A Chance Encounter at Whole Foods

BeefVegans, don’t read this. An animal was killed and eaten as part of this story.

You know that the following narrative is true, because no one could possibly make up something as crazy as this. I also doubted the following quote from Joel Salatin, aka “the world’s most famous farmer,” but now I have incontrovertible evidence that it is true:

The indigenous knowledge base surrounding food is largely gone. When “scratch” cooking means actually opening a can, and when church and family reunion potlucks include buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, you know our culture has suffered a culinary information implosion.

Hyperbole? Here’s what happened during my last weekly trip to the Whole Foods Market in Mountain Brook, Alabama.

Thrifty person that I am, I play every angle imaginable when shopping, as long as there is no compromise on quality. I rarely buy any meat other than chicken at Whole Foods, as our local butcher, Brickyard Meats, regularly has local grass fed beef and local pork. They were mostly wiped out on my last trip, and all I scored was some slices of fresh ham, which I marry-nated in a Saumure Anglais, which I believe means something like “English brine” or “English pickle.” So if I wanted decent beef, it was Whole Foods or bust. I was headed to the wealthiest zip code in Alabama, and one of the wealthiest in the South.

Apparently I exuded a false air of respectability, as I was picking out a good chunk of beef from the Amazon Prime specials display, because a young woman with a small child trailing behind her, decided she wanted to know what I was buying.

MBH (Mountain Brook Housewife): “What is that?” She was wearing a Patagonia down vest, zipped up to her neck, even though it was sixty degrees outside.

ME: “It’s a chuck roast.” I pointed at the label while I answered her.

MBH: “How much is it?”

ME: “This is the regular price, and this is the Prime price.” I pointed at the two signs that displayed the prices in large numbers.

MBH: “Could I make beef stew out of that?”

ME: “It would make excellent beef stew or a roast. I’m making a roast.” That answer was a mistake.

MBH: “Could I cut it up?”

ME: “Yes.” I was mentally debating whether or not I should make a run for it.

MBH: “Will they cut it up for me here?” Apparently she had a knife-less kitchen.

ME: “Probably, if you ask the people down at the meat counter.” Those poor suckers.

She made a bee line down to the meat counter, and as I walked by, a tall woman with a butcher’s apron was explaining to her that they had stew meat already cut up in the meat display. I decided it was a good time to head to the restroom. Later, I peeked at her cart while she was checking out, from a safe distance away. There was no stew meat in it. In fact, it appeared that she had nothing but prepared, processed food in there. I had to feel sorry for the poor kid.

MBH had just confirmed one of the most notorious jokes about a Mountain Brook housewife. What is the best thing they make? Reservations.

Corn Meal Bread (1824)

Corn Meal breadI only took one small bite. I swear.

This is Mary Livingston’s original recipe from the 1824 classic The Virginia HousewifeHere’s the original recipe:

Corn Meal Bread

Rub a piece of butter the size of an egg, into a pint of corn meal–Make it a batter with two eggs, and some new milk–add a spoonful of yeast, set it by the fire an hour to rise, butter little pans, and bake it.

Using yeast as a leavening agent makes for a slightly finer texture than with baking powder cornbread, as I discovered when I made this. Here’s the recipe I used:

1 cup stone-ground cornmeal

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

Salt (not enough)

1 teaspoon yeast, dissolved in 1 tablespoon of water

Butter the pan, or do what I did, and lube up the pan with lard.

Salt and a little water were my only additions to the original recipe. Keeping it old school, I cooked it over hot coals. Temp was uneven, but cast iron cooks better than almost anything.

FireThe corn meal bread is in the #10 dutch oven, which was a little too large. A chicken and vegetables are in the larger pot. Man cannot live on corn meal bread alone.

The result? Would have been a grand slam with more salt. Still, this is a superior recipe. More people should try cornbread made with yeast. I’ll make it again for Thanksgiving.

Stone-Ground Grits

Don’t waste your time on anything but stone-ground grits, which are superior in every way, from taste to nutrition.

Recipe

This is a basic recipe for a couple of people, to which many things can be added, the most common being grated cheese.

1/2 cup stone-ground grits

2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

Pepper to taste.

Heat the milk and salt, and add grits gradually. Stir regularly for 25-30 minutes, until the grits soften and gain a smooth texture. DO NOT LET THIS BURN, or you may be buying a new pan. Add more liquid as needed. When done, add the butter or other fat (apparently the native Americans of Virginia used bear fat), and pepper if desired. Serve hot.

As a whole grain, stone-ground grits last longer if refrigerated, or even kept in the freezer. Our local brand, McEwen and Sons, is excellent, but just about anyone has access to stone-ground grits these days.

Uses for leftovers are manifold, one of the most common being “Grit Cakes.” If you really get addicted, buy the book Glorious Gritswhich was written by Susan McEwen McIntosh.

Grits–Better Know a Southern Staple

I grits

Instant grits? Really?

My alcoholic writing Professor at the University of Alabama would often repeat the following: “College is like a grit factory. You all come in looking different, and then you all leave looking exactly the same: bland and lily white.” There is some truth to that, as my Alma Mater has now devolved into a country club with a football team. But that’s a subject for a different kind of blog.

The Prof had one thing right: grits back then were pretty horrible. Multiple James Beard award winning chef Frank Stitt says, “the life had been processed out of them.” There were none worse than those served at UA cafeterias. Mine would be so hard that they needed to be cut with a knife, and were topped with a pat of margarine, that would bleed across the top like a yellow oil slick. If the settlers at Jamestown had been given those, they would have jumped back on the boat, and headed back to England.

But that is where grits came from. It is a certifiable, documentable, dish that came directly from the Native Americans of Virginia. The English in 1607 couldn’t handle the native name “rockahominie,” so the dish became “hominy grits,” a term which a real old school type will still use. Now they are just grits, and we are living in something of a grits renaissance.

Before I get to that, let’s have a quick rundown of modern grits.

Instant Grits

These jokers come in a little paper bag for the culinarily impaired. I risk it all with this comment: there is hardly a better backpacking/camping food. It’s inexpensive, goes with anything, conserves fuel and weight, and can be eaten with any meal. Also packs some serious carbs. Also does not have the sodium punch that something like ramen noodles have. With that said, I will not eat these at home.

Quick Grits

More flavor than the instant ones, but still highly processed. Cooks in around five minutes.

Grits

High speed ground corn that takes a while to cook. Buy a bag of these, throw the grits into the compost, and use the bag for something else.

Stone Ground Grits

Here’s the ticket. There are both national and local brands available now, and the quality varies from excellent to superb. I go with the organic ones to make sure there are no weird genes in my grits, as in GMO. Our local brand, McEwen & Sons, is served at everything from breakfast joints to some of the best fine dining restaurants in the country, including the James Beard most Outstanding Restaurant in the US in 2018, Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham.

GritsWhite, but not bland.

Recipe

This is a basic recipe for a couple of people, to which many things can be added, the most common being grated cheese.

1/2 cup stone-ground grits

2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

Pepper to taste.

Heat the milk and salt, and add grits gradually. Stir regularly for 25-30 minutes, until the grits soften and gain a smooth texture. DO NOT LET THIS BURN, or you may be buying a new pan. Add more liquid as needed. When done, add the butter or other fat (apparently the natives of Virginia used bear fat), and pepper if desired. Serve hot.

Uses for leftovers are manifold, one of the most common being “Grit Cakes.” If you really get addicted, buy the book Glorious Gritswhich was written by Susan McEwen McIntosh.

 

Cage Match! Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas, Sue Massachusetts over Chicken Cages!

Chickens

Five Southern states dare defend their rights to torture animals.

Once again chicken cages are a hot political topic for Southern Attorneys General. Though Indiana is lead dog, so to speak, on this subject, brave Southern politicians are taking their stand on our rights to squeeze chickens into cages the size of tissue dispensers. Though 77% of Massachusetts voters don’t want our crap eggs and crap chicken meat sold in their fast food places, what right do they have to say no to Big Ag and their evil minions in the South?  This is Alabama’s second shot at this issue–the first case against California went down in flames.

So where is Mississippi on all this?

Cornbread and Cornbread Dressing

Recipes

A cornbread and a cornbread dressing recipe here.

Bama Cornbread

1 cup fine McEwen cornmeal (or other finely ground cornmeal)

3/4 cup milk

1 egg

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix this up with dry ingredients first, and then the milk and egg. Pour it into a roasting hot, oiled cast iron skillet, into a 425 degree oven. The quality of the cornmeal is the key here. Double the recipe for a family meal.

Bama Cornbread Dressing

One double recipe of Bama Cornbread, crumbled (see above)

2 cups croutons

2 cups onions and celery, cooked

Handful of rehydrated dried Porcini mushrooms, cooked in butter, chopped

1/2 stick of melted butter

2 eggs

Chicken stock (at least one cup)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Sage, sage, and more sage

Cook at 350 degrees. This is a seat of the pants recipe. I like lots and lots of sage and mushrooms. Recycle into turkey or chicken and dressing after the first meal. That’s a layer of leftover meat, topped with a layer of dressing. Add extra stock to the dressing when making the recycled dish.

Great Southern Cookbooks, Part One–The Virginia Housewife, by Mary Randolph (1824)

Virginia Housewife Facsimile

We began with the best food book, so why not go next to the first cookbook? Buy the Dover Publications print facsimile from Amazon, or your local bookstore, or download a text only version from Project Gutenberg.

Praised by writers as diverse as James Beard and chef Jose Andres, Mary Randolph wrote the first Southern cookbook, and what is arguably the first completely American cookbook. What makes this book so special? It is a fascinating historical and culinary fusion document. Many of the recipes are familiar and accessible, especially to Southern cooks, and others are exotic and challenging. Chef Andres says he still serves her gazpacho at one of his restaurants. Which begs the question–what is a Virginia housewife doing serving gazpacho in 1824?

Mary Randolph was no typical Virginia housewife. She was an entrepreneur, an executive chef, and a chef de cuisine, all at the same time. Her husband David Randolph was fired from his cushy government job by his second cousin, President Thomas Jefferson, for being a worthless crooked Federalist party lowlife. (Strangely enough, Mary Randolph’s father was raised in the household of Peter Jefferson, who just happened to be the father of Thomas Jefferson.)

Mary, who counted among her ancestors a woman named Pocahontas, in order to support the family, became a business woman. (Can stories get any better than this?) She opened a boarding house in Richmond, Virginia, in 1807, for “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The main attraction of this establishment was the magnificent food, which I will address shortly. Mary, notably, WAS NOT A COOK. Here’s how much time she spent in the kitchen, according to the Introduction to the book:

When the kitchen breakfast is over, and the cook has put all things in their proper places, the mistress should go in to give her orders. Let all the articles intended for the dinner,  pass in review before her: have the butter, sugar, flour, meal. lard, given out in proper quantities; the catsup, spice, wine, whatever may be wanted for each dish, measured to the cook. The mistress must tax her own memory with all this: we have no right to expect slaves or hired servants to be more attentive to our interest than we ourselves are: they will never recollect these little articles until they are going to use them; the mistress must then be called out, and thus have the horrible drudgery of keeping house all day, when one hour devoted to it in the morning, would release her from trouble until the next day.

Anyone who has worked in a commercial kitchen, such as myself, will recognize the brigade de cuisine. The boss tells you what to do, and you do it. Also notice the mise en place: everything is in order, and in it’s place. Notice that the slaves and hired servants are put on the same level. Arguably, Mary Livingston was the first American celebrity chef, as the book went through nineteen printings in less than forty years. If current celebrity chefs were as honest as her, we would have a more realistic picture of the restaurant business.

The Food

Man, did those people eat well! As Joel Salatin, the world’s most famous farmer, who also lives in Virginia, loves to point out, our diet is much less diverse now than it was a hundred years ago. What about two hundred years ago? Turtle, rabbit, eight or nine species of fish, goose, duck, woodcocks, brains, and eyes were all on the menu, as well as about thirty different varieties of vegetables. From the recipe, “Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head,” “The eyes are a great delicacy.”

Here’s where the fusion part really kicks in. Recipes in the book encompass cuisines from the native American, American, African, and European, as well as some Caribbean regions. French and Spanish recipes are well represented. African vegetables such as okra and field peas are mentioned, right alongside potatoes and English peas. My only editorial comment will be to assure Northern writers that African “yams” are not grown in the South, but that the word is a synonym for sweet potatoes, which came from Central or South America. (I have even read that slaves brought tomatoes to the South!)

I will cook a few of these recipes in the next few weeks, and reveal the results in a new Recipe section. The first will be “Corn Meal Bread,” which is not cornbread, but a yeast leavened bread made with corn meal.

Undoubtedly a good deal of this book can be said to be influenced by the great chef James Hemings, but the extent of that influence is impossible to determine. Two of his signature dishes, ice cream and Macs and cheese, make their first American appearance here.

Jerry Brown, Southern Folk Potter

Face JugYou talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?

Jerry Dolyn Brown, whose shop is located in Hamilton, Alabama, was one prolific potter. For decades he was also recognized as the most traditional potter in the US. He dug his own clay, ground it in a mule driven mill, and fired his pieces in a traditional southern “groundhog” kiln. His work was featured at the Smithsonian, he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992, and he was Alabama’s Folk Artist of the Year for 2001. The remarkable fact about these various recognitions is that his work was always primarily utilitarian, and he made everything for a kitchen except the pots and pans.

The handsome fellow in the above picture is a face jug, which is, shockingly, a jug with a face on it. There are more theories about the origin of this form than there are about JFK’s assassination, so pick out a favorite, and insist that you have the correct one. Besides being decorative, it also makes a perfectly usable jug, with the advantage that most people won’t mess with it. Hence a good place to hide some hooch.

Bowls

Big MixerThis seriously big mixing bowl is a full 14″ across the top. Notice the finger indentations in the surface where the bowl was thrown. Decorated using Brown’s celebrated “splatter” technique.

Mixing BowlSmaller mixing bowls came with spouts, and with or without handles.

Soup BowlsSoup Bowls! With or without handles, these can take on a seriously hot broiler. We never use anything but these for our Creole onion soup. I love the black glaze on the one without the handle.

BowlThis small very decorative bowl was striped with cobalt glaze using a chicken feather,   which was another favorite technique of Brown’s.

Pie Plate

Pie PlateNow, on to the subject of bakeware. This one is almost too pretty to use, but that was what it was made for.

Pitcher

PitcherFor  years I thought this was a pitcher for iced tea, as that is what we used it for. Imagine my surprise when I saw a very old, very similar piece at The Museum of Appalachia, which was described as a “milk pitcher.” The lid would keep the flies out.

Cookie Jar

Cookie JarA fat version of the pitcher, with two handles and no lip. “Stop, move away from the cookie jar.” That’s from the BBC version of The Office, where they had a talking cookie jar.

Canisters

Canisters 1Essentially smaller versions of the cookie jar, but without handles. Brown made other forms of canisters as well.

CanistersA more modern style of canister, but with the same great glazes.

Churns

ChurnA small churn, for someone who has a very small cow, perhaps. My guess is people buy these for the country look.

Big ChurnThere’s a more realistic size churn for a real farm. Now I can make up stories about Grandma and her favorite cow.

Face Mug

Face MugThis guy looks like he’s had one cup of coffee too many. Believe it or not, you could actually drink from this mug, if you can stand the stare. At least it should wake you up.

I had to end with that one, to show that the Brown family designs continue to evolve. Though Jerry Brown died in 2016, the pottery continues on with another generation. Jerry’s stepson, Jeff Wilburn, now serves as principle potter. If you missed the link to their store at the beginning, here it is again: Jerry Brown Pottery. You can also visit the Jerry Brown Arts Festival, which is held each spring. It also helps to keep our traditions alive.

Great Southern Food Books–Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, and Family (2007)

Kingsolver BookWhy not begin with the best?

If you are looking for a Southern Fusion “Food” book, this is it. This is not a cookbook, in any sense of the word, but a series of interlinked essays about food, Southern and otherwise. Naturally, there are recipes here, but the concept of the book lies in the subtitle: “A Year of Food Life.” It doesn’t hurt that it was written by one of the best writers around, Barbara Kingsolver, who really is a national treasure.

The premise is this: Kingsolver and family move back south from Arizona, after spending years in the Cadillac desert (check out the book with that title). Instead of her native Kentucky, she, her prof husband Steven Hopp, and her two daughters end up in the beautiful mountains of southwestern Virginia, on a large farm. What a sacrifice! Soon thereafter, they decide to conduct a year long experience of living as “locavores,” or people who eat primarily food that is grown locally, within a reasonably short distance from their home in Washington County, Virginia.

Not wanting to give away the entire contents of the book, I will add that Kingsolver goes to New England and the Midwest, and even manages to make it all the way to Italy, as part of her exploration of local food aficionados. It doesn’t get much more fusion than that.

Speaking of that, here is a weekly May menu, compiled for the book by daughter Camille Kingsolver:

Sunday~Grilled chicken, fresh bread, and a giant salad of fresh greens, carrots and peas

Monday~Asparagus and morel bread pudding

Tuesday~Asian summer rolls with spicy peanut sauce, served with rice

Wednesday~Vegetarian tacos with refried beans, pea shoots. lettuce, spring onions, and cheese

Thursday~Cheese ravioli tossed with stir fried spring vegetables, oregano, and olive oil

Friday~Chicken pizza with olives and feta

Saturday~Frittata packed with cheese and vegetables, salad, strawberry-rhubarb crisp

Applebee’s menu, this ain’t. I personally would like to be there for the Monday meal.

In short, this is as inspiring a food book as there is. It even ends with a completely fascinating chapter long examination of turkey production and reproduction, written after Kingsolver made herself an expert on the two subjects. I guess everyone has to be an expert on something, other than just winning one writing award after another.

Corn Meal–Better Know a Southern Staple

GrinderThis is an actual native American original ingredient. And these are the remains of an archaic native American corn grinder, which came from just a few miles downriver from my house.

Corn, another one of those invaders from Mexico, has been ground into meal around here for awhile. It’s a damn good thing there were no ICE corn police in place way back when, or there would be no cornbread, corn muffins, hush puppies, hoe cakes, cornbread dressing, or cornhole tosses. Which brings me to my favorite cornmeal story.

Back in the 1970’s, or so the story goes, there was a locally famous meat and three restaurant in Tarrant City, Alabama. A meat and three serves a protein and three vegetables/side dishes, for all the foreigners reading this. The restaurant happened to be across Alabama Route 79 from a gigantic limestone quarry, and you could eat there, and enjoy dynamite blasts, all at the same time.

An elderly friend of mine swears this is true. He went to lunch there one day, and there was a tarp over the roof, and a giant hole in the ceiling. Despite that, lunch service went on as usual.

He sat down at his usual table, and ordered fried chicken livers, fried okra, blackeyed peas, and bread pudding. After his favorite waitress took the order, he asked why there was a hole in the roof and the ceiling.

“Way-l,” she said, “They uzed too much dynymite over at the kwarry. A bold-er shot all the wayz across tha rode. Hit came thru the roof and lit in the sweet rolls.” This was across one of the busiest roads in the state.

“So what are you going to do?” he said.

“Serve corn muffins instead,” was her answer.

Corn muffins. It’s what’s for lunch.

Storage

All cornmeal needs to be stored properly, as it has a good deal of fat and protein that will go rancid. Refrigerate in a zip-lock bag for short term storage, though a freezer is a better place for it in the long run.

Types

Cornmeal comes in various colors, but yellow is the most common. The main difference is in the grind–how it was ground, and by what. Commercial cornmeals are often ground at a high heat level, which is not so good for the flavor. Traditionalists use stone ground meal, though not necessarily ground in one of those grinders in the above picture. Stone ground is normally whole grain, so it really really needs refrigeration.

Grinds

This is the rub, right here. There’s coarse, medium, and fine, depending on the source. Every miller has a different label, and many don’t bother with the distinction on grinds. Look for one that does. I’m going to use the example of Coosa Valley Milling, in Wilsonville, Alabama. For those of you who don’t know your geography, that’s only a few miles from Harpersville. Alright, it’s just south of Birmingham.

Fine

Fine groundUnlike many people, this is my go to grind. Most people add wheat flour to their cornbread, but not me. This powder fine grind is easily the best I’ve ever seen. It’s made by a great family company as well.

Coarse

Coarse ground

This one is the work horse grind, with something of the consistency of sawdust. That’s why I put it on my workbench. (Clever, eh?) Great for Hush Puppies and other crunchy things. It’s usually cut with flour when used to make cornbread.

Recipes

A cornbread and a cornbread dressing recipe here.

Bama Cornbread

1 cup fine McEwen cornmeal

3/4 cup milk

1 egg

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix this up and put in a roasting hot, oiled cast iron skillet, into a 400 degree oven. The quality of the cornmeal is the key here. Double the recipe for a family meal.

Bama Cornbread Dressing

One double recipe of Bama Cornbread, crumbled (see above)

2 cups croutons

2 cups cooked onions and celery

Handful of rehydrated dried Porcini mushrooms, cooked in butter, chopped

1/2 stick of melted butter

2 eggs

Chicken stock (at least one cup)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Sage, sage, and more sage

Cook at 350 degrees. This is a seat of the pants recipe. I like lots and lots of sage and mushrooms. Recycle into turkey or chicken and dressing after the first meal.

Here are the testimonials about McEwen products, from famous chefs across the country. You can read about the awards they have won. Their eggs are fantastic as well, but you’ll have to drive to Wilsonville for those.