Louisiana Wiggle

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The end of January is generally the slowest time of the year in restaurants around here. Strange, since school is back in session and the basketball team is usually doing great. Perhaps it's a hibernation instinct. The town starts to stir again around St. Valentine's Day, and soon we'll have spring and the Farmer's Market again. We begin switching our menu from winter to Louisiana, with of course, a few exceptions. Even though we're slower, there are lots of things we still want to serve that fit this season. Corned ham, I've already talked about. We 'll have one every Saturday for a while. There is always a clamor for sweetbreads and generally in February it is answered. I find food that rich less appetising in August. Paul has come up with a delicious Creole preparation for mackerel. We're using both king and Spanish as both are around now and they seem to alternate availability. Mackerel is one of those fish that people sometimes complain tastes fishy. I never know how to respond to this observation. And somewhere in the world, about this time each year, mangoes are in season. Suddenly they are inexpensive and they are everywhere. I use them to make mango salad. This is one of the few instances where my travels in Mexico have directly influenced the menu. I think everyone expects to some day come into Crook's and to find burritos and enchiladas- that I will finally have gone native or something, but I go out of my way to avoid this. There are plenty real Mexican restaurants run by real Mexicans around here. There is no need for my feeble efforts in that direction. Besides, I continue to be fascinated as I sift back over the food I grew up with in eastern North Carolina. I always find new possibilities to explore Southern there. Having said all this don't be surprised if I make one more attempt at tamales. While in Mississippi this fall Dean McCord and I followed the Tamale Trail for a while on our way to Oxford. I first encountered this variety of Southern tamale years ago in Arkansas. They were black with pepper. I put them on the menu at Crook's for a while, but we couldn't give them away. I may give them another shot this spring.

The sudden surfeit of mangoes reminds us that the seasonal fruits this time of the year come from the tropics. This brings up the current hot topic of going local or not, and I suppose, what do you do if seasonal is not local. I take a middle ground on this. I shop locally whenever it's practical. It's fresher and it keeps my money in the community, but I'm not giving up coffee, or lemons or vanilla. If you are too strict about this, you will end up cutting yourself off from the deliciousness of the unknown. And frankly, it isn't realistic to expect that everything you buy to have been gathered in a misty glade by poor but honest farmers or kindly old crones. We should try to act responsibly, but we also need to remain modern. The discussion takes a radical tinge from time to time, with some people suggesting that we should even give up unnecessary travel in order to avoid polluting. This seems dangerously isolationist to me. The last thing the world needs right now is for people to keep to their own tribe.

My grandmother once mentioned in passing, that she and some of her friends made some Baptists at Cape Hatteras mad by dancing the Louisiana Wiggle on a Sunday. I tucked that away with all the other stories. It's funny but I have no details. There were rumors about rum runners coming ashore on the Outer Banks during Prohibition and the like. It all adds to the legend. I always felt that I had a particular affinity for my grandmother and her friends. They came of age during the Roaring Twenties and I hit my stride in 1967. I think there is a similar world view. In any case, when I had to come up with a name for the triffle that I put on the menu one Mardi Gras, this story came to mind. It does wiggle a bit in its parfait glass.

Another thing I inherited from my grandmother was the feeling that cooking and gardening go hand in hand. My understanding of the plant world adds immeasurably to my understanding of cooking. I always have a tiny little kitchen garden, even though in truth I never have time to cook at home very much and a few years ago I added a small greenhouse onto the back of my house. Some herbs, a tomato plant or two and many varieties of hot chilis make up the bulk of my crop. (The peppers are a hobby. One plant produces enough for a season. I plant them all among my flowers. Many are gifts from friend's gardens. My oldest variety is Indochinese, given to me twenty-some years ago by a friend from Vietnam.) Last week I had the rare pleasure of pouring over seed catalogues while there was a winter storm outside my window. I've always loved doing this. It makes my house seem particularly cozy.

posted by Bill Smith at 4:42 AM


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