Once upon a time I fancied myself a gourmet cook. I put paper booties on my crown roasts and added white truffle oil to my grits. I stuffed every vegetable I could find, thinking it couldn’t possibly taste good on its own.
Mine was a simple case of “cooking to impress” to cover my inherent inadequacies in the kitchen. The sad truth is, my southern mother never taught me to cook because I made such a mess in the kitchen. Still do.
Consequently, I disguised my disability regarding the basics of country cooking, and became a self proclaimed food snob.
I took a course in French cuisine and served highbrow fare like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin. Looking back, those things were never well received at my Super Bowl parties even when I did them right –
I considered butter beans and cornbread beneath me. I would practice saying “Care for a canapé?” and served dinner (never supper) with little finger bowls, until one day one of my cowboy boot-wearing guests blurted out “What the heck are these for?”
I lifted one eye brow, a learned talent used mostly by pretentious people. As I attempted to explain the function of a finger bowl, I burst out laughing. It dawned on me how ridiculous I looked wearing my black cocktail dress while serving barbequed shrimp on my perfectly appointed table with its starched white linens and polished silver.
Mr. Finger Bowl Man got up, went to the kitchen and brought back a roll of paper towels and a stack of old newspapers.
We cleared off the crystal and linens, kicked off our shoes, and ate the rest of the meal with our fingers. Eating was fun again. I felt like I was finally home after wandering in the wilderness of haute cuisine with names I couldn’t pronounce, much less prepare.
Clearly, I had been led down the garden path of hoity toity food – nice to look at, but scoring few points in my native South. I’m learning to cook all over again and have developed an obsession with Southern culture and the simple, humble food I grew up with.
Hold the designer oils and food wardrobe and bring on the grits and greens. I’ve rediscovered the joys of sweet corn straight from the field and a pot of sweet potatoes cooked for hours with real butter and sugar – the nectar of the Gods. And give me a plate of fried green tomatoes – maybe a little ranch dressing on the side. (My homegrown vine has yet to produce a red tomato because I am compelled to fry ‘em up green.)
Replicating the food my grandmother cooked is my new passion. I’m collecting recipes for traditional Southern fare like pimiento cheese and deviled eggs. I’m dreaming of a pot of black eyed peas-bathed in pot likker and cooked until almost unrecognizable, served up with a scoop of dirty rice.
And forget the yuppified chess pie. I have my grandmother’s recipe and it will become my standard “company” dessert. Incidentally, my research turned up the answer to an ongoing puzzle. Chess pie got its name from Southern slang derived from its basic egg and sugar ingredients. Originally known as “Just Pie,” it morphed to “Jess Pie” and eventually “Chess pie.” Fascinating stuff and it makes total sense.
Lordy, it’s good to be home at last, gratefully delivered from a phony world to which I never really belonged. Now, if someone will kindly teach me how to make a good cream gravy….