Monday, August 30, 2010
Heading down the highway to Paul Michael’s, I had a vision of Rhoda in her own little booth in the huge warehouse space selling her pies. I was wrong. Before I was all the way through the door, a woman in a rocking chair abruptly greets me with “Do you want to buy some hot tamales and pies?” I answered “I already got the tamales but I came for the pies.” She led me out the door and into the parking lot and opened her van door to reveal a big pot of tamales and about 20 pies on the floor. The fried pies – peach and apple -- were displayed on the dashboard. Instead of being thrilled to sell me pies, she was totally outdone that I bought the tamales from James. Rhoda let me know that she was ready to go for the day and if I’d bought the three dozen tamales from her, she could have been home by now. We made a deal on the fried pies. I wanted one; I left with four. And somehow she talked me into a large “half and half” – in this case one half lemon ice box and the other half chocolate.
Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales, 714 Saint Mary Street, Lake Village, AR 71653 , Phone: 870-265-3108
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Thursday, August 26, 2010
|1215 East Beach - Before|
There are two ancient oak trees at 1215 East Beach in the little Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian. The old white two-story house set back from the Gulf of Mexico looks cool and peaceful with big screened porches on each side. The massive oak trees that frame the old house have enormous limbs, some reaching down toward the earth as if to offer an invitation to swing or climb on their sturdy limbs. The rustle of the Gulf breeze through the oak trees tells you that this is a very special place, a happy place where family and friends love to gather.
|1215 East Beach - After|
Whether we had out of town guests or a house full of family, our meals always showcased the bounty of the Gulf. No matter who you are or where you were from, if you paid a summer visit to the Puckett family in Pass Christian you are familiar with this meal.
The tablecloth consists of yesterday’s newspaper, which can easily be rolled up and thrown out at the end of a messy meal. For napkins we use colorful dishtowels in seashell napkin rings. To keep from constant dishwashing when the house is teeming with children and guests, another family tradition is to letter each person’s name on a large plastic cup. This serves as a make-shift place card as well as one’s personal cup for the day. Soft drinks are in washtubs and everyone selects his own.
When the shrimp and crabs are ready, word goes out to our large, noisy family that supper is ready. The swimming pool empties and everyone heads to the house. While the children are getting dressed the grownups gather in the kitchen to eat our favorite seafood dish, Ben’s Barbequed Shrimp. Shrimp is ladled out of the pot into individual bowls with the shrimp swimming in a delicious sauce. The po-boy bread is passed and all conversation stops. Regardless of what your mother taught you about dipping and sopping, all rules are suspended and we dip our bread in the spicy barbecue sauce. After the dishes have been removed, the rest of the group gathers. Big earthenware bowls of boiled shrimp, crabs, potatoes and corn are placed on the table. Sauces line the table in several bowls so there is not much reaching and butter is placed strategically up and down the table for corn. A plate of bright red sliced summer tomatoes topped with chopped basil, sea salt and cracked pepper is passed. Some of the adults are called on to peel shrimp for the youngest of the group, but usually the art of shrimp peeling is taught to Coast children at an early age.
When the bowls are empty and everyone begins to push their chairs back, we wipe our shrimp stained hands. Then a basket of refreshing ice cream sandwiches is passed. After the newspaper table covering has been rolled up and tossed out we are still gathered around the table telling stories of past summers in this wonderful magical house.
The ancient oak trees still stand at 1215 East Beach but our beautiful century old home is gone, a victim of Hurricane Katrina. Most of the historic town of Pass Christian is gone too. Wind and water can destroy homes but they can’t erase memory. And the remembrance of shrimp cooked under the oak trees and my family and friends gathered at the kitchen table will be with me forever.
This story was first published in At Home Cafe: Gatherings for Family and Friends (Rodale Publishing), a family cookbook by my sister Helen Puckett Defrance and me. At Home Cafe and At Home Cafe: Gatherings are available from Turnrow Books (and other independent book sellers) at http://www.turnrowbooks.com/.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
|"Be Nice or Leave"|
When I walked through the door of the restaurant, a chirpy young woman greeted me with this, “How many of you are there, darling.” I looked behind me to make sure I wasn’t dragging in a tribe of gypsies and said (smiling) “just one.” “OK darling…right this way.” “Here’s a menu DARLING.” And so it began. I was being darlinged to death.
After about five more darlings (“What can I get you to drink, darling”, “Are you ready to order, darling?” “I’ll turn in your order, darling?”) my irritation meter was wavering somewhere around 70 and I was beginning to panic. “Why was she calling me darling? “ I looked around at the other diners and strained my ears to hear if she called them darling every five seconds, too. Was she applying darling equally? She seated two middle aged guys behind me – no darling. She delivered food to another table – no darling. Why me, Lord? Was it because I was alone? And then it hit me like a ton of bricks …”it’s because she thinks I’m really, really old.” The clouds of confusion parted and in that moment of clarity I visualized my future with perky young waitresses patting my hand and saying “Let’s sit you right over here, darling”…or sweetie…or baby.
As she passed the table and said “Your food’ll be up in a minute, darling”, I gritted my teeth and tried to calmly assess the situation. What signal was I giving her that I needed this sugary, syrupy, condescending, patronizing prattle? Did I really look old and helpless…and pitiful? Ok, I admit I looked wretched. I had rolled out of bed and into the car at 6:00 that morning. No make-up. Hair in a braid. Flip-flops. Jeans. And a t-shirt that read “Make Cornbread Not War.” I looked like someone who made a wrong turn leaving Woodstock 40 years ago and was just finding her way home. I may have looked old to her…but I didn’t exactly look fragile.
I weighed whether or not to pull her aside and tell her exactly how irritating it was to be called darling a hundred times by someone I’d never seen before in my life, but decided against it. I had worked in retail and restaurants for too many years and given too many sales meetings trying to coach people to be friendly, perky, and peppy. She had many of the qualities I value and try to instill in others and I certainly didn’t want to be the old curmudgeon who burst her bubble and sent her to the swollen ranks of sullen and snarly waiters. So in my best effort to Be Nice, I began playing the Darling Game. I whipped out my notebook and started counting the times she said “darling” and copied down all the phrases to which “darling” was attached. Believe me, she was just getting warmed up.
I thought about my grandmother, a proud and gracious woman, and remembered when she crossed some invisible line and became “darling”, “sweetie”, “baby” or “precious” instead of Mrs. Todd. I thought about how ironic it is that some of us, in well meaning efforts to be polite and friendly, address those like my grandmother who carry the wisdom of a lifetime like they are children. We talk baby talk to them. While dipping my French fries in catsup in this not-so-fast food establishment in middle Tennessee, I pondered these mysteries of life. I vowed I would reserve terms of endearment for those who are truly dear to me. I would never toss around “sweetie”, “precious” and “baby” like randomly thrown frisbees. Next time I call someone “darling” it will be a very small child or I’ll be whispering it in a loved one’s ear or looking into his eyes.
I left a big old tip on the table, a thank you for well-meaning service in a most difficult job. I didn’t deduct anything for the irritation factor and added at least a dollar or two for the enlightenment she had brought me along with the hamburger. “Come back, darling,” my perky waitress hollered as I walked out the door. I smiled graciously and said “I certainly will…and I hope you have a real nice day.”
Friday, August 20, 2010
|Carol, Dori and Molly O'Neill|
Awaiting her arrival was a motley gathering of 49 who milled about in anticipation of what promised to be an exceptional meal. The banquet table on the shores of Lake Wylie, South Carolina was set for 50 but not one of the 49 claimed a place at the table until guest number 50, peach farmer and author Dori Sanders, took her seat. At a dinner where farmers were celebrated, she was a rock star.
We gathered to celebrate the upcoming launch of Molly O’Neill’s ambitious new book on American cooking, One Big Table, and the launch of a cross country adventure by Molly and food writer, pit master, raconteur Dan Huntley to host 50 person farm to table dinners across America (see last week’s blog “One Big Table”).
I silently thanked the seating gods that Dori was my dinner partner, geared up for what promised to be lively conversation and even dared to hope that there could be a perfect peach in my near future.
The granddaughter of a freed slave, Dori Sanders and her family operate one of the oldest African-American farms in the region. Her father, a former sharecropper, bought the land around 1915. The 200 + acre farm in Filbert, South Carolina produces fruits and vegetables and specializes in growing Georgia Bell and Elberta peaches which Dori sells at a roadside stand. The eighth of ten children Dori and her siblings were encouraged to read by her father, who served as school teacher and principal. He also encouraged them to write by insisting that his large family write down their grievances before bringing them to him. Dori has often said that this is where she sharpened her fiction writing skills.
The journey from peach farmer to best selling author was one that Dori Sanders never dreamt of taking. First writing stories for her nieces and nephews to pass down family history, she began work on a novel in 1990 that was to become Clover. Clover won the Lillian Smith book award and has been translated into several languages. Like Clover, her second book Her Own Place draws from her experience growing up in the rural South and is fed by the stories and characters Dori has encountered over the years working the family peach stand.
Dori Sanders still works on the family farm, now over 200 acres, and can be found at the family peach stand in Filbert on highway 321 during the summer months. This summer the peaches are abundant – so abundant, Dori said that “the only reason to not have peaches is if you don’t have a peach tree.”
That evening under the light of the Carolina moon, she had lots of stories to tell and questions to ask the rest of us. A chronicler of the human experience, she wanted our stories too. Her delight at each course of our dinner bespoke a reverence for the miracle of the farm – of planting, tending and harvesting the foods. With Dori as our guide, we touched, smelled, admired and ate everything in sight – including the table decorations of artfully arranged fresh vegetables. Dori was fascinated by the Asian bitter melon that graced the table and left with a secret sackfull to take back to the farm and make soup. Her lucky dinner companions left with peaches – perfect Georgia Bell peaches - graciously gifted from the extraordinary woman who grew them. Oh what a night!
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
|Men like peach pie - it's true!|
Thinking of the bounty of August gardens, I had tomatoes on my mind when I turned to a gorgeous photograph of Roasted Tomato- Basil Soup in Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. “M-m-m-m …look at this tomato soup,” I said. Without looking up from her Sara Foster cookbook, Sallye snapped “Men don’t like cold soup.” “Oh”..I said and considered the very real possibility that she knew some universal secret I didn’t know. In my ignorance I had no idea men didn’t like cold soup. Most of the men who sat at my table over the years – including my ex-husband – seemed to enjoy my cooking. I went back to the cookbooks and before long proposed an outline of a menu. “Eggplant are pretty right now. I think I’ll grill some eggplant.” Guess what she said? Yep, she said, “Men don’t like eggplant, I’d stick with the yellow squash and zucchini.” Sallye’s not a frivolous type who makes such pronouncements lightly so I took her at her word. No eggplant. "Do you think they like peach pie?" I asked hopefully. After agreeing on a menu of comfort food – “Man Food” – we happily began working on a grocery list and dividing up duties. Still, I was perplexed.
Fast-forward 24 hours to the Sunday lunch table where my parents and I discussed the events of the past week and the inevitable question was posed, “What do you have going on next week?” Of course my mother was pleased as punch when I announced that three men were coming to dinner. “What are you cooking?” she asked. I recited the menu of roast chicken, sliced tomatoes with homemade mayonnaise, grilled squashes and grilled sweet corn salad and peach pie. “Men don’t like cold salads,” my mother retorted, “I’d go with creamed corn.”
My confidence shaken to the core, I realized I have no idea what men like…or more accurately, what women perceive men like. I felt hopeless and hapless, bumbling clueless through life. Somehow I had missed a great secret passed down through the history of womankind – and all women knew it but me. I imagined life without cold tomato soup, eggplant and corn salad. I envisioned playing a guessing game every day spinning the culinary roulette wheel to land on just the dish for dinner that “men like.” It wasn't a world I wanted to inhabit.
After thinking it over, I decided that what men like is women who cook. They appreciate the love and intent that goes onto a plate when fresh vegetables are chosen at the market and pie crust is made by hand. They like the smell of food cooking in the oven and the warmth of family and friends gathered around the table. They’re grateful when dinner doesn’t come in a white paper bag or a square cardboard box. They like all the same things about cooking, meals and mealtimes that women like.
An hour before our guests arrived, my mother stopped by to help set the table. After we cut flowers for a centerpiece and gathered all the elements of a proper place setting, I presented her with two choices of placemats. “Go with this one,” she said, “men like neutral colors.”
Monday, August 16, 2010
Our destination was a fundraising event billed as a 50/50/50 dinner. There were 50 people paying $50 to dine on food grown within a 50 mile radius. And just to add another bit of synchronicity, we drove 50 + 50 + 50 miles to get there. The 150 mile distance wasn’t a problem for this group because as foodies we agreed that we’d traveled a lot farther for a lot less. And not having a place at THIS table….well, it was unthinkable.
We came to the table on Lake Wylie to celebrate Molly O’Neills epic portrait of America at the table. One Big Table, which will be released by Simon & Schuster in November, is a 900 page tome that includes 800 recipes along with oral histories, photographs and illustrations. Molly’s massive project was 10 years, thousands of miles and 20,000 recipes – mostly gathered from potlucks across the country - in the making.
To celebrate One Big Table and continue to tell the story of America through its cooking, Molly has teamed up with North Carolinian Dan Huntley, food writer, pit master, BBQ joint owner and inventor of the famed “Pig Pucker Barbecue Sauce” for yet another ambitious project. The duo plans to travel the country holding a series of community feasts to support local farmers and markets. The 50/50/50 dinners will showcase and serve as fundraisers for small town farmers markets and cultural institutions. After writing about America’s table, Molly and Dan want to sit down at that table and continue the lively conversation. The first of those tables was literally in Dan’s back yard on the shore of Lake Wylie.
One Big Table by Molly O’Neill will be published in November 2010. Orders are now being taken on www.amazon.com or your local independent bookstore.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
It was a lazy morning in Healdsburg, a dreamy day where the fog lifted from the valley like a soft window shade rising little by little to reveal the landscape . “Is this the day we’re going to see the sausage man?,” my traveling companion asked. “No,” I said with reverence befitting the occasion, “we’re going to see the Sausage King.”
We were headed for lunch with Bruce Aidells, who earned his exalted title and the adulation of thousands of loyal subjects as an innovator in the gourmet sausage business. While working on his PhD in Biology, he co-founded and was chef of a popular Berkeley restaurant, Poulet. He finally hung up his lab coat and pursued cooking full time. Since Aidells Sausage Company was founded in 1983, he’s earned a reputation as an icon in the gourmet sausage business. Bruce has written cookbooks – a whopping ten of them – including Bruce Aidell’s Complete Book of Pork, which is sacred text to devotees of the world’s favorite meat.
Married to Nancy Oakes, chef/owner of Boulevard in San Francisco and one of America’s most celebrated chefs, an invitation to lunch with the Sausage King is not a proposition to be taken lightly -- especially today when we'll be the beneficiaries of left-overs prepared by Nancy and the Boulevard team for a party at the Aidells/Oakes home the evening before.
The Arts & Crafts style home sits high on top of hill with a 360º view of the magnificent Sonoma County food and wine world below, a fitting view made for a couple who’ve built their lives around the culinary arts. The house is magnificent with both indoor and outdoor kitchens – even a sausage kitchen for Bruce’s work. The outdoor kitchen with Viking grill and appliances is the epicenter of outdoor entertaining and is used for the production of television segments featuring the Sausage King. The indoor kitchen, as one would expect from these two cooks, is a dream kitchen whose center island inspired one visitor to remark, “"That's not an island - it's a continent."
Bruce and family friend Stuart Brinin, a San Francisco photographer, greet us at the kitchen door. We discover our lunch of “leftovers” arranged on the island like a royal wine-country buffet, with fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced premium porterhouse, fresh-from-the-garden green beans, grilled quail and homemade truffle butter, which to our delight was inadvertently left behind by Nancy as she dashed into the city this morning. Outdoors, under blue skies, ideal temperature and a view of the valley, our table was set. With a glass of perfectly chilled Sancerre, we toasted the cooks who prepared our feast, the food on our plates, the company we kept and the glorious day. It was a perfect day -no other way to describe it. It was a day when the universe conspired to bring life into perfect harmony. It was one of those rare days I’ll relive in my mind some not-so-perfect day in the future when the world is “too much with me.” I’ll remember the magnificent place, the food and the fellowship. And I’ll remember winding down the steep hillside headed back to the “real world”, silent and drinking in the view one last time, when my friend breathlessly exclaimed, “I’ll never call him the Sausage MAN again.”
For more information on Bruce and Nancy’s home, read http://www.artisticlicense.org/blog/2008/09/bruce-aidells-ultimate-craftsman.html.
For copies of Bruce’s books, contact our friends, Jamie and Kelly at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi. They specialize in cookbooks and are practitioners of the culinary arts themselves. www.turnrowbooks.com or 662-453-5995.