I was recently asked to contribute a short essay on some aspect of food. The instructions were simple enough. It should describe some personal experience that would interest the casual reader and, if possible, include a recipe. Simple enough, won’t you think?
My first thought was to write about my first encounter with Southern cuisine. As one who was born in Michigan, and who spent his early childhood on the shore of Saginaw Bay, I was completely unprepared for the shock of collared greens with fatback, fried grits, okra, catfish, crawfish (or “crawdads”), cornbread cooked in a skillet, and sweet potato pie.
Now, I have learned to appreciate, even enjoy, some of those “delicacies.” Cooked grits that have been allowed to chill into a loaf, then sliced and fried on a greased griddle until crispy on the outside, served at breakfast with melted butter and syrup, are truly delicious. Sweet potato pie is only an inferior version of the pumpkin pie we Yankees insist tastes better.
Everyone knows, or should know, that cornbread is best when baked Yankee style, that is fluffy and sweet, not gritty. And what are those things called “cracklins” Southerners put in their cornbread? As for okra, well, I don’t even want to go there. Most shocking for this kid from up North was the idea of eating catfish and crawfish.
Like most boys, I had my adventures fishing. From time to time I caught either a catfish or what we called a “bull fish,” a small, slimy, scaleless, dark brown version of the much larger catfish. Of course, I knew to throw it back. “People do not eat those things!” insisted my mother. “They’re filthy!” And so I never ate one, and I never will.
Eating catfish was enough to make me shake my head, but crawfish? A dear friend of mine in Mississippi told me that to really enjoy crawdads, you have to suck the heads. That’s right, suck the heads. I do not believe that he was just saying that to make fun of a gullible Yankee. I have been given that advice more than once by Mississippi friends.
I have long since given up eating any kind of fish or other seafood. But, even after many years in the South, I still long for some of my mother’s Yankee cooking. Her cooking was a blend of Polish, German, and just plain working-class food. There were plenty of potatoes, squash (i.e., Hubbard squash, not the small yellow squash popular in the South), asparagus, and rhubarb. As for meats, we ate a lot of beef, pork, and chicken. Roast duck, or pheasant when hunting season was on, were extra special treats.
What we like in the way of food is a cultural thing. At least that was the case before the interstate highways and the franchisement of America turned all of us into “generic” Americans with no taste for real food. We pay a price for progress. Except for us senior citizens, regional delicacies are now limited to gourmet cooks.
Well, that was my first thought. But then I decided that no one would be interested in my experience with Southern cooking. Besides, Michelin is not likely to ask me to rate restaurants in Mississippi, or anywhere else for that matter.
What about a recipe?
While recently going through a historical museum in Omaha, Nebraska, I came upon this recipe for fire water: 1 gallon raw alcohol, 3 gallons water, and 1 pound chewing tobacco.