Friday, September 19, 2014

Gravy basics

In case someone who doesn't cook stumbles upon my blog... a word about gravy. 

Gravy doesn't come from a packet of powder or a can. To make gravy, brown your meat in a pan. A heavy pan, preferably cast iron works best. Browning is accomplished by washing, thoroughly drying and salting the meat, then searing/frying the surface of it in a little fat - that means, lay it in a hot pan, with the pieces not touching each other and leave it there, not moving it around, until it has visibly browned, then turn over and brown the other side. Once browned, remove the meat or push it of the sides of a very large pan. You can then brown some onions in the fat and meat drippings if you like. Push the onions to the sides of the pan. 

Once that is done, add a little more fat if necessary (and it will be with lean meat). Cook a tablespoon or two of flour (depending on how much gravy you want to make) in the fat until it smells cooked/nutty, not like raw flour and slightly brown. Then, add either water or broth (chicken, beef, even veg broth) - a cup or two total (depending on how much flour you used - about 1/4 cup at a time, stirring it into the four until there are no lumps and everything is a beautifully smooth and brown gravy., making sure to scrape all of the the meat and onion bits off of the bottom of the pan and into the gravy. Then, add your meat back in (if desired) and slow cook everything together over low heat, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Salt and pepper to taste. 

A word on fat: suet (beef fat) is always the best fat for frying, because it adds richness, without adding much flavor on its own and has a high smoke point. However, you might want to use bacon fat - just be sure to add less salt since the fat will be salty. Olive or canola oil would be fine, but not as good. Butter would not be a good choice, because it burns quickly. Lard, chicken or duck would be better than butter. Remember though, too much or too little fat will ruin gravy. Too little, and your gravy won't come together, too much and you'll have greasy gravy. When you are browning your ingredients, if things start to stick, add more fat. If it looks greasy, add more flour.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The importance of a palate

About an hour ago, Hank Shaw (author of Hunt, Gather Cook) reminded me of something.  He Tweeted something about cooking with venison fat.  I not only grew up being told, but everything I've read up to his point, told me that venison fat had an undesirable flavor.  I'm an adventurous eater, but I never gave it a try - and, it seemed like a waste.  Hank said that some deer fat is really good (he didn't give many details, but did say pre-rut, fat and young).  This was a major head slapping moment for me.  I know how to render fat from other animals and I'm just slightly more of an animal fat fan than Bill Cosby. ("Praise the lard!")  So now, I have new fat with a familiar flavor....

Suddenly, hundreds of recipes came to mind.  I could use deer fat in recipes that include the foods a deer eats.  I could use deer fat to flavor other foods.  I could infuse deer flavor in whiskies.  Everything from  mushrooms and ramps to deep fried nuts to infused bourbon... even popcorn ... even fish deep fried in deer fat (for a hint of surf and turf) come to mind.

This reminded me of the importance of a palate.  The most important factor in becoming a good cook is a palate.  Some people are born with one, some people develop it.  A palate, loosely speaking, is the learned talent of remembering each flavor to the extent of being able to "almost taste" it when you think of it.  This allows you to combine flavors in your mind and come up with recipes.  This is why most good cooks do not use written recipes.

Reading all of the cookbooks ever written will not make you a good cook.  Most good cooks can completely ruin a dish trying to follow a recipe... we all make mistakes.  You become a good cook when you can imagine the finished dish before it is cooked an know what goes in it and how it is cooked only with your imagination.  This sounds complicated, but is is no different than learning words and composing sentences.  The beauty of it is that once you have learned the words, if your talent permits, you may be able to compose the culinary version f the works of William Shakespeare.  After the basic learning, it will be your talent that comes through.  Your dishes will be your own expressions. They may be simple and plain, as most speech is in the average day, or they may be your own "Hamlet".  But, it all begins with learning the words and how they are used... or, learning the flavors of each food and how they combine with others.

I was almost unbelievably fortunate - blessed - to have had a mother who was an amazing cook, from a family with a long history of good food.  I was fed rich and unique foods before I could even digest them.  My family was determined to introduce me to the flavors.  That is why I have never understood kids who are picky eaters.  I ate what I was given, and actually did love it.  Before the age of 5, I loved bitter chocolate, pickled mushroom caps, hot mustard and summer sausage.

Anyone can develop a palate, at any age.  You need only eat every food you can find, in its most simple state and learn the flavor.  Then, just think... "what would go good with this...".  Start simple - one ingredient at a time.  Perhaps, start with butter and/or toast.  What would butter go well on?  What would be good on toast?  Then, expand.  Then learn how different cooking techniques affect the flavor and texture of the food.  Then think, how would this (ear of corn, steak or fish fillet) be baked, broiled, roasted, fried.. or raw, pickled, etc.?...

Even if you do not cook, developing a palate will make you a cook.  If your arms and legs were paralyzed, you could imagine the flavors, instruct the actual cook and satisfy your taste buds.  If you love food and aspire to cook, go no further until you have developed a plate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Robert Toombs on Southern Hospitality

I'll be passing through one of my favorite towns later this week: Washington, Georgia.  I am reminded of this great quote by fellow UGA alum, the Confederate Secretary of State, Robert Toombs: "If a respectable man comes to town, he can stay at my house. If he isn't respectable, we don't want him here at all."

Stay "unreconstructed" y'all...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Surf Fishing tip: fish the tides

This is a very basic tip, but I've been really surprised how many folks have been out fishing at the wrong time and doing nothing more than wasting bait and getting sunburned.  At first, I thought that they just enjoyed fishing but, all week, I have been hearing complaints that "no one is catching anything."  I've caught fish and landed them every day but one and even on that day, I had fish bite but couldn't land them.  The reason is very simple: I fish the tides.

Each day, I go out two hours before high tide and fish until two hours after.  Sure, it is inconvenient, but that is when the fish are biting.  I have caught fish before, at other stages of the tide, but on a beach like Holden's, high tide is really the only consistent time when you know the fish will be feeding near shore.  At high tide, bigger fish come in to eat smaller fish, small crabs and shellfish whose shells get broken in the surf.

Beyond that, I've just been using the right bait and tackle combinations - I've been fishing for 12 - 15 inch bluefish.  Bluefish like cut bait.  In this size category, they require small, strong hooks.  They have very sharp teeth and powerful jaws, but they will strip the bait off of larger hooks faster than than you can believe - by the time your rig hits the water, your bait is gone!  Cut bait, "threaded" onto a small, strong hook (so that the hook passes through it many times and no long bits are hanging off) works well, because the fish will grab the whole hook in one bite rather than tear bits off.

So, fish the tides, use the right bait and tackle combo and keep the line tight enough to feel the strikes and you'll catch some fish!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Surf Fishing Day 4: chopper blues and monsters in the surf

Day four at Holden Beach - my big, flat feet are sunburned, I'm tired but having a great time.  I've been fishing each high tide.  I go out about two hours before high tide and come in about two hours after.  The action has been moderate.  I've been landing small bluefish every day but yesterday.  The blues have been very fun to catch and to watch.  The come tearing along the shore, chasing finger mullet - toothy little torpedoes, jumping in the air, flipping and dancing on the waves.  All of them that I have caught have been in the 12 to 15 inch range - perfect for eating.  

Those who do not care for bluefish probably dislike it because it was handled improperly before they ate it.  Bluefish is no only an oily fish, but it spoils quickly after being caught.  All of this can be solved through proper handling and cooking.  Immediately after catching the fish, hold it firmly by the back, with a towel.  If it is a keeper, remove the hook (I use an old large pare of needle nose pliers), avoiding its sharp teeth.  As soon as the hook is removed, insert your bait knife through the gills and cut down and through the throat.  Hold the fish by the tail.  It will bleed out in under a minute.  Then, gut it, give the cavity a quick rinse and put it on ice.  All of this should be done in less than 5 minutes - this ensures that off flavors from the liver will not taint and soften the meat through the blood.  This gives you a nice, firm, fresh tasting, savory fish.  In cooking, you just need to counter the oiliness.  Frying just won't work with bluefish.  Grilling is best, but broiling works as well.  Just slice a lemon and put the slices in the cavity, with some black pepper and onions or herbs if you like.  I prefer just lemon and pepper, grilled whole.  Then serve with plenty of additional lemon, so that the lemon and natural oils in the fish make a nice sauce, flavored by the smoke from the grill, the brine of the ocean and the pepper - this turns the oiliness of the fish into an asset.  I like to serve the fish on a bed of bitter/peppery salad greens, like young mustard greens, because the bluefish/lemon combination makes a nice dressing for the greens, as well.

Yesterday, the blues seemed to be running from something rather than feeding.  I went out about 1 pm.  The guy who had been fishing for about an hour down the beach came over to tell me that something BIG hit his rig, but he lost it.  He said that it nearly jerked the rod out of his hands when it struck and broke his line.  Thinking that it might still be out there, I tied a wire leader the 50lb mono shock leader on my big rod - it is 13 feet, heavy and the reel holds nearly 400 yards of 30lb braid.  I put on a big hook, sharpened it and baited it with the head of a small bluefish.  I cast it out (yes, I finally learned to cast the behemoth) about 100 yards and stuck the butt into a surf spike.  The, I baited the double rig on my smaller rod with cut bait, cast it out about 50 yards and waited.  I re-baited and re-cast the smaller rod all day - something kept stealing my bait.  Instead of really striking, whatever it was felt more like repeated taps as it stripped the bait.  I tried smaller and smaller hooks and casting farther out, but nothing worked.  About 5pm, just as I was about to call it a day, something hit the big rig.  I jumped up and grabbed it, as the tip shook violently.  I ran into the water, battling hard against the fish.  The huge rod was bent nearly double!  I let up on the drag as the fish ran about 200 yards down the beach.  I reeled in as he ran back toward me.  Then, he turned and ran for open water... and was gone.  I never got a look at him, but whatever it was actually straightened my hook!

If you come to Holden Beach this week, bring two rigs - one with the heaviest tackle you own.  There is something out there.  I don't know what it is, but it is BIG and STRONG.  Some spanish mackerel have been spotted int he surf south of here.  The way it ran, that could be what it was, but if so, it was a MONSTER!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Day 2 - surf fishing at Holden Beach, NC

It is really too early in the season, by at least a month, but I did have a little luck yesterday.  I saw a lot of fish - spots, large blues and even a huge sailfish or marlin that jumped a couple of times about 200 yards out.  The pelicans and gulls were catching lots of fish. I spent two hours yesterday having my bait (shrimp) stolen by pinfish.  I finally caught one and cut it up for bait.  I caught two small blues on a double (spot) rig.

I'm trying to get used to two new rod and reel combinations, and am making an absolute fool of myself.   I mostly got the hang of the 9 foot surf rod yesterday - most casts 50-75 yards.  Starting out though, I was having trouble casting even 30 yards and had some major bird nests on the reel with the 30 lb braid  line I'm using.  It is a new rod, old reel and I'm far more used to mono filament line.  The braid feels very light.

Today, I'm going to try to use the 13 foot rod and big reel.  It is a ridiculously big, heavy, "Hatteras Heaver" that I bought "just in case" because it was on sale and too good a deal to pass up.  This will hopefully only be comical.  I tried casing it the other night, but my release was a little off.  A few inches of the shock leader fell off the spool before the line went out and wrapped around the bottom of the spool.  So, when I let go, only a couple of feet of line went off the reel, then it stopped sharply.  The weight of the rig and the huge rod, will all of the momentum of a cast, nearly threw me face down int he water and left me with a very sore shoulder!

With a view like this though, who could complain?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

That's What I Like 'Bout the South!

A great Southern anthem... and it s all about food!  Written by Andy Razaf in about 1930. 

Razaf was born in DC, after his parents fled Madagascar; he was nephew of  Queen Ranavalona, III.  He also wrote "In The Mood", "Ain't Misbehavin'", and several other swing standards of the big band era.

Here is Bob Wills' Texas Playboys version, because BOB WILLS IS STILL THE KING!  You've got to hear Eldon Shamblin's guitar break on this one...

Aside from being a great songwriter, he sure knew his food (Is it any wonder that Fats Waller, a legendary eater and drinker, recorded so many of his songs?).... makes me hungry just to listen!: 

Won't you come with me to Alabamy
Let's go see my dear old mammy
She's frying eggs and broilin' hammy
That's what I like about the south

Now there you can make no mistaky
Where those? never shaky
Ought to taste her layer cakey
That's what I like about the south

She's got big ribs and candied yams
Oh, sugar cured Virginia hams
Basements full of those berry jams
And that's what I like about the south

Hot cornbread and black-eyed peas
You can eat as much as you please'
Cause it's never out of season
That's what I like about the south

Here is Phil Harris' version - his was the original.  Does Phil Harris remind anyone else of Brother Dave Gardner?

Delicious Turtle Meat!

It is said that turtle meat contains the flavors of 7 different meats.  I have identified 5 - veal, fish, pork, chicken and crawfish or crab... not sure about the other 2... maybe raccoon...  All I can tell you is that turtle meat is amazing.  I was a big fan of the original, Japanese version of Iron Chef.  I recall that Chairman Kaga said that his ideal meal would include turtle.  In the South, the turtle most eaten is the common snapping turtle.

This critter is easy to catch, can be quite large and has a long history in American, especially gourmet, food.  Turtle soup is the classic dish, but turtle can be prepared a variety of way.  Pan Fried turtle may be the best meat I have ever tasted. 

The first regional (and one of the first) cookbooks written and published in America was the Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph.  She was related to Pocahontas, Thomas Jefferson (America's first gourmet) and Robert E. Lee.  Mrs. Randolph devoted a section of her classic book to preparing and cooking turtles.  See below, courtesy of the MSU Library:

I recently found an illustrated guide to hunting and dressing turtles online:

I don't hunt turtle this way for 2 reasons: 1) I grew up (part time) in eastern NC, where the swamps where we caught turtles were also full of alligators, water moccasins and the alligator snapping turtle (as opposed to the common snapping turtle) which can kill  "noodler" or take off his arm very quickly.  2) I'm currently residing in Tennessee, where only the common snapping turtle may be taken, and only through fishing methods.  Prior to now, I have used traps, nets and .22 rifles to take my turtles.  I'll have to learn entirely new methods in TN.  I will blog about these techniques as I learn them.  Oddly, TN requires a hunting license for turtles and a fishing license for frogs... I have a feeling that things will be very different on this side of the Blue Ridge!

Field Pea Gravy

Does anyone recognize this:

That is the king of potlikkers, field pea gravy!  The best field peas are the Dixie Lee variety - an heirloom cowpea, passed down for a few hundred years in the South.  When you cook fresh field peas (with green "snaps"), you boil them with pork seasoning (fatback, bacon grease, or even just lard) and salt.  At the bottom of the pot, once most of the peas have been eaten, is field pea gravy.  Just as fat, proteins and flavors from meat, when combined in a pan with flour and water form good brown gravy, so do the field peas.  In this bowl, you can see the fat glistening in the light.  With the fat and water, proteins and starch from the peas have combined to form one of the richest gravies imaginable.  With a couple of pieces of fried cornbread, it is a meal on its own.  Never throw away the potlikker from your beans or peas!  Not all can stand on their own as a gravy, but most can be part of a good pea or bean soup with the addition of some chicken broth, onions, etc.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Crisis

When you read the old cookbooks - pre 1950s, but especially those from the 1700s and 1800s - you realize how much we have lost.  We are not only using fewer ingredients in in more limited ways, but the variety of foods available to us has decreased.  The quality and the variety of our food has depreciated.  Our ancestors had an array of meats and vegetables, many of which are unknown to the common contemporary grocery store.  We may be more modern, we may be more international in our tastes, but we have not progressed; we have regressed.  We have moved from a cornucopia of foods produced by the sweat of the brow and the bounty of the earth, to a dearth of  a few meats and a handful of common vegetables of questionable freshness and doubtful nutrition.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My favorite light breakfast - liver pudding and tomato biscuit

No, that is not a hamburger!  This is a homemade biscuit, a slice of a garden grown Cherokee Purple tomato and a large helping of liver pudding.  The biscuits were made with lard and patted out by hand (no one in my family ever rolled out and cut biscuits).  The tomatoes were grown by a friend in eastern NC - Cherokee Purple is an old, heirloom variety that has incredible flavor.  The liver pudding is the Pender's brand.  Pender's is very good, but Scottish Packing is my favorite commercial brand.  Homemade liver pudding can be much better than anything store bought, but I doubt that two families use the same recipe. 

Liver pudding is, basically, pork liver, lean meat and fat, salt, pepper, herbs and/or spices cooked, ground fine and formed into a pate'.  I like a little sage and a lot of crushed red pepper in mine.  As far as I'm concerned, the best liver pudding is always in a natural casing.  Adding cornmeal or rice meal to the mixture is somewhat controversial.  Some people say that once meal is added, it becomes "liver mush".  To me though, it is all abut the ratio.  I like the flavor of a little corn meal, so long as it is not enough to change the texture.      

Many of my fondest childhood memories are of time spent with my grandfather on the farm.  He always seemed to have liver pudding and saltines with him.  Back then, the liver pudding was home made and highly spiced with red pepper.  As liver pudding is pre-cooked, it can be spread onto a cracker, directly from the casing.

For breakfast though, I like it fried.  Just take a bit out of the casing and fry it lightly in a pan.  It will need a bit of a fat to fry and develop a good brown crust.  I use only suet, lard or butter (suet is actually the best).  Then, on a biscuit or in grits, you have a rich, very satisfying meal.

Some years ago, I was up in New Bern, with a group that was predominately of yankees.  I was living in Virginia at the time.  Someone asked me what NC delicacies that I was planning to take home - barbecue and seafood were mentioned.  "You know," I answered, "I have been craving some liver pudding and if I can find a little country grocery store with its own butcher shop on the way back, I'm going to buy enough to last me a few month!"  Unsurprisingly, none of them had ever heard of liver pudding and were absolutely disgusted by the concept.  However, if you like pates, liverwurst, boudin, dirty rice or anything else made with liver, you'll probably love liver pudding.  I'm going back for seconds! 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Wild Grapes

Wild grapes are fairly ubiquitous throughout the South, except for the high elevations of the mountains. These were picked on the roadside last week, in Moore County, NC.  Unfortunately, I didn't know the land owner and couldn't pick more than a handful.  These are my favorite eating grapes when they are a bit riper.  When ripe, they are sweet, tangy and a bit tart, turning a very deep purple, almost black.

Small black grapes... what dose that remind you of?  If you answered pinot noir, you are right.  Although these grapes are of an entirely different family than pinot noir, at this semi-ripe stage, they make an excellent wine that is similar to a good pinot noir.  In fact, the wine made from these grapes is far superior to the pinot noir I'm drinking this moment - a California wine I was unfamiliar with and bought on sale this afternoon.  The wine made from these grapes, at this stage, is slightly fruity, low alcohol, sparklingly acidic, slightly tannic, pale red and has hints of cherry and wild black berries.  The wine I'm drinking now is wholly uninteresting and barely worth the few bucks I spent for it.

As the grapes ripen, the sugars increase and the acidity lowers.  At that point, the wine they yield would be sweeter, less floral, higher in alcohol and would need a bit of acid added.  The wine then, would be more similar to a common Italian table wine.  Or, it could be transformed into a port style wine, with the addition of brandy before it is fermented to "dryness".  Either way, it makes a very drinkable and enjoyable wine.

Ironically, one of the places I recall these grapes growing was also where I sampled the worst wine I have ever encountered.  I will not name the vineyard, but it was a Southern winery (one of the little start ups that have become trendy of late).  The land and setting were perfect for wine grapes.  The vineyard was on top of a ridge, that had once been a tall mountain, weathered down to about 500 ft.  The soil was a rocky and mineral rich.  The vineyard overlooked a large river fed lake that provided  good air drainage.  The only conditions that were not ideal were the intense southern heat (summer days often over 100 degrees) and the humidity.  Good wine grapes could have been grown there, if chosen from the warmer regions of the Mediterranean.  However, the only grapes these folks were growing were cooler climate French varieties.  Most of the vineyard was devoted to chardonnay!  The intense heat resulted in very over-ripe grapes with far too little acid.  To counter that, the professional, educated, chemist, "expert" wine maker added a substantial amount of either citric acid or a commercial acid blend to the very flat tasting chardonnay.  The result was a wine the approximate color of the urine produced by a person who has taken large amounts of B vitamins.  The taste was abhorrent.  It tasted and smelled artificial... somewhat like a jolly rancher candy, if jolly ranchers induced nausea.

The hillside leading up to this vineyard was covered in wild grapes like these.  I asked the "wine maker" if he had tried making wine with the wild grapes.  He scoffed and said, "You can't make wine with those!"  I tried to explain to him that he was wrong, but he became arrogant and insulting, acting as if he was wasting his time with someone so unsophisticated.  After I tasted the swill, which he was so proud to have produced that he entered it in a regional wine contest, I didn't waste much more time talking with him.  I left quickly to find something to get that nasty taste out of my mouth.  Mercifully, the entire vineyard was wiped out by pierce's disease soon after - I don't know what or if he replanted.

My family has made wine, cider, etc for generations.  In the back yard at the old home place was a giant wine press hewed out of a single cypress tree.  It looked like an old dug out canoe, except that it had a hole in one end.  From times predating the Revolutionary War, it was filled with grapes (or apples, peaches, plums, etc) and tilted up at the closed end.  The family would take large mallets and crush the fruit so that the juices ran out of the open end into great barrels.  The wines they made were from wild grapes like these, or their cultivated cousins.  My grandfather made wonderful wines from the many vines on his property, which included larger versions of these grapes and a white variety.  The grapes were known as muscadines and scuppernongs. (Much more on wine making later).

As we had lots of grape hulls left over from crushing the grapes and lots of grape juice on hand, my grandmother made grape hull preserves and grape jelly.  The preserves, especially, were delicious.    I plan to consult with my mother (who is working on a cookbook) and provide a recipe for grape hull preserves soon.  For now, try to imagine the home made biscuits (made with lard rendered from out own hogs and buttermilk from our own cows), topped with fresh butter, split and spread with sweet, tangy grape hull preserves.... maybe some home made, air dried sausage, hot from the frying pan on the side, with a hot cup of coffee with real cream.  If you can do that, you will know why I love Southern food so much!

You would think, with wild grapes being so common throughout the South and their flavor being so good, that everyone would know about them and pick them when in season.  But, that is not the case.  Surely, many know, but sadly, this is yet another piece of wisdom that has too often failed to be passed down through the generations.  Just earlier this year (near where I found these) I met a guy who was clearing grape vines from his property.  "You've got some nice wild grapes there," I said.  "Hell, I've been trying to get rid of these things for years.  What is good about them?"  "Well, they taste great," I said, "and, they make good wine." He was absolutely shocked.  "You eat them?  How do you know they aren't poisonous?"  I told him about growing up with grapes on my grandparents farm.  I'm not sure he believed me.

I hope you will not make the same mistake.  Look for them in any woods or roadside.  I found these growing on a pecan tree.  Even if you just find bare vines, they are worth finding because deer, raccoons, birds and other game animals love them.  Looking for wild grapes is a great way to scout for game animals.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Real North Carolina Barbecue

A barbecue pit depicted in A Southern Barbecue, 1887, by Horace Bradley  - from Wikipedia

Real North Carolina barbecue is a dying art.  Real North Carolina barbecue is either pork shoulders or a whole hog cooked very, very slowly over hardwood coals.  The coals come from real wood – predominately oak and hickory – which are burned down to glowing embers and shoveled under the pork.  It takes about 10 hours of this difficult physical labor to cook pork shoulders and up to twenty four hours to cook a whole hog.  The result is amazingly tender, smoky (but not over smoked), succulent, salty pork which may be complimented by vinegar based sauce.  Down East, the sauce is only vinegar and spices; the further west you travel, the more tomato paste or ketchup is added. 

Barbecue Pit at Lefler's Place in Pee Dee, NC - note the wood ready to be burned to coals on the right, before being shoveled into the pit on left

Pork shoulders or whole hogs cooked using a gas or electric heat source is just roast pork.  Roast pork can be very good, especially with the right sauce, but it ain’t barbecue!  In times past, North Carolina was full of real barbecue joints.  But, cooking real barbecue is very hard work and hickory is expensive.  Every year or so we lose another real barbecue restaurant; they either close down or convert to gas.  When they close, I mourn the loss. When they convert to gas, I get angry, stomp around the parking lot for a while, label it the work of the devil and vow never to return. 

Of course, there are plenty of folks who enjoy roast pork masquerading as barbecue just as much as the genuine article.  Some would argue that North Carolina barbecue is more popular today than ever and certain chain, fast food “barbecue” businesses (that shall remain nameless because I will not dignify them with the honor of a mention) do such a good business that it can be hard to find a table.  So, I guess this is really just my own opinion, and the success of the “whomp biscuit” is evidence that my opinion probably isn’t worth much.

 You know what a “whomp biscuit is”, don’t you?  Whomp biscuit was a term coined by the late Jerry Clower, who said that the saddest sound in the world is that of canned “biscuits” being “whomped” on the counter.  I have to agree with the most famous son of Yazoo Mississippi on that one.  I compare every biscuit I eat to those my great grandmother made.  She used real lard.  Lard and butter are gifts from God.  Scientists figured out how to squeeze oil from carrots (or celery or some such nonsense) to make margarine and vegetable oil.  I don’t understand it, it doesn’t taste as good as butter, lard or even olive oil and I won’t eat it.  Sure, “health professional” claim that such test-tube alternatives are better for you, but my great grandparents lived to be 96 and 99 – when was the last time you met someone who ate margarine and lived to be close to 100?  A better question may be who would want to live to be 100 if they had to give up butter, lard, real barbecue, greasy collard greens, red meat, chicken with the skin left on, etc, to do so?

Perhaps the saddest thing about the decline of real barbecue in North Carolina is that cooking barbecue is an indigenous art.  North Carolina can rightly claim to be the birthplace of barbecue in America.  Early colonists came to North Carolina and the southern costal areas of Virginia by way of the Caribbean, where they witnessed island folks roasting pigs in pits dug in the ground.  Historical accounts of pig pickin’s in NC and VA run throughout the development of the colonies and the birth of our nation, but the tradition really took hold in our state.  In fact, I lived in the LynchburgVA area for a few years and folks would drive hours down to Short Sugar’s in Reidsville for North Carolina barbecue.

All North Carolinians should be proud of our culinary heritage.  The descendents of the white colonists employed black slaves as “pit masters”.  Soon, certain black men became legendary barbecue cooks.  Some earned enough money cooking barbecue to buy their freedom.  After the Civil War, black owned barbecue and “soul food” restaurants began in the south and spread through the industrialized north, as black folks gained renown for cooking the same wonderful foods as white folks did in the rural south. 

Over the past few decades though, our culinary arts have been in decline.  Even as the Food Network celebrates southern food with special programs, fewer and fewer southerners are cooking in the fashion of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.  The reasons are obvious – the general homogenization of culture due to television, the steady influx of northerners moving south, high divorce rates, working mothers not having the time to teach their daughters to cook, fast food, packaged and frozen food, etc.  When was the last time you fried chicken, or ate anyone’s home-fried chicken?  Most fried chicken these days comes from the Kentucky Fried Chicken.  KFC is great, but it can’t hold a candle to my grandmother’s fried chicken!  I can’t fry chicken like my grandmother, neither can anyone in my family – it is a lost art and our lives are emptier for it.

The whole hog style (universally popular Down East) of barbecue takes more time and effort than the pork shoulder style of North Carolina’s piedmont, and real barbecue has become harder to find east of Interstate 95. There are a few legendary joints that still cook real barbecue Down East, but most of the remaining real barbecue restaurants are in the piedmont. 

Please eat at independently owned, traditional southern restaurants and help keep our culture alive. And, if your parents and/or grandparents are still alive, learn their recopies and techniques and please, please pass them on to your children.  This is our proud southern heritage and it must not be lost!

Open pit, ready for pork! 

End note 1:  Credit should be given to Bob Garner for documenting the history of North Carolina barbecue in his books and programs and for also doing so much to keep the tradition alive.  Credit should also be given to The Lexington Collection for their efforts in promoting real barbecue

End note 2:  There is no shame in using good quality hardwood lump charcoal in place of live hardwood coals if you are cooking barbecue in your backyard.  Good lump charcoal (not briquettes) is simply hardwood burned down to coals and then extinguished.  You will still want to add some hickory wood for flavor.

End note 3:  I prefer piedmont style barbecue pork, but Down East sauce - that is my own bias.  I was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but my mother’s family was from Bladen County.  I spent fairly equal amounts of time growing up Down East as in the mountains, passing through the piedmont on every trip.  I’ll go ahead and recommend my favorite sauce: Scott’s.  Legend has it that the recipe for the sauce came to Rev. Scott (a black minister from the Goldsboro area) in a dream.  I can’t vouch for Scott’s barbecue, but the sauce is fantastic.  It is vinegary, peppery, spicy and never overpowers the meat; in fact, it highlights the flavors.  One may argue that a bit of ketchup or sugar will bring out the flavor of the smoke in the pork, but Scott’s is what I grew up on and what I prefer.  I also prefer Down East slaw.    Besides, sauce is what people focus on when the barbecue isn’t good enough to be the star!

Mission Statement

Although this blog is brand new as of today August 1, 2014, its genesis was actually about 10 years ago.  My uncle had recently passed away.  He lived our family's farm with my grandmother.  Shortly thereafter, my grandmother had a heart attack and needed constant care.  My mother returned to the farm to care for her and I withdrew from classes at my beloved University of Georgia and moved to the farm to help.

It was November and the first frost had brought its flavor to the greens.  The three of us had visited the type of greens field that used to be quite common in the rural south - an honor garden.  This was an unattended field of collards, mustard and turnips down a back road.  You picked what you wanted and left the appropriate amount of money in a box by the road.  The only watchful eyes were the chickens pecking through the field, doing their job of pest control, before returning to roost at the farm several acres away.  We filled the back of my pickup truck with heads of collards ("cabbage head" collards, which were the only collard my grandmother would allow in her kitchen and the main reason we had sought out the greens field), a few dozen turnip plants (roots and leaves all together) and a dozen or so pillowy plastic grocery bags, stuffed with the tender leaves of mustard.

The next few days were spent cleaning, trimming and cooking greens (and the turnip roots, which are among my favorite foods) for both eating soon and freezing for later.  My grandmother sat in the kitchen, in her wheelchair, overseeing the entire operation.  This was a very enjoyable time for us all.  The greens were very smelly, but the incredible aroma of frying fatback and cider vinegar (infused with hot peppers) made the aroma appetizing and the family time was truly "quality".

The next day, a few older black ladies dropped by after church to visit and collect pecans.  My grandfather planted the pecan trees decades earlier, after he and my grandmother cleared the land by hand and built their home.  People from the community would often come by during pecan season and collect buckets of pecans.  They would either shell them and return half to us, or as these ladies planned, bring us one of the pecan pies that they would bake.  It was lunch time for us, and my grandmother invited them to join us - she invited anyone and everyone who "came to visit" to eat with us, no matter the time of day or night or what we may have prepared.  The ladies declined, as they were  going home to prepare meals for their own families.  I had just fixed my plate, as they came in and I excused myself from the conversation to eat before the meal cooled.

I had a large plate, piled high with collards and turnips (both greens and roots), pan fried pork chops, filed peas with snaps, potatoes boiled with onions, several patties of fried corn bread and a big slice of sweet potato pudding!  This feast was not rare - it was just how we ate on the farm most days... and still do in my home.  Return trips to the kitchen for seconds and thirds was expected, and during the season, a platter of freshly sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers would accompany the meal.  Pies, cakes, puddings or hand-churned ice cream would follow as desert.

I was vaguely aware that the ladies were smiling at me while I was eating, but as I would join in the conversation when appropriate, I didn't think much of it.    One of them finally exclaimed, "It does my heart good to see a boy your age eat greens!  My grandchildren won't touch them!"  I was shocked.  "What do they eat," I asked?  "They only eat McDonalds and KFC", she replied.  "Don't you cook greens," my grandmother asked.  "Sure," she replied, "but they won't touch them!"

We continued chatting, jovially, about all of the old recipes - from greens to (pork) liver pudding - talking about all of "the old foods" we all used to eat and how good they were.  It made a big impression on me, although I didn't say so at the time.  Were these foods, that I grew up on, that I loved so much, were not being enjoyed by people my age and younger?

Years passed.  We lost my grandmother and the family farm was sold with a great deal of sadness.  Life took us all far away.  Several starts and stops in various careers introduced me to many people of various ages throughout the south east.  In the back of my mind though, the question still nagged and I would often engage strangers in conversations about the foods they ate.  I learned that people like to eat, like to talk about food and yes, sadly, I have reached the conclusion that despite the best efforts of many, our southern food traditions are being lost.

This was best exemplified by a conversation with a girl I met in a grocery store in Pinehurst, NC last year.  She was a cashier, working the summer before her freshman year at college.  She was intelligent, attractive and from a rather affluent family (golf and equestrian people) and a native southerner (rare in Pinehurst).  She asked what I planned to do with the several pounds of tender, young, yellow "crooked neck" squash that I was buying.  I told her that my mother would "stew" them, meaning to cook them in a frying pan with bacon fat and onions.  I asked how she liked squash prepared and she told me that she had never tasted squash.  It was a slow time at the store, so we had time to talk for a few minuets.  I asked her about a variety of vegetables and meats, curious about this strange creature who had never eaten squash.  I finally asked her, only somewhat in jest, "What do you eat?"  "Mostly junk food," she replied.  "My mother doesn't cook.  We eat out a lot, but mostly just eat junk food at home."

To say the least, my jaw dropped.  I was actually disgusted by what she said, but since she was a pretty girl, and I enjoyed her company, I didn't show it.  I stayed in the area for a while, due to my job.  The cashier and I had many more conversations, resulting in her asking me to teach her to cook.  Well, time and circumstances did not permit.  Based on this experience, I had many more conversations with other folks in the 18 - 30 age range, and found the results much the same.  They liked to talk about food, seemed to have a deep hunger for good food, but did not cook and had no access good home-cooking.

Many factors have attributed this sad state - working mothers with little time to cook, divorce and fathers whose absence leaves and even greater burden on mothers and less time to cook, distance from grandparents, urban and sub-urbanization taking people away from the farm, lack of instruction in gardening, hunting and fishing, loss of southern food traditions in general as large corporate grocery stores and restaurants increasingly dominate and homogenize our culinary lives and perhaps especially, so called "healthy diets"... that are anything but.  I don't intend to address or argue about all of these, and other, causes.  The purpose of this blog is to preserve, propagate and reclaim our southern food traditions, at least, as seen through my eyes.

On this blog, you will find my family's food traditions.  That is all.  I do not claim to speak for all of the south or for anyone other than myself.  I only mean to, "stand astride history, yelling stop", as the destination it seems to be taking it is repugnant to my senses and abominable to southern soul.  My opinions are strident and often politically incorrect.  I do not suffer fools gladly (and I include in that criteria, anyone who lacks respect for southern culture and traditions, who believes in "better living through science", or who disdains butter, lard, salt, meat, etc).  I only mean to share the knowledge that I am so very privilege to have garnered from my mother and grandmother to help you cook and enjoy a good meal.  In the words of Washington Georgia native, Joe Barnett, "You only live once.  But, if you live in the south and you do it right, once is all you need!"