Catfish Skinner

You Think You have Problems?

I probably gained my PhD by telling a story about catfish. This is a little convoluted, but it involves an organic farmer, an Auburn student, my dissertation director, who had not allowed any of her students to graduate in 23 years, and a galvanized tub full of catfish. I really like a good fried catfish.

So we found ourselves in central Illinois, at the beautiful University of Illinois, where we were surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the finest farmland in the world. It really is farm heaven. UI paid me ten grand to go there, with a University fellowship, so there is that also. When MJ went to the financial aid office, they looked at her transcript, and said, “How many scholarships do you want?” She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

My fellow grad students thought I was insane when I said I was asking Dean —- to be my Dissertation director. She was infamous for her denying student’s dissertations, and degrees. I just said that nothing can stop a charming Southern farm boy. It didn’t hurt that she was the general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, which is something of a good thing to have on your CV..

At any rate, there was a good deal of tension between us, as I am something of a stubborn farm boy as well. I strategically decided to let her make all the big decisions about my dissertation, while I insisted on making the ones that actually mattered. Then I met the organic farmer, an old hippy, at the Urbana Farmer’s Market.

He was the coolest dude I had ever seen. He had the good fortune to inherit an enormous farm right out side of Urbana, and chose to turn the whole thing organic. His vegetables were some of the best I had ever eaten. We became friends as soon as he found out I had grown up on a farm. Then his brother came back for the summer, from Auburn U. in Alabama. Enter the catfish.

I asked the old hippy why his brother had gone to Auburn, instead of UI or Cornell, which are probably the best Ag schools in the country, and he said that he had gone there to study aquaculture. He wanted to introduce catfish farming to Illinois. I did my best to not laugh.

I didn’t know that the joke was going to be on me. One Saturday, right after the brother came back from Auburn, I found that they had a giant galvanized tub full of catfish–live catfish. Once again, I tried not to laugh, but the old hippy said he and his brother had to go do something, and left me to run the booth, and deal with the locals, as I had sold produce since the age of six. He told me to push the catfish.

The punters were fascinated by the tub of catfish, but none were ever going to buy any. One finally asked me:

Punter: “What are those?”

Me: “Catfish”

Punter: “What do you do with them?”

Me: “You could make them pets, but most people fry them and eat them.”

Punter: “How do you do that? Do you fry them whole?”

Me: “Well, you normally clean them, and then fry them.”

By now a crowd had assembled, to hear this combination interrogation/ lecture.

Punter: “How do you clean them?”

Me: “The best way is to cut through their spine right behind the head, and kill them. Then you nail them to a wall, like a barn wall, through the head, and skin them. You don’t scale them, you skin them with a pair of pliers. Don’t forget to take out the guts first.” The whole crowd went “ewwwww.”

Punter: “Can you just nail them to the barn while they are still alive?”

Me: “You can, but they’ll grunt at you while you’re doing it.” The crowd thought that was really funny.

We all had a good laugh, and as expected, nobody bought a live catfish.

Then I turned around, and there was my Dissertation Director, in her PJ’s, robe. and fuzzy slippers. She lived across the street from the farmer’s market. She had obviously heard my entire lecture, as she had an abject look of horror in her eyes. She had to be thinking, what kind of barbarian have they sent me? A guy who nails fish to a wall?

I just smiled at her, and kept selling veg.

After that, things were different. She took my side during the preliminary exams, after one of the members turned out to be a total hole. She also took my side during my dissertation defense after another prof questioned my main tenet. So after 25 years, she finally allowed someone to graduate.

Thank you, catfish.

Presidential Pie for the Inauguration Day

Emma and Siegfried Wish You a Hippy Inauguration Day

I have been waiting for just the right opportunity to make this pie, and here it is. It’s a combination sweet potato and pecan pie, and it only has about ten million calories in it. It was also the favorite pie of one President Obama. Naturally, it’s from a bakery in Virginia.

A digression here: since Mr. Jefferson of Virginia was asked to write the constitution for the first French Republic (he declined,) let’s have a few lines of the French national anthem.

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé, 

“Arise, Children of Patriots,

The Day of Glory has Arrived!

Against us, the Tyrant’s banners

Are elevated.”

Damn skippy. Now, back to pie.

The origin of this pie is Red Truck Bakery in northern Virginia, and the genius behind it is Brian Noyes. Go buy his cook book.

Ingredients

1 Creole Pie Crust (more Southern than the original. I really can’t follow a recipe very well.)

Hickory Nuts (not in the original recipe. See above. As it turned out, mine were all ruined anyway.)

Baked and mashed Sweet Taters, Precious

1 Egg

1 Cup Brown Sugar

1 tablespoon Whipping Cream

Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Bourbon (as much as you dare)

Fill up half the pie dish. That’s plenty.

That’s just the bottom layer. To quote Will Shakespeare, “I will call it Bottom’s dream.” Quoted out of context as usual. Now to the pecan top layer, which is the scary part.

Ingredients

2 Eggs

1/2 cup Sugar

1/4 cup Sorghum Syrup (VERY southern)

Some Bourbon and Cinnamon

2 tablespoons melted Butter

Pinch of Salt

Here’s where I really depart from the recipe: corn syrup, as called for, is verboten in our kitchen so we improvised a replacement.

Honey

Maple Syrup

1 tablespoon Flour

A layer of Pecan Halves

The last ingredient is a thickener. The result is a masterpiece.

“A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever.” Or at least for Couple of Days

The crust is a bit ragged, but it will have a short life anyway. Handsome Joe and Handsome Kamala should drop by for a bite. Otherwise I am gaining several pounds.

Seven Dirty Food Terms You Should Never Use

A decade or so back, I went to a job interview in a building with bars on the windows, and I had to be given a security code to get in the door. Then one of the women interviewing me called me the following:

A Foodie

I had just enough restraint to not slap her up both sides of her head. Everyone alive eats food. I probably should have called her an alcoholic.

Mouth Feel

You can only use this term if you own a high class brothel.

Fork Tender

Stick a fork in it. That term is so last century.

Cheap Recipes

Seriously? I have a recipe for acorn flour (actually, I do.)

Paper Thin

Get out your micrometer. Don’t cook anything that thin for more than ten seconds, and never get it hotter than 451 F. See Ray Bradbury.

Tantalizing

No comment.

Neo Nazi

A food term? This requires a brief dissertation. Anything that begins with the word “neo” is to be avoided, if not shunned. You are either a nazi and a fascist, or you are not. I am only waiting for someone to use the phrase neo foodie. Oh snap, I just did.

My favorite job interview was where I was asked, “Have you ever been too drunk to fish?” My answer was “No, but you don’t know how much I like to fish.” They offered me the job almost immediately.

Apologies to the late great George Carlin.

Peas, Collards, Ham: Happy New Year

“Pass the damn ham”– Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird

We have plenty of dope sticks in the South, like our new US Senator from Alabama, a former Auburn football coach named Tupperware (I think that’s right,) so take our new Senator, PLEASE. This dude was fired by Cincinnati–the college team. I would say we really need Chairman Mao and some re-education camps, but that would be too tough on people who never got an education to begin with (Tupperware could not name the three branches of the US Government, when asked.).

I’m Talking about Sides

So let’s get off the train to Crazytown, and have a real Southern New Year’s meal. You also have my permission to make this any time of the year. The ham is the star, but the sides are the supporting actors. MJ came up with yet another new ham glaze this year. Superb is only the beginning.

Ingredients

Juice of 4 Oranges

Juice of 1 Lime

Maple Syrup

Honey

Mustard

Make this as rich as you want. I like lots of Mustard, MJ lots of sweet, so split it down the middle. She did grow all the citrus.

I accidentally found a sustainably grown ham. Seek, and ye shall find.

The sides? Collards are a classic. Serve with pepper sauce. I have some high octane made.

Welcome to our Southern Table, Metaphorically

You get one dollar for every cowpea you eat (seriously). All you get with macs and cheese are extra calories. Thanks, James Hemings. He was the chef for Long Tom Jefferson.

Rolls finish this off. We will be eating leftovers for the indefinite future.

2021–In Praise of Chicken Excrement

Black Gold

When you get up early on New Year’s Day to feed the chickens, and the low temp is 67 F, something is seriously wrong. That something is Anthropogenic Climate Disturbance, aka Global Warming. It’s fine now, but the summer will be when the bill comes due.

There is one constant, however–the wonders of chicken excrement. Americans in general treat chickens like a protein machine, caged, abused, and thrown away and eaten at a very early age. Our flock of eight ramble around all day, eat greens and high protein food, and we get eggs by the dozen. Better, possibly is the giant piles of excrement, which I compost. I am just beginning to use it as fertilizer. It could be the GOAT (greatest of all time.)

Chicken excrement and I go way back. When I grew up on the old farm, that was our main fertilizer, and sometimes the only one. As it turns out, industrial scale chicken production produces industrial scale chicken stuff. We had tons of this stuff at a time, which means we had tons of vegetables, and pounds and pounds of beef–we fertilized the pastures with chicken stuff, and even had to buy a giant stuff spreader to be able to do it.

So the moral for this new year is, what goes around, comes around. I have been fertilizing my mustard greens with chicken stuff, and feed the greens to the chicks, and the egg quality just gets better. I composted my garlic plants (forty in total,) and they took off like weeds. I just layered my young asparagus patch with several inches of compost. I better get the asparagus steamer ready for spring.

Film at eleven.

Making Creole Mustard

Needs to Age

If you are weary of rich and sweet Christmas food, here’s one answer to waking up your taste buds. Make some Creole Mustard. This is a simplified traditional recipe.

Ingredients

1 cup ground Brown Mustard Seeds (I ground mine coarsely in an old hand cranked grinder)

1 teaspoon Garlic Powder

1 teaspoon Horseradish Powder

1 ground Clove

1 ground Allspice

1 teaspoon ground Fennel Seeds

Pinch of Salt

Equal parts White Wine and White Wine Vinegar

Simple and pungent, this whole grain mustard is a modernized version of the classic recipe from The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook (For those who have the newer hardback reprint, edited by Ms. Bienvenu, the recipe is on page 553.) The old method is to steep the spices (they also use Mace) in the white wine on the stove, strain out the spices, add the wine, along with some Tarragon Vinegar and Apple Cider. Warning–the last two ingredients are not included on the ingredient list in the book, and no quantities are specified. I just mix everything after grinding it all, and pour in as much liquid as I need to get the consistency I want. The simplest solution is the best.

This will be blazing hot on the first day, but leave it covered on the counter, and it will become gradually more civilized as the days pass. After a couple of weeks I put it into a mason jar, and then the fridge. You can also can this for future use. Either of these approaches beats anything at any supermarket.

Rejuvenating Cast Iron Cookware

Back in Action Again

Even someone as OC as myself occasionally slacks off. I pulled out a dutch oven that had this skillet lid sitting upon it, and there were spots of surface rust on the inside of the lid. Time for some rejuvy-nation.

Lard to the Rescue

This was a simple fix–lard and paper towels, plus some heat. This is a stove top treatment, so it does require some adult supervision.

Start with a practically invisible layer of melted lard. Heat until it smokes, wipe it out, and repeat the step until you get tired or fall asleep. After a few rounds, the rust disappears. Magic!

A Stovetop Skillet

It finally dawned on me why I like this skillet lid so much. It’s the handles. There isn’t a long skillet handle to get in the way of all the other things on the stove. This now is no longer a lid for a dutch oven. It’s a permanent resident on the stovetop, where it is used at least a couple of times a day.

Now I have to get MJ the 2020 Rosie the Riveter skillet. This is seriously a 19th amendment year.

Great Southern Cookbooks, Part Three–Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book, by Chris Lilly

Alabama is the crossroads of BBQ. We probably ended up with the “world champion pitmaster,” because we have every style of pork barbecue imaginable, and at least one place that serves a pineapple bbq sauce. We even had one poor sod who tried to sell Texas style beef BBQ. Tried.

In short, we have more BBQ joints per capita than any other place in the States. We have one large multi-state chain of restaurants, Jim and Nick’s, which was started by two chefs of Greek extraction. Nick Pihakis, an acquaintance of mine, besides having created this pig empire, is one of the founders of “The Fatback Project,” whose aim is to return pork production to small farms with free range pigs (he even bought his own meat processing plant.) This is definitely a battle cry for those of us who have had enough of the disgusting practices of “Big Hog.”

He’s only resting and Getting a Tan. I swear.

This book is so good, just go and buy a copy. Archduke Bezos sold me this excellent used copy for three bucks, and the restaurant is only about thirty something miles from here. There is a chapter titled “Ode to Pork,”(take that, Schiller,) that quote from one of my favorite Roman poets, Ovid, who died in exile, and the recipe for “Eight-Time World Championship Pork Shoulder.” Don’t read this book while hungry.

In case you didn’t figure out that this is one smart guy who wrote this, Chris Lilly married in to the Big Bob Gibson family, after he graduated from the University of North Alabama. It just occurred to me, that I forgot to ask MJ that most important question, “Honey, does your family own a famous BBQ joint?” The Big Bob signature white sauce recipe is in there as well, though it is also widely available online. Yes, there is a mayo based BBQ sauce. Pure Alabama.

Let’s leave with a pic of Big Bob sporting his goods in 1956.

I be Big Bob

Pig out.

Turkey and Vegetable Soup Gumbo

Healthy Gumbo? Mon Dieu!

I’m a little late with my Thanksgiving leftover recipe, but any fowl will do for this recipe, or even frozen leftover turkey. It’s a simpler version of a standard gumbo, as it uses already prepared soup as the base for the gumbo.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon Bacon Fat or other Oil

1 tablespoon Flour

1 pint Vegetable Soup (preferably home made, and frozen is fine)

1 cup chopped cooked Turkey or Chicken (maybe Guinea Fowl, anyone? P-trak, p-trak)

Poultry Stock

Extra Frozen Okra

Salt and Pepper

Quick and dirty here. The only thing that requires a good deal of attention is the roux, which should be a dark brown roux, so start with the oil/fat flour combo, and stir constantly. Once that is to the as you like it stage, add the soup and the turkey. Cook until it begins to simmer, and gauge how much stock you want, or how soupy you want your Gumbo to be. The extra okra is optional, but it adds some color to my home made veg soup.

Serve over rice, or if you’re really hungry, red beans and rice. Coastal dwellers regularly add shrimp or oysters to their gumbos. The p-trak sound is the incredibly loud call of the crazed and wild guinea fowl. I want a few, as they are predator proof and require zero food. Alas, they will drive your neighbors bonkers. Maybe I should get a dozen.

Grillades with Mushroom Brown Sauce

Accidentally Making Great Food

If you do the right thing, Karma will treat you right. MJ and I have given away so many eggs that we are getting free food in return. Long live bartering.

Case in point was the cooler full of locally grown beef that one brother-in-law gave us, and the cow was grown by yet another brother-in-law. In the pile of meat were a couple of packs of cube steak, something I had never eaten before, and usually associated with greasy spoon diners. Then I read on the interwebs that good quality cube steak is really round steak that has been pounded flat for tenderizing. This was of the best quality, and I immediately thought: Grillades.

Turning round steak into a Grillade is the classic Southern way of turning inexpensive meat into a thing a beauty, and is sometimes referred to as fried meat a la Creole. I adapted the recipe for Grillades with Gravy from the latest reprint of the Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, and the result was unbelievably good.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon Bacon Fat (Grandmother Lilian’s trick)

1/2 Onion, chopped

1 clove Garlic, diced

1 tablespoon Flour

4 inch squares of pounded Round Steak, seasoned highly with Salt and Pepper

6 large Mushrooms, sliced, and sauteed in Bacon Fat, Lard, Butter, or Oil

Water

The recipe in the cook book uses tomatoes instead of mushrooms, but we won’t have good fresh tomatoes here for a while, and I had bunches of shrooms. Begin by cooking the onion in the bacon fat for about a minute. When they begin to soften, add the garlic. Cook until you can smell the garlic but DO NOT burn it.

Add the flour, and begin the basis for a brown roux, aka a gravy. Stir regularly, as a roux is also known as “Creole Napalm.” When you get to a brown color to your liking, add the Grillades to the top of the roux, along with the mushrooms. Add the water and stir. Mine looked like this.

Simmer Time!

That’s my favorite heavy cast iron skillet. Close it about 7/8 of the way with an equally heavy cast iron lid. Stir regularly, because even with the stove set at the lowest setting, this sauce will stick and burn, and the dish is ruined. Add more water when the gravy begins to thicken excessively. Simmer a minimum of thirty minutes, though we just cook ours until it is completely tender. This cooked forty or forty five minutes.

Serve over Louisiana, or any other good, rice, and garnish with chopped parsley, unless you enjoy food that is just really brown. That was served on one of Grandmother Lilian’s Tennessee made plates. Leftovers made the best steak and biscuit with gravy, the next morning, in history.

Grillades. It’s what’s for supper.