Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Home Cooking [CCR]

Once you leave home one of the biggest things you will miss is “home cooking.” It is my contention that we North Alabamians have one of the best cuisines in the country. My biggest problem is helping everyone else understand. Tonight I had my regular fried shrimp at Britt’s on Clearwater Beach, but I’ll take Tennessee River catfish any day over Florida Gulf shrimp. Do you think catfish was on the menu? Nope. I didn’t even have a choice of hushpuppies.

In the South we take our food as serious as our hospitality. The two traits grew together as a necessity to the hard work required for many to survive. Rarely do you go to a traditional North Alabama home without being offered something to eat. If you had grown up around my house your offerings would not likely include “junk food” either. Yes we may have had some available, but if you had eaten your regular meal you rarely had a hunger for junk food.

Growing up we ate fresh vegetables nearly every evening. At the time I think Mom and Dad thought it was a necessity to take advantage of our garden due to finances, but today what we had would be considered a luxury. I spent many summer afternoons hulling peas, shucking corn, picking butterbeans, or picking squash. We were guaranteed fresh vegetables and cornbread with true Southern sweet tea. But the advantage wasn’t limited to the summer thanks to our freezer. Mom did do some canning, but I think she was relieved to have the freezer to avoid all the work of canning. And little did she realize that freezer was locking in freshness. She did some canning by taking advantage of our grape vines, blackberries, and plums to make homemade jams and jellies.

Now I don’t mean to say other people have a bad choice, they just don’t have the best selection or their methods may need tuning. Have you ever noticed how they bread the okra with batter when you eat in some of the restaurants? It just doesn’t match up to the full flavor of Mom’s okra with just a light coating of cornmeal where you actually taste the okra. Some restaurants even abuse their squash in the same manner. In retrospect I should be thankful because I have found some places where you can’t get okra. It can be as scarce as sweet tea.

Recently I tried to talk my friends at work into a round of cooking fried green tomatoes. I wish I could share the look on their faces. I might as well have offered them road kill. Nonetheless you can’t find green tomatoes anywhere unless you grow your own where I currently live. And then I received a long discussion on the problem with grits. I didn’t even realize there was a problem with grits except in being able to locate them here.

Back in the late eighties I designed and programmed some production lines for Mobil in New Jersey. I was fortunate to stay at a very beautiful hotel in Panther Valley on the western side of New Jersey. On my first morning I wandered down to the restaurant worried about what a misplaced Alabama boy might find to eat. As luck would have it I found gold. On the menu was a “Southern” selection that included grits. I delightfully placed my order for eggs, bacon, and grits and in return I received a worried look. After some time had passed I inquired on the status of my breakfast. It seems they sent someone to the store to buy grits. On my many subsequent visits I believe they noticed me booking the room and purchased the grits in advance, because they always had my breakfast waiting. It would seem I did succeed in one effort to spread the word.

Unfortunately I still travel quite a bit and over the past twenty years I just haven’t found anyone that can match Mom’s cornbread, Grandmother Smith’s chocolate pie, or Grandmother Daily’s fresh fried chicken. Now you understand why we are very lucky and hopefully our young folks are learning the tradition from their families so we don’t lose the advantage of our special cuisine.