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 on the face of the earth has ever enjoyed a cocktail with as much contentment.
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.
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.
Though the idea of scripture cake as a kitchen riddle is charming and nowadays probably accounts for most of its appeal, let’s not dismiss the pedantic intent of compelling a cook to pick up a work that holds far greater potential than a mundane dessert. Even those with the most in-depth knowledge of the Bible would have to consult chapter and verse before cooking this basic fig cake for the first time, but let’s suppose that in days gone by this recipe was one routinely given by a mother to her little girl as the first cake she would make for a family occasion. Seeing her daughter thumb through the pages looking for ingredients, Mother might smile as she remembered looking up Jeremiah 17:11 herself oh those many years ago while her own mother watched and smiled. This warm scenario springs to mind, but any way you find it a recipe for scripture cake is a gift; share this one.
1 1/2 cups Judges 5:25
2 cups Jeremiah 6:20
2 cups 1 Samuel 30:12
2 cups Nahum 3:12
1 cup Numbers 17:8
2 tsp. 1 Samuel 14:25
4 1/2 cups 1 Kings 4:22
6 of Jeremiah 17:11
1 1/2 cup Judges 4:19
2 tsp. Amos 4:5
a pinch of Leviticus 2:13
season to taste with:
2 Chronicles 9:9
Follow Solomon’s prescription for making a good boy by Proverbs 23:14. Bake at 350 until done.