Monthly Archives: October 2019

Brother Rabbit Brings Lunch

(Lunch is a big deal at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  As we get closer to the 2019 event, here’s a look back at a noonday meal from 2018 that truly embodied the spirit of the theme, celebrating the connection between food and literature.  And yes, menus are literature.)

It’s no secret among those I’m close to that I’m a collector.  Most likely I’ve mentioned it in these pages before.  Some might even say that I’m a hoarder, but there’s a vast difference.  Number one, you can easily walk around in my house.  And number two, I choose to believe the things I collect are valuable and will one day be treasured by my children, or sold immediately upon my departure from this earth.  Either way, in my mind it’s a win-win for them.  

Among those collections is a file of menus.  Note that I said “a” file – as in “one.”  Not a file box full, not a closetful.  See? Not a hoarder.  I do have a small box or two full of food-related memorabilia which may also contain some menus, but generally speaking, it’s a small, manageable collection.  Not like the 45,000 plus that the New York Public Library boasts.  The Wife would have to give up some purse storage space if mine was that big.  Thus, it will never be that big.  

One of the most fascinating speakers at this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium was John Kessler, a former food columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  The theme of this year’s symposium was “Reading Food: From Menus to Soap Operas to Novels.”  His topic was “Menus as Texts.”  He showed us how menus have changed over the years and how each told a particular kind of story.  It didn’t take long for me to realize my file is not just a collection of dish descriptions, it’s a folder full of memories.  

Ordinarily, at each symposium meal we are given a colorful menu card with some amount of detail regarding what’s in each dish.  I’m not gonna’ lie – those menus are excellent cheat sheets.  With them in hand, I don’t have to ask a lot of questions about what’s in the dish or how it is cooked; everything is there already, documented for posterity.  I don’t have to keep a list of ingredients in my pocket-sized notebook, only my reactions to what those ingredients trigger on my tongue.  

UOp7JFf7Th2GzkLz4JNA1g

This year most of the menus were different.  At breakfast, for instance, we got the name of the dish, but instead of a description of how the chef’s mother used to make this back in the day, we got a poem or a paragraph from a novel.  In most cases, we got more story than a list of groceries, but that makes some sense, considering the theme.  At Jim ’N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q Luncheon on Friday, we got folktales.  

The storyteller that day was Nina Compton, the chef at Compere Lapin in New Orleans.  Compere Lapin means “Brother Rabbit” in French, and refers to folktales Chef Compton heard as a child in St. Lucia about a mischievous rabbit.  Her menus, both at the restaurant and at lunch that day, are inspired by the playfulness of those stories, and reflect a brotherhood of Caribbean and Creole cuisines.  

We began with Conch Croquettes.  If you’re unfamiliar with conch, it’s only because you didn’t know the name of that enormous seashell sitting on the shelf, the one you can put up to your ear and hear the ocean.  As a young man, my folks took us to the Bahamas and I had my first conch fritter, so this was not my first conch rodeo.  This, however, was different from the dense tuna croquettes that I know how to make; instead it was tender inside the slightly crunchy batter.  

LPeM7jFIRsGOY%XhJYBvPg

Our next course was Cowheel Soup, a street food in the Caribbean that is supposedly enjoyed by mythical ladies of the evening who actually have cowheel feet.  I must confess that I didn’t read the word that carefully at first.  I was focused on the soup itself, which reminded me a little of the broth from a good lentil soup, but with chunks of bone floating around.  Bones help flavor and can even add thickening to a soup, so that wasn’t so surprising.  It was only later that I realized, those were small chunks of cowheel.  The heel of a cow.  Words have meaning, it seems.  

OCMDa9upTi2Goj2k2WDYfw

The main dish made me a little nervous at first, given that the word “coconut” was in the description: Pelau with Spicy Coconut, Black-Eyed Peas, and Chicken.  My hope was that the coconut would be in the form of milk or cream, without those pesky flakes.  Hope fulfilled.  A large round skillet was brought to the table, filled with a dense mix of rice and black-eyed peas, the chicken legs fanned out in a circle.  Google tells me that traditional pelau has a bit of sugar and a mix of warm spices such as cardamom and cloves, and I did detect a note of sweet which I’m sure was a factor in sending me back to the dish for more.  The menu, however, told the story of a soucouyant, a shapeshifting witch in Caribbean folklore that could be caught by heaping rice around the house.  It just goes to show that collecting can be useful, as long as you collect the right things.  

Mq2uiPNkRKuvrzRhQsLqqw

We finished up with a Pone with Rum Caramel, a dark cake topped with pecans trapped in a thick, rich caramel.  Appropriately, the accompanying story was of the Jab Molassie, a devil character whose end came when he fell (or was thrown) into a vat of boiling molasses on a sugar plantation.  Would that constitute a sweet ending?  Perhaps not for the Jab.  But for those of us at lunch that day, it certainly was.  

JEKXV3XYQ3mi%Q8zXJK8QA

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ice Cream and Collards (Breakfast is Served)

(In just a few short weeks, the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium will begin.  As has become my habit, as the day approacheth, I’ll look back at the 2018 Symposium.  Let the drooling begin.  And what better way to begin than breakfast?)

IMG_5722

I look forward to breakfast.  Full stop.  There are days when it’s just a banana, a single (albeit large) cup of butter coffee, or – heaven forbid – plain eggs.  But not if I can help it.  I seek adventure in the breakfast nook.  

The offerings for early morning repast at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium never fail the thrill seekers.  Normally, there are glimpses of recognition.  Last year we had Mote Pillo, which is scrambled eggs (check) and hominy (huh?).  Now if I’d said eggs and hominy grits, nobody would have blinked an eye, but these were grits in their native form – unground, whole kernels of hominy.  

Last year’s other breakfast featured a riff on Eggs Benedict, at least for those with a big imagination.  Biscuit instead of English muffin, chorizo instead of Canadian bacon, chipotle gravy rather than hollandaise sauce – the only bridge between the two was the poached egg.  It was even served in a cup.  But I licked the cup.  (Not really – that’s figurative.  If you’ve ever tried to lick the bottom of a cup, you’d realize, like me, that it’s practically impossible.  And I never remember to pack my tiny silicone spatula like my friend carries in her purse, to scrape up every last bit of deliciousness.)

This year was no different.  Of course, we have to have our morning coffee, and Royal Cup takes good care of us.  In addition to the hot coffee that was much appreciated on those finally cool mornings, we also got to taste their new cold brew products.  But wait!  There’s more!  They also had bottled iced tea for the first time, including a peach variety.  The tea was more of a “Here is something new to try, and we are here now, so please take one and enjoy it later,” than a “Don’t you drink iced tea for breakfast?” type of situation.  I’m particularly fond of peach tea, and this one ranked high.  I described it to The Wife as a peach juice drink with some tea added, perhaps even reminiscent of what a peach Jolly Rancher would taste like if it were made from natural flavors.  Please understand – these are good things in my view.  And the sweet tea version (sans any fruit flavor) was just the level of sweetness I would want with a big barbecue sandwich.  But we were talking about breakfast, weren’t we?

Day One was completely unexpected, as expected.  I’d seen a social media post from an early riser before we got there and knew that there would be a rice waffle, smeared with clotted cream and topped with peach slices.  That alone would have been sufficient.  I’m all about waffle variations, and seriously – how many of us get up in the morning and smear clotted cream on anything?  That’s special.  But here’s the good part.  Chicken and waffles are a big thing now – it’s the new shrimp and grits for restaurants that claim Southern roots.  As Chef Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats (Charleston) handed me what appeared to be a chicken drumette in a clear plastic envelope, she described the dish: “Not Fried Chicken and Waffle.”  The Not Fried Chicken drumette was ice cream.  I know!  Isn’t it great to be an adult??  

IMG_5720

We’ve probably all had oven fried chicken at some point in our lives, coated in crushed corn flakes or the like.  Ditto here (plus caramelized white chocolate), which made everything look normal.  But after taking a bite of the drumette you could see it was white instead of the usual dark, because … it wasn’t meat at all.  It was waffle ice cream.  There was even a chocolate cookie “bone”.   Call me flabbergasted.  And allow me to be accountable: as breakfast was winding down, I noticed some Not Fried Chicken still sitting around and it’s a crime to let ice cream melt unnecessarily. (It was cool weather, but not that cool.) I’m sure you can guess what happened next.  

IMG_5719

The next morning was more of the same when it came to creativity, though there was no ice cream involved.  I’m told that Chef Kelly Fields of Willa Jean Bakery and Cafe is known for her biscuits.  The restaurant is in New Orleans, and I haven’t been to NOLA since Katrina, so I’ve been out of the loop.  I’m very thankful that the loop snuck up to Oxford for breakfast and brought me in.  

IMG_5741

Have you ever been handed a breakfast biscuit or the like, wrapped in a foil wrapper, and your first thought was, “This is heavy.”?  I saw the description on a stand at the end of the table: I knew it was a biscuit with boudin and greens.  But my usual modus operandi is to go back for a second breakfast (after a polite wait, of course), be it a fresh serving or half The Wife’s.  Due to the sheer weight of what I held in my hand, I wasn’t sure that would happen this time.  The biscuit was squarish, flaky, and golden buttery brown.  The collaborative layer of collard and mustard greens was chock full of ham chunks.  The boudin was in patty form, crisp on the outside, perhaps pan-fried.  I’ve had boudin in many iterations – perhaps even in a biscuit once – but never in a biscuit with greens.  And each biscuit came with a tiny bottle of green Tabasco sauce, for those who dig it spicy.  It served as our breakfast, but I could have one at any point of the day.  Willa Jean?  I say, Willa Genius.  

IMG_5743

Two great starts to two great days.  Then again, it’s hard not to have a great day when they start off with happiness and joy, or in this case, ice cream and collards.  

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.