More Taters, Precious

Just out of the Ground

I now have a couple of months worth of new potatoes, because I grew these myself. Those in the picture are Yukon Gold and Russet potatoes. It’s next to impossible to buy potatoes of this quality. You have to grow them yourself.

With that said, hereby hangs a tale, as Shakespeare might have written. I come from a line of many generations of potato farmers, and my grandfather Earnie claimed to have started the sweet potato industry in Alabama. Here’s the story.

During the 1920’s, farmers from the South would travel to Northern industrial cities to work during the winter. Folks from Cullman would go to Cincinnati to be among their fellow German descended folks. Factory work paid better than sitting on your butt all winter.

Factory owners caught on to this migration, and instituted a rule that no one who quit to work at a higher paying factory could be re-hired by another one. Before the days of Social Security numbers and other ID, my grandfather just used a different name, every time he moved from factory to factory.

He would also look for markets for anything he grew. One day he ran across a grocery wholesaler who was really interested. Here’s how he would describe the conversation:

Wholesaler: “So what do you grow down there in Alabama?”

Earnie: “Our main crop is strawberries.”

Wholesaler: “Too perishable. They’d be rotten by the time they got up here.”

Earnie: “We also grow lots of sweet potatoes.”

Wholesaler: “Sweet potatoes! Oy vey! I can never get enough sweet potatoes. I’ll take three carloads.”

Earnie: “I’ll get three guys to bring up three carloads.”

Wholesaler: “No, I want three train carloads. That will just be the start.”

And thusly every sweet potato in the county was sold, and an industry born. The first time I walked into our first Whole Foods store, I saw a big sign that said “Local Sweet Potatoes,” next to the picture of a farmer I went to high school with. Taters run deep.

Tuscan Style Grill

A Work in Progress, but another Rustico Design

This is an idea that came about from my sudden interest in Tuscan outdoor cooking, where a fire is built on a hard surface, and then a grill is placed above. I thought, why not make it as flexible as possible? Also, I had a number of leftover bricks to do something with. So Rustico decided to make a multi level open hearth grill.

How Firm a Foundation

The foundation may not look like much, but that is one hundred pounds of concrete. The grill is behind my wood burning oven, and next to my rustic cabinet. No worries, there will be a brick wall between the fire and the cabinet.

Grill in Progress

Eventually the inside will be lined with slate, as soon as I find an adhesive that can take the heat. I’ll probably go with thinset mortar mixed with fireclay, and buy a couple of grates to go along with my Lodge ones. Then it’s off to a dream project–Stew Stoves like the ones in the kitchen at Monticello. Old school is the best school.

Birmingham, AL, Gumbo Gala 2019

The Gumbo Gala began with a disaster and ended up as a celebration. Some families who lost houses during Hurricane Katrina arrived in Birmingham looking for shelter, and ended up at the worthy non-profit Episcopal House. The resulting synergy led to the creation of the Gumbo Gala, a combination cooking-Cajun Music party. It’s now the largest Gumbo cooking competition in the Southeast.

Held at historic Sloss Furnaces, the competition will have almost forty teams competing this year.

Schedule–Saturday, May 4, 2019

11:00 AM-2:00 PM

This is a fundraiser for the Episcopal House, so show some love. Tickets are $20 a head for adults, but kids are admitted free.

Cullman, AL, Strawberry Festival 2019

This is the eighty year anniversary of the Cullman Strawberry Festival! Here’s the schedule for this Saturday.

Schedule · Saturday, April 27, 2019

8:00 AM Arts & Crafts Fair Opens

8:00 AM Farmers Market Opens

8:00 AM – 9:00 PM Kids’ Activities

8:00 AM – 9:00 PM Food Trucks

10:00 AM Baking Competition Submissions Close

1:00 PM Introduction of Miss Strawberry Queen & Announcement of Baking Competition Winner

8:00 PM Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Concert – FREE

Macs and Cheese–Old School

Put in a casserole, and warm in the oven

As the talented James Hemings and the fastidious Thomas Jefferson brought this dish from France to the brand new USA, I make this Frenchified Macs and Cheese regularly. It’s especially good with Easter Ham, or any other ham. Or anything else.

The plan here is to start with a béchamel sauce, turn it into a variety of mornay sauce, and then add the cooked macaroni, which in Jefferson’s day was just a generic term for pasta. Then it can all sit until it’s time to warm it in the oven.

Ingredients

For the Béchamel Sauce

2 tablespoons Organic Butter

2 tablespoons Flour

Organic Milk

Salt and Pepper

For the Mornay Sauce

1/3 cup each of grated Colby and Cheddar Cheese

1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan Cheese

For the Finishing Touch

1 cup Macaroni, cooked in salted water

Melt the butter in a large sauce pan. Add the flour, and cook while stirring for a minute or two. This is a blonde roux, so don’t let it darken. Add enough milk to make a fairly thin sauce, as the cheese is the main thickener. A thorough whisking will be required to remove all the lumps. Season, and taste.

The next step is crucial. Add the cheese, and heat to the point of melting. DO NOT let the sauce boil at this point. The cheese will separate into its various components if exposed to an excessive temperature. After the cheese has melted, add the strained macs. I use one of those Chinese spider strainer thingys to scoop them out of the pot. All that’s left to do at this point is to put the macs in a casserole, and heat them in the oven at suppertime, or any time.

Mr. Jefferson was often derided for being “more French than American” by his political enemies, despite the fact that he wrote The Declaration of Independence. The farmers knew better. Not long after his inauguration, a group of dairy farmers began making him what was billed as “A Mammoth Cheese.” The finished wheel of cheese was engraved with the words, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The cheese weighed 1230 pounds when it reached Washington. How many servings of macs and cheese this made is not recorded.

The Geese Who Ate Edna Henke’s Yard

My 6′ 7″ tall Baseball Manager Great Grandfather John W., My Grandfather Earnie, My Wife’s Grandfather Alfred, and Bill Henke, who couldn’t be bothered to look at the camera.

If it had not been for baseball, the New York Yankees, and good times down on the farm in Cullman, Alabama, Edna Henke, Bill Henke’s sister, would have not had her yard destroyed by my grandfather’s flock of Cotton Patch (weeder) geese. Strawberries, a raging bull, and German obscenities also have a role to play in this story of woman versus bull and bird.

So this whole thing started about a hundred years ago, when the New York Yankees tried to sign my shortstop playing grandfather to a major league baseball contract. It was a laughingly small offer, and my grandfather said no thanks–this is at the same time some Chicago White Sox players threw the World Series because they were so poorly paid–though my grandfather later would always say, “I could never play for a team called Yankees.”

My grandfather then became a hugely successful farmer, who grew two main crops–strawberries and sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes practically grow by themselves. Strawberries need tons of labor, because they are small perennial plants that are easily crowded out by weeds. Hiring little old German ladies in the neighborhood to weed his strawberries became his main expense. That’s when he decided to replace his human labor with geese.

Edna Henke just happened to be one of those little old German ladies, and she wasn’t too pleased with the decision. She was even less pleased when my grandfather’s new flock of geese flew across the road from his strawberry field into her yard, ate every blade of grass in it, and then left her piles of souvenir droppings. She immediately decided to sue for damages.

There was one problem–she had no way of going to town to the lawyer’s office, as she had no vehicle. She put on her best “I’m going to town to sue somebody” dress anyway, and called my grandfather (he also owned the local phone company). She asked for a ride with him into Cullman, as she said she had some business to transact. My grandfather said, “Sure, why not. I’m going to town anyway.”

Edna high tailed it over toward my grandfather’s house, and took a short cut through his cow pasture. His prize bull didn’t much like that, and started chasing Edna. She escaped by climbing an oak tree that was in the middle of the pasture.

By now, Edna was sorely pissed off. Her yard had been eaten and crapped on by geese, and she had been chased and treed by a bull. My grandfather said he looked out his door, and saw her shaking her fist at the bull, and cursing a blue streak in German. My guess would be she said something like “Heilige fliegende kinderscheisse.” The polite translation of that would be, “Holy flying baby poop.”

After my grandfather fished her out of the tree, and they left for town, he asked Edna where she wanted to go.

Earnie: “Where do you want to go, Edna?”

Edna: “Lawyer’s.”

Earnie: “Why do you need to see the lawyer?”

Edna: “Sue you.”

My grandfather, silver tongued as usual, talked her out of it before they got close to the lawyers. He had her yard fixed, and sold most of the geese. A few of the worst offenders ended up in the pot. My guess would be that Edna got one or two for herself. Then he had to re-hire all his old workers, but eventually dumped strawberries in favor of growing watermelons, another low maintenance crop.

Moral of this story: I feel sorry for the geese.

The Red Death (Drink Recipe)–Weird Southern, Part One

The early period of Southern writing gave us Thomas Jefferson, Mary Randolph, and Edgar Allan Poe, as strange a trio as befits the region. (And that’s just Virginia, where one of my ancestors landed in 1611, nine years before the Mayflower made it to Plymouth.) Poe’s brilliant short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” inspired this traditional drink of The Mallet Assembly at the University of Alabama, which at the time I lived there, was officially the men’s honors dorm (It’s co-ed now, as girls are allowed to go to school currently. That’s a joke, in case you didn’t get it). Here’s what honors dorm guys make for a party.

Ingredients

Cherry Kool-Aid

Water (some idiots say this is optional)

Grain Alcohol (such as Everclear)

That’s it. Consume with extreme, and I mean extreme, caution. There’s a cautionary tale to go with this recipe, as told in the style of Ben Franklin.

“As an undergraduate in college, I did not partake of intoxicating beverages, as I only drank water and tea, and the tea had to be without sweetening. Due to this strict regime, I became something of a Scholar concerning Intoxication. Many of my fellow students fell victim to this vice of drinking alcohol, and I witnessed their eventual downfall.

“Alas, one young gentleman drank more than his fair share at one of our celebrations, in the typical red Solo cup that graced such receptions. He became so inebriated he collapsed head first in the hallway afterward. His reward was a broken nose, which bled profusely.”

Enough of that. Said undergrad was taken to the infirmary by a couple of guys, but not until some jackanape had chalk lined the shape of his body where he fell. He was fine, but we left all the blood on the floor to dry, as a reminder.

Everyone on campus was talking next week about “that party where that guy died.” This is how legends are born.