Tag Archives: southern foodways

A Thanksgiving Dressing

 

IMG_2069  No Southerner I know stuffs the bird. In my experience we always serve dressing on the side. My Grandmother Harbison made a cornbread dressing and Grandmother Journey served a fancier oyster dressing, still using cornbread as a base. I like both but Mother is partial to a plain cornbread dressing without oysters so her cornbread dressing is what we have for the holidays.

Near Thanksgiving last year I shared memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s kushmagudi, a cornbread and potlikker dish which has become a staple of our cold weather holiday table. During my father’s extended hospital stay, Mother has often mixed up a quick kushmagudi when she gets home from the hospital at night.

As my Grandmother Harbison’s health made it more challenging for her to cook the holiday feasts, Mother began to make her own cornbread dressing from a recipe she found somewhere. It’s a very easy recipe, moist and rich, and even though it wasn’t exactly the same as Grandmother Harbison’s dressing, it got Grandmother Harbison’s seal of approval.

The celery in the cornbread recipe reminds me of another Thanksgiving tradition at my family’s house. In addition to using celery in the dressing, Mother has always put out a dish of raw celery sticks with our turkey. I grew up with raw celery as part of the Thanksgiving meal and never thought it was unusual until people from outside the family informed me that they had never heard of such a thing. Even so, it is a nice complement to turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce. We put celery sticks on our turkey sandwiches on Friday and that is a crunchy and delicious addition to the Thanksgiving leftover tradition too.

Even though circumstances dictate a spartan Thanksgiving this year, I packed Mother’s cornbread dressing recipe just in case I find the time to make it. And remember that a proper cornbread recipe does not include sugar.

Simple Cornbread Dressing

4 cups crumbled cornbread
2-3 slices crumbled white bread
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 large eggs
Sage, to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth
1 can cream of chicken (or cream of mushroom) soup, undiluted

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or overnight) for flavors to blend. Pour into 2-quart baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Iced Tea Digressions

IMG_1412 In December 1989 I was in New England traveling with a theatre tour. In a tiny joint near the waterfront in New London, Connecticut, I ordered iced tea with lunch. The crusty waitress eyed me suspiciously and said, “It’s December. We don’t have iced tea in December.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Now here’s a question: Do you serve hot coffee in July?”

She admitted that she did and laughed as she walked away. I channeled the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces for a moment but I let it go and had a glass of water with my meal.

There is always at least one pitcher of tea in my refrigerator at any given time. I have never been much of a coffee drinker but I mostly fit the Southern stereotype about iced tea; I drink it frequently and year-round. A glass of iced tea is the first thing I pour when I get up in the morning and the first thing I pour when I come home at the end of the workday. I bring a thermal tumbler of iced tea to my office each day and am usually able to nurse it until time to go home.

Iced tea is one of the many great things that was popularized during the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 but it goes back farther than that date. It is ubiquitous at Southern tables and in Southern restaurants and “sweet or unsweet?” is the standard question when iced tea is ordered in a restaurant in the South.

When I am out, I usually order “sweet” but the sweet iced tea in restaurants is often a little too sweet for my taste. I like it a little sweet and what I make at home tends to be much less sweet than what is served at many restaurants, especially the chains. As I have become more wary of processed sugars, I have begun to use alternative sweeteners, sometimes with a little honey added, to sweeten my home-made tea.

I was once given an electric iced tea maker as a gift. It seemed heretical at the time, but I got used to it, began to like the way I could easily add mint, orange peel, and other seasonal flavors into the mix, and even bought a new iced tea maker when the first one broke. My replacement broke a few months ago and I intended to replace it but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I am enjoying the stove-top process again although I had to tweak my formulas just a bit to get it right.

Growing up, the teabags in our house and at Grandmother’s were usually Lipton and occasionally Red Diamond, a tea and coffee brand based in Birmingham, or Luzianne out of New Orleans. When I was out on my own, I gravitated to Lipton and that was my iced tea brand of choice for a long time.

That all changed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when I heard on a television report that the Luzianne factory did not lay off any employees post-storm and, in fact, continued paying employees their full checks during the time that the operation was closed in the aftermath of the flood. I have not been able to confirm that story, but Luzianne became my iced tea brand of choice from then on. Such corporate loyalty to employees is rare these days and deserves our support.

A key to serving iced tea is to have lemon wedges and long-handled teaspoons nearby. Also, one must always have plenty of ice cubes on hand. In the days before most refrigerators had ice dispensers, I would go into friends’ kitchens and fill their ice trays upon arrival if I knew these were people who were negligent about what I consider to be the essential task of constant in-home ice production. I still keep full ice trays in the freezer in case of an emergency.

Last Christmas, friends who know my affinity for iced drinks gave me a gift of spherical ice — plastic contraptions that each produce one perfectly round and substantial circle of ice. They’re a modern miracle and a perfect gift – the ice globe is pleasing to look at, melts slowly, and just fits in an old-fashioned glass. Two will work for a tall glass of tea. At lunch on New Year’s Day, people were whipping out their phones like the paparazzi to photograph my drink with a round globe of ice sitting majestically inside.

After a brutal Winter, it’s finally Spring and warmer weather is settling in. Wherever we live or travel, we should all be able to drink our fill of iced tea without having to explain ourselves.

Back in 1989, during that same theatre tour that took me to New London, I was in a restaurant in downtown Burlington, Vermont, a few days before Christmas. The waiter asked for my drink order and I said “iced tea.” He wrote down my order and went back to the kitchen.

A few minutes later, the owner of the restaurant came out from the back and introduced himself.

“Where are you from?’ he asked.

“Alabama.”

“I’m from South Carolina,” he said. “That’s why we serve iced tea in December.” It turned out that his wait staff had instructions to inform him whenever a patron ordered iced tea during cold months. He said that was always a signal that another Southerner was in the house.

On Food Memory and Alabama Literature

2014-01-01 02.22.58   Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about to have an additional impact on Alabama in the form of current legislation proposing that the Lane Cake, which has an undisputed Alabama provenance and is mentioned several times in Lee’s novel, be designated as the state’s official dessert.

I am often intrigued with the ways in which writers use food. Good writing about food is all around us – in cookbooks and food magazines and newspapers; in memoirs and novels and short stories and scripts for performance on stage or screen. In much culinary writing, including that of the legendary food critics James Beard and Craig Claiborne, the idea of “food memory” is pervasive. The powerful connections that food tastes and smells evoke are a shared sensibility providing powerful associations, emotions, and longings.

It is this sense of the sacrament of food which has led me increasingly to seek out and savor food writing. Writers – whether they intend to or not – use this idea of “food memory” to stoke and create a shared sense of ritual and place with the reader. As my career took me around the country and far from Alabama and the South, I found that some of the most visceral emotional connections that I have to my roots are memories of food and of food associated with family.

Food is frequently prominent in the writing of a number of writers with Alabama roots including Rick Bragg, Mary Ward Brown, Mark Childress, Melissa Delbridge, Fannie Flagg, Charles Gaines, Winston Groom, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. In looking at Alabama authors and their writing about food, it is hard to find something that is truly unique about a certain community because rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban, our food heritage is so universally “local.” “Southern cooking” and “soul food” are essentially the same and a love for barbecue is ubiquitous. I looked for obvious delineations but I found instead that there were constants. Is it any wonder, really, that many of the earliest battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement were department store lunch counters?

Scout’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between” captures a key memory of Southern existence. We are defined by the tastes and memories of our youth. This is one of the reasons that Sook’s declaration that “it’s fruitcake weather” resonates so vividly for readers of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” whether we grew up in Monroeville’s dusty streets or under the sooty skies of mid-20th century Birmingham. I grew up in Birmingham and did not have first-hand experience with the adventures Capote describes but still, because of that story, I thought I had a clear sense of when “fruitcake weather” had arrived on crowded Avenue N in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood.

In Capote’s lesser-known Monroeville story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” he describes nostalgia for the breakfast repasts of

ham and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, black-eyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweet milk, buttermilk, coffee chicory-flavored and hot as Hades.

Capote’s litany of memory inspired me to pull down a favorite passage in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s subject matter is firmly entrenched in the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt. Here is Agee’s description of the Depression-era Hale County tenant family’s breakfast ritual:

the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted; the kindling is laid in the grate: and the lids replaced: and a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen, and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt: the coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water: more wood laid in: the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven: and the meat sliced and sliding, spitting, in the black skillet: and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned; and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on, and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center; the eggs turned; the seething coffee set aside; the meat reheated; the biscuits looked at; the straight black hair, saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins; the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.

Norman McMillan, in his memoir Distant Son, tells us that

Summers meant lots of food. We didn’t think about it that way but we were more or less vegetarians. During the summer when we were at home, each lunch table was filled with seven or eight bowls every day. Pans of golden cornbread or plates of thick biscuits accompanied the vegetables. Except for white meat, which was used to season the vegetables, we saw little meat at all. Occasionally Daddy would bring steak home, and after pounding it with the side of a saucer he would fry it and make gravy. At times we raised a few chickens and we also ate squirrel and rabbit in the winter, and sometimes even possum and coon.

From the time I received a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a gift I have savored cookbooks which also have a literary flair. Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama’s native son Frank Stitt went from studying philosophy at Berkeley to becoming an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, a perennial finalist for the annual James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” award, he is the acknowledged master of contemporary Alabama food. His 2004 cookbook Frank Stitt’s Southern Table includes the following discourse on tradition:

As an adult, I came to appreciate the blessing as a time to open our minds to a greater awareness of the beauty of the food we are about to eat. Instead of asking my family to endure a rote blessing, I wanted to pay homage to food as a sacrament. I have since refined this idea, incorporating it into the at-table stories I share with friends and family. I want everyone to come to understand the ancient rhythms of life, to know what it felt like to break bread at my mother’s table, to understand why upon walking by my maternal grandmother’s long-closed smokehouse I was transported back to the days when our people slaughtered their own hogs. I want them to understand that such acts were honorable, that to harvest a hog with your own hands, by the sweat of your own brow, was to know intimately the consequences and benefits of humanity.

Pat Conroy’s entertaining The Pat Conroy Cookbook includes a chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Reading Cookbooks No One Has Ever Heard Of” which includes lengthy considerations of several Junior League and church-sponsored cookbooks, including several from Alabama. One passage in Cotton Country, the Decatur Junior League cookbook, particularly pleases Conroy. He quotes this passage describing Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s Stuffed Country Ham:

To call this merely “Stuffed Ham” is an injustice. “Spectacular” is the only word to describe this ham: spectacular in appearance and taste. Trouble – perhaps – but for a buffet dinner or cocktail party mainliner, nothing could do more for your reputation as a good cook or hostess.

This passage sends Conroy into a spasm of appreciation. He writes,

Have you ever seen three sentences more confidently rendered by a hand so fine and sure – the disdainful dashes surrounding that intimidating “perhaps” and that bold, two-eyed colon stopping you in mid-stream for emphasis. A small history of the South could be composed just by studying the cadences and assuredness of position in Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s place in Decatur society. It would be paradisiacal for me to pass down a Decatur street and have the imperious Mrs. Shelton whisper to a group of lunching friends, “Mr. Conroy’s new in town, but I think he has the makings of a cocktail party mainliner.”

Indeed, much of my favorite food writing takes on such a lyrical and meditative tone. Mobile’s inimitable Eugene Walter seasons his recipe for pot likker with this advice: “Take a day off and wash wash wash 3 or 4 big bunches of fresh (yes, I said fresh) turnip greens, younger the better. Then sit down and pluck the leaves. … This takes time. Sit down, put on some Mozart.”

I find that there are few “grand themes” about the place of food in writing. There are, instead, comforts. The comforts come in familiarity, common ritual, and respect for the sacrament of being at table with friends, with family, with peers and, on occasion, with adversaries.

Discovering Eugene Walter

IMG_1111 During graduate school I briefly worked a part-time job as a reader for a press clipping service. This is another of those occupations that is now totally obsolete but I love to read and enjoyed the job. It’s clearly a great job for a liberal arts guy. The staff of readers would have our favorite newspapers and would try to make sure that the favorites were in our stack of papers to be read. I had personal picks among the large dailies and there were a few of the small-town weeklies that I tried to grab because of a particularly charming or quirky local columnist or point of vew.

“The Boulevardier” was the title of a column written by Eugene Walter and published in Azalea City News and Review, an alternative weekly newspaper in Mobile at the time. My first reaction was Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him before if he’s been all of the places and done all the things he claims?

The more I read, however, the more fascinated I became with the scope of knowledge and experience of a true, uncompromising, unpretentious, and erudite Renaissance man. Too late, I began to track down the biographical details of Eugene Walter (1921-1998) and realized that even if the majority of his claims were tall tales and fabrications, he still lived a more eventful and meaningful life than most everybody else.

“I don’t drive a car, I don’t wear blue jeans, and I don’t go to football games,” said Eugene Walter, but here are just a few of the things that he did do:

  1. Worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps as a highway sign painter.
  2. Served as an army cryptographer in World War II.
  3. With collaborators, staged some of the first “Happenings” in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
  4. Worked on a Paris-based multilingual international literary journal, Botteghe Oscure. He later relocated to Rome as the journal’s editor.
  5. Published a short story in the first Paris Review for which he served as a founding and contributing editor.
  6. Published his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, while living in Paris. It won the Lippincott Prize for best first novel.
  7. Published his first volume of poetry, Monkey Poems, during the Paris years.
  8. While in Rome, acted and worked as an assistant and translator for master Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. He appeared in Fellini’s masterpiece and in many other films for Fellini and other directors including Blake Edwards and Lina Wertmuller.
  9. Wrote the lyrics for Nino Rota’s signature song “What Is a Youth?” for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This theme song for the very popular film was an international hit.
  10. Wrote the best-selling classic American Cooking: Southern Style (1971) for the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series.

He was born and grew up in Mobile, served the military in the Arctic Circle, lived in New York City in the 1940s, lived in Paris in the 1950s, lived in Rome throughout the 1960s into the 1970s, and moved back to his beloved but changed Mobile for a number of social and productive years from the late-1970s until his death. “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo,” he said. As he lived and traveled around the world, he always carried a Thom McAn shoebox full of Alabama red clay with him and stored it under his bed – “So I always slept on Alabama soil.”

American Cooking: Southern Style is out-of-print, very precious, and somewhat hard to find in a good affordable copy. If you’re interested in food, grab it when you find it. Walter did other food-related books in his lifetime including Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes (1982); and Hints and Pinches (1991). Posthumously, in 2011, The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink was published. The Happy Table was compiled from an unpublished manuscript and other recipes and food writing from Walter and focuses on “Southern Beverages and a Grand Selection of Southern Dishes Employing Spiritous Flavorings.”

His books on food are full of wonderfully vivid recipes and unvarnished opinions. “Baby turnip roots just boiled to a point, not mushy, dressed with butter, cream, salt and a generous flecker of nutmeg, are the sign of a highly civilized household.”

In The Happy Table … Walter writes, “For a real feast, you must have two kinds of meat and two kinds of bread, and there must always be more than enough food to serve the number of guests.” (My grandmother would add that one of the reasons for this abundance is to “be sure there is something on the table that everybody likes” and I still follow her mandate.)

His advice to cooks is simple and timely: “seek fresh, avoid chemicals, keep a light hand, rise to the occasion, try what you don’t know, have fun … and good eating, you-all!”

Don’t get him started on ready-ground pepper (or do, it’s very entertaining): “Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. … dead dust is only dead dust. Many restaurants which pretend to be first class, and with prices which corroborate their pretensions, do not have pepper mills … either take your own pepper mill with you, or smash an ashtray when the waiter says they don’t have one.” As random and serendipitous as Walter’s pronouncements may sound, his food-related books are meticulously researched and the scope of his knowledge and historical grasp is constantly impressive.

Writer Pat Conroy, a personal friend of Walter, devotes a whole chapter to him in The Pat Conroy Cookbook (2004). Conroy writes that while he lived in Rome, shortly after Walter had returned to Mobile, “I met more Italians who were in love with the whole state of Alabama just because Eugene Walter had sprung so fully formed and elegant from that Deep South state. Many Italians were fully prepared to like me because they knew my native state of Georgia was contiguous to the one that had produced the incomparable Eugene Walter.”

In 2001, Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet was published. It is the life story of Walter in his own inimitable words as he told it to Katherine Clark in a series of recorded conversations near the end of his life. Be warned that once you pick it up, it is hard to put it down. He begins, “You may think you don’t know me but you have probably seen me on late-night television playing either an outlaw or a hanging judge… If you’ve ever seen Fellini’s 8 ½, I’m the tacky American journalist who keeps pestering Marcello Mastroianni with obnoxious questions. And if you haven’t seen , you need to: it’s one of the great films of this century.”

I re-watched not long ago and particularly watched for Eugene Walter’s appearances. He’s one of those performers who glows on the screen – not so much for his acting ability as for his sheer joy in acting. He smiles broadly, his eyes are shining and shifting with mischievous glee, and he is totally present every moment he’s in a scene. I couldn’t help thinking about the similar impact Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as Delmar had for me in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In each case, the glee of the actor in the performance is memorable and contagious.

Reading Walter’s work, one constantly has the urge to call somebody and quote a passage. But that’s a risky exercise since once you get started, you can’t stop. Almost every word on the page is quotable.

Eugene Walter knew everybody. The 23-page “Cast of Characters” at the end of Milking the Moon reads like a Who’s Who of important and famous people of the 20th Century. He threw dinner parties for whomever happened to be of interest to him wherever he happened to live. He claimed to have three pubic hairs which were gifted to him by actress Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room after her performance in The Skin of Our Teeth at a Broadway theatre during his early sojourn in New York (but then, who didn’t have such a treasure from Tallulah at that time?).

I was familiar with Walter’s short stories but I recently read that first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, for the first time. It is the story of a young man from central Alabama who comes to Mobile – “south of the salt line” – to work in a bank and study law. “Down in Mobile they’re all crazy,” the novel begins, “because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts, and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”

Of course the stable and well-intentioned young man (who is never named) is quickly caught up in the intrigues and pleasures of his new surroundings and his Mobile friends and relatives. He is introduced to the colorful characters, artists, and underside of Mobile and encouraged to play hooky from his 8-5 grind. He samples the indiscreet pleasures around him and is taken into the fold by his more cavalier south Alabama relatives and Miss Nonie Fifield – “Fiffy” – from whom he rents a room.

As with all of Walter’s writing, I found the novel compelling and terrifically entertaining. And I was pleasantly surprised when the ending of the book was a somewhat conventional one – which was not at all what I expected given what I know about Eugene Walter. The book plays around with the reader’s expectations, dips its toes in the unexpected and bizarre, and then catches the reader off-guard by concluding in a sweet and almost conventional way. That unpredictable predictability left me smiling and satisfied at the end.

Eugene Walter spent much of his life in poverty, had a limited formal education, and died practically destitute, but happy. “I haven’t been smashed by the educational system, the financial system, the political system,” he said. He lived his life on his own terms and with style. When he died, a jazz funeral procession took him through the streets of Mobile for burial at Church Street Cemetery. The cemetery had been closed for a century but the city gave special permission for his interment.

Over the years, I have talked to a few people who met Eugene and each one seems simultaneously entranced, intrigued, befuddled, and half in love with the guy. He was what one might call an eccentric in every sense but his charm was evident to all kinds of people. “When I was growing up in Mobile,” he said, “there was no such thing as an eccentric, because individuality was permitted.”

I wish I had known to meet him.

Alabama Barbecue and the “White Sauce” Anomaly

100_1583   It is often written that there is no indigenous “Alabama-style” of barbecue and it seems that circumstance may be a key to our abundance of options. Opinions about barbecue in Alabama – indeed, throughout the South – are as strong as those about football, religion, or politics. Everybody has a favorite place and favorite style and it is often based on tradition and habit as much as quality and taste.

I don’t put much stock into website rankings, but a 2014 online study by “Estately Blog,” using five statistical criteria for all fifty states, ranked Alabama as the most “Barbecue-Crazed State in America.” Among the criteria in which Alabama ranked highest are the overall percentage of restaurants devoted to barbecue (1st — 8.27% of all restaurants in the state are barbecue places according to this report) and number of barbecue restaurants per capita (3rd). I have seen previous reports that ranked Alabama as 1st in that “per capita” category also.

With such an abundance to choose from, I long ago stopped taking the time to grill out or barbecue since there are so many better options from which to choose.

A few days ago, I saw another online article with the title “Are These the Most Iconic Restaurants in Every State?” I try to avoid those articles because it’s inevitable that they’ll annoy me; that’s the reason they’re there. But it was about food and I had to take a look. Before I opened the webpage I began to imagine the possibilities and the various ways to define “iconic” and wondered what might be the selection for Alabama. Candidates that immediately came to mind were Highlands Bar and Grill, the fine dining restaurant in Birmingham’s Five Points South; The Bright Star, the Bessemer institution for over a century; and Dreamland, the superior barbecue joint in Tuscaloosa.

The website’s choice, alas, was Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que (www.bigbobgibson.com) in Decatur. Congratulations to them for their designation but this is one of those selections where personal taste has to speak up. (“They’re not even the best barbecue in Decatur,” said a friend who is a longtime resident of Decatur.) I was aware of Big Bob Gibson’s and know they are a force on the competition circuit. I even like their food fine. But it seems that their “iconic” status is based on something this Alabamian was unaware of until he moved to the Tennessee Valley of north Alabama: white sauce slathered on barbecue (chicken, usually). This is not a béchamel but a mayonnaise-based sauce for barbecued meat.

White sauce is a staple for most barbecue places in this part of north Alabama. I was unaware of its existence until I moved to the area over twelve years ago. I tried it out – more than once and at more than one place – and I don’t like it. I like all of the ingredients – mayonnaise, vinegar, pepper, occasionally horseradish – but I declared the combination “nasty” the first time I tried it and have not waivered on subsequent attempts. I know people who love it and they are entitled to their taste. It’s not for me. I have met people who claim that they ship it by the case to people who want it and can’t get it in other parts of the country. Feel free to give them my share. Please.

To add insult to injury – and I think this was fueled by the Food Network – the sauce is now commonly being referred to as “Alabama sauce.” I first heard this appelation on the Food Network and have now encountered it in other national media including PBS. This rankles me a bit. I could live with it being called “Decatur Sauce” or “Tennessee Valley Sauce” or “North Alabama Sauce.” Jim ‘n Nick’s, a Birmingham stalwart, refers to it as “Morgan Co. White Sauce.” I’m good with that. But I find that white barbecue sauce is an anomaly outside north Alabama. And my vote is for it to stay that way.

Since the website listings of “iconic” eateries chose to represent Alabama with barbecue, I began to brainstorm my favorite Alabama restaurants for barbecue. The first names that came to mind were places around Birmingham and the part of Alabama that is most familiar to me. I have eaten Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (www.bobsykes.com) most of my life. Its location in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham, is always busy and the product is consistent. It’s a good sauce and the pulled pork is my favorite. Jim ‘n Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q (www.jimnnicks.com) is a Birmingham-based brand that has only been around since 1985 (short-lived by barbecue standards) but has quickly become iconic with its support of community, locally grown ingredients, and far-reaching philanthropy backed up by truly high quality product. There are now Jim ‘n Nick’s in a number of states and the corporate and quality policies are consistent throughout the franchise. Corporate policy forbids freezers at Jim ‘n Nick’s.

For me, and for many Alabamians who grew up away from the pull of Big Bob’s white sauce, the barbecue mecca for Alabama is still Tuscaloosa County. There is some difference of opinion on who tops the Tuscaloosa ‘cue culture but it’s a happy dilemma since the debate focuses on two long-time joints – Dreamland and Archibald’s.

The original Dreamland (www.dreamlandbbq.com) was opened by “Big John” Bishop in 1958, the year Bear Bryant came to coach at Alabama. It is located in the community of Jerusalem Heights in southeast Tuscaloosa fairly near US Hwy. 82 and I-59/20. Turn onto Jug Factory Road, drive the curvy road to the top of the hill, and take a right to Dreamland. Follow your nose if you get turned around and you will sometimes know the place by the happiest parking lot dogs to be found.

Dreamland has franchised and can be found in other locations but Jerusalem Heights, the “OG,” is the end of the barbecue rainbow for me. The original place used to serve only ribs and white bread (“No Fries, No Slaw, Don’t Ask” said a sign over the register at one time) and that is enough. It’s a cinderblock temple with noisy screen doors. “Alabama” is a Native American word meaning “Here We Rest” and that is the phrase that comes to mind whenever I am in Mr. Bishop’s original Jerusalem Heights establishment. The ribs are available as a sandwich, a plate, or a slab, and the sauce is amazing with sweet undertones beneath a bold vinegary bite.

While I would have to vote for Dreamland as the best and most iconic barbecue in the state, cross the river from Tuscaloosa into Northport and there is amazing and even more rustic competition from Archibald’s. The late writer Barry Hannah introduced me to Archibald’s in the early ‘80s. It is basically a shed surrounding a pit with a few seats on the inside and a few picnic tables around the small parking lot. The menu is minimal but the quality is splendid, and the sauce is more mustardy. Archibald’s is a little bit off the beaten path and I haven’t eaten there nearly as often as I’ve eaten at Dreamland but I’d venture to guess that if I had been introduced to Archibald’s first, it might be my favorite. As it is, it’s almost a toss-up between Dreamland and Archibald’s for me.

And there’s not a drop of white sauce to be found at either place.

A Menu for the New Year

IMG_1101  A couple of decades ago, when I stopped actively celebrating New Year’s Eve, I started cooking a big meal for New Year’s Day and use New Year’s Eve to prep the food.

It’s always a simple menu using the Southern good luck staples that we always had for New Year’s Day growing up – pork, greens, and black-eyed peas. If that’s your basic menu, cornbread is a given. Over time, I realized that such a healthy and hearty meal should be shared and began to invite friends and family over for the meal to celebrate the beginning of a new year.

In recent years it has become “a thing” and my menu constantly evolves while the basics remain the same. Since many of the same people attend regularly, I constantly make notes and look for ways to add new touches and tastes. In 2014, for example, I served baked grits from the recipe used at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham as a base over which to ladle the black-eyed peas. It was a delicious riff on traditional ingredients.

Around Thanksgiving of 2014 I was talking with a new colleague and friend and holiday plans came up. I asked her if she would be around for New Year’s Day and told her that if she was, she was invited to my house for lunch. She said she would like to come and I told her that it would be nothing fancy, “just the New Year’s staples.”

“Herring?” she asked.

That caught me off-guard. “Well, no, actually,” I said. “I meant pork, black-eyed peas, and turnip greens.”

The conversation ended soon after but I was intrigued and started researching and found that herring is a New Year’s good luck food in Germany, Scandinavia, and some eastern European locations. I resolved then and there to add herring in some form to my New Year’s lunch menu this year.

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I decided to serve a herring appetizer. As guests arrived on New Year’s Day, in addition to various pralines, hard candies, and pecans, there was a serving dish with herring in white wine sauce with red onion slivers scattered around. Toasts and crackers were laid out on which to layer the herring. Sour cream was available at the side as a spread for the fish. It was a very tasty and popular appetizer. It may become a new tradition for the meal at my house.

After all the guests arrived and toasts were made, the lunch main menu was pretty standard for Southern homes on New Year’s Day:

Pork Roast with dry rub of coffee, brown sugar, seasoned salt, and orange zest
Seasoned Black-Eyed Peas
Seasoned Mixed Greens
Ambrosia
Cornbread

The seasoning for the greens and peas included hog jowl. The ambrosia is adapted from a simple ambrosia from chef Scott Peacock. His elegant classic includes only orange, coconut, sugar, and sherry. Mine uses satsumas from south Alabama for the citrus and adds pecan pieces and cherry slices.

The pork roast dry rub is worth sharing. I had jotted down a recipe from somewhere for a meat dry rub using coffee, granulated sugar, and seasoned salt. I experimented with it until I came up with the one I used on New Year’s Day. All of my guests left the lunch with a jar of this rub and it’s one you can easily make.

Dry Rub for Meat
1 part ground coffee (I used Community Coffee)
1 part brown sugar
1 part seasoned salt
1/2 part orange zest

Put all ingredients into a jar. Seal the lid and shake to mix thoroughly. Rub the meat with a good olive oil and then generously rub the meat with the dry rub.

We were ten at table – seven adults and three young people aged 11 and younger. For dessert, each guest was served a single madeleine and reminded of how Proust’s madeleine was a trigger for memory in Remembrance of Things Past. Whatever…

The adults enjoyed the madeleines and the kids scarfed them down; I doubt that anyone was too concerned about Proust.

It was a lovely meal and a lovely afternoon. A soft rain began as the guests began to leave. As the last guest departed, we had a quick “post-mortem” of the event. “The afternoon was full of laughter,” she said. “That’s what I needed — an afternoon filled with laughter.”

May 2015 be filled with happy laughter.

Food Memory: Kushmagudi

 

IMG_0881     As the cold weather holidays roll in, I look forward to family food traditions. Going into Thanksgiving week and celebrations in Birmingham with my family, food memory kicks in bigtime.

There is a dish called “kushmagudi” (this is my own spelling; there is no official spelling) which is always on the Journey family tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is simple Southern food and its name (and my phonetic spelling) has no precedence that I can find.

My brother wrote a lovely essay about this dish a couple of years ago but since I haven’t been able to retrieve it, I will reintroduce the basics to “Professional Southerner” readers.

My grandmother Eula Harbison used to make kushmagudi and I always assumed that it was a known thing, like salt on watermelon, pepper on cantaloupe, and celery sticks served with turkey. As long as I can remember, kushmagudi was on the holiday table so I would mention it casually and be surprised at the blank stares I received. As I lived and traveled around the country, I realized that nobody outside my immediate family seems to have a clue what “kushmagudi” is.

Many might know some variation of the dish, I think, but not by that name.

Kushmagudi is nothing more than a tasty mixture of crumbled cornbread with the potlikker of turnip greens. I say “nothing more” but I am convinced that one needs a cook’s instinct to pull off the right mix. I have always heard stories about Grandmother feeding the masses of her family and crowds from church at short notice in the ‘30s and ‘40s and having family move into her family home between jobs and houses, during travel, etc. Based on what I know, I realize that Grandmother’s kushmagudi may have been invented as Depression food and a way to make the food in the rural house and garden go farther.

Based on what I know, I am sure that the word “kushmagudi” is Grandmother’s own coinage to name a dish she already knew but reinvented for her immediate and extended families. I have talked with Southerners who know a variation of potlikker and greens but, so far, none outside my own family have referred to it as “kushmagudi.”

After Grandmother died in December 1995, I was asked if I would make the kushmagudi for Christmas. I will admit that I was daunted. I had eaten it all of my life but I had never thought about it.

I relaxed and thought about the dish. I realized that it is a basic and instinctual recipe and that if one understands its components one should be able to make it in a satisfactory manner.

Here’s my basic recipe for my grandmother’s kushmagudi:

Eula McCarn Harbison’s Kushmagudi

  1. Make 1-2 cakes of cornbread or use leftover cornbread if you have it (remember that sugar is never acceptable in cornbread).
  2. Boil up a pot of turnip greens with your favorite spices and seasonings.
  3. Bring the greens to a boil and simmer on low for at least a half hour.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, crumble 1-1½ of the cakes of cornbread.
  5. Ladle the potlikker of the greens over the crumbled cornbread in the mixing bowl and mix to your preferred consistency and taste.
  6. Let the mixture meld for a while, keep it warm, and serve it.

I like to mix some collard greens with my turnip greens to vary the flavor of the potlikker a bit. Grandmother tended to use less spices in her greens than I do; she used salt and pepper. I like to add a little pepper sauce, sage, bacon fat, garlic powder, thyme, and other seasonings to the greens before I strain them into the cornbread. I also might add a small dash of sugar to the greens (but never to the cornbread). I also like to mix more of the actual greens into the mix. Grandmother generally just used the potlikker and served the seasoned turnip greens as a separate side dish.

This is truly a recipe that may be adapted to your and your family’s preference.

A bowl of kushmagudi with a glass of buttermilk is a perfect meal on a chilly night in late fall or winter.

Even though kushmagudi is cornbread-based, it is different enough that my family serves it alongside Mother’s traditional cornbread dressing. I think one must sprinkle pepper sauce over a good kushmagudi at table. This is a dish that is always on my family’s table at Thanksgiving and Christmas and is often a side at my New Year’s Day luncheon.

If you have a variation of this dish, or a variant name, I would love to hear from you. If you’ve never tried it, you ought to. It’s easy and tasty.

Happy Thanksgiving.