A Hellacious Belle’s Guide to the New South: Food, Family and Memories

I still crave my grandmother’s cooking, although she’s been gone now for more than 15 years.

My Granny

My Granny

She wasn’t a “chef,” or a fancy cook, but she prepared delicious, abundant meals and she poured her love for her family into every casserole and every slice of cornbread. I think because she and my granddaddy had lived through the Depression, when times were so hard and food was scarce, it was important for her afterwards to make a feast of every family meal.

Sunday dinner at my Granny’s was a momentous occasion. (And Sunday dinner means lunch, by the way.  In the old South, “supper” is the evening meal.)

She started cooking for Sunday on Saturday morning.

She always had two or three meats (ham, a beef roast, fried chicken, fried catfish or country-fried steak with white gravy) along with one or two types of potatoes (mashed with gravy/sweet potato casserole/potato salad), a vegetable medley casserole, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, fried summer squash, fried sweet corn, green beans, slow cooked turnip greens with fatback, fresh sliced tomatoes in the Summer and fried green tomatoes in the Spring, and my all-time favorite, cornmeal–battered okra (the super crispy, slightly burned pieces are the best).

Hushpuppies, fresh-baked cornbread, yeast rolls and biscuits to sop up the gravy, or to slather with butter and her homemade plum jelly.  Coconut cake, banana pudding, pecan pie, strawberry shortcake and peach cobbler would satisfy your sweet tooth (should you have any energy left to open your mouth.)

I have dined at some of the finest restaurants in this country. I’d trade every one of those meals for one more chance to sit at her table.

Of course, she never sat at her own table. She bustled throughout the entire meal, filling up glasses with iced tea and water, fetching a fresh batch of biscuits from the oven, replenishing the chow-chow. After everyone else had stuffed themselves senseless, and the table was cleared, she might stop a moment for a small plate for herself.

She was always urging you to eat more. “But your plate is empty!” she’d wail.

Biscuits, butter and jelly

Biscuits, butter and jelly

Bulging eyes, tightening belts, groaning tummies and protests of being “full as a tick” had no impact: She’d just sniff and mourn that “you must not have liked it.”

Jewish grandmas got nothing on Southern grannies for food and guilt.

There are days when I yearn for for the food of my childhood.

Her food.

I’ll pick up squash and fresh tomatoes from the farmer’s market.  I even bake biscuits. I have the technology, recipes and equations that should make them taste the same, but they never do.

Southern food is au courant.  Farm-to-table is all the rage.  You can spend a fortune on something called “soul food” in trendy restaurants in New York, Chicago and L.A.

The true soul of Southern food isn’t just grits and greens, though; it’s the passion that goes into making them.

It’s the time and care in the cooking, the bond of the family at table; the joy of generations sharing stories and sustenance, passing down the memories along with the recipes.

It’s my Granny,  piling up my plate not just with food, but with her love.

“We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God.” ― Jonathan Safran Foer

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Always “After” Me Lucky Charms – The Tardy Paddy’s Party

11008454_10153702145578626_3595862338279555338_nEverybody loves a party, but there is something about a Southerner that makes them reach lunge for any excuse to celebrate.

We’ve always focused on our Scottish ancestry (David’s a Douglas and I’m a Ferguson) but I do, at least, have some Irish heritage as well (McCormick on my Daddy’s side, should anyone require legitimacy.)

Just knowing us and our obsession with entertaining should have removed any minutia of surprise from the minds of friends and family when I announced we were adding St. Paddy’s Day to our list of annual gatherings.

After all, while based on a Irish religious observance, the modern holiday is truly an American celebration.

For us, an excuse to shake off the winter “blahs,” invite over a bunch of good friends, serve up a mess of great food and drink and enjoy a little festivity! (And the perfect excuse to dig out the green wig I bought years ago for another St. Patrick’s party)

March 17th, the actual St. Patrick’s Day, was out – it was mid-week and I had an enormous event at work, so we settled on a Post-Paddy Party the following weekend.

I love researching and designing menus, so I did some digging and came up with a Gaelic-inspired repast – thanks to some inspirational food blogs (please click through for the recipes):

Grab a plate and a cup!

Grab a plate and a cup!

Irish Guinness Lamb Stew100_1791

Cheddar and Guinness Fondue  with dunk-able ham cubes, croutons, apples and fresh veggies

Stuffed Baby Red Potatoes with Cheese and Bacon

Smoked Salmon Dip  served with assorted crackers

Kale and Spinach Greek Yogurt dip served with European Cucumber chips. (I bought mine at Trader Joe’s but click the link for a delicious home-made version.)

Jeeves, our trusty alligator butler, offered revelers a "Lucky Charm" libation at the door

Jeeves, our trusty alligator butler, offered revelers a “Lucky Charm” libation at the door

For bevs, we had our usual offering of red and white wines, a selection of Irish beers (Harp, Guinness) and a little sparkler I whipped up with fresh mango juice, cava and a dash of Emerald Green Tropical Punch Gatorade (shameful, I know, but the color gave it the zingy tone I was looking for).

Some lovely supplements to the spread were brought by friends:

Dana's homemade Irish Soda bread (complete with holographic butterfly - he likes to add that "extra touch."

Dana’s homemade Irish Soda bread (complete with holographic butterfly – he likes to add that “extra touch.”

Laura and Paul's tasty Guinness chocolate cake with Bailey's Irish Cream Icing! (and holographic butterfly - Dana had an extra.)

Laura and Paul’s tasty Guinness chocolate cake with Bailey’s Irish Cream Icing! (and holographic butterfly – Dana had backup.)

And we dug in, drank up and had a wonderful time!  Kudos to David for the spectacular Irish Stew!

Gathered in the kitchen enjoying Irish Lamb Stew and soda bread

Gathered in the kitchen, tucking into some Irish Lamb Stew and soda bread

Paddy's Party players!

Some of our Paddy’s Party players!

Enjoying the nosh!

Enjoying the nosh!

Someone always has to play with the kiddy toys...

Someone always has to play with the kiddy toys…

Some, more than others.

Some, more than others.

Happy hosts! That's me in the green wig.  (any excuse)

Happy hosts! That’s me in the green wig. (any excuse)

We had an amazing time – blasting Irish party tunes, talking, laughing, telling stories way into the wee hours.  Absolutely fantastic party.

And then there was the after party math.  ::sigh::

the afterparty

the 5 a.m. clean up party

The wee green beastie retired again til next year

And the wee green beastie is retired again til next year

Slàinte mhath, y’all!

Oh, Fudge!

I decided to jump feet first into some holiday spirit last night and make chocolate pecan fudge.

My grandmother made it every year for Christmas and the thought of it always brings back wonderful memories of childhood holidays with my family. I don’t think fudge is a uniquely Southern thing, but anything that bad for you has to have some kind of Southern connection. Don’t get me wrong – I love it, but it’s sugar and more sugar fluffed with high fructose corn syrup, plus some sugary chocolate.

Oh and pecans. There you go – protein.

Hahahahahahahahaha.

Anyhow, I more or less follow her recipe, which as mentioned, includes something called Marshmallow Fluff. Marshmallow Fluff is widely used to insulate houses in third world countries and contains absolutely nothing of any nutritive value to the human body.

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You melt the Fluff (oh, why is the word, “nuclear” coming to mind?) in a big pot on the stovetop with a ton of sugar and a dash of salt. Then you “Paula Deen” it by drowning it in a bunch of butter. You boil the concoction for about 5 minutes, stirring until you think your arm will fall off.

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Then you add in vanilla, a gross ton of semi-sweet chocolate chips and pecans.

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I actually found (and used) the nut chopper my Granny gave me about 20 years ago. I didn’t even realize what it was at first, but I finally figured out it must be a manual food processor.

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Pour it into some buttered baking dishes (just in case your cholesterol level thought it still had a fighting chance) and let it set – Voila! Dixie Heart Attack!

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The only way it could be any less healthy is if you could figure out a way to fry it. And I’m sure some Southerner, somewhere, is doing just that.

Most likely with a hearty “Hey y’all, watch this!*”

*Typical “last words” of a Southerner.

Crossing the Line

We’ve spent the last three days with my parents in Birmingham. Athough I live a mere 150 miles away in Atlanta, Georgia; there are always a few cultural differences that sneak up on me whenever I go home.

Geographically and historically, Atlanta is a Southern city, but the sheer multicultural diversity (i.e. Northerners, people from California) plus the increasing number of folks from other countries have morphed it from a way-down-Dixie town to a weird and cosmopolitan hybrid.

Crossing the state line from Georgia to Alabama is crossing into another world, or maybe it’s the same world, just twenty years ago.

Let’s take fried food, for starters.  Sure, there’s frying in Atlanta – Chef Ford’s famous chicken from JCT, fried pies from the Varsity, pommes frites from the Fry Guy food truck, but frying as a lifestyle has largely disappeared amongst a culinary mecca of arepas, tandoori, kimchi and anything sous vide.

Perhaps it’s a concession towards better health.

In Birmingham, I am surrounded by fried foods. Bacon for breakfast, naturally.  And fried eggs and biscuits n’ gravy, which is made from fried sausage and cooked in a skillet “cured” with bacon grease.  Fried squash, fried okra, fried turkey and fried creamed corn adorn our holiday table.

Fried cream corn, incidentally, is sold in the grocery store by the tube, which is called a “chub.”

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No sh-t, Sherlock, a “chub” of creamed corn.  This is what is also known as a “hint.”

Another mark of this alternative universe is the sheer preponderance of football and football-related activity.  This should no longer startle me as I was raised in this state sharply divided by a Maginot line of allegiance to either Auburn University or the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

Little Benedict that I was, I betrayed the family devotion to Auburn by attending the University of Georgia.   Still a Southern school, but an entirely different state’s doctrinal feud.  There are family members who to this day don’t speak to me.

Dollin' up for game day.

Dollin’ up for game day.

Ensconced in my parent’s home in War Eagle country, I find daily life is saturated in the religion of Football.  From my Daddy’s casual attire of eye-bleed orange pants worn with a blue and orange plaid shirt to whole weekends revolving around an Iron Bowl tailgate party, Football and its native colors shade the world in which my family lives.

While Atlanta has a professional (albeit questionable) football team, the Falcons; the only time I pay any attention to them is when I’m crafting curses trapped in Georgia Dome traffic leaving work.

Language is another hallmark of the great divide.  I majored in Broadcast Journalism in college and actually had to pass a speech class designed to beat out my drawl and instill region-free pronunciation.  This was primarily achieved by forcing me to fully sound out each syllable of a word including all constants (and! folks! gerrymandering!)  My Granny later mourned that I sounded “like a Yankee,” and was ruined for life.

Here in Alabama, not only are final “g”s an endangered species, but a world of vernacular exists beyond normal American English.  “There’s so many people in Walmart today you couldn’t cuss a cat,” “he’s drunker n’ Cooter Brown with a skunk in his pocket,”  “I don’t got a dog in that hunt,” and “looks like he got beat senseless by an ugly stick and left for dead,” were aphorisms flying about my ears this weekend.

The older I get though, the more I find value in the spoken word, however oddly enunciated, over the lifeless and detached culture of acronyms, text messages and emails native to the city in which I dwell.

It’s been kinda nice, slippin’ back into y’alls, and s’posed tos and fixins and yes’ums and actually having a conversation with real, live people; of course between mouthfuls of deep-fried dinner and constant updates on the football game.

When I was younger, I believed the only good thing to ever come out of Alabama was Interstate 20.

Now that I’m older, maybe I’m not barkin’ up the wrong tree wishin’ that road crossed through my neck of the woods just a little more often.

 

 

 

Feelin’ the Burns

So far this NaBloPoMo, I’ve managed to write a fresh post every day without resorting to a re-post of one of my old favorites. However, I noticed a fun-sounding  Post-a-Day yesterday when I was scrolling through the Reader and realized I had written something years ago that would respond beautifully to the challenge.  It brings up some great memories, too, so I thought I would share again.

“What’s the most elaborate, complicated meal you’ve ever cooked? Was it a triumph for the ages, or a colossal fiasco? Give us the behind-the-scenes story (pictures are welcome, of course).”

This is a story from 2011, right after my husband and I met, about a very special dinner.

The Last (Burn’s) Supper

Just in case you’ve missed the clues, I am a Ferguson. For the uninitiated, uninformed or uncaring, that means I’m of Scottish heritage, something my family is insanely proud of; after all, we are descendants of the first kings of Scotland. Our royal pedigree made absolute sense when I found out – I’ve always felt I was a princess, my tiara is simply implied.

Clann Ferguson Badge

Imagine my delight when my fabulous new boyfriend, David, turns out to be of Scottish ancestry as well–Clann Douglass, to be exact. Visions of bagpipes and Caber Tosses dancing in my head, I turned to him one January night and asked him the question burning so long and lonely in my soul:

“Would you host a Burns Supper with me?”

So for those uninitiated, uninformed or uncaring (and for you now joining them) Burns Supper is one of the major Scottish Holidays (along with Tartan Day, Hogmanay and St. Andrew’s Day) celebrated by Scots around the world. Specifically, it’s the commemoration of the life and works of famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns, who was born in 1759, and has been known as the “Bard of Scotland.” Burns is revered for his egalitarian beliefs (rare for those days) and his works, most notably poems such as “To a Mouse,” which inspired the Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men; and “My Heart’s in the Highlands;” and the traditional New Year’s anthem, “Auld Lang Syne,” a classic to this day. Typically Burns Night, or simply “Burns Supper” is held on the anniversary of his birthday, January 25th, and is celebrated by eating the customary supper of haggis, neeps and tatties, reading his poems, singing his songs and downing shots of Scotch Whiskey to toast his “immortal memory.”

Since eating, drinking and being of Scottish descent come somewhat naturally to me, I had always aspired to host a Burns Supper, but in the past had found myself overwhelmed by the proscribed ritual: the entire night is shaped around a complicated timeline of speeches, toasts and songs a little beyond my American-born and raised sensibilities. I was also intimidated (read: flat out terrified) at the thought of creating the traditional menu, as it stars not only “Neeps and Tatties” (mashed turnips-bleck! and potatoes) but features the dread Haggis as centerpiece of the entire event. To be honest, for me, organ meat steamed in sheep intestine doesn’t exactly pique any desire to chow.

The Dread Haggis

The Dread Haggis

Ahh, but now! A partner in crime! Not only Scottish, but an excellent chef and delightfully (and possibly foolishly) excited to do things with me. Let the (Highland) games begin!

We decided to stage the event at David’s house, since he would be doing most of the cooking. If you’ve been following along with my blogging adventures, you know by now that I’m not only not much of a chef, but neither do I possess the culinary infrastructure required for major meal production. The guest list was easy: my dear friend (and fellow Scottish-American) Dana McPherson, who I knew was not only familiar with Burns Supper, but culinarily adventurous, free that evening and and in possession of a formal dress kilt with no apprehension to wearing.

Me and my bonnie laddie in our Scottish finery

The next step was to convert the menu to something that, in my opinion, was actually edible. Judicious internet research revealed, ta dumm!, that others share my aversion to turnips and tripe, and have created alternatives to the classic offal and root veg offering. Armed with a “Neo-Scottish” menu and a sheath of recipes, David took over in the kitchen, leaving me to figure out my wardrobe for the evening. David, despite limited mobility due to a broken leg (fodder for another blog post) had managed to acquire a last-minute formal dress kilt, but I was scrappin’ for anything fancy-n-Ferguson, finally donning a royal blue velvet Betsy Johnson slip dress with my Ferguson scarf jauntily knotted over one shoulder and afixed with our Clann kilt pin. Not nearly as fabulous as the boys, but would have to do.

Due to a spectacular and incendiary incident with a can of compressed air and a faulty furnace (yes, also most likely another blog post) Dana arrived late, a little crispy around the edges, but properly bandaged and bearing our evening’s libations. He was primed with pain meds, but David and I had taken the precaution of blunting our trepidacious tummies with the contents of a bottle of champagne (a Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvee Palmes d’Or 1996, a gift from Dana and a really incredible bottle of wine, btw.), so we were all three buzzily excited when we finally sat down around 10 p.m. for our official celebration.

David and Dana

The first order of business, according to Tradition, is to say a blessing, called the Selkirk Grace or the Kircudbright Grace, made famous by Burns who recited it for the Earl of Selkirk near Kircudbright.

Some hae meat and canna eat
And some wad eat that want it
But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thankit

Next up: the grand event! David, bless his heart, had not only undertaken cooking the entire dinner (hey, I did make the salad) but had also spent weeks learning the infamous Burns’ poem, “Address to a Haggis.” According to ritual, after the salad (or first course), the haggis is born in triumphantly (ahem) on a platter, accompanied by bagpipe music. The host then lauds the haggis with Burns’ immortal tribute.

Me and Dana

David may have cheated a little by having the poem pulled up his Blackberry
(ahh, modern technology) but executed it with such zeal and such an admirable brogue, that Dana and I were stunned into silence. (Well, to be honest, we were mostly stunned from two bottles of excellent Chardonnay, a 2002 Darioush Reserve, and if you listen to the video we took of the night, the “silence” part is also a little questionable.) Needless to say, we were pretty impressed.

Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hudies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reeking, rich!
Then horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
‘Bethankit!’ hums.
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

David’s Address to A Haggis

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Tho’ bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit.
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whistle;
An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned
Like taps o’ thrissle.
Ye pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware,
That jaups in luggies;
But if ye wish her gratfu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!

The poem ends with a dramatic (and somewhat violent) stabbing of the Haggis (I presume to let out the steam, but knowing what goes into traditional haggis, my thought is it probably originated as a precaution). I have to say, David did a spectacular job – the Neo-Haggis was really quite tasty and I went back for seconds of Neeps N Tatties!

We paired the entree with Dana’s contribution of a 2000 Darioush Reserve Cabernet –truly an exceptional wine (not that we were in any perceived danger of dehydration by then) which David broke up with shots of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch for inspiration.

Enjoying an amazing meal

The evening’s framework cust0marily calls for more toasts and speeches, including a toast to Burns’ Immortal Memory and a “Toast to the Lassies” to which I had prepared the counter-toast, the “Reply to the Laddies,” (“Down with trousers! Up with kilts!”) but it was so late by the time we’d finished dinner that we decided to save them for next year. It was a truly lovely night, dare I say say intoxicating, in every way, with great companionship and wonderful food and wines. What a fun, fabulous and incredible ode to our heritage!

Now, on to Hogmanay!

NaBloPoMo Day 17: Near Wild Heaven

1395212_3536028375981_247268874_nNear Wild Heaven – one of my forever favorite R.E.M. songs (eclipsed only slightly by “Me in Honey,” however; both conveniently located within the same album).

Beer Wild Heaven – a fabulous craft brewery conveniently located in Decatur, Georgia.

This is the tale of our superlative beer dinner at the restaurant last week.

The foundation of this malty meal began over a year ago, when we sponsored a Sun Dial Booth at Corks and Forks, the food and booze tent of the Summer Shade Festival at Candler Park. My colleague, Cheryl and I were working the room, hustling shots of Chef’s watermelon gazpacho to the other vendors for drinks and snacks.

And then we stumbled into heaven.

wh4-blWild Heaven.

I would like to clarify that I am not a beer lover. Perhaps the occasional “canoe” beer by the pool or lake, or the rare treat of a frosty Abita Turbo Dog (a brew fetish born of sorority road trips to New Orleans.)

This beer was different. It was unique…fresh! Complex! Caramely-creamy with just a hint of coffee to cut the sweetness! Holy Sixpack, Batman!

My view on beer forever altered,
we ran back to our booth to share our treasure with Chef. A vision dawned that day…the glimmers of a dream to pair Jason’s farm-to-table cuisine with this nectar of the grain gods.

We discussed it so frequently over the next year, it was more than a done deal in our heads – we were actually trying to figure out when we could get it on the calendar.

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It occurred to us, around May, while working our table at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival and sharing with our plans for a Wild Heaven beer dinner with random strangers and media, we had neglected one crucial detail.

Actually discussing our plans with Wild Heaven.

Fortunately, they were participating at AFWF too, so a quick visit to their tent garnered a meeting with Sarah Young, their marketing guru and Nick Purdy, the founder.

We were on!

Over the next few months, Jason crafted a phenomenal menu based on the four selected beers, including a custom dessert to compliment a rare stout from brewer Eric Johnson’s personal stock.

Last Tuesday, we gathered for what (in my relatively extensive dining experience) was one of the best tasting and most creative pairing dinners I’ve had the privilege to enjoy.

Lump Crab Hush Puppies with Pickled Okra Tartar Sauce

1st Course: Lump Crab Hush Puppies with Pickled Okra Tartar Sauce with a pour of Ode de Mercy, Imperial Brown Ale

Southern BBQ Salad with Butter Greens, Spicy Shrimp, Picked Bacon, Radish, NC BBQ Vinaigrette

2nd Course: Southern BBQ Salad with Butter Greens, Spicy Shrimp, Picked Bacon, Radish, NC BBQ Vinaigrette served with Invocation, a Belgian-style Golden Ale

Entree: Suckling pig - Chops, Cheeks with Pimento Cheese Grits, Quadruple Ale Reduction and Chopped Peanuts served with Eschaton, a Belgian-style Quadruple Ale aged on Pinot Noir Oak Chips

Entree: Suckling pig – Chops, Cheeks with Pimento Cheese Grits, Quadruple Ale Reduction and Chopped Peanuts served with Eschaton, a Belgian-style Quadruple Ale aged on Pinot Noir Oak Chips

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Dessert: Chocolate Cremeux, Crushed Pretzel, Bourbon Caramel, Ode de Mercy Gelato

Surprise dessert pairing from Brewmeister Eric, a Chocolate Orange Stout.

Surprise dessert pairing from Brewmaster Eric Johnson – a Chocolate Orange Stout.

Truly a meal close to heaven.

Images courtesy of Drunk on Life