The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 10, 2015

Southern Food Curated — the Food Museum at Miss Mary BoBo’s Boarding House

America is a strange place to eat.  More than one third of us are obese, and nearly one seventh of us go hungry at least part of the time.  We have plenty of food, but we don’t share it equitably.  We overspend on processed foods that contribute to the diseases that kill us — heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and we underspend on the foods that would benefit us most — greens, beans, and fish.  We value convenience, and with some reason.  In order for families to economically survive, most households have both parents working outside the home, so the days of a cook making dinner over a slow flame over hours where the pot was periodically stirred, those days are over for most of us.  Therefore, McDonald’s serving us McMuffins all day sounds like a mighty benefit, as lots of us don’t quite get around to breakfast before dinner time.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

At odds with this culture of convenience is a strange cult of food, one that creates an audience for cooking as a form of entertainment. We have all-day networks devoted to watching other people cook, and the people who watch are not all watching to imitate.  The tradition of American food preparation is that anonymous women did most of the work.  Wives prepare Thanksgiving, and the thanks for two days’ cooking goes to God mostly, rarely to the women who burned their wrists taking the turkey out of the oven.  Where households could afford to do so, servants were relegated to the kitchen, as kitchens before air-conditioning were miserable places to spend a day during the summer.  Big Southern households built kitchens  in separate buildings from the big house because the heat was unbearable and with kitchens being the most likely source of a house fire, it made sense to put the kitchen in a free-standing structure that could burn to the ground without burning the home as a whole. The people who sweated, and kneaded, who plucked feathers and gutted fish, those people were not celebrated.  In the traditions of the South, they went unpaid, as they were slaves or wives.  While wives were not slaves (exactly), they were not free, enfranchised, or able to choose other occupations than that of home maker for the majority of the history of this country and for the entirety of the history of the Confederacy.  So why are we watching now the cooks on television who make food into a spectator sport?

"all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. " -- John Updike

“all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. ” — John Updike

We seem to have begun the celebration and idealization of cooking as a thing to watch with the industrialization of our food production.  After the Second World War, women who had worked for a few years in factory jobs were corralled back into the kitchen to prepare elaborate meals for G.I. husbands who would take their place as industry captains.  Meals went from something to grab on the fly to a proof of good housekeeping and feminine skill. Companies selling industrial food products — margarine, corn syrup, and cheese in a can — started having contests for housewives to compete like athletes, and this to promote the factory of food they ran.  County fairs had pie contests before, but national contests with television spots for winners — that was a 1950s idea and part of the myth of the happy housewife that would be rendered joyful by soap called Joy, by soup in a can, by floor wax that made a shine in which she could see her happy face reflected.  Suddenly, it became possible to make cooking aspirational, part of the American dream. A perfect pie, with meringue peaks just browned lightly — this was now a national source of comfort.

With the exit of women from the kitchen and into the workplace, food changed again.We became increasingly dependent on prepackaged goods, on restaurants that mass-produce food, and we became less healthy than before.  We stuffed ourselves mindlessly in front of the television with our potato chips rather than consider eating a discrete episode where family members looked each other in the eye, where fresh ingredients comprised the whole of the meal, where the meal ended, and we did not eat again until the next meal.  We became a nation of lonely snackers overly engaged in video games and sports events where we neither lifted a ball nor even donned a jacket to venture out of our living rooms to sit on a bleacher and cheer. We became spectators instead of participants in the leisure of our own lives.

So why do so many of us slouch on couches watching the cooking shows and then drive to eat Big Macs?  I attribute it to a longing for authenticity.  When the unsung women used to cook us meals the slow way, we took them for granted, but we felt loved.  The food smelled like something.  Our lives felt like we needed to be awake for them. We talked like connected people to one another around the table. The food nourished us. We were fed.  We don’t know when dinner is any more.  Nobody has the time to make dinner, not a real dinner.  Thirty-minute meals are possible, but they require somebody to invest time in a premeditated trip to the supermarket. No distractions had better arise, no pets had better run away not to be found until the next day  No family arguments had better explode, and no demands for additional overtime from overbearing bosses had better get voiced for all of us to make it to the table, for the family cook to get to her post chopping the carrots an hour before meal time.

This problem of authentic food and family time is particularly poignant to Southerners.  Momma’s biscuits are a source of nourishment as important as mother’s milk.  To eat grandma’s tea cakes is a partial living out of Southern identity. Food served at Southern funerals is a reason for the bereaved to stay alive. The home-cooking of Southern tradition is a way of Southerners knowing precisely who they are.  But mothers in Atlanta have no more time than mothers in Chicago to cook a four-course meal by sundown. Women in the South are working just like women in the North. Men in the South have not learned to cook any better (with the exception of the honing of seasonal barbecue skills) than men in the North have. Daughters no longer learn with the same frequency the skills requisite in the heirloom recipes of their family heritage.  Those foods are usually all advised too fatty by the doctors, anyway, and who has the time?

One of my friends in the South has a traditional recipe of a thin-layered cake of multiple tiers, and it takes a good day to make it.  She is a neurobiologist.  She can either concentrate on cake-baking, or she can try to find the root of a cure for ALS.  To her, the cake is a pleasure, but it is a distraction.  She feeds her experiments’ fruit flies, rather than the initiates at any Junior League.  That she can make the family cake, which includes home-made fondant (!) is impressive, but it is hardly the most impressive thing she does — she can clone insect brain cells, something her grandmomma never did.  Authenticity and tradition often get trumped in today’s South by forward-thinking and long work hours in double-income homes.

So today, if one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the makers of Jack Daniels — and in typing these words, I feel compelled to salute sour mash whiskey and its salutory benefits to those who  are ailing from heart-ache and underexposure to tear-jerk Country music ballads — I sigh deeply and try to remember what I was saying.  What was it? Oh!  If one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, one can visit a historically preserved boarding house, something which used to be a fixture in the Southern Landscape before the advent of post-war motel chains.  Miss Mary Bo Bo’s boarding house in Lynchburg was particularly known for its good food.  She received guests, it seems mostly traveling salesmen (and during the Twenties, bootleg distributors), and she served old-school Southern fare — baked apples, creamy macaroni and cheese, turnip greens wilted in pork fat, fried chicken of the kind that rarely gets made in private homes any more, and a delightful variety of pies.  A visit to Mary BoBo’s boarding house means one’s small family sits at a big table with others, and at each table for each meal, a hostess explains like a museum curator the significance of each dish within Southern cooking.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Today, the house (which is run by the Jack Daniels corporation in conjunction with its distillery tours) attracts many people from outside the South, and the strategy of this table d’hote is essentially to stage a reenactment of the Southern meal, not unlike a historic reenactment of the Siege of Vicksburg.  Nobody down South eats a Mary BoBo-sized meal more than once or twice a month, and even then, nobody cooks all the dishes for such a meal except on the rarest of occasions.  The Mary BoBo meal is still eaten after funerals and at church socials, and those events are potluck — each cook does a fraction of the work.  Perhaps on an occasion as grand as a family engagement one might see such a meal served.  Alas, today’s Southern eaters can neither produce nor consume this level of Southern authenticity alone.  Paul Prudhomme is gone to his celestial spice rack. Paula Deen, bless her heart (and I mean that in the most Southern of ways), is on a low-carb diabetic diet if she doesn’t want to risk foot amputation and blindness (apart from blindness to her own racism). The rest of the South is hurrying to get home, but when we get there, the kids are playing Minecraft and whine if you ask them to set the table, even though they will be punished for it.  The husband got home and fed the dogs, gave the kids each a bag of raisins and a juice box, and he is on Facebook.  The wife lugged in the bag of groceries, set a slab of margarine to bubble in the pan, and she is flouring up the pork chops as fast as she can.  She wants to catch her breath — work was hard today, but now the baby has started to cry, and she runs, yells at her husband to watch that nothing burns, and picks up the littlest one to see if he has shoved one of his brother’s toys up his nose again.

Who has time to cook?  Who can look a loved one in the eye without wanting to cry?  Where is grandmomma’s multi-layered cake, momma’s biscuit, daddy’s barbecued ribs?  Is this our current tear-jerk ballad, and do we sing the lyrics of the song together?  Or do we sing it in rooms with closed doors, pretending it’s all fine?  Where is Miss Mary Bobo, the uncurated one who fed smiling bootleggers and excluded black visitors from her table?  We miss her, not for her personality or her moral compass, but for her roasts, the kind that comforted the diner, that said that all was well whether it really was or not. We are sentimental and crave comfort food.  Kardashians are tramping around on television.  The Internet announces apocalypses, scriptural and zombie.  We feel empty inside.

What’s for dinner?  What should we really eat for dinner? What will really satisfy us, North and South?

June 28, 2010

Southern Food — and my contribution to it

Selling fresh foods in Mississippi, one tomato at a time

In his book of Southern recipes, food writer James Villas (from down South), writes “Such is the sovereignty of Southern cookery to anybody (Reb and outsider alike) who has fully indulged in its many glories that comparisons with other American styles are almost ludicrous.”

To this, I shrug my shoulders and say, “ehh?”

I believe that a good Southern meal cooked just right is remarkable.  I once attended a funeral in North Carolina, and the reception the widow put on afterwards in her modest home was something of a revelation to me.  The dessert table alone, with a full twenty cakes, provided by every female cousin of the deceased, was an astonishment.  Ham — have any other people on the face of the Earth ever come up with so many ways to make a ham sing?  And the addition of bacon or ham to every legume on the planet makes them all palatable (and taste about the same).  I’m even a fan of grits now.  I particularly like the grits I get at a chain restaurant here called Waffle House.

That said, I boldly compare  — despite Villas’ admonition that I will appear almost ludicrous — the richness of the food down here to the food in New York City, where the world’s cuisine is really the city’s cuisine, given its unimaginably diverse immigrant struggle.  Cheap good food is made everywhere.

How I miss the food of my beloved city!

I drive down highway 59 toward Hattiesburg thinking of a chopped liver bagel from The Second Avenue Deli.  When I recently visited New York, and I stopped by the newly reopened Second Avenue Deli, I told the proprietors that I did this, driving in Mississippi, dreaming of their chopped liver on a nice plain bagel, and while my husband and I were waiting for a table, one of the owners of the restaurant offered me, while I was still in line, slices of bagel smeared with that delicious New York gritty mixture.  It was a return home at least as much as listening to the cursing on the street corner or watching the women hobble along in impossibly high heels with impossibly short skirts.

I miss Al Safah restaurant in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, a Lebanese restaurant with food I used to eat at lunch with my friend Nada, a Lebanese woman who is something of an evangelist for her national cuisine.  How I miss their delicious babagounoush, their zatar, their fried onions with lentils and spices.

I miss the tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes and olives from Rocco’s restaurant in Astoria Queens, Trattoria L’Incontro, where absolutely everything on the menu is impossibly delectable.  I met Rocco when he owned a Pizzeria, out of which he served things like wild boar and scarole a la braccia, grilled escarole with white canellini beans.  Now, he owns a restaurant where gangsters, politicians, star atheletes, and anybody with any sense at all, makes a pilgrimage to in the city.

I cook at home with the same gusto as James Villas’ Southern cookery cooks, and I am proud that as a newly-minted Southern wife, my future son in-law (a Cajun) apparently brings  my stepdaughter across state lines to see us in part in case, “Miss Anne,” as he calls me, is going to cook anything.  I cooked some chicken for a church social about two months ago, and while some people’s foods did not get all eaten, mine did.  Around here, that is a mark of distinction.

I don’t cook Southern food, though.  My food is different than the things I see in Mr. Villas’ book.  I wouldn’t fry a green tomato, and while I make ham, it is likely to have a port glaze on it, and the chicken isn’t fried with bread but stewed with white wine and marmalade.  In the midst of the real Southern cooks, I wouldn’t presume to make food that is not in my own idiom.  I would be a poor imitation of them, but cooking as I do on my own, I make food influenced by my upbringing in California, where I cooked the family’s meals for guests since I was an adolescent, my stint at Ecole De Cuisne La Varenne as an intern who translated in exchange for an intermediate certificate, and decades in the glorious mosaic of New  York City, where every tribe’s cooking wafts out the windows of the working class apartment towers.

In this spirit, I decided, while dealing with a serious bout of homesickness, to bake cookies for the farmer’s market of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

I felt I had the blessings of my home town to do so.  After all, The New York Times recently wrote an article with the following beginning: “HOME COOKING FOR SALE — College-educated and unemployed, New York’s young home cooks hope to find a place in the food world.”

While not entirely unemployed — I teach part-time this summer at Belhaven University — I am partially unemployed, and while not that young, I am a home cook, as Julia Child would have said, a servantless cook, from New York.  And after all, the Times is the paper of record, isn’t it?

Despite having an intermediate professional certificate in French cuisine, obtained largely as a method of staying in Paris to remain a club kid in the Parisian club scene of the late 1980s, I had never attempted to sell my food or my cooking skills in any manner, despite certain people telling me I should, usually with their mouths full of something I had made for them.  In New York City, where the best food abounds, there is little room for the amateur.  In all professions, the best of the world have gathered there to compete with one another.

However,  in Vicksburg, the competition is not stiff.  People have a collegiality to them, even with competitors.  Southern manners are generally warm and acomodating.

I showed up several weeks ago at the Vicksburg market, having filled out the requisite paperwork, with a small concern I call Brooklyn Cookies.   Each week, I offer four different kinds of cookies — week one included double-chocolate biscotti, traditional Sicilian anisette cookies, oatmeal cookies snootified with amaretto and dried apricot, and sugar cookies cut in the shape of sea shells and coated with royal icing.  Each packet includes (because I am a better writer than a cook) a lovely story with the ingedient list  about a different neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I did not bring a tent to cover myself — I figured that the market was only from 8 am to 11 am, and how hot could a person really get, especially if she were wearing a baseball cap from the Original Nathan’s hot dogs?  A tent would have sent my profit margin down the drain.  However, the organizers of the market realized the Yankee girl had underestimated the power of a June Mississippi sun, even in the early hours of the morning, and they literally pitched a tent around me to cover me so I would not die of a heat stroke.  I must have thought I was selling cookies in Vermont or something, and they were right, and terribly, terribly kind, to take pity on me.

Now, I rent that tent from the market organization, and I spend several hours turning red — my neck is turning red, despite sunblock — and sell out of my glorious mosaic chocolate chip cookies, my East New York barred window bars with three kinds of jam, my peanut butter cookies with Jamaican spices.  People say they haven’t had these flavors together before.  Uncoached, children between the ages of five and ten pick up small pieces from my free sample plates and shout loudly, “Mommy!  These are great cookies!”

I am making a small profit each week, as if I were teaching an additional class at the university.

Southern cooking is delicious when perfectly rendered (which it is, most of the time), but it is a bit predictable, like a hug from Grandma.  It is love itself, but don’t expect to swoon from it.  I am bringing an embrace from the other woman, the desperate housewife, not the real one from New York, but the surreal one.  It is different, dangerous, naughty, even.  I am the immigrant from elsewhere, bringing my spice rack, my palate of exotic places, and a sense of the edginess of New York — now almost a myth.  I joke with people that if one wants to get mugged on the Coney Island Boardwalk these days, one needs to bring one’s own mugger.  However, these cookies might bring their own mugger. That might be a gun in their pocket, or they might just be, like a Southern gentleman, glad to see you.  In any case, they are selling well, and my culture shock is slightly diminished by them.

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