My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I bought this as a Christmas gift for my husband and son. My husband loves to cook his mother's pancit, and I knew he'd enjoy sharing this book with our son. He was delighted by it.
View all my reviews
Growing up Southern Baptist in a small town in Oklahoma, our liturgical life was greatly lacking. Which is one reason that in adolescence I was drawn to Episcopal worship for a richer, more spiritual experience.
My high school French teacher and Quiz Bowl coach Kay Boman was an Episcopalian who was beginning the process of becoming a Deacon, so on our long trips on the road we often discussed religion, and she invited me to come experience worship at All Saints.
One year my dearly beloved Sunday school teacher at First Baptist, Debi Durham, was invited by a friend of hers to attend All Saints's Maundy Thursday Seder and so she and I went together.
And that was an eye-opening experience into other ways to worship and to learn. I had never before encountered food that was symbolic or eating as a worship experience.
And it was my first experience of footwashing and why that really should be one of the sacraments of the church.
A Christian Seder is an adaptation of a Jewish Passover meal through the lens of the stories of the Last Supper and the institution of communion. The Episcopal worship at All Saints included the stripping of the altar after the meal with a return to the Parish Hall for the final toast. A strange mix of the celebratory Jewish feast with more somber Christian elements. Plus the Episcopal dinner included some distinctly English elements--mint sauce with the roast lamb.
While in grad school and living in Shawnee at the turn of the millennium, I would occasionally prepare a Seder Supper of my own for friends. One year we did it on a Wednesday when an Oklahoma City bombing anniversary fell during Holy Week. It was during these years that I learned to roast lamb, usually with parsley. And I bought a cookbook of recipes for the various Jewish festivals and learned to make haroset--an apple nut mixture that is part of the symbolic foods for the dinner.
While I was serving at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas I developed a Seder for use with my youth group. That church had a weekly Wednesday night dinner and church, so we did the Maundy Thursday elements on Wednesday. That church also had a big, choral Good Friday Tenebrae service, which I miss.
While living in Oklahoma City a few times I attended the Stonewall Seder that First Unitarian Church hosted every year during Pride month. It was a meal of symbolic foods based upon the narrative of the Stonewall riots.
Yesterday Sebastian helped me make our haroset and seemed, at least at first, highly engaged in this different meal. And we used it, as intended, for faith formation--telling him the ancient stories of our faith. Especially important after we asked him, "What is Easter about?" And he answered "A bunny and Easter eggs."
The previous post in this series was about making chili.
I enjoy making chili. I enjoy making it at home or for friends or for church meetings. I just enjoy it. Sorry I didn't realize that photo was out of focus till I went to upload it!
And chili truly is one of those dishes that reveal foodways, as it becomes a mix of influences.
As my Mom writes, "Your dad loved to make his chili." Dad's was notoriously spicy. One time he fixed chili for the men's group in his young adult Sunday school class. He used six cans of Rotel and half a bottle of Tabasco. He had it cooking all afternoon and was very excited about it. When the men showed up, they couldn't eat it and ordered pizza.
But Dad had this thing for hot peppers. I remember watching him and my Mom's Uncle Frank try to out-man each other by eating hot peppers and acting like they weren't hot all the while turning beet red and sweating. Michael says his Mom ate habaneros like candy, so I know that Ninfa and Dad would have enjoyed each other.
My chili is not so hot. And has gotten a little more tame since living up here in the north country where Midwesterners seem adverse to spice. Every year at our church people bring garden produce and lay it out during coffee hour and anyone can take it for a donation that then goes into our hunger ministries. You can almost guarantee that any hot peppers you leave on the table will be there till they have to be thrown away.
Growing up our chili was always ground beef based and did not include beans. Since I did not like beans then, that was fine with me.
One of our favourite places to eat was Spaghetti Red's on Main Street in Joplin, Missouri where they served spaghetti topped with a delicious, unique chili. That you then topped with fresh sliced white onions and dill pickle slices. Gosh, I miss that meal.
One of my college roommates had lived in the Southeast where they put chili on rice. I thought that odd when I first encountered it, but rice with chili has become one of the many ways I'll make or serve it, if I'm so inclined.
In grad school at OU one of our secretaries gave me a recipe for a Cowboy Chili she made using a bunch of canned beans and veggies. I don't make that particular recipe very often these days (though I once made it a lot), but elements of it have entered into my standard chili making. This is when I finally started using beans.
The brand Bear Creek has the best chili mix, if you want to make some tasty chili quickly. Their recipe does not call for adding ground beef, but I do anyway.
Of course living in Texas helped to perfect my seasonings and use of veggies. That's where I learned to put fresh slices of avocado on top of chili. When I served it that way once to some friends here in Omaha, one said, "I never saw that before, but makes sense."
I remember one time listening to an NPR show discussing influences of Mexican cuisine on American cooking and they discussed chili as one of the best examples. I had never until that moment even realized the foodways of chili--that it is, of course, chili con carne, a Mexican dish widely and deeply adopted as a staple of American traditional cooking.
Here in the Midwest there is a tradition of eating cinnamon rolls with chili. That surprised us when we first encountered it.
Since living in Omaha I have perfected my veggie chili and have friends who request it. My best chili is a mix of both my veggie chili and beef, either ground beef or a better cut if I'm being fancy.
This is one of those dishes for which there is no recipe. But here's my normal plan, which I vary depending on the mood, what I have, and the food preferences of those I'm fixing it for.
Saute chopped garlic, onions, and jalapeno peppers in some canola oil. Begin adding your spices--chili powder, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne. You have to keep adding spices at various other stages in the dish. You have to use your sense of smell to know when you've got it right.
Add some bell peppers of more than one colour (bright vibrant colour is important in the dish). Sometimes add mushrooms, particularly if this is a veggie chili, but even good in beef chili. Oh, and I like my veggies chunky. I prefer a chunky to a soupy chili. Let those veggies soften and then add your beef to brown. You want the beef to cook off the juices and get a little brown and crispy, so let it cook slowly with attention and occasional stirring. When the beef is in the pot is another time you'll need to add some spices.
Then I add the tomatoes. Either fresh chopped tomatoes or cans of diced tomatoes. I don't use cans already seasoned, as I prefer to do the seasoning myself. Use the liquid. If you use fresh then you'll need to add some liquid at this point. A little beer can add some nice flavor as well.
Then I add the cans of beans, usually at least two cans, one of red beans and one of black beans. Though you really can vary this. If it is veggie based then probably 3 or 4 cans of beans. Most of these you'll want to drain, unless they are labeled chili beans.
Somewhere along in here you add some more spice if it doesn't smell right. And you can add some hot sauce if you aren't making it for Midwesterners.
Then the last ingredient is the tomato paste, using however much you want to thicken it up. All of this doesn't have to stew for long but the longer it does at a lower temp the better.
Then serve with a a variety of toppings for your family and friends to select from--cheeses, sour cream, fresh onions, hot sauce, avocado.
Making, serving, and eating chili is a true joy.
The last post in this series was about peanut butter and its role in my political history.
In the last post in this series, I wrote about beans and dumplings and how this originates as poor people's food that my family continued to eat even as they rose into the middle class.
I e-mailed my mother asking her about favourite foods and family traditions and she echoed this theme when she wrote of her mother, "I’ll gross you out--a favorite of mom’s was pickled pig's feet. Once again poor people’s food." I remember Mammoo eating her pickled pig's feet. And it grossed me out as a kid.
Mammoo grew up in Arkansas, raised by her grandfather. Her parents were divorced. Her mother died in an institution around the age of thirty, and her father had run off and later died on the street in California. Mammoo had been the cook for her grandfather and brother from childhood.
Besides the pinto beans with dumplings and cornbread, the other simple food I fondly remember from growing up was fried chicken gizzards. Not gizzards served as an appetizer or side dish like you might get in a restaurant but gizzards as the main dish.
These gizzards pictured here are ones I had last week when our family went to eat at Quick Bites Soul Food in Bellevue, Nebraska.
When Mom fried gizzards for supper she usually fixed potato salad as the side. Mom's potato salad was mustard based and bright yellow. I love that potato salad and make it all the time in the summer.
In ours the potatoes are smooth like mashed potatoes rather than chunky like in some. And you add some mayonnaise, pickle juice, chopped pickles and scallions, and a dash of paprika.
Dad's favourite dinner was steak and potatoes. What were the many ways we ate potatoes growing up? I could sound a little like Bubba listing them: mashed, scalloped, fried, boiled, hashbrowns, etc.
My aunt Rhonda, whom I affectionately called K-K when I was kid (her middle name was Katherine), once made me some potato soup. Forever after it was K-K soup. Mom always complained that she had made the same soup for years but K-K made it once and forever after it was named for her. BTW, I've got a great potato soup recipe I learned from a church member in Dallas when I served there.
In 2016 Mom, Kelli, and I traveled in the west of Ireland, where the remnants of the potato famine are still visible. On our drive around the Dingle Peninsula we saw once cultivated fields that have lain unused since the famine, as the population of the area has never recovered.
This one time in college, Laura Picazo and I got to talking about culture and food and she asked me, "What's a traditional Oklahoma meal?"
Laura's ancestors were Basques and French who had emigrated to Mexico and eventually to Texas. Laura taught me how to season my taco meat.
"Beans and cornbread," I said. Soon we had scheduled an evening for me to come to her apartment and prepare what I considered the most traditional of meals from my cultural background, a meal my mother made all the time.
It is also a meal that reveals our socio-economic roots. My parents both worked hard to rise within the middle class and both came from parents who were in that blessed American generation where millions rose from poverty or really hard rural life to enter the middle class. Take my grandpa Nixon, Pappoo. In the years of the Great Depression his family would go days eating beans for every meal. Despite that, he still loved them with affection all of his life. Pappoo fought in Africa and Italy in the Second World War, was permanently disabled during the landing on Anzio Beach, used his GI Bill to get vocational training, and went to work for the Post Office, eventually rising to become a Post Master. When he retired he had a lake home, a boat, and you should have seen how excited he was when he bought a Cadillac. The Great American Story.
My mother let her dried pinto beans simmer for hours with a ham hock, making the house smell good. Then she did something that I've not encountered elsewhere (until I googled today looking for a picture to use and learned others do do it), she made these flour drop dumplings that went into the beans at the end of the cooking. That day I cooked for Laura was the first time I attempted this and my dumplings didn't turn out quite right. (Note: this picture is a random one from the internet and those dumplings only closely resemble my mother's).
This too reveals the poor roots of this dish--simple ways to gain a few more calories with basic ingredients and a way to vary a dish people ate repeatedly.
As a child I disliked beans, but I loved to eat those dumplings and the ham hock. The dumplings had a magical rich flavor soaked up from the beans.
I e-mailed Mom some foodways questions, and she wrote about this dish: "The dish I remember the most and definitely a favor was brown beans with drop egg dumplings cooked in the beans. Cornbread was baked in a thin cookie sheet, so it was crisp. I think comfort food was probably a holdover from her childhood when she started cooking for her dad, grandpa, and Frank at age seven."
Her sister commented added:
Mammoo called them "depression noodles." She mixed only one egg with flour to get a sticky mess. She dropped them by spoonfuls in the boiling bean broth. Pappoo didn't like them, but since Mammoo did, he didn't mind. Mammoo said when she was a girl growing up, she had beans that way at a friend's house. She loved it that way ever since. She also made them just for herself in chicken broth. When I was sick, that was what I wanted her to make me. Boy, I miss her. Thanks for taking me home again!
When I fixed them for Laura, I also prepared cornbread and then served it all with a dill pickle spear and a whole green onion. Laura said, "What are the pickle and the green onion for?" And I answered, "I don't know, that's always what Mom served with the beans."
And, really, when you are cooking an old family dish, that's what matters.
The previous post in this series told about the changing role of rice in my food history.
In The Cooking Gene Michael W. Twitty includes an entire chapter on the history of rice and it's connection with the Atlantic slave trade. In the mid 1700's American plantations owners intentionally imported slaves from the rice growing regions of West Africa, which accounted for about 40% of the entire trade to the United States. Rice had a long history in Africa, as he writes:
Rice has been part of West African life in Upper Guinea and the Western Sudan for nearly two thousand years by the time the Europeans arrived, spreading out from heartlands along the Senegal, Gambia, and Niger Rivers. Rice cultivation spread out from the ancient Sudanic kingdoms as my ancestors reinvented themselves, redrew linguistic and clan lines, and migrated from the empire of Old Mali and went south into the lands of the Bullom and others, coming as Mane conquerors displacing the indigenous people and planting up the rain forests and coastal swamps in African red rice, namely Oryza glaberrima. This three-thousand-year-old rice would in time be joined by Asian rice, O. sativa, from introductions made from both the Islamic and European worlds.
Growing up in my family we ate Minute Rice and mostly as a breakfast food with milk, butter, and sugar. It also appeared as a side dish with butter, salt, and pepper. My mother said that growing up she only knew rice as a breakfast food and it wasn't until she and Dad lived in Hawaii in the early seventies when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor that they learned to eat rice in other ways.
So, clearly the rice-based dishes of Southern cooking, like Hoppin' John, had not been part of my family's food traditions. Nor had Asian dishes, despite my parents' exposure to them while living in Hawaii. I only began to eat Asian food (other than La Choy Chow Mein) while in high school when I traveled on school trips with teachers who felt the imperative to introduce small town Oklahoma kids to a wider variety of cultures.
By the early nineties American cooking was changing and stir fries were becoming common. They became a staple for me in my single years as they were easy to fix in small portions and were healthy. I did quit making Minute Rice (though I kept it around for a breakfast choice) and learned to make slow cook rice in a pot on the stove. Also, a girl I dated in the summer of 96 (and was friends with her family for many years) had lived in China when she was younger and from them I learned new techniques, ingredients, and recipes in Asian cooking.
At the turn of the millennium my favourite food was Thai and in the late Aughts I lived adjacent to Oklahoma City's Asian District where my favourite restaurant was Vietnamese, The Golden Phoenix.
Of course I married into an Asian family where rice is the staple. That meant acquiring a rice cooker and wondering why I hadn't always had one. And buying rice in giant bags from the Asian grocery store.
The previous post in this series was about breakfast and included a story about grits.
One of the great joys in our family is making breakfast together, usually on a Saturday morning. Of course this is not unique to us. As I continue this series on foodways, inspired by reading The Cooking Gene, this morning as Michael and Sebastian work on pancakes, I'm reflecting on the role of breakfast. Some highlights from my past:
Mammoo, my grandma Nixon, would get up early to fix breakfast and the smell of bacon wafting up from the kitchen is what would awaken you.
My parents making pancakes in fun shapes for us to eat as kids. Something Michael and I do now for Sebastian.
My Dad frying eggs. He'd use the cast iron skillet and fill it with bacon grease and fry the eggs in the fat with lots of salt and pepper.
In grad school, fixing breakfast with friends who had stayed over after a late night of partying.
What about any rich cultural influences on breakfast? Let's talk about grits.
I grew up in an area where we enjoyed grits both as a breakfast food and as a side at suppertime. Generally they were served with a little butter, salt, and pepper, though occasionally someone would make cheese grits.
Michael Twitty, in The Cooking Gene, writes about the role of grits in Southern cooking. This reminds me of the best grits I ever had. I was in Helena, Arkansas, a town in the Mississippi Delta that Mark Twain said was the loveliest spot on the river. I was there scouting for our church's mission trip and I arrived about an hour before my meeting, so I stopped in at Bunny's Cafe where I had grits and coffee prepared by Bunny, who was African-American. They were the best grits and the best coffee I'd ever had.
While eating alone, I was joined at my table by a man who worked for a local youth services organization. When he found out who I was and why I was there, he shared with me about the racial history of the city and the impact upon it of integration. He spoke of how integration, a good thing, had the unintended consequence of devastating the black commercial district, as African-Americans began shopping in the white stores but no whites began shopping in the black stores. The area had also experienced two drains--white people fled to the suburbs of nearby cities like Memphis and Little Rock and middle class African-Americans went off to college and didn't return.
This conversation was one episode in a day full of revelations about poverty and racial inequality. Though I had intellectually understood them before that day, this was the day my eyes were open and I gained insight. That day was an epiphany which led to social justice action becoming central to my ministry.
Another word on grits. In 2014 when Michael and I visited friends in Denver over Labor Day weekend, we were surprised to discover shrimp and grits being served almost everywhere we went to eat. Somehow this food of the coastal southeast was prominent at the gateway to the mountain west. Now whenever we fix shrimp and grits, we joke that we are going to have Colorado food.
I think the next post will be about rice, which in my childhood was also a breakfast staple, but rice deserves its own post.
The previous post in this series was about Texas Caviar.
Recently I read The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty, and it has inspired me to write a blog series on the role of food in my life. Tonight was our book club, which I couldn't make. But I went ahead and prepared the Texas Caviar I was going to take, using the opportunity to discuss foodways with our son Sebastian as he helped me to prepare the dish.
Texas Caviar is a black-eyed pea based dip often encountered at parties in Texas and surrounding areas. I'm sure I was first acquainted with it in Oklahoma.
Now, growing up, I did not like black-eyed peas. I thought they tasted like dirt in little packages. Black-eyed peas were primarily fixed on New Year's Day when eating them was supposed to bring you good luck for the year. My Mom generally cooked the dried peas in a pot of water with a hamhock. I made this dish this year for New Year's when Mom and my sister Kelli were here visiting. It made the house smell great.
Michael Twitty writes about black-eyed peas. They came from Africa. In the Yoruba culture they "represent fertility, the eye of God." He writes, "They were spiritually potent food long before our arrival in America." He adds that because the Yoruba word for black-eyed pea is close to the word for beauty, "To ingest black-eyed peas is to become filled with beauty, and ancestral tradition."
When I read his description, I was surprised and excited to learn the African roots of a tradition my very white Oklahoma family practiced.
But, as I said, I did not like black-eyed peas as a kid or young adult. I came to enjoy them later. Probably my first decent encounter with them was as part of Texas Caviar, this dip. But I only began preparing black-eyed peas myself when Michael and I, in the late Aughts, began hosting an annual New Year's Day Open House.
The tradition of the New Year's Open House, I got from Dallas, Texas, where I would be invited to a handful every year. So, in Oklahoma City, Michael and I started that tradition. And we chose to make foods from our family's ancestral cultures that were associated with the new year. So, from his Filipino side we had rice and leafy greens. I wanted to make a black-eyed pea dish, so I learned to make Texas Caviar. In later years I also started making Hoppin' John, a traditional dish that definitely originates in the experienced of enslaved African-Americans, though I didn't know that history. I had not grown up with that dish, but enjoy making it some years on the holiday.
Since reading Twitty's book, I have tried to explain foodways and cultural connections to Sebastian while we are working in the kitchen. I have always used this as time to teach him about food and good kitchen skills, but I have now added this element of culture and also a time to tell stories of my life and our family.
Tonight, as we prepared the Texas Caviar together, I talked about the fusion of sources in this recipe: black-eyed peas from African roots, peppers from indigenous American cultures, the garlic which is more European, along with the olive oil. The rice vinegar might come from many traditions that cooked with rice, but the rice vinegar in our house is because of the Asian influences. Then the tortilla chip with which to eat it coming from Hispano-Indian culture.
What I enjoyed about Twitty's book was opening up meal preparation to this sense of rich story and history and cultural mixing. This dip I had first experienced from middle class white people is a rich blend of global cultures.