Friday Eating and Reading (As I Army-Crawl Across the School Year Finish Line)

It’s Friday, and I am still in the trenches of what we call the May Gauntlet around here. This month consists of three of my family of five’s birthdays, Mother’s Day, another trip to Science Olympiad Nationals for the Hubs and Bear after winning State, Confirmations, graduations, finals for G-Man, driving test for G-man, and yet another week-long business trip for the Hubs. I am, in a word, overdone.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sneaking in crafting, reading, and knitting time in at every possible moment, lest I allow my “End-of-the-year-and-I’m-over-it attitude” to spew out all over innocent bystanders. While I know I will probably want to let my kids run away and join a circus within two weeks of summer vacation, the prospect of a break from carpool lines, packing lunches, the daily uniform search/6 a.m. emergency washing panic, and unplanned trips to the school because I forgot it was our snack day (again), is the only thing separating me from insanity.

Anyway, here’s a few things I have been really into this week:

I just finished The Wishing Thread by Lisa Van Allen. Magic realism and knitting? Sign me up. I am a big fan of Sarah Addison Allen, so this seemed right up my alley. Overall, it’s a cute book, and one that I enjoyed. The narrative of the family ties, local lore, the subtle magic, and hope all made this a nice, pleasant read. If you just want a light, feel-good read similar to Addison Allen’s works, this is a good option.

I love Rick Bragg, who, among his numerous writing accolades, also has his essays featured in Southern Living every month. I’m only about a quarter of the way through this, but I am so totally in love with it. His writing brings to life the essence of the times and influences that defined my grandparents and parents (both good and bad). I started this on Mother’s Day morning, and it felt like a bittersweet balm on my soul. It reminds me of cooking with my mom, and all the stories she would tell of our grandparents and cousins, and the recipes that were simply learned by doing. I still suck at this whole grief thing, especially since I got the grief sandwich going on, but this book reminds me that the stories and traditions mean they will always be with me.

This orzo salad from Food Network definitely wins our dang tasty seal of approval. While I skip the red onion because picky eaters gonna pick, the recipe is perfect for a cool summer side dish (very important when we will reach nearly 100 degrees next week). A couple of notes on this one–I just mix the whole shebang together rather than this pointless staging. You would have to mix it before serving anyway, and artistic efforts are lost on The Heathens. Also, I have a possibly controversial view on pasta salad recipes. I always make 1.5 times of the dressing that any pasta salad recipe calls for, if not 2 times because they always end up drier than I want if I follow the recipe. Thus far, my over-doing-it on pasta salad sauce (for creamy-type sauces) hasn’t steered me wrong. You could also add rotisserie chicken to this for a complete meal, but if so, I would definitely double the sauce just to be safe. No one ever said “My Pasta Salad is too creamy.”  If they did, you should seriously side-eye them.

Time to fortify myself for the last week of school. That means whiskey, in case you didn’t know.

Coming Soon: “Communty Cookbook Throwback Thursday”–A Haphazard Journey Through Grief and Seriously Questionable Coping Mechanisms.

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***Insert meaningful and insightful intro here…or not***

Before my mom passed away, she amassed quite the cookbook collection, many of which she inherited from her mother, or were gifts from the dozens of cousins, aunts, etc. that make up my huge, southern, zany extended family. And that’s where this post and the new series on my blog begins…

I remember spending hours flipping through those books, and not really understanding all of the history they contained, or what they represented to my mother. I would sit at her small, marble-topped kitchen table, turning the wrinkled, dog-eared pages while she miraculously bent our tiny, galley kitchen to her culinary will. Often, she’d pause mid-dinner prep to wash my cornsilk-like hair in the sink, setting a towel on the edge to cradle my neck before sending me off to a proper bath.

I always knew when she was feeling particularly down or frustrated, because that’s when she would fry chicken. After I had kids, she confessed that cooking our traditional fried chicken dinner (with rice, gravy, peas, and biscuits…preferably with mayhaw jelly), was a mental and emotional escape. She found that cooking that meal was the closest connection she could find to her own childhood memories, as well as a unique therapy when tackling the more difficult of life’s challenges.

When we moved to California, Mom was alone in a new place with no family and support system, which looking back, must have been incredibly lonely for her. Sometimes, her loneliness seemed like an invisible raincloud that blanketed our home, and she retreated to the kitchen like it was the only connection to her family and sense of home she could find.  I also remember that, during these low periods,  she pulled out the same few cookbooks from her collection, which were published works from the assorted regional chapters of Louisiana’s Junior League, churches, or other community cookbooks.

When she wanted to try something new, those were the books she looked to for a familiar foundation. Unlike a nationally published cookbook full of glossy photographs of culinary perfection, Mom was more inclined to try a new recipe that she knew came from the communities of her home state (as well as what came from her mother’s and aunts’ generation), and I think these books helped ease the homesickness that seemed to be her constant companion during those years. Other than the familiar recipes and techniques of her up-bringing, any recipe experiments began with a foray into those collections for research she felt she could trust. Looking back, I see that they were more like dictionaries and encyclopedias for a generation that wouldn’t see accessible internet or even unlimited long-distance calls for many years to come

By the time I was in middle school, I knew that the chocolate pie recipe I liked was in The Revel, the Christmas cookie recipe was in Cotton Country, and if I could not remember which recipes she had tried, I could always see her handwritten code in the margins to clue me in (a “check-plus-plus” meant she really liked it). I didn’t realize until we moved home, and I had spent more time with my extended family, that the various Louisiana Junior League  and community cookbooks from that era were staples in every kitchen. Growing up in southern California, I did not realize how much community cookbooks were such an ingrained part of our Louisiana culture.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Mom’s cookbook collection, so when I stumbled across a copy of Cotton Country at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and ran to the register like I was Indiana Jones avoiding that whole boulder issue. What is amazing about the iconic cookbooks of the various chapters of the Louisiana Junior League (published in the 60’s and 70’s) and local churches, is that they continue to be staples in many of our homes, which is why I was able to find this one. For example, Cotton Country was published in 1972 by the Junior League of Monroe, with a first printing of 10,000 copies. Since that time, the book has gone through 21 additional printings, with some topping 60,000 copies per printing, and the most recent being 5,000 in 2016. The book I purchased is identical to the original publication, with the only upgrade being a hardback binding that replaced the annoying comb binding. The book has no photographs, hundreds of recipes, lots of original artwork, and demonstrates just how much a labor of love these books were for their creators. I remarked to my husband about how much work these books were for local communities, because they were complied long before we had computers and software to streamline the process. From the meticulous index to the sheer volume of recipes, I imagine this book, and those like it, was a momentous undertaking and a great source of pride for the women who created it.

As I flip through the recipes, they seem like a microcosm of a by-gone era, both good and bad. I see how much they focused on entertaining (some have notes “will feed 25 for appetizers, or 12 for entrees”), which is something I think we all could use a little more of (entertaining, that is). I feel like the more digitally connected we get, the less meaningfully connected we become to our friends and neighbors, and that a little real togetherness could do us all some good.  These books also often give the ambiguous language of seasoned cooks (“just add to your taste”), which definitely reminds me of the women in my family, and why growing the confidence in cooking through experience is important in familial development.

However, along with all the feel-good nostalgia, I also know that these books also reflect the imbalances of race, gender, and socioeconomic classes that were just as much a part of those decades as beautiful Crab Mornay in elegant silver chafing dishes. In fact, each recipe in my recent purchase features the contributors’ names not as their own, but as a subset of their husbands. For example, rather than see “Mrs. Ann Smith,” you see “Mrs. John Smith,” a tradition that luckily seems to have faded slowly as modern South catches up. If anyone ever tried to call me “Mrs. Bayou-Husband,” I’d probably snort my cocktail right out of my nose. I well know that as charming as many of these books are, and the nostalgia they trigger, we could uncover an entire underlying narrative of racial and class dynamics that deserves acknowledgement, and that I could never do the justice that it deserves.

So, let’s circle back around to what this post is really about. A couple of months ago, I lost my father suddenly, and without warning. I’m trying to process the year-after-year grief sandwich life keeps serving me, losing my grandmother, mother, and father in such a short, successive time. After Mom died, that grief was like acid, eating away at me and it’s pretty much been a self-pity party ever since. This was a trauma I did, and do not, handle well. Except for those times when I kick myself in reminder that I am so blessed, it’s ridiculous. I wallow, but I also kick my own ass nearly everyday because perspective is the first step to a more graceful approach to the grief sandwich digestion project.

I think one of the most difficult parts of losing both parents is that I also feel like I lost a connection to my grandparents, because my parents helped keep their histories alive through their own stories and memories (though I was truly blessed to have my grandmother on Dad’s side live to see all of her great-grandchildren born and to be here for me into my mid-30’s). My mom regaled me of stories of her mom, including that she was a master sewer though my mom could not sew a stitch. I’m scared that I’ll lose those pieces in the telling of the stories to my own kids, and that they lost their own maternal grandparents at such a young age, when I had most of mine into my late teens to 30’s. I had the village. My kids’ village has shrunk in ways they will never know how to miss, but it also encourages me to embrace what’s still here.

I decided that one way to try and prevent an even deeper dive into the unhealthy grief sandwich starts with these cookbooks that defined so much of both my mom’s life, but also all the people in my crazy, zany, lovable family. Both Mom and Dad carried emotional weights from their own upbringings, and I want to learn from what worked and what didn’t. As a crafter, cook, and general maker, of course my approach starts with “PROJECT!!!”

I’m starting a new segment on the blog called “Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday” in which I will make a recipe from an old Junior League, church, or otherwise community cookbook close to me. You will see an unvarnished attempt at the recipe of the week, even if it fails epically, as well as my notes on how to translate the vague portions and directions into coherent words for an actually repeatable recipe.

So, if you actually managed to read this, you get a gold star! Stay tuned for culinary adventures and plenty of mishaps. And maybe, by the end of this little or big experiment, grief won’t be quite such a four-letter word. No promises there, but I promise a good cocktail along the way.

Things I’m Into This Week

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We are deep in the heart of Mardi Gras season, which means lots of crawfish, parades, and King Cakes. When I’m not overindulging, I’m enjoying time with family and friends, making memories and celebrating everything good about my neck of the woods.

In the meantime, here’s a round up of the things I’m into this week, which are clearly food related given my current climate:

Watching: A Chef’s Life. I guess I am late to this PBS gem, but I now binge watch it on the weekends. The combination of a character-driven documentary that still focuses on southern food culture is like crack for peeps like me. If you need some inspiration for your own garden, this show also delivers on that front. Bonus: It’s free to watch online via PBS.

Reading: Speaking of which, I’m reading Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard, the chef in the aforementioned show. This cookbook is an opus, and I love every page. I found it after hearing about the documentary, and it’s one of the most well-executed cookbooks I’ve seen in a long time. However, I will give the disclaimer that it’s more of a 40/60 balance between recipes for home cooks and wannabe chef/foodies, so flip through it before you buy. I’m really particular about the cookbooks I will drop cash on (versus online spelunking for recipes), so I understand if this brick isn’t for everyone.

Listening: I’ve gone down the podcast rabbit hole, and I was probably last to know about The Sporkful. I come from a family that talks about our next meal while we are eating the current cuisine, so I appreciate a podcast that constantly looks at food and culture with the same obsessive eye that we do.

So there ya have it. A snippet of my indulgence for your foodie pleasure. Back to the kitchen, and that leftover piece of King Cake.

**Disclaimer–This post was not sponsored in any way, and none of these people know who I am. I’m not that cool, dude, just tunnel-vision afflicted.**

Book Review–Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South

In case you missed it, summer has hit the hell-mouth that is commonly referred to as northern Louisiana. It’s the time of year when my husband makes me watermelon mojitos, and I try not to succumb to the Southerner’s version of cabin fever. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than one post, you know that I’m a girl who loves a good cocktail…or ten. That’s why I jumped at the chance to check out this book. Good food and cocktails are clearly ingrained in my DNA.

While there are numerous recipes in this book, it’s not a recipe book at all. Rather, it’s the best history book this Old Fashioned-swilling girl could ask for. It’s the “who, what, when, where, and why” of Southern cocktail history and culture. Yes, it’s a niche book that is probably more Father’s Day than anniversary gift (unless you’re weird like me), but this truly is a well-researched book about Southern hooch in all of its glory. So much of Southern food and drink is steeped in our stories that it’s sometimes fruitless to try and pinpoint their origins. Mr. Moss really did a great job of tracing back to those iconic drinks and brands that set the stage for the staples we know and love today.

That being said, this book isn’t for everyone. I think you have to be a history geek, cocktail geek, or Southern Living culture junkie to get it. For all its 300-plus pages, you’ll find less than 45 cocktail recipes, most of which are VERY specific about their ingredients down to the independent purveyors. While this book is definitely a niche product, I can say firsthand that it’s perfect for hooch connoisseurs like me.

**I was provided this book in exchange for a fair, honest, and no-BS review**

Cookbook Review–Food with Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings

I’ve been on a cookbook tear lately, trying to get some inspiration and get back my cooking mojo. I’ve also been trying to reframe my approach to casual entertaining, as my OCD usually drives me to be Martha Stewart-perfect when I have people over. You know what that means? I don’t have friends over as much as I would like. I want to embrace an attitude that every gathering does not have to be an over-the-top affair I slaved over for a week. This new book caught my eye, and it seemed like just what I was looking for to jumpstart a season of summer entertaining.

This beautifully photographed, highly stylized cookbook showcases how the author’s international travel experiences influenced her cooking. On it’s own, it’s a nice book that I think features very unusual, creative recipes that many people will find inspiring. However, I truly believe that this book is misadvertised and that unless you flip through it before you buy, you may be in for an unfortunate surprise. First, with the exception of eggs, cheese, and yogurt, this book is exclusively vegetarian. You’ll find no fish, beef, pork, or shellfish in these recipes. I double-checked the description on Amazon, and nowhere does it mention this as a feature. Also, as other reviewers noted, this book leans heavily toward sweet recipes, and while she includes some savory options, I still feel like it was unbalanced if we truly want to see this book as a more comprehensive approach to entertaining.

Another drawback to this book is that many of her ingredients must be sourced from specialty stores, or are very specific to a region (and she doesn’t necessarily offer substitutions). For example, I know that I can’t find organic untreated rose petals, ghee, or bee pollen in my neck of north Louisiana. Furthermore, I think that many of her recipes are small batch and labor intensive (i.e. fussy), which limits them to smaller gatherings. As a family of five, our gatherings are never really small by default.

Finally, I really didn’t find a lot of practical tips for simplifying entertaining. Rather than tips for selecting drinks, or setting up a buffet, she focuses more on “styling” with a full page on how to photograph food. I don’t know about you, but when I have guests over, I’m not really concerned with styling my food for photos–I’d rather focus on my guests and setting a tone of heartfelt hospitality. Ultimately, I feel like this book is way more niche than the description would have you believe.

However, for all these issues, this truly is a gorgeous, interesting book! I just think it was not what I expected at all, and the publisher did not give it the best description. I’m not saying don’t buy it at all. I’m saying I’d flip through it first at your local bookstore so you have a better idea if it will meet your expectations.

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*Disclaimer–I was provided this book in exchange for a fair and honest review*

Tasty Tuesday–Mom’s Pound Cake, a Good Book, and a Reworking of Priorities

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After two straight months of working myself crazy, I decided last week that enough is enough. While I’m blessed that I’m able to earn extra money while working from home, I’ve always sucked at that whole balance thing. When you add the post-holiday budget strain, I felt this maddening need to cram as much work into my days as I feasibly could, which was in direct contrast to my pesky resolution to not do that anymore. It’s so easy to slip into survival mode, and let your days fall into a continuous series of necessary tasks. Where’s the joy in that? None, I can tell ya.

So, rather than let my clients’ needs become my life, I’m enforcing a daily limit on my worktime so I can also focus on my home, my kids, and things I actually enjoy doing. That includes getting back in the kitchen.

So, it’s Tasty Tuesday, and since I’ve been felled by a cold/allergies that are slowly sucking the life out of me, I decided to stick with classic comfort. My Mom’s Pound Cake is oh-so-easy, and also a simple staple that was almost always on hand when we were growing up. It’s a basic, effortless recipe that everyone should have in their back pockets, and it can be repurposed in so many ways. For example, it can serve as the base for strawberry shortcake in a pinch, or you can go all Bobby Flay and throw it on the grill.

ingredients

Remember that, unless a recipe specifies differently, you should shoot for room temperature butter and eggs when baking. It helps your batters mix up and bake evenly, and is one of those baking tricks that separate the boys from the men. (not really, but if you’re gonna dirty up some dishes, why not hedge your bets for the best outcome?)

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Mom's Pound Cake

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 sticks butter (preferably room temperature)
  • 6 eggs (preferably room temperature)
  • 1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract (seriously, dude)

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a standard Bundt pan and set aside.
  2. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed for 30 seconds, or until you’re sure it’s not going to fly all over the place. Increase speed to medium and mix for 10 minutes, stopping once halfway through to scrape down the sides.
  3. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until done.
  4. Remove pan from oven and place on cooling rack for 10 minutes. Invert cake onto cake plate and let cool completely.

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Finished Read

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Speaking of cake, I just finished reading The Cake Therapist, which is the debut novel from cookbook author Judith Fertig. I picked this one up because, not only was the cover attention-grabbing, but the summary reminded me of Sarah Addison Allen novels, which I love. I truly enjoyed this book, and was impressed by her descriptive prose. The plotline resolutions could have been a little more satisfying, but overall, I’d definitely recommend it. Unless you’re on a diet, that is.