Southern Delights: When the written word collides with creative appetites

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Hungry For Home: Stories of Food
From Across the Carolinas
Amy Rogers, Editor
Novello Festival Press, 2003, pgs. 418

Novello Festival Press was a unique experiment by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. It began as a literary festival, added an award and then began a publishing program—at the time the only library-sponsored publisher in the United States. In 2010, due to budget cuts, the program disbanded. However, Amy Rogers, its director, loves to write about food. Her food-related writing has appeared in Creative Loafing, on WFAE and in several anthologies. In 2003 she put together “Hungry For Home: Stories of Food From Across the Carolinas.” If there is one thing we do not lack in this area, it is collections of writing about cooking.

Hard as it is to believe, this one really is different. North and South Carolina are both represented. Yes, there are a lot of the usual suspects, and Lee Smith has turned in another variation on her standard food essay. But did I mention it includes Emmylou Harris and James Taylor?
Yes. Emmylou Harris and James Taylor. So, clearly, it is not a standard Carolina food anthology. Anyone with a radio has heard James Taylor always has Carolina on his mind. His father was the dean at UNC’s School of Medicine, and young James spent much of his childhood here. But unbeknownst to me at least, Emmylou Harris did undergraduate work at UNCG. Clearly, Rogers has connections and considerable chutzpah because she got recipes from both iconic musicians. Taylor sent a recipe for baked beans that sounds pretty standard, and Harris included a recipe for broccoli-nut casserole that surprised me because it relies pretty heavily on mayonnaise and canned cream of mushroom soup.  (Emmylou Harris cooks like my mom? Not possible.) Harris is a gifted songwriter and performer whose work touches lives and changes the world, so she can’t do normal mom things … like cook with canned cream of mushroom soup, can she?

The book is mostly recipe-driven, with lots of helpful tips included in the margins about making things ahead and how well certain items freeze. Rogers got a lot of the literary heavy weights, like Pat Conroy, but I was surprised to see included John Jakes, long-time resident of Hilton Head and author of several shelves worth of historical fiction. However, Josephine Humphreys, author of “Nowhere Else on Earth” (one of my favorite books) submitted a recipe for garlicky crab claws. It begins:

“Tie half a catfish to a string, weighted with a bolt or any small hunk of metal out of your father’s tool box. Throw the line into a Lowcountry salt creek on the incoming tide. With the string looped  around one finger, lie down on the dock, cheek against the hot pine, and wait.”

What continues is a beautiful memoir about food, coming of age, finding your voice as a writer, and cooking crabs for dinner. It is inspiring and hunger-inducing. Actually, it is down-right brilliant.
The recipes for the food are really the kind that get you into the kitchen at 3 p.m., thinking, I could just throw a casserole in the oven, bake some bread, maybe a pan of biscuits, and get a pie going—no problem at all… But the essays around the recipes are what really held my attention. Will D. Campbell recounts his unusual experience as a tour cook in “Chicken for Waylon Jennings.”

Campbell was a very visible activist in the civil rights movement in the South. Don Boekelheide recounts his run-in with groundnut stew with chicken feet for the first time during his early days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa. Perhaps that is what I like most about this book: It isn’t just grits, barbecue and biscuits. America is a nation dominated by immigrants. “Hungry for Home” reflects such with recipes from Sri Lanka, Lithuania, Wales, Lebanon, and Italy, to name a few. It is refreshing to read a book about food culture in North Carolina that doesn’t pretend every cook in the state materialized here, fully formed with no ties to any other part of the world, ever.

Also it is surprising and truly wonderful to read a book about Southern cooking that acknowledges not everyone in the area is Protestant. Apparently, there are a few Catholics in the Carolinas who have been known to cook occasionally—and Jewish people, too. The American South actually received a substantial early immigration of Jews out of Europe in the 1700s.  Thus, Rogers includes quite a number of recipes for traditional Jewish foods, including hamantashen, latkes and an entire section on Passover foods.

The Moravian community is represented with a recipe for Moravian sugar cake—I swear I can taste it just reading the page. The Moravians came from central Europe (near Germany and Czechoslovakia) and settled in near what we think of as Winston-Salem.

Just as surprising, there are recipes for Kwanzaa foods. Ahmad Daniels gives a succinct and approachable introduction to the holiday and a recipe for a Kwanzaa succotash that any fan of okra will be eager to cook. It’s beautiful and succulent.

No recipe book is complete without a couple of beverages and Robert Inman fills the gap with a piece that begins, “I once built a bar.”  Thus he introduces “Artillery Punch,” or “Put Some Punch in Your Party.”

Really, I adore this book. The writing is witty, the recipes mouth-watering, and the editorial choices interesting and surprising. The only thing I wish it had was a couple of recipes reflecting Native Americans in the Carolinas. But, on every other point, it wins. May I close by sharing one of my favorite recipes in the book?

Lib’s Lidless Popcorn by Diana Pinckney
1 bag of corn kernels
1 deep pot
Oil, enough to cover the bottom of the pot
1 child or more, any age
1 dog or more, any age

 

TASTY LEFTOVERS
Books we love to indulge in again and ones we leave on the shelf!

Betty Crocker’s New Dinner For Two
Golden Press 1964, pgs.156

Betty Crocker is sort of the homemaker’s version of Mickey Mouse: Someone created her, but she has gained such importance over the last century, her name and image have taken on a life of their own. Created in 1921 by Marjorie Husted and Bruce Barton, Betty Crocker is one of the most recognizable brands in the United States. In the 1920s she had the first on-air radio cooking show. In 1949 actress Adelaide Hawley Cumming was hired to portray her on TV as a living trademark. Betty Crocker also has had a distinguished career as a writer. I own one of her many books: “Betty Crocker’s New Dinner for Two.” My mother gave it to me the first time I moved in with a boyfriend (that she knew about). It was her way of saying she was OK with my new cohabitation status.

“New Dinner For Two” has been rereleased several times, but my edition is the spiral bound from 1964.  And, boy is it very 1964 (there actually is a recipe for chicken a la king) and aimed primarily at new homemakers. Still, there is actually a tremendous amount of information to behold. It is harder to cook for two people than four. More goes to waste, portion size is difficult, produce is destined to rot before use—it takes a lot of planning and effort to adjust recipes.  But “Dinner For Two” aims to help new homemakers learn how to navigate a grocery store, plan a menu, budget, and also host on a small budget. There are inevitable plugs for Bisquick and other General Mills products, but all that aside, it is a remarkably helpful tool for newbie cooks.

The photography is fabulously ‘60s, too—and the real ‘60s, not the camp nostalgia with filters we find on Pinterest. There, in all the glory, are tables with bright pink cloths, a silver coffee service, and stuffed green peppers that look realistic, not stylized. I know those peppers. When I read the recipe I recognized the dish I couldn’t choke down, no matter how much my mother threatened, cajoled or engaged in battle over it. Clearly, I have found where she got the recipie. I also think I discovered the secret to her relationship with pie crusts.  It sounds surprising, but sometimes an old cookbook is more comforting than a new one.


Taproot Magazine
The magazine for Makers,
Doers and Dreamers
Published Quarterly in
Shelburne, Vermont

It might be even more surprising to see a magazine included with cookbooks than a cookbook published in 1964. Taproot is a relatively new magazine; they are on issue number 22 and publish quarterly. The subscription was my splurge last year, and I have to admit I am quite besotted. Each issue includes a number of recipes much more slated like kitchen adventures that captivate the imagination. My current issue explores making homemade milk kefir,  a fermented probiotic beverage. Other explorations include making milkweed syrup and brunch suggestions, including savory muffins. The “Desserts with Herbs” piece features basil coconut ice cream to make at home, lemon and thyme cake, and salted chocolate and rosemary cookies. Then there is a section on making an herbal first-aid kit at home.

In a lot of ways, Taproot is like etsy and Pinterest had an incestuous relationship and pawned the kid off on Mother Earth News. The photography is stunning, and the recipes are definitely geared toward alternative diets: Paleo shows up, vegan, gluten-free. They all play heavily into rotation. Also the assumption the readership gardens extensively—as a hobby or for sustenance—permeates most of the writing.

For me, it is like coming home. People with weird food hang-ups? I’m there. Fascination with DIY health care and natural cures produced in a kitchen? Yep, that’s my language. The recipes are approachable and written for home cooks who do not have a lot of gadgetry. The photography is positively pornographic, but more than anything, I think it is the sense of finding a tribe that makes the food feel so welcoming.

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