The Southern Staple

So, I am a grandorphan. Like many others my age, I do not have any living grandparents. My paternal grandfather died before I was born (I hear he was a prankster), my maternal grandmother died when I was 15, my maternal grandfather at 26 and my paternal grandmother when I was 30. Unfortunately for me, this was around the same time I caught the gastro bug. I was just starting to love the art of cooking when Freddie decided to say goodbye a few months after Hurricane Katrina. I remember getting the phone call from my parents, lighting a candle at 11pm and heating up a bowl of gumbo. The year before, we'd prepared gumbo together in her kitchen before Lake Pontchartrain took over her residence.

We prepared many of her signature Southern dishes that afternoon. My Dad was insistent that I get in the kitchen and learn what my grandmother was doing, regardless of the fact that I wanted chill with the boys. My grandmother Freddie was a no nonsense woman who said what she meant and didn't mince words. Her rules were law and good luck to you if you broke any. She had no problem snapping you up to teach you a lesson, regardless if you belonged to her or not. She had the same bravado in the kitchen. I was almost scared while I cooked with her. "Stir harder, Lesley!" she would tell me while I made the macaroni and cheese. Do you know how hard it is on your shoulder to mix non melted cheese into hot pasta for 20 people?

My other grandmother, Lyston, was the total opposite. My parents liken her to Dorothy from the Golden Girls and now I can kind of see that. She had a dry sense of humor and though she never put up with nonsense from my grandfather (I'm SO not going to look in that closet for some silly gadget you've forgotten you have), she seemed to rule like an iron fist in a velvet glove. It must have been the Libra in her. She was silky smooth with a southern style, so when she finally got you to do as she wanted, you didn't realize you'd been bamboozled and totally played from the very beginning. She is the only woman, to this day, that can make me drink prune juice and convince me that I like it.

Anyway, for the past few months, my mom has been organizing photographs from the past 35-40 years into a collection that makes some sort of sense and every now and again, she comes across a photo or a keepsake that makes her sigh and say, "Awwww, remember that?" or "Good Lord, what was I wearing?" or "Look at yoooooooooou!! Where is my little girl? I want my little girl back". Honestly, when I look at some of the photos, I want to be the little girl again too. That way, I could pay attention when my grandmother rolled out 12 cakes for Christmas like it was nothing. That way, I could peer over her shoulder when she made my favourite chicken dumplings.

My friend Tina wrote a blog post recently over at the Eclectic Eye that almost made me cry. She spoke of her grandmothers and took a pic of an old edition of The Joy of Cooking. It looked like it had been around the block and I could only imagine all of the faded pencil and pen markings decorating the borders. I suppose, since I was more interested in my Grandfather's coloured pencils and paints than my Grandmother's cookbooks, it would make sense that I don't have those keepsakes. Now I don't know where to start looking for them. My mom always wanted Freddie's cooking spoons. I don't know why, but she swears they were the best she's ever cooked with. The Lake has those.

So when my mom came across handwritten recipes for rolls from both grandmothers, I felt like I'd hit the jackpot. I may not have the whole book and all the recipe cards, but I have both grandmothers script teaching me how to make a Southern rolls. They make them a little differently, Lyston making potato rolls and Freddie making flour ones, but that's what I love. They were different in many ways, but in the end, they were the same. They were my Grandmommies.

Random Tip #1

Never, ever use a store bought beef broth to make a bourguignon. Ever. Your kitchen will smell like a cheap cafeteria. You know the ones with the marbled plastic trays that you slide along the metal racked counter as you pass up boxed mashed potatoes, stringy brisket and jello fruit salad? Yeah.


The $5 Egg

You think I'm kidding, don't you?

I yap all the time to my friends (usually unsolicited) about the horrors of the meat selection at any average supermarket and advise them (again, usually unrequested, but what can I say, they humor me) on searching for milk from farms that don't use that freaky bovine hormone in their cows or jack them up with antibiotics. I scream about finding chickens that are free to roam their pastures and beef that is grass fed, the way nature intended. It's a lot of work to find out what's what and even more work to talk yourself hoarse about it. It's amazing how sneaky the wording of certain products can be. Basically, you have to start from scratch and say, "if it's packaged, I'm not eating it" to be sure what you're getting is honest. Frankly, it's obnoxious.

OK, so as you probably know, I am all about this sustainable farming situation. I just finished up In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, both by Michael Pollan, and I'm pretty inspired. Basically, in Omnivore's, he profiles 3 major ways of sustenance and the methods used to feed oneself from the easiest possible method (drive-thru) to the most difficult (and the most honest: hunting and gathering). In the middle there, he gets a gig as an apprentice at Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. A farm run by Mr. Joel Salatin who is kind of a big deal in the sustainable farming community. He was also featured in the documentary, Food Inc., which basically tells you the same thing Michael tells you, but lets you sit and listen with popcorn (though you will feel guilty, trust) instead of reading the book. Joel is basically the end all-be all to sustainable and honest farming. He doesn't ship anywhere, so if you happen to be 400 miles from him, you're SOL. If you're 400 miles from him, he suggests looking for your own local farmers and urges you to patron them. He's 150 miles from me, so basically, it's on.

He's got metropolitan clubs in VA, MD, and perhaps PA, but only sells to one retail store in my area. P&C market on Capitol Hill. A cute little market with the bare necessities. Eggs, Milk, Wine, Cheese. What else does one need?

So, in the book and the documentary, everyone kept talking about his eggs and chicken. They describe the eggs as having this body and girth about them that made them stand at attention while other egg whites spread lazy and limp in your bowl. The yolks being more orange than yellow due to the high beta carotene content in the chickens diet. The chicken tasting chickenier than any other chicken. All because that chicken was a happy chicken. Strolling along, enjoying the sunshine, clucking it up with his friends. Doesn't that sound like the most Disney'd version of farming you've ever heard? I'm convinced this Joel Salatin walks around singing Zippedy Doodah and has a bluebird on his shoulder singing right along with him and people like that scare me. They hang out with people who don't drink, whom I don't trust...

I was hoping P&C would carry both so I could finally taste what honest, fresh farm food was like. I wanted to taste the sunshine, taste the pasture breezes, taste the difference! I imagined myself in a gingham dress and pigtails with fresh eggs in my basket, one step closer to that homemade apple pie. Or maybe a red scarf, a bob, and a black beret basting a beautiful roast chicken on a Friday night with a lovely glass of Beaujolais. Such high hopes I had!

Well, I went in yesterday to have a looksee and to check out my options. I could maybe pull off the pigtails, but gone was the second glass of Beaujolais. I bought a dozen eggs for $5. I couldn't afford the $26 chicken.

OK, obviously something has to be done. I appreciate the fact that P&C is offering Polyface in a metropolitan area, but $26 for a crudely wrapped bird?? Who's on crack? Obviously we are because it all boils down to green. It's about the money, bottom line. We've heard it all before, the soy and corn industries are subsidized by the government making Fritos more affordable than carrots, but seriously? I thought Whole Foods were the ones raping us every week at the grocers. Farmers are supposed to be the nice ones, the crunchy ones, the ones all about the love! If this was the only place to get the luxurious Polyface eggs and the tastes chickenier than chicken chicken (say it three times fast), then I was obviously putting my tail between my legs and going back to the place where $2.50 for a dozen eggs seemed like a deal.

So I came up with a plan.

When I handed out food baskets to needy families at church right before Christmas, I noticed that the baskets were pretty well stocked. Sweet potatoes, green beans, greens, corn, macaroni and cheese, eggs, hot dogs, a turkey, cranberry sauce and corn muffins would be cooked in the ways of countless past generations for a huge Christmas spread. I imagined kids helping in the kitchen, grandmothers swatting little hands from the cake batter bowl, and sulky preteens being made to set the table. That's when it occured to me that people were still cooking, they just weren't cooking with the right ingredients. They were cooking with the antibiotic jacked hormoned out turkey and the canned vegetables (BPA anyone?).

I'm going somewhere with this post, I promise.

I toyed with the idea of joining a CSA. Played with the idea of particip
ating in my very own version of Chopped with self proposed challenges of cooking divine meals with whatever was in my weekly bag. All with the satisfaction of knowing that my food was at its finest. In season, chemical free, and in my own "backyard". There was no guessing here, no having to decipher the labels. No freaky chemicals that are misrepresented as "organic" (which we all know, doesn't mean much anyway). If I wanted, I could visit the farms myself and talk to the people who were growing my food. I found CSA's that asked me to commit before I'd gotten a chance to court and didn't offer in season love all year round, but I also found that in order to get back to my Whole Foods pricing, I was welcome to buy directly from the farm.

Little stars starting twinkling in my head and soon enough I was throwing my head back like Blair Warner declaring, "I've had another one of my brilliant ideas!"

So, as I said before, it's on. I'm starting my very own CSA with a philanthropic edge to boot. Stay tuned to see what we can do.

As for those $5 eggs. They were noticeably bouncier, I will say. They made a wonderful eggsalad, delicious salmon croquettes and served up a nice omelet. The best egg was the last egg. Baked eggs florentine with salmon. Perfect on a snowy day.

The Deal (per serving with bread): Calories: 251; Fat: 12g; Carbs: 17g; Protein: 18g

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Sautee shallots (1 per serving) in a tiny bit of olive oil or butter and add spinach until soft and green. Place shallots and spinach in the bottom of a lightly oiled ramekin and top with a small amount of salmon. *All portions are extremely small and together should only fill half the ramekin. Break an egg into the ramekin and season with salt and pepper. Place ramekin in a shallow baking dish, pour boiling water into dish around ramekin until the water reaches 3/4 of the way up. Bake until egg whites are set (about 10 minutes) and serve with hot french baguette.