Via Deutsche Welle: 23 year old Carolin Klöckner was named the 2018 Wine Queen on Friday night at the German Wine Institute in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. (For you English out there, that’s “New City on Wine Street.”) This was no beauty pageant; the various German Queens are more P. R. experts than anything else. Klöckner will join the other Queens, like the Beer Queen, the Apple Queens, the Strawberry Queen, and most importantly, the Bavarian Sausage Queen, who wields a scepter of Weisswurst, as the public face of German Agriculture. A country can’t have too many food Queens.
At least it looks edible.
After a little less than two months working at our local fast food fried chicken joint in Cullman, Alabama, I had had enough. Two things led to a quick and final middle finger to the whole establishment.
The first was being told, nay ordered, to cook forty pounds of rotten chicken. One day right before the split, I grabbed my usual forty pound box of “fresh” chicken out of our walk-in cooler, and prepared to marry-nate it. However, when I opened the box, the entire kitchen was filled with the unmistakeable aroma of rotten chicken. In a cost cutting move, our owner, a Yankee carpetbagger who went by the name of “King” Kohl, had hired a patient from a local drug rehab center (at a reduced wage, naturally), to do such chores as rotate the stock in the cooler. The recovering addict was apparently still in recovery mode from a suicide attempt, when he had drunk an entire bottle of Drano, and had forgotten about that one little detail of his job.
This one was a job for the Manager. I tracked her down in her office, and said, “Manager manager manager, we have forty pounds of rotten chicken out here.”
She said, “Let me show you how to take care of this. We can still cook it, because we can’t afford to waste forty pounds of chicken.”
After every time I tell this story, some moralist will object, and say that I should have walked out right then. Au contraire. No one is dumb enough to actually eat rotten chicken. And I could not wait to see our manager have to deal with the first consumer who found out that they had actually paid for rotten meat. I was already into schadenfreude back then.
The manager first coated each piece of chicken in a thick coat of baking soda, and then rinsed them in borderline scalding hot water. Sure enough, the stink was gone from the exterior of the chicken. The manager was proud of herself, and said, “Cook it!” This was Frankenstein’s chicken.
The fundamental problem with the reanimation of rotten chicken is that chicken does not rot in layers. A chicken is not an onion, and an onion is not a chicken. On our farm, over the years, I had seen literally dozens of dead chickens. Not a single one was ever rotten on just the surface.
I fried the chicken and put it in our drawer warmer. It was a slow afternoon, and it took awhile to get down to the level of the rotten chicken. Then, there it was–nothing left but forty pounds of rotten chicken. Who would be the first victim?
A guy in a Buick pulled up to our door a few minutes later. Fate or chance was staring at him. He walked in the door, and was greeted by our cashier.
Cashier: “Kin I hep yu?” (Can I help you?)
Potential Victim: “I would like a bucket of chicken, please.” He didn’t sound like someone who would fall for a marketing trick, like renaming something greasy and fried as “Crispy.”
Cashier: “Woold you like the crees-pee, or tha oorigeenul res-a-pee?” (Would you like the crispy, or the original recipe?)
Potential Victim thought for a moment, and then said. “I’ll take a bucket of the Crispy this time.” Now he was upgraded to Future Victim.
I hid behind a wall in the kitchen, and did a fist pump. This guy was sure to rake our manager over the coals. I looked at my watch as he walked out the door, and made a mental bet with myself as to when he would be back.
Fifteen minutes later I heard squealing tires in the parking lot. Victim was back, and he did not look happy. He marched in the door with a single drumstick in his hand, which had one bite taken out of it. He stuck it in our cashier’s face and said, “SMELL THIS.”
“PEE-YOU,” she said, and waved a fake finger-nailed hand in front of her face. “Thy-at smells bi-add. I’m gonna git the man-a-jur fur yu.” (Phew, that smells bad. I’m going to get the manager for you.)
She went to the office, practically grabbed the manager, hauled her to the front, and hid behind her. Victim stuck said chicken in the manager’s face, and said, “SMELL THIS.”
“That smells like it’s off,” the manager said. “Would you like another bucket of chicken?” Not the right thing to say.
Victim screamed in her face. “I DON’T WANT ANYMORE OF YOUR STINKING CHICKEN.”
“Would you like a refund?” The manager asked. This was before the days when people sued about things like too hot coffee.
“YES, I WANT MY MONEY BACK,” Victim said.
The manager gave him some cash, and Victim burned rubber leaving the parking lot. The manager walked back into the kitchen, and wanted to talk to me. She said, “Please tell me if you ever find any bad chicken. We can’t let people think we serve bad chicken here. Do you understand?”
I understood perfectly. I said, “Yes, I think I understand.” It was corporate America showing it’s enormous backside. If anything bad happened, it was my fault–especially if it was something I was ordered to do. The rest of the rotten chicken ended up in the dumpster. The one across the street.
As this is a Revenge Farce, I was determined to get more than just even. It only took a couple of days.
I had been working seven days a week for most weeks, but never made it to a full forty hours once. It was always two hours here, six hours there. For my cooperation, I had been guaranteed time off on the Fourth of July. On the third of July, the manager cornered me in the kitchen, and said, ” I have some bad news. Tomorrow is the busiest day of our year. We’re going to need you all day. We start at seven A.M., running the fryers nonstop. You’ll need to stay until the usual 9:30 at night. And you won’t have time for a lunch break.”
Karma really is an unusual thing. With a completely straight face, I looked her in the eye, and said, “I’ll be here bright and early.”
The next morning at eight, I was eating breakfast back at the farm when the phone rang. I answered it, and it was the manager. She said, “Where are you?”
“Here on the phone. I’m running a little late.”
“Get up here as fast as you can,” she said, and hung up. I ate some more biscuit with margarine on it.
Another hour later, as I was getting ready to go to a cookout in Huntsville, the phone rang again. The manager was unhappy this time. She asked, “Why aren’t you here?”
“I must have forgotten to tell you that I quit.”
“You can quit tomorrow. We already have a line of customers. We’re going to be really busy all day. This is the busiest day of the year.”
“I guess you’ll have to cook instead of me. I have a cookout to go to. Bye.” I hung up, and never heard from the wench again. I had declared my independence.
Strangely enough, that third of July, when I was nineteen, was my last day of employment with corporate America. I have had many interviews with technical and scientific firms, subsequently, but zero job offers. I have also freelanced for many publishers, but that’s just freelancing. However, the worst of corporate America has to be the corporations involved in the industrial food business. Greasy isn’t crispy, corn syrup is not sugar, a couple of square feet of space is not free range, up is not down, and most of all, rotten is not fresh. There is a difference between peddlers of addictive foods laced with salt, sugar, and fat, and drug dealers–drug dealers go to jail. Corporate leaders rarely do. Or managers.
Just a bit disturbing. Maybe the little fellow is only sleeping.
Readers of the first installment of this sordid series of tales, “The Night I Cooked for the Mob,” may recall that my job at our local fast food fried chicken establishment in Cullman, Alabama, was to man the deep fryer, a stove sized implement that held gallons and gallons of deep frying fat. I say “fat” because that was the only word on the label of the package that contained the possibly hydrogenated substance we used in our deep fryer. Oil and lard were too expensive, apparently, and so we had this shortening like concoction that came in large, paper wrapped blocks. Even then, our manager guarded it as if she had been the supervisor of prisoners at the Bastille. No one touched her fat without her permission.
Because of the hydrogenated nature of the “fat” we used, the contents of my deep fryer would congeal every night, after I turned off the gas to the thing. When I had the day shift, I would come in and turn it on, and it would liquify, and gradually warm up to the 350 degrees that it needed to be. Then it was time to fry some chicken for the unwashed masses.
On this particular June day I was greeted by a visitor to my fryer. A dead visitor. A series of tiny footprints lead to the middle of the fryer, where my late friend the mouse had apparently hit a soft spot in the shortening. The little guy had drowned in fat. In fact, he was as dead as a cliche. He did have what appeared to be a slight smile, so I suppose he died happy, like a mouse in fat should.
Be that as it may, this was definitely a job for our manager, who loved making executive type decisions. I interrupted her daily reading of the Cullman Times with a knock on her office door, and said, “Manager manager manager, there’s a dead mouse in the deep fryer.”
“Expletive,” she said, as she put down her paper. “Not another one. I’ll show you how to take care of this.” This was a teachable moment, apparently.
She took a look into the fryer at our dead mouse, and said, “Go to the pantry, and get that biggest stainless steel spoon we have. You know which one it is?”
“Yes, Manager,” I said. I assumed she wanted me to get the spoon that was larger than all of the others. As it turned out, it was a real beauty.
When I got back to the kitchen, she said, “That’s it. Now scoop out the dead mouse, but get as little of the fat as possible. It’s too expensive to waste.” I scooped out the mouse with very little fat. Then she said, “Take it across the street, and throw it in the dumpster over there. We can’t have people thinking that we have mice in here.”
“Good thinking,” I said, and headed out the back door.
The street behind our restaurant was a busy one for our town, and crossing it was compounded by the problem of having a dead mouse in a spoon. I thought this might one day make a great Olympic sport, crossing busy streets with a mouse filled spoon. I took my time, ran across the street, and backhanded the poor bugger into the dumpster. I was going to win on style points.
On my way back across the street, I suddenly thought that the mouse had to have crapped all in the fat when it died. My suspicion was confirmed when I got back in the kitchen, and saw all the mouse sized black pellets that were in the fryer. It was time for another executive decision.
I knocked on the manager’s door again. I said, “Manager manager manager, I think the mouse did something in the fat when it died.” Now she was reading the paper, and having a smoke.
She didn’t even look up from her paper this time. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It will cook out when you turn the fryer on. No one will ever notice, or even know about it.”
“Yes, manager,” I said.
I think I gagged a bit when I turned on the fryer. That was the last day I ever ate anything that came out of that kitchen.
Hamburger meat is on the way. The grinder just needs a few more cranks.
A. D. Livingston, in his great book On the Grill, tells the best hamburger story I have ever read, and it actually qualifies as one of the best stories I’ve ever read, period. It’s a tragi-comic tale of the decline of Southern food, and the Southern diet, both at the same time. It also involves high school football, cheerleaders, and grilled hamburgers. It doesn’t get much more Southern than that.
A. D. has a unique explanation for the year after year success of his local high school football team. It was the hamburgers served at each home game:
Above all else, however, I credit a few good ol’ boy chefs and the great American hamburger. Thick and juicy. Hot and tasty. Grilled to perfection.
Fans from both sides of the gridiron would mob the hamburger venue at the home field, lured in by the smell of ground beef cooking over hickory and charcoal, and the resulting revenue went to support the team.
Just as no good deed goes unpunished, however, all good things come to an end:
But slowly things changed and un-American activities began to gnaw at the spirit of the thing. By the time my son reached varsity football and I was called upon to lend my services as a chef, the situation had really become hopeless.
Locally ground quality beef had been replaced by Sam’s Club type pre-formed burgers. Not surprisingly, no one wanted to eat that garbage. When confronted with that reality, the new head of the Quarterback Club had the following answer for A. D. :
“Look, feller,” he said, fed up with me. “This is a ball game. If people want hamburgers, they’ll go to Hardee’s.”
And in that manner, the South fell again. Only the Southerners who fell this time were all so obese, they couldn’t get back up.
Let’s look at Southern burgers, traveling from East to West.
This is something of a barbecue burger, and I have compiled a list of the most important ingredients. I think of this as being a North Carolina, instead of a South Carolina, burger.
- Gotta have: Coleslaw, American Cheese
- Gratuitous meat added: All meat chili
- Burger: Ground Chuck
Anything with coleslaw is good, and I would throw in a slice of dill pickle as well. Be gratuitous.
Pimento and Cheese Burger
Originally a coastal specialty, this burger was something of a craze for awhile, and has spread around the country. Talk about a cheeseburger! Cheese, with peppers and mayo. That’s what I’m talking about.
- Gotta have: Good Pimento and Cheese, and lots of it, and a slice of tomato
- Gratuitous meat added: Bacon
- Burger: Ground Chuck
Though this may be a slow motion infarction of a meal, one every so often probably won’t kill you. Probably.
Slug Burger, Penn Burger, Mystery Burger
This is the one I have been wanting to write about, a burger intended to be consumed by the Southern lumpenproletariat. You’re going to have to google that term. This low priced specialty is concentrated in the Tennessee Valley region of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, and surrounding environs. The Southern Foodways Alliance has a blog post dedicated to this curiosity. Let’s just say this one is not for everyone.
- Gotta have: Filler, filler, filler. Usually Soybean Meal, Flour, or Oatmeal, as well as a boatload of condiments, to cover up the taste of the filler
- Gratuitous meat added: As little as possible
- Burger: Ground Beef, Pork, or whatever was found dead in the road
My hometown of Cullman was so special that we had TWO Mystery Burger joints, including a C. F. Penn franchise, where they deep fry the burgers. I had my first Mystery Burger when I was about ten, and even my ten year old brain said, “What the f*** is this?” Actually, it was also my last one. Foodies like to talk about “mouthfeel,” a term I find to be borderline obscene. Walk up to someone on the street, and ask, “How is your mouthfeel today?” This thing had the mouthfeel of the refuse from a lumberyard. Hence our family name for it: Sawdust Burger.
How about from the ridiculous to the sublime? I’ve always thought that if Mississippi had not gotten in the way, Louisiana and Alabama would have been like two brothers who lived next to each other, and always tried to best each other at everything, be it good or bad. Corrupt as hell, and football and food crazy, Alabama has the James Beard award winning best restaurant in the country, Highlands Bar and Grill, (Frank Stitt, the owner and Executive Chef, just happens to be from Cullman), and the last I heard, a pretty good football team. Louisiana has chef Donald Link, among others, and LSU ain’t bad at football, either. Here is a short version of Chef John Folse’s Southern/Louisiana Burger:
- Gotta Have: Egg, Bread Crumbs, and Parmesan Cheese as a binder
- Gratuitous meat added: None needed
- Burger: Ground Chuck
Cheese IN the burger? Absolute genius. Whenever we had beef that was too lean back on the farm, we would use egg and flour as a binder. That’s when the connection struck me-it all goes back to the original hamburger from Germany. Donald Link is something of a German Cajun, having ancestors named Zaunbrecher, who helped establish rice farming in Louisiana. Talk about fusion. Talk about good.
The Basic Burger
Let’s get back to the basics, after all of these variations. Hamburger obviously originated in Hamburg, Germany, as Frankfurters originated in Frankfurt, and Wieners in Wien (Vienna). A Berliner is a kind of jelly doughnut, and people still debate if JFK stood before a huge crowd in Berlin in 1963, and said, “I am a Jelly Doughnut” (Ich bin ein Berliner). The more normal construction would have been “Ich bin Berliner.” I asked my German friend Torsten, who was an engineer at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, about that, and he said that context is everything, when it came to statements like JFK’s. So JFK was not a jelly doughnut, after all. He was a Mensch.
This basic burger recipe is similar to A. D Livingston’s, with a couple of additions:
- Ground Chuck (I grind my own)
- Black Pepper
- Worcestershire Sauce
- Soy Sauce
- Garlic Powder
Proportions are a matter of taste. I cook my burgers on a Lodge cast iron sportsman’s grill, over oak and hickory charcoal. I also like really strong dijon or creole mustard on my burger, and Vidalia onion. One thing I will never cook on my grill, however, is Mystery Burgers.
“Trink, trink, Brüderlein trink.” Drink, brother, drink.
I have copied the schedule for the Oktoberfest celebration in my hometown of Cullman, Alabama, Die Deutsche Colonie von Nord Alabama.
A hot homemade English Muffin, and homemade Fig Preserves, and an old Cafetière of Coffee and Chicory. Breakfast!
When I left the farm in Good Hope, Alabama, for college, I knew that there were people who drank coffee without chicory in it, but I had never met one, as far as I knew. It could have been because I didn’t drink coffee, or even alcohol. Then when I started graduate school, and entered into the teaching profession at the same time, I found I needed something to wake me up in the morning, and put me to sleep at night. My girlfriend Melanie Jane and I headed out for the Kroger’s in Tuscaloosa, on a mission, after my first class. We left there with two new items in our buggy: some Luzianne Coffee and Chicory, and a bottle of BV Beau Rosé. Being an adult wasn’t all bad.
The other thing we bought at about the same time is a cookbook that is still my favorite, the 1901 edition of The Picayune Creole Cookbook, from New Orleans. For years the only two cookbooks we owned were that, and The Joy of Cooking (it should be noted that Irma Rombauer, who wrote the original Joy, was from St. Louis, which is sometimes considered to be Southern, though usually not). Truthfully, those two books, and a little curiosity, is all a cook needs. However, the very first recipe in the Picayune Creole Cookbook is Café à la Créole: Creole Coffee.
Though chicory is not mentioned in the recipe, the praises lavished on coffee are next level. Coffee “supported the old age of Voltaire,” and I challenge anyone else to find a cookbook that begins with a reference to Voltaire (a bust of Voltaire welcomes visitors to the entrance hall at Monticello). I have to throw in another quote about a French writer, this one by Henry James: Honoré de Balzac could not have written so many novels without “deep potations of coffee,” allegedly around fifty cups per day. But here is the real kicker from the recipe:
Coffee is now regarded by physicians as an auxiliary food substance, as retarding the waste of nerve tissue and acting with peculiarly strengthening effect upon the nervous and vascular systems.
Coffee. It’s what’s for breakfast. As much as I have drunk, I should live to be two thousand years old.
Now, New Orleans Creole Coffee is most famous for it’s various coffee and chicory concoctions, and just one producer has at least six varieties of coffee and chicory to choose from. Chicory is a southern European plant with blue flowers, from the Aster family, though the part used in the beverage is the roasted root. Chicory root has claims of medicinal qualities about it that would have made the writers of The Picayune Creole Cookbook blush.
This marriage of African coffee bean and European roasted herb root made it to France in 1801, and was well entrenched in N. O. by the time of the Civil War blockade. According to Smithsonian Magazine, folks from New Orleans tried everything from acorns to beets as additives and fillers for their coffee, in order to stretch out their supply. Apparently Coffee and Chicory tasted better than Coffee and Acorns.
If you are brave enough to try this incredibly smooth, addicting drink, locals throughout the South recommend just about everything available. The general consensus is that there are two favorites: Community Coffee Coffee and Chicory, and Union Coffee and Chicory. Consider all other brands as tied for third, and they all have slight variations in flavor. Prices vary widely, so do a little searching before purchasing. I personally buy the 32 oz. bags of Community Coffee Coffee and Chicory, but I probably should consider coffee rehab.
If you have a super special coffee variety already that you have sworn allegiance to, say, something grown only on three acres on a mountain in Jamaica, and picked only by left handed Ganja smokers, despair not. Chicory is sold widely, and even Community Coffee sells bags of it. Mix one part of chicory, with three parts of your Ganja smoker picked Jamaican primo, and there you have it. That’s the standard mix ratio, but experimentation is encouraged. Believe it or not, instant chicory is also available, for fans of instant coffee.
Now, naturally, to the world famous Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Starbucks it ain’t. Unless you want your coffee cold or frozen, you have two choices: black Coffee and Chicory, or Cafe au Lait, which is half strong Coffee and Chicory, and half hot milk. No lattes, no frappuccinos, and definitely no pumpkin spice. If you go there and ask for a doughnut and some pumpkin spiced coffee, please have the word “TOURIST” tatooed across your forehead first.
Why is there a derringer pointed at where this organic chicken’s head used to be? Why is a whole chicken in a skillet? Why am I asking you? Read on.
Nineteen year olds rarely have a chance to cook for a couple of mobsters, and that was not my intent when I showed up for the night shift at our local fast food fried chicken franchise in my home town of Cullman, Alabama. I just wanted to get my work done, and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, because I had a hot date at ten o’clock that night. Ladies, gentlemen, and all you other guys out there, any young woman who will wait until ten to start a date is worth the time.
Speaking of extortion schemes, the University of Alabama was starting a series of tuition increases that have not stopped since then, and I needed some extra money to cover the bits and pieces. After one year there, I was actually headed into my junior year, having begun college with a year’s worth of credit. At any rate, I was one of the last people to see tuition at $98 per semester.
We had two cooks at two different stations that night, as the restaurant served two different types of fried chicken: one that was pressure fried, which gives the chicken a texture impossible to duplicate in the average home kitchen; and another that was just plain old greasy deep fried chicken, though it was marketed as being “crispy.” I manned the deep fryer, as the pressure frying machine was obviously too complex for an English/Physics double major (I later dropped the Physics part).
By 9:15 I had gone through my usual eighty pounds of chicken, and was ready to leave. We locked up at 9:30, and then we two cooks would mop and de-grease the floor with a combination of scalding hot water and Clorox. At exactly that time, a black Cadillac with Illinois plates pulled into our empty parking lot. Two rather large gentlemen with no foreheads and fancy suits stepped out of it, and headed toward our lobby door. Everyone knew it was the Chicago mob.
How did we know? We were in a small town in north Alabama, but none of us fell off the turnip truck on the way to work that day. A local millionaire, who went by the name of Bully Moon, lived a block behind our restaurant. He was rumored to be an acquaintance of many shady folks, including the Chicago mob. Everyone knew this, except for the police, apparently. Bully was eventually convicted of obstruction and tax evasion, and given six years at Club Fed. He only served three. There, he couldn’t touch Little Man Popwell, who owed $400, 000 of tax penalties in 1955, and also spent some time in Club Fed. Little Man was 5′ 6″ and weighed 300 lbs, and allegedly ran the Birmingham affiliate of the New Orleans Mafia, which is said to be the oldest mob group in the country. He ran an illegal mini-casino out of his home in Shelby County, just south of Birmingham, and was even inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in Vegas.
Our two visitors made their way into the lobby, and found themselves face to face with our cashier, who had long fake fingernails, and a beehive hairdo that even Marge Simpson couldn’t compete with. I am able to translate her Southern and their Chicago-ese because of my five year residence in Illinois, and my many more than that years long residence here.
Cashier: “Kin I hep yu?” (Can I help you?)
Goon 1: “We wan sum chickn.” (We want some chicken.) The goon 2 never said anything. Maybe he was shy.
Cashier: “Woold you like the crees-pee, or tha oorigeenul res-a-pee?” (Would you like the crispy, or the original recipe?)
Goon 1: “Whut’s da diffunce?” (What’s the difference?)
Cashier: “Tha oorigeenul has a see-crette blee-end of erbs and spices, and the crees-pee is marry-nated and deep fri-iid.” (The original has a secret blend of herbs and spices, and the crispy is marinated and deep fried.)
Goon 1: “We’ll take uh buckit uv da kispy.” (We’ll take a bucket of the crispy.)
Damnation! If any of that chicken was bad, I was a dead man. There’s nothing worse than someone who misses a date because they’re dead. Maybe my sweetie would cry at my funeral. Then I remembered that there weren’t any tables in our lobby, and only one plastic chair. We were a take out place. They were going to have to eat at Bully’s.
The date was back on.
Or so I thought, as they took the bucket of chicken two feet down the counter, and tore into it standing up. It was awesome to watch. The only difference between those two, and an Alaskan Grizzly eating a live salmon, is that they didn’t eat the bones. Instead, they chunked them back into the bucket, and grabbed another piece. Within five minutes, there was nothing left but a bucket of bones.
They both wiped the grease off their mouths with their jacket sleeves, and Goon 1 turned to our cashier, and said, “Pudy gud.” (Pretty good.) And then they got back into their Caddy, and in my imagination, drove down a block to give Bully the business. So there it was–the mob thought my fried chicken was pudy gud, and I still had a hot date waiting for me. Life was pudy gud.
This needs an epilogue of sorts. A couple of years after my two months at that fine establishment, the kitchen caught on fire, and both chicken fryers and chicken eaters moved across town to a brand new building. They even had tables and chairs there. My date turned out to be even hotter than expected, and four years later, we were married, and still are. As it turned out, I married the best Phi Beta Kappa fryer of chicken in the South. Maybe one day Melanie Jane will have the chance to fry some chicken for a couple of wise guys from Illinois, the state University of which, strangely enough, happens to be her Alma Mater.
Here’s a touchy subject if ever there was one, a place where only angels-and fools-dare to tread. However, the above picture of our wall of cast iron will have to serve as evidence that I know whereof I speak. That’s one heavy batterie de cuisine. By the way, the small skillet hanging on the upper left is almost forty years old, but could pass as about a year old.
However, I am going to avoid absolute pronouncements and merely discuss the merits of various materials and methods. Think of seasoning cast iron as analogous to painting a wall. Unless you’re Jackson Pollack, you want to apply thin, even, layers of finish. Here are the top four choices for oils (fats) to use.
- Traditionalist’s Choice: Animal Fat. I’m fairly old school, so I personally use lard, BUT lard that I have slowly rendered myself from locally grown pigs. A section from the Purdue University Pork Industry Handbook , “Pork and Pork Quality” (PIH 128), notes that pork fat is a good source of linoleic acid, a main component of the “drying oils” (aka, oils that transform into a polymer), that will be discussed below. Without wandering off into the forests of chemistry, that is an acid that allows lard to form a polymeric surface (the molecules link together), when exposed to a combination of heat and oxygen. It’s the same way traditional oil paint dries. A. D. Livingston, in his Cast Iron Cooking, is a strong proponent of animal fat, noting that pioneers even used such things as bear fat for seasoning. If you have some extra bear fat in the fridge, go for it.
- Expert’s Choice: Flaxseed/Linseed oil. Essentially the two are the same thing, but Flaxseed is usually a raw oil marketed for culinary purposes, while Linseed oil comes in various forms, and is intended for wood finishing, or for making oil paints. It is the most famous of the drying oils. In oil painting, this is the oil of choice, as it provides a smoother finish (See Painting Materials, a scholarly text for artists from 1942. We’re in some seriously nerdy territory now). Flaxseed oil is the best for cast iron, raw linseed second, and polymerized linseed oil, which has been heated so that it will dry faster, would be a third choice. I use a food grade “Danish Oil” (polymerized linseed oil) for wooden spoon and bowl finishes, and the brand I use (Tried and True) is also approved for cutting boards. Never ever use boiled linseed oil, which contains as many toxic chemicals as an EPA Superfund site.
- Two Other Drying Oils: Safflower and Walnut Oils. I have not used these on cast iron, but they are highly rated as drying oils. Safflower has the benefit of being inexpensive and widely available. I have used Walnut oil as a wood finish, and unlike linseed oil, the smell is wonderful. The finish is fantastic as well. Walnut oil has almost twice the oil content of any other non-synthetic oil, so a little goes a long way. Allegedly, it was Leonardo da Vinci’s secret weapon when it came to making oil paints. If you have any left over, make salad dressing with it, or start forging a copy of the Mona Lisa.
Soybean oil and poppyseed oil are also drying oils, but try and find some non-GMO soybean oil at the same price as safflower oil. After you have put an almost invisibly thin coat of oil on some cast iron, what are you going to do? Cook it. Here’s three methods.
- Top of the Stove, Bro. This one requires the most attention, but it is the method of choice for seasoning carbon steel pans, and will work with cast iron as well. Disconnect the smoke detector, apply the material thinly, heat it right up to smoking point, take the pan off the heat, wipe it down, and let it cool off. Repeat until you have the finish you want. By the way, don’t disconnect the smoke detector.
- Bake it. By far the most common method, and recommended by manufacturers such as Lodge, in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Apply the material, place the pan upside down in the oven, and bake at a high temp for an hour. I’d go with 500 degrees F. Repeat, and apply another coat of oil, if the finish is not sticky to the touch. If it is, bake it for another hour, without additional oil. If it’s sticky after that, scour the pan and begin all over. You’ve been a Jackson Pollock with your oil, which is not a good thing.
- Burn it. “Like any other Primitive would,” to quote Neil Young from a different context. As with most things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. I have seen videos of people throwing a cold skillet into a fire, straight onto a bed of glowing hot coals, which is the cooking equivalent of What Not to Wear. Thermal shock is one of the few things that will ruin cast iron. I prefer to put my cast iron in my brick oven as my fire is just beginning to burn. Eventually, I will push it up into the coals, as the fire begins to burn down. Then I let it cool for hours, or even overnight. If it’s an older piece of cookware, this method serves the double purpose of seasoning, and burning the grunge off of the exterior.
So choose the combination that you like, and be patient. If you pay attention, and take care of your cookware, eventually you will achieve this finish:
A couple of decades of frying chicken has left a little grunge at the top of this fryer, but the business part of this piece is a pure slick polymer. The scratch is the result of an unfortunate use of a metal utensil years ago, and so I now use only wooden ones I have made myself. (Not that I would brag or anything, but I have one featured in the book A Gathering of Spoons: The Design Gallery of the World’s Most Stunning Wooden Art Spoons, by Norman D. Stevens.)
Let’s finish with a couple of often disputed topics. The first is cooking acidic foods, like tomatoes, in cast iron. Of course you can. You’re cooking on a polymerized surface, not bare cast iron. The dish will taste metallic if cooked in an unseasoned pan, but no one should be cooking in an unseasoned pan anyway. I have cooked literally hundreds of dishes of Chicken Creole and Chicken Piquant in my favorite skillet, and both have tomatoes, and the second additionally has white wine and olives. I’ve made both in some of my wife’s fancy copper pans, and the result wasn’t nearly as tasty. Go figure.
The last question is of great import, which is how to clean and maintain cast iron cookware once it is seasoned. A. D. Livingston became an absolutist when working at the nuclear lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after hearing of a skillet that had not been washed in over a hundred years–only wiped clean. He allows rinsing with hot running water is acceptable, but that is it. Others say a drop of dish washing liquid is fine. My experience is that properly seasoned cast iron can withstand anything but steel wool, or one of those copper scrubbing thingys. Even food that might have stuck on comes off easily, unless allowed to dry out on to the pan. Even then a few minutes of soaking will do the job, and if you are impatient, try A. D.’s method of boiling off the offensive bits of food.
In short, chose whatever method serves you best. Back in the day, people just went with what they had. Things appear to have turned out alright.
If you have never heard of James Hemings, it’s not your fault. Blame it on an educational system that has historical amnesia. Just to give a hint of what James did, he introduced the following dishes to the newly minted United States: French style ice cream (the kind everyone eats now), crème brûlèe, pommes frites (french fries), and best of all, macaroni and cheese. Essentially, all the cornerstones of a healthy diet.
To put it bluntly, James Hemings was the enslaved servant of Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he was actually the half-brother of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. (If you would like a complete history of the Hemings family, read Annette Gordon-Reed’s superb The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.) Jefferson “inherited” the entire Hemings family upon the death of his father in law. Despite that beginning, James would become the person who was arguably the first classically trained chef from North America.
In 1784, shortly after the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson was dispatched to Paris as Minister to France, and to help Benjamin Franklin and John Adams negotiate with the French government for support of the new nation which they had helped create. The group that left for France had to be one of the strangest family groupings in American history: Jefferson, his twelve year old daughter Martha “Patsy” Jefferson, and nineteen year old James Hemings, who Jefferson referred to in one letter as “my servant.” Jefferson’s goal was for James to train as a French chef. Regardless of the goal, when James stepped foot on French soil, he was free, slavery being illegal in France.
Upon arriving in Paris, James immediately apprenticed with a caterer named Combeaux, at Thomas Jefferson’s expense. Realizing that he could claim his freedom, James made a deal with Jefferson, that his enslavement become an “apprenticeship” instead, and that he be granted his freedom after a number of years. Jefferson agreed, and additionally, paid James a salary that was more than double that of a well placed Parisian servant. James’ second apprenticeship was at the estate of the prince de Condé, Chantilly, which included a stable that could accommodate 240 horses, and had what was considered the finest kitchen and chef de cuisine in France. The apprenticeship was remarkably expensive. Jefferson paid for it anyway.
By the end of 1788 James Hemings himself was the chef de cuisine at the Jefferson residence in the Hôtel de Langeac on the Champs-Elysées, which served as a de facto American Embassy in Paris. James hired a tutor to help make him completely fluent in French, and had the pleasure of seeing his younger sister Sally arrive in Paris, as a servant and companion to Jefferson’s youngest daughter Polly. By August of 1789 James served his first famous dinner, which included a six hour long marathon discussion between Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and seven other Frenchmen, who, according to Jefferson, invited themselves over; as Lafayette told him, they would like “to ask a dinner of me.” Their topic of discussion was the ever growing French Revolution. Although, apparently, there was more drinking than eating, Jefferson considered the evening to be a great success.
Then came June 20, 1790, back in the States, and what is sometimes called the dinner table compromise, or alternately, the greatest meal in American history. The first functioning Federal government was installed, and Secretary of State Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton agreed on little. However, the question of war time debt overlapped their respective positions, as most of the states’ debts were to foreign institutions. Jefferson and Hamilton agreed that the debt the states carried and could not pay, could, in fact, cause the collapse of the new government.
Jefferson decided that this problem could best be solved over a meal prepared by James Hemings. Jefferson hosted the meal at his apartment in New York, the then seat of the government. The staff of Monticello, along with writer Charles Cerami, has made up a mock menu for the meal, based on what Jefferson typically ate (this information comes from the excellent book Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée, by Thomas J. Craughwell):
- Green Salad with Wine Jelly
- Capon stuffed with truffles, artichoke (artichokes are still grown at Monticello), chestnuts, and Virginia ham. It was served with an apple brandy sauce.
- A Top Round Beef Roast and Veal Knuckle, served with onions, carrots, bacon, and garnished with parsley and thyme
- Small plates of confections
- Vanilla Ice Cream inside a puff pastry
Naturally this would need five bottles of wine to go with it, concluding with a bottle of Champagne to accompany the dessert. And there it is, fusion cooking, with mostly local ingredients prepared using mostly French techniques, though the beef and veal were cooked for hours in an old American stand-by, a cast iron dutch oven. Thankfully, James Madison was also present to help tackle this feast.
The solution to the debt dilemma was this. Jefferson agreed to Hamilton’s idea that the Feds assume the states’ war debts. Jefferson, knowing that a financially stable state like Virginia would never go along with such an idea, proposed that the national capitol be moved to the South, as compensation. Madison’s job was to get the bills through Congress. Thus modern America was born, over dessert and ice cream, and multiple bottles of wine.
James Hemings returned to Monticello, and taught his brother Peter how to cook in the French fashion. Peter also became a master brewer later, and ran the brewery at Monticello. After James had successfully taught Peter the necessary cooking skills, he was finally granted his freedom in 1796, the requirements of his “apprenticeship” having been fulfilled.
One last episode remains in this story. Soon after Jefferson was inaugurated as President in 1801, he had an intermediary contact James, who was working in nearby Baltimore, and offer him the job as the first chef de cuisine at the brand new White House. James was hesitant, and Jefferson indicated that he did not want to pressure him into the job. James did return to Monticello in the fall, and ran the kitchen there for one last time. By late October, James Hemings was dead, from an apparent suicide.
After asking for confirmation of this report, Jefferson received the following reply from his acquaintance William Evans:
I received your favour of the 1st Instant, and am sorry to inform you that the report respecting James Hennings Having commited an act of Suicide is true. I made every enquiry at the time this melancholy circumstance took place, the result of which was, that he had been delirious for Some days previous to his having commited the act, and it was the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause, I am Sir
Your obedient Servant
This strangely modern tale of substance abuse claiming a chef’s life in no ways changes the influence James Hemings had on American, and particularly Southern, cooking. In 1824 Jefferson relative Mary Randolph published the South’s first great cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. Included in the book is a recipe for ice cream (the first published in the US), and a recipe for”Macaroni,” where the other main ingredients are milk and cheese.
Where could those ideas possibly have come from?
Southern Fusion Cooking is dedicated to both all things Southern and all things cooking. We have recipes, but we also have history. This is not just an exploration of “How to Make Cornbread,” but an investigation of all the traditions that have contributed to Southern cuisine–be they African, European, Indigenous, or more recently, Asian. The train is leaving the station, so jump on board.