A Proper Fool

The British have an absolute genius when it comes to naming foods; there’s bangers and mash, which are nothing more than sausages and mashed potatoes; Welsh rabbit, a dish made with bread and cheese; spotted dick, a pudding made with suet and fruit; and toad in the hole, eggs or sausages in bread. You can also include laver bread (seaweed), black pudding (blood sausage), haggis (stuffed sheep’s stomach), and many others, but my favorite is a fool.

In Britain, a fool is nothing more than fruit in whipped cream or more traditionally sweet custard, sort of an unfrozen parfait (which, by the way, in Britain is what they call a pâté). For instance, in England, what we’d call peaches and cream would be called a peach fool. The oldest versions of a fruit foole, which use gooseberries, may date back to the 15th century, though it is first mentioned as a dessert (together with the trifle) in 1598, and the earliest recipe dates to the mid-17th century. Why it’s called a fool is anyone’s guess, though some claim it derives from the French verb fouler meaning “to crush” or “to press” (as in pressing grapes for wine), a claim dismissed by those pontificating nitpickers who put together the Oxford English Dictionary as “baseless and inconsistent with the early use of the word”.

Most recipes you find today are nothing more than whipped cream and fruit. Unsurprisingly, you’re not going to find gooseberries used very often at all, since even if you find them they’re going to cost you an arm and a leg, but we have many types of fruit available here throughout our long warm season: Louisiana strawberries, foraged blackberries, Chilton County peaches, figs from your grandmother’s tree, hill country blueberries, even that good late-season cantaloupe from the Ozarks as well as the early Florida Valencias. But simply using whipped cream is improper, and substituting yogurt or even worse vanilla pudding is just trashy; to make a proper fool, you must make custard.

For six servings, scald two cups milk and add to two well-beaten eggs to which has been added a half cup sugar. Put in a double boiler and heat. As it begins to thicken, add a tablespoon of corn starch blended very well in a tablespoon of milk. Once very thick, refrigerate. As to the fruit, it should be chopped or sliced and macerated with a sugar (a quarter cup sugar to two cups of fruit) to leach out the excess water. Layer fruit, custard and sweetened very stiff whipped cream in a pretty glass and refrigerate until serving. Mint is always an acceptable garnish.

Sparrow Grass

The most charming aspect of any language is called folk etymology in which an unfamiliar word from another language is replaced by one more recognizable to native speakers. The most outstanding example of this process in English is sparrow grass, the old name for asparagus, which took root in the language in Shakespeare’s day and flourished until the reign of Queen Victoria. During that time, calling this vegetable asparagus carried “an air of stiffness and pedantry”, as the vegetable itself still does to this day.

Oh, yes; asparagus has undeniable snob appeal. A certain sign of this is that in the spring, when asparagus spears begin to storm the produce markets, food columnists wax rapturous over ways to ruin the flavor of this delicate vegetable by stir-frying it with peppers in vile olive oil (with garlic, no less), dusting it with every manner of herbs and spices (even curry, for Pete’s sake) or covering it with a sauce that overpowers the vegetable (Salsa? You’ve GOT to be kidding …). Like many spring vegetables including green or “English” peas, few people know what fresh asparagus tastes like, since the spears you get in the markets are invariably days old, and by then the flavor has been lost. People who grew up on a farm will remember how essential it was to pick sweet corn in a short time before cooking because the sugars in the kernels begin to revert to starch immediately after the ears are taken from the stalks. While asparagus has a lower sugar or starch content than both corn and peas, the same process is at work, and nothing can compare to freshly-harvested asparagus prepared for the table.

Alas and alack, asparagus is not widely grown in the South; it is a cool weather vegetable, which means that in the South, particularly the lower South, we do not have the requisite long periods of cold weather needed for the plant. It’s also somewhat fussy, requiring more care than most people are willing to devote to a perennial vegetable that takes up a lot of room and has a very short season. If you’re lucky enough to know someone diligent enough to grow asparagus, more power to you, but most of us have to settle with the stalks in the market. Buy bunches as soon as you see them in the produce section, and you’re lucky if you’ll find them upright in a container with water.

Freshly-picked asparagus is best served simply, with butter or a simple cream sauce. This Florentine is somewhat of a stretch, but given that the spears I’m using and likely those you will are well past their salad days, I feel justified. A Florentine is nothing more than a Mornay with spinach, and a Mornay itself is simply a Béchamel with a somewhat dry cheese, a Swiss of some ilk, though a good Parmesan isn’t totally out of order. Trim your spears of the tough ends, boil the tips in lightly-salted water until just tender, drain and cool immediately. Make your sauce with a butter roux, whole cream and the cheese of your choice, adding fresh stemmed and chopped spinach lightly cooked in butter. I recommend a thick sauce, and cool this slightly before placing the spears in a lightly buttered oven-proof dish, ladling over the spears, topping with a bit more grated cheese and broiling until lightly browned and bubbly.

 

Dirty Love

Rice is the staple starch of Cajun Country, used in a dizzying variety of recipes and served on its own with just about everything. Rice finds its way into sausage in the form of boudin, which is a signature staple of Arcadian tables, and what’s called dirty rice is further evidence (not that we need any) that the frugal Cajuns of south Louisiana, like rural people in all corners of the globe, use every part of an animal in their cooking, always with great results.

Dirty rice, as is the case with any dish involving what were once called variety meats but are now more often referred to as offal (it’s a hipster retro thing), is one you either love or hate, and I’ve loved it since I first had it when I was a boy. Like any staple recipe and I assure you it is a Cajun standard, dirty rice has as many variations as there are cooks, but the basic combination invariably calls for rice with chicken livers and gizzards. Some people add onions, peppers, even celery, while some others add other meats such as ground pork or chopped cooked game. The one big bone of contention when it comes to dirty rice is between those who cook the rice with the meats and vegetables and those who cook them separately and mix them with seasonings before serving. I belong to the cook-separately-and-mix faction; I do the same with jambalayas, and I’ve been called to the carpet for that more than once, but I like the texture better, and cooking the livers with the rice tends to make them rubbery.

For dirty rice, first cook your gizzards. You can go to the trouble of trimming the membranes if you want, but I’ve found that if you stew gizzards for a very long time they’re going to end up as tender as can be and the resulting broth is a thing of beauty, rich and gelatinous. You will have to trim the livers, since those membranes will not break down. Sauté the livers with a little garlic and minced white onion until just done through; don’t overcook, or they’ll be tough and tasteless. Chop and add the meats to the cooked rice along with whatever sautéed vegetables you like and a little oil to moisten, then season and keep warm in a covered container until serving. I like adding chopped fresh green onion before plating.

Dirty rice with boudin

 

Damned at the Table

In The Taste of America, John and Karen Hess refer to an article by Harriet Van Horne, “Edunt et Vomant” (“They have eaten and let them vomit.”), commenting on a 1975 fluff piece in the New York Times describing a dinner Craig Claiborne and his partner Pierre Franey had in Paris, a $4000 meal for two that featured 31 dishes and 9 wines. Meanwhile, as Claiborne and Franey were licking their decadent fingers, the rest of America was stewing in an economic recession.

Van Horne wrote, “No journalistic caprice has, in my memory, set off such a shudder of distaste. This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong, morally, esthetically and in every other way.” The Hesses included Van Horne’s quote to further elaborate on the gourmet absurdities of the time which elevated overpriced, tasteless food, (canned foie gras, canned truffles, cottony chicken breasts in a floury velouté sauce) that were championed by those like Claiborne who lauded expense as a barometer of taste. The Vatican newspaper echoed, deploring the display while millions were starving. Paul VI “as a humble servant for a suffering humanity” demanded significant changes of the rich in America and Europe in favor of the poor, a plea the affluent either ignored or atoned with in pittances.

In the most general terms gluttony involves an over-indulgence and/or over-consumption of food, drink or intoxicants to the point of waste, particularly in terms of a misplaced desire of food or its withholding from the needy, an excess that’s damned by every spiritual path in the world in every quarter of the globe. European theologists from the Middle Ages took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it also consists of an anticipation of meals, the eating of delicacies and costly foods, seeking after sauces and seasonings, and eating too eagerly. Gregory the Great described five ways by which one can commit the sin of gluttony, and corresponding biblical examples for each of them:

  1. Eating before the time of meals in order to satisfy the palate. Example: Jonathan eating a little honey when his father Saul commanded no food to be taken before the evening. [1Sa 14:29]
  2. Seeking delicacies and better quality of food to gratify the “vile sense of taste.” Example: When Israelites escaping from Egypt complained, “Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,” God rained fowls for them to eat but punished them 500 years later. [Num 11:4]
  3. Seeking after sauces and seasonings for the enjoyment of the palate. Example: Two sons of Eli the high priest made the sacrificial meat to be cooked in one manner rather than another. They were met with death. [1Sa 4:11]
  4. Exceeding the necessary amount of food. Example: One of the sins of Sodom was “fullness of bread.” [Eze 16:49]
  5. Taking food with too much eagerness, even when eating the proper amount and even if the food is not luxurious. Example: Esau selling his birthright for ordinary food of bread and pottage of lentils. His punishment was that the “profane person . . . who, for a morsel of meat sold his birthright,” we learn that “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully, with tears.” [Gen 25:30]

In his Summa Theologica (Part 2-2, Question 148, Article 4), Thomas Aquinas revised the list of five ways to commit gluttony:

* Laute – eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly
* Nimis – eating food that is excessive in quantity
* Studiose – eating food that is too daintily or elaborately prepared
* Praepropere – eating too soon, or at an inappropriate time
* Ardenter – eating too eagerly.

Aquinas notes that the first three ways are related to the nature of the food itself, while the last two have to do with the time or manner in which it is consumed. Even to the exclusion of these examples, which are admittedly rather fastidious themselves, we are all guilty of gluttony in our complacency as citizens of one of the most affluent nations in the history of human civilization.  We quaff fine wines, stuff ourselves with costly foods, watch celebrity chefs preparing dishes in a gladiatorial setting and sinners of an advanced degree sneer at those who eat off-cut chops, misshapen homegrown vegetables or don’t use Zanzibar cinnamon. Hunger itself has come to be seen as a sin, almost as an illness that needs treatment, but perhaps hunger might be more of a cure, a discipline for we who have grown too indulgent with ourselves.