“In recent months I have looked forward to the mail with an anticipation and excitement I’ve not felt since, in the summer of 1946 as a ten-year old, I sent off penny postcards from Oxford, Mississippi, to Hollywood, California, and waited anxiously for autographed, black and white glossies of Alan Ladd and Jeanne Crain, Clark Gable and Betty Grable, Cornell Wilde and Yvonne de Carlo, Flicka, and Lassie to be delivered at my front door. The letters I’ve received in the past six months are even better.”
So writes Dean Faulkner Wells in her forward to The Great American Writer’s Cookbook (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1981. Dean Faulkner Wells and her husband Larry collected over 200 recipes sent by 175 writers of novels, short stories, history, commentary, plays, poetry, reportage, columns, and criticism, all among the finest of their generation. Most are predictably far better at writing than cooking, as hinted at in the introductory quote by John Cheever: “The only time I ever go into a kitchen is when I’m being chased out the back door.” The majority of the recipes are serious; exceptions include John McPhee’s “Count Zeppelin Pancakes,” Larry L. King’s “Party Boy’s Midnight Snack Puree,” David Halberstam’s “Cracked Crab à la McNamara,” and Irwin Shaw’s Italian Delight.”
“Many of the writers who sent recipes questioned the title,” Dean wrote, “advising me to change it to The American Writers’ Great Cookbook, or The Minor Regional American Writers’ Cookbook, or even concluding, ‘I heard that there once was a Great American Writer, but he died.’ She adds that the book is “in a small way a tribute to the men and women who have given me, in their distinguished work over the years, so many hours of pleasure and edification.”
In his introduction, Craig Claiborne writes that when attending a party of glittering literati in the Hamptons, he was astounded to find William Styron staring at him and pouting.
“You,” he said accusingly, “are the one critic who hurt me most.” I frowned. Me? A literary critic. He must be thinking of another man with my name. “You,” he continued, “criticized my recipe for fried chicken.” I laughed when he recounted the basis for my alleged attack.
It seems that some years ago there was published a book called The Artists and Writers Cook Book, and in it was his recipe for southern fried chicken. I should have learned long ago that there is nothing that can come nearer to creating lifelong enmity, if not to say bloodshed and worse violence, than one Southerner criticizing another Southerner’s fried chicken. Bill, of course, is from Virginia and I from Mississippi. It seems that the crux for my attack was that he had recommended cooking that chicken in bacon fat in lieu of lard blended with butter which my mother used and a technique which I in my turn borrowed. He also said, as I recall, that frozen chicken might be used. And that, I found unpardonable. In any event, before the evening which included a pitcher of martinis, we had a fine old time swapping recipes for grits and corn pones and hushpuppies.
Here’s a selection of recipes from Southern writers.
Barry Hannah: Three Bean Soup
This is a recipe that I learned from my aunts when I was little. It’s plain, staple food that can feed a big gang of people-friends, lovers, kids, relatives, everybody! I call it “Three Bean Soup.”
You start with three kinds of beans: kidney, white (navy) and black- eyed peas. Take a big-real big-pot of water, dump ’em in, and add some shredded onions. Sauté either pork or beef, cut up in little chunks, and dump it in. Bring it to a boil. Add salt mixed with pepper, to taste. Turn up the heat and bring it up again. Add water if needed; dump in a small bag of rice, and bring it up. Boil until it thickens. For extra seasoning, I sometimes add some crab-boil, Tabasco, or whatever’s handy on the shelf. Serve it with French bread and butter. It’s all the nutrition you can stand.
Shelby Foote: Viennese Boiled Beer
This is a two-step recipe, long-drawn-out but easy all the way. What’s more the result is well worth the trouble, for what you get is nothing less, I think-though I may be genetically prejudiced; one of my grandfathers came to Mississippi from Vienna-than the best main dish in all the world.
Step One, ingredients:
3 lbs. chicken parts, preferably
backs and wings.
1 veal knuckle.
5 large carrots, sliced.
2 medium turnips, quartered. 6 sprigs parsley.
2 bay leaves.
3 large onions, quartered.
8 stalks celery, sliced.
10 whole peppercorns. 6 whole allspice. 2 T. salt.
Place the above in an 8- or 10-quart stock pot. Add 5 quarts water; cover and bring to a boil, then reduce to a winking simmer for three hours, skimming and degreasing if necessary. Strain into another pot and keep the resultant four quarts of stock hot on the back of the stove for use in Step Two.
Step Two, ingredients:
5 lbs. boned beef brisket, whole and well-layered with fat. 18 small white onions, peeled.
12 small carrots, trimmed. 12 small potatoes, peeled. 6 wedges young cabbage.
Place brisket in stock pot, pour in hot broth from Step One; let simmer gently, covered, for three hours. Then add onions and carrots; let simmer another half hour, while potatoes and cabbage wedges are boiling in separate uncovered pots of salted water.
Serving: Remove brisket to a large well-and-tree platter; arrange vegetables around it and ladle stock generously over all. At table, carve brisket into medium thin slices; serve each plate with two slices of the beef and a fair portion of the vegetables, spooning more stock from the platter. Have handy a bowl of coarse salt, a pepper mill, and plenty of good cold beer. The best accompanying condiments are Dijon mustard, applesauce, and sour cream laced with horseradish. Serves six hearty eaters, most of whom will come back for seconds- and some for thirds. Leftover broth makes an excellent soup for future meals or will serve as the basic stock for preparing sauces.
Borden Deal: Southern Fried Chicken Like It Ought to Be . . . Along with ‘Erbal ‘Ushpuppies
This recipe is not an “old family favorite,” but an invention of my latter-day bachelor status.
Most Southern Fried Chicken you will encounter is not the delicate dish it’s cracked up to be. The culprit, as a usual thing, is the heavy, wet batter applied to the bird so thickly that’s all you can taste. It was precisely my dissatisfaction with “the old family favorite” that led to my creation of the following recipe:
First, dismember your bird: I do it in the country style, removing the wishbone intact, separating thigh from drumstick, trimming off the rear- ward tallow along with the pope’s nose, and surgically removing the neck (all of which I save for homemade soup). Rub the parts with a crushed clove of garlic.
Second, measure out nine tablespoonfuls of corn meal, (preferably stone ground), add three tablespoonfuls of plain flour (for the sole pur- pose of persuading the corn meal to stick better), then sprinkle a modi- cum of salt, two or three teaspoons of crushed fines herbes, a judicious measure of decent paprika to taste, and mix well.
Roll the chicken parts in the dry mixture and drop into a skillet half- filled with simmering corn oil. (You will need two large skillets). Save out the liver and gizzard for later insertion.
It is essential, for achieving the proper golden texture, to cover the skillets for five minutes; turn the chicken, cover for a second five minutes; then allow the chicken to finish cooking uncovered.
As soon as the chicken is underway, add the proper amount of milk and baking powder commensurate with the amount of left-over corn meal (you may also wish to add a bit more fines herbes also), and with your very own hands (a utensil will not do) mix the resultant mess into a firm batter. After flouring your hands, roll out between your palms the ‘erbal ‘ush- puppies in small balls about the size of a large marble. You should have about ten or so when you are done.
When you have turned the chicken pieces and are ready to cover them for the second time, drop the ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies in and around the chicken parts… along with the liver and the gizzard. This should bring them off at approximately the same time as the chicken.
(The traditional hushpuppy is “spoon dropped” into the cooking oil, but that’s hard to do along with the frying chicken. You can cook them separately, but your ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies won’t then pick up flavor from the meat).
Be sure to turn the ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies with a spoon from time to time so they will rise and cook evenly. When they, along with the chicken, are crisp and golden, serve piping hot (with a Scottish bagpiper, if your amenities extend so far) and you have the perfect one-dish meal: South- ern Fried Chicken Like It Ought To Be, with my special creation, ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies.
And it’s just as good cold the next day.
Harry Crews: Snake Steak
Take one diamondback rattle snake.
(Fifteen feet of garden hose, a little gasoline in a capped jar, a croker sack, and a long stick will be all you’ll need to take the snake. On a cold day, 32 degrees or colder, find the hole of a gopher-the Southerner’s name for a land tortoise. Run the hose down the hole until it is all the way to the bottom. Pour a teaspoon of gasoline into the hose. Cover the end of the hose with your mouth and blow. Shortly, the rattlesnake will wander out of the hole. Put the stick in the middle of his body, pick him up, and drop him in the sack. On the way home, don’t sling the sack over your shoulder, and generally try not to get struck through the cloth.)
Gut and skin the snake. No particular skill is needed for either job. Cut off the head six inches behind the eyes. Cut off the tail 12 inches above the last rattle. Rip him open along the stomach and take out everything you see. Peel him like a banana using a pair of pliers as you would to skin a catfish. Cut the snake into one inch steaks. Soak in vinegar for ten minutes. Drain and dry. Sprinkle with hot sauce, any of the brands out of New Iberia, Louisiana. Roll in flour and deep fry, being careful not to overcook. Salt to taste and serve with whatever you ordinarily eat with light, delicate meat.
Figure one snake per guest. Always better to have too much than too little when you’re eating something good.
Hodding Carter: Betty Carter’s Barbecued Shrimp
Hodding was the cook in our family at Feliciana—he and Phalange Word. Phalange would cook-and serve a perfect dinner for ten and leave just before the guests. When they had all gone Hodding would go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator door, look at the dabs of left overs so recently put away and announce mournfully that here was all this good food going to waste. Then, getting out a gumbo pot, he would fill it with whatever he saw, seasoning it as he went and thus creating one of Daddy’s Incredible Ice Box Soups. No recipe ever written down, no two ever alike. (I ate one I had taken out of the deep freeze while he was sail- ing to La Coruña. It was almost cannibalistic of me, it tasted so much like him!)
My forte is easy easies served informally and the best of these is Bar- becued Shrimp, served right from the baking pan with French bread. A green salad and beer and/or coffee and perhaps apple pie for dessert (someone else can make that!)-the smallest possible time investment. But Good!
5 lbs. headless raw shrimp, unpeeled, frozen or fresh, any size from medium on up.
1 pound of oleo (not butter, which burns)
Black pepper-have a fresh can ready
2 teaspoons garlic salt
Thaw the shrimp, if frozen; drain off excess water, spread in two layers in baking pan. Melt the oleo and pour it over the shrimp. Pick up your can of pepper and start shaking it over the shrimp, blanketing the whole sur- face so the shrimp disappear. Then do it again. Sprinkle the garlic salt over the surface. (The trick is to use more pepper than you think you should.)
Bake in 350 degrees about 25 minutes. At end of 15 minutes take a long spoon and turn the shrimp so those on top are on the bottom. Peel and sample one shrimp. Judge whether to cook another five minutes or ten.
Required is a heavy trivet to protect the table from the oven heat of the pan—I use a baking pan a bit larger than a 3-quart pyrex.
When done, take the baking pan directly to the center of the table where the guests will be seated. The diners serve their plates with a spoon, then tear off hunks of French bread and dunk in the liquid in the pan, repeating as their appetite suggests and as long as the sauce remains.
Serves six without trepidation on the hostess’ part, seven adequately and eight perhaps.
Reynolds Price: Pimento Cheese
I’ve failed in a long effort to trace the origins of pimento cheese, but it was the peanut butter of my childhood-homemade by Mother. I suspect it’s a Southern invention (I’ve seldom met a non-Southerner who knew what it was, though they take to it on contact); in any case, prepared ver- sions can be bought to this day in Southern supermarkets-most of them made apparently from congealed insecticides. Last year, once I’d ac- quired a Cuisinart, I rebelled and tried to reconstruct Mother’s recipe. I’ve made a change or two, in the interest of midlife zest; but I think any child of the thirties and forties (from, say, Baltimore down) will recall the glory and bless my name.
Grate a pound or more of extra sharp cheddar cheese. Chop coarsely one jar of pimentos (four ounces, more if you like) with one or two cloves of garlic. Mix into the grated cheese with plenty of freshly ground pepper and a minimum of salt; then gradually add enough homemade mayonnaise (maybe three tablespoons) to form a stiff chunky paste. Sometimes I add a little lemon juice or a very little wine vinegar or Tabasco-nothing to disguise the bare cheese and peppers and good mayonnaise. I’ve been caught eating a pound in two days (though it keeps well), especially if life is hard. On rough brown bread, it’s a sovereign nerve-salve.
James J. Kilpatrick: Black-Eyed Peas and Stewed Tomatoes
Go into the pea patch about 4 o’clock of an August afternoon, and pick half a peck of black-eyed peas and two or three ripe tomatoes. Then repair to the verandah (or deck, or porch as the case may be) and sit in the shade sipping some Tennessee whisky.
The pea pods should be about as long as a fresh copy pencil, fully packed but not turned brown. Using your thumbnail, gouge each precious pearl from its velvet case. When you are done, put the peas on to simmer. Throw in a nice hunk of ham hock or a couple of pieces of bacon. After the peas have simmered for an hour or so, quarter the tomatoes and toss them in. Salt and pepper. A couple of licks of Tabasco will im- prove the batch. Under no circumstances whatever is sugar permitted. A small onion, finely diced, is allowed.
When it gets too dark to see the label on the whisky, remove pot from stove and serve the delectable mess over hot cornsticks. Serves one.
Roy Blount, Jr.: Garlic Grits and A Song to Grits
I have cooked a few things, but I don’t remember how I did any of them. This recipe means something to me, though, because I got it from Maureen Dees, of Mathews, Alabama, who served me and her then-hus- band Morris some of it in their house, which once had a cross burned outside it. I always wanted to eat grits in a house that had had a cross burned outside it.
1⁄2 cup milk
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup quick cooking grits 1⁄2 cup margarine
2 eggs beaten
23 package garlic cheese, finely diced
2 to 3 cups cornflakes crushed 1⁄2 cup melted butter
Combine 1⁄2 cup boiling water with milk, salt, grits, margarine, eggs and half the cheese in casserole dish. Stir over low heat until cheese melts. Top with cornflakes. Pour butter over cornflakes. Sprinkle with re- maining cheese. Cook in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Yields six servings.
In between bites, sing stanzas of my poem about grits, called “Grits Poem,” or, “A Song to Grits.”
When my mind’s unsettled, When I don’t feel spruce, When my nerves get frazzled, When my flesh gets loose-
Me back together’s grits.
Grits with gravy,
Grits with cheese.
Grits with bacon,
Grits with peas.
Grits with ham,
Grits with a minimum Of two over-medium
Eggs mixed in ’em: um!
Grits, grits, it’s
Grits I sing-
In with anything.
Rich and poor, black and white, Lutheran and Campbellite,
Jews and Southern Jesuits, All acknowledge buttered grits.
Give me two hands, give me my wits, Give me 40 pounds of grits.
Fish, grits and collards.
Life is good where grits are swallered. GRITS!
Scottie Fitzgerald Smith: Bloody Bull
Everybody has heard of a Bloody Mary or a Bloody Shame (without vodka), and many have heard of a Bullshot (bouillon with vodka), but better than either on a hot summer holiday, when you can take a nap after lunch, is a cross between them known as a Bloody Bull.
My father and Hemingway are alleged to have invented the Bloody Bull while arguing about a Faulkner novel in the Ritz Bar after Hemingway’s return from Pamplona. My father thought that Mr. Faulkner was one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and it would have been quite characteristic of him to have defended this position while horizontal, if necessary.
1 large can V-8 juice
2 cans bouillon
Juice of 4 lemons
Worcestershire sauce Tabasco Celery salt
Stalk of celery
Mix all these, stir vigorously, add vodka, and pour over cracked ice. The celery stalk is not necessary but adds a touch of elegance.
David Donald: Date Loaf
One of my favorite recipes, which my mother gave me and which in turn her mother gave her, is for a Date Loaf.
Here are the ingredients:
3 cups white sugar
1⁄2 pound package of dates
1 cup of chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
1 cup sweet milk
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring 2 tablespoons butter.
Boil the sugar, butter, and milk until a soft ball is formed when dropped in cold water. Turn off the heat and add dates and nuts, then cook slowly, stirring all the time until the dates have completely cooked to pieces. Take off the heat, add vanilla, and stir until a little of the mixture will not stick when dropped on a damp cloth (or waxed paper). Pour in rolls (i.e., like a long, thin loaf) on two damp cloths. Roll up the cloths, let cool, and slice with a sharp knife.
The result is a wonderful, rich, and very, very filling dessert. About two small slices will hold the most ravenous adolescent for a whole afternoon.
Elizabeth Spencer: Golden Dream
This is my grandmother Elizabeth Young McCain’s recipe for Golden Dream, which was my favorite dessert when I was a child, and still is! Beat the yolks of 4 eggs slightly and add 1⁄2 cup sugar, the juice of one orange. Grate rind of 4 of it, also juice of one lemon. Cook in a double boiler until thick, then beat in the whites of the eggs beaten stiff. Cook a couple of minutes and if desired two teaspoonfuls of dissolved gelatine may be added and the whole poured into a mould. Chill till firm and serve with whipped cream.
You can also pour it into individual molds, of course.
Turner Catledge: Pork Balls Prytania
Tidbits named for the house on Prytania Street in New Orleans where many have been cooked and enjoyed tidbits between many drinks, where they fit in best.
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1pound hot sausage
3 cups Bisquick
Mix all ingredients, roll into bite-size balls, place on cookie sheet. Bake for 12 minutes in an oven heated to 350 degrees. Uncooked balls can be stored in deep freezer and heated when needed.
Eudora Welty: Charles Dickens’s Eggnog
This is the eggnog we always started Christmas Day off with. I have the recipe my mother used, though she always referred to it as “Charles Dickens’s Recipe.”
6 egg yolks, well beaten
3 Tbs. powdered sugar, sifted 1 cup Bourbon
1 pt. whipped cream
6 egg whites, whipped into peaks but not dry
nutmeg if desired
Add the powdered sugar gradually to the beaten egg yolks. Add the Bourbon a little at a time to the mixture. Add the whipped cream and the beaten egg whites, folding gently in. Chill. Serve in silver cups with a little grated nutmeg on top if desired.