Before my ancestors were shipped off to Virginia for lampooning the local gentry and skipping out on enormous bar tabs, they lived in a beautiful old country on the west coast of Britain known as Wales. Wales has long since been assimilated (though not without prolonged contention) into the United Kingdom, but like other countries in the UK, Wales still observes its own saint’s day, the Feast of St. David, which falls on March 1.
It’s a crying shame that the beloved David’s feast has been eclipsed by that humbug Patrick’s on the 17th; after all, compared to David, Patrick was second-rate. David was able to make the earth beneath him shift and rise, an impressive feat, whereas Patrick’s most notable claim to fame is the single-handed extinction of Ireland’s indigenous serpents, something sin-ridden whalers did with the great auk. Not only that, but David was a true Welshman, a native of Cardigan, while Patrick himself was actually from Wales (some say Scotland, but he certainly wasn’t Irish).
The Irish praise the potato (another import), but the Welsh glory in the leek, which has been cultivated in Eurasia for millennia. Welsh soldiers wore leeks into battle to distinguish themselves as early as the days of King Arthur, himself a Welshman. If the Irish ever wore potatoes into battle, it would have been after spuds came to the Old World, sometime during the 17th century, when the Irish suffered their most decimating defeats at the hands of the English. As a parting shot, let me add that daffodils, the national flower of Wales, strike a much livelier note in a vase than a bunch of sissy shamrocks ever will.
Leeks are basically big-ass green onions, which place them in the important botanical family Alliaceae; all onions, as well as garlic, chives, shallots and their ilk, belong to this group of herbs. Leeks are a cool-season crop, which goes a long way to explain why they’re not a familiar item on the Southern sideboard. I can usually grab a bunch (three stalks) of leeks for about that many dollars any time of the year at my local supermarket. Leeks are great in soups; my Scots ancestors used chicken and leeks (with barley) in their jauntily-named cock-a-leekie soup, and leeks can be substituted for onions in almost any potage for a milder flavor. But they’re also a beautiful addition to any stir-fry (working well with peppers), and thin slices of leek in a quiche look nice and taste great.
Leeks also take exceptionally well to braising and are great in a gratin, which is what I recommend. Use half a leek per person. Cut away the roots and the last inch or so of the green away and wash very well. Slice and layer the rounds in a gratin or baking dish. Cover with a cream sauce, a béchamel or a Mornay, which is what I use. You can add cooked, sliced red potatoes to this for something a little more substantial, but keep the seasonings simple, just a bit of salt and pepper, nothing more. A liberal sprinkling of good hard cheese on top is a great idea, but for Pete’s sake get a piece of cheese and grate it; don’t use that sawdust in a green shaker. Place in a hot oven (375) until bubbling; fifteen minutes should do it. Serve hot.
In our neck of the South, stuffed peppers mean mild, fleshy bells filled with a mixture of rice, meat or seafood, usually ground beef or shrimp. A vegetarian version with beans and rice is also wonderful. A lot of people will parboil the peppers beforehand, but this is quite unnecessary. Select peppers that are globular rather than oblong, slice off the top, remove whites and seeds, and fill with your stuffing mixture. I recommend a 50/50 blend in a light tomato sauce seasoned with black pepper, sage and basil. Crowd into a casserole, baste with more sauce and place in a medium (350) oven until peppers are cooked through. Baste again with sauce, top with dry white cheese and bake until lightly browned.
Trust me, you don’t want to even try to get into Pat O’Brien’s for at least a week, the Sazerac defies amplification, and rum is a lot of fun, so serve this intoxicant in your best drag queen torso punch bowl at your Mardi Gras party. The essential ingredient is passion fruit juice. Keep a pour spout bottle of grenadine near the ice bucket, and don’t even worry about garnishes unless you want to pick orange rinds out of the couch cushions for a month.
1 fifth light rum
1 fifth dark rum
2 cups lime juice
2 cups orange juice
1 quart passion fruit juice
1 cup simple syrup
Mix and chill. Serve over ice.
Shortcake, like all quick breads, is even more American than apple pie, since chemical leavening was developed in the U.S. in the late18th century, and people began making apple pies in central Asia shortly after wheat was domesticated. The shortcake you’re likely to find sold in supermarkets strategically placed near a display of strawberries is actually a concave sponge cake, which is far different from the big, sweet biscuit that a real shortcake actually is. While shortcake is most often served with macerated strawberries, any fruit or berry in season works just as well.
Any good cookbook will give you a simple recipe for shortcake with flour, leavening, butter, sugar, and whole milk or cream. But if you google shortcake, you’re going to find a recipe involving sieved boiled egg yolks that purportedly came from James Beard’s mother. Now, I ask you: can there be a more authoritative source for a recipe than one from the mother of the “Dean of American Cookery?” No, but I’m calling bullshit on this one, because eggs in any form are superfluous in a shortbread recipe, and sieved yolks are an even more suspicious inclusion. This recipe, used by a St. Louis restaurant, states that it was never printed in one of Beard’s cookbooks (he wrote dozens), and for good reason; because it SUCKS! Here is Beard’s recipe for shortcake from his enduring 1972 classic, American Cooking.
Sift a tablespoon of baking powder and a half teaspoon salt into two cups all-purpose flour, cut in a half stick cold butter, add about three-quarters cup of (cold!) cream and a quarter cup of sugar. A teaspoon of vanilla is always a nice touch. Work quickly into a sticky dough and divide in two, one about twice as large as the other. Pat out on a floured board into 6/8 inches diameter, brush the top of the larger with softened butter, place the smaller on top, and butter again. Put the dough on a well-buttered cookie sheet. (I always used buttered parchment paper as well.) Place in an oven that has been pe-heated to 450. Bake for about fifteen-twenty minutes until golden. Let the cake cool before carefully removing the top layer. Fill with macerated berries or fruit and top with whipped cream. And not that crap in a can, with is only good for a buzz at a pajama party.
North Street is broad and level, making for an easy, leisurely walk. Along the street are a couple of old apartment buildings and old homes that are now businesses. Farther south, one finds uninspired, banal state office buildings, terminating in the triple atrocity of the MDAH compound. Bill Harvey says the avenue was once lined with homes whose splendor was second only to those along North State Street. Today, the only private residence on the street belongs to the Horrells. The house was built in 1920; now a “For Sale” sign is planted before the front door.
For the many years I have walked from my home on Poplar down North Street to the Welty Library, Mrs. Horrell’s narcissus have been a delight to me. The narcissus are the earliest in the city to bloom, coaxed out of the ground by the weak sun of mid-winter. Most people refer to these flowers as paperwhites, though ‘Paperwhite’ is actually the name of a variety of Narcissus tazetta Mrs. Horrell has, along with ‘Grand Monarque’ and the fragrant double ‘Erlicheer.’ She also has several types of large yellow narcissus many know as daffodils, a few clumps of blue-and-violet bearded irises, and gnarled, ancient rosemarys. Mrs. Horrell told me the narcissus lining her front walk came from her grandmother, who received hers from a friend or relative decades before.
The area has been zoned commercial, so once the property is sold, the house will be razed, and the in-place plantings will be lost. Developers’ architects view landscaping as ancillary or incidental, and plantings in-place are expendable. The new developments on Manship obliterated a dozen or more varieties of iris, narcissus, azaleas, and old pass-along ornamentals. The landscaping of the new dining venues is attractive in a bland, generic way, but historic plantings help define the character of a neighborhood and deserve to be left in place and cherished.
You can still find old plantings struggling beneath mats of Asian jasmine throughout the city. Two Novembers ago, we freed an old street corner of choking vines, weeds, and rotting wood, built up beds and loosened the dirt. In March, along the edges of our work, the old double daffodil, ‘Butter and Eggs,’ an authentic Southern heirloom and folk favorite, came barreling out of the Yazoo clay, and they’re blooming again today. Our earth remembers what we forget.
When it comes to food, love can exert a formidable influence. If you aren’t, like, totally spiritual, sex, the attraction if not the action, is probably the initial ingredient for a romance, but after that, sooner or later you’re going to have to eat together, and dining with one another can be as exhilarating and educational as sex the action. Discovery can be breathtaking, but it requires an open mind.
As such, it’s entirely possible that someone who loves greasy stuffed cabbage can learn from a lover how to adore creamy stuffed pasta, or vice versa. But dealing with extremes can be hazardous: a friend of mine who is a self-professed carnivore from way back once fell for this little slip of a girl who did not eat meat, so he sold off a custom-made barbecue grill and turned down his mother’s meat loaf. Twice. Even now, six years after his slip ran off with a zither player from Utah, his mom still brings it up. (Be advised: unconditional love doesn’t apply when it comes to meat loaf.)
It’s not that the entire process of learning to live together isn’t educational as a whole; it’s just that food has the potential to be a more fundamental source of friction than ugly underwear or nasal hair. For those among us with discriminating dietary habits, it’s a safe bet that if you meet someone special in a natural foods dive, they’ll feel much the same way about pork roast as you do (which is not to say that soy products might not eventually become a bone of contention). But if you meet a mate in a bar that serves hamburgers and patriot fries, well, you’re just wide open for surprises, and if simply adjusting to eating together isn’t enough, learning to cook in the same place can be heartaching as well: formerly favored cookware might be set aside to make room for an exotic batterie. That rooster roaster you were once so proud of might find itself set so far back in a cabinet that you might never lay eyes on it again. Condiments are always controversial.
You might also, as I did, find your palate challenged in totally unexpected ways, as when a housemate sought to seduce me with something novel and exciting in the form of a carrot omelet. Fortunately, omelets are quite versatile; you can put damn near anything in them, though I will admit that carrots initially struck me as an unlikely ingredient. After all, most omelets are served as savory rather than as sweet dishes, and carrots are among those vegetables I place on the sweet side.
Now, you can make a carrot omelet such as I was served, where the shredded carrots were sautéed in a little butter with green onions and a hint of garlic before being added to the egg mixture, and it would be edible. But if I had been told that carrots were the only ingredient we had for an omelet (as it turned out, they weren’t; I later discovered a bar of cheddar in the butter tray), I might have suggested another recipe.
Dessert omelets are novelties nowadays, but anyone who has poured syrup over scrambled eggs can attest to their appeal. Sugar (a little less than two tablespoons) is added to two large beaten eggs and a teaspoon of water. While a bit of water is standard for most omelets, the added sugar makes for a nice caramel-type crust. Separate one egg white and whip until stiff before folding it into the mix, but before you make your omelet á la Crécy, make candied carrots.
For two people: trim, scrub and peel two carrots, slice on the bias, barely cover in simple syrup made with honey or brown sugar, simmer with three cloves and a pat of butter until the liquid is reduced and the carrots are done through. Remove the cloves and use these carrots as you would any omelet filling; a classicist would puree them, but I don’t. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, serve with a tempest in a teapot.
If memory serves me correctly, the expedition to locate and raise Mr. Faulkner’s sailboat took place in the spring of 1953. For some reason Mr. Bill had left the boat at anchor at Cole’s Camp on the Sardis Reservoir during the winter months; and in the early spring, it was discovered to have drifted out into the cove and sunk in about eighteen feet of water. The recovery of the boat would not have presented any great problem had Mr. Faulkner called Memphis for a professional diver and rig; however, this would have been too conventional and commercial for his adventuresome mind. Therefore, he chose to make use of local talent, which I’m sure he felt would provide for a much more interesting day on Sardis Lake.
On the appointed morning Billy Ross Brown, a neighbor and close friend of the Faulkners, and I reported for salvage duty at Mr. Bill’s home. Also along was the Browns’ houseboy, Isom Cillum, who would act as all-round handyman for the project, as we were sure that we were in for some heavy work ahead. Upon arriving, we were surprised to find that a new member had been added to the party. His name was V. P. Ferguson; he was a student at Ole Miss, and I think it would be safe to say the “Veep,” as he was locally known, was something of a character. Billy Ross and I were quite familiar with the kimono-wearing, Koran-reading orchestra leader from the University, but we were admittedly quite surprised to see him here primed for the occasion. We were later to learn that V. P., upon hearing of the sinking of the sailboat, had called Mr. Faulkner and offered his services in recovering it. He explained to Mr. Bill that he was preparing for a summer excursion to the Caribbean to dive for black pearls, and that the Sardis outing would be good experience. I’m sure Mr. Bill discounted much of this story, but I’m also sure that he saw possibilities for an interesting day on the lake, and so invited him along. (Whoever says Faulkner had no sense of humor should have been along that day.)
The chief preparation for the outing seemed to have been the securing of enough food to satisfy the appetites of the would be salvage crew. Miss Estelle was in charge of this department and she had already sent Norfleet, the Faulkners’ Negro houseboy, out into the side yard with a large picnic basket of food. With the picnic basket safely secured in the Faulkner family station wagon, the five of us set forth to the Sardis Dam to begin salvage operations, To look over the crew-a Nobel Prize-winning author, two young college friends, a would-be pearl diver, and the faithful Negro houseboy—one could wonder about the prospects for the success of the mission. The route carried us through the University campus out Highway 6 West some eighteen miles, and then about seven miles up a gravel road to Sardis Dam. Our plan was to board the houseboat anchored at the dam and then to travel up the reservoir about five miles to Cole’s Camp, where the sailboat, as has been previously mentioned, lay some eighteen feet below the surface.
I think it would be well to pause here to say a few words about the houseboat which would be our base of operations for the day. Contrary to the general principle of shipbuilding (or in this case, boatbuilding), this vessel was built in the side yard of Colonel Hugh Evans of Oxford, many miles from any body of water. Being a neighbor and friend of Colonel Evans, Mr. Bill became inter ested in the boat and soon was a full-time partner in its construction. Two other families were involved in this venture, namely the Ross Browns and the Ashford Littles. After the completion of the boat came the problem of getting the rather large craft through the narrow streets of Oxford and out the main highway to Sardis Lake without tying up traffic for hours. It was decided to hire a professional mover from Memphis to undertake the task, and at the appointed time the boat was transferred by night to the lake. That morning the owners, their families and interested friends gathered at Sardis to watch her slide down the ways, and down she went, only to bob like a cork on a fishing line. It was quite evident that the boat was riding much too high in the water. The propeller screw did not reach the proper depth. Mr. Bill and his friends put their heads together and the solution was soon reached: put concrete in the bottom of the boat. Concrete was then placed in the hold, and the Minmagary set forth on her maiden voyage to reign as queen of the Sardis Reservoir for many years.
Mr. Bill was indeed master of his ship as we pulled out of the inlet onto the main body of water. After estimating the time of arrival at about an hour, and with Mr. Bill at the wheel, Billy Ross and I settled back in the deck chairs to enjoy the spring morning, I think we were doubly enjoying it because we were cutting classes at the University in order to make the trip. I know, too, that Mr. Bill was relaxed in his khaki pants and military-style khaki shirt, sitting at the wheel and smoking his favorite briar. In sailing and boating on Sardis, he seemed to find the peace and privacy that was more and more of a struggle to obtain after receiving the Nobel Prize.
V. P., always the nervous type, soon tired of watching the shore line go by and asked Mr. Bill if he could take over the wheel. Offering no objection, Mr. Bill let him have it and then joined us on the back deck to relax and discuss the problems of getting to the sailboat. Presently we were interrupted by the clanging of the deck bell and sharp commands being issued by the “Veep” sitting hard by the wheel.
“Full steam ahead; we are approaching the salvage area. We must have more steam,” he shouted into an imaginary tube that led to an equally imaginary engine room. The only person available to heed his commands was Isom, our houseboy turned cabin boy for the occasion, and he was thoroughly mystified by the whole proceeding. I’m quite certain that Isom thought Mr. Ferguson was “tetched in the head,” for he came back to me and said, “Mr. Howard, you know we don’t have no engine room down there, only that 75 marine engine and there sho ain’t nobody down there to hear him.”
It seems that V. P. had just finished some popular novel of the day concerning the rescue of a British submarine down in the South China Sea with all hands aboard, and through his imagination we were the crew pushing full steam ahead to make the res. cue. I believe Mr. Bill thoroughly enjoyed the fantasies of the “Veep” and he was soon resting again in his deck chair, probably assuring himself that he had made the right decision in bringing along Mr. Ferguson.
As we approached the entrance to the cove that led to Cole’s Camp, Mr. Bill took over the wheel again and steered us into position near the sunken boat. There was no real problem in finding the boat because of a safety line that was still attached from the sunken hull to a tree on shore. The plan of action was for us to take down a steel cable attached to a winch on the bow of the houseboat and hook it through an iron ring in the bow of the sail boat. After securing the hook, the idea was to crank the winch, thus pulling the boat to the surface. When this was accomplished, Mr. Bill planned to move the houseboat with the sailboat in tow to a nearby boat ramp, where we could wade in to maneuver the sailboat onto a boat trailer which would be backed into the water, The station wagon would be used to pull boat and trailer out and to Mr. Bill’s backyard drydock for repairs and overhaul.
All of this seemed relatively simple except for the fact that V. P. began complicating things from the start. For example, after his first dive he came up on deck, bowed in true Arabian Night style before Mr. Bill and exclaimed, “Oh, Captain Ahab, there is an octopus down below guarding the boat. Do you happen to have a machete aboard that might afford me some protection?”
Much to our surprise, Mr. Bill, with his usual composure, dis appeared below deck, came up with a machete and gave it to Ferguson, who immediately dived over the side with the weapon and disappeared below the surface while Isom stood by in wide-eyed wonder.
Just before noon, the hook was finally secured to the sailboat, but “Captain Ahab” decided to wait until after lunch to bring it to the surface. Isom broke out the picnic basket and began serving the food, keeping one eye, I’m sure, over the side for any sign of the octopus. Snakes were no problem for Isom, but an octopus was something else!
About halfway through lunch we heard the sound of someone on the other side of the lake trying to get our attention, and before any of us could answer, V. P. jumped upon the top deck and began wigwagging signals with a couple of towels. Before anyone knew what was going on, we observed an appreciable number of slightly disreputable looking fellows approaching, and within a short time the houseboat was boarded by what turned out to be the entire membership of V. P.’s dance band. It seems that V. P. had made slight mention of the expedition to his colleagues, and had in fact invited them to join him for lunch. They made short work of the contents of the picnic basket, and then they spread out all over the boat for an afternoon of sunbathing. I must say, at this point, that for a man who enjoyed his privacy, Mr. Bill seemed to take the whole affair in a very calm and understanding manner. The taciturn Nobel Prize-winner, in quiet and sly fashion, maintained his aplomb while V. P. all but took command of the situation.
The rest of the afternoon went by somewhat uneventfully with only the routine of securing the sailboat to the side of the houseboat and loading it on the trailer as described earlier. At dusk the sailboat was placed on the trailer and towed to its drydock in Faulkner’s backyard.
Some several days later Mr. Faulkner invited the group down to his house for a lawn supper, and I remember that the highlight of the evening was Mr. Bill’s dancing the soft shoe with Paul Pittman, one of the Ole Miss students.
William Faulkner spent many hours of sheer pleasure in the little sailboat that went to the bottom off Cole’s Landing and that was raised to sail again by Faulkner and a group of college students on that happy and carefree day. He usually referred to it as “the sloop.”
One afternoon while he, Miss Estelle, Hunter Little, and I were cruising, dark clouds appeared in the northwest and it was soon obvious that a squall was imminent. Fishermen, we observed, were scurrying shoreward. Faulkner calmly dismissed the idea of a squall and was maneuvering the sloop down the lake when a gust hit the craft and almost upset it. Life preservers were passed around. Faulkner declined his. Another gust took his hat, and Hunter went overboard to retrieve it and was almost drowned. After he was pulled aboard and matters were as much in hand as circumstances allowed, Faulkner called to me, “Howard, hand me a preserver. I am getting a bit chilly.”
In looking back over the years to the event just related, it becomes more apparent that the people who knew Faulkner best, outside of his own family, were the young people who grew up around the Faulkner home, as children playing with Jill, his daughter, later dancing and eating at her parties, and sharing many carefree moments with the man we all knew as Mr. Bill.
Cryptozoologists report that crawfish three feet long live in a remote Japanese lake, but not one of these animals has yet to make its way onto a sushi bar, much less into an étouffée. The largest recorded crawfish, about half that size, live in Tasmania, where they are protected by law, not like that would stop a Cajun with a plane ticket and a dozen coolers.
Crawfish are the same thing as crayfish. What distinguishes them from their cousins (lobster, shrimp, crab and krill) is that crawfish live in fresh water, making them the most available crustaceans in the world. They’ve been eaten with relish for centuries. Their popularity in this country is largely restricted to the Deep South, more specifically to Louisiana, for the simple reason that the French people who came to live there (unlike the riff-raff who invaded the rest of the country) were more familiar with crawfish as food than as bait.
God in His Infinite Wisdom provided the French settlers in Louisiana with a vigorous and plentiful species for their tables, the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii). Renegade squadrons of these creatures have achieved invasive status all over North America as well as Europe and Asia, and their proliferation in the wetlands surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi provides the basis for a multi-million dollar industry. The Louisiana Legislature designated the charming city of Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World in 1959, a title blithely if not pointedly ignored in Mère France, where dishes including crawfish are referred to as à la Nantua.
Gallic enthusiasm aside, it’s worth noting that crawfish play a significant role in the cuisines of Scandinavia, where on the first Friday in August people gather outside, sing, eat mass quantities of crawfish and drink prodigious amounts of vodka, beer and aquavit. In that part of the world, the cooler taste of dill (seeds, crowns, leaves and stems) is used to flavor a bouillon of sugared vinegar, beer and water. Cajuns also eat crawfish in public celebrations with plenty of music, beer and booze, which might be the only direct parallel between the two peoples. The most decided culinary contrast is the pungent spices used to season the bouillon in this part of the world. Forget that sissy dill; if you don’t have halved heads of garlic, bay and cayenne in the water, not to mention plenty socks of seasonings, corn, potatoes and whatever else is in the refrigerator, you’re going to be trussed to a tree and someone else is going to take charge.
Fresh crawfish are usually available February through May, but frozen crawfish meat is available year-round. This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s wonderful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), in my less-than-humble opinion the most comprehensive and best-written book about the kaleidoscopic world of southern Louisiana’s music, history, and food.
Melt a stick of butter in a skillet, sauté one small onion, three ribs celery, one small bell pepper and a clove of garlic, all finely chopped. Add the diced meat of 1 large eggplant and cook until soft. Add about a cup of chicken stock, a quarter cup sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”), a pound of peeled crawfish tails and enough bread crumbs to thicken into a wet paste. Season with salt, pepper (cayenne, if you want more heat), thyme and basil, pour into a baking dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 until bubbling. This recipe makes about six servings (over rice) as an entree, works well as a small plate buffet item and is better served warm and best the next day.
My sister Cindy was a beautiful woman, and when she was young competed in pageants. Cindy was graceful as well as one of the most informed, well-read people I’ve ever known, but though she was a world-class baton twirler and played a clarinet passably, singing and dancing simply weren’t her strong points.
Nonetheless for a county-level Miss Mississippi preliminary, my mother (a formidable woman who loved her children) decided that Cindy should forego her baton-twirling—which Momma considered totally déclassé—and instead dance to the title tune from the Broadway musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Cindy practiced her heart out, but she placed first runner-up to a girl who belted out “Stand By Your Man” with such fury that the windows of the Calhoun City school gym rattled. (She also went to MSU; Cindy was enrolled at Ole Miss, and since three of the five judges were State fans, Mother, in a state of indignation, declared that was the deciding factor in their judgement.)
As a result, Cindy gave up competitions, and I inadvertently memorized the soundtrack to Thoroughly Modern Millie, including a tune called “The Tapioca”. For the past thirty years (or so) this song (“Join me in the Tapioca?”) was the closest I ever got to actually eating tapioca, since this pudding just isn’t something you typically find on the Southern sideboard. Consequently, tapioca has always in my mind been associated flappers, Fitzgerald and the 1920s. But recently I’ve had a bee in my bonnet over tapioca, a dish I hadn’t thought about in any depth for over thirty years, one I had yet to even taste, and nothing else would do except for me to cook and eat it.
Call it mental floss.
Now tapioca isn’t something you typically find in Southern supermarkets; oh, you might find containers of the pudding already made, but almost never the starch itself, usually sold as “pearls”. Tapioca pearls come in two sizes, large and small; the large pearls are about the size of a jeweler’s pearl, whereas the small pearls are the size of those candy sprinkles you’d buy to put on cakes and ice cream. Both are simply a processed form of cassava starch. Pearl tapioca is a common ingredient in South, East and Southeast Asian desserts such as falooda, kolak, sago soup, and in sweet drinks such as bubble tea, fruit slush and taho, so it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you all that the only place I could find it was at Mr. Chen’s up on I-55, my favorite shopping destination. I can get anything from Mr. Chen. Even frogs.
Nobody cooks tapioca exactly the same way. Everybody soaks the pearls, but for different lengths of time; everybody uses milk for cooking, but everybody uses a different kind of milk; everybody uses eggs, but some use yolks only, some use whipped whites, some use whole eggs, and I read at least two recipes that used all three and called it Colchester pudding. The only thing everyone agreed on was that the pudding needed to be cooked at an even, high heat, but not boiled. I soaked a cup of large pearls in two cups of water overnight. In the morning they looked very much like cottage cheese. I put the drained tapioca in a slow cooker on high with four cups whole milk and one cup whole cream (you could of course use five cups half-and-half, but I just didn’t have any on hand). After two hours of occasional stirring, the tapioca had thickened considerably, so I beat a whole egg with three egg yolks, tempered it into the mixture by adding the hot tapioca to the eggs bit by bit until it could be added without curdling, cooked it for another half hour then sweetened with a half cup of sugar and flavored with two teaspoons vanilla.
This procedure makes enough tapioca pudding—actually more a custard—for at least a dozen people. Served with raspberry sauce, at first taste, I felt I stood on the edge of a darkened bay staring at a green light on a distant dock.
Sift 3 cups flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder. Mix in 2 cups light brown sugar (it doesn’t have to be packed, for Pete’s sake). Work in a cup of cold butter, then stir in 2 well-beaten eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 teaspoon almond extract. Add 2 cups grated coconut, mix well, and drop by spoonfuls onto a lightly oiled sheet pan. Bake at 350 until lightly browned. Cool before serving. These go well with coffee and tea.