The Year of the Chicken

What do you say to someone you love when he or she comes home with a pair of Bantam chicks? I said, “Gumbo.” It was the wrong thing to say. In the two and a half hours since he’d bought the birds at a yard sale in Como, Rob had become irrevocably attached to them. He pointed out how sweet and helpless they were. I thought aloud about what my Daddy would have said if he knew I’d have chickens in a duplex. Rob pondered aloud about what my Daddy would have said if he knew I’d have him in the bed. I had to concede that point, even though it hardly justified keeping chickens in a laundry basket on top of the washing machine.

We argued over those animals until they matured into a little hen and a little rooster. The hen, Vivian, was plump and docile, a pretty little dappled bird Hopkins would have praised. The rooster was a work of art, too, a noble-looking little cock with a hood of flaming russet red, a body of glowing bronze, and a tail of such rich green hues as to make a peacock blush with envy. Unfortunately, the rooster, Rusty by name, became the terror of the neighborhood, chasing cats and dogs twice to four times his size, spurring folks of all ages and crowing at all hours of the day, which for him started at 3 am. He was lord of his quarter-acre. He and Viv had free range of the yard. Together they made vast dusty nests beneath my vintage peppers, pecked my oh-so-carefully-nurtured marigold blossoms to pieces and copulated noisily in front of the neighborhood children. (“Look, Momma, the chickens are playing leapfrog!”) When the hen started laying, I collected and pickled the eggs forthwith. I had no doubt that they were fertile, and was not going to take any chances on their hatching. Two chickens were bane enough for my existence.

Though a few of our friends professed some degree of sympathy for my plight, most of them took Rob’s side in the matter. They all liked Rob. Rob’s got his sweet and innocent act down pat, and I don’t. I’ve had no few of my acquaintances to deem me a “curmudgeon-in-training” (which I took as a compliment). In addition, I suspect a lot of them enjoyed having friends who kept chickens in the city limits and let them roost in a laundry basket. They’re the kind of people who appreciate such obvious signs of eccentricity. I thought Momma would be aghast, but she thought it was “cute.” (I hate cute.) And Grandmomma loved to call up on the phone and give me all kinds of advice on chicken keeping and how they used to do it when she was a child; I never tired of her telling me how they would wring one’s neck. Even my bartender liked Viv and Rusty. “What do you mean, they accidentally got in the dryer?” he’d ask, frowning. I asked him if he’d never been tipped by a chicken.

Eventually The Powers That Be came down on my side. The Year of the Chicken ended when the rooster died of a heat stroke, and the hen found her way into a raccoon two days later. Rob was just heartbroken. I comforted him as best I could and kept my damn mouth shut. Then he comes up with this dog: a starving puppy, no less, shivering in the cold from a culvert in Batesville, an admittedly miserable situation. To my credit, I held out for four days. But that fourth night Rob played upon my sympathies like he was Yo-Yo Ma and I was a bull fiddle, so in a moment of weakness I told him he could bring the puppy home. At least that’s what he said I said.

Puppies aren’t supposed to be ugly, but even this one’s formative stages bore evidence of future unsightliness: he looked like a major rat. “Imagine how you’d look if you’ve been living in a culvert for a week!” Rob said. I pointed out that I’d paid rent in Oxford on worse places than a culvert in Batesville for months at a time, and I looked just fine, thank you. He just looked down his nose at me and cuddled the dog. He even offered to let me name it. I suggested Nemesis. He thought that was too long, so he called it Rusty. Same thing, I said. I knew better than to think anyone would begrudge Rob having a dog, but I found a singular ally in the cat. Grace knew better than to mess with a rooster, but she would ambush the puppy from atop the three-legged end table. Rusty thrived on a diet of shoes and baseball caps, pillows and cushions. He once chewed clear through a wing-back chair. Rob defended him by telling me he once had a dog that ate his way through a living room sofa. (Rob’s justifications tend to rely upon worse case scenarios.) And the dog got uglier. He turned the color of a bad carpet, his nose got pointy and his head outgrew his ears. Eventually the dog grew big enough to try to take the cat head-on one good time. Cat won, but Rusty got some space.

In the meantime, I lost my job, found myself with a lot of time on my hands and not so much company anymore. I was at home a lot, just me and the dog. Up until then, Rusty ignored me, but eventually he took to following me around the house and slumbering at my feet while I worked on any number of hopelessly doomed projects. I discovered that there’s nothing like a dog to keep your feet warm. I also I found out he liked this dog food that costs fifty cents a can and wouldn’t let Rob feed him that cheap stuff. He also liked to have his ears scratched; funny how you don’t mind doing that for a dog. I was once embarrassed to take him outside with me, but Rusty and I got to where we went on walks together. I figured a dog that ugly made even me look good. And as long as he wasn’t ashamed, I began to believe I shouldn’t be either.

Black-Eyed Gumbo

A New Year’s celebration was marked by two traditions in my family: fireworks and black-eyed peas. Many of the fireworks were left over from my father’s superb Christmas collection, which contained the usual array of bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers, but he always had a few fire fountains and a loud sparkling rocket or four put away for the last night in December. The peas, which we had on the table pretty much year-round, assumed an incandescence all their own that night as a signature of memory and togetherness.

Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country. Among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endured, one of the more evident examples of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage.

This is another recipe I made at the Harvest Cafe in Oxford, a vegetarian restaurant on the corner of Jackson and South 10th. On the brunch shift, I’d make soup specials, which was always a challenge, because the black bean chili was outstanding and one of the most popular dishes. Under duress, I rose to the occasion and in a memorable effort made a gumbo using black-eyed peas. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes seemed a good combination for our clientele; most people who ordered soup wanted something warm and filling around Sunday lunch time, and this recipe seemed a good alternative to the chili. My idea was received with reservations. When my boss John Anderson asked me what he needed to put on the blackboard as the soup of the day, I said “black-eyed pea gumbo.” He blinked his eyes behind those big glasses he wears, slowly nodded his head and said, “Okay”, which I interpreted as skepticism of a profound and imponderable nature. Jennie Lee, my co-worker, asked me if I’d lost my mind, but she’s from Charleston, knows red rice better than gumbo and she knew I was crazier than an outhouse rat anyway. She also didn’t sign my paychecks.

Besides, the dish was well underway already. I’d made a good brown roux with vegetable oil and our lightest flour, had added minced garlic, chopped onions, celery and bell pepper and combined that with a good base made with condensed refrigerated cubes of vegetable stock, basil, thyme, oregano and bay. Not only that, but I’d been soaking the peas since happy hour the day before, and they were simmering on a back eye. I also had two packages of organic okra stashed in a refrigerator in the back; these were expensive contraband (imagine the price of a frozen package of organic okra in 1995), but essential to my enterprise. The okra I rinsed under warm water before adding it to the pot to relieve it of ropy-ness. The peas I drained but kept the liquid. After adding the peas and okra to the pot, I started adding the liquid to achieve a good consistency (I like it thick-ish, but with a good juice) then added two small drained cans of diced tomatoes that I’d smuggled in from James’ Food Store.

Once that was done, I began adjusting the seasonings, and finally put the gumbo in a serving pan on the line. Of course John ordered the first bowl. His comment was just as laconic as his first, but delivered with a smile, which I took as a positive sign. This interpretation was confirmed when the orders started coming in, many for the gumbo. This earned me a grateful nod from my co-workers, since pouring something in a bowl and sending it out the window is one of the less stressful acts you can perform in a busy kitchen. Before the end of the shift, John was gracious enough to come into the kitchen and say, “They loved your gumbo. How did you make it?” John, here’s the recipe. Sorry I’m a little late.

Looking into Window Cookies

Most people who cook have dishes in their repertoire that come from seeing a photo of a similar dish in a magazine or a book somewhere, taking a liking to it and wanting to make it themselves. In days gone by, trying a recipe was more often the result of eating it, but during the course of my lifetime (a minuscule stretch in the Great Scheme of Things) food has become more of a visual experience than it’s ever been. Take a look at any cookbook printed before perhaps 1950, and you’ll rarely find photographs, whereas nowadays you just don’t see cookbooks that do not include big, beautiful images of dishes along with the recipes, which seem secondary by comparison, and in most cases actually are. (For a good example, I’ll direct you to The Southerner’s Cookbook, recently released by Garden & Gun.) The same goes for women’s magazines, which were the main media outlet for articles about food and cooking before Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard created culinary journalism in the Sixties and Seventies. By that time, the advances in photography as well as other technologies made capturing images easier, and food porn was born.

The job of a food photographer is make what’s in front of their lens look like you’d want to eat it, just as the job of a porn photographer is to make their subject look like you’d want to buy it a couple of martinis and rent a room. All a photographer has is light, and since you can’t taste, smell or feel light (at least not on this planet) the image has to work on a lot of levels in the mind’s eye. Many food photographers will tell you that the most basic, delicious and nourishing foods we know are not photogenic; meatloaf springs to mind, but other examples abound. To make these foods more visually appealing, lighting, plating and garnishing are primary considerations as are perspective and shadowing. The food can also be treated in other ways to make it camera-friendly; browning agents, misting, branding (as with a hot piece of metal) not to mention creating steam with cool air nebulizers or a combination of chemicals that give the appearance of steam, which effect can also be achieved with a cigar.

Confections take well to the camera because confectionary itself is an art involving brilliant colors, textures and shapes, not to mention architecture, especially when it comes to cakes, which can be monumental. Candies are easy, too, but cookies can be tricky, with the exception of window cookies, which are a combination of architecture and cookie. (You knew I’d get to the cookies sooner or later, didn’t you?) Window cookies are sugar cookies with a transparent candy center.  Now, you’re going to find other types called the same thing. In the Midwest, they have what are called cathedral cookies, which are made by with colored mini-marshmallows rolled chocolate cookie dough, sliced and baked, called such because they are said to resemble cathedral windows (not to me); then you have what are called thumbprint cookies, dimple cookies or jelly cookies, which are made by making a depression in the middle of raw cookies, filling it with fruit preserves of some sort (cherry, for instance) and baking. While I love these, they are not, in my book, window cookies for the simple fact that they’re not glassy enough. Call me a literalist.

To make window cookies, the most essential ingredient is the right kind of candy, which should be a transparent hard candy, and while any of this type will do, most people use Jolly Ranchers or Life Savers. The candy must be coarsely crushed, and since the window center is the focus of this confection, use a basic cookie dough such as sugar cookies; you can throw a little cocoa in for a darker color, but I can’t see going much further. Cook only long enough to melt the candy, and let the cookies dry on a secondary surface before serving.

Image courtesy of KittenKiss
Image courtesy of KittenKiss

Standing up for Pecan Pie

Let’s not quibble and just admit in our hearts that pecan pie is made up of every ingredient condemned by food Nazis as downright deadly: eggs, sugar, flour and lard or butter. It’s a sure bet that not a few of those Aryans have petty issues with vanilla flavoring, and some left-wing faction probably thinks pecans will wreck your colon. But you know what? We shouldn’t care; pecan pie is the most iconic dish of the season. Trust me, use the Karo recipe with light syrup and wrap loosely in foil while baking to prevent scorching.

Steak and Kidney Pie

According to “The Old Foodie” Janet Clarkson, who as an Australian is well-versed in the British table, steak and kidney pie (also known as beef and kidney pie) is a late 19th /early 20th century variation on an older recipe, steak/beef and oyster pie. Clarkson claims this variant developed because in time oyster populations in the UK were decimated by over-harvesting and pollution, so those indomitable Brits found a viable substitute for oysters in kidneys, usually those of veal or lamb. But despite its relatively shallow roots, steak and kidney pie has become very much an iconic British foodstuff. References to it can be found in the Harry Potter series and more notably in Joyce’s Ulysses, but it also appears in American works by Anglophiles such as Clark Blaise and Marjorie Rawlings, who mentions steak and kidney pie in conjunction with her recipe for blackbird pie (Marjorie was a big hunter) in her wonderful work, Cross Creek Cookery

Now, kidneys aren’t something you’re going to find in the grocery store, but my neighbor Arthur Jones, who is the undisputed king of offal cookery in Jackson, found some at the Farmer’s Market on High Street, and brought them to me for preparation because he is such a busy man. We discussed several methods, but at my unrelenting insistence settled on the pie. Arthur procured three kidneys, weighing altogether about a pound and a quarter. These I cored, diced and sautéed in butter with onions a bit of flour. I used about the same amount of cubed top round, also sautéed with a bit of flour and onion, then slow-cooked until very tender in a beef stock I had on hand. To these I added about a half-pound of sliced mushrooms, also sautéed in butter. These three ingredients went into a skillet with a bit more stock that I seasoned with salt, black pepper and Worcestershire and thickened with corn starch into thick gravy. I lined an 8” cast iron skillet with crust, filled it with the kidney/beef/mushroom mixture, topped with another layer of crust and baked in a moderate oven until nicely browned. It’s a wonderful old savory dish, a great addition to your menu.