Friday, November 28, 2008

Giving Thanks For the Food of the Gods

Since we're West Coast transplants, we typically try to find others like ourselves who aren't surrounded by family here and invite them over for Thanksgiving. This time we hosted Peter and Julie, an Australian couple, people we met at church who had experienced Thanksgiving fare the previous Sunday. So we decided to treat them to a Southern American feast, since Southern cuisine is one of the few distinctive cuisines in this country and one our Aussie friends had never sampled.

We fired up the smoker out back and laid in the dry-rubbed pork spare ribs for a long, slow cooking and smoking over charcoal and hickory chips. Pork fat carried over into preparation of collard greens (garnished with slices of hard-boiled egg), black-eyed peas and cornbread, all of which are much tastier when made with bacon drippings.

We also had ambrosia, with its delicate shreds of coconut and fresh orange slices. This dish, which should never contain miniature marshmallows and which should always be served in a lovely cut-glass bowl, was traditionally a special wintertime treat, rare and exotic in rural Tennessee. And sun tea, with a mildness that only a slow steep on a sunny day can provide. For dessert we had pecan pie and homemade vanilla ice cream.

(The only thing that would have made this meal better would be if I could have scored a jar of my Cousin Lelabelle's wonderful rosy relish. I finally got her to shake loose the recipe after I'd lived in Los Angeles long enough for her to realize I'd never make it back in Tennessee and steal her tasty thunder. Problem is, I have a devil of a time growing tomatoes in this deserty backyard of mine, so it's really difficult to get the green tomatoes required of this lovely relish.)

Buying the ingredients in Los Angeles bumps the price up, but essentially, this is basic Southern fare, what country dwellers had on hand. Pork ribs were some of the leftover bits from the better cuts the wealthier people got. Black-eyed peas and collard greens you grew in your own garden. Cornbread was, well, cornbread, cooked with hot bacon drippings in your granny's well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Even the pie would be made with pecans from your own trees. (These days I get mine at the Toluca Lake Trader Joe's, a long way from the pecan thicket that separates our farm from the main road.)

There was much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving this year: A cozy house with a roof that doesn't leak, thanks to the work of Andy and our friend, Jeff (someone else to be thankful for), who repaired it just before torrential rains began. The rains themselves, which rehydrated our desperately dry yard. Lovely new friends from Down Under.

And feasting on this simple fare made me thankful that good food doesn't have to be either expensive or fussy.

Ambrosia may be "food of the gods," but to my thinking, they'd be clamoring for those smoked pork ribs, too. And they'd have to fight me for them!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

(Time) Traveling in the Kitchen

These days my blog is sighing in loneliness. I've been busy as guest editor of the winter issue of Edible Los Angeles. It's taking up a lot of time, but I'm having a blast, so blog, just deal with it!

One of the articles I assigned for the issue is "What's In Your Pantry?" I'd asked food writer and culinary historian (and legendary Rolling Stone editor) Charles Perry to write the piece. Typically the writer will interview a chef or some other noted food person. But I knew that Charlie would have the most interesting pantry in town, so I asked him to write about his own stash of exotic flavorings accumulated over his many years of travel throughout the Middle East.

Yesterday, our amazing photographer Tony Molina and I went to Charlie's for a photo shoot and some dajaj mutajjan, a dish from 13th century Baghdad. It's made of really basic elements, so anyone could make it, but because it vanished from the Iraqi diet centuries ago, if you visited a restaurant in Baghdad now in search of it, they wouldn't have a clue what you were asking for!

It was rich and savory and wonderfully flavorful. It was also healthy, easy and fairly quick to make. And it filled the house with the smells of exotic lands and bazaars and my head with dreams of faraway places.
We enjoyed dajaj mutajjan cooked up in this soapstone pot, which, like cast iron, heats slowly, but cooks evenly and oh so well. This dish was made with chicken, but Charlie assured us that goat works really well, too.

Food history may sound like an odd or quaint area of interest to some, but it has the power to transport you to another place and time in a most wonderful way, because you can savor the smells, flavors and textures that reveal how people lived in different times and places. Visiting historic sites is important, no doubt, but sampling the food of other places gives you a truly personal way of experiencing the culture as those who live there do (and as their predecessors did).

Language experts like to say that Latin isn't dead--only the people who spoke it are. Well, these ancient cuisines aren't dead either. But the taste buds that have never tried them are sound asleep.