When you are born in the South and you have a sprawling family that has lived here, in the same small town way down deep in South Alabama, all their lives and their parents before them and so on and so on, it catches a place in your soul that cannot be set free. No matter how far flung your travels, how wide open you perceive your world view to be, how much the young you imagined the grown up version of you living in a little garret apartment in Paris, surrounded by old books and art and good wine and overflowing ashtrays full of filterless Gauloises and deep thoughts…the South comes climbing back in, like kudzu tangling up those dreams.
Most of my memories of that little town are all about the food. Big fat blackberries grew on the backside of my Grandmother’s fence. If we happened to be visiting at just the right moment, my sister and I would sit on the ground next to those brambly bushes and gorge ourselves on the sweet fruit. We sat in the old mint green metal porch glider and shelled the peas that grew in the backyard and ate watermelon and spit the seeds as far as we could. Grandma always had a homemade cake waiting for us when we arrived, and no matter what time of day it was when we pulled in the driveway, we would sit right down at the table and cut big slices of that buttery yellow cake with boiled chocolate frosting. I can still taste it.
They always had a garden and out of that tiny kitchen would come big bowls of butter beans cooked with ham hock, collard greens, all manner of field peas, okra, fat juicy tomatoes, creamed corn, fried chicken (Grandma made it for us, but she never did like chicken and wouldn’t eat it), picnic hams, brim and catfish and always, always a cast iron skillet with cornbread that Grandma would crumble into her glass of buttermilk.
My Grandmother, Alma, still lives in that little house on Holly Drive, but she doesn’t really cook anymore. I have been talking with my Mama a lot lately about those meals – the ones I remember and the ones she remembers from her own childhood. They grew up in a different house – a mill house on Washington Street next to my Grandfather’s parents, Ola and Sog. They had chickens in the backyard and Mama and her brother and sisters and cousins would reach under them and steal those fresh eggs for breakfast. Granny had a huge black pot in the backyard over a fire and that’s where she would make enough Brunswick Stew for everyone. They would gather all at her house, grownups in the kitchen and all the children around the dining room table and share the stew and the cornbread and the pies that Aunt Lois brought over. There was not much money and there were a lot of mouths to feed. The grownups mostly worked at the cotton mill and they sold their eggs and the pecans from the three big old trees in the frontyard. When those trees got heavy and the limbs drooped, my Grandfather would climb up and shake and shake the branches until pecans came tumbling down and all the children scrambled to fill their burlap sacks. They would carry them down to the pecan man, Mama pocketing as many as she could because she’s always loved them, and sell them. And maybe Aunt Lois would make a pie.
And my Mama grew up, left town for college, became an English teacher and met and married an Army man. She never moved back (save for that one year she, my sister and I lived there when my Daddy was doing important and secret work in Turkey) and they took us along for a fantastic and wondrous adventure exploring the world. They were voracious in their appetites for travel and culture and, yes, all of the wonderful food and wine that came along with it. And then, like kudzu, the South worked its peculiar kind of magic on them and here they are, back in Alabama. And here I am, not in a little garret apartment in Paris, but in a little brick building by the railroad tracks in North Alabama. Dreaming of Southern food and good French wine.
SCARLETT’S CHICKEN & RICE (WITH SOME EXTREMELY MINOR TWEAKS) - by Vivian Howard
Serve with the 2016 Kuentz Bas, Alsace or something along those lines...come see me at the store and we'll talk it through
Simplicity is actually very hard to pull off. There are some recipes you just don’t mess with. Check Vivian’s blog for a sad tale of one such incident.
1 large chicken left whole (best case scenario, this would be an old tough bird/laying hen) cool water to cover
1 yellow onion (peeled and split)
1 bay leaf 3 sprigs thyme kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups white rice (mom swears by Uncle Bens, I like Carolina Gold) 3 Tbsp. butter
Put your bird, the split onion, thyme, and bay leaf in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Cover the bird, just barely with cool water. Add 2 Tbsp. salt and 2 tsp. black pepper to the pot. Cover and bring it all up to a simmer. Cook for about an hour or until the bird, in my mom’s words, is “falling to pieces.” If this is a typical young chicken this should not take any longer than an hour and a half. If it is a laying hen, it could take up to 5 hours. I know that is crazy, but a hen will provide a much better broth.
Once the bird is “falling to pieces” turn off the heat and let her rest in the broth for 30 minutes. Remove and reserve the bird. Discard the onion, bay leaf, and thyme. Tear the chicken meat into medium pieces and add it back to the pot. Bring the broth and the chicken up to a simmer. Add the rice. If you are a rice rinser, resist the urge here, as the starch helps make the broth homey and rich. Cook the rice for about 12 minutes, depending on the variety or brand the time could vary. The rice should be just cooked through and should absolutely hold its shape. Turn off the heat. Add your butter. Taste for seasoning and adjust with additional salt or pepper.
I like to add a little lemon juice for balance, but my mom would never approve of this behavior.