Claiborne Shows His Slip

One of the most enduring social mechanisms is that by which elitism becomes most ostensibly manifest in people who come from the most humble background. Take for example any given one of those Upper East Side hipsters who infest the trendier corners of New York City and act as if they’re the apex of the social universe when in fact most if not all of them grew up in a fly-over state and moved to the city after securing a degree at Podunk U.

A less current but perhaps more familiar example would be Craig Claiborne, who grew up in a boarding house in Indianola, Mississippi, eventually became the arbiter of culinary taste for the nation and the architype of effete snobbery. Claiborne’s excesses in his disregard for the “little people” were such that he was chastised by Pope Paul VI for a $4000 dinner for two in Paris he enjoyed with his partner Pierre Franey in 1975; the Vatican newspaper deplored the display while millions were starving. The French press noted that the price of the meal represented a year’s wages for most workers, and American columnist Harriet Van Horne wrote, “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”. Claiborne was nonplussed, of course, which is the typical reaction of snobs to their extravagant self-indulgences. “Let them eat cake”, indeed.

Given this display of culinary dandyism, it is with some degree of surprise that we find on page 312 of Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook (Harper & Row: 1961), after a whole slew of soufflés and between two egg curries, a recipe for pickled eggs, which are to most people the least sophisticated dish in the world. Good heavens! Is this a chink in Claiborne’s otherwise immaculate armor? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not; one recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Maybe pickled eggs acquired the blue-collar tar brush after they had become a snack staple in Southern pool halls and honkey-tonks; then again, like any given snob, maybe they started out that way.

1 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices
2 pieces ginger root
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic
6 hard-boiled eggs

1. Boil together ten minutes all the ingredients except the eggs.
2. Place the peeled eggs in a jar and cover with the spiced vinegar. Refrigerate twenty-four house before using. If desired, the eggs may be colored with pure vegetable dye added to the liquid; or beets may be pickled along with the eggs.

The Red Knight

The story of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson’s public establishment of the reputedly poisonous tomato as edible might be apocryphal, but it’s still a good yarn.

According to what passes for legend, Col. Johnson mounted the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey on September 30, 1820 (dates vary) with a basket full of tomatoes to eat. Over 2,000 people assembled to watch him drop dead after the first bite and wagered upon the exact moment (it being New Jersey after all, where gambling is a fine art). His own doctor (who happened to be his wife’s brother-in-law) predicted that “the foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis from all the oxalic acid”; if not immediately, then the good doctor said Johnson would die soon afterwards of “brain fever and cancer.” When Johnson took his first bite of a tomato, several onlookers fainted and two were reported to have regurgitated with vigor.

Of course Colonel Johnson lived, and while available records do not entirely support rampant speculation that he collected on more than a few substantial side wagers and retired to Europe, we can say with certainty that he helped to win the tomato a place on our tables.

Let’s Talk About Gizzards

First off, just what the hell is a gizzard? Since humans have livers, we know what they are and what they do, but gizzards aren’t something a 3rd year medical student has to deal with. Gizzards are part of a bird’s digestive system, sometimes called the second stomach. It’s very muscular and sinewy because this is the component of the bird’s system that breaks down items that are too hard for its stomach to digest. According to Gill’s Ornithology, a turkey gizzard can “pulverize English walnuts, steel needles, and surgical lancets.” Cooking gizzards, you’re dealing with tough sinews and dense muscle; when you buy them in a store, gizzards tend to come in pairs, two lumps of meat connected by a tough membrane.

What a lot of people will say you need to do first is to get a very sharp small knife and cut away the membrane, which is fussy and time-consuming . Here in the South where we tend to be a great deal less fastidious in the kitchen, we simply put them off into a seasoned liquid and poach them until they are tender, drain and set aside until ready for use along with a beautiful broth infused with gel that you can use for any number of sauces, gravies and even those pâtés you’ve always wanted to try. You can also fry the gizzards as you would livers, use them in dirty rice or serve them over noodles with chopped hard-boiled eggs and a generous sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper or marinate n lite soy and sesame oil with garlic, skewer, broil or grill and serve as an appetizer.

Photo by William Eaves
(photo by William Eaves)


Cornbread and Buttermilk

It was in the heat of the summer when the air is thick with dust and the sun beats down so hard it feels like a burden that Jess would come home from the store in the mid- afternoons, sit on the front porch, take his hat off and holler at Ethel in the house to bring him buttermilk and cornbread. She would coarsely crumble the cornbread they always had on hand into a tall glass, pour in enough cold buttermilk to cover not all the way but almost, stick a teaspoon in it, bring it out, then go back to the kitchen where she always found something to do. Jess would sit on the porch overlooking his store, his corn field across the highway and his son’s house on the corner tumbling with children, think about this year, think about last year, think about next year and go back to the store, leaving a tall glass with streaks of buttermilk mixed with bits of cornbread making way to the bottom of the glass. No man has ever enjoyed a cocktail with as much contentment.

Artichoke Virgins and Other Annoyances

Impulse buying is an especially bad idea when it comes to produce; let me give you a good example.

In case you haven’t noticed, supermarkets are often laid out in such a way that the produce department is usually the first section of the store you tour. The coolness, the colors and the illusion that you are actually in some sort of open marketplace all combine to lure you into the more industrial parts of the store. Having said that, fruits and vegetables are an important part of anyone’s diet, but raw vegetables (and some fruits) take more preparation than others, and among the most labor-intensive of vegetables is the artichoke. An artichoke is the flower bud of a big-ass thistle; you even see some ornamental varieties used in expensive floral arrangements. Much like the oyster, it took a very desperate person to learn how to eat an artichoke, but once eaten, it became a delicacy.

Recently I found myself guided by corporate intent through the produce section where I came upon a mound of beautiful, beautiful artichokes, and after a truly happy hour at Fenian’s, I just had to get one that was neither too tight nor too loose and had a bit of a purple blush about it, just like Martha (God bless her heart and all her other extremities) told me to select. Then I called to my drinking buddy, who was cruising the watermelons, to grab a bud of garlic and a couple of lemons. After picking up a few more items we headed for the checkout counter where he espied my artichoke.

“And what are you going to do with this?” he asked. I immediately suggested a physical improbability. Unperturbed, he replied, “No, really, what are you going to do with it?” He admitted that he’d never eaten a freshly-prepared artichoke. Inebriation is a great initiator but a poor executor, which is how, about ten minutes later, I found myself alone in the kitchen with a beautiful artichoke, diminished incentive and a hungry guest. With reluctance, I brought a deep saucepan of water to boil. Now, you can plunge whole artichokes into boiling salted water (which takes a big pot, a hell of a lot of water and a long time) but, after trimming the stem and tips, I took the less strenuous route of steaming. Bring a half a quart of water to boil in a saucepan, add dressed artichoke, cover and steam for about 20 minutes.

When you can pull a thick “leaf” from the middle of the bud without a lot of resistance, remove the artichoke, plunge it into cold water until it’s just warm. Then turn it upside-dwon into a colander. Garlic butter takes little effort, but some attention: to a stick (1/4 lb.) of butter, use three crushed, finely minced garlic cloves the juice of half a lemon, and a dusting of white pepper. Heat until the butter is infused with the garlic. Some oddballs will put tarragon in artichoke dipping butter, but unless you’re fit to make a Béarnaise, give it up. Serve the vegetable with warm garlic butter and teach the virgin how to eat it. Then remind yourself never to snag an eggplant without thinking twice about it.

Aunt Jett

When I knew her in my childhood, Jett cooked the same way she had for over sixty years. She learned at her mother’s side, a woman whose people settled a wilderness. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. Food was important to them; it was one of their few sources of satisfaction and pleasure unaffected by morals or religion. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, green beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops or breaded steak, and if it was summer she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob. She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage. No more fundamental meal can be imagined. Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.

Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.

Aunt Jet (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.
Aunt Jett (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.

Red Ribs

The next time you barbecue a rack of ribs, trim pieces of the skirt and end bones away, find a good Korean recipe you’re comfortable with and serve as appetizers. While the potatoes are optional, any kind of fresh onion is a must.