Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"There Was A Time When Folks Had Cooks Who Never Did Depend On Books-"

These are the opening lines of some pleasant doggerel that is the Forward to the 1950 edition of "Charleston Receipts", the" War and Peace" of American cookbooks.

A culinary Tolstoy could have written it.

History. Nostalgia. Sadness. Mourning for a lost and pleasant past. Belles and Charleston gentlemen. Gullah cooks. A hundred characters and a recipe that serves Cotillion Club Punch to 300 .

The opening chapter is devoted to beverages, mostly strong, and the book says that the
"unit of measure designated herein is the quart", which makes one wonder if some of those 300 servings of punch went to the same people.

And the imbibers who offered up their plantation firewaters- who were they? Such mysteries lie within! The Cotillion Club Punch receipt was from "A Charleston Gentleman", a man who remains anonymous for reasons unknown.One would think a man would be proud for conjuring how to get the entire Cotillion drunk- or perhaps since most of the strong water recipes came from single women, underrepresented in the rest of the cookbook, he was ashamed of such an unmanly occupation, one which was the usual province of old maids. Perhaps these old maids were eccentric aunts who never had beaus, or if they did lost them to shadowy ends- And they took to drink.

Another question. Who was "A Connoisseur", the inventor of "Champagne Punch For The Wedding". Male or female? Were Charleston women allowed to be connoisseurs? Who was the inventor of "Flip", a whiskey, eggnog, and milk concoction. Miss Ellen Parker, obviously a historian of all things Charlestonian, remarks it came from England with "The Lord's Proprietors", more evidence that this book has multiple story lines.

The canape section is next, and here the married women take back the book, as they and their Gullah cooks practice Shrimp Worship. Shrimp molded, pasted, pounded, pickled. Shrimp unending, sharing the canape tray only with the Holy Cheese Ball-

In the next section the Ocean brings forth soup, and everything that swims backwards or forwards or has to pried with a strong arm from a shell goes into it. We hear Gullah voices now.

"crab got tuh walk een duh pot demself or they ain' wut."

For "Cooter Soup" the receipt tells us to "kill cooter by cutting off the head". This is puzzling advice to a Yankee, for I would not know what a cooter was even if it swam up behind me. And I am certain it does swim, or did, as everything does that goes into that city's soup tureens. That they resort to violence for a little soup should surprise no one. These are the people who fired on Fort Sumter.

Let us now proceed to the section on "Seafoods" A subject inexhaustible in that lovely city in the heart of Gnat Country. We hear Gullah voices again urging household ladies with dishpans to come and buy"Swimpee! Swimpee! Raw, raw swimp!'
Breakfast shrimp. Shrimp in pies. If anyone ever invents a Shrimp punch it will be the people of Charleston.

For culinary inventiveness they have no equal. Here is "Otranto Pine Bark Soup", whose first instructions are"Arise early and go on the Lake and catch about eighteen
Big Mouth Bass, Bream, or Redbreast. Have "Patsie" make an outdoor fire of pinebark-"
I hope poor "Patsie", the designated fire starter ate at least one bass.

In Chapter the next the chicken and pig make their appearance at last . They must have been lonely while everyone else was down at the slough with crab traps. Inventiveness falters here for mankind has known the chick and the piglet so long that its culinary default is frying. Yet there is a recipe for "Chicken Hemingway", whose Hemingwayish touch must be the sherry.

Hominy and rice have their own chapter, and it begins with an admonishment by a culinary Yeats-

"Never call it"Hominy Grits"

Or you will give Charlestonians fits!'

In the dessert section under cakes, a white poetess tries to bake a cake. "My measuring is meticulous.And what's the result of this fuss and fiddle? My cake sinks heavily in the middle!"

This amuses her old black cook to no end, and with "a smile of glee, with a touch as light as an angel's kiss" old Maria, who measures nothing, makes the perfect cake.
This is the denouement. Now we know who really was in charge in Charleston's kitchens.

The fascinations of this book are unending.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Southern Grape Meets Shrimp?

I found these Scuppernong grapes at Howell's Truck in the parking lot at the Davidson Road Methodist Church today. I bought a pound. They would be Ambrosia, and the gods would keep them for themselves , but the gods gave them to people because it is too messy to spit out the seeds. But my question is- would they go with shrimp? Say a sauce made from grape juice, butter and cream. Or how about Cajun butter?

How I love to experiment!

A Memory Of Twin Bridges

When I was ten my father, never a company man, quit his job at Peck Stowe in Southington, Connecticut and moved us out of a historic Saltbox house in the suburbs to an old hill farm in North Charlestown, New Hampshire. The farm was on the Little Sugar River, a trout stream, and the state would dump fishery raised rainbow trout over the bridge in front of our house in spring. My brother and father were disdainful of these tame trout, as they were of the brown trout who my father said could live in a sewer.

When they fished they fished for brook trout, who lived in pools shaded by hemlock boughs.

The little farm, with its meager pasture was really no farm at all.There were four or five stanchions in the small barn but the dairy cows they once held were long dead. My father had bought the place as a summer house, but after a few years we moved in.

The Little Sugar in winter was a hard frozen river, small and no good for skating. But every man and boy with cabin fever dreamed of nights in March when the ice melted enough for the river to "go out" with a grinding crash that sent the ice out into the Connecticut River. When the ice went out trout season was close.

Though we fished near our house, we liked better to go out towards Unity, New Hampshire along the river over a succession of little bridges. Morse's Bridge. Dexter's Bridge. Some of the bridges had swimming holes, though not in chilly trout season.

The road went by pastures , by stands of hemlocks where the Blackburnian warblers nested,by fields with blossoming wild strawberries.Our destination was a place called Twin Bridges, and it was my favorite place, not for the fishing, which I was never good at ,but for the wildflowers such as the shy, creeping trailing arbutus and the painted trillium. Both grew at the Bridges in the shadow of a 15 foot tall "erratic"
, a round rock stranded by glaciers as they retreated and melted away eons ago when the White Mountains were still young.

I loved that rock. I loved to climb it. I visited spring and summer. And years later, when I returned to visit from Tennessee, I took my dogs and drove out to see it.
It was gone, blasted and bombed away by a soulless highway department. And the river had been dredged, and there would be no painted trilliums. I do not know where the trout were.

There were A-frame houses where the wild orchids once grew , and the police found the body of a murdered girl in a field by Dexter's Bridge, where I once picked wild strawberries.

I regretted thinking I could go back.

That is not the way the world is made.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Lady Peas-The Truffle of the South?

A few weeks back I went to the Howell's Farm truck down at the Methodist Church on Davidson Road. They had the usual squashes and Bradley tomatoes and okra for $3.00 a pound. And that day, instead of lima, or butter beans, they were selling Lady Peas for $5.00 a pound, which in my valuation of Vegetable-dom, rates as a luxury item. Since I had never heard of a Lady Pea, I decided to buy a bag. They were small and white and unassuming. Nothing about them looked pricey.

Back home, I went to the cookbook shelves to see what Southern cooks did with them.

Edna Lewis, in her "Taste of Country Cooking", does not mention them. Nor does "Charleston Receipts". The Four Great Southern Cooks were silent as well. I did find a recipe for Lady Peas cooked with salt pork in "The Southern Heritage Cookbook-Company's Coming!", published by Oxmoor House in 1983. Boil the peas in water flavored with salt pork, season them with salt, drain them and take them to church for Sunday dinner to feed the crowd and the visiting preacher on his one Sunday a month in your town.

They must not have cost $5.00 a pound back then. Why are they so expensive now?,

Here is what Martha Hall Foose says in her "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea", published in 2008 by Clarkson Potter,

"Lady Peas are hard to get, hard to pick, tender, expensive, fought over when in short supply, and turn white at maturity". Mrs. Foose, who lives in Mississippi and is an Executive Chef at The Viking Cookware cooking school, calls these little field peas "elegant". She also warns us against shifty truck farmers who pass other, lesser field peas off as Lady Peas to the"undiscriminating or ill-informed".

I hope she does not mean me, for when it comes to field peas, I am uninformed. For I, even after 31 years in the South, am a Brooklyn born, New England raised Yankee who grew up eating peas from a pod and not from a bean, which is what a field pea is. A bean. A legume-Vigna sinensis, which grows only where the summers are very long and very hot.

I cooked my Lady Peas in chicken broth until they were tender. I seasoned the broth with salt and a little onion powder, and after I drained the peas ,I tossed them with three strips of finely crumbled bacon, a tablespoon or so of bacon drippings, and a few tablespoons of heavy cream. It was a dish anyone would pronounce good ,and certainly good enough to feed the preacher.

I did find this delightful vignette from Janis Owens, author of "The Cracker Kitchen", published by Scribner in 2009. Mrs. Owens is talking of field peas in general when she writes that one of her cousins rejected a would be beau because he would not try the field peas her family tried to feed him at dinner. She says that now all suitors approaching the women in her clan must first pass "the field pea test".

"Refusing to eat field peas for any reason is just a basic red flag. It speaks volumes", says Mrs. Owens.

Here are photos of what I hope were Lady Peas!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What Money Cannot Buy-

A friend of mine bought a painting at an estate sale last weekend. The painting was too big to put in her car, so she asked me if I would move it in my truck bed.
I drove behind her through the iron gates of a gated community in a suburb I will simply call" Ostentatia". Every house there was a mansion of perfection, and when I later went on line to see how much these houses sold for, I found several were to be had for an $11,000 monthly loan payment.

There was nothing charming or comfortable or cozy about the house we walked into.The foyer was bigger than my apartment, and the two rooms I saw behind it looked like corporate boardrooms. What would one do I wondered, with all that space? Read? Visit with friends? Do a crossword puzzle?

Or was the point merely to flaunt the money that bought the space and filled it with objects that would be sold at an estate sale when you died- I wondered if the footsteps the walls heard were mostly the maid's, though there was no maid now. Just a caretaker letting people in to pick up the paintings and tables and rugs they had bought.

There was a huge cold-hearted glass top table in the dining room, which had stone walls and was strangely small compared to the other rooms. Or perhaps this was because the table was so out sized. No one had bought it, for it cost many thousands. My friend who is a Have, wanted the table,but said she had no no place to put it. Someone would have to move it, since the old oriental rug under it sold for $2000.00 "as is". "We sent it out to clean it"the caretaker said",but they just could not get the stains out".

And here I found myself on common ground with the dead multi-millionaire whose dog or dogs had wet all over the rug. I cannot get the stains out of my carpet either, no matter what spray can I buy.

It seems that having an incontinent dog is the great leveler. And though in principle, I dislike the rich ,I liked this man a little better(posthumously)for loving his dog more than he did his rug-