Friday, January 30, 2009

PASSING THE TORCH

One night right after we met, we had a date to go to Memphis for dinner. By four o’clock it had begun to snow, and was really falling fast. I called him and asked if he’d settle for fried chicken by the fireplace---a question on a par with asking a kid if he’d like candy. He ate it and was much impressed with my culinary talent.

I didn’t tell him until much later that Caro fried that chicken, while I primped for the evening.

Well, I TAUGHT her.

Her own Grandmother---my first Mother-in-Law---taught me to fry chicken---black skillet (she parted with one of her own slow-cured, crusty-bottomed ones in the name of love and authenticity), Crisco from a can, flour, salt and pepper. S&P and a little can of sage, like a captive, mentholated dustbunny in a can---were the ONLY condiments in her quite considerable kitchen cabinets---if you don't count the cinnamon which she saved for sweet potato pie and baked apples.

And she was a GLORIOUS cook. Her chicken was a model, the essence, the very paragon of fried chicken, to be held up as the zenith to which we could all aspire. Her biscuits and cornbread (also black skillet) were tender, crusty marvels of breadhood.

And her desserts!!! She had a way with piecrust and cake batter that would make Betty Crocker hand over her apron. My soul still longs for the long-lost recipe (confiscated by a VERY quick, very sneaky SIL the day before the funeral) for her famous caramel cake---a tendercrumb, buttery, meltingly delicious golden poundcake with a poured icing which, coincidentally, had been cooked ditto black skillet. She could take the last smitch of flour in the bag, the crumbs of sugar left in the bowl, and the paper off a Parkay stick, and turn out a dessert fit for royalty.


One of the funny memories of her wonderful chicken dinners is that the chicken was the STAR, and the rest just add-ons. That platter of golden-brown, crusty delight would be set down before family and company alike, accompanied by the most featherlight rolls, a can of Schoolday English peas, and a can of Pride of Illinois corn---each heated in a little pot just long enough to melt the butter.

I cannot fathom to this day the two Sacred Mysteries of my cooking forebears---Mammaw’s Magical Teapot and Maw’s ability to heat ONE CAN EACH of two things, put them in bowls, and serve a family of five and assorted guests generously. (And don't forget the drained pineapple rings, topped with a coronary-busting tablespoon of Blue Plate and a big pinch of hoopcheese).


The chicken and the dessert---that's what you came for.

So I learned, those days of Delta heat and no A/C, in that kitchen with one window over the sink, 10 square feet of counter space, and a shiny yellow dinette set butt-bumping you every time you moved toward the stove. I sharpened the knife, washed the carcass, cut it into fourteen pieces, (count 'em---2 legs, 2 thighs, pulley bone, two breasts, stripped of two small sections of boneless meat, neck, back-cut-in-two, 2 wings). I don’t count the liver and gizzard---you never count them when you’re figuring pieces to go around. If they don’t get lost on the platter, somebody will have scarfed them up before the tea’s on the table.


I soaked, I carefully measured quantities and seasonings, I shook that big brown sack. I heated the pan of shortening til it "browned a cube of bread" and laid in the carefully floured pieces (always the dark meat first, legs turned to fit against each other "saves space," with the bony tent of of the back in the same pan, liver tucked carefully beneath---livers have a way of choosing their moment, and will blow skyhigh at the exact minute you take off the lid if you don't capture them under that handy ribcage).

White meat came next, and was lidded, turned, uncovered, crispened, and set on a great mattress of "Scotch towls" to drain. It was wonderful chicken, tender and crisp and salty and just right. And I still cook it just like that, same skillet, same method, in a place faraway and a time so different.

We’ve graduated from the can of big ole mooshy peas to a bowlful of tiny tender frozen ones, microwaved under Saran for three minutes, and still a lovely emerald, with the whiff of green gardens when the covering’s whisked off.

Occasionally I DO open a can of that thick, sweeter-than-sweet corn and cook it like pudding in a tiny skillet with butter. And again, we occasionally have a Pineapple Salad, ditto Blue Plate and some extra-sharp Kraft. It’s like going Home.


Chris gets out of the car, comes into the house grinning. "I smelled fried chicken all the way out into the yard!!"

8 comments:

Jon said...

Rachel, Thanks for directing me to your fab "Piminna Cheese" recipe that you posted on November 18, 2008. If I were on death row, I believe it would be what I'd request for my last supper! It's gonna take me a month of Sundays to catch up on all your great posts since I lucked upon your great blog recently. I hope one day you will compile all of these wonderful posts into a cookbook which you could publish and sell like hotcakes. You have all of the "right stuff" in your writing style and recipe ingredients to create a best-seller.

Thanks again, Jon at Mississippi Garden

racheld said...

Thank you, Jon!!

I DID compile several years' worth of midnight e-mails and posts to several recipe and cooking sites---mostly family memories, and of course, they're slanted toward gatherings round the family tables.

When I had distilled it down, it made some 150 pages, and Chris had it printed and bound for me for Christmas of 07---about thirty copies for distributing to our siblings, their families, and some friends.

The butterfly picture is from the cover, and a lot of these posts are drawn from the pages---I just think of a subject and go get the post. (If my failing memory can locate the chapter).

Glad you liked the Paminna Cheese---it's a take-no-prisoners version, for REAL fans.

Jon said...

Rachel,
How lucky you are/were to have Chris do that for you for Christmas, and then, how generous you were to distribute copies to relatives and friends. (If ever one of them needs to raise some quick cash by parting with their treasured copy of your cookbook...which I can't imagine...but just supposing...tell her/him to name their price and e-mail me as I am a ready and eager buyer just waiting to send them the money in a flash!) By chance, does the printer still have the "master copy" in their file in order to do a second printing? If so, I do hope you will consider doing one. I'll bet you could take enough advance orders to get it done and turn a tidy profit. I know, I know...this is none of my beeswax, but you are sitting on a pot of gold. Do you ever watch Paula Deen on the Food Network? When I think of her humble beginnings as "The Bag Lady" and now see her remarkable success and all her cookbooks for sale in local bookstores, I know there is a market for genuine Southern cookbooks. You could do it. Think about it. Soar with the eagles.

Jon at Mississippi Garden

racheld said...

Whoa, Jon!!

I can't take that all in---I wouldn't know where to start, and this is just a little spiral-bound book, with "chapters" and memories and thoughts and not a lot of recipes. Though I DO have a lot of those. And the boxes of reams filled-and-never-opened again---like drifting leaves into a pan---they are in closets and stacked like plinths beneath vases and stacks of REAL books.

And Miz Paula had established a sorta Empire with that huge restaurant and her own book before she ever got anything done by a real publisher.

I just look after family and write down memories. The fact that it's reaching a few people who enjoy the remembrances and the little family doings---that's lagniappe, and I love that people find it fun and enjoyable.

More than that---it remains a "what if. . ."

Kouign Aman said...

I just wanna come to your place for 15 meals worth of cooking lessons!

racheld said...

Wouldn't that be FUN!!! I'd be delighted to Long-Distance stand over your shoulder anytime, as well.

I write down most of the recipes just like I talk---"Now, measure out two cups of flour and scrape the knife across the top. The sugar and butter should look like thickened pudding when you've creamed it enough with the mixer."

I'm EASY to cook with. And anybody who would cook FOR me---well, they're right up there with air conditioning, books and ice cream in my book.

~~louise~~ said...

I agree with Jon, stories like these deserve to be shared...thanks for the taste Rachel...do reconsider...

racheld said...

You are too kind. A market for such a narrow-subject book would be very hard to find, I think.
But it would be lovely to think of a book I could actually hold in my own hands.

I did have one printed Christmas 2007---150 pages of little vignettes and family stories and reminiscences---just two dozen copies, for family and close friends. I use a lot of the little stories as daily posts on here, as well.

And I MISS JON!!! I didn't even KNOW him, and he just disappeared in February, never posting again, and I wish he'd come back. Other friends in Vicksburg said they thought there had been a death in the family, and he was taking some time off. I hope he knows that I wish him well and hope he comes back soon.

And if ANYONE out there actually KNOWS him, I'd love to hear how he is. He's a bright light with his wit and intelligence, and THAT GARDEN!!