The scratching at the door was most persistent at night, when the sun lowered itself behind the mountains. We would sit around the table, playing cards, while my mother cooked at the stove and we would hear it; it made you jump, to hear those nails against the wood of our door and caused a shiver to run up your arms. The scratching and clawing, the low growl.
My mother heard it, just as we did, but she didn’t take her hand off the wooden spoon and her voice was calm when she told me that it was just the neighbor’s cat. We all knew the truth, that the wolves come at night and find their way to our door.
“Now, of all times of our history, we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to survive… to live gracefully if we live at all.” MFK Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
I spent the weekend in New York visiting my lovely friend Kate (20 years of friendship next month! Which is crazy pants). We were out all day on Saturday in the blistering heat, the intention of our morning to visit Idlewild, a travel bookstore in the Village. How to Cook a Wolf all but leapt into my hands. Earlier that morning, I’d seen MFK Fisher’s name in an ad on the subway. I noticed the convergence and bought the book (I like convergence- it’s the closest thing to magic). The book is ostensibly about rationing during the war but it’s really about surviving with grace. After being submerged, first in unrelenting, grim news and then in New York’s pounding heat, they are words I need.
In the first few pages, MFKF rages against food magazines and radio and movies and the decrying pressure for home cooks to prepare three full, balanced meals every day. Some people need more, some less, she argues. Fight against what you’re told- go for balance in the day, not at every meal.
Don’t wear yourself to nothing trying to do the right thing in all places, in all ways, everywhere, all the time- you will probably fail on all counts. If, for breakfast, you have blueberries, sinking, buckling, inside a cake, a small piece, and coffee, you’re doing fine. It’s fruit, it counts toward the balance of your day. Cut yourself a piece and some slack, direct your grace elsewhere.
Don’t forget your ability to build. Hopefully you hear those words when you feel powerless and swept up by the world’s troubles. You can always build- your own family, your friendships, a house, inside a kitchen, at work, in your heart. There is no end to the things you can build. Start with this cake- a dessert that’s lasted decades. Flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, butter, milk, summery blueberries.
Build in the kitchen first and work your way outward if that’s all you can do today. Build your little people into the people you need in the world. Build your friendships and make them stronger. Build up the grace in your heart so that you know what to do when it’s called upon.
FOR THE CAKE:
1/4 Cup butter, softened
3/4 Cup sugar
2 Cups all-purpose flour
2 Teaspoons baking powder
1/4 Teaspoon salt
1/2 Cup milk
2 Cups fresh blueberries
FOR THE TOPPING:
2/3 Cup sugar
1/2 Cup all-purpose flour
1/2 Teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 Cup cold butter, cubed
In a small bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Beat in egg. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt; add half to butter mixture and then the milk, then the rest of the flour, beating well after each addition. Fold in blueberries. Pour into greased 9-in. square baking pan.
Make topping: in a small bowl, combine sugar, flour and cinnamon; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over blueberry mixture.
Bake at 375° for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
There is an interesting article on Slate about the disparity between foodie culture and the prevalence of AllRecipes in terms of how the majority of home cooks in America actually cook. It’s worth a look. Although the findings might not surprise you too much- if you’re like me and do a lot of searching for recipes, AllRecipes comes up quite often at the top of the results. When we searched for cornbread recipes, an Allrecipes pick was the second on the list (with a 4.8 rating and 4,300 reviews- take that, Epicurious).
It’s easy to see the place cornbread has in American food culture- is there any vegetable more inherently American than corn? It brings to mind (just as a start) the swooping farm country of the Midwest, the heritage of Native Americans, stuffing at Thanksgiving (or dressing, if you will) and a staple in the South where it’s right at home on a plate of barbecue. Mark Bittman has lauded it as a must-have when it comes to vegetarian diets. The sweetness of it, its unique gritty texture and its versatility makes it a pleasure to eat. Also, it’s incredibly different depending on where you get it- restaurants in the North, for example, tend to treat it like cake in its sweetness and richness and sheer height. Purists eschew adding sweetness and prefer to let the corn flavor shine. This is a good recipe because it lands right in the middle and it’s incredibly easy to adapt the recipe to your taste.
A few cornbread musts (that’ll make you feel like you just stepped out of Little House on the Prairie) A cast-iron skillet, hot and ready for a swirl of melted butter or shortening. A hot oven. Baking soda to make the batter bubbly and then it goes into the hot pan, on the stove for a minute and then into the hot oven for about 20 minutes until the edges are crunchy and pull away from the sides.
Look at these little beauties- aren’t they pretty? Like two suns in the sky. (Is that folksy enough? I’m trying…) The great thing about cornbread is that once you have a base, or a classic cornbread recipe ahem, you can riff on it a lot and make it your own. Add some fresh corn niblets (extra points for the fun word), a few chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (I added two and the bread has a serious kick plus a pretty red tint to it), jalapeno, chive and cheddar.
1 Cup of yellow cornmeal
1/2 Cup of all-purpose flour
1 Teaspoon of salt
1 Tablespoon of baking powder
1 Cup of buttermilk
1/2 Cup of milk
1 Whole egg
1/2 Teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 Cup of shortening or melted butter
2 Tablespoons of shortening or melted butter
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Combine cornmeal, our, salt, and baking powder in a bowl.
- Measure the buttermilk and milk in a measuring cup, add the egg and stir to combine. Add baking soda and stir.
- Pour the milk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until combined.
- In a small bowl, melt 1/4 shortening. Slowly add melted shortening to the batter, stirring until just combined. In an iron skillet, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons shortening over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot skillet. Spread to even out the surface. (Batter should sizzle.)
- Cook on stovetop for 1 minute, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Edges should be crispy!
“Okey dokey, artichoke-y.”
“After a while, crocodile.”
It’s funny the foods that permeate your childhood and discovering the source as an adult. For me, the ah-ha moment was a trip to Sicily a few years ago, in April, with my family. You cannot move about Sicily in the spring without being visually assaulted by artichokes, artichokes everywhere.
I’ve talked a little bit about this trip before and its impact on me, in terms of noticing how much of Italy’s culture actually permeated my life in big and not-so-big ways. That sounds a little simplistic but it was actually, really shocking to my system. This is why my mother talks the way she does. This is why we eat this. It’s one thing to know, intellectually, that Italians talk with their hands; it’s another to be confronted with it so specifically and see actual gestures that you thought only belonged to you or your family.
Stuffed artichokes were a staple at some holidays and the occasional weeknight treat, a favorite of my sister Jenn’s, and something I have never once attempted to make myself, until this week. Stuffed artichokes are one of those things that felt like they belonged firmly with my mom and my aunts- I always found artichokes kind of fussy and hard to eat for such little reward. But you can’t deny how unique and beautiful they are and that they’re actually fun to eat and share around a big table. Now when I see them, they remind me of streetcarts in Sicily, which isn’t such a bad thing either.
Sicilian Stuffed Artichokes
Makes 4 Servings | Print Recipe
4 Medium-sized artichokes
1 Cup plain bread crumbs
1/2 Cup grated pecorino romano cheese
1/2 Cup parmiggiano reggiano cheese, shavings
1/2 Cup toasted chopped almonds
3 Cloves finely chopped garlic
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Note: I found a great post today about cleaning and prepping artichokes- did you know artichokes are among the most heavily sprayed vegetables? I didn’t. Definitely worth the quick read (and the recipe looks amazing too).
- Clean the artichokes by pulling the harder, outer leaves off. You can also cut the stem and the top part of the leaves (which also gives it a really pretty look, as you can tell from Nicole’s pictures.)
- Put the artichokes in a bowl full of water and lemon juice to soak. Give them a quick rinse.
- Place asauté pan over medium-low heat and warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add bread crumbs and stir, sautéing until the crumbs are likely golden. Remove and let cool in a bowl.
- To the bread crumbs, add finely chopped parsley, garlic, salt and pepper, grated cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Stir until combined.
- Take the artichokes and pull the leaves back a bit, opening them as wide as you can and insert the bread crumb mixture and parm shavings. Drizzle artichokes with olive oil.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- In an oven-safe saucepan, add 1 and 1/2 inches of water and place artichokes, standing up. Cover pan and place on stove over medium heat, cook for 20-25 minutes.
- Remove cover and place in the oven for 10-15 more minutes.
Grammie Esther lived across the street from us, which Daddy hated but used to his advantage. When he was hip deep in a story for the paper, for example, he’d send us off to school and holler at our backs, “Make sure you go to Grammie’s right from the bus!”
Every time we did that, she’d stand on the front steps and smile at us like it was the first time it had ever happened. Grammie Esther had a lot to say about Daddy and his method of raising his daughters and when it was just the three of us, she leaned into her argument hard. She fussed over our hair and recombed it, braided it into plaits. She tucked our blouses firmly into our skirts, even though school was over and the point moot. She put on records and shooed us away from the television set, ushered us into the kitchen and stuffed us to the gills. She’d set down a plate of sweet potato biscuits and interrogate us about our day as we ate. Her kitchen was spotless, her utensils and pots and bowls shining and practically new. There was a whole spread of food when we walked through the door but not a single dirty spoon or pan to be found. Biscuits, pound cakes, platters of crisp fried chicken, bowls and bowls of greens, soups and stews, delicate little cookies that crumbled in your hand before your mouth could reach them, chocolate cakes with white icing, you name it and she would produce it for you. And when I say “produced” I mean literally- she would emerge from the kitchen with the plate and the item of your request piled high, brushing off your compliments with a swish of her perfectly coiffed hair.
I would learn later that she didn’t make a lick of it, not a single thing. Grammie Esther raised three sons and saw all of them and her own husband through two great wars, worked the line at the phone company into her sixties, was the president of the local rotary for a notorious four month tenure of terror but her greatest accomplishment, by far, was that she perpetuated a lie of her good, from scratch Southern home-cooking for years and years. Her house smelled glorious, even on holidays, and there was plenty for everyone and a few nosy neighbors too but Grammie Esther had her hands in absolutely none of the making. To this day, and she’s been dead for many of them, nobody can suss out how she managed it, where it all came from (did she have a secret maid stashed in the pantry?) (a whole and operating bakery in the basement?) and how she avoided the knowing eyebrow raise of the other women in the neighborhood who could smell a store-bought pound cake from a mile away. What’s most amazing to me, even now, is how she managed to take food from away and make it feel like home.
It would be impossible to study heritage and heirloom recipes without focusing on the South. Start your search from anywhere and you will inevitably end up in the South. So we’re embracing it. Southern food is delicious and homey and folksy, some of it absurd, some of it so old-fashioned that it feels other-worldly.
Biscuits are a good place to start because, you know, biscuits. Is there any able-bodied bread-eater alive who sees a plate of biscuits and says, “Ugh, biscuits?” No. Impossible. We were intrigued by these sweet potato biscuits because of their bright, friendly color and that the liquid comes from a mixture of milk and mashed sweet potato (delicious and great for you and available all year round). And we really wanted to eat them.
The use of sweet potatoes date back to the colonies- we can use the origins of the sweet potato pie, a soul food staple, among African American slaves to infer the use of sweet potatoes in other baked goods. And then apparently Thomas Jefferson made them (I’m sure he made them) and served them at the First Continental Congress in 1774, such a good guest, the Sophie Fisher of the Continental Congress. (If you’re jonesing for one of those, you can still order them here.)
Sweet Potato Biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup baked, mashed sweet potato (about 1 medium potato)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), frozen
Heavy cream, for brushing the tops
1. Heat the oven to 400°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and set aside. In a separate large bowl, mix together milk and mashed sweet potato until evenly combined.
2. Grate frozen butter using a box grater and toss with dry ingredients until butter is coated. Add milk mixture and mix until dough forms a shaggy mass. Do not overmix.
3. Cover counter with 1/4 cup of flour and dust your hands (dough is very wet). Turn mixture out onto the floured surface and knead until it just comes together, about 30 seconds (the dough will not be smooth). Don’t overwork the dough, it’s very soft.
4. Pat into a circle and use a floured rolling pin (or your hands) to roll dough to a thickness of about 3/4 inch. You can use a 3-inch cutter but we found smaller biscuits handled easier. You should get about 8 large biscuits, 12 smaller.
5. Place biscuits on a baking sheet, brush tops with heavy cream, and bake about 12 to 15 minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown.
Serve with honey butter or makes an excellent egg sandwich. Slice some leftover Easter ham and pile high. Would also be amazing with fried chicken. Or as a side on Thanksgiving. Oooh, a sage and turkey sandwich. It’s a very tender biscuit though so you will have to eat your sandwiches with messy hands.
Grady watched me haul the old trailer, really not much more than a heavily dented silver box, into the corner of our yard, unhitch it from the truck and carefully drive away. I saw him shaking his head on the porch and decided to ignore him as long as I could.
“What is this?” he asked me later. We sat in the parlor, surrounded by our books and the property was quiet, the dogs asleep with the cat. I kept my head in my book. “Is this another thing? About Betty?”
I glanced out the window. Even though it was dark and I couldn’t see a a thing, it made me feel better knowing the silver box was out there. How could I explain that to Grady when I couldn’t even explain it to myself? “You barely knew her,” he insisted. “You didn’t even go to the funeral.”
He was right about half those things. When Mama called to tell me, I barely had time to finish the conversation, let alone board a flight to Kent. I press the corner of the book into my round belly as if it can squash the shame. “She had a fallout shelter. I tell you that?”
“No. She did?”
“Yeah.” I shifted in my seat and the dogs lifted their heads. “She’d let us play down there when we went over for dinner. I couldn’t get over all the stuff down there, all the cans and rations. She had enough for an army.” My grandmother was a nearly silent woman and lived alone. She had spindly arms and a hunched back, even as a younger woman. As a child, I marveled at the giant bags of potatoes at the foot of the ladder, in a neat pile; how had she hauled them down there? When she brought bowls of steaming soup to the table, her hands shook.
I asked Mama once why she had the shelter and Mama shrugged in that agitated way that tells you this was the short answer for a long conversation, “It makes her feel better, Annette.” And then she shook her head and tapped her cigarette out the window. “Because she’s a crazy person.”
“Are we really,” Grady said with a shake of his own head, “Going to be those people with an old trailer in our yard?”
“We are,” I said and my voice was firmer than either of us expected. I gripped the edge of the book and imagined how Grandma Betty felt when things shakier than usual and she climbed down the steel stairs, surrounded by everything she needed. I imagined filling the trailer myself, lining the shelves with cans, storing bags of potatoes in the corners. I took a deep breath.
Welcome to our first heritage recipe!
Nicole and I were discussing what we’d like to do with this space and agreed that the idea of modernizing classic recipes appealed to us both. We’re going to be searching for recipes that are passed down through generations or have relevance in a particular time/place, trying them out and tweaking them to our particular tastes. Some will be from our own families, some from chefs but mostly from home-cooks around the country. If you have a family recipe you’d like us to try, we hope you’ll share it with us!
We chose this Simple Potato Soup because it’s winter, everything is white and classic comfort food felt like a great place to start. Also as a result of researching this recipe, I now am the leading expert on evaporated milk so feel free to ask me anything. (Did you know it was first called Sterilized Cream? Good job guys- perfect name. Don’t change a thing.)
Simple Potato Soup with Honey & Sea Salt
Origins: Popular among grandmothers and great-grandmothers, recipe likely originates from the can of evaporated milk in the 20s and 30s. Evaporated milk debuted in America in 1899 as a safe, shelf-stable alternative to unregulated milk. Original recipes boast little more than potatoes, onion, flour, butter and evaporated milk- we found it a little bland and added a little sweetness, boosted the salt. You can do a lot of things to potato soup but there’s something even more comforting about stripping it down and keeping it simple. Substitutions for evaporated milk can be found below.
Makes: 4 Servings | Print Recipe
2 Pounds of russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks about 1 1/2”
1/2 cup chopped onion
3 Tablespoons of all purpose flour
Salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste
1/2 Stick of salted butter
Water to cover
1 (12 oz) Can of evaporated milk*
2 Tablespoons of honey
Grilled bread for serving
- Toss the potatoes with the onion, our, salt and pepper and set aside to rest about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the potato mixture to the pot and stir to coat. Add enough water to cover the potatoes and bring to a boil.
- Once boiling, stir in the milk, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered about 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally.
- Taste, adjust salt and pepper, and continue simmering uncovered until soup reaches desired consistency and thickness. Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until some chunks still remain. Stir in honey to taste and serve with grilled bread.
*Substitutions for evaporated milk: Boil 2 and 1/4 milk down to 1 cup (Grandma: Who has time to do that? Just buy the can!) You can also do the same to almond milk, 2 cups down to 1 cup (Grandma: Almond milk? What in tarnation is that? Hippie nonsense?) Or split between milk and half & half (Grandma just shakes her head.)