- October 2014
- September 2014
- August 2014
- July 2014
- June 2014
- May 2014
- April 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- January 2014
- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
Greens have finally begun to crop up in truck stands here in the lower South, and it’s about damn time, too. Stewed greens have long been a staple of the Southern diet; during her leanest days in Atlanta after the war, when she was struggling to choke down the tough old rooster Uncle Henry had managed to bring to the table at Aunt Pittypat’s, Scarlett reminisced about the sumptuous antebellum meals at Tara that included a tureen of greens in pot likker. After the turn of the century, greens were often the only sustenance that stood between a steady diet of fatback, cornmeal and beans against pellagra. Like so many Southern sideboard items, greens serve to remind us that our cuisine, like any other, is rooted in need.
Good greens take a little trouble to prepare. Allow me to attempt to discredit the idea that you can wash a mess of greens by stuffing them in a Maytag on the cycle usually selected for fluffy sweaters. For those of you who might actually consider this shortcut, let me be the first to admit that I did see Vincent Price poach a bluefish in a dishwasher on the “Tonight Show”. I also had a friend who put TV dinners under the hood of her car during long drives home from her office, but on the whole I do not recommend laundry appliances or automobiles as part of your batterie de cuisine. Granted, rinsing greens in the washer might work for some people, but don’t blame me if they end up tasting like fabric softener and let me go on record as saying that I’ll be the last person in the world wearing turnip-greened tighty whities.
I subscribe to the notion that winter-hardy greens of any variety need a spell of cold weather to sweeten them, a conviction not supported by any scientific evidence that I’ve stumbled upon, though if I were to call Felder Rushing up and ask him, his generous soul might back me up with some sort of confirmation. For a good mess of greens, buy three bunches of turnip and two of mustard. Once you get the greens home, take a knife and cut the bunch right above the rubber band and strip the leaves from the stems by hand. Save the turnip roots for pork or game or road kill. I’ll admit that I do like to leave some of the stems on because I like my greens just a little stringy, but Momma always said the only reason I did this is because I was too lazy to clean them properly. She was right, of course, but I think it was ADD; I’ve settled down now.
Put the stripped leaves into a clean, stoppered sink. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, and then just cover them with water. Agitate to knock off sand or other debris; the salt will dislodge any pests. Drain the sink, and then repeat the process until your greens are absolutely clean. Trust me when I tell you that there’s nothing worse than taking a bite of gritty greens or gagging on a stewed slug for this, my brothers and sisters, is the voice of experience you hear. After your mess is thoroughly clean, get a big pot, set it next to the sink, lift the greens out of the water and set them off into the pot while they’re dripping wet. Put the pot on the stove on a medium heat, and then add about two cups of water. Occasionally stir the greens, reducing heat as they cook. When they have settled down to liquid level, add a small chopped white onion, a minced clove of garlic, a leftover trimmed ham bone and a fresh slit hot pepper or two. Then reduce heat and let them stew until the likker is good and strong, at least two hours. Fresh cornbread and a bit of raw onion are necessary appurtenances.
When I was working at Audie Michael’s, a restaurant on the Square in Oxford (current site of the City Grocery), we became well-known for two items outside our regular menu. One was gumbo, and the other was lasagna. We ran both regularly as luncheon specials. Since we were basically an upscale burger joint, we didn’t do a lot of catering, usually only large take-out orders for regular customers. But one day Pat Lamar, a wealthy, socially prominent patron and later mayor of Oxford, sent in a messenger carrying a beautiful, knee-high (swear to God) McCarty bowl with a tapered bottom. My boss came waltzing into the kitchen with this huge piece of pottery and said, “Mrs. Lamar wants you to make lasagna in this for her party tonight.”
“Sure,” I said. “Is this oven-proof?” He looked at me like I’d hit him with a hammer. “What do you mean, oven-proof?” he asked. (He was a nice guy, just lacked focus.)
“Look,” I said. “I’m not about to take an expensive piece of pottery, fill it full of lasagna and bake it in an oven without knowing that it’s not going to shatter into seven hundred pieces.” Suddenly realizing the situation, he asked, “What are we gonna do?” (In my experience, this has been management’s basic reaction to anything that’s not in the manual.) First thing, call her up and see if she’s baked in it before,” I said. A few minutes later he came back and said, “She’s never put it in the oven, but she thinks it will be fine.” I was skeptical. Even if the piece was insured, I didn’t want to have to clean up an oven full of lasagna and broken crockery. So I got on the phone and got in touch with Ron Dale, the ceramics professor at Ole Miss.
“Jesse Lee,” he said, “To be honest with you, I do not know if it will withstand the heat or not. But the one thing not to do is to put a cool piece into a hot oven.”
So I took a deep breath and made lasagna. I filled the bowl with warm water to heat the ceramic up a bit, poured that out and filled it swirled layers of meat, cheese, sauce and noodles, all still very warm. The entire ordeal (which took two people to lift) went into a cold oven. I started turning up the thermostat 25° every fifteen minutes or so. I was on pins and needles. My boss Don positioned himself in front of the oven on a stool staring at the oven door until I ran him out with a mop. After two hours, the lasagna was bubbling beautifully and the bowl was fine. I found a box big enough to hold the damn thing and was just closing the lid when Mrs. Lamar’s people came to pick it up for the party, which had already started. Once it was out of my hands, I went up to the bar and got good and snockered. I deserved it.
Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a timber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great barrels that held the finest wines of the 1925 Exposition of Paris. But after the lumber was gone, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. Vardaman is now the (admittedly self-proclaimed) Sweet Potato Capital of the World.
The distaff side of my family is from Vardaman, and I’ve been eating sweet potatoes my whole life, so for a long time I’ve been sailing along considering myself of an expert on the subject. Then here comes this McGreger girl who blows my dinghy out of the water. April McGreger has chops; whereas my father was a lawyer from Sarepta (sue me), she is a sweet potato farmer’s daughter from Vardaman proper. In her introduction to Sweet Potatoes, the tenth installment in the University of North Carolina Press’ “Savor the South” series, McGreger says, “By the time I was a teenager, I had worked at pulling slips, the shoots that densely bedded ‘seed’ sweet potatoes send up, and had spent a couple of summers riding the ‘setter’ that plants those sweet potato slips in expansive fields. I learned firsthand how eyes and ears and noses fill with dust from the warm, just-plowed earth and how the modern farmer’s schedule is set by nature and financial demands, often at odds with each other.”
People you have no idea how refreshing, how delightful it is to find a book about food written by a genuine human being who has a fundamental knowledge of “farm to table” and not by one of these pompous foodways pundits who don’t know a roux from a rutabaga or a kitchen flim-flam aristo whose closest connection to the earth is trying to grow weed on his daddy’s back forty before flunking out of college and entering culinary school. McGreger is a very fine writer (as we expect of Mississippi’s children) and a scholar to boot, so she takes an appropriately schoolmarmish tone when it comes to sweet potatoes. In her own rhetoric, she poses the question “Is there any food more central to our southern identity than sweet potatoes?” The short answer is no, and perhaps for that very reason the sweet potato demands definition, particularly as a botanical and linguistic entity. I’ll leave that explanation to April, who does a thorough job of sorting out the Latin as well as the vernacular. She spends some time on the history of this important foodstuff, pointing out the antiquity of its use and cultivation in the New World as well as its introduction to the Old. Central to her narrative is the role of the sweet potato in the culinary history of the American South where it’s been keeping body and soul together throughout the region’s tumultuous history.
Before getting to the recipes proper, McGreger includes a crucial section concerning the selection, storage and preparation of sweet potatoes as well as a description of a few of the most essential culinary varieties of the sweet potato (some have been developed as a garden ornamental) and what sorts of dishes these varieties are best suited. Granted most of us only have access to the traditional “moist, orange-fleshed, and sweet” varieties, but it’s worth knowing other types are out there, and if the trend to greater diversity in the marketplace and the proliferation of farmers’ markets continues, finding whites, yellows, purples and heirloom varieties is something to look forward to. Equally important is her section on selection and storage, since while she recommends buying sweet potatoes “dirty by the bushel, directly from a farmer”, the roots must be cured in a warm, humid environment for a few weeks in order to fully develop their flavor. Most essential is McGreger’s advice on the preparation of sweet potatoes, and since she is clearly the final court of authority when it comes to cooking these vegetables (roots and leaves, it’s worth noting), this section can well be considered the heart of her work.
McGreger chafes at being restricted to only fifty recipes, but to her credit she offers a spectacular variety “aimed to help you develop techniques to develop your own repertoire.” These are arranged in four categories: “Breakfast: Morning Pastries, Grits, Gravy, and Hash”; “Sides and Salads: Vintage Classics and Fresh, Modern Twists”; “Mains, Soups, Stews, and In-Betweens: A World of Flavor”; and “Desserts: A Little Something Sweet”. Early on she laments that, “Once such a prominent food in the southern diet, the sweet potato is now eaten by many only on Thanksgiving in the form of sweet potato casserole or sweet potato pie”, and her selection of recipes is designed to illustrate the versatility of the sweet potato and to provide cooks at every level of proficiency with a means of making them more of a staple in the kitchen, as well they should be.
April wryly regrets never winning the Little Miss Sweet Potato crown, but a lot of thought, a lot of time, and a lot of love went into this wonderful work, and in my less-than-humble opinion it establishes April McGreger as not merely a Little Miss, nor even a Queen, but as the Empress of Sweet Potatoes.