Food Should Taste Like the Past

“Ours is a region whose food carries with it the burdens of our past — a history of slavery and racism, long-lasting, outdated stereotypes of our people, and a tenuous political landscape.” -www.thrilist.com  The New Southern Cuisine: Don’t Call It Fusion

Our past IS fraught with burdens when it comes to race…even our present.  Somehow our food rises above it all.  Don’t believe me? Go to a Baptist Church covered dish dinner or a hole in the wall diner named “Momma Ester’s Café”.  European, West African and Native American foodways merge into a superhighway that became known in the Seventies as soul food…one of the few positives of the Columbian Exchange.  It was Southern fusion before the word was cool. 

Over a year ago, before our lives changed with the “corona”, my bride and I sat down at a restaurant for a Sunday brunch to celebrate our wedding anniversary and contemplated our dish selections.  This was before the need for masks, social distancing or arguments over rights and vaccines.

At the urging of my bride, we decided to sit outside in the shade and enjoy the warm breezes along with a Bloody Mary or two.  It was late June.  Even mountain breezes in late June sometimes feel like the blast from a Bessemer furnace.

This was one of those “sometimes”.  Winter had gone straight to full on summer.  The “bacon infused” Bloody Mary with the okra pod garnish had just enough bite to increase the perspiration forming across my nose and to a greater extent, settling into my underwear.   For some reason the hot wind reminded me of the past before air conditioning was cool, when a window fan was an ineffective defense against the hot and humid air.

The restaurant was one of those neo-Southern cookin’ places boasting traditional Southern dishes with a “twist.”  Judging from the prices I worried it might be a nouveau-riche Southern cookin’ place although no one would accuse me of being a member of the nouveau-riche…not near Beverly Hillbillies nouveau-riche but it was my anniversary, and my bride was worth any price.

I was hopeful as I perused their menu.  There were plenty of selections featuring biscuits and deeply fried anything.  There were collards cooked to death with ham and bacon grease, cornbread battered fried green tomatoes, and dishes featuring cracklins’…bacon bits…not the real ones, pig skin fried crisp.

Fried chicken with an acceptable twist, waffles.  Sounded tasty with maple syrup drizzled over it.  What worried me were dishes including fried cauliflower bites or smashed avocado on toast points.  I don’t remember many dishes from the past including cauliflower in any form but right there in the menu was a picture of a vegan taco with both fried cauliflower and avocado wedges.  I figured it looked better than it might taste. I like cauliflower and avocado but I had decided today was not a day to eat healthy.

I saw one immediate positive. No dishes involving kale.

One appetizer piqued my interest.  Deep fried BBQ stuffed egg rolls.  Recipe must be from Southern China.  Didn’t matter where it came from, it was good, but didn’t speak to the ghosts of my past.  Not sure I ate an egg roll until I was out of college.  Now BBQ? That is something else entirely.

Some of  this neo-Southern cuisine is described as fusion cookin’ but it seems to me, the food I consumed as a child was fusion.  We ate what became known as soul food.  Food heavily seasoned with salt pork and bacon grease, the heavy use of starches and cornmeal. We ate soul food before it was cool and before we could be accused of racial appropriation. We ate soul food until our arteries seized up.

I grew up in an area where no one of any race really ate “high on the hog.”  We didn’t know we were poor, and in most ways that counted, we weren’t.  Money was not one of the ways that counted.  Even the “landed rich” didn’t have an extra two nickels to rub together until after harvest season, so most of us ate like we were poor.  Sometimes the poor knew better how to eat than the rich.

Chicken, pork, and fresh caught fish seemed to be staples.  Not much expensive beef unless it was from the “butt end of the cow”, cubed round steak dusted with flour and fried crisp or chicken fried and smothered in milk gravy.  I didn’t know you could order steak anyway but done to death until I graduated from college. That doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well; we just didn’t eat a lot of steak.  Catfish fried with a cornbread batter heavy with black pepper, chicken battered and fried in lard.  The skin crisp and the inside moist and tender. Pork chops fried and smothered with milk gravy, the renderings spooned over biscuits.

Green beans, butter beans, peas, and collard greens cooked forever plus one day, cooked with fat back or bacon  Maybe some unrecognizable pork bits in and amongst it.  Seasoned with a bit of salt and sugar, a finely chopped hot pepper to add a bit of heat and cider vinegar for a little tartness.   Pinto beans simmered all day with hog jowls, ham hocks or neck bones until the meat fell off the bone. Chopped onion and a pone of cornbread to go with it.  Sweet potatoes made sweeter with butter and sugar or syrup. All seasoning guided by the hands of the ghosts of women long dead. 

Simple food seasoned well and prepared in cast iron pots and pans dating from before the First World War and cut up with a knife that had to be seventy years old.  Soul food can’t help but taste of the past.

My grandmother and mother were not known for their culinary abilities.  They did okay, I didn’t starve. My grandmother was more concerned about the great outdoors and growing the food although there were memorable dishes. Her creamed corn, chicken pot pie, “cooter” soup and peanut butter cookies.  

My mother was a textile shift worker and I remember dining on Birdseye TV Dinners and fried bologna sandwiches often.  Mom did cook on weekends, spaghetti on Saturday nights and her own trinity, BBQ chicken, pot roast, or fried chicken on Sunday. 

My grandmother’s sisters and my mother’s sister can put on a spread.  So could their in-laws.

I am reminded of a late summer feast put on by my Uncle James’ wife, Aunt Mary Hannah and their two daughters. She was a slight woman crippled by polio. Braces and crutches did not affect her abilities in her kitchen.  It always amazed me how happy she could be.  Her freckled face always had a smile.

The summer season was drawing to an end, the hayin’ was done and in the barn, corn pulled and stored in the cribs, the tomatoes, squash, and beans almost played out.  Those huge John Deere tractors safely tucked and serviced in their garage.  I was headed back to school and football practice as were my cousins who, with me, provided the summer labor.  We sat under a shade tree in slat backed chairs we moved from her dining room and ate off rough boards set on sawhorses covered with linen tablecloths.

Part of my daily pay was a midday meal which usually consisted of Vienna sausages or deviled ham, maybe sardines and saltine crackers, a “dope”, and a Moon Pie.  But one late summer day, the midday meal was worth the hell of those hay and corn fields.

Pan fried chicken, butter beans cooked with chopped up ham, creamed corn running with home churned butter, corn bread battered okra fried crisp, squash casserole, deviled eggs to die for, potato salad, and biscuits.  All seasoned well, with a smidge of this, a pinch of that, a tad of something else, until it tasted right and the voices from our past whispered, “That will do.”

Every vegetable or starch grown in their garden. The chicken, ham, and eggs from their coop or sty.  The only dishes or ingredients foreign were the sweet tea we washed it down with and the bananas and vanilla wafers in the banana pudding we finished it with.  We could have stayed local and washed it down with buttermilk from their cow and eaten watermelon from their field. It was food fit for fieldworkers or a king. That one meal encompassing all of the different foodways.

Soul food…food with a soul.  Food with a past going back centuries brought from lands far away and land close by, somehow merged in a way the people who brought them should fuse. 

Food should unite us all. Food prepared by hands who were taught by ghostly hands from the past in implements passed down by generations.  Food should taste like the past.

May be an image of text that says 'DON'S DAILY DOSE CONO "Neither sugar nor salt tastes particularly good by itself. Each is at its best when used to season other things. Love is the same way. Use it to "season" people." Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration'

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For more Musings, https://www.amazon.com/~/e/B018IT38GM

Oh Lawd, I’m Out of Crisco

Just had my yearly physical.  So far so good.  Blood pressure was great as was my pulse rate.  Weighed less than I did last year.  I still have some work to do.  Gotta go to the orthopedist next week about my nasty shoulder.  If you don’t remember, go to my post “Ha, Ha, Ha! Stupid Man Goes Boom!”  The post will explain if the shoulder if the title doesn’t.  I’ll leave the link at the end. 

I’m anxiously awaiting my blood work results…you know lipids, cholesterol, triglycerides, PSAs and such.  There’s a lot in the report I have no clue about.  Hopefully my doctor does.

Sugar…don’t forget the sugar…don’t want to come down with the sugar.  That’s Southern for sugar “diabetus” said in a ghostly Wilford Brimley’s voice.

I’m also several quarts of cooking oil low. Fourteen years ago, I made a lifestyle change.  I didn’t want to make the change exactly.  If you are more intellectually gifted than a rock, a heart attack and the resulting aftermath will cause you make lifestyle changes.  My Father’s voice joins Wilford’s, “Son, it is for your own good.”  Maybe, but I don’t have to like it.

While I might lean farther left politically than many of my Southern brethren, make no ham hock bones about it.  I am a son of the South when it comes to food and drink.  Southern fried anything, Southern iced tea so sweet it makes your teeth hurt, banana puddin’, bourbon glazed…anything.  Just don’t use the drinkin’ bourbon for the glaze.  I like to marinate myself while the ribs are smokin’.  The cheap stuff is on top of the fridge, the good hidden in the pantry. 

Make that once was a son of the South when it came to food and drink.  I gave up much to have good blood work.  No Southern fried grits nuggets…um, um, good.  If Paula Deen can deep fry mac and cheese, I can deep fry grits. 

As I write this, I’m considering what snacks I might eat while watching this evening’s viewing choices.  Some people might think popcorn…pretzels may be.  I’m thinking about breaded okra deep fried golden brown in Crisco with a side of pulled pork barbeque on white bread dripping with a yellow mustard barbeque sauce.  Maybe mayonnaise slaw for a veggie…wait okra is a veggie.  I’ve not gone off the rails. Just wishing…my snacks will probably involve air popped Orville’s.

Crisco…the “healthy” replacement for hog lard back in the day.  Growing up, it was a major cooking condiment. How quickly things change.  All those nasty trans fats. Crisco has removed them but still can’t outrun its reputation.

A solid at room temperature it melted in a hot frying pan and had a high smoking point.  Perfect to pan fried battered chicken or catfish.  Cheap, it was more easily accessible more than it was healthy. Crisco allowed us to save the butter for more important delicacies like buttering biscuits or making crust for pies.

I don’t know when my Nannie made the conversion from lard to Crisco.  She was a young girl when Smucker introduced the first one-hundred percent vegetable shortening made from cottonseed oil in 1911.  Cottonseed oil?  Cotton is a vegetable? There was a lot of cotton around, but if memory serves, we never ate it.  Now it is made with soybean oil.

The name Crisco is a modification of “crystallized cottonseed oil.”  Yum. Originally the name Chryst was suggested, with religious implications galore.  “Fry with Crisco! It’ll bring Grandma back from the grave!” Here in the South I don’t know if that would have been a selling point or blasphemy…I’m guessing the Southern Baptist would have eaten it up.

“You might be Southern Baptist if you woke up one morning craving fried chicken and interpreted that as a call to preach or you believe you’re supposed to take a covered dish to heaven when you die.” (www.kaydacus.com)

I remember the large blue tin with the red letters framed in an oval white.  It sat on a shelf within easy reach of the gas stove.  Seemed every meal featured something fried in Crisco.  Fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, catfish and hushpuppies, livermush. 

Tall and fluffy cathead biscuits made by cutting the Crisco into the flour with buttermilk.  The sound of cornbread batter being poured into a hot cast iron frying pan.  That explosive sizzle as cold batter met screaming hot Crisco oil.  I am salivating. 

If we weren’t frying with Crisco, we were frying something like fatback or bacon.  “Don’t you dare throw than bacon grease away!  Put it in this old Crisco tin, I’ll use it later.”  Flavoring gold it was.  Crisco is flavor neutral, bacon grease is not. Fried eggs, vegetables, hash browns (fried taters for my Southern friends) are simply better in bacon grease…as I remember.  “It’s been so long…Oh heavy sigh!”

In my transformed kitchen it is oven baked chicken in lemon juice, olive oil, and pepper, a crisp green salad with a vinaigrette, and sweet potato fries…the menu sounds pretty good. It just ain’t crispy fried chicken, potato salad, and turnip greens cooked with fatback, bacon grease, hog jowls or all three.

Well.  I just got my blood work back.  I’m as healthy as a ox…how do we know the ox is healthy? Anyway, cholesterol great, lipids great…and my sugar…my sugar is wonderful.  I think I’m going to celebrate.  Fried okra is in my near future.  It’s a year before I have to have blood work done again so I may add that pulled pork BBQ side dish.  Yeah, cornbread battered okra deep fried in Crisco.  No air popped popcorn for me.  “What do you mean we’re out of Crisco?…haven’t had it in years?”

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Link to Ha, Ha, Ha! Stupid Man Goes Boom! https://cigarman501.wordpress.com/2020/08/16/ha-ha-ha-stupid-man-goes-boom/

Link to Don Miller’s author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2gV2t9D5mJMRXox9JEm7959hs95fSapi1K30KIYtQuAax8JRWvyZtuc70

Images of Crisco cans from https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/vintage-advertising-tins-crisco-paper-1727753671