Big Un

When he was sixteen, the world lost its mind, and he lied about his age to go in the Army. I don’t know, at this great distance, what led to that decision – he died before I knew to ask such questions, and he was never much for talking about his inner-life, anyway, so no one I ever could ask did know.

It was the second decade of the last century, and the whole world was at war, and this sixteen-year-old boy, always large for his age, would end up as a pilot, flying planes that had open cockpits and required scarfs and goggles and he would do things nobody should ever have to do and would see things nobody in his hometown had ever dreamed about.

Later, after the war was over, he would return to the States, travel with an air show for a while as a barnstormer, and eventually settle down in North Texas, marry my great grandmother, and have some kids. My mother’s father was his son, and he thought the sun rose and set on me.

He was a large man, about 6’5”, barrel-chested and thick. He wore bib overalls and work shirts and had hands the size of canned hams. He was larger than life in so many ways, not just his size, and he captured all my attention, with his cows and border collies and his 1946 pickup that had lost both third gear and reverse, so driving it took some planning.

He was my Great-Grandfather, but that was a mouthful for a young feller like me, so I called him Big un.

We didn’t really have money for vacations as a child, so we visited family instead, and every Summer, around the Fourth of July, we would make the eight-hour trip to North Texas and stay with my Mom’s Dad and see that side of the family.

On this particular summer day in 1976, my great-grandmother and I had been blackberry picking. We sprayed ourselves down with stuff to scare away the chiggers, and we took empty coffee cans and walked through the pasture to the fence row where the wild blackberries were rampant, and we filled our cans and our mouths and black juice ran down my face and all the while she told me things I cannot remember, but the thing I do remember is how safe and loved I felt, and how lucky I must be to belong to people that owned both cows and blackberry bushes.

I no longer recall (if I ever knew) where she went, but she told Big Un that when she returned, she was going to make a blackberry cobbler with those berries for dessert.

She was not gone more than a handful of minutes when he called me into the kitchen. They lived in a tiny North Texas farmhouse, with a utilitarian kitchen with cracked linoleum on the floor, a 1950’s era Formica and stainless steel table, and an electric icebox in the corner that now contained, among other things, a 1 pound coffee can full of blackberries so full of goodness they were about to burst.

Big Un put me at the table and put down two mismatched bowls, the porcelain glazing cracked and crazed from years of use, and mine had a faded rose on the bottom of the bowl. The coffee can of blackberries was retrieved from the icebox, and with his huge, rough scarred hands he poured the blackberries from the can into my bowl and then his. The berries were of various sizes, the way wild berries always are, filling both our bowls to the edge and then he poured the fresh cream we had gotten from his own cows that very morning over the top, the cream running over the berries, filling in the cracks and crevices until the berries looked very much like small blue-black islands in a sea of creamy white.

We sat there, he and I, in a 4-room house in North Texas, 70 or so years and a Formica table between us, quietly eating the purloined blackberries. When she came back, there would be hell to pay, and no cobbler to eat, but for now, we were content to merely be together, eating our berries and absolutely certain in the knowledge that no king had never had it so good.

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.


Giving it 80%

In 2012, I spent a week at Mepkin Abbey, in South Carolina. Mepkin Abby is a Trappist monastery, and they invite folks to come and stay with them as a form of retreat. A friend I really respected did it on the regular, and encouraged me to do it as well.

I really enjoyed my week there. It was lovely, and the campus is beautiful, and it’s right on the Cooper River, where you can sit on the bluff and watch the boats roll by. The campus is filled with Live Oaks that literally drip Spanish Moss, and the silence there is magical, punctuated by the chanting of the monks seven times a day.

You are also invited to eat with the monks, and they have a simple, vegetarian diet. Again, one of the struggles those of us with ADHD have is the inability to create structure, so a simple diet with simple rules appealed to me, and I think there is definitely an ethical argument that can be made for not eating animal flesh. So, when I came back to the “real world”, I decided I would be vegetarian.

I lasted strictly about six weeks, and gave up trying completely within three months. Because it was easy to fail at being vegetarian, and when you have the sort of life I do, where lots of people want to feed you, and a huge part of how you expressed your spirituality involved eating with others, it became super complicated, super-fast. In the end, it just wasn’t sustainable for me at all.

My last few days have been chaotic. I went from having a week in front of me with virtually no outside meetings planned to having my entire week scheduled almost instantly. Which is fine – in the work I do these days organizing Faith Leaders, it is like that sometimes – you are forced to react to something someone else does and then your whole schedule changes.

But what that does mean is that my whole routine is thrown off, and instead of cooking dinner for my family like I do most nights, this week I am eating a lot of sandwiches and take out, and because I am living on the phone when I’m not in front of a Zoom camera or at City Hall, I had to miss going for a swim today.

Most of my career has been filled with reactive crises like this, and in the past, I have often used that as a reason to not prioritize my health, and to not eat well. But these days, as I prioritize my health and try to avoid returning to the burnout that almost took me out, I am seeing things differently.

I want you to pay attention to what I did there – it literally is about seeing things differently – I am looking at things through a different lens, and it has made all the difference in how I view the world in general and my health in particular.

If you get ill and, as a result, don’t take a shower on a given day, you didn’t fail – you just didn’t do something you normally do. You don’t decide that because you failed at cleanliness you will henceforth renounce soap. You don’t decide you will now sleep in a mudhole. The next day, you take a shower again and you are back on track.

And tomorrow, I will be back at the gym. I didn’t fail at being healthy. I didn’t fail at anything. I just didn’t do what I normally do. But tomorrow, I will. Because this way of life is sustainable, and I don’t fail if I don’t do something just one day.

It’s easy to fail at “Being Vegetarian”. Hell, it’s easy to fail at “dieting”. But it’s almost impossible to fail at “focusing on my health”. Saying I am focusing on my health recognizes that it’s about what I do most of the time, not what I do one time, that will make a long term difference to my health and my life.

I tend towards extremism – again, my brain loves simplicity – but I am trying to remind myself these days that even though I can’t give it all I have, if I can give it my 80%, then that’s enough.

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.