I wasn’t born in the South, but I got here as quick as I could. When the dinner bell rang at our house in suburban Chicago (yes, we really had one to call my sister and me in from playing – oh the good old, carefree, no-worry days), it was usually to a meal of soggy boiled yellow corn, canned asparagus and dry cube steak. As many of you know, my mother hated to cook.
I did not realize until I got to the South that summertime was abundant with farm-fresh vegetables. I didn’t know there were seasons to take into consideration. I never felt that sense of gustatory anticipation when fresh crowder peas and vibrant okra hit the farmer’s market. As I said, I got here as quick as I could.
We often have summer on a plate at 5117. King Daddy loves his meat, but he seems to be satisfied with a big pot of crowder peas (kind of like black-eyed peas but not) laced with some ham hock meat if you can find hocks and cubes of city ham if you can’t. Crowder peas are always served with Duke’s mayonnaise because that’s the way Granddaddy liked them and we always, in every way, deferred to his superior judgment.
Cornbread must be done in a screaming hot cast iron skillet with a precious plenty of Crisco melted into it and it cannot be sweet cornbread. I use the recipe on the back of the Martha White cornmeal container. The most important thing is to heat the cast iron skillet with the Crisco in the oven for 15 minutes or so. When you pour the batter into the skillet, it must sizzle violently. That makes the crispy crust prized by Southern cooks. I am teaching Noah how to do this. I did not have a Southern great grandmother so I have borrowed Mark’s and made her my own.
And fried okra must be done in the method King Daddy learned from his mother’s mother’s mother, Granny Belle. It is a simple country recipe but it yields superior okra with a crackling crisp crust and tender green interior. No slime. Mark is teaching Noah the method, as well. I am proud to say the line of Northern aggression stops here because my son is Southern, through and through. He knows that canned asparagus is never a good idea, that corn must be white Silver Queen never yellow, and that a ham hock trumps cube steak every day of the week. Unless it’s country fried steak with cream gravy. But that’s a lesson for another day.
1 pound fresh okra, tips and stems removed and cut into ½ inch slices
Salt to taste
Put the okra into a medium bowl and cover it with milk. Let the okra soak for about 15 minutes. Drain and add enough cornmeal to coat each piece, tossing in the bowl so all areas of the okra are covered with cornmeal.
Heat about ½ inch of vegetable oil in a cast iron pan or other heavy skillet. When the oil bubbles around the end of a wooden spoon resting on the bottom of the pan, the oil is hot enough to fry.
Add the okra to the pan carefully (the oil will boil fiercely in the beginning) and fry until a medium golden brown. Drain on a plate covered in paper towels and salt to taste immediately while the okra is still hot.
Tomato gravy. It’s one of those odd Southern recipes you never see in a restaurant but can find quite often in a home kitchen. Actually, I think it’s gone out of fashion a little bit. If you Google tomato gravy, you’ll find a slew of recipes involving someone’s grandmother. Where is Terrell when I need him? He’d know the origins of tomato gravy and just the right way to fix it. But I neglected to ask him about tomato gravy while he was alive and I am sure he’s snickering Up Yonder at me.
That’s okay. I like my tomato gravy. It’s basically a bechamel sauce with a few other additives. The traditional way is to serve it over biscuits, but the other night Mark got a notion to fry some okra and we just made a summer plate of tomato gravy, fried okra and rice.
I imagine our ancestors in Appalachia, where this is a very popular dish, started making tomato gravy because it was cheap. Many of the recipes don’t involve flour, which would have been a costly addition. Many of them do involve bacon drippings, which everyone would have in a jar sitting next to the stove. Nobody knows why it’s called a gravy since traditional gravies involve the addition of some kind of meat. Maybe that’s why I love this recipe so much. Nobody actually knows where it came from, the historical details of its invention. Except some elderly granny in a hollow somewhere in the Back of Beyond who one day looked at her bacon jar and some home-canned tomatoes and decided some combination of both would taste mighty fine on a biscuit.
2 tablespoons butter or bacon drippings
2 tablespoons diced onion
2 tablespoons flour
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup chicken stock
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained (juice reserved)
A few dashes Tabasco
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the onion and sauté until it is translucent. Add the flour and whisk continuously until the mixture turns a light brown. Add the milk and continue whisking as the mixture thickens. Add the chicken stock and whisk away until it thickens again. Add the diced tomatoes, Tabasco and season with salt and pepper. If the mixture is a little too thick, add some of the reserved tomato juice.
Yield: Makes enough for two servings. You can easily double or triple the recipe.
So I am at the farmer’s market this morning, as I always am on Saturdays. I am absolutely astonished this time of year seeing people in supermarkets buying produce, especially tomatoes. Why, or why?
I have an established routine. First, I get my warm doughnut at Old World Doughnut Emporium. Then I make the rounds of the entire market to see what looks good and who is selling it the cheapest. Then I head over to West Wind Farms for my sausage. Sometimes I buy other things. Their chicken wings are the best. But always sausage. Today it was Sweet Italian and Hot Sage. And there is Ralph, the farmer, fiddling with something attached to his phone. Normally, to pay I just sign my name in a receipt book. Today, they want to run my credit card on his phone! There he is, in the white shirt, running an order. You swipe the card on a little thingie attached to the phone. You sign with your finger. That my signature resembled that of a 5-year-old seemed not to matter. West Winds was pretty high tech already. They have a knock-out website, from which they conduct e-commerce. You can follow them on Facebook.
My next stop is my egg guy, James Gardner. James is decidedly old school. West Wind has a fancy truck and a beautiful banner featuring their cows. James has a hand-painted sign, Gardner Grove. There is no e-commerce. James doesn’t even have a website. But I like his eggs and he gives me 25 cents off if I return the carton from the last batch. One Saturday last winter, on a 12-degree morning, I was at winter market and I asked him why he was there on such a frigid morning. “The chickens keep laying,” he said matter of factly. James sells other things, produce and organic meat. But, to me, he’s the egg guy.
A couple of nights ago I made supper and it occurred to me that everything on the plate was from the farmer’s market and that each component featured only two or three ingredients each. You don’t need much embellishment when you’re starting with perfection.
So here’s what we had and here’s how it was prepared. Fried chicken from West Wind Farms: Dredged in flour mixed with dried ranch dressing mix. Fried in lard from my lard guy in Atlanta. Okra: Mark’s family recipe is soak it in milk and cover it with cornmeal. Salt and pepper. Fried in the same lard I did the chicken in. You do not want to waste good lard. Fried cabbage: Cut into ribbons and sauteed with butter, salt and pepper.
Please do not get on me about frying everything. It is the summer, people. And the most fortunate of us are living in the South. All of you who want to broil fish and serve it with quinoa need to just get over it.
Now who doesn’t want some fried chicken, mashed potatoes and field peas after looking at this! Every other Friday from September to June, the P.E.O. Sisterhood meets to conduct its business, which is helping fund scholarships for deserving women. We meet in members’ homes, nosh on tea bread and mixed nuts, do our business, have a lot of laughs and then go to lunch. There are P.E.O. chapters all over the country, but there aren’t many chapters within driving distance of Barbara’s Home Cooking, the first stop on the lunch train to flavor town this year.
Pretty much every Southern town has an equivalent of what we in Middle Tennessee call “meat ‘n threes” – invariably humble establishments that serve a selection of meats and vegetables. It’s a standard joke that macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable around here.
The thing about Barbara’s is that it’s really got a Barbara. She doesn’t come around to the tables to chat. She doesn’t check you out. She’s actually in the kitchen cooking. And while everything at Barbara’s is really tasty, the biggest draw are her yeast rolls. Served with real butter, just to gild the lily. When you sit down at the table, the first thing to arrive is a big basket of those yeast rolls. They are the size of a softball. And if you eat just one you’re not sane.
So our P.E.O. sisters all gathered around the table for lunch after our meeting. The truly inspired sisters got fried okra and baked apples and crab cakes and pimento cheese sandwiches. A couple of us attempted virtue by ordering spinach salads with poppyseed dressing and a scoop of chicken salad. We reasoned that by ingesting raw greens we could mitigate the effects of two or three yeast rolls slathered in butter.
And I want to tell you one more thing. At Barbara’s you pay on the honor system! You just go up to the cash register after you’re done and tell the nice young lady at the register what you had to eat. That is Southern hospitality at its finest.
One of the lost arts of the South is yeast rolls. Everyone’s granny made the best ones without consulting a single line of a recipe. Nowadays, Sister Schubert’s has cornered the market on mass-produced yeast rolls and they are utterly delicious. You won’t find an Episcopalian reception without Sister Schubert’s rolls encasing shaved ham.
But as long as Barbara is in the kitchen, you can always sample the real deal. I almost stuffed a couple of rolls in my purse before I left but I thought that would be crass. And no Southern woman wants to be considered crass.