Wednesday, April 30, 2008

But is it authentic?

Since moving to California from Tennessee a decade ago, I’ve railed long and loud about the crap-ass cornbread they serve out here. California cornbread looks and tastes rather like cake—large, pale blocks of dry, crumbly stuff that takes an awful lot of iced tea to wash down. And it contains enough sugar to classify it as a dessert. I don’t want it anywhere near the black-eyed peas. It just ain’t right.

Tennessee cornbread is thin and flat, made in an iron skillet with bacon drippings and just a hint of sugar, used in the same way you’d add a sprinkling of salt while making your cake or pie. The skillet bestows a fine crispiness that gives way in each bite to the luxurious heft provided by the addition of genuine animal fat.
The cornbread of my growing up years--and what I make now--is golden on top, with a brown crunchy bottom that you can only get when you make it in cast iron.

Because this is the type of cornbread I grew up with and what’s authentic for me, I tend to measure all other cornbread by the Tennessee yardstick. The best cornbread in California is what I make in my own kitchen, with my own aged iron skillet, my coffee can full of bacon drippings and my taste memory of all the cornbread of all my years before leaving the South.

Apparently a lot of people indulge in cornbread snobbery--not just me. Some insist it must be made specifically with either white or yellow cornmeal, that it must have flour or a handful of chopped jalapeno peppers or even a can of creamed corn tossed into the mix. And if you don’t make it the way they do, then it’s NOT the real stuff.

Author and storyteller Crescent Dragonwagon makes a good point about the concept of authentic cornbread. I attended her presentation on the subject during the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals recently, and she gave the rundown on corn’s history as part of the Mesoamerican diet waaay before the Europeans showed up. People have been making bread from ground corn for centuries, and my way of doing the job is but one of many. As she wisely pointed out, the original cornbread was the TORTILLA!

So to all those Californians whose cornbread I’ve disparaged, I apologize for the crap-ass remark.
But I’d still rather eat my own.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

You say paella . . . I say jambalaya . . . let’s call the whole thing yummy!

In New Orleans last week, I took a course in Creole and Cajun cooking, and I appreciate the point our instructor, Saundra, made about what happens when populations migrate to new areas with their old recipes in tow. Essentially, they must use what they have at hand in their new environment and adapt their recipes as best they can.

For example, European settlers to the Louisiana lowcountry brought their recipe for paella, and it metamorphosed into jambalaya, as they had to substitute tomatoes for the saffron and oysters for the mussels. In the process, a wonderful new cuisine was born.

Corinne puts the finishing touches on the jambalaya. With a dish this varied and flavorful, you’ll never miss the saffron and mussels!

As she handed everyone a packet of recipes, she encouraged us to make gumbo at home. “But,” she said, “if you live where there’s no andouille, use what you have—kielbasa or chorizo or whatever is native to where you come from.”

This is the way it has always been done. We cling to our customs and recipes, but as we settle in new places, we have to make adjustments. With humankind's propensity to roam the earth, who’s to say how authentic any recipe--or any custom--is?

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Bread Thief

We recently added a new kitten to our household, a little guy who has a passion for wheat in any form, a real wheatophile. Thus far, Cosmo has ripped into everything from baguettes to sandwich bread. Within 24 hours of his arrival, he’d made quick work of a spinach croissant while Andy’s back was briefly turned, greenery be damned! In his midnight trolling for new adventures, he even discovered a bag of bagels I’d tossed into a basket atop the fridge. Out of sight was not out of HIS mind (note the smug expression--"Ha HA! All bread is MINE!").
So we’ve taken to hiding bread products in the microwave, which, because it seals, actually keeps things fresher than you might think. In fact, since I seldom use it for its intended purpose, it has turned into an expensive, wall-mounted bread box with a window, a light and a carousel. Fancy! Of course, after awhile, the bread stales because we simply forget it’s in there.
Maybe the bag of kitten food says he only requires a fixed amount each day. Maybe the older cats are deemed by the food producer to require a fixed amount as well. But when you set up a scenario of scarcity, it can lead to unhappy, dissatisfied cats—and humans. So we tried filling the bowls and quit monitoring how much they eat, just to see what would happen. Since then, the thin cat has remained thin, the chunky cat has—surprisingly—trimmed down, and while Cosmo has continued putting on his I’ve-got-some-growing-to-do weight, he never empties the dishes.
Now the bread sits on the counter, unmolested until WE get hungry for it. And when we're not busy obsessively monitoring how much we eat, we don't manage to eat as much as when we do keep tabs on every crumb. There must be a lesson here somewhere on intelligent eating.

--Thanks to my sister-in-law, Linsey Lewellyn, a fine and imaginative photographer, who captured Cosmo's I'm-too-cute-for-you look.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Going to Hell in a Spirits Basket?

Andy and I recently won the "Spirits Basket" in a fund raising auction at our church (!), a generous collection of bitters, an assortment of bar paraphernalia (the tiny bat in the photo is a muddler, used for getting medieval on the mint leaves when you're making a julep), a copy of Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology and a one-year subscription to Imbibe magazine. It even included a jar of real marasca cherries imported from Italy, not those foul, unnaturally red maraschino things--or worse yet, green!--that you find in the grocery and that barely qualify as a food substance. Admittedly, I still have a slight ick! factor to contend with, for while these cherries taste worlds better than the grocery abominations (who knew they were supposed to be tart as well as sweet?!), they still have the same texture, which I viscerally link with the nasty ones. But I'm learning to love them fast.

We're trying different cocktails most every evening. Last night we had calvados with triple sec, fresh orange and lemon juices and a touch of orange bitters. Lovely! It's a treat having the tools, products and materials handpicked and gathered for us, to jumpstart our learning process. We'll never be in their league of cocktailing, but I appreciate such a lovely basket of bar essentials being put together by Wes Moore and Chuck Taggart, of Gumbo Pages fame, a couple of guys who know more about the business of mixology than anyone else I know.

Bravo and thank you, Chuck and Wes, most generous donors of the Spirits Basket! You're collectively da bomb! You're heading to JazzFest even as I type this and probably won't see it for a week or so, but know that your contribution to the church's charitable programs is instructive, tasty and fun! Cheers! Salud! Slainte! Prost! Chin chin! Salute! and God bless!

Fig Lust

I'm in trouble.

Edible Memphis assigned me to write a story on figs, which are the most voluptuous, sensual fruit on the planet. It’s easy to go on about them endlessly, and in terms that
aren’t entirely appropriate for that venue. I’ve decided to start my fig ponderings right here, so I can purge the questionable stuff from my system. Otherwise I’ll never get my article written—or at least I won’t be writing one they can publish.

In Animal House, the film classic that exemplifies college life at its most scholastically rich and enlightening (
har har), frat boy Otter encounters the dean’s wife in the fruit & veg section at the grocery, and the two begin a discussion on the sensual merits of particular produce. They never get around to talking about figs, which is a good thing, for the movie's rating could have easily have plunged from R to X—or NC-17, if they’d had that rating then.

I suffer from fig lust. I think the fig is the sexiest fruit of all. Because it looks so . . . uh, it tastes so . . . um, it feels so . . .
hmm, maybe this isn't the appropriate venue either. Figs inspire all sorts of scandalous prose and salacious imagery, and I don't want to veer into the pornographic here.

But if your only exposure to figs is the dried ones or those abominable cookies, you really don't know what you're missing. And you'll be gobsmacked with delight when you find your first real one, especially if you can pull it off the tree yourself and chomp right into it on the spot, supremely fresh and unmolested by a refrigerator stay. You'll remember it with the fondness you hold for the memory of your first kiss or your first flesh-to-flesh engagement of whatever kind. Even when you find fresh figs in the grocery, they're most likely bruised and sad. They're just too fragile to ship very well. You HAVE to have your own fig tree. In fact, Andy and I planted one in our backyard a couple of weeks ago. We're wishing we had planted one as soon as we bought our house, since we were moving from a rental house with an incredibly prolific fig tree in the yard, and we yearned to have that generous supply of sweet, slurpy goodness right there at our disposal. We were spoiled, too spoiled ever to settle for dried figs again. Until this one begins to produce, we'll continue to haunt the yards of our friends who have mature fig trees.

Figs are so luscious and sweet, so succulent and sinfully tasty, you want to fall face down into them, wallowing, slurping and writhing in total depravity (see why I have to get this out of my system!?), luxuriating in their sweetness and textural wickedness. At least that's MY reaction to them.

I don't think this is working. If anyone ever publishes a magazine called Fig Lust, I'll be a contributing editor. And now I have to get busy writing a g-rated article on figs. This isn't going to be easy.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Yeah, What HE Said!

It’s gratifying to hear people with more knowledge, experience and authority than yourself say the same thing you’ve been saying all along.
Today I participated in a teleforum with James Oseland, editor of Saveur magazine and author of Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, who spoke on researching and writing on foreign food cultures and how to respect people and their traditions while doing so. Having spent some 25 years living and traveling in Indonesia and writing on its cuisines, he knows a fair amount about the subject.
And he made the same point that I constantly explain to those who question me about the significance of culinary travel: that when you show curiosity about and enthusiasm for the food and food traditions of another culture, you honor the people of that culture.
Ask anyone, “What’s your favorite food your mother used to fix you when you were growing up?” and you’re almost guaranteed to send that person down a singularly happy path of remembrance. I can’t think of a better, more personal way to build good will with people of other countries and cultures or even other regions of our own country than to take a genuine interest in their foods and their food traditions.