All in a Name

Some dishes such as sauerkraut, pizza or biscuits have specific names, and others such as carrot cake, herb omelet or barbecued ribs are simply descriptive. Some are named for places as is a London broil or Boston baked beans though in some cases–particularly dishes of a French origin–a name simply specifies a certain ingredient such as spinach with a Florentine or crawfish in an à la Nantua. Some maintain that Baked Alaska was invented at Antoine’s and named in honor of an event, “Seward’s Folly”, the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867.

In the introduction to her splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook Jackson native Winifred Cheney states that a signature dish is “a tribute in the field of cookery”, intimating such dishes as oyster Rockefeller or Melba toast, but here Winifred misinforms. A signature dish is a recipe that identifies or is directly associated with an individual chef or a particular restaurant. For instance, one could say that blackened redfish is a signature dish of Paul Prudhomme’s, or shrimp and grits that of Bill Neale’s or that oysters Rockefeller—a variation of oysters Florentine—is a signature dish of Antoine’s as barbecued shrimp is of Pascale’s Manale.

Dishes named for people, either to honor them—as in the Rockefeller, purportedly because the dish is so rich—or because they were first made for them—as is the case with Melba toast, first made by opera aficionado Auguste Escoffier for his favorite diva Nellie Melba when she was indisposed to speed her recovery (it did, so eat Melba toast the next time you have those withering faints of artistic exhaustion), don’t have a specific term of reference. They’re just recipes named for people, there are dozens upon dozens of them and more are being created all the time. Winifred herself created two dishes for her neighbor and celebrated author Eudora Welty, apples Eudora and squash Eudora, each using what Winifred says are two of Welty’s favorite foods, tart apples and yellow squash.

Winifred is notorious for recipes that are rich, with expensive, hard-to-find ingredients and take a long time to make; the most frequent critiques of The Southern Hospitality Cookbook center around how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. Such is the case with her apples Eudora, which she describes as “tart apples cooked in a delicious syrup, drained and baked in a rich custard, then filled with an apricot rum filling and topped with a dollop of whipped cream” and if that doesn’t wear you out just reading it, then preparing it is going to make you bedridden.

Then she gives us squash Eudora, which while lacking in the elegance of her apples Eudora, is certainly less tedious. The principle ingredients are yellow crookneck squash and chicken livers. Now, chicken livers, like any type of liver, aren’t for everyone; they’re one of those things you either hate or love, rather like our incumbent president. Still, you can’t make a foie gras without them, and I’ve found that liver enthusiasts tend to be among the more culinarily sophisticated. I myself like squash Eudora, and it is substantial enough to serve either as an entrée or as a heavy buffet dish. What follows is not Winifred’s recipe to the letter (for instance, she uses “dried green onions” by which she might mean chives, but I substitute with fresh green onions), but it is faithful in spirit.

Wash but do not peel two pounds tender yellow squash. Slice thinly and parboil with a pat of butter until tender. Drain and season with black pepper and salt to taste. Drain and wash a half pound (8 oz.) livers, cut into halves and sauté in butter with Worcestershire. Set aside to cool, then drain and mix with squash, about a cup of chopped green onions a teaspoon curry powder, a teaspoon celery seed, one egg lightly beaten and a half cup grated Parmesan. Put mixture in a shallow casserole and bake at 350 until mixture is firm, dust top with more Parmesan and brown. Serve with fresh summer vegetables such as tomatoes or green beans. Winifred says that you can substitute a pound of lump crabmeat for the livers, and indeed you can if your pocketbook will allow.

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