The Cinnamon Curtain

When it comes to Southern foods you’ll find me a hide-bound traditionalist. Never can I envision myself breading fried chicken with whole wheat flour, using yellow corn meal for bread or making banana pudding without vanilla wafers. Some might find my inflexibility evidence of xenophobia, but I’ll squelch that rumor right now; my kitchen is a global nexus when it comes to ingredients as well as recipes. As a matter of fact, I do have yellow corn meal on hand for polenta as well as garbanzo beans and tahini for hummus, three types of tortillas and four types of olives, not to mention dozens of other foods you won’t find in most Southern kitchens (anchovies spring to mind). I even own a wok, and not one of those little sissy Teflon jobs you plug into the wall; mine is big and butch, seasoned well from over a decade of use.

Most people feel the same way about their culinary heritage as I do. The foods we eat as children are those that comfort us, dishes that ease our minds and appease our tongues. When we’re grown-ups, these are the recipes we try to recreate, be it grandmother’s pozole, the bread-and-butter pickles someone once brought over for Thanksgiving or the adobo your Filipino neighbors shared with you after school. These dishes take care in their preparation, and people who want to share that memory with you offer with them a parcel of their past in a spirit of bonding. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and at one time or the other, you’re going to find yourself faced with a host’s cherished memory that makes you wish you’d brought more wine; the house is beautiful, the children are sweet, you love them both, but that jalapeno tuna casserole just ain’t a’workin’.

It’s all a matter of geography. I understand that. While my accommodation with exotic recipes goes a long way, I’ll never feel entirely right using cinnamon in a savory dish. I’ve been told time and time again that cinnamon makes a good match with meat is because it enhances the odor either cooking or cooked. Well, of course it does; cinnamon is distinctly aromatic as is clove, which I’ll stud a ham with before baking as much for the tangy smell as the punctuation on the seared scored fat. But adding clove to a meat dish is just as inconceivable to me as adding cinnamon because clove is also associated with sweets on my palate. Since the vast majority of spices come from South-East Asia, they’re widely used in savory dishes throughout the region, and well into India, the Middle East and North Africa. But on the northern shores of the Mediterranean and beyond, using spices with meats and vegetables drops off considerably. You’ll find notable examples of such recipes from Spain, Italy and Greece, but in northwestern Europe and beyond the practice diminishes even further. As a man of western European ancestry, moreover a Southern American, I’m simply unaccustomed to using spices (with the notable exception of peppers of every type) with meats.

Yet God in His Wisdom has chosen me to share my life with people whose roots are from Asia Minor and the Levant, or near enough to hop, skip or jump on it in the case of Jake, whose ancestors are from Crete. I’ve heard these people argue over food (there’s never a mere discussion), indisputable evidence of their passion for eating. Most times, I’ll sit back and bite a knuckle, but I’ll go to the Welty Library every now and then a look up an ashta recipe to throw in the ring just to liven things up, which it invariably does. Mind you, I’m grateful for the connection. The eastern Mediterranean is a crossroads of the world, and to know people who love those cuisines is a gift, but their inclusion of cinnamon in savory dishes is a cultural barrier that I have trouble with.

Still, I’ve persisted in experimenting with the savory side of cinnamon, and I’ve discovered it goes well with pork, which is certainly neither kosher nor halal when it comes to most Middle Eastern recipes. I probably find it agreeable with pork because pig is often seasoned with sugar in this part of the world (brown sugar finds its way into almost every aspect of barbecue), and my mind finds seasoning pork with cinnamon appropriate. Call it an outworking of culinary free association or flat-out call me crazy (I’m used to it), but cinnamon with pork works for me.

Pork Meatballs with Cinnamon

To one pound lean ground pork, add a tablespoon cinnamon, a teaspoon of cayenne, and a tablespoon each of salt and black pepper. Mix in one beaten egg, a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste, a half cup of bread crumbs and a half cup of very finely chopped white onion. Form into balls (I like big ones; be hush) and cook in a light oil (you can use olive oil, but it’s not necessary) until firm. Serve over rice (couscous is nice if you happen to have any) sprinkled with chopped parsley or chives (sesame seed is a nice touch). These keep beautifully.

Lucretia’s Beans

“I grew up poor! We were so poor! Rupert, tell them!”

“They were very poor!” Rupert said from the back porch, where he was working on the lawn mower. “They were so poor they had to piss in a bucket a block away!”

“But we were proud!” Lucretia said. “My mother, she was the old Creole blood. She sold the calas on Dauphine, her apron white as an old nun, stiff as a young priest, and she’d go, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” And all the girls who worked up in their rooms, they’d come down to get Mama Diart’s cakes for their gentlemen who were sleeping it off in the beds like they’d get the strong coffee from Monsoir’s. The bottle they had already.”

“They were so poor, they had to eat cereal with a fork to share the milk!” Rupert banged on the mower and yelled at it.

“And yes,” Lucretia said, “We would have the rouge ser riz, all the time! If we were lucky, Mama would get the ham joint that Hector Monsoir had saved for her because you see he was secretly in love with Mama from a long time ago when she was so beautiful and slender like a dancer with her laughing eyes.”

“They were so poor, she had to share her brassiere with her sisters!” Rupert tried to crank the lawnmower, but failed and he cussed.

“But not like those beans they make now!” Lucretia shouted. “Pah! Those beans they make now they taste like those little wads of dough the Italians boil to put in that red gravy they make. Beans that have no bones, no flesh, no . . . spirit. They use those big long-nosed beans, those . . . what do they call them, yes, them kidney beans, the light-colored ones like a bean the white people in the country use to put on their meal bread.” She made a face like spitting. “And they should be pissed on! No, she used the little red beans she bought from old Helene on Magazine.”

“They were so poor, if her brothers didn’t wake up with bones, they didn’t have anything to play with!” Rupert pulled the cord and the mower cranked, coughing and spitting. He led it into the yard and began mowing.

“She would bring the beans home when she sold her cakes, put them in the big pot on the back of the stove with water enough over the joint and start the laundry for the ladies on Bourbon. All afternoon they’d soak, and she’d start the fire. She had the herbs, too, from the market on Decatur, and pepper. When we all got home at night she made the rice, and we would eat while all around us we could hear the music play and imagine people dancing in those pretty rooms where the ladies would spray their perfumes on the pink lampshades.”

Salmon Patties

In the culinary sphere it’s not unusual for chefs of one ilk or another to turn a hayseed staple into a Broadway entrée. Examples abound; swear to God, we’ve seen black-eyed peas made into everything short of cupcakes with sweet potato icing (don’t you dare!), and if I run up on one more gourmet recipe for fried green tomatoes I’m going to take a skillet out and start swinging at anybody with a fork.

Well, so be it. Most basic recipes are open to elaboration, and every cook has a twist; a pinch here, a dash there, a pot for this, a pan for that. The possibilities are endless. If the cook’s intentions are honorable, meaning that his or her primary concern is with how a dish tastes, all the better. But if you’re putting a heap of crab seviche over a batch of cold butter bean fritters just for the novelty or so you can charge six bucks more, that’s just wrong.

Capote once said of writing that you must learn the rules before you can break them, and this is true of cookery as well. Be “original, not outrageous,” Alice B. Toklas cautions. Her advice is especially valuable for those of us who cook at home, because most people prefer the familiar to the exotic, and even slight variations in a favorite dish might give pause to your most appreciative audience. (If you really mess up, you might find yourself on a bus to Batesville.)

Back-to-basics movements happen from time to time because they cleanse the palate of all accumulated froth or frippery and help us remember why we liked something in the first place. The Outlaw country music of the 70s made “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” sound operatic. Now y’all know I love that single, and I love Barbara; she was just overproduced for profit at the time, which is the point I’m trying to make. Southern food staples are falling victim to the same marketing mojo as that banjo-pickin’ little girl from Houston, and it’s just sad.

M.F. K. Fisher has a recipe for salmon pancakes (i.e. patties) in How to Cook a Wolf, which is very much a solid recommendation for their goodness, but you’ll rarely if ever see them on a restaurant menu for the simple reason that with the exception of tuna salad, dishes made with canned fish are not considered marketable commodities.

My father liked to cook a big breakfast on Sunday mornings, and he always made salmon patties. He said that his mother used to make them with jack mackerel, always adding that we should be grateful he went to law school so that he could afford to feed us salmon; for him, a child of the Depression, that was a step up in the world. Mackerel patties are almost every bit as filling and nutritious as salmon, but take it from me; they’ll make your house smell like a hot wharf for a week or so depending on your upholstery.

I’ll not lie to you; these cakes taste best when fried in lard, or, even better, bacon grease. If that makes you clutch your chest, use Crisco. Trust me, though, olive oil just isn’t right, and butter won’t take the heat. Most people I know make salmon patties with flour, but cornmeal gives a crispier crust and a better inside texture (flour tends to make it a bit gummy).

Some nights a wind from the hills reaches me in this mean, dirty old city, and I find that can of salmon back up in the cabinet, heat up a skillet and make what sings to me of home. In the end, no matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s our childhood foods we cherish most.

Salmon Patties

One 16 oz. can of pink salmon makes 4 to 6 cakes. Drain fish, reserving two tablespoons of the liquid. If you’re squeamish, remove the skin and bones, but I leave them because of the added nutritional value. Mix well with one beaten egg, the reserved liquid from the can, and about a half cup chopped green onion. Add enough white corn meal or bread crumbs to make a thick batter. You should need very little salt; I like plenty of black pepper in mine. Form into patties and fry in at least a quarter inch of oil. Brown on both sides, then place in a very warm oven (about 300) for about ten minutes to crisp the crust and ensure a cooked inside.

Daffodil Cake

Whimsey rules with confections. Marzipan is particularly prone to blithe abuse, finding itself fashioned into all sorts of flowers, fruits, animals, even people or parts thereof. Cakes also endure such treatment, particularly occasional cakes, but even “every day cakes” are fun, and daffodil cake is as light-hearted as it is light.

Of course daffodil cake doesn’t have daffodils in it no more than a hummingbird cake has hummingbirds or Girl Scout cookies are made out of girl scouts (daffodils happen to be poisonous) but it’s (partially) yellow and springy. This is an old recipe, appearing in Fannie Farmer and Betty Crocker books during the 1940s, a sure sign that it was probably being made and passed around at church bazaars and served on spring weekends long before then.

Daffodil cake is a combination sponge and angel food cakes, which are both made with a meringue without oil or butter, but the yellow parts of a daffodil cake contain egg yolks—as does a sponge cake—and the white parts do not—as does an angel food. (Chiffon cakes, which appeared on tables at about the same time, are a meringue cake with oil.) You will not find an honest mix for any meringue cake in the grocery store; you’re going to have to make it from scratch, and it’s best to make on a clear, cool day because we all know that you can’t make a good meringue when it’s raining, don’t we?

12 large egg whites
1 cup sifted cake flour or sifted all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar (total)
2 teaspoons vanilla
11/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon lemon or orange extract
Finely grated lemon peel

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and set a rack to the lowest position. In a very large mixing bowl allow egg whites to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Sift together flour and 3/4 cup sugar 3 times and set aside. Add vanilla, cream of tartar and salt to egg whites. Beat with electric mixer on medium to high speed until soft peaks form; gradually add 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Sift one-fourth of the flour mixture over egg white mixture and fold in gently. Repeat with remaining flour mixture, using one-fourth of flour mixture each time. Transfer half of batter to another bowl. In a small mixing bowl beat egg yolks on high speed for 6 minutes or until thick and lemon-colored. Add lemon extract, mix and gently fold yolk mixture into half of egg whites. Alternately spoon yellow batter and white batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan and swirl with a spoon to marble. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Immediately invert cake in pan and cool completely before loosening cake to remove from pan. Flip cake onto a plate and sprinkle top with finely shredded lemon peel and powdered sugar; serve chilled.

Syracuse Salt Potatoes

My experiences with people from upstate New York have always been cordial. My first Latin professor at Ole Miss happened to be from the Finger Lakes region, and he was the bluff, jovial sort you’d hope to find teaching such a subject. When I was in graduate school I met a man from Buffalo who is a scholar of the first water in the beautiful, convoluted study of blues music. Then I met Jake, a man of depth and parts, who though from Syracuse, is thoroughly adjusted, acclimated and otherwise oriented to living in central Mississippi. Mirabile dictu, he likes it here; mind you, he finds room for complaint,  but we all here have that in common.

Once long ago Jake mentioned a dish unique to Syracuse: salt potatoes. When I said I’d like to make them, he said, “You can’t.” Salt, he explained, is not the problem; you can use any pure salt you like, but you can’t use just any potato. The authentic, die-hard, “you will go to hell if you don’t do it this way” recipe demands new russet white potatoes (grade “B” I’ve been assured by my buddy from Buffalo, who is conversant in the matter); not red, not bakers, and most certainly not sweet. Such spuds to my knowledge (which is admittedly limited) are not grown nor sold in the state of Mississippi. I snagged a sack of small bakers a while back, and Jake said they “might work” but “weren’t right”. Then came the day when we went to the Farmer’s Market and found a basket of new Yukon Golds, a variety developed in southwest Ontario, which is in spitting distance of upstate New York. We both knew that while these potatoes are not the original russet-type that the Irish salt miners in Syracuse prepared for meals during their grueling work days, the best compromise possible was made. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Bring eight cups water to a low boil and stir in two cups salt. Likely not all the salt will dissolve, depending on the softness or hardness of your water (soft water will hold more salt). The potatoes will sizzle while boiling because of moisture leaching out of the skins. Once the potatoes are done through, remove them with a slotted spoon into a colander and let them dry until a salt crust forms on the skins. Serve hot with melted butter for dipping.