for a shifted, then re-shifted time to accommodate DIL's family, who then decided to have theirs Saturday, anyway; then there was our night-worker, whose sleep needs to be all-at-once instead of broken for dinner, then sleep again. And two of us are leaving Friday at OH-Dark-Thirty for a 1400 mile round trip this weekend---so there was suit-pressing and packing and cooler-stocking and where IS that battery-charger for the camera, anyway?

The confluence of all these ways and means and things and circumstances has rendered our house oddly olfactorily-silent, as it were. Everything is ready; it will BE ready. But the preparation, the flush of cheek and damp of forehead, the Open That Window Before I FAINT In This Kitchen---those have been separated by a day it seems, and there's been no scent of the getting ready, not all those warm, salty, rich, smoky, tangy smells that you could inhale in Timbuktu with your eyes shut and sigh, "THANKSGIVING AT GRANDMA'S!"

Tomorrow, when the simmering beans are adding their note to the pre-scent of frying bacon and onions, when the corn/chicken/sage crisping of the dressing in the oven, the candyshop scent of the vanilla potatoes and the Summer campfire smell of toasting marshmallows fills the rooms---THEN will be the time. We won't miss out on any of the experience---the scents, the tastes, the silver clinking on the burgundy plates, the candlelight and the leaf-laden chandelier, and all the scents of HOME.

But it SURE smells strange tonight.

Monday, November 24, 2008

SMALL THANKFULS

A post on a blog that I enjoy mentioned percolators, and that kindled a moment of Thankful, just for the pleasures of the scent of ours perking, the taste of that good strong brew every morning, and the memories which surround a life-long succession of the handy silvery appliances.

One of my Thankfuls is the scent of coffee perking as I emerge from our room or from the shower in the morning.DH insists on pouring my first cup, adding in the little wisp of S&L, pouring in the skim from the fat little red ball-jug, even to the extent of shouldering me gently aside to get to the percolator as I reach for it. I've learned, so I smilingly accept his gracious, loving little morning ritual.

There's something about that perky scent that's not the same as Mr. Coffee or any of the other brewers. It's the scent of my childhood, as my parents consumed the entire pot before starting their day; it's not the same as the throaty purr of the Senseo as she bends gracefully over the foamy cup, or the sussssssh of the Ibrik conjuring up that strong, proud stream.

When my Sis was just here, I set up two pots each night, to be plugged in by first-one-up in the morning---a regular eight-cup one for BIL, who cannot drink caffeine, and the 12-cup big guy for Sis and me. Family tradition, as we've never been without a percolator in either household.

Though I DID, last time we bought one, have to explain the term to the two young clerks at Sears, who were still speaking wonderingly of the concept in what-will-they-think-of-next voices as we left the aisle.

Small Thankfuls---this is just one of legion.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

BARBECUE, BBQ, 'CUE

Barbacue is the usual pronunciation, BBQ the abbreviation, and 'cue is a word I've seen only in novels and restaurant reviews by folks from OFF who are trying hard to adopt the local vernacular to impress OTHER folks from off with their new-found language skills. I've certainly never heard a real-live person call it that.

We spent a few days with the children and grandchildren in Georgia not long ago, and the evening we arrived, driving our oldest Granddaughter home, we three stopped and had dinner with DS#3. He recommended a place he liked, way out on the Interstate, and we had some really good ribs, some excellent potato salad, with ordinary beans and slaw, forty-weight sweet tea, and two bites of a ketchup-sauced, pulled-to-threads sandwich, which came pre-made, wrapped in that foil-backed paper so beloved of middle-school cafeterias. Opening that wrapper was nostalgia, déjà vu and flashback all in one.

DS had Brunswick and “Lion Ribs,” which looked just like the ones we were having---I have no idea what the difference is. I recounted our evening to an Internet friend, and she said she might as well have been opening the South China Post and trying to comprehend the cricket scores, as all the terms and dishes I spoke of.

And so I reassured her:

Any and everything I could clear up for you, I'll be glad to translate. Southern Barbecue is a thing unto itself, a long-cooked, Heaven-scented, fall-apart bit of Glory here on Earth. Any shape or size or amount of pork, parked on the rungs of a long-used pit, and given the time and attention of a master Pit-Man---that's entirely a food group on its own.

From the first rub, be it dry with salt and ground pepper and whatever other spices and dried herbs please the cook (and whose esoteric, exacting combination of special flavors has probably been in the family for a LONG time) or wet, with a rag-on-a-stick mop dipped into vinegar-oil-lemon-juice-garlic and any of myriad combinations (but never sauce---not 'til the end; tomato and/or sugar, the basic components of any Deep South sauce will burn black from the get-go, giving even the smoke a tang of bitter regret at the travesty).

It makes me shudder to see even Miss Ina, champion cook that she is, douse raw chicken parts entirely in a whole bowl of red stuff, then slap it on the grill. It just 'taint fittin', and they smile and eat it either 'cause they're on TV or they don't know better.

And the wood---that's a debate amongst barbecue lovers all over the world. Most swear by a bit of hickory, some by apple or mesquite---but always wood, for the best. We drove up to a much-touted barbecue place in Kentucky a couple of years ago, and got into a quite-considerable line a-waiting. I stepped around the corner toward the scent, and walked between four-foot walls made entirely of bags of Kingsford. Then I knew. It was OK---but it wasn't Barbecue.

With a REAL Pit-Man, the meat goes onto those pit-rungs with the care and placement of a ritual sacrifice, and I suppose it's as close as it comes in the modern scheme of things---meat sizzle and the perfume of good smoke rising to Heaven. The time, the covering and uncovering, the shovel-shuffling of the coals and the wood and the blaze into the proper proportions and temperature---all these go into making up a good batch of barbecue.You can be invited over to a neighbor's house for "a barbecue" and be served burgers straight off the charcoal, the unholy aura of starter-fluid tainting each mouthful---THAT'S not a Barbecue---that's a cookout, and a bad one, at that.

Real Barbecue comes from a real pit; night-long tending for a whole pig that will be served WAY up in the day to follow; conversation and sandwiches and beer and hoopcheese and crackers, beer and more beer, maybe some cans of Vy-eenies or sardines---those are proper sustenance for the pit-folk and their avid followers--age-old tastes for the REAL taste of home.

The meat is turned, turned again, moved to a better spot over the coals, with a sissssss of water through the rungs now and then when the coals rage too hot; a sussssshhh of the bellows to re-kindle the red when need be.

Ribs are either dry-rubbed to start, then sometimes rubbed again, the seasonings gilding onto the surfaces like brazen armor, or they are swabbed at the last, with the red sauce of choice, then left just long enough for the deep burgundy glaze to meld to the meat in a shiny shellac like the paint-job on a well-loved Camaro.

The butt-or-shoulder-meat comes from the pit naked as it went on, the only change the night-long tenderness and the perfection of that smoke-cloak all through. It can be shaken from the bone, which slips out like fingers from a glove. The great chunks of steaming fragrance are then pulled (my favorite---the long, tender strands separating with the grain, one of the few times true tenderness is achieved that way) or chopped, which means just what it says---sometimes two-handed cleaver-chopping worthy of a skilled Asian Master.

Meat is piled onto grilled or toasted buns, anointed with sauce, with a little haystack of good crisp, vinegary coleslaw shreds atop. Top on, little salute from greasy grill spatula, and a miracle is born.

Brunswick is Brunswick Stew---a conglomeration of lots of kinds of meat (originally mostly game, but could include terrapin, shrimp, beef, pork, or chicken), with too many finely-chopped vegetables to name. It's a hunting-camp dish, sometimes made over an open fire, the boiling mass in the big black pot stirred with a boat paddle. It was usually done well before the meat came off the grill, and bowls were passed around to the hungry bystanders to quell the uprising until the pork was done.

Slaw is just the Southern word for coleslaw, of which there are several camps, the main two being mayonnaise or vinegar. It's a shredded or chopped head of cabbage, with any additions customary to the locale---green onions or peppers or grated carrot; fancy-dancy folks have been known to add chopped apple or a little can of crushed pineapple or even sunflower seeds. I like both kinds of dressing, and I like my slaw "ON" which means a spoonful actually ON the sandwich, as well as some for fork-bites alongside.

Baked Beans are most usually started with a sizzle of onion and chopped bell pepper, then any amount of barbecue sauce and brown sugar that pleases the cook. Beans of choice where I'm from are cans of Showboat Pork 'n' Beans, drained of their extra liquid, and divested of that clammy little white waxy bit of "pork" which they sport in deference to their name. All this is stirred together in the skillet, then poured into a baking dish; top that with a nice lattice of bacon strips, stick it in a 350 oven for about 45 minutes, and you've got the perfect Southern Side for anything from burgers to barbecue to fried catfish. Nirvana is reached when some of the crispins and messy meat from the pulled or chopped pork are stirred in before baking.

Potato Salad---that's a hard subject to discuss, especially if there's more than one Southern cook in the conversation. Talk gets hot and heavy, always including, "Well, the way I make MYE Potato Salad. . ." and ranging on to pickles, dill or sweet; onion, yea or nay, and if Miracle Whip ever rears its ugly head, the WAR is on.

It's usually just nicely boiled small potatoes, skins on or off, cut up warm into a bowl, salted, and left to sit a few minutes while you chop a bit of sweet onion, some sweet pickles, a hard-boiled egg or two, and a bit of cold crisp bell pepper. A big clop of Duke's mayo, a squirt of French's mustard, a little handful of celery seeds, and serve when you want---right now, warm, or cover and chill.

And Sauce---I won't get into the sauce debate. Every section of the country has their own tradition, and I'm from the darrrrrrk-red, brown sugar section of the country, though I DID have some beef ribs in a place on the Riverwalk in San Antonio that still haunt---dry ribs though they were. They were at the perfect moment---rich, long-cooked meat which clung to the bone enough to rip apart, with small ragged ridges you could feel with your tongue before you greedily chewed that heavenly mouthful.

And I just now saw Bourdain watching a South Carolina pit-man take off the pork, break it apart with his hands, and pour on what looked like a pint of yellow mustard. My tongue is curling just thinking about it.

I was raised on Mississippi sauce, with delighted forays into the big-city refinements of Memphis pits like Leonard’s---remembered with an avaricious covetousness unknown since Midas' downfall. And Mississippi has been a RED state since LONG before CNN tacked up that map. We mostly like it deep burgundy/red, slightly sweet with the depth of brown sugar or molasses cooked thick as ready-to-set fudge.

And I have NO idea what "Lion Ribs" are---that was in Atlanta, two states removed from my raising, so I don't know what-all they do over there.


And I'd like to hear what sauce is the norm/favorite/old standby in other areas of the country. I've always been of the comforting thought that there's barbecue EVERYWHERE. There must be.

Friday, November 21, 2008

BOOKOPHILIA

If that's not a word, it SHOULD be. It's a feeling and a lifestyle and a hobby and a blessing, all in one.

Books are the bellwethers of magic---all kinds of both. I covet them, I love them, I caress and smell and open them with reverence tinged with impatience to get in there and see what's to offer. I coveted BIG TIME the National Geographics of the people catty-corner across the street. We lived too close to school for the bus, and SO far to walk on cold or rainy mornings.

I'd set out all bundled up, and sometimes would knock at the back door of those neighbors, whose daughter was two years older, a sophisticated, snappy dresser whose gleaming short perm was the envy of my little braids-wearing heart. The son was a couple of years behind me, a budding pyromaniac who later set fire to several neighborhood porches and quite a few garbage barrels left unattended in the neat back alleys where the trucks came through. Today, he's with Pixar---hope it's in CGI, and he can get his kicks from that.

The cook would let me into the back what-would-today-be-a-mudroom and I'd stand, inhaling the scents of morning toast, peeking through to the breakfast room---a small sunny place with two white-painted, high-backed benches in the wall and a table secured between. I watched obliquely as the son of the house consumed slice after slice, just the insides of the triangles, from the great stack set before him by Mattie. I could hear his clicky crunching sometimes, and see him turning pages of the newest comic book from the drugstore.

But mostly I looked at those shelves of golden treasure---all those years of NG standing proudly on shelf after shelf, their golden spines speaking of Madagascar and Algeria and all those deepest darkest Africa places---I wanted to dive into those like off the highboard with nobody lookin'. They just sat there---I never saw anybody with one open, or a gap in the shelves, or even one lying spine-broke on the footstool, waiting to be returned to and finished. It was kinda like the having was the thing---not the reading and absorbing and living in.

Jeannie would emerge into the kitchen, her aura of AquaNet sweeping through the dining room, and get her big glass of orange juice---I knew it wasn't fresh-squeezed; we had the tiny Minute Maid cans in our own freezer, which we made up in a red-flowered carafe with teensy glasses to match. We were each allotted one tiny glass at breakfast, and that was it---the container went back into the fridge for next morning. But her tall tumbler---that said Nancy Drew as plain as day---their Mattie converted into a white-uniformed black version of Hanna Gruen, pouring out the gallons of juice with a free hand.

And I would wait, hat in hand, so to speak, as their Daddy finished his newspaper, Jimmy finished the comics and toast, and they made their leisurely way to the big pinky-gray DeSoto in the carport. Big, solid clunks of all four doors, and we rode in silence---I just KNEW there would be something to talk about, about those Trobrianders or the Icelanders or even Australians, who were far away and strange, but at least spoke our language.


Nope. Not a word, even goodbye to their Dad; my soft "Thank You" was the only concession to civility of the whole ride; we could have been four strangers taking the El, with just that much relationship and notice.

Their parents did not work---my Mom didn't yet at that time, but both their parents "owned land" and the rentals and all the estate from his family kept them in DeSotos and National Geographics---a mighty fine state, to my way of thinking. And you never saw Mrs. Burgess in the morning---she got her beauty sleep, had her coffee delivered to the sunroom, and got bathed and primped up for whatever club or organization met that afternoon. (She put on her stockings EVERY DAY, soon as she got her bath) Several times a month, the half-dozen cars would line their drive on weekday afternoons, a sure sign that the Wednesday Afternoon or the Thursday Afternoon Bridge Club was in residence, with Mattie bringing out the little cream-cheese-and-pecan sandwiches and the Bridge Mix and coffee, and later, the Manhattans. (And them a mere two houses from the Baptist Church).

In Summer, sometimes I'd be over there to visit, and we'd see all the festivities, braving the clots of smoke to listen and giggle from the hall. We also got to scavenge at the limp, leftover trays of dainties. That's where I first saw "checkerboard sandwiches"---a tooo-twee concoction involving spreading crustless white bread with good sharp heavy pimiento cheese, stacking them someway criss-cross, and making a pattern that you cut down through, stack again, rotating each one ninety degrees, and cut again, so that the slices laid on the luncheon plate are little yellow and white checkerboards.

Quite striking and a lotta trouble, plus you had to have a fork to eat the thing, so they must have broken for refreshments instead of munching out of hand like we always did at our cutthroat games of Rook or Monopoly.

What we had and did were never quite enough or classy enough or stylish, or whatever, but that the Burgess household did it better and more often, to boot. Jeannie was a ladylike girl, whose propensities leant toward dressing beautifully on Saturdays, and spending the day sitting demurely in the front-porch swing with a few magazines, a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and a glass with a straw, and perhaps a bit of embroidery at hand, though I don't think I ever saw anything she'd completed.

I embroidered all the time---still have some of the pieces---"dresser scarves"---remember the art deco bedroom sets with the big oval mirror standing up, and recessed shelves in the middle, with two wings of drawers on the side? That's what my bedroom set was, with the smooth roundness of the Guggenheim, and a fat-poster bed (which was MINE---they said it was, and so, after watching so many movies and TV shows with the spread that draped gracefully all the way to the floor, with no footboard or posts to get in the way, I took Daddy's miter-saw to my own bed, leveling the two foot-posts to the height of the mattress, so that the spread went across and over in one smooth line).

I also did "pillow slips" in all sorts of colors and patterns---flowers and birds and scallops and waves. Mother had one of those sewing machines that you put in a round tooth-edged die into the slot, and the needle would do whatever fancy stitch along the edge of your pillow slip (or any other item)---she'd stitch around with variegated purples, say, and my Mammaw B would crochet in the same colors---an inch-wide lacing of beautiful crochet. I still have quite a few of those crochet edgings, joined round as hoops, all folded together in a box---in hopes of tacking them to some wedding gifts for the grandchildren---wouldn't that be a lovely thing---something handmade five generations ago by your own GREAT-great.

And books. My favorite gifts to give and receive will forever be books.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

MOTHER'S BANANA BREAD

Quite a few of my Mother's recipes were prefaced with the word, "My." She'd try something a friend made, or something at a church supper, or hear about a new dish under the hair-dryer, and once she made it, it became hers. She co-opted originals from Farm Journal, from Taste of Home, from innumerable church and charity cookbooks, from those little note-card-recipes with "From Nancy's Kitchen" right there in plain sight.

And even if Nancy was standing right there when Mother set down the dish at a pot-luck, it was "My." Oh, my.

So, having no idea whose recipe this once was, I'll give Mother credit, due or not. She certainly made it enough times, distributing loaves around the county like political flyers.

This is straight from her lips, from the last visit she made to us. We sat in the computer room with our early coffee, and she quoted from memory as I typed. I can still see her throw back her head when she laughed at the last line.

She had a propensity for getting off the plane with a couple of these, foil-wrapped, then Saranned, THEN in gallon Ziplocs...well preserved...in her carryon bag. The funniest was when she appeared at Sis's house the day before Thanksgiving. She had gone through who-knows-how-many airport scans with a couple of 10" discs of cornbread in her big purse, wrapped as above. She was taking no chances on the lack of good cornbread for the dressing.

SPRAY TWO 9X5X3 LOAF PANS. OVEN 350.


MIX DRY:

3 CUPS AP FLOUR
2 CUPS WHITE SUGAR
1 TSP. BAKING SODA
1 TSP. GROUND CINNAMON
1 TSP. SALT
1 CUP CHOPPED NUTS---always pecans in ours, but anything but peanuts would do
HANDFUL OF SULTANAS (OPTIONAL, BUT THEY MAKE IT MOISTER)

IN SEPARATE BOWL:

MIX WET:
2 C. MASHED BANANA
2 BEATEN EGGS
1 1/4 CUPS VEGETABLE OIL
8-OUNCE CAN CRUSHED PINEAPPLE, juice and all
2 TSP. VANILLA

MIX DRY. MIX WET. STIR GENTLY TOGETHER JUST TIL YOU CAN'T SEE ANY DRY FLOUR. SPOON EVENLY INTO PANS, BAKE 1 HOUR AND 5 MINUTES OR UNTIL SPRINGY ON TOP.


COOL 10 MINUTES, REMOVE FROM PANS...COOL COMPLETELY, RIGHTSIDE UP, ON RACKS.

AND BRING ME ONE.

This will keep in the fridge for a month, and in the freezer for a year, like Queen Victoria's wedding cake. Our oldest Granddaughter has been mixing those wets and drys since she had to sit up high on the counter, and if Christmas is not too flurried with everybody gathering here, we’ll probably have a bake-session which includes her four-year-old Sister, whose major excursions into my kitchen have been the ones this time last year, when she and I made a teaparty for all the family---bread-and-butter fingers, heart-shaped sandwiches made with peach jam, cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches , fruit and some of the baked-the-week-before banana bread and leaf-shaped cookies (the last bought, but she arranged them VERY attractively on the cakestand).

I treasure the pictures of her standing on a chair in her little pink apron, handed down from Older Sis, who surprised me by fitting right into my own Christmas one, which I had thought would sag to her ankles, but which struck her just below her knees. And looked really nice, besides.

We've served this bread at tea parties, wedding receptions, breakfasts and brunches and cocktail hours for YEARS. We usually cut the loaf in half lengthwise for big parties, then slice a little thicker than the usual bread; it's very rich, and the small slices are dainty. Fan them out around a plate, and center with a little dish of softened cream cheese, some mascarpone, or some ricotta which you've sprinkled with a handful of Turbinado sugar.

For HUGE events, we mold a pound or two of creamcheese in a pretty mold, turn out, and center the platter. It's so easy to make in just minutes, wrap when cool, serve the next morning. Even slice the night before and wrap finished plate.

'Tis the Season.



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MAMMAW'S PINEAPPLE CAKE

This memory of Mammaw has a bright yellow hue, of the kitchen walls and the hot afternoon sun through the uncurtained windows, the egg yolks, the exotic pineapple, and the big Pyrex mixing bowl. I hope that all my family will someday read and savor and try to capture that lovely, sweet-scented, sunlit essence of baking with my Mammaw:

In the big Hoosier cabinet, redolent of vanilla and spices and good baked things, there was always that three-layer pineapple cake with 7-Minute, waiting on that same battered shelf every day of my young life. Mammaw made one every Friday afternoon, after she had cleaned up the noon-dinner dishes and mopped the kitchen floor. I got to sift the flour from the built-in sifter in the cabinet, and measure it out, along with the baking powder, sugar, salt and soda. And sometimes I would go out to the chicken yard for four fresh orange-yolked eggs (a MUST for cakes---they made the layers a lovely deep gold).

She'd crank up the big old Sunbeam mixer and get that cake in the oven in ten minutes flat. The whites would go into the top of the double boiler with cream of tartar, water and sugar, to be beaten every minute of the seven minutes. I did the careful timing, watching the little red second hand of the old white Bakelite Philco clock as it made its slow journey. The runny, slimy whites mixed into a magical, creamy concoction the glossy-white of mountain snow (though I had never seen any, save on the insurance-company calendar placed yearly over the same lighter-than-the-rest rectangle on the kitchen wall).

A "tall can" of Del Monte crushed pineapple was drained in the big strainer and further squeezed as dry as possible by hand. The layers were placed one by one on the big round platter and sprinkled with the pineapple syrup, then smeared with the white frosting. Onto the frosting went tiny fingertip dabs of the pineapple, little clumps all over the surface. All the layers were stacked this way, then a final coat of the frosting, with the requisite swirls and curlicues, with the last of the pineapple dabbed all over the top.

The Friday-night cake was elegant and beautiful, its golden layers falling tenderly beneath the knife. The Sunday cake was a little disheveled, with its frosting beginning to droop a bit, and the little pineapple divots sinking further into the snowy cushion. By Monday, the frosting had taken on the receding look of Winter's last snowfall, with craters and show-throughs and bits of brown crumb emerging through the white, but the taste just got better and better, the layers moister and more flavorful.

The Midweek cake, what there was left of it, was still standing, though the layers were listing to one side, testament to their valiant days of patience in the dark of that cupboard; the frosting was just bits and crumbs of crystals, sugary crunches that fell prey to all passing fingers. The crumbs left on the platter were gummy and drying, better than the best bar cookies or lemon squares or chess diamonds.

Thursday night, the scrape of fork tines claimed the last rich, fruit-essenced bits, and the week was done. Friday was cake day, and all was right with the world.

MAMMAW

In everybody's Tapestry of Life, there are one or a few underlying threads which strengthen, brighten, color, uplift and hold together all the picture that's being embroidered. My own thread, skein---sometimes practically a ROPE---was my Mammaw. She was my Mother's Mother, who taught me about Life and Cooking and being kind to people and enjoying things, and to help other people do those things, too.

She was a wonderful, kind, unschooled Southern woman whose family, hearth and home defined her being. She married my Grandfather at the age of twenty-two, and her two children were born in the same little shotgun house they had started their marriage in. She raised an enormous vegetable garden every year, pushing a little one-man plow each Spring to till the rows for her beloved tomatoes. She had a rose garden which supplied bouquets for weddings, showers, parties and graduation centerpieces. Her dinner-plate dahlias won prizes all over the South, and are still cultivated by everyone on whom she bestowed a handful of the precious seeds. And she was in constant correspondence with either Burpee or Park seeds, for whom she carried on an ongoing quest for a white marigold.

She lived by the clock and calendar; one p.m. was Days of Our Lives, which she and two faraway sisters all watched faithfully. They were scattered hundreds of miles apart, and as soon as something exciting happened to one of those make-believe characters, one would call one of the others long distance, with the third getting spitting mad because SHE kept getting a busy signal.

Mammaw never forgot a birthday, a graduation, an anniversary, a special moment in any grandchild's life. For a while there, every grandson and great-grandson got a flashlight for every occasion; she believed in being prepared for whatever life brought you, and it was best if you could see it coming.

I still have several of her household items, and use them often---her rolling pin, the butter mold, the chipped Homer Laughlin pieplate with its gold edge just a whisper round the rim.

Mammaw had a "magic teapot" which amazed and confounded us all with its ability to keep pouring, round and round the table, with sometimes ten of us at Sunday dinner. I have not to this day figured out the secret. She would scoop a handful of Lipton leaves into the squat, eggplant-colored pot, a store premium from McCormick Tea Co. In went a potful of boiling water from the kettle, and she somehow poured directly onto ice in the big old heavy grape- etched goblets without getting a leaf into anyone's glass.

And everyone got a refill. Same pot, same tea, no more boiling water required. It went round as long as the dinner lasted, and there was no explanation. We were all married, had children and homes of our own, and STILL we homekeepers with our OWN tea pitchers to maintain could NOT figure out how she did it. It's still a family mystery to this day.

My Sister got the pot, but I have its twin, from an antiques store, just cause I wanted one like it. And the magic was not inherited, but the mystery, like all good mysteries, remains unsolved.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CUCUMBER CRAVINGS

I just made four good-sized Kirbys into a small bowl of VERY quick pickles for Supper---even quicker than the "Cheater Pickles" the fridge is never without. It's just a splash of vinegar into the small flat Glad-Box, with about that much water, some salt, and a sprinkle of sugar to tame the vinegar a bit. Then crisp slices of peeled cucumber in, with a couple of shakes upside-down during the afternoon to keep them all marinating.

Even on this cool night, with Comfort Food cooking (some boneless/skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size, browned, then topped with about a dozen of the saved-from-the-frost tomatoes, a large sliced onion, a whole roasted red pepper in strips, maybe twenty peeled whole cloves of garlic, a bay leaf and a handful of basil from the freezer. Lid on, slow simmer for thirty minutes or so to tender up the chicken into melty mouthfuls, and disintegrate all the vegetables into a luscious chunky sauce. Even the garlic is creamy and sweet---you could take it out piece by piece and spread it on toast)---but I'm craving cool Summer Pickles.

They should have been started this morning, but I don't care---they're for supper, and I'm having some.

We went to a family reunion last Spring, way up in the state, and it was not even our family---our houseguests stay with us for a few days on the way up and back, and have asked Chris to photograph the festivities for the last couple of years. It's like stepping into the park pavillion at any reunion in any Southern state, despite the location's being up pert nigh to Michigan.

The ladies all did themselves proud with all sorts of homemade goodies, potato salads and Summer salads and many a Corning Ware of baked beans and of Corn Souffle---that new standby that calls for an artery-clogging ingredients list of canned cream corn, cornbread mix, a cup of sour cream, a stick of butter, eggs, an addiitonal can, drained, of Mexicorn or whole kernel, and whatever little extras are usual to the cook---jalapenos or green onions or pimiento.

But one lady---Bless her Heart in the BEST way. She came in bearing a gallon jug clutched to her bosom, and indeed I'd have hugged it, too. I almost did, when I saw that it was at least a peck of cucumbers, sliced into a golden brine. I like that stuff every way it's made, so I lined up---I don't care if it's straight vinegar and salt, or a sugar-vinegar concoction, or some and all of both, with additions of most anything that will complement. These were most likely LAST YEAR'S cucumbers, because it seemed like a LOT to make for one lunch if they were "bought" cucumbers, and they were appreciably slumpy, though not limp. They were the sorta goldy-green of the long-in-the-brine kind, but perhaps the boiling brine caused the color.

They still had a lot of crisp left in them, and had been peeled so that they all had eight or ten little flat edges, like pale octagonal cogs in the jug. I could just see my Mammaw and me, sitting in the shade of her front porch, dishpans in our laps, peeling and slicing those same flat-sided little slices. And that's a paring-knife slice, the old way; no laying the cucumber on the board for a neat, quick chef's flurry. These were sliced with the same knife that pared the cucumber so flat, cutting from side to side of a cucumber held in the other hand, as the blade slid to a perilous stop a hairsbreadth short of the vulnerable thumb. The knife was always a paring knife or the long-blade, multi-purpose beauty that serves to cut the Easter ham, the cornbread, or a sweating, chilled watermelon ready to thunk open and yield its heart.

And the pickles were wonderful. We'd all been asked to bring a serving spoon for whatever we brought to the lunch, and her odd choice was a gray plastic, bulbously-unwieldy soup ladle, which made getting into the jug a breeze, but getting OUT with a scoopful of bounty difficult, without sloshing the accompanying ladle of juice---the red plastic tablecloth sported a tidy little moat, all round the container, and fruitflies were happily spending their little lifespans drowning themselves in an ecstasy of sugary brine.

I'd brought little plastic bowls to set alongside the big banana pudding I made, and so I took the greedy approach: I scooped two ladles of the delicious stuff into my bowl, all the better to share with my tablemates, of course. They were the perfect counterpoint to all that rich, starch-is-all food. And you don't eat them by the bite, taking dainty nibbles from the edges; you open wide and encompass that whole cool slice, getting sugary vinegary watery juices all down your chin, but the resulting mouthful of crisp and sweet and tangy is just too much to eat dainty.

Those pickles are calling my name.

I might even say TO HECK with that pan of chicken and penne and just sit down with the little Glad-Box and a fork.

ONE QUESTION

When our friend Jeff fixed the margins on this page last night, he said it might make it hard for some viewers to read, since it was so wide. I've read posts on lots of sites in which I had to keep inching the cursor to right and then left, with every sentence.

I wouldn't want that to happen, so if anybody has trouble with this, he'll come back and adjust stuff for me again. (Besides, I've promised him a steak dinner to come tutor me through links and pictures).

PAMINNA CHEESE

For Maggie, by special request

Pimiento Cheese. Pim-eee-en-toe is what that looks like. Perhaps pim-yen-toe.

But Paminna Cheese, the good old Grandma of all Southern spreads, is not of those pronunciations or provenance. It's not entered into lightly, not if you want the REAL stuff.

It's not my Mother's version, with mild or American cheese, little flecks of smushed-into-pulp pimiento, and chopped sweet pickles (in our case LIME pickles, a family standby since Mother tasted the canned version made by my first MIL, made one "making," and claimed it for her own).

And it's certainly not that pink Velveeta paste with a little mayo, served up and lurking in every Dairy Case in every Safeway, Sunflower, Winn-Dixie and Food Club below the Mason/Dixon. Those clear little round cartons, how they woo the unwary, how they call to the quick-minded hostess, the gotta-make-a-snack, the hasty-sandwich-platter people. That lifeless goo has appeared soft and comfy on Wonder Bread, on Ritz, and painstakingly stuffed into Bugles at more Bridal Teas, Preacher Poundings, Coke Parties, afternoon socials and garden club meetings than the most sociable of guests.

That stuff is a comfort food, of sorts; it is squishy and mild and bland, and a white-bread sandwich made with it is the Movie Extra of foods: there, and useful in its way, but just hovering in the background while the real action takes place.

REAL Paminna Cheese (always capitalized, and spelled like it sounds) is a lusty, tangy, splendid mouthful of bright flavors which delight your tastebuds and make you smile. It's the easy-to-put-together quick spread of all time---no eggs to boil, no creamcheese to bring to room temp and smoosh around, nothing to chop or measure (though I've become addicted to making it with just-minced whole roasted red peppers, usually Trader Joe's, as we always have them in the fridge, and I even throw in a little pour of the juice from the jar).

And I DO wish Kraft would catch on to grating the SHARP cheese into those little fine threads like they do some of the other flavors---I grew a great fondness for the PC of my first MIL, who ground the whole shebang through the finest little holes in her big ole clamp-it-on-the-counter sausage grinder---hers came out a bit like clay, and we probably coulda made little fruit and pink piggies out of the stuff, like marzipan.

The ingredients are simple, and can be changed according to anyone's taste; ramping up the tang is easy, with more mustard, more L&P; it can be rosier with all the peppers you like---two minced makes a fine combo with a six-cup pack of the cheese.

And this is a please-yourself recipe---get yourself several teaspoons out of the drawer before you start, and take a wee taste as you go. I always envision that people making this recipe take a spoontip and taste it, making that little tip-tip-tip sound, then clanging the spoon into the sink before adjusting the quantities and dimensions, grabbing another spoon for another smick, until the proper perfection is reached.

Lo, and BEHOLD!!! I just went to the fridge to verify the size of the package in the drawer, and it's FINELY shredded. Sometimes you can find it. It's the two-cup size (I buy whatever size is the best price total, even if I have to buy three small to make one big---that's Southern Kitchen math. Or perhaps just my own. Oh. Well).

Recipe:

A Two-Cup pack of Kraft SHARP, finely grated
One jar of pimiento, buy chopped or whole---cut them as you see fit
Squirt of French's Yellow
Coupla glugs of Lea & Perrins
Big spoondig out of the cute little Durkee's Sauce jar
Good-sized clop of Mayo---Duke's or Blue Plate for the REAL experience, but Kraft's OK
Several good grinds of the Pepper Mill

Stir it all up in a medium-sized bowl, and taste a teensy bite. Adjust any and all quantities to suit yourself. A lot of L&P will make it kinda tan, but still delicious. This fits perfectly into one of the flat Glad-Boxes, and seems to benefit from the close confinement, sorta all soaking up everything else's good natures and making the whole thing WAY good. Like a close-knit Sunday School Class or maybe Group Therapy.

For the authentic experience, serve it with Premium saltines, or Ritz crackers.

Makes a KILLER grilled cheese, especially on Sourdough or rye. It's also SPLENDIFEROUS on those asparagus roll-up things that were so popular about twenty years ago. And spooned over a fresh-off-the-grill sirloin burger, enclosed inside a buttered-skillet-sizzled bun---the Bleu Cheese proponents have no idea.

And ANYTHING served surrounded by Devilled Eggs is sure to be a hit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

CATHEAD BISCUITS

Of Course, the only way to make real catheads is to make them in a BIG bowl of flour, sorta digging your fingers into the depths and pushing back the flour til you form a good-sized crater in the middle. You drop a clop of Crisco from your hand into the center and fingertip-rub it into the flour, picking up little bits as you go, and making your little pile of “size of small peas” clumps of dough.

Pour in the buttermilk, and use your hand again to bring in a little flour, skirting all the way around the crater to make little avalanches into the muuush in the middle. You keep mixing it in with your fingertips, sorta petting the growing mass, keeping the flour drifted at the edges, until it’s thicker than cornbread batter, but not nearly as stiff as cookies.

Your dough should be soft---I never fail to think of Miss Shirley Corriher’s “Wet Mess” that she described on some cooking show years ago. A very moist dough is kinda like having all those wonderful layers in croissants or in puff pastry; the steam created inside the flour-covered gooshy nuggets gives them a good rise in that very hot oven, and they’re wonderfully soft inside, ready to cuddle and absorb that pat of good rich butter. And the flour crust, glistened by the brush of butter---that’s what makes a golden, beautiful biscuit that will greet your tongue with the taste of the rich saltiness of buttery crust.

I also learned about measuring Crisco from my High-School Home Ec teacher: Use a GLASS measuring cup, one of those Pyrex ones with the red lines on the sides---there’s not a kitchen below the M/D which does not sport at least one, and usually several, of those, and what would a wedding shower be without a nesting set of bowls and the three sturdy cups?

Put 1/2 C. water in the cup. Then scoop out a good-sized spoonful of Crisco and scrape it off into the water. Push it under, and look at your measure. Try a little more or less to get the right amount. Spoon the Crisco out onto a paper towel to soak up most of the water, then upend the towel over the bowl of flour. Takes ten seconds---way less than time to tell it.

Until you want to be REALLY hands-on:

2 ¼ Cups Martha White SR Flour
¼ Cup Crisco
1 ½ Cup Buttermilk

Flour for hand-rolling, or for the board
Melted butter

Oven 425. Pam-spray a cookie sheet if you like your biscuits separate and round; use a cake-pan or black skillet if you want some soft sides. Biscuit cutter at LEAST 2” for semi-catheads. Scatter a good handful of flour onto a non-terry dishcloth, at least 14" square.


Put the flour into a bowl, and cut in the Crisco until it’s the size of small peas---I think of those little crunchy white rocks in the bottom of the aquarium---that size. (No, Wait. Maybe that wasn't the best comparison). Pour in the buttermilk, stir well, but not too long---that makes the gluten make the biscuits like BREAD and not tender as they should be.

Spatula-scrape the bowlful out onto the floured cloth, then pick up each edge one at a time, rolling the dough a bit away from the edge, to cover the whole mass with flour. Pat out the dough with your fingers about ½” thick, dip the cutter into the little bowl of flour, and cut the biscuits (dipping each time). Lay the biscuits on the sheet or in the pan.

OR: For authentic CATHEADS, flour your hands, pinch off good-sized pieces (or go ahead and cut the dough into 10 pieces) and roll between floured palms til rounded, then lay them in a sprayed 10” black skillet. VERY gently brush tops with melted butter.

Any biscuit benefits from that little two-knuckle Poomph on top to hold pools of butter. It's a Family Tradition.

Bake 20—25 minutes for cookie sheet, 25—30 for touching-in-the-pan, or until golden brown on top. Brush ‘em again before taking out of the pan, if there’s butter left.


You can take the whole cookie sheet, stick it into the freezer til they're like white hockey-pucks, then bag them up to bake anytime. The supper ones tonight came out of the freezer.



Supper Guest

Right now, after a day with our one-year-old Granddaughter, lots of laundry, last night's dishes STILL in the sink, and a pot of tea at five o'clock, as Chris had brought a box of pastries from our favorite German bakery---you might say my house is what is known in today's young vernacular as a "Hot Mess." And it actually WAS rather hot while the biscuits were in the oven.

One of our contract workers happened by, a young man of no responsibilities save his own, and Chris invited him to stay for supper. I was dismayed/delighted, since the potroast in the crockpot upstairs, and a little pot of lima beans with a smitch of ham, cooked earlier in the day so our little one could have her "foursies"---her Dad does all the cooking in the family, and gets off work at six, while her Mom picks her up at 5:30, so I give her a little meal about four to tide her over til the late dinnertime. But the roast and gravy and the beans were all there was to put onto the table.

Dismayed, because I had to do a quick put-together of a pot of white rice, a pan of whole kernel corn, last night's potato salad, a couple of the tomatoes rescued when the frost hit over the weekend, and a black skillet with six cathead biscuits, which baked perfectly in the time it took to set the table and get all the rest onto it. A jar of the pear preserves I made a couple of weeks ago, and the offer of some of all the pastries, and that was dinner. It took just the twenty minutes that it took the rice to cook, and we sat down to a good meal, with very little effort.

I DID have a Tupperware of tuna salad, one of egg salad with black and green olives, and one of sharp, strong Paminna Cheese in the fridge, all made yesterday when I actually HAD some energy. I like to have nice containers of stuff ready for a quick sandwich lunch or for spreading onto crackers or toast for an easy nibble with pre-dinner drinks. But they just didn't seem to GO, somehow, with the cold-weather comfort food we were having tonight.

Last month, I'd made the exact three spreads in anticipation of a visit from my Sis and BIL, so we could go do stuff and run in for a quick bite of lunch before going out sightseeing or leaf-looking or whatever else, again. I was getting the same type of roast/gravy/rice/vegetables meal on the table the first night when Sis opened the fridge, delightedly exclaimed, "MMMMMMM!!! Things in DISHES!!!" and hauled them all out, reaching for a knife and the cracker box. And I think she emptied them all during her four-day visit.


It IS nice, come to think of it, to find Things in Dishes awaiting you, either at home or on a visit. Something made and tucked away to chill til you need it, the counters cleared and sprayed and all traces of work wiped away---that's a nice feeling. It bespeaks preparation, your own or another's on behalf of your comfort and enjoyment. And that's a nice thing, anytime, either way.

And Delighted, because he's got all the information of any computer function stored in his vast brain cells; I have an idea that a head x-ray would show LONG ranks of file after file, shelf after shelf, stretching to the horizon in a warehouse like the one storing Indiana Jones' Ark.

He fixed the format for me, with a few clicks and screenfuls of hieroglyphics, so that the text (of which there will be MUCH more than there are pictures) will fill the page side-to-side, instead of wasting all that white space at the right.

And it's better, I think; I hated to see the slender wording stretching down and down, when the page could be full. I DO love a full page. Or a page in general. Or a book. Or a . . .

Moire non.

SIFTINGS Part II

And so we measured out the salt and the baking powder, me with a spoon for a long time---a teaspoon was measured with the same spoons we used to stir coffee, and a tablespoon was the round-bowled soupspoon that came in the silverware chest. Mother would dump the required portion into her palm, toss it in, and be done with it. I saw a little set of copper measuring spoons at a friend’s house when I was about twelve, and thought they were just the cutest things---the silver ring that kept them attached in their little cuddle, and the neat way they hung on the hook right over the counter. I asked for, and got, my own set for Christmas that year, and measurements became an easier matter.

I made countless pies and cakes and cobblers and bars, sifting out that same flour---that thing didn’t get empty, ever, and I imagined that the bottom inch of the can must still hold the same flour it started with, still there years later when I went off to college.

I won a mixer at the yearly Halloween Bingo, and graduated to pound cakes and chiffons and angel foods, with little prinkings like saving a cup of the batter to tint pink and marble through, or a scatter of cinnamon-sugar between glops of the batter in the old tube pan. A poundcake was what it was, originally a pound of every ingredient, with maybe a little lemon peel grated in, or a glug from the Watkins vanilla bottle (how I loved that stuff---I wore it as perfume for about a year, flitting about the halls of school, confident in my ethereal, aromatic aura).

Butter all the way up the sides, then great gobs smeared over the center insert, with a carefully-cut round of brown grocery bag paper pushed down over the tube center. More butter onto the paper, as I thought, every time I peered through its translucence, of the pioneer and log-cabin forebears whose light was filtered through such a pane; then the batter was spooned in. The cakes came out of the oven more brown than golden, a rich redolent brown of toasty crust, with a crumb like velvet, as moist as a bitten peach.

A knife all around the inside, removal of the tube insert, and a rack-on-top tilt, then again, to cool rightside up, preserving the lovely creasefault in the top crust. Rich slices fell away from the knife, to go onto clear glass plates with a topping of sugared strawberries or peaches dripping their juices off the spoon, and a neat pouf of just-whipped cream. I made one of those every Saturday of my High-School years, and some extra for a party or church social.

And then, when I had my own home, Maw, who lived right next door on the farm homeplace, had the exact silver can under her own kitchen counter, right down to the big circled “HF” imprinted in the lid. She had a bowl and sifter in hers, as well, and contrary to Mother’s fastidious spooning and stirring, made biscuits BY hand and WITH her hand. She, too, put twice-too-much flour into the bowl, made the crater by banking it against the sides with her fingers, and then three-fingered a clop of Crisco out of the three-pound can.

Her busy little soft hands were quick as lightning, working that flour into the handful, fingertips busily rubbing, til the “peas” stage. I don’t think she measured the buttermilk, either, but just poured from the BIG crockery pitcher, lifting it with a big sigh, and then I’d clean the white clotty handprint off the handle with a wet dishrag before replacing it in the refrigerator. She also made the buttermilk in a big crock, which somehow took up most of the left side of the refrigerator, possibly two gallons worth. Dried milk, water, a cup of last week’s making, overnight on the kitchen counter with a neat tea-towel cover, and voila!! Good as a fresh-churned batch.

I loved to watch her hand squish that biscuit dough; at first the buttermilk shot through her quick fingers like soapsuds, then as the flour absorbed some of it, the dough became a heavy, pliable mass, with the flour worked in from the sides til it was to her liking---a quite wet dough which would seek to escape from her two hands when she lifted it from the bed of flour like a limp cat.

Onto a flourcloth it went, the cloth homemade from newbought Curity diapers, each sewn double for strength, and covered in a thick layer of flour. Several lifts of the four cloth edges in turn, to even up the dough and give it a thorough coating, then pinches quickly rolled through floury palms, placed gently into a Crisco-rubbed skillet, with a final two-knuckled salute to the top, making twin dimples to hold the pools of brushed-on melted butter. The cloth also went back into the bin after use, its dusty weight settling into the dark to await its next needing.

All our biscuits were different, all good, all crusty and golden and steamy-soft within. Maw’s had a crispy bottom crust, beloved by Paw, who would separate several biscuits with a quick twist, butter them BEFORE we said the blessing, then distribute the dripping top halves to the little ones, while he applied a liberal dousing of sorghum or pear preserves to the cookie-crisp, butter-saturated bottoms. For Paw, life was simple: gravy went on the soft, spongy top halves, syrup on the bottoms. Would that all our paths be so easily chosen.

Mother’s biscuits were a sometime thing, a Winter-night breakfast-for-supper, with a platter of leftover potroast serving as a cushion for two or three fried eggs apiece, or with their favorite treat: brains and eggs. The butcher in our local store would save her a “pair,” which she would simmer in a little boiler til the gray scum rose to be skimmed, and the delicacy attained the same unappetizing hue; whisked in great lumps through almost-done scrambled eggs---to them it was a feast. I’d make do with biscuits and jam. Hers were tangy and light as marshmallows, from all the mis-measured baking powder, and though she mightily loved to eat biscuits at my house, where Martha White Self-Rising was the rule, she never once made biscuits with other than Plain flour.

I have no idea what became of any of those lard cans; in our first house, former home of my husband’s grandparents, one cabinet door of the tiny kitchen swung DOWN, revealing a V-shaped space meant to hold flour, with ancient siftings still visible in the bottom. I could not bear to keep mine in something so open, so it became the repository for folded grocery sacks. Today my own five pounds of Martha White lives in a big old blue Tupperware, and I have made biscuits over the years with everything from Crisco to butter to oil to Ranch Dressing. And I seldom measure any more, except for baking, which needs a stern, exact hand. I’m just glad I was allowed to be in those kitchens, standing tall on that silver can, learning to cook.




Sunday, November 16, 2008

SIFTINGS Part I

I do think I must have been born under the sign of the lard can, for we had one in both of the houses of my childhood, and their twin resided under the kitchen cabinet of Maw, who was my first Mother-In-Law, and my three children’s Grandmother. My Mammaw’s kitchen always had a Hoosier cabinet, with the big pull-out enamel tabletop for flouring and rolling things, and one of the upper glass doors opened to reveal a huge white funnel-shaped bin which ended in a sifter, just high enough to slide a flourpan beneath and snow down enough flour for the biscuits or piecrust or bread.

This sifting was my own little chore, whenever I was in residence, and required the sliding over of the big silver can which held about forty pounds of lard, straight from the store, though Mammaw was well-versed in rendering her own lard from the hogs raised on her homeplace when she was growing up. She had moved to the little town when she married, and bought all her staples at her sister’s grocery store.

I stepped up onto that can lid and took hold of that little white handle with its wooden marble tip, rolling it forward like reeling in a fish, as the scritch scritch of the metal wires rubbed along the screen, scattering the white dust downward. It would ROLL backward, but you just couldn’t do it that way---it would jinx your biscuits if you didn’t turn the handle right.

I loved sifting that flour, and since the pan or bowl sat safely inside the cabinet, I could sift with one hand and let the dust fall gently through my outstretched left hand, accumulating little finger-shaped ridges that held peaks like the tiny ranges on my paste map of Brazil. Til I moved, or upended my hand for a quick shake and brush across my backside or apron front.

I was allowed to fill the pan to its required level---lots for a pan of biscuits or for measuring for bread, less for piecrust, which was made in the Red Bowl. Four crusts were made at a time, and the flour was dipped out accordingly---in a Never-Fail recipe passed down for years---“Flour, Lard, Water---2 Cup, Cup, Quarter” for two crusts. You have to say it REAL Southern for the rhyme to work.

And Mother used the same recipe at our house, with an exact duplicate of the lard can, except ours held the flour itself---probably twenty pounds at a time, into which was nestled the blue speckled enamel biscuit pan, with the sifter placed down inside, sometimes with the lost dried crumbs from the last sifting still rattling forlornly against the screen bottom.


You popped off the lid, pushed down on the lip of the pan, and grabbed hold of the lifted side to remove the pan, dumped the sifter with a whack against the side of the garbage can, then filled it with a big old heavy silvery scoop, taken from its nail inside the cabinet.

So on I went, through childhood, sifting at one place, being allowed to “cut in” the shortening at the other—my Mother caught on to Humko and Crisco EARLY in her marriage, through the kind help of the grocery-store sister. Mammaw would not let Mother cook at all, because her left-handed cutting and stirring just “looked wrong” and so relegated her to outdoor chores like feeding and tending the chickens, as well as dispatching and cleaning one nearly every Sunday morning. Mother never DID eat chicken, in any form.


She could work in the garden, pick and shell the peas and beans, and “put up” the jams and jellies, sending those rivers of rich juice through the battered chinois into the waiting dishpan, stirring that roiling, fruity mass as she watched the clock for the exact moment that would render the sugar-rich juice perfect---thick and moundy on the spoon, yielding a clean shining track to a fingerslide across the shimmery pool in a chipped saucer.

Because of her own banishment from the kitchen, Mother was quite willing and ready for me to learn at her apronside. She’d repeat from time to time, “I ALWAYS said I was going to let MY girls cook,” from the time I had to climb ONTO the lard can to sift and measure and stir. I’m sure my first “making” of biscuits consisted of several stirs around the flourpan with the wooden spoon, with the attendant flurries of flour onto the counters and floor which my young eagerness caused. The flour in the pan was WAY too much, with the Crisco cut in carefully in the indentation, the right amount of buttermilk stirred in, gently pulling down the side flour from the crater and stirring it in until the right texture was reached. THEN you could reach in, closing your fingers like spiderlegs around a handful of the soft, squishy dough, to roll into little round pillows, leaving more dry flour in the pan than you had used in the biscuits. This was re-sifted BACK into the big can, the pan and sifter replaced, and the lid tightly sealed for safekeeping.

Soon I was aproning up and hitting the kitchen for real, standing on the can, a chair, tiptoes, whatever it took to be allowed at that food and all the excitement of seeing something I made come out of that oven, that stewpot, that Jello mold. Our Aunt Lucy’s cook had cautioned Mother about the sin of using “self-raisin’” flour---that was the resort of a trashy cook, and anyone who didn’t keep a fresh can of Clabber Girl in the cabinet---well, nobody would eat HER sorry biscuits, anyway.

I SAID that?

Oh, Dear Lord.

Did you see how pompous I sounded back there when I mentioned Laurie Colwin? I’m cringing because that went out into the ether of the net-world, and now I’m having visions of that scene in the Paltrow Emma when they’re all sitting on the grass, and pushy Mrs. Elton is distracted from her busybody, probing conversation by a compliment on the dainty little sandwiches everyone is eating.

She preens, and coyly announces, “Well, my Friends flaaaaater me that I DO know how to make a sangwidge.”

If I knew how to delete or edit my own conceited-sounding bit, I would. I’m still too new to all these bells and whistles which make a blog GO, and haven’t got the hang of much of it.

My E-lliteracy is legendary. I can sign on, get my mail and post stuff, but that’s about it for me. Today will be learning to post pictures. I hope, I hope. My teacher has gone off, in denims and suspenders and a battered black vest, forbidding black Jeremiah Johnson hat pulled low over those kind green eyes and lending his cheery countenance a bit of remove, with a shotgun slung over one shoulder, off the the gun show to trade and haggle and discuss. It makes him happy.

He may return sans shotgun, or he may still be wagging that thing across the state til Spring, meeting new folks and greeting old friends and talkin' about guy stuff. It's his way.

But I DO retract that Colwin bit. I apologize. I grovel. I cringe.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

MUSCADINES

In honor of my friend Pam, Hero and Savior of countless homeless greyhounds in Georgia. We had a nice discussion of this little-known fruit just today.



The skin of a good ripe musky-dine will pop right off when you squeeze it between tongue and palate---that's the removal method the Good Lord intended. The skins are good for you, all those vitamins stored up for weeks as they basked in the Summer sun, and they make a satisfying "critch, critch" sound when you chew them. And they make KILLER jelly and jam.

We used to have a friend, an older woman who owned a good-sized plantation in the Mississippi Delta. She would entertain with lavish luncheons in her home or out on the shady grounds amongst the magnolias and weeping willows. She always served the same menu: Rosy thick slices of pale pink ham, gleaming with an edge of glistening white fat; Eggplant casserole, a smoky, cuminy, mideastern-flavored concoction with onions and another whole ham or two ground into the roasted-dark smush of eggplant; Fat green sticks of fresh asparagus lying like logpiles on platter after platter, a then-unknown-to-me beurre blanc forming a graceful blanket dotted with minced sour pickles.

Perfectly-matched rounds of thick tomato slices, great spirals of them, on cut-glass platters flanked by tall clear compotes of vinaigrette and homemade yolk-yellow mayonnaise; Golden rolls already sliced open in the kitchen, a big gob of fresh butter slid in to melt while the bread was too hot to handle. Little clear passing-pots of several kinds of homemade jam, with tiny spoons sporting clever little handle-sculptures of monkeys, birds, flowers.

I mentioned to her once how much I liked the flavor of the half-inch-thick pickles filling a big cut-glass compote. And thus I was introduced to “Cheater Pickles,” the easy kind in which you take store-bought dills or sours, slice them to suit yourself (we like them fairly thin, much thinner than Miss Hallie’s, ours sliced on a big yellow Popeil mandoline knockoff). Her recipe:

Buy you a gallon of store dills, whole ones or sliced. Cut your pickles if they’re whole and drain out all the juice. Start putting them back in the jug, with a big ladle of white sugar, a handful of cloves. Keep making layers like that til the jar is full. Turn it upside down once a day, then back up, to keep the sugar wet and absorbing. Ten days and it’s ready t’eat.
Forty-weight iced tea in heavy frosted goblets with a ring of lemon perched ladylike sidesaddle; a rank of glasses for the several wines offered during the meal; hot and scalding and perfect pan-boiled coffee poured from an immense silver samovar into cups the thickness of an eggshell, and stirred with dainty spoons befitting fairy tea.




And Muscadine Cobbler. Though there was a dessert table loaded with ethereal angel cakes on their tall stands, their several sauces flanking around, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and the first and best trifle I ever tasted, a marvel of colors and layers in the transparent footed bowl, (and for which I stood and opened flavoring bottles in the store, seeking that elusive fragrance---almond, which I could not QUITE place).

The standout dish in Summer was muscadine cobbler. She had rolled the grapes through a chinois to extract the pulp and juice for making jelly, then froze the hulls in little pint tupperware freezer boxes, to mount up over the season into a couple of gallons of sticky, limp, rust-colored deflated little balloons. She put the frozen blocks into an enormous stockpot with a couple of bottles of muscat wine, usually from a now-defunct local vineyard we nicknamed the Redneck Rothschilds.

The mixture simmered slowly with sugar and vanilla into a seething mass of grape concentration unrivaled in cobblerdom. She used the cooking time to make and chill a "REAL shaw-wat crust" featuring several pounds of butter, and plain flour. The grape mixture was poured into long pyrex dishes, topped with a fancy-cut lattice, cream-brushed and sugar-scattered, with little globs of butter between all the frames.

When those fragrant pans emerged from the oven just before lunch was served, the entire company followed their noses to the kitchen door for just a peek before we sat down to lunch. Lots of laughing and talking, with keen eyes on the swinging doors toward the kitchen. Big appetites and great draughts of the beverages as the crowd of men consumed their meals; ladies were a bit more delicate in their munching, but in time there came the muscadine cobbler.

Huge silver spoons scooped great servings of still-warm pie into wide flat soup bowls; an already-scooped ball of vanilla ice cream was lifted from the great mound of them arranged in a big silver punchbowl, and the lovely fragrance was set down before us.

Never before or since have I tasted that particular combination, though we had muscadine and scuppernong arbors on our own lawn. The rusty-brown fruit met their own nirvana in that bowl of warm grapeness, that Summer-in-a-mouthful under the tendrils of melting vanilla.


And that's how they eat muscadines where I come from.


My Favorite Cooking/Cookery Books

I'm still in the haze and daze of getting this blog going, with the nice responses and kind words. In my usual scattershot fashion, I'm whirling out thoughts, writings and topics in no general order or sense, and for a while will probably be posting more often and more wordily than will become the custom when I get the hang of posting pictures and links and other interesting things. Until then, another topic: Books, always a favorite with me. These are the ones most used on my Cookbook Shelves, though they are not all strictly recipes and methods.

But they're ABOUT cooking and feeding folks and the enjoyment of both; I just picked up a fat paperback edition of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, shiny and bright with slick illustrations on the cover. Still lamented is the years-ago copy, brown-bound and worn, of an 1800's edition which I foolishly gave to my Sis's first MIL. She was a Home Economist (anyone remember that term outside the South?) and I thought she'd enjoy it for Christmas.
I part very seldom and very reluctantly with my books, and I do regret that one, especially.

And I'll always love these:

The Stillmeadow Books, and anything else by Gladys Taber. She woke to birdsong or snowcover, drank her strong stove-perked coffee, and stirred up some sourdough pancakes from her own decades-old starter. Butternut Wisdom, indeed. They're country books, walking-the-woods-with-a-dog books, pot-of-beans-simmered-all-day-while-writing-her-columns books. I love her line, "I think beans in any form are elegant."

The books are dated by their devices, their appliances, the cutting of wood for the kitchen stove and the hold-your-hand-in method of judging the oven temperature, as well as the political references and topics of the day, but I still re-read them and the great three-ring of her columns I clipped for years from women's magazines. There's a great peace to the telling, day-to-day happenings small as a new-found bird nest, and the immense quiet of a snowbound week with a full larder, a woodbox to hand, and the sure knowledge that no one could break the solitude before the melt.

I hear that she has a close kin in the late Laurie Colwin, whom I have not met as yet, but I look forward to her comfortable, homelike prose. I received a copy of Colwin's Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object from a houseguest just the other day. I don't think it's about cooking, but it will give the flavor of the author.

And I have been flattered and honored by my friend Maggie, who writes me lovely, glowing letters, praising little bits and pieces I’ve written. She has been so kind as to liken my thoughts and ramblings to those of Ms. Colwin, so I'm interested to turn those pages.

Whole volumes in one book are encompassed between the covers of my battered copy of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Cross Creek, with the orange groves, the corn patch, the Gullah cook whose loyalty and fierce companionship season each day as richly as her rough hands season the collards and pone and pie. The book is one long hot Summer stretching a lifetime, of swamps and the delectable froglegs and fish they yield, of coffee with cream that mounds on the spoon, of a canoe trip with her feet straddling a Dutch oven of homemade rolls which rose in the heat of the sun as they paddled. They stopped for the night, piled coals on the pan, and ate feathery rolls with pan-fried fish just pulled from the waters which had rushed beneath them all afternoon.

MFK FISHER---anything she’s written; the savor of the words equals any taste of anything she ever cooked or ate.

I still re-read sections of my Larousse just for the beauty of the words and images, and just bought a 1926 French edition of a generic Larousse, which I've been meaning to get to all Summer. Might be nice to see what it shows in the translation.

My favorite of all, I think, is the little spiral-bound cookbook by the ladies of our little church in Alabama. The small church volumes with the cardboard covers and little plastic spiral edge contain fourteen recipes for Green Bean Casserole, all printed so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. There are omissions, transpositions, and hilarious typos, in addition to some really outlandish combinations and seasonings.

But the little books contain the best of each cook's repertoire, gleaned from old McCall's and Farm Journals and from under the hairdryer. Mammaw's recipe for pound cake and Sawdust Salad, Mrs. Pund's uncooked fruitcake, the various alchemies which convert a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom into veloute, bechamel, whatever is required---those are the foundation of a kitchen and a cook's reputation. They represent the downhome, solid, family-around-the-table values which are disappearing like vapor from our homes and towns.

The little book I love most was in our little rental house in over on the Alabama/Georgia line, along with everything else which had belonged to the owner, an elderly woman who had gone into a nursing home. We slept in her beds, gathered the clean, fragrant sheets from her clothesline every week, ate from her cut-glass sherbet dishes, read her books, watched the children climb her trees and pull radishes from the little garden we planted that Spring.

When we were leaving, I knew her son was to auction off all the household goods, so I asked the realtor if I might buy the little cookbook with its margin-filled writing from its owner's hand. She gave it to me, and I've had it almost twenty years now. I smile every time I look at the flyleaf---in her beautifully-formed letters taught to scholars in another time, in the shaky, still-elegant script of an eighty-year-old hand---thin, pale brown scribing, as slender as the trail of a hatpin dipped into a rusty inkwell, it reads:

BUTTER SCOT PIE. LOOK ON PAGE WHERE PIE ARE.


And I'd love a look into YOUR pages, as well---anyone care to share the favorites on their bookshelves?

SHARING THE TASTE

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.

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.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Thanksgiving UN-Recipe

I'm seeing lots of recipes and suggestions and methods and prinkings of old family favorites on lots of blogs right now, and I'd just like to add one which NOBODY should try to cook. Trust me. Do Not Try This At Home. Or anywhere.

You know how great a nice big honey/brown sugar-rubbed baked ham is? And how delicious smoked turkey becomes when honey butter is rubbed over it, and melted honey/butter is injected into the meat before smoking for several hours? Great ideas, right? Do NOT, on your life, try this with a turkey you intend to deep-fry.

Chris is the world's greatest outdoor cook. He can grill anything, smoke it, pit barbecue it, deepfry it on all burners, but his talent fell prey to an error in judgement several years ago when he figured one is good and a combination will be even better.


He melted the butter and honey, added spices and herbs, and inoculated that turkey like it was traveling to a third-world country. His very obvious thinking was: if you've hit every muscle once, and STILL have some of the liquid left, better use it up.

That turkey went into that hot oil with a rumble not heard since Pompeii . It roiled up and almost out of the pot, subsiding just enough to lull him into a false security which lasted about ten minutes. That thing cooked FAST. The scent of burning cookies wafted into the house, and I opened the back door just in time to see a Cajun-blackened bird emerge magically from a pot which should have produced a golden, honey-fried one. Paul Prudhomme would have been PRAAAOUD.


Great clumps of char littered the surface; big black pocks sank into the flesh all over that bird---it looked like Tim Burton’s dream of Thanksgiving. The wingtips, which had not been injected but were somehow contaminated by heat or transfer, fell into crisp ashes at the touch of a finger.

As it started to cool just a teensy bit, the blackened drumsticks crumbled with little tik-tik sounds, falling like hunks of shattery coal onto the plate.

At least I think that's what it sounded like. I was laughing too hard to hear it.

COLLARDS AND CORNBREAD

There were no whole collards when I shopped for produce yesterday---I settled for two of those crinkly bags of "cut" ones. They are fresh and dark green, and will cook up just like we like them.I'll sit with a BIG bowl in my lap, perhaps with a TIVO'ed Top Chef to watch and dissect and grumble to. I will take each long shred, tear out the biggest of the center stem chunks, leave the smaller, tenderer ones for contrast and heft, and then wash the whole pan through several clear, cold washings, lifting them out onto a big tray as they emerge dripping from the water.

Then they'll go into the big, heavy le Creuset dutch oven, with just the water that clings to them, along with some salt, a few sprinkles of sugar, a big meat-clinging ham bone from the freezer, and lid on, they will cook gently for a LONG time, the old Mammaw way. It's a cool, drizzly day, and the aromas of cooking greens and crusty cornbread will fill the house with the scent-memories of a lifetime.

Perhaps a little cool bowl of baby red potato salad alongside, with some crisp crescents of cold sweet onion, and a few hearty shakes of the just-ready pepper sauce with the little wasptails. It's been brewing in the sunshine in the upstairs kitchen window, with the reds and yellows of the peppers reflecting the light all over the walls.


Chris will come smiling down the stairs, with a brisk breeze of the outdoor cold and damp, will change into his warm sweats, have a sip of something while we talk, and we'll sit down to a meal which has warmed and comforted and filled generations with the homey, homely ordinariness of a sublime comfort food.

He'll pick up the peppersauce bottle, sprinkle a few little glugs into his bowl, taste, and give it a couple more drops. A big bite of the wedge-end of the buttery cornbread, a bit of cool, mustardy potato, and the circle is complete---Greens and Cornbread. If the whole world could catch on to this---we'd all be better off.

I've always said if I ever wrote a book about the South, it would be called "Blues and Greens." One feeds and enhances the other, in a never-ending cycle, repeated every day. And each is better for the kinship.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

G.R.I.T.S.

I just have so much to say about my raising and outlook and cooking, and who taught me, and all the wonderful Southern cooks and writers and farmers and woodcrafters and just plain good folks who've been such a part of my life and all that I am.

And one question, which always arises: Grits. And people also have a great curiosity about G.R.I.T.S Girls---not Magnolia Blossoms or Sweet Potato Queens. G.R.I.T.S.--- acronym for Girls Raised In The South, the down-home, Southern-raised group of women whose company and goodwill have been such a part of life as I've known it. My own membership is a treasured thing, indeed. G.R.I.T.S. Girls (and Guys, if they're lucky) are of a Southern State of MIND, not geography. They are be-mannered at birth, born to be gracious, social, tolerant of others' foibles, and just a tad bit short-tempered with foolishness and unkindness.

They may be young or old, hair ranging from whalespout wisps to blue once-a-week helmets sprayed into submission at their Standing Appointment. They almost all own pearls, gloves, compacts, and several sturdy purses. Hats are optional, though the G.R.I.T.S set probably own as many feathery sweeps and veiled toques as the Royal Families of Europe, and wear them with more panache, as well.

They can take their French manicures straight home from the salon and plunge right into that bowl of buttermilk chicken, flour it up and fling it in that skillet beside the pot of collards as well as they can sashay their satin-clad selves into a country club, the Opera House or the White House. Dirt under those fancy nails just means they've been in the tomato patch or the rosebed or the horsestall, but they clean up REALLY well.

They have a zest for life, for literature, for Family and Friends; both are legion and necessary. Countless generations are remembered and celebrated; Grandma's necklace is a lovely accent to Granddaughter's wedding dress, and the tiniest new member of the clan is welcomed with her own add-a-pearl and a whispered word of womanly wisdom in her tiny ear. The littlest ones know to say, "Yes, Ma'am" and keep their skirts down and their knees together on their trikes...they aspire to be cheerleaders and doctors, mothers and teachers, writers and world-fixers, and usually achieve any and all of those, and much more.

And G.R.I.T.S. of both genders usually have a home-learned knowledge of Nature and the hows and wherefores of where their food comes from. They see the fields---from Spring, when the tillers are crawling the land, sending out that primal earthy scent of First Turning---to the last plowing-in of the Fall-brown stems shorn of their bounty, ground into the land for enrichment during the long cold days.

We know that meat does not spring from the Earth wrapped in plastic, and have witnessed the hard facts of raising and getting those hams and sides of beef into the freezer, have hefted a deer carcass onto the hanger for skinning, and can cook all the above in more ways than Emeril. Quite a few of the G.R.I.T.S. contingent are proficient at bringing down game for the table, having received their first small rifles when most kids are still clamoring for Elmo or Barbie, and more than a few of the female persuasion can outshoot all the males at any Huntin’ Camp.

Tiny girls in the smallest-size camo are proudly loaded into pickups to ride happily out with Daddy for a day at the deer stand or duck blind, taking their own places and turns at very young ages. Nobody messes with a woman holding a 30-aught-six, and many a 12-gauge stands in a closet behind the sweeping skirts of a prom dress. Some with the credentials of breeding and a family older’n dirt get away with owning their own assault rifles.

Martinis and Mystery, Chanel and Chainsaws, Satin and Skillets, White Gloves and Workboots---all are part of a G.R.I.T.S. Girl's makeup, along with good manners, kitchen knowledge, love of animals and the outdoors, luxurious perfume and scandalous underwear and perhaps a good knock of bourbon on occasion. Florence King is the Queen of writing about G.R.I.T.S. and Belles and all manner of Southern Womanhood; Fannie Flagg is an absolute genius with a golden gift for dialogue and character and scene, as well---her Idgie Threadgoode will live on as long as Scarlett O’Hara in the minds of female readers---just as memorable and smarter, besides.

My friend Klary lives over in Amsterdam, but her picture of a fried drumstick, properly marinated in buttermilk, Tabasco, etc., then cooked to the perfect golden-brown, perfect shattery crust, is worthy of any Below-the-M/D-cook in possession of her Mammaw's black skillet and a leftover cotillion corsage.

And G-girls sure DO say “BUTT,” but most of the ones I know say "Bee-hind." In exigent circumstances, they say "ass"---pronouncing it "ice"---as in "Dayum, Bobby Ray! Get your sorry ice in this house 'fore the neighbors see you!"

It's a soothing, sizzling Sisterhood, and location is no deterrent to membership. It's all in the outlook.