The Tomato Before the Bar

Botanically, tomatoes are a type of fruit; a berry, to be precise.

In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed duties on vegetables, but not on fruits. Some smart lawyer (we occasionally stumble upon evidence of these fabled creatures) representing not only a particular commercial interest but Mother Nature Herself argued that the tomato is indeed a (duty-free) fruit.

Alas for Mother Nature and the noble litigator championing her, on May 10, 1893, in Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (unanimously) that “based use and popular perception,” under customs regulations the tomato is a vegetable. This puts the court at odds with science, but in concord with commerce.

With appropriate deference to global hoards of bellicose taxonomists, the court acknowledged its limitations by not purporting to define tomatoes beyond the rule of American law.

The Original, Definitive, and Incontestable Stage Planks Recipe

This recipe for “Gingerbread Without Butter or Eggs” was first published in The Picayune Creole Cookbook, c. 1901.

Please note that I did not write this recipe. It was written by Lafcadio Hearn sometime in the 1890s. Racist epithets are, sadly, enmeshed in the American vocabulary, as they are in most others, but as a journalist, I’m obligated to accurately reproduce citations. My apologies to anyone who takes offense.

“1 cup molasses, 1 cup sour milk, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 8 tablespoons shortening, 3 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda.

Melt the molasses, shortening and ginger together and blend well. When thoroughly melted and warmed, beat for 10 minutes. (While the original recipe as printed omits the use of the sour milk, let’s assume it’s added before the flour.) Dissolve the soda in 1 tablespoon boiling water and add to the molasses mix. Then add just enough of the sifted flour to make a stiff batter, beating thoroughly and vigorously. Pour into several greased shallow pans and bake for ten minutes in a quick oven.

This bread makes the famous “Stage Planks”, or ginger cakes, sold by the old darkies around New Orleans in old Creole days, to those of their own race and to little white children. The ancient Creoles, fond of giving nick-names, gave to this stiff ginger cake the name of “Estomac Mulâtre”, or “The Mulatto’s Stomach”, meaning that it was only fit for the stomach of a mulatto to digest.”

The cookbook does not include an icing recipe, but I’d suggest a royal icing. Pink, of course.

Grilled Gator

Long ago, Howard Mitcham predicted that “the day will come when fillet of alligator will be served in first-class gourmet restaurants, and frozen alligator meat will be available in the supermarket.”

Well, if not in your supermarket then certainly online, where you can find gator meat from a number of sources. Here’s Howard’s marinade for alligator.

Marinate steaks for at least four hours, turning the pieces occasionally. Grill on a low heat for about an hour or until tender.

1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 1/3 cups salad oil
8 drops Tabasco
1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
1 tbsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Kool-Aid Pie

Mix one can sweetened condensed milk, one container Cool Whip or a similar whipped topping, and one packet of Kool-Aid drink mix. You can add chopped cookies and/or diced fruit if you want to. Spread in an 8-inch graham cracker pie crust. Freeze for at least two hours–I recommend 4–before slicing and serving.

Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy lives in Pocahontas, Mississippi. Buddy is the hardest-working person I know; he does drywall, roofs, painting, whatever work he can find to keep his home safe and his family fed. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and, like most you–without a smidgen of justification, I hasten to add–thinks I’m a bum.

Buddy’s always bringing me stuff from his garden; tomatoes, okra, and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax during the holidays. Some years ago in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic. The bulbs cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.

I’ve since learned, it’s actually a leek, Allium ampeloprassum. You’ll find this onion growing around old home places all over the South. Here in south Hinds County, it’s practically endemic. You can use the fresh stems and bulbs before they divide out for a very strong garlic-y onion flavor. For the bulbs to clove, cut the blossom before it sets seed. Once the foliage has yellowed and the stem stiffened—this is a hardneck garlic—you can dig the buds. They will divide as they dry.

This old allium is a wonderful pass-along; plant toes/cloves after first frost in your strongest sun. Buddy tells me it spreads all over the place, and he has to thin his out twice a year. He also swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. They’re both pushing 80 now and show no signs of letting up.

Me, I’ve got the prettiest little patch of Pocahontas garlic you’d ever hope to see coming up in the bed next to the driveway.

Hollandaise

Whip three large egg yolks at room temperature and a teaspoon warm water until light and fluffy. Then, whisking continually, slowly dribble in a half cup (1 stick) melted butter. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, a dash of cayenne, and salt to taste.

Taking the Heat

There’s more than a grain of truth to the expression, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” because the pressures are enormous, and if you can’t deal with them, you’ll not be there long at all. You must have everything that can be ready well before hand without knowing how much you’re going to need, because more often than not you just can’t tell how busy it’s going to be. You also have to be able to cook several different things all at the same time and fast.

You’re also usually working for someone who wants to make every customer happy, and you’re obliged to respond with something approaching alacrity to the demands of the wait staff, who in turn are at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who has enough money to purchase a meal. The constraints are heavy, and as a result there’s very little feeling of autonomy.

Having said that, cooking in a restaurant does hold some appeal for those with the temperament and constitution. Getting out of bed at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning to cook appeals to very few people, so brunch shifts (which are invariably what weekend morning shifts are terms at most “upscale” restaurants) are not popular among restaurant workers. But once you’re used to being up and going to work at that time of the day—and it does take some getting used to—you might find a certain sort of appeal in it.

I once worked a brunch shift in an Oxford restaurant that required me to be at the restaurant around six every Sunday morning in order to begin serving at nine. Oxford is normally a bustling little city, but very early on Sunday mornings, downtown is usually quiet and sedate (mornings after an Ole Miss homecoming game are an exception; the partying never seems to end on those weekends).

At that time, only a couple of sleepy cops near the ends of their shifts, some few street maintenance workers and maybe a jogger or two are out and about. You notice the bird songs more because there’s no traffic. I always felt as if I’d gotten the jump on everyone, that by being among the first up on that day I’d somehow established some sort of slight moral superiority over other mortals by way of observing—albeit under some degree of duress—the old “early-to-bed-early-to-rise” maxim.

After getting to the restaurant and unlocking the door to the kitchen, on come the lights. You make a pot of coffee and check the notes left by the most conscientious person on the last shift and begin “waking up the kitchen,” bringing it to life, filling it with the sounds and aromas you’re accustomed to working around.

First you turn on the vent hoods (a crucial step), then you might fill the steam table pans with hot water and light the flames beneath them. You set your oven on whatever temperature you need to hold, heat, bake or broil foods. If you have them, you fire up the deep-fat fryers, the salamanders, the grill or the griddle. Then you begin prep, chopping up vegetables, mounds of onions, bell peppers and celery, parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, making batters, cracking eggs, making biscuits, muffins and shortbreads, setting water to boil for any number of things—grits, pasta, beans, peas, potatoes—putting together a soup for the day, warming up the menu standards, checking out leftovers to see what you can use and what should be trashed, deciding on a special and making sure you have enough staples on hand to get you through the day.

You’re cooking. You’re still alone and you have all these things going. You’re in control. It can be a wonderful feeling.

Sooner or later you’re joined by your compatriots in the kitchen, and you then find yourself dodging and dipping around them as they work. By the time the first servers get to the restaurant, you’re all in full swing, your steam table’s about half-full, you’re mostly through the prep for your line work and the smell of sautéing onions and baking biscuits fills the restaurant. More often than not, the servers are going to want to eat—especially those nursing a hangover, who in my experience with waitpersons tend to be in the majority—so you might as well put them a basket of biscuits with gravy out for them. You can yell at them later, but it’s usually a good idea to at least get off on the right foot with them initially.

By the time the first customers come stumbling in the door, you’re ready to serve up a beautiful meal, and soon you become lost in the peculiar, compelling rhythm of a working kitchen, which some people have compared to a ballet in its precision of flow and timing. Granted, a working kitchen certainly doesn’t exhibit the ostensible grace a performance of Swan Lake might—especially since, in a kitchen, a lot of billingsgate gets bandied around in what might seem to the uninitiated as an alarmingly casual manner (“Hey,  you stoner #$@^%&^%#! When am I going to get some %$#@&* fettuccine on the ##$%*%$# line?”)—but in its own cacophonous, high-tension way, a coordinated kitchen in operation is a beautiful thing, especially looking upon it and thinking back to when you walked into that cold, dark kitchen all alone very early that morning.

You’re the one who set the whole thing in motion, after all.

Coconut Macaroons

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) and work in a cup of cold butter. Stir in 2 well-beaten eggs with a teaspoon each vanilla and almond extract. Add 2 cups grated coconut, and mix well; you’ll get a better form if you chill the dough. Drop by spoonfuls onto a lightly oiled sheet pan, and bake at 350 until tops are toasted and bottoms browned.

Belles Calas

When it rained, we sat in the kitchen and listened to old Tante Zoe. She talked all the time when she was cooking, about what she was making and how she knew how to do it right from the old days.

If she had a big dinner for special guests, she’d say why this or that was served “To the mayor, not the bishop!” Then she’d sing and talk to herself, look up, smile, and coo like the old dove she was. She made us molasses butter for our morning biscuits.

Poppa smoked cigars in the house, but Zoe said she knew better than to smell up the cushions, and took her pipe to the swing on the back porch. Sunday mornings she’d fry rice beignets, the calas. She’d tell how they’d sell them in the Quarter, singing, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!”

Then she’s laugh and say how the fancy girls would run down the stairs with baskets to fill and take back up to their men.

Calas (Beignets Riz)

Add two packets of yeast mixed with a cup of warm water and a tablespoon of sugar to two cups over-cooked mashed rice. Cover and let it work overnight. In the morning, add four beaten eggs, a half cup sugar, a tablespoon of pure vanilla and pinches of nutmeg and allspice. Blend in enough plain flour to make a thick batter, and drop by spoonful into very hot oil. When browned, drain, dust with powdered sugar.

A Mother and Child Reunion

When Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” topped the charts in 1971, many people (me among them) assumed that he got the title from a chicken and egg sandwich—which in diner lingo is known as a Mother and Child reunion.

But in fact the title came from a meal he had at the Say Eng Look Restaurant in New York City. In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, Simon said, “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs.”

Known as “mother/child/daughter,” variations of this combination  are common menu items at Asian restaurants. Another version—oyakodon: mother/daughter bowl—has been described as Japanese “soul food.” As with any basic dish, the reunion is made in as many ways as there are cooks to make it. Here’s my version, which varies with available ingredients.

Cube a boneless breast of chicken, dust with fresh pepper, and fry in vegetable oil with a a clove of garlic until browned. Poach  in chicken broth until tender; doesn’t take long. Drain chicken, reserving the broth, and stir-fry/saute with sliced onions, and whatever else you’re adding. I’ll throw in things like thinly sliced mushrooms, celery, carrots, and cabbage or kale of some kind cut in some form or fashion.

Add enough broth to cover the chicken by half, bring to a simmer, and dribble in two or three beaten eggs in sort of a figure 8. Stir gently, cover, and steam until the eggs have firmed and blossomed. Thicken slightly with a thin slurry of water and corn starch. Ladle into a bowl of rice, and top with chopped green onions..