Thursday, February 7, 2008

Toys And Other Goodies From My Past

Duncan YoYo
Pick-Up Sticks
Lincoln Logs
Hobby Horse
78-RPM Records
Old black, plastic recorder

Thoughts On My Alabama Past

Our family was poor. My dad, an electrician, was constantly between jobs, because that's just how the market is for that kind of work. He was in a union called the I.B.E.W., or International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. If he wanted to make a living, he had to stay for months at a time where the work was, sometimes as far as Boston, and once, I recall he worked in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Back then, we ate whatever was affordable... sometimes that meant potted meat on the cheapest white bread money could buy -- the kind that crumbled when you spread anything on it. And I dare say there was nothing that should be defined as "meat" in the potted meat. We ate fried Spam and eggs, Spam sandwiches, and cut-up hotdogs, shriveled and pale, from boiling, mixed in with macaroni and cheese or barbecued beans. That was when the supermarkets carried rows upon rows of large generic cans of food, instantly recognizable by their lack of any logo or brand name, printed in large black-and-white type. I felt ashamed when my mother placed these in our cart at the local stores, Food World or Big Star. Maybe she did too.

Sometimes my mom or dad would make me remain at the table to finish some food I disliked -- green beans or my dad's homemade mashed potatoes (curiously enough, I only liked the instant style) -- no matter how long it took. They would turn off the light, and I'd sit in the dark, tears running down my face, picking listlessly at a congealed mound of spuds with my fork or spoon, feeling a lump in my throat as I forced it down.

It never dawned on me until I wrote this today, that although this wasn't the nicest thing for them to do, maybe they had reasons they saw as valid. Maybe it ate them up inside, the thought of having such meager funds to meet our food needs. Maybe they wondered how I could be so ungrateful for what it took to put that food in front of me. I'm not making excuses for them, but this could have been a reaction to not having enough and dreading to see it wasted. However, I believe this is what is partially to blame for my weight yo-yoing so much over the years. I still feel guilty at not finishing what's put in front of me, and with American portions being what they are these days, this can be a dangerous habit to have.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Southern Foods From My Alabama Past

Some culinary aspects of my upbringing, that whether I like them all or not, are part of my personal history:

* The fish fry - For us, this included my grandmother's tasty version of the egg custard pie, hush puppies, fried catfish, coleslaw, fresh watermelon and homemade ice cream cranked by hand in one of those old wooden ice cream makers using rock salt.

* Red-eye gravy with ham and biscuits
According to legend and not necessarily facts, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 7th President of the United States, who was an American General at the time, called his cook over to tell him what to prepare. The cook had been drinking "moonshine" corn whiskey the night before and his eyes were as red as fire. General Jackson told the cook to bring him some country ham with gravy as red as his eyes. Some men nearby heard the general and from then on, ham gravy became "Red Eye Gravy."

* Grits (especially with cheese! Now you're talkin'.) I still won't turn down a good bowl of grits. Every now and then, even outside of the South, I'll chance across them on a diner or truckstop menu and have my fill.

* Eggs and brains (I kid you not!) I never really liked these. The texture kind of grossed me out. The only kind my grandmother ever fixed was pork brains. I'm not even sure if you can still find these in the supermarket; but I won't be searching for them.

* Eggs and many other foods cooked in bacon grease. I tried fixing this for Tim, who is from Nebraska, a few weeks ago, touting how tasty this made the eggs. It didn't go over well. This may not be the healthiest food, but I have fond memories of awakening to the smell of Folgers coffee percolating alongside the smell of fresh biscuits and the sound of bacon sizzling in a cast-iron skillet.

* Fried okra, fried yellow squash, fried chicken, fried liver, fried porkchops - fried, fried, fried, you name it, it could be fried.

Funny little story: I'm not a person who cooks much. I didn't inherit my grandmother's knack for stirring up some southern cooking, you see. So, once, when I was living in Germany, of all places, I got a hankering for some okra and decided to fry some up. I'd hardly ever fried anything other than bacon at this point, so I assumed I had to wait for the oil to boil, just as I did with water in a recipe. I stood there and stood there, and nothing... I was so tired of waiting. I happened to mention this to my fiance then, and I'm glad he came to the rescue. A few seconds more, and I would have probably caught my face and hair on fire, as I peered in to see if there were any bubbles forming to indicate the pan was aboil. Whoops.

* Cooking with fatback and lard - my grandmother used to add bits of fatback in her green beans.

* Hominy

* Lima beans are known as "butter beans" in parts of the South.

* Collard greens, of course.

For more on the foods of the American South, see this Cuisine of the South entry on Wikipedia.