Most Southerners take prolonged cold weather as a personal insult. Oh, we put up with chilly days in a good natured way, some even going so far as to say they love cold weather or that it’s a good thing ‘because it’ll kill off the bugs’. More than a few days? The novelty of wearing wool or goose down or cashmere has worn off- we’ll put on Bermuda Shorts with fake fur lined boots and heavy socks as if to defy the unwelcome visit of Jack Frost.
I admit it, I have taken the recent cold spell as a personal insult, even blaming the Devil for a few days and for me that’s extreme. Okay, I said, ‘It’s cold as the devil.’ Extreme weather conditions call for extreme blame. Fed up, I refused to go out in it and settled in to soothe my nerves. Bundled up in socks and covered with a throw, I was surrounded by my highly prized Southern Ring Bound Cookbooks, you know the ones- that real folks have tested and written. I took perverse pleasure in finding the most difficult, unusual, or even grotesque recipes I could find, with no intention of cooking any of it. Well, maybe the sugar laden ones. Still. I was looking for more than recipes. Let me explain, Church or Organization Cookbooks are Story Books to me. I’m a descendent of at least 2 Grandparents who loved Crossword Puzzles, who were also Amazing Storytellers and one of them was an Amazing Cook- who clipped recipes from her beloved Birmingham News. Thus, I am a collector of- words, sentences, phrases, stories and recipes.
Cookbooks give me a window into other kitchens, other times and in most cookbooks- there are stories, methods, hints and tips that are priceless. I do not buy these cookbooks new, I want the recipes with a star beside favorites, or a note written to improve the recipe at hand.
- I found mostly mathematicians in the Baking Sections, the insistent precise ones.
- Then there were the Happy Socialites- especially in the Beverage and Appetizer Sections, though I wondered about a non-alcoholic punch I found…the recipe called for an entire bottle of Almond Extract! I asked myself if perhaps the person offering it up was in a 12 Step Program.
- The Casserole Ladies might be my favorites, they improvise- aren’t precise, give options and also instruct the reader that the recipe can be stretched to feed a crowd, they are a big hearted group no doubt.
- To my surprise on that cold and dreary day- hovering over the Soups and Stews Sections were other Southern Cooks whom I fear must have shared my disdain for cold weather.
One fine example was called NO PEEP STEW. After a sketchy mixture of ingredients was put in a Dutch Oven- the recipe writer directed- ‘Bake 5 hours at 250 degrees. DO NOT PEEP, REPEAT, DO NOT PEEP.’ … I wondered what would happen if one decided to go rogue and PEEP? and who in the world wrote it? a former Drill Sargent? Apparently deciding to calm down- the writer adds- ‘Serve with wedges of your favorite cornbread and a green salad.’ Still another, in another cookbook, had a much nicer even fun title for hers- it was ‘No Peekie Beef Stewie’ … you have to love her!
Another Stew which was full of ingredients and difficulties was followed by ‘Served with hot buttered French Bread and Assorted Pickles, this will serve about 8 hungry men.’ … From vast experience with hungry men, no doubt. Surely this one had cabin fever like me- with the added pressure of being cooped up with 8 hungry men to feed!
Then there was the sweet lady who got a bit bossy about when to add egg yolk and vinegar to Pig Stew… but regained her composure and politely said- ‘My grandmother’s cook made this every Christmas and it was served alongside turkey, dressing etc. It’s very rich and not too good in warm weather, but it wouldn’t be Christmas without it at my home in New Orleans.’ Bless. Her. Heart. Just so you know… we Southerners who had grandmothers or great grandmothers who employed cooks – You have to know- you must know, we do KNOW who taught us how to cook right! I have a cookbook to prove it! It’s ring bound cookbook with recipes compiled by household cooks, fairground workers and large military service organizations. These recipes have exquisite names-
- Chicken Elegante
- Mardi Gras Chicken
- Custard Pie Excellence
- Sicilian Meat Roll
- Sweet Potato Souffle
- Asparagus Souffle
- Squash Croquettes
- Celery and Almond Gratin
- A Devil’s Food Cake that has 3 layers with a Lemon Pineapple Filling and a Dark Chocolate Icing boiled to a soft ball stage!
- Pillow Pastry
- Luscious Chocolate Cake
- Lane Cake (a Southern Classic)
- Honey Caramels
- Fig Conserve and Creole Pralines
- Oh, and please don’t let me forget- Chocolate Fudge that is poured on a platter- this is the hallmark of an old but great fudge recipe!
Some recipes assume you know how to cook. One I’m particularly fond of simply says-
- Cook Chicken, cool and shred.
- Save Broth. Blanche Broccoli.
- Make a White Sauce. Add White Wine and Grated Parmesan Cheese.
- Brown Cracker Crumbs in Butter.
- Bake at 350 until bubbly. Serve with Rice. That’s it.
I made that one recently. I need no nonsense, clear direction when it’s cold weather. Now, recently I offered you a recipe and our friend Bob remarked ‘Any recipe that starts with frying bacon can’t be bad’. He’s right. These are the recipes you know are winners- they start with a Cast Iron Skillet or Dutch Oven and Bacon.
When I found one of those, my Freezing Cold Day- Cookbook Therapy was beginning to kick in. The recipe – no doubt submitted by a beautiful and fragile Southern Cook was so well written, I fell in love with her …not sure about her recipe, but her gentle coaxing ways soothed me. Her Southern Charm, her impeccable manners won me over, not to mention she started out her recipe with charm…
- ‘Fry Bacon in a heavy cast iron Dutch Oven until crisp- set aside.‘
- ‘Pour off almost all of the fat leaving just enough to leave a thin film on the bottom.’ There were no upper case letters… gently implied was this-
- .‘Now darling, you better save that bacon fat, you may need it later’.
- She gets fired up…‘Heat fat to smoking hot, brown meat a few pieces at a time… if needed, add a little more bacon fat.’
- (Later on, when she finally finishes browning all of the meat and has removed it to a platter, she goes on… add butter to the pot…onions…)
- Then says, ‘You may need more bacon fat.’
- Alright, now she wants us to add Beef Stock, Spices and Beer.
- Umhmm…Winter Stew for sure…
- ‘Return browned meat to pot. There should be enough sauce to cover, but if you’re a little short, add beer.‘
Please, please notice how polite she is! You may need more bacon fat,if you’re a little short, you may need more beer! Almost as nice as the lady who is making Beef Roulade Sandwiches…she starts out by saying- ‘First, be nice to your butcher. Smile.’ They both put me in a better frame of mind! Cookbook Therapy works!
Peruse the recipes in good Junior League or Church Ladies Cookbooks and what you’ll find are stories of real people making really good food. And what’s better than a collection of stories that could end up as a feast on your very own table?
Love y’all, Camellia
*Some of these recipes were found in a cookbook my friend Sandra and I think is the cream of the crop- Southern Sideboards compiled by the Junior League of Jackson Mississippi. Others were picked at random from River Road, Junior League of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The other cookbook shall remain unnamed…it is from my own private limited edition- privately published stash! *Photograph from Tante Marie, a French Cookbook published in English in the 1950’s- please note that Café au Lait, is not made with coffee at all…it’s made with a coffee extract and…on the next page we’re told it’s made with chicory– which could explain why Café au Lait in New Orleans tastes so good! Bon Appetite, y’all!