Tag Archives: Southern cookbooks

Friends of the Cafe: Ashley Christensen

The first day of Summer 2017 ushered Tropical Storm Cindy up from the Gulf and energized the air farther inland in Birmingham, where I was helping to celebrate my mother’s birthday. It has been a few years since I experienced the typical effects of a tropical storm and – while I always hope there is no significant damage or injury – I always find the balmy air and windy bands of sporadic rain to be invigorating and energizing.

I reread The Great Gatsby as I have done for years on the Summer Solstice.

I was in my twenties when I began my annual reading of The Great Gatsby and the ritual has almost taken on a superstitious nature; if I missed a year, I would feel like something was awry. But I always manage to get in my June reading of the book and, after dozens of readings, I always find something new in Fitzgerald’s writing. And my heart always pounds in anticipation of the book’s inevitable ending.

On this most recent reading, I was struck near novel’s end by Nick Carraway’s account of a recurring West Egg nightmare – “a night scene by El Greco” in which a bejeweled drunken woman in a white evening dress is borne on a stretcher by “four solemn men in dress suits” to the wrong house. “But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.”  That particular paragraph had never stopped me in my tracks until this reading.

Perhaps that passage stood out this time because I read it while sitting in a car in the parking lot in Tuscaloosa in a steady tropical rainstorm, while Mother was in a beauty shop appointment. Those meteorological conditions just added to the gloom of Gatsby’s rain-soaked funeral in which he is laid to rest with only Nick, Gatsby’s father, a few servants, the local mailman, and the owl-eyed former party guest in attendance. I usually reread Gatsby outdoors in the sunlight so the weather definitely added a different perspective this year.


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, the weather had cleared and the balmy weather turned blistering. Summer’s advent and Cindy dominated the days leading up to the most recent Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com). North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner and other Raleigh dining venues (www.ac-restaurants.com), was helming the meal. Once again, the event was a benefit for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org). I am proud to be a long-time member of the SFA, helping in a small way to support all of the good works the organization does.

Friends Anne, Michelle, Scott, and I traveled to the Shoals for the meal. Arriving at the Factory we were warmly greeted by Natalie Chanin, the creative force behind Alabama Chanin and the impetus for many community-building events, including an awesome schedule of Friends of the Café dinners.

The gathering was already going strong when we arrived. A delicious array of passed hors d’oeuvres included fried green tomatoes topped with Alabama jumbo lump crab salad and Hook’s three-year cheddar pimento topping a cucumber slice. Along the serving table were shots of a sweet corn mousse with piquillo pepper.  The mousse literally melted in one’s mouth like a passing dream of sweet corn taste. A “Summer Cindy” libation was poured – Prosecco and Jack Rudy grenadine with a sprig of rosemary.

The seated meal began with a salad of local lettuces and vegetables dressed with buttermilk and roasted garlic. Next came a slice of heirloom tomato pie with spicy greens and sherry. My quest for the perfect tomato pie began years ago with the tomato pie competition that was an annual event at Decatur’s Willis-Gray Gallery (now Kathleen’s). The Decatur event hasn’t been held in several years but Ashley Christensen’s take on tomato pie is now the hands-down winner.

The third course was chargrilled Bear Creek ribeye steak cooked perfectly and served family style along with Poole’s macaroni au gratin and a room temperature marinated summer succotash which brought back vivid memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s take on hearty southern succotash.

The dessert course of a coffee panna cotta with Irish whisky caramel and North Carolina pecan granola crunch was served with a deep and earthy port.

I have never been disappointed in a meal at the Factory and Christensen’s recent menu continues to raise the bar.

Christensen seems to be as warm, down-to-earth, and authentic as the carefully selected ingredients she elevates. I think I have attended all but three of the Friends of the Café dinners and Ashley Christensen was the chef for my second in 2013.

When Natalie Chanin asked me recently which had been my favorite of the meals over the years, Ashley Christensen’s name was one of the first that came up. Now, Ashley Christensen is the first of the guest chefs in the series to come back for an encore. It seemed unlikely that she could top her first memorable performance at the space, but last Saturday night she did.

Copies of Christensen’s cookbook. Poole’s: recipes and stories from a modern diner (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2016), were available for purchase and signing at the end of the event. It is a cookbook chock-full of exciting, well-explained recipes as well as a good introduction to the founding of Poole’s and to the James Beard Award-winning chef’s culinary aesthetic. It also provides the stories and impetus behind her restaurant empire of seven downtown Raleigh establishments. Chanin referred to her friend as “badass” and the book is full of Christensen’s warm and earthy takes on the food world (she refers often to an affinity for “beer flavored beer”).

For me, thanks to the friends who went with me, to Alabama Chanin, and, especially, to Ashley Christensen, that turbulent first week of summer 2017 ended on a high note indeed.

Two Southern Cookbooks

 

dscn0552 Back when I first got interested in learning about food and foodways, I discovered the pleasure of reading well-written cookbooks by chefs with a point of view. I read them cover to cover like a novel – focusing on the commentary and comments. I generally skim over the individual recipes, making note of particular dishes I might like to come back to and tackle at some point.

In the last year I haven’t had a lot of time to check out cookbooks. However in the past month I made the time to read two great ones by two Southern chefs whose food I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying at those wonderful Alabama Chanin dinners at the company’s Florence factory.

Vivian Howard was the chef for my first Friends of the Café dinner. At the time the PBS show A Chef’s Life was already chronicling her restaurant Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. That award-winning program has familiarized audiences with Howard’s point of view and with her husband and partner, Ben Knight, her parents and family, and staff. Many people first learned about Glenn Roberts and his preservation of endangered grains at his South Carolina Anson Mills operation through an episode of A Chef’s Life. Farmer Warren Brothers and his staffer Lillie Hardy are popular semi-regulars on the series. I was able to access a bushel of my mother’s childhood favorite apples, Hackworths, based on an apple episode of A Chef’s Life.

In each episode of her show, Vivian Howard explores a local ingredient by going to the source. She then features a traditional preparation of the ingredient and goes back to her restaurant and “exalts” the ingredient with her restaurant’s culinary take on the basics.

Vivian Howard’s long-anticipated Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South (Little, Brown and Company; 2016), with photographs by Rex Miller, hit the shelves in October. I bought it on the day of its release. Actually, I showed up at my local bookseller a day early and had to come back the next day to get a copy.

Anyone who is familiar with the television show will be immediately at home with the packed cookbook. Each section focuses on an ingredient and features Howard’s essay (she’s an excellent writer, by the way) and a blend of recipes suited to every kitchen and skill level.

When people who are familiar with Chef Howard find out that I attended Howard’s Friends of the Café dinner at the Factory, the first question is “Did she serve Tom Thumb?” I regret that she did not (although she did serve a version of her famed Cherokee purple tomato sandwich, so there!) but Howard aficionados know that Tom Thumb is a sausage mix stuffed into the cleaned and rinsed cavity of a pig’s appendix. It is unique, apparently, to eastern North Carolina where she grew up. Her Tom Thumb recipe comes from her father’s mother’s family. You can find the details in the book but I will never tackle that one. I’ll wait until I can taste Vivian Howard’s preparation of it one day.

Howard’s book also includes her mother’s recipe for chicken and rice that she and her mother, Scarlett Howard, made famous on the show. I can vouch for that one.

Vivian Howard is endearing and prickly and I suspect that her show’s award-winning success is due in part to the way those qualities are balanced. Her show is addictive and her book is compulsory for any cook who wants to explore authentic Southern cuisine off the beaten path. She writes:

This is a Southern cookbook, but not one that treats the South like one big region where everybody eats the same fried chicken, ribs, shrimp and grits, collard greens, and gumbo. Instead, I interpret Southern cooking the way we understand French, Italian, and Chinese food: as a complex cuisine with variations shaped by terrain, climate, and people.

Vivian Howard is what my Grandmother Harbison would have called a “pistol ball.”

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So is Chef Sean Brock. His cookbook, Heritage, with photographs by Peter Frank Edwards (Artisan; 2014), synthesizes his Virginia heritage with his culinary training and his adult experience as the acclaimed chef of Charleston’s McCrady’s and of Husk, with locations in Charleston and Nashville.

Sean Brock was the chef of my most recent meal at Friends of the Café in Florence.  Now, after eating his meal and reading his cookbook, I feel like he might have been my best buddy in another life.

Heritage is as compulsively readable as Deep Run Roots and each treads some of the same territory, albeit with somewhat different perspectives. Brock’s passion for farm to table seems even more compulsive than Vivian Howard’s and his gorgeous book is an educational text as much as it is an autobiographical and culinary one.

Brock plays loose and free with his opinions on every page of Heritage. While Vivian Howard focuses each chapter of her book on a specific ingredient, Brock  titles his chapters with subjects like “The Garden,” “The Yard,” “The Creek and the Sea,” “The Public House,” and “The Sweet Kitchen,” etc. and includes a plethora of applications for each category. I love anything pickled but have had a fear of the pickling process; Sean Brock and Vivian Howard have given me the courage to pickle, maybe.

Sean Brock’s respect for his heritage, his ingredients, his colleagues, and his methods are contagious. I was already inquisitive about food and foodways and now I want to find out even more. I realize that questioning the growers, chefs, home cooks, and purveyors is not invasive but a way of preserving and “exalting” a culture and its ingredients. I already knew that but Heritage reinforced it.

A few years ago Alabama native chef Scott Peacock moved to Marion, Alabama, and was interviewing older home cooks throughout the state in an effort to archive and preserve their methods and techniques. This is a mission that Brock and Howard exemplify and carry forward in their debut cookbooks.

If you are a cook, or if you just appreciate thoughtful and well-prepared food with a human touch, these are texts you will cherish.