Firehouse Soup

While I went to college, I worked a few years as a firefighter for the City of Memphis. I learned many things there, but the biggest impact it had on me long-term was how it taught me to think about food.

The deal was that you worked every other day for three days, and then you were off for four days. So, for example, you may work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then you would be off until the following Wednesday, when the cycle started all over again. And each shift was 24 hours long and began at 7 AM. Depending on what fire-fighting equipment was housed at your station, you could have anywhere from four to 12 people on each shift, and you always worked with the same people.

It was like a second family you lived with 1/3rd of your life. We had laundry and showers and we cut the grass and, of course, ate together. And while there was a kitchen and equipment such as pans and knives provided, the actual food was not, and was up to you. Some people brought their own food, but you didn’t if you wanted to be trusted by the others on your shift. To be trusted, you needed to belong to the syndicate.

I worked at several different houses during the years I was on the job, and the syndicate always worked the same way. There was one member of the shift who kept track of a pool of money, and that was used to buy groceries for your shift. Each shift had its own refrigerator and cupboard, which were kept locked. At each meal, you were either “in” or “out” for the meal, meaning you intended to eat the food bought from the pool of money, and you were “charged” your pro-rata share of the groceries that went into that meal. And on payday, you settled up your bill, which replenished the pool of money, and it started all over again.

So, every day you worked, you had to figure out who was cooking three meals for your shift. Some shifts had 1 person who just loved cooking, and they took it on as their responsibility, but most times we would ask who wanted to cook each meal, with the others doing cleanup. Breakfast was usually fixed – eggs, bacon, biscuits were common, most often with gravy – and lunch was often caught as catch can, but the big show was supper.

A cool thing about this system is that you had a diversity of cooks, with each bringing their favorites to the table. Tom was in his 20s and could run the grill, but not much else. Curtis loved to make spaghetti. Stan made round steak and gravy, with mashed potatoes and English peas so good that my mouth waters just thinking about it.

And John always made soup.

John was nearing retirement after nearly 30 years on the job. He had been divorced for nearly 20 of those years and most of his off-work meals were either sandwiches or dinner fare. But his one claim to culinary fame was his soup.

I probably ate it two dozen times and watched him make it half of those times, and it was never done exactly the same way twice. It was more of a technique rather than a recipe, but what it always was, was good.

As an example, I will share how I made it last week, but everything in this recipe is up for negotiation.

Dice a small onion into small pieces, and dice two cloves of garlic while you are at it. In a large pot, crumble a pound of ground beef, add your diced onions, and sprinkle some salt on top of it all, and then, over medium heat, begin to brown the ground beef. Stir it all around until the meat is no longer pink and the onions are translucent, then add the garlic and let it sweat a bit, but don’t, for the love of God, let it burn or you just ruined the whole thing. The garlic will be flavorful and ready in about a minute.

Pour in three and a half cups of beef broth (or water plus an appropriate amount of beef paste) and a 12-ounce can of V8 juice. Using a spoon or something, scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure all the bits are off the bottom of the pan and it’s all mixed well.

To this, add a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes (Rotel is another option here, but it obviously changes the flavor), a couple of tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce (easy for you to say), and 2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning. We only had a few spice jars at the fire station, but Italian seasoning went into everything. Let it come to a boil.

While you are waiting on that, peel and dice 2 potatoes of whatever kind you have around – I had Yukon Golds. Add it to the pot, along with a pound of frozen mixed vegetables. (I know that sounds vague, but that’s what they are always called at the grocery. It’s generally green beans, carrots, and English peas.) Let it boil, then bring it down to a simmer for 15 minutes.

NOW. You can let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a perfectly acceptable soup to serve with your dinner. Or, you can do what I did and add a cup and a half of elbow macaroni and another half cup of beef broth and THEN let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a hearty, filling soup you can eat for diner all by itself.

Beef or shredded chicken. V8 or Tomato sauce. Beef broth or chicken. Macaroni or spaghetti or even instant grits (trust me on this). Tomatoes or Rotel. White potatoes or sweet potatoes (What? Yes.)

It’s all up in the air. Mix and match. Live a little.

You deserve it.

Chips and Cheese

In high school, I worked at a grocery store after school. I worked from 4 to closing (which was 8 PM) during the week, and usually a good eight hours on Saturday, and would sometimes work on Sundays from 1 when we opened after the church was out, until 6 when we closed. Sunday was the worst because on Sundays you had to both open AND close.

It was a small town and a small grocery store. It was roughly the size of a Rite Aid or small Walgreens. I didn’t work every night, but most of them. I generally pulled 25 hours a week or more – probably more than was wise for a kid my age, but I loved it.

But the best part was after I got home. By the time we closed the store, it might be 9 before I got home during the week. Supper would be long over, and my brothers in bed, but Mom would leave dinner out for me, and I would fix myself a plate and heat it up in the microwave. Often she would then put everything away and go lay down and read, and Dad would sit up to watch the news before bed.

This particular night, I had gotten in later than normal and was starving. Mom had fixed Taco Salad for supper, which was what she called it when she would spread crumbled tortilla chips on a plate, then cover the plate with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes and shredded cheese, which was then topped with “taco meat”, which is what we called ground beef with an Old El Paso seasoning packet added, and jarred salsa and sour cream. It was very filling and good and seemed exotic in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1986.

All the ingredients were left out on the counter, waiting on me to put them together. Mom was already in bed, reading, and Dad was watching the end of a show, in anticipation of the news. I piled all the assorted goodness on my plate and, as I often did on those nights, sat in the living room with Dad and ate while we watched TV together.

When the show ended, I got up to put the food away. Dad followed me into the kitchen.

“Wait a minute”, he said. “I need a snack.”

He took down a large supper plate – one of the white Corelle plates with the blue flowers they had gotten as newlyweds – and spread chips over it in a single layer, edges just barely touching. Then he picked up the block of good sharp hoop cheese we always seemed to have in our refrigerator and, holding the box grater in his left hand, grated cheese over the tops of the chips in a dense layer, coving the chips until only the undulations of the chips under the cheese betrayed their existence.

He took this mounded plate of yellow marvelousness and put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, during which time the cheese melted and spread over the chips, flowing into the cracks and bubbling on top. He took it out, pulled a chip from the edge of the plate, watched the melted cheese string stretch an improbable length before breaking, then picked it high in the air and, head tilted back, put the whole thing in his mouth, cheese string first, the way some people eat spaghetti.

Then he shut the microwave door and went into the living room to watch the news. I had watched all this with curiosity, just waiting to see where this was going. Suddenly, the spell broke.

“Wait, “ I said. “I want some!”

“Well, make you some of your own. What do you want me to do, write the recipe down for you?”

So I made some, exactly the same way, and just as I walked into the living room, the news came on the TV. We sat together on the couch, in silence, with nothing heard above the sound of the TV but the crunching of chips and occasional sighs of satisfaction.

In Praise of Cabbage

Often when reading a novel, I will find that if the author wants to indicate the smell of poverty, they will mention the smell of cooked cabbage. Like, “The stairway in the tenement smelled of used diapers, cooked cabbage, and despair.”

That’s no reflection on the cabbage, however, as cabbage is no respecter of persons, is filled with vitamins, and will keep in your fridge (or in your cellar) for damn near forever. No, in addition to all the virtues of cabbage, it is also usually inexpensive, which makes it the butt of jokes rather than be celebrated for the heroic vegetable it is, serving to fill in around the edges when the more respected fare is hard to come by.

As a young boy, I ate my share of cooked cabbage, but sadly, I never had any cooked cabbage that tasted good until I was grown. My people tended to, when in doubt, just boil a thing until it surrendered when some things benefit most by gentle encouragement instead of a full-on assault. They would make up for this by pouring the potlikker in the bottom of the pot – the vitamin laden broth left after the cabbage had been eaten – over cornbread, which was always the best part of the meal, the cabbage having been cooked until it dissolved, like the dreams we had of a meal with texture.

But done right, stewed cabbage is a delight, and there is virtually no likker to be had because we didn’t soak away all the vitamins. If it’s a weeknight and you don’t know what to use for a side dish, this is perfect. It takes about 25 minutes, from start to back, and if you add some bacon, you can make it a main dish instead. I think it’s even good enough to serve as a side at a celebration, like Thanksgiving.

If stewed cabbage is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

What you will need for this are a head of white (as opposed to red) cabbage, a big skillet, three tablespoons of some cooking fat – bacon grease is traditional, but butter is OK too, and I like to mix them both, half and half, each bringing qualities of which the other is shy – some salt, some sugar, and some water.

Turn the heat on medium under your skillet, and put your fat in it to melt. I’m going to assume you paid attention and are using one and a half tablespoons each of both butter and bacon grease, but you do you. Unless you doing you involves olive oil, in which case, just … no. There are things for which olive oil is wonderful, but this is not one of them.

While your fat’s melting, quarter your head of cabbage, cut out the stem, and then cut the rest of it into “steaks”, top to bottom (like, from pole to pole of the cabbage head) about an inch and a half thick. Then cut the steaks into chunks about 2×2, and then put the chunks in the hot fat. Don’t shred your cabbage – this ain’t slaw. You want chunks. It may fall apart a bit, which is fine, but don’t encourage it any. I mean, you fall apart, and we do you the kindness of not mentioning it, so return the favor here.

Sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt over the top of the cabbage chunks. You want to give the cabbage a minute or two in the hot fat, so the leaves will begin to brown and caramelize – take your spatula and move it about a bit to keep it from sticking. When you see edges beginning to brown slightly, add a cup of water (slowly), and then allow the water to cook down over medium heat until the water is mostly gone, the house smells amazing, and the cabbage is tender when you stab it, but the chunks are still mostly intact – which on my stove takes about 20 minutes.

Some of you will want to cook this longer. I understand this, but you’re wrong. It won’t be improved by turning it into mush. I am in favor, however, of starting this dish by frying up three slices of bacon, then dicing the cooked bacon into bits, and using that bacon grease plus another tablespoon or two of butter as the fat and then proceed from there, using the bacon bits as a garnish when you are done.

Some of you will think this can be improved by reducing the fat down to only one tablespoon, making it less fattening. It may be less fattening that way, but it won’t taste better. And in all honesty, two tablespoons of butter has 200 calories, which when divided by the four serving this makes, means you saved 50 calories a serving, but managed to turn something delicious into something your kids will make fun of you for making.

Suppertime Cheese Grits

I got asked a while back by a friend if I was going to talk about grits on my blog.

If y’all thought cornbread was contentious, just wait till Southern folk start talking about grits. And do note that while they are very different things, they are both derived from corn, the poor man’s wheat, and they are both examples of peasant cooking, so of course, I’m going to talk about grits.

If ever there was an example of my adage that “Normal is just another word for whatever you are used to”, it’s grits. And if you can do it to a bowl of grits, I assure you somebody has.

Growing up, grits were for breakfast. Mom liked them because the preparation was simple, it was filling, and it was as cheap as could be. One thing she didn’t like about grits, unfortunately, was the grits themselves: She tended to prefer Cream of Wheat, but never managed to convert us. But she grew up traveling around the country with my grandfather, who was in the Navy, so one has to make allowances.

When visiting our neighbors, Monty and Doc, I would eat fried grits for lunch, which was basically leftover grits poured into a loaf pan, then cooled in the refrigerator until firm. They would then be sliced into inch thick slabs and fried in bacon grease, making an ersatz fried polenta. In fact, the first time I ate polenta, I was convinced it was just expensive fried grits. Spoiler: It pretty much is, although grits tend to be made with white corn, and polenta with yellow, which is sweeter, so there is a slightly different flavor profile. But grits and polenta are a whole lot closer than collards and kale, which are interchangeable.

But today I want to tell you about suppertime grits. Because I usually make these as a weeknight meal, I take some liberties to speed things up, but you can have this on the table in about 20 minutes. I tend to use them like you would pasta or potatoes, but if you add enough cheese or even a heavy meat sauce, this makes a fine main dish.

You will need some grits. White is traditional, and regular people eat just regular grits, although there are artisanal, stone-ground grits to be had out there. But for our purposes, some white grits – even the quick-cooking grits, like I do in this recipe-, will do on a weeknight. We don’t speak of instant grits, nor of anything that comes in a packet.

You will need a liquid. At its most basic, you can use water, and many people do, but milk is a fine choice too. But if you are going to the trouble to make them for supper, try chicken stock instead. In this recipe, we will use both chicken stock and milk.

And since these will be served as part of a meal (instead of by themselves) I would add some cheese. Now, any cheese will do – cheddar (my preference), cream cheese, Velveeta, American – just whatever you have laying around. Honestly, I use cheese grits like this as an opportunity to use up little bits of cheese I might have laying around.

Here’s how I would do it.

I’d put 8 cups of chicken broth in a heavy saucepan and heat it up to a boil, and then bring it down to a simmer. Now, if you don’t have chicken broth on hand, you can use something like Better Than Boullion’s Chicken Base, or even some chicken bouillon cubes instead. The point is, any of that will be better than just water.

Now that it’s simmering, slowly add 2 cups of quick-cooking grits while you which them in. If you just dump them in, it will clump up. I would do it slowly, stirring the broth as I slowly shake the grits into the pot. When they are all in, add ¾ of a teaspoon of salt, give the mixture a final stir for luck, and then put the lid on the pot, turn it down to low, and let them simmer for a good 10 minutes or so, until they thicken. You will want to stir them at least twice during this time, so they don’t stick.

You could stop now and have a fine bowl of grits, but we can keep going and make them extraordinary. Let’s add a tablespoon of butter (I use salted butter here because it’s what I always have, but unsalted would work too), and a cup to a cup and a half (let your conscience be your guide) of good shredded Cheddar cheese, the sharper the better. Just stir it in a bit at a time, and watch it melt. This will thicken the grits a bit, especially if you use pre-shredded cheese (it’s a weeknight, so you are forgiven), which is coated in cornstarch and thus has a thickening effect on everything. You then will thin it down with about half a cup of whole milk, or if you are feeling festive, half and half or whipping cream.

This serves four people if you do it as a main dish or about eight as a side. I’d serve it in bowls and sprinkle the top with freshly ground black pepper.

Now, of course, this is a starting point. One of my favorite ways to eat grits is to serve them with a red sauce made with peppers and Italian sausage, which makes them very fancy, indeed.



Peasant Food

There have been times in my life when I knew a thing, innately, down in my bones, and yet I didn’t know it academically. Later, I would learn the academic or scientific basis for something that knew only in that visceral way, and then I would feel validated and sometimes comforted by now having language for a thing I only knew practically before.

I learned the other day that my style of cooking is called “Peasant Cooking”. This was not one of those times when having language for a thing you know will bring you joy.

But it’s not far off, I guess. We were working class folks – until I was 14 my Dad went to a job where he had his name on his shirt, and prosperity (and health insurance) hit our home when Mom got a job at the Walmart. (For some reason, she worked at the Walmart, but we shopped at Walmart, without the article. Vernacular is a funny thing.)

We ate good food, honest food that did not hide behind fancy names.

In my mid-twenties, I was upwardly mobile, and trying to get beyond my blue collar roots.

By chance and circumstance, I ended up at a fancy Italian restaurant with a client I desperately wanted to impress. To that point, my Italian food experience largely involved spaghetti and meatballs or Pizza Hut.

The client: They have the best polenta here. Do you like polenta?

Me: I love it.

Me in my head: WTF is polenta?

We ordered the polenta. I remember it was nearly $20 a plate, way back in the mid ‘90s.

When it came, we both dug in. It was amazing.

The client: What do you think about it? Good, huh?

Me: It’s amazing.

Me in my head: I just paid $40 for 2 plates of gotdamned fried grits and spaghetti sauce.

I had a similar experience when I first was served cauliflower in béchamel sauce. I have to give them credit – no way would I have had the gumption to pour milk gravy over boiled cauliflower and serve it to people I wanted to give me money, but people raised in town are a different breed.

Milk gravy – béchamel sauce, the French call it, and they have a word for everything – is an important thing to know how to make. If you can make milk gravy, you can eat nearly free for days and days without repeating anything. And there’s been several things I wanted to tell y’all about – like creamed chicken over rice, or sausage gravy and biscuits, or baked macaroni and cheese – that I can’t talk about without talking about white sauce, or béchamel, or milk gravy, whatever they called it wherever you happened to grow up.

Gravy scares people for some reason, but no reason it should. It’s just a series of steps, and if you follow them, it’s hard to screw up. But I will say this is a time to make sure you have your stuff all out ahead of time, because things are gonna move fast.

You will need all purpose flour, salt, pepper, whole milk, and butter. You could also use cooking oil, or bacon grease, or pretty much any fat, understanding they all change the flavor profile a bit. We often make this with the grease left over from something else (like the grease left when you cook sausage, or bacon, or the drippings from roast chicken, which is amazing) but I’m going to assume that if you don’t know how to make milk gravy, you probably don’t have a jar of bacon grease in your refrigerator, either.

In a small cast iron skillet, or a heavy sauce pan if you don’t have one, put in two tablespoons of butter and turn the heat to medium. While the butter is melting, get your measuring spoons and cups out, and then measure out two tablespoons of flour and a cup (8 ounces) of milk.

The flour you add to the melted butter – just scatter it thinly around on the surface of the melted butter and then take a whisk and stir the hell out of it. You want to mix the butter into the flour here – you will end up with a thick, clumpy sort of mush. You don’t want it to burn – now, some people like to let it “toast” a little, because some book told them to, but we don’t. I was told this was to cook out the flour taste, but their gravy just tastes burnt to me.

Once the flour and melted butter are well mixed – that’s called a roux, by the way (it’s pronounced “roo” – it’s French, but I learned it in New Orleans from Cajun folks. My people wouldn’t have had a word for it) – slowly add about 1/4th a cup of the milk, and begin whisking. The roux will suddenly start clumping up as it thickens. Keep whisking as you keep adding the milk in increments; add some milk, whisk it into the roux. Add more milk, and whisk it into the roux. Keep going until you are out of milk. Make sure you get the whisk into the corners of the pan, as the sooner you get the flour incorporated into the liquid, the better.

If you followed the instructions, you won’t have any lumps in the sauce. Add salt – opinions vary here, but I would try ¼ of a teaspoon and see how that works – and I usually add the same amount of ground black pepper.

You are going to have a bit more than a cup of gravy here, which is fine if you are putting this over rice, or toast, or mashed potatoes. The important thing is the fat to flour ratio is always 1:1. In this case, 2 tablespoons flour, two tablespoons of butter, 1 cup of milk.

It needs to cook for just a few minutes yet to thicken up. I usually put it on low and let it simmer while I set the table, but if it thickens up too much on you, just slowly drizzle water into it while whisking to thin it back down. If the opposite problem happens – if it’s way too thin because you didn’t follow the directions – do NOT try adding flour, or you will be sad. The safest way to deal with this is to just turn up the heat and cook off the liquid until it thickens. Either way, stir it periodically while it’s still over heat, as the edges will thicken faster than the rest.

Also, know that it will thicken a bit as it sets, so if you are trying to be fancy and are planning to put it in a gravy boat on the table, you will want it to be thinner than you expect it to be, or else you will have something that looks like oatmeal when it comes time to eat. But honestly, I usually make this as part of something else. It’s the basis for so many good things, but none of them involve cauliflower.


The Box at the Side of the Road

It didn’t look like much, sitting there on the side of the road, sticking out of a box along side a broken air popper and a lamp with a missing lampshade. But you couldn’t fool me – I knew what it was.

My brother-in-law was visiting us – this was in the before times – and had gotten up early and went for a walk in the neighborhood. When he came back, he had told me that a few streets over, someone had set a bunch of trash at the curb.

“And sitting right on top of it all is a cast iron skillet.”

I drove over to check it out. It was, in fact, a cast iron skillet; a 10 inch one, to be exact. It wasn’t any collectable brand; just a no-name workhorse of a skillet, the sort that used to be in every southern kitchen, and still hangs on the wall of mine.

But, it had been a long time since somebody loved it. It was filthy, and covered in rust. I put it in my shed to “deal with later”. And then a few weeks later, a global pandemic happened, and my mind became filled with other things.

But last week, I came across it again, as I was moving some things about, and decided it had been neglected long enough.

In the book Hannibal, the author Thomas Harris has Hannibal Lecter write a letter to Clarice Starling, in which he says the following:

“Do you have a black iron skillet? You are a southern mountain girl; I can’t imagine you would not. Put it on the kitchen table. Turn on the overhead lights.

Look into the skillet, Clarice. Lean over it and look down. If this were your mother’s skillet, and it well may be, it would hold among its molecules the vibrations of all the conversations ever held in its presence. All the exchanges, the petty irritations, the deadly revelations, the flat announcements of disaster, the grunts and poetry of love.

Sit down at the table, Clarice. Look into the skillet. If it is well cured, it’s a black pool, isn’t it? It’s like looking down a well. Your detailed reflection is not at the bottom, but you loom there, don’t you? The light behind you, there you are in a blackface, with a corona like your hair on fire.

We are elaborations of carbon, Clarice. You and the skillet and Daddy dead in the ground, cold as the skillet. It’s all still there. Listen.”

I love that. Cast iron is sacred to me, in a way other skillets are not. They have soul, personality, character. Perhaps it is the vibrations in the carbon. In any event, it was time to make things right.

There is a lot of mythology around cast iron, but it isn’t rocket science. It requires a modicum of care, and there are rules to its use, just like there are rules to how to use nonstick.

So I ran a sink of hot water and dish soap, and scrubbed it down with a Scotchbrite pad. I scrubbed the grease and the rust off, and when it was done, it was a pale grey with some splotches of rust here and there, but clean. I then poured white vinegar in the pan and scrubbed the rust, adding kosher salt to make a paste.

With cast iron, your two enemies are acid and water. But the dose makes the poison, and first, we have to strip it down before we can season it.

After it’s clean, I turned the burner of the stove to low heat, and then set the skillet on it for 10 minutes or so. I want it dry as can be, and the heat drives the moisture out. While that’s happening, I turn the oven on 450 and let it heat up, and get out the vegetable oil.

There is a lot of mythology around seasoning the skillet, but it’s just that – myth. All you are going to do is create a thin coating to protect the skillet. And virtually any oil will work. The old folks used lard, because that is what they had, but plain old vegetable oil will work a treat. What we are going to aim for is 4-5 thin coatings. You don’t want one thick coating, because it will glob up and get sticky.

OK, now your skillet is on the burner, and dry and scalding hot. Pour a small dot of oil in the skillet – like, twice the size of a quarter, maybe. Then put on an oven mitt and, with a pair of tongs and a folded up paper towel, smear a thin coat of oil over the entire skillet, inside and out. I can’t emphasize how little oil will be on the skillet at this point – a thin coating, with no oil remaining when you are done smearing. Your skillet will look the same as it did before, only slightly darker from the oil.

Now put it in the oven upside down and leave it there for 30 minutes. It might smoke a bit – this is not failure. Using your oven mitt, take it out and repeat. Small dollop of oil, smear it all over, thin coat, put it back in the oven for 30 more minutes. And again. And again. Do it at least four times.

You put it in upside down to keep any oil from pooling. There shouldn’t be any oil to pool, if you used as little oil as I told you to, but still – better safe than sorry. The fourth time, just turn the oven off and let it cool, with the skillet in it. And when it cools, you are done.

It’s now ready to use. You don’t have to be precious with it. Use it to fry bacon, make cornbread, or really to cook anything, although you should probably avoid heavily acidic dishes like spaghetti sauce. And when you are done, use a scrubby pad to clean it with a little soapy water – the no soap thing is another myth – dry it off, and put it away. I usually dry mine by putting it over low heat for a minute or two to drive the moisture out, then wipe it down with a few drops of oil.

And that’s it. Using it continues to season it naturally, and your drying it and wiping it with oil protects it. Keep it dry and it will, properly treated, outlast the kitchen in which it is stored. I do not, however, recommend storing it in a box at the end of the driveway.

The Pie That Isn’t There

It’s not much to look at.

It’s a spiral bound church cookbook that the church of my childhood put out in the late 70’s as a fundraiser. It’s blue, with a drawing of the church on the front – the church as I remember it, before the fellowship hall was built, and the new sanctuary, and the new electric sign.

This cookbook – the Country Cookin’ Cookbook, the title proclaims, was the bible of the meals of my childhood. My mom was not a natural cook – she can do it, but derives no joy from it, and is as happy to warm something up as she is to make something from scratch. At times, she would get creative, leading to… unusual combinations. My Aunt Louise once said Mom was “slap-happy” in the kitchen, because she would slap anything together and call it supper.

So when this cookbook came out and you suddenly could make dumplings like Ms. VanHook, or a caramel cake like Mary Elizabeth, or a sad cake like Sister Betty’s, well, now you are onto something. And frankly, our suppers improved somewhat.

It has spots and stains, more on some pages than others, so you can track our preferences and dislikes, each spotted page a vote for the dishes on that page. It suffers from specificity of categories, having chapters for Pies, another for Cakes, another for cookies and Candies, and then yet another for Desserts, just in case some sweet managed to slip through uncatalogued otherwise.

But the recipe I have made most from this cookbook isn’t in there. It’s for Ms. Dunning’s Fudge Pie.

Don’t get me wrong – should you manage to somehow acquire a copy of the 1978 edition of the Emory Methodist Church’s Country Cookin’ Cookbook from Watson, Mississippi, you will find, right there on page 144, a recipe labeled Chocolate Fudge Pie, submitted by Jeanette Dunning. But that recipe will not work. It’s missing things. You try to make it like that and you will have pudding in a pie shell.

There were rumors in the church that Ms. Dunning left things out on purpose so as nobody could make a pie as good as hers. I don’t believe it – I’m willing to extend her some grace and just assume she just forgot to tell them everything.  Those Methodists are all about grace except when it comes to dessert.

Anyway, after this cookbook showed up, we started having chocolate fudge pies at every holiday gathering and potluck dinner. Wherever 3 or more were gathered, there was a fudge pie. Birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving? Fudge pies.

The recipe in my copy of the cookbook has been so altered, with additions and subtractions and alterations made over the ensuing 40 years in various inks that it’s not really fair to call it Ms. Dunning’s recipe anymore.

But because I want to help folks, and I shudder at the thought of one of y’all coming across a copy of this cookbook in the wild and trying to make a fudge pie that won’t turn out, I have decided to make things right and release the proper recipe into the wild.

Now, the original recipe is for two pies – that’s what it says, anyway. But remember, this recipe was released in 1978, and it was old then. It was made for 8-inch pie crusts, and they don’t make those any more. I recently tried to buy some 8-inch pie pans, and was gonna make crusts, and had a devil of a time trying to find any. It seems our pies have all super-sized now, with 9 or 9.5 inch pans being all there is. So, over the years, we have modified this somewhat to work with one 9-inch premade frozen pie crust.

What you’re going to need:

  • 1/2 stick butter, melted. I ain’t even going to lie – most often this was margarine growing up, but it’s butter now. When you know better, you do better.
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons of cocoa powder. I recommend sifting this. If you don’t have a flour sifter, you can put it in a sieve and tap it until all the cocoa comes out the bottom. Or hell, you can just dump it in and take your chances and probably be OK.
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup PET milk. Now, I’m afraid I better explain, as somebody out there is going to put kitten milk in this with who know what consequences. PET milk is what old people call evaporated milk, because PET was a brand name down here.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla. Don’t cheap out here – use the real stuff.
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 9-inch unbaked pie crust. You can make it from scratch, or you can use one of those frozen ones from the store, or you can buy one of those that you roll out yourself from the cold box at the store by the whop-em biscuits. I won’t blame you, whatever you do, having done all of the above at various times. Do know that the frozen ones are often “deep dish” pie crusts, and this won’t fill one of those up, but will still make a tasty, albeit thin, pie, none-the-less.

What you do

If you got a frozen pie crust, set it out to thaw. It won’t take long – it will probably thaw during the 10 minutes it takes you to mix this up. Otherwise, put your crust in a 9-inch pie pan. Then, turn your oven on to 350.

In a mixing bowl, mix the sugar and the cocoa until they are well blended. Then add the melted butter, and stir it all until well mixed. Now, add everything else, and stir until well blended. You don’t need to buy a mixer for this – just a whisk or wooden spoon will do fine. It’s pretty forgiving – my sister-in-law once forgot the salt and added it after it was in the pan and it still worked out.

The mixture is thin – you will be pretty sure you screwed it up. Nope, it just looks thin. Now, put your pie pan on a cookie sheet, and then pour the mixture into the pie pan. The reason for putting it on the cookie sheet is because it’s easier to pick up a cookie sheet than it is a pie pan.

Slide the cookie sheet in the pre-heated oven on the bottom shelf, and set the timer for 35 minutes. It won’t be ready in 35 minutes, but it will be getting close. It will probably take closer to 45 or 50, but it has snuck up on me before and been burned as a result. You will know it’s done when it’s firm in the middle – at 35 minutes, the center will probably still jiggle when you shake the pan.

Another reason for checking on it around 35 or 40 minutes is to make sure the crust doesn’t burn. I take a sheet of tin foil, bigger than the pie, and crease it corner to corner, and then lay it on top of the pie around the 40-minute mark to keep the crust from burning. Creasing it keeps it off the top of the pie filling – you don’t want the foil to touch the surface of the pie or else it makes an unholy mess. It will still taste good, but you would dare bring it to the potluck for fear of the talk that would follow you.

Now, some warnings: The surface of this pie might crack. That is not a defect. I have had days when it took almost an hour of checking to get this pie done. I can’t explain why, as I do it exactly the same way every single time. Were I still a Methodist, I’m sure I would find a way to blame the vagaries of my oven on the Baptists, but as I’m not, I have no explanation for it. The ways of both the Lord and fudge pies are mysterious. Just check every five minutes or so after 35 minutes and see if the center is still jiggly. When it quits jiggling, it’s done. It will firm up a bit when it’s cool, but not enough to take a chance on a jiggly pie from the oven.

Growing up, we often put Cool Whip on this, but we all did things when we were young we are ashamed of later. Now, I like homemade whipped cream, or, on the third day after Thanksgiving, will often eat it straight from the pie pan, while leaning against the counter.

Cooking From The Pantry

I believe in having a certain amount of food on hand. Generally, two to three months’ worth of regular, everyday food, not dehydrated tofu you keep in a bunker out back.

Before the pandemic, this might have led you to believe I was some sort of doomsday prepper, but after the supply chain shortages of the last two years, I just feel like I am a realist.  I actually have a whole series of posts planned for some point about what reasonable food reserves look like, and how I do it, but today I want to share another benefit of having a deep pantry – the ability to create a good dinner quickly without leaving the house.

Tonight I came home and it was 5:30 and I realized I had forgot to set anything out to thaw for supper, and what’s worse, I had forgotten that I had a meeting at 7 I couldn’t miss.

So I looked in the pantry for inspiration, and saw a couple of potatoes that were in danger of going bad, so I needed to do something with them. We have chickens, so we always have eggs on hand. But even if I didn’t have chickens, eggs last a really long time – much longer than you think – in the fridge. So I pretty much always have lots of eggs on hand. And we always have lots of canned and frozen vegetables.

So I peeled the two potatoes and then sliced them on the mandolin about a ¼ inch thick.  I took down a 10-inch nonstick skillet and put it on medium heat, and then added a tablespoon of olive oil to it. Now, you could use any fat here – butter freezes like a dream, by the way, and I probably have 10 pounds of it in the freezer and there is always a jar of bacon grease in the door of my refrigerator – but I like the flavor of olive oil on potatoes and I have a bottle that lives on the counter by the stove.

Take the potato slices, and place them in the oil so they overlap and cover the entire bottom of the skillet. Add a generous portion of salt and pepper. Again, here is a place you could make changes – I have been known to use a big shake or two of Creole seasoning here, or seasoning salt, or, like I did tonight, just salt and pepper. All depends on what sort of mood you are in.

I like chicken stock, and make it when I have bones to use up, but for things like this, I just keep a jar of the good bouillon base in the fridge (and another, unopened one, in the pantry). Before I peeled the potatoes I had turned on the electric kettle that lives on our counter, and so I added 1 teaspoon of chicken base to 1 cup of boiling water and whisked the hell out of it, to get the base to dissolve. I then pour the cup of stock in the skillet and partially cover it, letting it simmer a few minutes.

While it’s simmering, I open a can of whole kernel corn and reserve the liquid, but then dump the corn in the skillet, spreading it around so there is a layer of corn on top of the potatoes. By now, the potatoes should be getting soft and the liquid boiling away, but if it is boiling away too fast and your potatoes are not yet soft, then add some of the corn broth to the skillet for the additional liquid you need. If they are softening fine, keep it going until the chicken broth has mostly boiled away.

What you are going for here – and it will take you somewhere between 10-15 minutes – is for the potatoes to be soft, and for the liquid to be 90% gone.

While it’s cooking away, you should get out 5 eggs, and scramble them with a whisk until smooth.  Then either shred some cheddar cheese, or, if you got some on sale cheaper than the block of un-shredded cheddar, get out a half cup of shredded cheese. (As an aside, if you do get a bunch of pre-shredded cheese, it also freezes well, and still works for the things it is good for, like this.)

Now your potatoes should be soft, and the liquid mostly cooked away. Before the next step, turn your broiler on high and let it warm up. Then pick up the skillet and shake it a bit, making sure the potatoes haven’t stuck to the bottom of the pan. Then pour the eggs over the contents of the skillet, then sprinkle the cheese all over the tops of the eggs. Then take a spatula and gently lift the edges of the potatoes, so the egg mixture slips amongst the potatoes.

After it has begun to set, constantly moving your spatula around under the edges so it doesn’t stick, then slide the skillet six inches under the broiler and let the top of the egg mixture cook and bubble until it turns the lightest of browns. Pull it out and set it on a trivet to cool while you set the table, then cut it into 4 wedges. It actually plates up better if you let it cool 10 or 15 minutes before you serve it, but I often eat it hot and let the plate be a little messy. I put hot sauce on top of mine tonight, but sometimes do chow-chow or salsa instead.

The worldly among you will recognize this is a sort of a frittata if you are Italian, or a tortilla if you are Spanish. I ate them for years without knowing they were European. This will serve two people for supper, or four people for lunch. It’s free of meat but has 44 grams of protein, and if you used vegetable broth or the juice from the can of corn instead of chicken broth, it would be full-on vegetarian and, of course, it’s gluten free. And it only messed up one skillet and a bowl to scramble the eggs in, only took 20 minutes start to finish to make, and I didn’t even have to have a plan.


Why Do You Like to Cook?

Kaylee, age 13: Uncle Hugh, how often do you cook?

Me, age 49: I cook something almost every day, and some days I cook two or three times a day. Why?

Kaylee: Well, I could tell by the way you stirred the food around that you know what you are doing. Do you like cooking?

Me: I do. I really do.

Kaylee: Why?

Me: Hmmm. Well, there are several reasons. The first is that when I left home, I could suddenly eat anything I wanted. But most of the food I could afford and had access to wasn’t very good. So learning how to cook was a way to be kind to myself. I deserved to have good food, and the only way I knew to get it was to cook it myself.

But more than that, it was that there were people in my life that I dearly loved, and now they were gone. And when I thought back over my memories of them, most of those memories involved food. Like today, we ate chicken and dressing. I can never eat chicken and dressing without thinking of Aunt Louise. But how often in your day-to-day life do you get to eat chicken and dressing? But by knowing how to make it, I can feel that good feeling any time I want to. Knowing how to cook is like having a photo album filled with people you love, that you have an opportunity to see any time you need to eat, which is multiple times a day.

Another reason I like to cook is that most of my adult life has been trying to solve unsolvable problems. Like, no matter how hard I work, people are still hungry, still homeless, still lonely, still addicts. You can work hard all day, all week, all month, even, and at the end of that time feel like absolutely nothing has changed.

But I can have some rice and some sausage and a pepper and an onion and a few other things, and it doesn’t look like anything at all, but if you know how you can turn that pile of random things into jambalaya. I can start with chaos and end with something that tastes good, that reminds me of people I love, and that makes other people happy and fills your belly in the process. It’s the one part of my life I can fix. I can turn the chaotic into something good, and I can usually do that li less than an hour. How cool is that!

But my favorite reason? Today. We sat around a table, and we ate food that was good, and we talked about stories from our past, and people we missed who were not there, and the food reminded us of meals we had had like this before, and the people who had been there, and for a minute, we all felt very loved. I love knowing how to make that happen.

A Bowl Full of Luck

Saturday is New Years Day, which means it is time for my people to eat black eyed peas and collards. For luck, you know. And growing up in and shaped by the hills of North Mississippi, and loved and fed by people who were children of the Depression and grandchildren of Reconstruction, we ate simple food, and the food of our celebrations was also simple, although given a bit more time and intention.

Now, all food is regional and cultural. And I know up North it’s corned beef and cabbage, and in the Low Country of the East Coast they eat Hopping John, but this is what my people eat for luck. That we live in a historically and persistently economically depressed area that has been perennially unlucky is not lost on me, but what are you going to do?

SoI don’t know that eating black eyed peas is actually lucky. But I do know that I love them, and will make any excuse to eat them. And besides – if we engage in pleasure when times are hard, isn’t that a sort of making your own luck? While my parents were not big eaters of greens, the old people who cared for me were, and so eating greens reminds me of happy times and the purest love I have ever known, so I make a spot for them, too.

If we want to keep traditions alive, we have to make room for them. And any tradition that involves sitting down to a meal, made with care and love, that marks the entry point into a new time of with hope and intention is a thing worth preserving.

So on New Years, we eat Black Eyed Peas and Collards.

Black eyed peas aren’t peas. They’re beans, and they have to be cooked like beans. In fact, you can cook them just like pintos and have a fully acceptable dish. But you can elevate it a bit, too. And since this is New Years after all, I tend to fancy it up. The collards are an accommodation because I’m the only person in my house that likes them, and so cooking up a large pot doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Now, doing it this way makes enough for 12 polite folks or eight hungry ones. But it halves perfectly if don’t have a lot of people to feed.

What you need:

To do this traditionally, you need the ham bone leftover from your Christmas ham with about two pounds of meat. If you didn’t save leftovers and the bones from your Christmas ham, you can (and should) buy in two pounds of smoked ham hock, or if you find yourself in a part of the world where you can’t easily buy ham hock, dice up a couple of pounds of bacon.

Two pounds of dried black eyed peas. The thing about black eyed peas is, they’re beans. So you should soak them, but you don’t have to. They don’t need a lot of soaking, and some folk don’t soak black eyed peas at all. But I generally soak mine for a couple of hours. Just spread them out on a cookie sheet, sort through them for dirt and debris, then put them in a stockpot with enough cold water to cover them by about two inches.

Salt. People get fancy with their salt these days, but I use kosher salt to cook with and iodized salt for the table. You do you – salt is salt, and best done to taste anyway.

A large onion, as big as your fist.

Cloves. You only need a couple, so see if you can borrow some from a neighbor, but if not, buy the smallest container you can. You want whole cloves here, and you might have bought some for the Christmas ham.

A bay leaf. I feel like this can be left out, but I love this dish so much I’m afraid to try subtracting things.

Ground black pepper. Just like you have in the pepper shaker.

Allspice. This is something I picked up a few years ago and I love the depth it adds to the dish. I doubt my ancestors would have tried this, but I recommend it.

Vegetable oil

Four nice sized garlic cloves. Honestly, the four is a guesstimate. I mean, I would use at least four, but sometimes the spirit catches me and I might go as high as six or seven. I do love some garlic.

Crushed red pepper

Two bunches of collard greens. My people would just say “a mess of collards”, but I’m assuming you are going to the store, and they will look at you funny if you ask for that. The stores tend to sell them in 1 pound bunches, and you need about two pounds of greens. Also, if you are two good to eat collard greens, get over yourself. Kale and Collards are practically siblings and are both just unheaded cabbage. If you can’t get collards, you can use kale for this, because they are so similar. But collards is traditional, and if you are too snooty to eat them and end up unlucky this year because you did it wrong, don’t come crying to me.

What you do

Drain your peas and put them back in the stockpot. Dice up your meat (including the skin and fat) into pieces about an inch or two in size, and add them and the bone to the pot. If you are using the bone (and you should) don’t worry about cleaning it off – the meat will fall off it as it cooks. Some folk are panicking over the mention of ham skin here, but trust me on this – it will melt and meld into something approaching heaven before we are done.  Put in enough cold water to cover the beans about two inches and set the heat as high as it will go.

While you are waiting for it to boil, peel your onion and stick 2 cloves in it. Cloves are pointy, and you can just push them into the onion like thumbtacks. You will remove the onion later, and this makes it easier, but I have also just tossed the cloves in the pot and sliced the onion fine and left it in and that works too. It’s largely a matter of opinion, and this way involves less chopping and tears. Add the onion, ½ a teaspoon of allspice, ½ a teaspoon of the black pepper, the bayleaf, and a teaspoon of salt to the water and bring it to a boil. We will probably be adding more salt later, but depending on what meat you used, it may already be salty, and too much salt will ruin a dish.

After it comes to a boil, turn your heat down and let it simmer. Stir them every 10 or 15 minutes, just as you pass through the kitchen, and check your water levels at the same time. The water will cook away, so keep adding water to always keep at least an inch of water over the peas.

Cooking times will vary depending on how fresh the peas are, and how your stove cooks, but after about an hour and a half, start checking to see if the peas are tender. They generally take me about two hours to be right. They are done when a pea will mash evenly between your fingers. If nobody’s looking, you can taste it –  they shouldn’t be crunchy, but firm. Nobody wants mushy peas. The broth will be rich and dark, and should be tasted at this point for salt – I often put about another two teaspoons in here, but go by taste, adding a bit and stirring a bit and tasting as you go.

Remove the bone and the onion, if you left it whole, and discard after picking the bone clean.

About an hour and a half into the beans cooking, it’s time to make the collards. Rinse them off, and cut out the big pieces of stem and discard. Take the leaves and roll them like cigars and then slice into one-inch-wide strips. Shake the water off them, but don’t dry them in a salad spinner or anything – they need some moisture to cook.  Peel and mince your garlic now as well.

In a big (at least 10 inch, but 12 is better) skillet, add your vegetable oil and coat the bottom of the skillet with it, turning the skillet one way and another. Then put it over high heat and watch the oil – when it turns wavy it’s time to cook.

Add your garlic and a ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper to the oil and sauté it around, letting it sizzle – but don’t let it brown. After 30 seconds or so, when it smells amazing, add in the collard greens and stir them around in the oil, so they get coated. I sprinkle about a ¼ teaspoon of salt on them now, and then add a cup of water, stirring the greens around in it. This will begin to wilt the greens, which is what we are going for. Turn the heat down to medium and then put a lid on the skillet, leaving it slightly cracked so steam can escape. Let it cook for about 20 minutes, softening the greens, but not disintegrating them.

To plate it up, I put the black eyed peas and meat in a bowl with lots of broth, and then scatter the greens over the top, but this is controversial. Some folks prefer them served on a plate, drained, with the collards to the side. Either way, I would serve some cornbread, usually made in muffins because we are celebrating, alongside this, with some pepper sauce on the table.

I’m wishing you lots of luck and joy and wonderful meals this coming year, friends.

Happy New Year!