Update

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while! Life temporarily got in the way. I’ve been working on several items, however, and I hope to resume posting some new material within the next 2-3 weeks.

Meanwhile, you might want to check out the tumblr version of this blog. I reblog a lot of current food and restaurant news and views, and historical items that may be of interest.

By the way, we celebrated my Dad’s 98th birthday last Sunday. His actual birthday is July 23, but I think he’ll make it.

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Dad broke his hip one year ago this week, and he’s been living with us since his recovery. The cooking challenge for me has been to come up balanced meals for a guy who hasn’t lost his appetite and always cleans his plate.

For his birthday dinner, in honor of our family’s Swedish heritage, I made Swedish meatballs, with mashed potatoes, peas in a honey butter sauce, and zucchini & carrots. The zucchini came fresh from our youngest son’s front-yard garden. For the last couple of weeks, he’s been keeping us supplied with lots of zucchini and collard greens.

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We have four July birthdays in the family, and we celebrated all of them this last weekend. We let Pizza Hut cook on Friday evening for Ollie’s 7th. Then on Saturday morning, son Nick whipped up a tacos and fajitas feast for Reggie’s 2nd. Then on Saturday evening, for our daughter’s birthday, I smoked some ribs, along with collards, mac & cheese, bbq baked beans, and watermelon slices:

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Chili Today

So, here’s what happened: By the Christian calendar, January 6 is the feast of Epiphany. In western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, the holiday is built around the gospel of Matthew’s story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. As such, it’s considered the end of the Christmas season. Epiphany Eve is sometimes known as Twelfth Night, a party day often marked by the sort of gender and social order reversals found in the plot of Shakespeare’s play by that name. There are likewise a number of customs connected with the feast itself, such as an Epiphany cake. (The Three Kings cakes eaten in New Orleans from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday are a well-known example.)

This year, January 6 fell on a Friday. So, my wife and I decided that on the following Sunday, we’d have a little open-house Epiphany party for our church family after morning worship. The party would be low-key: Come have a piece of cake and other goodies. But it was also really cold that weekend. Between the actual air temperature and a 20-mph wind, it felt like 4ºF outside. We live next door to the church, but I thought that anyone who was hardy enough to walk over to our house deserved something warm in return.

That meant chili, the perfect food for an open-house on a cold day. If we got more people than we expected, we could stretch it with smaller portions, and if we got fewer people, we’d have usable leftovers to eat or freeze.

So, on the Friday before, we went grocery shopping for our little event. (Chili tastes better a day or two later.) My wife asked me what kind of crackers to buy for the chili. I said something like, “Oh golly-gosh, we shan’t be serving any gosh-darn crackers with my chili.” Something that should have sounded like that, anyway.

I didn’t want people to willy-nilly start jamming soda crackers into my chili. In the first place, I season my chili carefully. Since this batch was for a diverse group, I held back a bit on the heat, but also set out a couple of bottles of hot sauces for those who needed more heat, and also set out Mexican sour cream and shredded cheese for those who needed even less heat. I wasn’t going to be a complete soup Nazi. Adjusting the spiciness to personal tastes was ok with me. However, introducing a bunch of salt from the soda crackers would change the taste before the eater had a chance to appreciate my work.

In the second place, my chili is thick, not soupy. Adding soda crackers would just make it dry and mealy.

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My Epiphany chili, fit for a King or three.

Of course, the first person I served asked for crackers. It was a church thing, so I couldn’t be as blunt as I’d been in the grocery store, but I stuck to my guns. I’d made cornbread, and suggested that as a substitute, but no, no crackers. I pointed out that the chili was already thick and didn’t need crackers, but that if he wanted, he could add some of the Ritz crackers we’d put out on the cheese plate.

I ended up getting a lot of unprompted compliments on the chili, which was gratifying. But I was thinking about it again the next day when someone in a social media cooking group asked, Do you put crackers in your chili? I didn’t do a count, but it was pretty obvious that most people do add crackers.

So maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always thought of crackers as something that goes with soups, not stews. A thin, soupy chili might well warrant some crackers. But my chili is already more of a stew than a soup. For the same reason, I avoid the large kidney beans most restaurant chilis use. They’re too dry and mealy for me. I usually use two or three different kinds of smaller beans instead. My Epiphany batch used black beans, pinto beans, and red beans.

Still, I wondered if I was missing something, so I did some research. In the process, I didn’t find out anything particularly convincing about soda crackers in chili, but I was reminded of just how controversial every other aspect of chili-making can be.

Pride of place, of course, goes to the Texans, who would take one look at my chili and declare, “Son, that’s not chili.” There’s no disputing that the original stews known as chili con carne were made of chile peppers and meat, and did not include beans, tomatoes, or any other vegetables or grains.

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It’s not my usual chili, but here’s my simple Texas-style chili, sans tomatoes or beans.

Some Texans have gotten pretty possessive about this. Kriston Capps, in a 2015 Slate magazine article, came within an eyelash of invoking the unwritten laws of political-correctness in protecting the integrity of Texas chili: “Chili is a local specialty with a specific history. Please find another name for your spiced vegetable stew.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t France, and our English language is notoriously unregulated. Outside of Texas, that “spiced vegetable stew” with tomatoes and beans has been called “chili” for too long to undo it. That would be like the Peruvians complaining to the French that it’s insulting to call a potato a pomme de terre, because it’s a potato and not an apple in the dirt. The Texas folks are right, but they’re a hundred years too late.

So how did beans (and tomatoes) wind up in chili? Once chili left Texas, it was inevitable that it would be influenced by existing “spiced vegetable stews.” Long before chili came along, there were the Brunswick stews of Virginia and Georgia, Kentucky’s Burgoo, and the various gumbos of the Low Country, Gulf Coast, and Creole and Cajun Louisiana, along with the various Pepper Pot stews from Jamaica to Philadelphia. Historically, these dishes featured considerable local diversity and took advantage of whatever was at hand, often including tomatoes.

brunswick-stew-6-26-15Most modern Brunswick stews no longer include rodents or other critters. I used chicken and pork in this batch. It’s not chili, but you can see the family resemblance 

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Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, with okra. Gumbos are the prototypical stew of the Low Country, Gulf, and Cajun/Creole regions, and more coastal versions would include seafood.

For gumbo lovers, the argument is over okra, not beans. People who like okra maintain that “gumbo” comes from the word for okra in several West African languages. People who hate okra claim that it comes from a Choctaw word for the sassafras leaves ground into the filé powder used as a thickener instead of okra. (For the record, I like both kinds; in part because fresh okra isn’t always available in my part of the country. My next batch used filé instead of okra for precisely that reason.) But at least both sides will admit that the other’s gumbo is still worthy of being called gumbo.

Adding beans was likewise inevitable. Chili was designed to be a cheap source of protein. In the 1850s, dried beef, fat, and seasonings were being pressed into bricks that could be easily transported on cattle drives, and then prepared in the field by putting them in boiling water.

Chili was also served in Texas jails, since the stew was comparatively nutritious, yet tasty, and could be made with cheap cuts of meat that would be tenderized in the stewing process.

At that point, beans are also a cheap source of good protein, and adding beans would stretch the chili even further. That trailhands might also be served beans isn’t exactly a myth that Mel Brooks created for his infamous campfire scene in Blazing Saddles.

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Once again, different parts of the country have their preferred bean dishes. Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial? “You got chocolate on my peanut butter!” I can almost imagine the same thing happening in Louisiana when a bowl of Texas chili met a bowl of Red Beans and Rice:

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Red beans and rice from our Christmas dinner last month

Pinto beans and cornbread, an Appalachian favorite, may be the preferred “soul food” bean dish in the north, and certainly resembles northern chili:

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I made these pinto beans and cornbread for my Dad’s 96th birthday party

I’ve been told that it’s a “southern thing” to add meat to my bbq baked beans, and some have mistaken it for chili. I use chili powder and cumin, but it’s got too much brown sugar and molasses to be mistaken for any sort of chili. Still, the family relationship is undeniable:

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The point is that, like it or not, it was inevitable that when Texas chili hit the road, tomatoes and beans (and other stuff) would splash into it.

Chili, of any sort, is also versatile. In some restaurants, it’s made as a creative way to use up leftover hamburgers or other meat. It can be prepared as a sauce and turned into chili dogs or half-smokes:

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The chili sauce I make for hot dogs or half-smokes is, in some ways, closer to Texas chili than it is to “my” chili, since it has no beans and only a small amount of tomato sauce. It’s also unapologetically on the greasy side

It’s also a handy way to feed a crowd. A few years ago when my church had a summer evening Vacation Bible School with an “Old West” theme, I made three pots of “chuck wagon stew” that wound up feeding 80:

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A couple of times a year, just for fun, I even add corn to make my “Hawkeye Chili,” with the black beans and sweet corn representing the colors of the University of Iowa:

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So whether we call it chili or…something else…it’s a tasty, cheap, easy, fun, and versatile. Just don’t stuff mine with soda crackers, por favor!

 

December Feasts

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“Homecoming,” December 10, 2016

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Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

Two feasts this month: One was a “homecoming” dinner for our California family. The second was our Christmas Day dinner. Thanksgiving is my Big Deal dinner, but whenever you’re feeding 15-16 people, you necessarily end up whipping up a lot of food. I also didn’t want to do a lot of repetition.

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I’m not a cookies and treats guy, so I kept it simple: Peanut butter on crackers, dipped in dark chocolate. Nutter Butters that are supposed to look like reindeer. Pretzel rings with kisses. Plus, for the Dec. 10 meal, a brownie with coconut-pecan frosting that served as a dessert and a birthday cake for our daughter-in-law, Kelsey.

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I didn’t worry about putting out as many appetizers for these meals as I did for Thanksgiving. For the Homecoming dinner, I put together a meat and cheese platter and a fresh fruit platter. For Christmas Day, I put fresh fruit in pineapple bowls. For both meals, my son-in-law, Dan, whipped up a little dip of cream cheese, dried beef, and Polish dill pickles. I think it’s an Eastern Iowa thing; it seems like it’s served a lot at funerals and weddings. Our 17-month old grandson, Reggie, found his own crackers, and made his own feast before Grandpa could snap a proper pic of the bowl.

By the way, the weather for these two meals could not have been more different, given the inherent limitations of winter here in the Midwest. For our first meal, it snowed, and then we went into the deep-freeze. Up until that point, we’d had a mild Fall, but of course, as soon as our California family got here, the weather went Arctic on us. Christmas Day was another story. By dinner time, the temperature had hit 52. It rained constantly, and at one point, we even had a little thunderstorm, which was a first around here.

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In the soup and salad department, for the Homecoming meal I had two soups: my Mexican Corn Chowder and my Three Bean Chili. I’ve been making both soups for many years. The corn chowder has evolved so much that I’ve forgotten why the original version was called “Mexican,” other than because of the familiar heat it gets from green chiles. And yes, I like my chili thick, not soupy.

For Christmas Day, my son Nick made cranberry fluff again, and I came up with a lettuce salad. I cut up some iceberg and green leaf lettuces chiffonade style, and then topped it with walnuts, and queso fresco, which was supposed to look like snow on the grass, and then topped off each salad with a raspberry and some homemade Cobb-style dressing.

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We’d had turkey and ham for Thanksgiving, so I wanted something a little different in the meat department. For the Homecoming dinner, I went with a roasted capon and a pork loin with a black bean sauce on rice. For Christmas, I went with a ribeye roast and a small (9-lb) turkey. Actually, both birds were prepared the same as the turkey at Thanksgiving: a dry brine, followed by a duck fat and butter baste. Both birds turned out very moist and tasty. I intended to let the roast hit about 142, but I accidentally let it get to 150 before I pulled it out. But it was still pretty tender, and had a lot of good flavor.

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For our Dec. 10 meal, I went with spaghetti with a homemade sauce. I thought the kids and our vegetarians would appreciate it. For Christmas, I made my Red Beans and Rice (not vegetarian!). I was happy with both the flavor (which I usually get right) and the consistency (which I usually mess up). I also dipped into my stock of Carolina Gold rice. I also roasted baby potatoes with rosemary, and made corn pudding.

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I kept the vegetables simple for Dec. 10, and went with a Three Sisters succotash of corn, green beans, and butternut squash. For Christmas, I made Creamed Baby Spinach and Kale, and then roasted carrots with thyme, and roasted a little fennel as well. The roasted vegetables were something of a hit.

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For my Christmas desserts, I made pecan and sweet potato pies. Both followed heirloom recipes. The pecan pie followed Callie’s Georgia Pecan Pie. I had run into this recipe on food historian Frederick Douglass Opie’s old blog, who had found it in a Baltimore Sun article from 1949. The sweet potato pie followed a recipe from Donna Battle Pierce. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the proper links back to either recipe.)

Both recipes are exceptional. The pecan pie calls for dark syrup. I cook by the thermometer instead of a toothpick, which takes out the guesswork about whether the pies have set, and also makes it harder to overbake them.

Bottom line: I made a couple of decent meals. With Thanksgiving, that’s three big meals in the span of a month, serving 45 people in total, with a good mix of traditional dishes and new (for us) dishes.

Thanksgiving 2016

This is a food history blog, not a cooking blog, but Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and a lot of traditional cooking happens. This year, I made dinner for sixteen. We celebrated on Friday instead of Thursday, so I had an extra day to prepare.

It helped that the weather here in the upper Midwest was pretty mild. It’s not unusual to get a serious snowstorm and some nasty cold temps over Thanksgiving, but not this year. It was just cool enough, with temps in the mid-30s, that I could keep dishes outside on the deck, instead of jamming them into the kitchen refrigerator or marching up and down the steps to the refrigerator in the basement.

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The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving feast is the turkey. I’m not sure why that is. Most folks don’t seem that crazy about turkey. Like most industrial meat in this country, turkeys aren’t as flavorful as they were once upon a time. But their symbolic value persists. Recently, I found this medieval French illustration of some royal feast. Note that the center and right platters have some sort of fowl, perhaps geese or capons. (I’m not sure what the creatures on the left platter are, though they look disturbingly similar to the rodent on the floor.) In any event, it seems that a feast just doesn’t look like a true feast unless there’s a big roasted bird on the table.

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This year, I roasted a small turkey (about 13 lbs) using duck fat on the outside and a citrus and herb butter tucked under the skin, following pretty closely a recipe from Angela Davis’ new Kitchenista Diaries cookbook. The recipe also calls for a dry brine overnight, which worked great. Everyone remarked on how moist the turkey was, and it was a lot easier than the wet brine we’ve been doing the last few years.

The only surprise was that the turkey got done a lot faster than I’d anticipated. I had figured that a turkey this size would clock in around three hours. But this one was done in barely two hours. When I pulled it out to baste it, I checked the temp, and after about two hours and ten minutes, the breast was already at 180. That set off a bit of a scramble to get the rest of the meal up to speed.

We’re not a fancy appetizer people, but for Thanksgiving, I like to have some food set out so that people can nibble, and not bug me about how long it’s taking to get the dinner ready. This year, I had four appetizer plates:

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In the upper left corner, we have lefse. It’s a Norwegian specialty (I’m 1/4 Norwegian ancestry). It’s widely available in supermarkets in this part of the country, but some families still make their own. Lefse looks like a flour tortilla, but it’s made from potatoes, and lightly fried on a special grill. These were served with butter and sugar, but others add cinnamon, or perhaps jam or preserves.

In the lower left corner, we have meatballs in a homemade Cheerwine bbq sauce. The Cheerwine soda gives the sauce a distinctive cherry taste. No special recipe here. I looked up a handful of recipes online and followed my instincts. The plates on the right are pretty self-explanatory. The red pepper dip on the veggie plate was store-bought. The cheeses on the cracker plate are a Tillamook extra sharp cheddar, and a Havarti.

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In addition to the turkey, I made a small ham with an orange marmalade glaze. Since the turkey got done so much faster than we expected, we rushed the ham, and didn’t get it plated in a pretty way, but it tasted fine. The orange marmalade was homemade. Our oldest son, who lives in southern California, made it from oranges in his backyard. For his family back in Iowa, that counts as pretty cool.

The meal began with a Tomato and Squash soup. Nothing fancy: We served it in disposable bowls. The recipe was very much improvised, but it turned out to be a good blend of flavors, and offered another option for our vegetarians.

Along with the turkey, I served homemade cranberry sauce and turkey gravy. Some folks like the jellied kind of cranberry sauce, plopped straight out of the can. I like to make my own. This was a simple recipe: I blended a cup of orange juice and a cup of sugar, heated it up, and then popped the cranberries in the mix. If you’ve never made your own sauce before, I mean “popped” literally. As cranberries heat up, their skins burst, and then it’s just a matter of cooking it down to the desired consistency.

The gravy was made from turkey stock and pan drippings. I’d made the stock the day before from turkey necks. (The meat, in turn, went into the collard greens described below.) My stock-making abilities are pure trial-and-error, but it allowed me to flavor up my future gravy with some Slap Ya Mama seasoning. The next day, the pan drippings added more flavor, not just from the brined turkey itself, but from the bed of diced vegetables below it, including a Trinity of onion, celery, and pepper, plus carrots and some chicken stock. I left the gravy on the thin side this year. I made a little butter and flour roux, but I didn’t want the butter flavor to overshadow the turkey flavors.

Another dish closely associated with the turkey is the dressing. I don’t think I’ve ever made the same dressing twice, but this one might well show up again on our holiday table. It’s a sausage and brioche dressing, tapping another Kitchenista recipe, with a couple of minor modifications. Instead of golden raisins, I added some dried mixed berries, and a handful of walnuts.

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It seemed to catch some people’s attention. Some liked the sage sausage. Some appreciated that the dressing stayed so moist. That wasn’t intentional. If the turkey hadn’t gotten done so fast, I probably would have let this dish cook and set up another 30 minutes or so.

There’s some controversy over what the dish should be called. Some people think the difference between “stuffing” and “dressing” is a North-South thing, and there is an element of truth to that. In my part of the country, at least, it has more to do with where it’s cooked. If it’s cooked separately from the bird, it’s “dressing.” If it’s cooked in the bird, it’s “stuffing,” i.e., you stuffed it inside the turkey cavity.

Stuffing has the advantage of soaking up extra juices from the bird. But it also adds cooking time to the turkey itself. Sometimes, I’ve done it both ways. I’ve put some in the turkey, and cooked the remainder separately. Southern cooks also seem to have a preference for cornbread dressing, while northern cooks generally prefer white bread. One of the things that attracted me to use the brioche was simple necessity: I’ve had the better part of a brioche loaf sitting in the cupboard for a while, and decided it had reached the point of use-it-or-lose-it.

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As much as the turkey is the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving feast, it’s the sides that signal the difference between a festival meal and a simple meat-potatoes-vegetable Sunday dinner.

The white potatoes were a no-brainer. My Dad loves his potatoes. I served these coronary-style, with an amount of butter and cream cheese that I can’t reveal without blushing in embarrassment.

I made mac and cheese for the sake of the family vegetarians, and also for the four grandsons. This was a six-cheese mac, with three cheddars, colby, Monterey Jack, and a layer of Munster on top. The recipe is my own, but it’s similar to Robbie Montgomery’s Sweetie Pie’s recipe that’s been floating around online for years.

The mashed sweet potatoes were pretty standard: butter, sugar, some select seasonings, and a few pecans on top. Instead of boiling the sweet potatoes, I roasted them, which seemed to bring out more flavor and a deeper orange color. The “festive” part was to serve them in hollowed-out orange halves, letting the orange juice in the pulp add a little more flavor. It worked. If I do it again, I’ll probably use smaller oranges.

The fourth dish there is a corn pudding. It’s a quick, six-ingredient dish but it has a real down-home, comfort food flavor.

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Next come the green vegetable sides. I wanted to make collard greens because just a week or so ago, our youngest son had brought in a batch from his garden. The meat you see is from the turkey necks I’d used to make stock the day before. The greens broth, however, was made with ham hocks. I’d made my “pot likker” the night before, let it cool and blend flavors, and then added the greens in the morning.

It’s hard to know what to do with peas. I wanted to leave them as another meat-free option for the vegetarians, so no bacon. I ended up melting in some citrus and herb butter, the same stuff I’d used in the turkey.

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And finally, the sweets. The dish on the left is a cranberry fluff. My youngest son made it, and it was terrific. It was one of my Mom’s signature dishes. A year or two before she passed, I tried to wheedle a recipe out of her, but all she could give me were the ingredients: cranberries, crushed pineapple, walnuts, marshmallows, and whipped cream. I’ve come up with dishes close to it, but not quite. This year, my son nailed it on the first try. It tasted like Mom’s, and suddenly, it was like Mom was there with us.

The pie was a blend of roasted butternut squash and a roasted sugar pumpkin. Turns out that Libby’s canned “pumpkin” isn’t really pumpkin, but a proprietary variety of squash. So I wanted to try my own hand at it. Rather than follow the seasoning in the classic recipe on the Libby’s can (which is foolproof), I used one more Kitchenista recipe: her pumpkin spice mix.  I made a couple of very good pies. At this point, I can’t swear that my puree is all that much better than the canned stuff that it’s worth the extra work, but I don’t think that will stop me from tinkering and trying it again.

What’s the moral of the story? If I can put together a decent home-cooked meal for Thanksgiving, you can too. I didn’t screw up any dishes this year, and was proud to serve each one. We’ll see how my luck holds out in December. We have two more comparably big family meals coming up.

 

Soul on Ice Cubes

45. In our last installment, we went through the potato salad jokes. But why is potato salad funny?  And why does the humor often fall along racial lines? Why do we assume that “white” potato salad is bound to be something “creative” that looks more like this…

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…while my potato salad looks like this?

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As we saw in the first part, the top photo looks like a good potato dish. Still, I can’t get past the feeling that my potato salad is the real potato salad, and if someone promised me potato salad, and brought the first dish, I’d feel shortchanged, no matter how good it was.

It’s like the difference between a hamburger and a hot dog. Both are conceptually the same thing: meat between a bun, with similar condiments. But if I ordered a hamburger, and was handed a hot dog instead, I’d be disappointed. I’d eat it. And I’d like it. But it just wouldn’t be the same. I was expecting a hamburger.

Expectations. Expectations based on experience and, perhaps, sentimentality. Potato salad just needs to be a certain way, and some other way feels wrong. There’s a sense of ownership here. A certain kind of potato salad is ours, at least enough for us to make jokes about it, and other kinds of potato dishes are yours. And keep yours away from us, please.

So is Potato Salad part of “soul food” cuisine? Is it soul on ice cubes?

If “soul food” is taken in the specific historical sense, as it developed in the 1960s as an expression of black identity and power independent of white society, then potato salad won’t fit the bill. There’s nothing especially “black” about it. It doesn’t have African roots, nor was it invented or developed in the African American community.

Potato salad is a European import. The potatoes themselves are, of course, a New World food. The Spanish hauled them back home, and promptly went about inventing dishes that amounted to potato salad. By 1597, the English botanist, John Gerard, noted that potatoes were exceptionally good mixed with a little wine, oil, vinegar. This modern Italian potato salad, made with chianti, may suggest the evolutionary development:

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The Germans, meanwhile, developed warm potato salads that tended to have more bite. They generally used more vinegar, as well as the grainy (and sharper) mustards of the day. Some assume that potato salad was introduced in the United States by German immigrants, so that the hot variety came first. There’s no doubt that many people enjoy German potato salad.

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However, early American cookbooks leave the impression that many people preferred the French style. The French developed a cooler, i.e., room temperature, potato salad, made with oil and vinaigrette, and other seasonings.

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An 1825 English cookbook, French Domestic Cooking, offers a potato salad recipe calling for “fine herbs, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar, adding some beet-root and gherkins cut in slices.” It wouldn’t occur to me to dice up a beet to throw in my potato salad, but the rest of it doesn’t sound too bad. The “Bite from the Past” blog gives a potato salad recipe from c.1885 that uses oil and vinegar, but no eggs. In any case, whether French, German, British, or an American blending, potato salad’s roots are in Europe, not Africa.

Well, so what? We could say the same of macaroni and cheese. So maybe we should expand or adjust our working definition of “soul food.”

However, if “soul food” is taken in a broader sociological sense as a comfort food for African Americans who came north or west during the Great Migration, then potato salad won’t fit that bill either. The kind of American, homestyle potato salad I make is both too northern and too new to qualify as a traditional southern comfort food.

In the first place, potatoes are more of a northern and western food. The leading potato states are Idaho, Washington, and North Dakota. Potatoes thrive in cooler temperatures, which is why they became a replacement crop in Europe during the cereal crop failures brought on by the Little Ice Age. The south, meanwhile, was more tied to an unrelated tuber, the sweet potato.

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Idaho potatoes at Sweetbay Supermarket, Wesley Chapel, Florida

Secondly, the ingredients of our homestyle potato salad are too new to be considered “down home.” The exact history of mayonnaise is disputed, but the sauce, as we know it, was formalized by the French in the early 1800s. By the end of the century, mayonnaise had made it to America, and was beginning to be used in elite restaurants as a dressing for potatoes. But that was homemade mayonnaise, i.e., with fresh eggs, so that it had to be used quickly, especially in the days before reliable refrigeration.

Commercial mayonnaise, a safer product with a longer shelf-life, began to appear in the early 1900s. Yellow mustard likewise started becoming popular in the early 1900s, especially with the introduction of French’s served on hot dogs at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

So when did potatoes, mayo and mustard land in the same bowl? In a small cookbook published by industry-leader Hellmann’s in 1922, the seventeen recipes did not include one for potato salad.

I glanced through some of my older cookbooks. In the late 1930s, Eudora Welty gave a recipe for a “wickedly hot potato salad” served with fried catfish at the Hotel Vicksburg. It includes all of the ingredients we’d expect: potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise, prepared mustard, plus pickles, pimentos, and more, though the implication is that the mayonnaise was homemade.

But there’s no potato salad recipe in my mom’s 1946 Better Homes & Gardens cookbook that she was given as a newlywed, nor in the 1950 Charleston Receipts. There’s big-batch recipe for serving 46-50 in the 1950 The Sexton Cook Book. There’s also one in Meta Given’s The Modern Family Cook Book that first appeared in  1942, but mine is the 1961 edition.

In other words, it appears that potato salad as we know it is largely a postwar creation. It depends on commercial mayonnaise and yellow mustard, and on the availability of refrigeration. It’s not exactly a “down home” dish. Indeed, in the last few years, “mayonnaise” has become a gentle insult for white people and white culture. Yours truly, for instance, may or may not have used this photo to mock last spring’s Oscar nominees:

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Another dimension of “soul food” is that many of the standard dishes are part of festival cuisine, not daily cooking. When the food police start shooting down soul food dishes as unhealthy, it’s always worth reminding them that it was never intended to be eaten every day. If you eat candied yams, every day, drenched in brown sugar and butter, it might well kill you.

In that context, potato salad qualifies as a festival food. It’s certainly a key side dish in backyard cookouts and picnics. In more than a few southern homes, it’s part of the Thanksgiving or Christmas menu. Potato salad gets eaten by crowds, not just the immediate nuclear family, and so all of the things we joked about in the first piece come into play, such as wondering who made it, or debating a bad batch.

It’s in this sense that we might feel justified in saying that even though potato salad came from Europe, and was developed in this country using northern potatoes, and flavored with mayonnaise and mustard created by white northerners, it can still be considered a soul food item, much as macaroni and cheese.

The moral of the story? No matter who you are, the next time there’s a family event that calls for potato salad, don’t be content to run down to Walmart and buy a tub to plop on the table. Learn how to make it right. That’s what I’m doing.

Sugar. That last batch I made needed a spoonful of sugar. Then it was pretty good.

 

 

 

Juneteenth 2016

Last year, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, I invited the family over for a Juneteenth dinner. Normally, I have misgivings about anything that might look like appropriation, especially when it comes to holidays, but this seemed like an exception to whatever rules I might have otherwise imposed on myself:

In the Christian tradition (as in other faiths), meals can take on sacred meaning, and that’s how I approached the 2015 Juneteenth meal. Juneteenth is intended as a celebration of freedom, an African American Independence Day. For us, as a white family, it was intended as a sign of our solidarity with mourners in Charleston, and of our ongoing commitment to stand for justice and peace, and to be on the right side of history.

So what about this year? The underlying historical event, which was the Union Army’s announcement to the enslaved in Galveston, Texas that the war was over and they were free, happened on June 19, 1865. But “Juneteenth” is, by definition, imprecise. The 19th usually falls on a weekday, when most folks are working, so it’s nice to have some built-in flexibility.

This year, the 19th fell on a Sunday, which was also Father’s Day. My Dad, who will turn 97 this July, was going to be with us, so I wanted to do the Father’s Day thing. But in the wake of the Orlando massacre, yet another domestic terrorism attack fueled by hate, I felt that the same motives we had for celebrating Juneteenth last year still applied. So we’d pass out the Father’s Day cards and gifts, but I also wanted to cook up a good meal with some symbolic significance.

And that’s where it gets tricky. For descendants of the enslaved, the whole idea of a Juneteenth meal is that you’re free to eat whatever you want. There’s no more master doling out meager rations. In other words, there is no prescribed menu for Juneteenth. It’s not like the bread and the wine of the Last Supper or the various items on the Passover plate.

Moreover, if I chose certain foods as more appropriate for Juneteenth, was I just playing into malicious stereotypes, especially when it comes to items like watermelon or chicken? There’s also been a line of thought since at least the 1960s that the whole project is suspect: Some insist that we call “soul food” is either the “slave food” of yesterday or an unhealthy menu of contemporary food selections warped by systemic racism.

Or the other possibility was that I was being over-scrupulous, and just plain overthinking the whole thing! I like certain dishes, so why not make them? I would also be cooking under a time constraint: I needed a menu with dishes that I could either prepare on Saturday, or that could cook unattended while we were in church on Sunday morning.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

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From top left to right:

1. Roast chicken. Roasted, not fried, because I can’t fry chicken and sit in church at the same time. The Sunday “gospel bird” is pretty traditional all around. Nothing fancy about this little guy: It was brined overnight, and then mustard-roasted. It cooked a bit faster than I anticipated, so by the time I got home from church, it had probably been in 5-10 minutes longer than it should have. But the brining kept it nice and moist anyway.

2. Mississippi pot roast, served with rolls. I don’t think this dish has any history behind it, certainly not in this slow-cooker version, which was a viral phenomenon dating all the way back to the beginning of 2016. But I like it, and it has a “set it and forget it” degree of difficulty that allowed me to make it the day before. (Sam Sifton’s NYT version is better, but I was feeling even lazier than that easy dish.)

3. Lima beans. I wanted to include some sort of bean dish. Lately, I’ve been messing with red beans and rice, but I was already planning on a different Cajun/Creole dish (see below). So I decided to go with lima beans. Of course, the Platonic form of lima beans is Martha Lou Gadsden’s, praised by folks like Andrew Zimmern and Sean Brock, and it seems that everyone on the planet covets her recipe. I don’t know if my version is even in the same continent as hers, let alone the same ballpark, but I was happy with it. As such, I’m letting this dish represent the Low Country tradition.

4. Sweet potatoes. My mom was the Queen of Candied Yams, a veritable Bloody Mary when it came to her ruthlessness in applying brown sugar and butter. I’ve given up trying to re-create hers. Lately, I’ve been mashing them rather than slicing. I’ve eased back on the sugar and butter, but added a little maple syrup for flavor, and worked in a good handful of pecan chips.

5. Seven-cheese mac and cheese. For the record, that’s three Cheddars (white, sharp, and mild), Colby, Monterey Jack, some Velveeta cubes, and Pepper Jack slices on top. We’ve discussed the curious place of macaroni and cheese on the typical soul food menu a couple of times. In this instance, it was included less as a symbol and more as a protein substitute for the two family vegetarians.

6-7. Collard Greens and Cornbread. This was definitely not for my poor vegetarians. Normally, I’d use either a smoked ham hock or a combination of smoked turkey neck and pork tail for flavoring, in chicken stock, but for this batch I used hickory-smoked bacon. It can be difficult to find good quality, reasonably-priced collards in my corner of the world, so I lucked out with this batch. The only “trick” I have for collards is to take a little nibble in the store. If they’re too bitter in their raw state, there isn’t alchemical transformation that will make them any better on the stove. (Full disclosure: I botched up the cornbread just a bit. It tested done with a toothpick, but as I cut into it, I realized that the center wasn’t quite done.)

8. Corn Maque Choux. I got the idea for this from the first episode of Kevin Belton’s “New Orleans Cooking with Kevin Belton” show on PBS. This version of his recipe isn’t quite the same as what he did on the show, and isn’t exactly what I did here either, but it will give you the gist. There’s a lot of very fresh sweet corn around this time of year, and this succotash-like dish does justice to it.

9. Potato Salad. Jokes about potato salad abound in the tubes of the Internets, and it’s part of the potato salad canon that white folks can’t pull it off. I only know how to make one kind of potato salad. I think by “white people potato salad,” folks mean something like these “10 Perfect Potato Salad Recipes for a July 4th Spread,” none of which look anything like mine. What you see on my table is potatoes (of course), eggs, mayo (Duke’s or Kewpie, depending on my mood), mustard, celery, pimentos, pickle relish (dill or sweet, again depending on my mood), a splash or two of hot sauce, and various other seasonings. My personal heresy is that I don’t use onions, because I can’t stand raw onions. I do, however, use onion powder.

10-11. The Pies. The Pecan Chocolate Cheesecake pie was a Father’s Day gift from one of my beloved children, so I can’t take credit for it, except that I graciously allowed other people to eat it. The fruit pie is Mulberry, made of berries from my own backyard. It was a meaningful thing to me. Any idiot can make a fruit pie, but I felt good about making one from fruit I’d harvested with my own purple fingers. Of course, historically, the enslaved would not have survived on their meager rations without the ability to find and utilize what the land would give them for free.

12. Watermelon wedges. These didn’t quite make it from kitchen to table, but I was eating watermelon throughout the preparation of this meal, for no other reason than that I really love watermelon. It’s basically the only thing that makes summer tolerable.

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Here’s a couple of snaps from my 2015 Juneteenth dinner. The menu was smothered chicken breasts and baby-back ribs (oven-roasted, not smoked; I don’t recall why), with mashed potatoes, collards, sweet potatoes, field peas & snaps, and watermelon cubes, with Big Red soda, and red velvet cake. (I was on a cake-baking binge last summer.)

If there’s a designated food for Juneteenth, it’s probably a red drink. Big Red is a Texas thing. This year’s red drink didn’t make it into the photos, but for the record, it was a Tahitian Treat soda.