I Drank Absinthe and Buttermilk

Monday, October 27, 2008

I've just returned from the eleventh symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Mississippi. As you all know, I love these meetings. They are a wonderful opportunity to get caught up with friends and colleagues from the food world. This year's theme was The Liquid South, and although many of these liquids were alcoholic, not all were. As I said, I started one morning off with a big glass of old fashioned churned buttermilk. Ordinarily, I can't imagine doing this. I can hardly bear to watch somebody else drink buttermilk, but at these get togethers I always at least try everything that goes by. This buttermilk was actually ok- icy cold and flecked with butter, but I didn't go back for seconds.

There was discussion of the region's growing wine industry and discourses on the racial implications of who drank Coke, Manishevitz Wine and red KoolAde when and where. There was a delightful interview with Junior Johnson viz a viz the relationship between the beginnings of NASCAR and the running of moonshine. We drank moonshine too. My favorite was flavored with peaches, sort of like an eau de vie. It was dubbed "sissyshine". Appropriately, there was also talk of teetotalling and the churches that do and don't. And a really weird investigation about Sterno and the people who drink it (mixed with Nehi Orange Soda). Remarkably, we were also served a frappe made from the newly rehabilitated absinthe that is once more being produced in the United States. Lastly, I'll mention both a scuppernong scented beer (from Durham) and a very, very dry scuppernong wine, (from Cypress Hill in western N.C.). Both were really good.

Naturally, there was also lots of solid food as well. One lunch included a fabulous gumbo z'herbes by my friend Marcelle Bienvenu from St. Martinville, Louisiana. At the "Oysters in Excelsis" dinner one of the courses was a sensational salsify (the oyster plant) stew by Andrea Reusing of Lantern, my neighbor just down the street here in Chapel Hill. Ann Quatrano, from Bacchanalia in Atlanta knocked us out with a formal lunch, en plein air, that started with a collection of homemade pickles (eggs, okra, watermelon rind, shrimp), continued on to country ham consume with quail quennelles followed by praline sorghum pudding with an out of this world buttermilk creme anglaise.

I will have been home less than a week when I'm off to see the gardens of Japan in fall. Gene Hamer and I will be leaving on Halloween. One might wonder about the wisdom of going to such an expensive place when economics are so dicey. One might, but one bought the tickets a while back before everything went to hell. Assuming that things go to plan, I'll blog from there as well. More distracting is the fact that I'll be somewhere else on Election Day. Of course I took the oportunity to vote early and you might consider this as well given the huge turnout that is expected. I was there first thing on the first day and it was crowded then. I wanted to be sure and have my say just in case I stepped out in front of a bus or something. It will be very odd to be watching this from so far away.

posted by Bill Smith at 8:46 AM 0 comments

I'm Making Pies

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I am indeed making pies for the first time in memory, but the experience is not so wistful as the one in Patty Griffin's pretty song. As I mentioned last time, St. Paul's AME Church across the street served sweet potato pie at their fish fry last week, giving me the inspiration. For some reason this pie is viewed by some as the shabby cousin of pumpkin. If I ever felt that way, I now disagree. I'm using a family recipe for the filling, but I did a little research as well, and was surprised to discover that virtually every recipe I found called for lemon extract. I never think of sweet potato pie as lemony.

It's probably time to stop putting corn on everything on the menu, although I did make one more big batch of corn pickle. We're in the middle of the bluefish run. Can duck and cheese pork be far behind? Given the state of the world right now we're offering a few things that I describe as simple food for complicated times. Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, for example. Hopefully we won't reach the point where we're critiquing the qualities of the crusts as we wait in breadlines.

I love fall weather. The coolness seems to give me a jump start. It feels like things ought to shift into a higher gear, yet at the same time, my house feels more cozy. I'm preparing to do a bit of travelling. Next weekend I'll be returning to Oxford, Mississippi where this blog began a year ago. Technically, my year in the kitchen it at an end but of course I'm not about to shut up. The week after that I'm off to Japan to see the gardens in the fall and, as always, to eat anything that moves. I am particularly fond of eels, which are much eaten there. I lose my mind over the baby ones they serve in Spain and once, in Quebec, I bicycled 30 miles out of my way to visit a town famous for its eel fishery. It sometimes enters my mind to attempt to introduce them to North Carolina diners.We have lots of them here, but they really need to be kept alive until the last second, they are very unappetising to clean and they look too much like snakes for most people. They would be the maritime equivalent of kidneys- delicious but a waste of my time. Dante told of a special place in Purgatorio for those who were gluttonous due to eels. So, off to the land of unagi I'll go. (See the October 2008 issue of Wildlife in North Carolina. I love this magazine.)

posted by Bill Smith at 7:10 AM 0 comments

All Roads Lead to Soup

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A week of computer hell, has caused me to get a bit behind. I'll spare you the details. Fortunately, things in the kitchen can trundle along without me. Persimmons are arriving by the dumptruckful. Winter squash provide bowls of soup as colorful as house paint. Mary Boyer showed up with more raspberries- a complete surprise so late in the fall. Best of all, it looks as though we're going to have chestnuts again. And of course, it's sweet potato season.

The chestnuts, sweet potatoes and butternut squash all lend themselves to good and easy soups. We're using the squash presently They are great because all you really have to do is bake them. Select your seasoning, put them in the oven and go away. The chestnuts will be next. They take a little more work. They may get a blog entry all their own, because besides making fabulous soup, they reminded me of how just such a soup once helped me recover from a nasty night in Lisbon with a bunch of merchant marines from Guinea-Bissau. Later in the fall will come the sweet potato soup. It will get a nice long run because last year the recipe won a prize from the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

For now, sweet potatoes may show up in a pie. I'm not promising, but the other day, the church across the street had a fish fry and one of the dessert choices was sweet potato pie. I don't recall ever having made one myself, but my father has a great recipe, so I'll use his. Also, a few months ago Kathleen Purvis of the Charlotte Observer published a really interesting pie crust recipe using vodka as part of the liquid and lard as part of the fat. I love lard pastry so I've been looking for an excuse to try it. I'll be riding with Kathleen from Memphis to Oxford, Mississippi next week when we both attend the fall symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance. I'm looking forward to both the drive and the conference.

posted by Bill Smith at 4:53 AM 0 comments

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