I love watching travel food shows, and in particular Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel program No Reservations. For those of you not familiar with Anthony Bourdain, he is a highly-opinionated and oftentimes crude former chef who travels the world in search of the best local foods. He avoids tourist traps and “must-see” locales, and instead seeks out the people, places and foods that convey what it truly means to live in the particular part of the world he is visiting. More often than not, it seems, he discovers that the best food is not found in fancy restaurants, but is found in homes and in small, out of the way eating places that serve “home-cooked” food.
What is it about home-cooked food that we all find so appealing? Part of it has to do with familiarity, I think – we tend to gravitate toward the kinds of foods we grew up eating. Nostalgia certainly plays a role, too. Certain foods remind us of home and childhood, which is often very comforting. For those of us who were fortunate to have excellent cooks in the family while growing up, the quality of the food itself is a fundamental factor. Whatever the reason, however, I would venture to guess that most of you can identify several favorite foods, and I would further speculate that someone in your family probably cooked those foods for you while you were growing up.
I enjoy cooking and love to eat, which is not surprising given that I come from a family of good cooks and food lovers. I mentioned salmon patties as a “home-cooked” favorite in a previous post, but that meal only scratches the surface. When I think of home-cooked food, several dishes come to mind: Mom’s chicken ‘n shells and Mexican cornbread, Grandmother’s chicken cordon bleu, Granny’s chicken and dressing and fried okra, Nanny Wilson’s steak and gravy with mashed potatoes, Dad’s pot roast, and the ubiquitous (in the summer time) fresh garden vegetable plate with cornbread. Also, I think of the local restaurants and diners I grew up eating at in Walker County, Alabama. No place on earth served a better fried hamburger than Bud’s Café in Curry. They ground their own meat and cooked patty after patty on the same well-seasoned griddle year after year. Unfortunately Bud’s is gone, but the memories remain. Reese’s fried chicken and steak sandwiches hold a special place in my heart as go-to Saturday lunch choices. The best barbeque sandwich on the planet is found at the Green Top (Leo and Susie’s Famous Green Top Bar-B-Q, if you want to get technical). And then there is Pepito’s – the best little Mexican restaurant in the world that I hated initially because it replaced my favorite video store, but came to love. Who would have thought that Jasper, Alabama would have so many world-class eating establishments!
I wonder: if Anthony Bourdain were to visit my family and my home town, what foods would I serve? What foods would convey a true message about how I grew up eating? Several criteria would have to be met, I think. First and foremost, the food itself would have to be excellent in every way: taste, appearance and texture. Second, it would have to be a food that my family actually ate, enjoyed, and came back to year after year. Third, given that my family is from the South, it would have to be a true Southern food, or at least food that I associate with my home town. And fourth, it would have to be a food that I still enjoy eating today. All of the abovementioned foods would certainly qualify.
In my travels to different places, I have found that food conveys so much valuable information about people’s lives and a place’s history. Food tells a story oftentimes words can’t. A fresh Maine lobster on a plate is a tangible symbol of that region’s seafood industry, and communicates so much more than anything you will read in a history book. The banquet table at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room will tell you pretty much all you need to know about Savannah. Food also cements experiences and places in our minds. My memories of the Ring of Kerry region in Ireland remain fresh because I associate it with a shepherd’s pie, eaten at a roadside cafe on the side of a mountain overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Whenever I think of the Gulf Coast region, oftentimes my first thoughts are of fried shrimp and raw oysters at King Neptune’s in Gulf Shores.
These are all important memories associated with food, but they do not compare with the memories of food from my home. For those who take the time to read my posts, I am interested to know your thoughts on home-cooked food, and foods that you associate with your home town. What foods come to mind? I am hesitant to reveal too many family secrets, but I will give you some insights into some of the foods I mentioned above.
Mom’s Chicken ‘n Shells
This one looks super-simple in a bowl: shredded chicken, broth, and cooked pasta shells. And, if not prepared correctly, it can be super-bland. However, when executed properly, it is truly one of the greatest cold-weather meals ever invented. The key is in the broth, and there is nothing in a carton or can that will substitute for a homemade chicken broth in this dish. The process is fairly straightforward. First, buy a whole chicken, cut it up, and put it in a big stock pot. Then, add one large white onion cut into quarters (don’t bother peeling it), a couple halved carrots and celery stalks, four or five cloves of garlic, two bay leaves, and a healthy amount of salt and fresh ground pepper. Cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about an hour, or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken, strain the broth through a wire mesh into a large bowl, squeezing all of the liquid out of the vegetables. Discard the vegetables. Let the broth cool and skim the fat off the top. Return the broth to the pot along with the chicken (which you should have been removing from the bones and shredding by hand), and add a box of pasta shells. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the shells are tender. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and serve.
Nanny Wilson’s Steak ‘n Gravy with Mashed Potatoes
This is the meal Nanny Wilson knows to prepare whenever I visit. Unfortunately, unless you have thin-cut breakfast steaks from Son’s Grocery in Jasper, Alabama, then this meal is impossible for your to prepare. So most of you are out of luck! Steak from anywhere else just wouldn’t be the same. As for the mashed potatoes, Nanny Wilson once told me the key, which I now reveal to you: a dollop of mayonnaise. That’s all I will say on the matter.
Granny’s Chicken and Dressing
This Thanksgiving meal was prepared for decades by Granny (my great grandmother), and is now prepared by my grandmother. The delicious tradition continues. I will not reveal the process, because that would be revealing far too much, but there are two fundamentals keys to remember when making chicken and dressing. First, use cornbread prepared in the style of my previous post, “Pass the Cornbread.” Second, you must use a “big fat hen.” Granny was a stickler on this point, and very particular. Her dressing was always second to none, but there were a couple of years she felt the dressing was not up to par, and it was always because the hen was neither big enough, nor fat enough. Remember: big fat hen.
This dish probably originated in our family with my great uncle Charles, known as Pop, who was an excellent cook, and now my mom continues the tradition. There is nothing really Mexican at all about this food, but that’s what we call it, so go figure. It’s very easy to make, and very good. Combine 1.5 cups self-rising cornmeal (White Lily, of course), 1 chopped white onion, 1 8-oz can cream-style corn, 1.5 cups shredded cheddar cheese, 4-6 chopped jalapenos, 2 eggs, ¼ cup vegetable oil, and 1.5 cups buttermilk in a bowl. Pour into an 8×8 baking pan and cook at 375 degrees for 1 hour. Done.