Chicken and Dressing – Free Download

Considering the holidays, and some folks, due to no fault of their own, not knowing how to make cornbread dressing properly – I saw where one lady said she was gonna use Jiffy Cornbread Mix in hers! – my members are making a draft chapter of my narrative cookbook, Food Is Love, available for free download.

It gives you the story behind my memories of Chicken and Dressing and includes recipes for Southern AF cornbread, as well as Chicken and Dressing (and a variation if you want to use pork sausage, like my momma does, instead).

I’m working on a book full of meals and stories like these, and if you want to know how to support that work, get early draft copies of chapters like this in your inbox, and more, you should become a member – you can learn more about that here. If you just want to thank me, you can buy me a cup of coffee or share this post with a friend.

You can download the free PDF file here – no tricks, no spam, and no need to surrender your email address. It’s a pure gift.

I hope your holidays are marvelous, and that you get to celebrate them with the people you love.

Things That Endure

Jerry was a salesman of the old school, straight out of an episode of Mad Men. He was dapper as could be, with creases on his pants that would have cut you, and I never saw him without at least a sports coat, even that time I met him and a client at a ball game.

Jerry was my mentor when I was in financial sales, and he took my somewhat more casual approach to my appearance as a personal challenge. He also tried to teach me the finer points of the business lunch.

Jerry was a big one for lunch. We always lunched together on Fridays and always at one of several restaurants at least as old-school as Jerry himself was. They all had bars, tended to be dark paneled, and had pretty waitresses and generous bartenders. And, without exception, the food was always good.

I remarked on this once when we went to a somewhat shady-looking oyster bar whose dated decor did not fill me with high hopes going in.

“Of course the food is good! I’ve been coming here for 30 years. That doesn’t happen if the food is crap. You have to respect things that endure.”

One of Jerry’s favorite places was Mr. B’s. It was a steak and seafood house in Germantown, an affluent suburb of Memphis. The walls were raw brick, with a small bar along the wall, and the steaks were huge, and so were the cocktails.

Mr. B’s made their reputation on supper but had a strong lunchtime crowd, and being early in my career, my budget leaned more to the blue plate special than it did the porterhouse steaks. And one of the things they did really well was their country-fried steaks.

At least, that is what they called it. If you are used to a large piece of meat deep fried until crispy and then covered in milk gravy such as one may eat at a Cracker Barrel, this was not that.

Instead, it was a tender piece of beef, obviously pounded thin, then fried in a thin batter, and then cooked in a thick brown gravy until it practically fell apart. It was my favorite thing on the menu.

When I was a little boy, the elderly lady next door made something she called steak and gravy that my mom tried and tried to replicate but could not. This was very close to that.

We don’t eat a lot of beef – mostly because of the cost. But also, because we didn’t eat much of it growing up, it just isn’t something I crave. But the other day, the meat department at Kroger had their cubed steaks on clearance, and so I decided to whip up a batch of steak and gravy for dinner one night.

I got home from my last meeting today at 4, so I decided to make today the day it happened. I got out the deep skillet and put four tablespoons of shortening in it to melt and turned the oven on to 350 to preheat.

While waiting, I put a half cup of flour in a shallow bowl and added a teaspoon of black pepper, a teaspoon of salt, and a half teaspoon each of garlic powder and cayenne pepper. I stirred it well.

After dredging the cubed steaks through the flour mixture, I put them in the skillet to brown – about two minutes a side until the flour had formed a crisp crust, but the interiors were still not finished. I did them in batches, putting them on a cooling rack as they finished.

In the melted shortening still in the bottom of the pan, I sauteed a small amount (maybe 1 /4 cup?) of diced onion until brown, then added a few tablespoons of the flour dredge that was left over. After it was all browned, I added enough milk to make a thin gravy, into which I slid the breaded steaks. I put a lid on the skillet and slid it into the oven, where it sat and bubbled away for an hour and a half.

When I pulled it out, the gravy had separated – a danger of using milk gravy for something like this. I removed the steaks, put the skillet on the stove again, added a bit of half-and-half, and whisked quickly until the gravy was thinned out and reconstituted. I slid the steaks back in and let them simmer over low heat as I set the table.

Had I served it with mashed potatoes and English peas, this would have been my favorite meal of my childhood. But instead, we served it over white rice, making it my favorite meal today and still damn good.

The Ice Cream

I have written before in these pages about my Aunt Louise. My great aunt, really – Dad’s mom’s sister – she died when I was 12, but until then was one of my biggest influences.

She lived on 40 acres, 10 miles from a town of 800 people, and while she owned a car, she could not drive. It never occurred to me at the time, but she was intensely lonely out there.

Lonnie was her second husband, and he owned land out in rural Desoto County, Mississippi so when they got married she moved from Memphis to his house. It had been his parent’s house, actually. Lonnie had grown up in it and then had lived in it with his first wife, and when he moved Louise in, she insisted on major changes. The kitchen was moved to another room, the bathroom was upgraded, and she turned the old kitchen into a storage room.

I asked her one time why she moved the kitchen.

“There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with the old kitchen. But it wasn’t mine. It was hers”, she said, meaning the first wife. “I told him if I was moving in there, he was going to make the house the way I like it. “

And he did. Aunt Louise took no crap.

She had lived in town all her life – in Dyersburg, and then in Memphis. And so moving to the middle of nowhere was a big deal for her. And when he died in 1971, she was alone in that house, with her two dogs – Festus and Princess.

I only knew her alone. We would go over on Saturday and take her grocery shopping in town, and occasionally we took her into Memphis to her doctor’s appointment, and often I would spend the night there when Mom and Dad went out somewhere and would be home late. I loved staying at Aunt Louise’s house.

Virtually every woman I knew was in some way defined by a man. Mom was married to Dad, and did things that benefitted him. Monty was married to Mr. Doc, and cooked and did his laundry. But Aunt Louise just took care of herself. She was the most independent woman I knew growing up.

Sometimes she ate cereal for supper. I told her that everybody knew that cereal was for breakfast, and she told me she was a grown woman and could do whatever she wanted to, and that the worst reason to do anything was that everyone told you you were supposed to do it that way.

She had a 4 cup coffee maker, but she only drank three cups of coffee every morning. The remaining cup she mixed with Pet milk, and poured it over a handful of crushed crackers after it had cooled down, and she served that to her dogs. Yes, her dogs got coffee for breakfast each morning.

She kept a gun in her purse, drank whisky like water, and would, when she got down, drunk dial her friends back in Memphis. She read Earle Stanly Gardener and Agatha Christie, watched Barnaby Jones and Perry Mason, and cooked for herself and her dogs.

Once, when I was staying over, Mom had dropped me off after supper, and so we were sitting at her table, watching Barnaby Jones waiting to go to bed when she announced she was hungry. I told her I had already eaten, and she told me that she had too, but that a nice thing about living by yourself was that you could absolutely eat two suppers if you wanted to.

She got up and rummaged around in the pantry, and pulled out a can of Showboat Pork and Beans. She put them on the stove to warm, and then she pulled a package of hot dogs from the freezer and took two out. She sliced the frozen dogs directly into the beans, and then covered them as they simmered.

After we had eaten, she got out a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and a can of Hershey’s syrup, and we gave a scoop of ice cream to the dogs, because of course we did, and we ate ice cream and watched Perry Mason and I told her I was always going to live alone, so I could stay up late and eat ice cream whenever I wanted.

“You don’t have to live alone to stay up late and eat ice cream whenever you want”, she told me.

“It’s just easier if you do.”

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.