Chicken and Dressing – Free Download

Considering the holidays, and some folks, due to no fault of their own, not knowing how to make cornbread dressing properly – I saw where one lady said she was gonna use Jiffy Cornbread Mix in hers! – my members are making a draft chapter of my narrative cookbook, Food Is Love, available for free download.

It gives you the story behind my memories of Chicken and Dressing and includes recipes for Southern AF cornbread, as well as Chicken and Dressing (and a variation if you want to use pork sausage, like my momma does, instead).

I’m working on a book full of meals and stories like these, and if you want to know how to support that work, get early draft copies of chapters like this in your inbox, and more, you should become a member – you can learn more about that here. If you just want to thank me, you can buy me a cup of coffee or share this post with a friend.

You can download the free PDF file here – no tricks, no spam, and no need to surrender your email address. It’s a pure gift.

I hope your holidays are marvelous, and that you get to celebrate them with the people you love.

Things That Endure

Jerry was a salesman of the old school, straight out of an episode of Mad Men. He was dapper as could be, with creases on his pants that would have cut you, and I never saw him without at least a sports coat, even that time I met him and a client at a ball game.

Jerry was my mentor when I was in financial sales, and he took my somewhat more casual approach to my appearance as a personal challenge. He also tried to teach me the finer points of the business lunch.

Jerry was a big one for lunch. We always lunched together on Fridays and always at one of several restaurants at least as old-school as Jerry himself was. They all had bars, tended to be dark paneled, and had pretty waitresses and generous bartenders. And, without exception, the food was always good.

I remarked on this once when we went to a somewhat shady-looking oyster bar whose dated decor did not fill me with high hopes going in.

“Of course the food is good! I’ve been coming here for 30 years. That doesn’t happen if the food is crap. You have to respect things that endure.”

One of Jerry’s favorite places was Mr. B’s. It was a steak and seafood house in Germantown, an affluent suburb of Memphis. The walls were raw brick, with a small bar along the wall, and the steaks were huge, and so were the cocktails.

Mr. B’s made their reputation on supper but had a strong lunchtime crowd, and being early in my career, my budget leaned more to the blue plate special than it did the porterhouse steaks. And one of the things they did really well was their country-fried steaks.

At least, that is what they called it. If you are used to a large piece of meat deep fried until crispy and then covered in milk gravy such as one may eat at a Cracker Barrel, this was not that.

Instead, it was a tender piece of beef, obviously pounded thin, then fried in a thin batter, and then cooked in a thick brown gravy until it practically fell apart. It was my favorite thing on the menu.

When I was a little boy, the elderly lady next door made something she called steak and gravy that my mom tried and tried to replicate but could not. This was very close to that.

We don’t eat a lot of beef – mostly because of the cost. But also, because we didn’t eat much of it growing up, it just isn’t something I crave. But the other day, the meat department at Kroger had their cubed steaks on clearance, and so I decided to whip up a batch of steak and gravy for dinner one night.

I got home from my last meeting today at 4, so I decided to make today the day it happened. I got out the deep skillet and put four tablespoons of shortening in it to melt and turned the oven on to 350 to preheat.

While waiting, I put a half cup of flour in a shallow bowl and added a teaspoon of black pepper, a teaspoon of salt, and a half teaspoon each of garlic powder and cayenne pepper. I stirred it well.

After dredging the cubed steaks through the flour mixture, I put them in the skillet to brown – about two minutes a side until the flour had formed a crisp crust, but the interiors were still not finished. I did them in batches, putting them on a cooling rack as they finished.

In the melted shortening still in the bottom of the pan, I sauteed a small amount (maybe 1 /4 cup?) of diced onion until brown, then added a few tablespoons of the flour dredge that was left over. After it was all browned, I added enough milk to make a thin gravy, into which I slid the breaded steaks. I put a lid on the skillet and slid it into the oven, where it sat and bubbled away for an hour and a half.

When I pulled it out, the gravy had separated – a danger of using milk gravy for something like this. I removed the steaks, put the skillet on the stove again, added a bit of half-and-half, and whisked quickly until the gravy was thinned out and reconstituted. I slid the steaks back in and let them simmer over low heat as I set the table.

Had I served it with mashed potatoes and English peas, this would have been my favorite meal of my childhood. But instead, we served it over white rice, making it my favorite meal today and still damn good.

The Ice Cream

I have written before in these pages about my Aunt Louise. My great aunt, really – Dad’s mom’s sister – she died when I was 12, but until then was one of my biggest influences.

She lived on 40 acres, 10 miles from a town of 800 people, and while she owned a car, she could not drive. It never occurred to me at the time, but she was intensely lonely out there.

Lonnie was her second husband, and he owned land out in rural Desoto County, Mississippi so when they got married she moved from Memphis to his house. It had been his parent’s house, actually. Lonnie had grown up in it and then had lived in it with his first wife, and when he moved Louise in, she insisted on major changes. The kitchen was moved to another room, the bathroom was upgraded, and she turned the old kitchen into a storage room.

I asked her one time why she moved the kitchen.

“There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with the old kitchen. But it wasn’t mine. It was hers”, she said, meaning the first wife. “I told him if I was moving in there, he was going to make the house the way I like it. “

And he did. Aunt Louise took no crap.

She had lived in town all her life – in Dyersburg, and then in Memphis. And so moving to the middle of nowhere was a big deal for her. And when he died in 1971, she was alone in that house, with her two dogs – Festus and Princess.

I only knew her alone. We would go over on Saturday and take her grocery shopping in town, and occasionally we took her into Memphis to her doctor’s appointment, and often I would spend the night there when Mom and Dad went out somewhere and would be home late. I loved staying at Aunt Louise’s house.

Virtually every woman I knew was in some way defined by a man. Mom was married to Dad, and did things that benefitted him. Monty was married to Mr. Doc, and cooked and did his laundry. But Aunt Louise just took care of herself. She was the most independent woman I knew growing up.

Sometimes she ate cereal for supper. I told her that everybody knew that cereal was for breakfast, and she told me she was a grown woman and could do whatever she wanted to, and that the worst reason to do anything was that everyone told you you were supposed to do it that way.

She had a 4 cup coffee maker, but she only drank three cups of coffee every morning. The remaining cup she mixed with Pet milk, and poured it over a handful of crushed crackers after it had cooled down, and she served that to her dogs. Yes, her dogs got coffee for breakfast each morning.

She kept a gun in her purse, drank whisky like water, and would, when she got down, drunk dial her friends back in Memphis. She read Earle Stanly Gardener and Agatha Christie, watched Barnaby Jones and Perry Mason, and cooked for herself and her dogs.

Once, when I was staying over, Mom had dropped me off after supper, and so we were sitting at her table, watching Barnaby Jones waiting to go to bed when she announced she was hungry. I told her I had already eaten, and she told me that she had too, but that a nice thing about living by yourself was that you could absolutely eat two suppers if you wanted to.

She got up and rummaged around in the pantry, and pulled out a can of Showboat Pork and Beans. She put them on the stove to warm, and then she pulled a package of hot dogs from the freezer and took two out. She sliced the frozen dogs directly into the beans, and then covered them as they simmered.

After we had eaten, she got out a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and a can of Hershey’s syrup, and we gave a scoop of ice cream to the dogs, because of course we did, and we ate ice cream and watched Perry Mason and I told her I was always going to live alone, so I could stay up late and eat ice cream whenever I wanted.

“You don’t have to live alone to stay up late and eat ice cream whenever you want”, she told me.

“It’s just easier if you do.”

Firehouse Soup

While I went to college, I worked a few years as a firefighter for the City of Memphis. I learned many things there, but the biggest impact it had on me long-term was how it taught me to think about food.

The deal was that you worked every other day for three days, and then you were off for four days. So, for example, you may work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then you would be off until the following Wednesday, when the cycle started all over again. And each shift was 24 hours long and began at 7 AM. Depending on what fire-fighting equipment was housed at your station, you could have anywhere from four to 12 people on each shift, and you always worked with the same people.

It was like a second family you lived with 1/3rd of your life. We had laundry and showers and we cut the grass and, of course, ate together. And while there was a kitchen and equipment such as pans and knives provided, the actual food was not, and was up to you. Some people brought their own food, but you didn’t if you wanted to be trusted by the others on your shift. To be trusted, you needed to belong to the syndicate.

I worked at several different houses during the years I was on the job, and the syndicate always worked the same way. There was one member of the shift who kept track of a pool of money, and that was used to buy groceries for your shift. Each shift had its own refrigerator and cupboard, which were kept locked. At each meal, you were either “in” or “out” for the meal, meaning you intended to eat the food bought from the pool of money, and you were “charged” your pro-rata share of the groceries that went into that meal. And on payday, you settled up your bill, which replenished the pool of money, and it started all over again.

So, every day you worked, you had to figure out who was cooking three meals for your shift. Some shifts had 1 person who just loved cooking, and they took it on as their responsibility, but most times we would ask who wanted to cook each meal, with the others doing cleanup. Breakfast was usually fixed – eggs, bacon, biscuits were common, most often with gravy – and lunch was often caught as catch can, but the big show was supper.

A cool thing about this system is that you had a diversity of cooks, with each bringing their favorites to the table. Tom was in his 20s and could run the grill, but not much else. Curtis loved to make spaghetti. Stan made round steak and gravy, with mashed potatoes and English peas so good that my mouth waters just thinking about it.

And John always made soup.

John was nearing retirement after nearly 30 years on the job. He had been divorced for nearly 20 of those years and most of his off-work meals were either sandwiches or dinner fare. But his one claim to culinary fame was his soup.

I probably ate it two dozen times and watched him make it half of those times, and it was never done exactly the same way twice. It was more of a technique rather than a recipe, but what it always was, was good.

As an example, I will share how I made it last week, but everything in this recipe is up for negotiation.

Dice a small onion into small pieces, and dice two cloves of garlic while you are at it. In a large pot, crumble a pound of ground beef, add your diced onions, and sprinkle some salt on top of it all, and then, over medium heat, begin to brown the ground beef. Stir it all around until the meat is no longer pink and the onions are translucent, then add the garlic and let it sweat a bit, but don’t, for the love of God, let it burn or you just ruined the whole thing. The garlic will be flavorful and ready in about a minute.

Pour in three and a half cups of beef broth (or water plus an appropriate amount of beef paste) and a 12-ounce can of V8 juice. Using a spoon or something, scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure all the bits are off the bottom of the pan and it’s all mixed well.

To this, add a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes (Rotel is another option here, but it obviously changes the flavor), a couple of tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce (easy for you to say), and 2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning. We only had a few spice jars at the fire station, but Italian seasoning went into everything. Let it come to a boil.

While you are waiting on that, peel and dice 2 potatoes of whatever kind you have around – I had Yukon Golds. Add it to the pot, along with a pound of frozen mixed vegetables. (I know that sounds vague, but that’s what they are always called at the grocery. It’s generally green beans, carrots, and English peas.) Let it boil, then bring it down to a simmer for 15 minutes.

NOW. You can let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a perfectly acceptable soup to serve with your dinner. Or, you can do what I did and add a cup and a half of elbow macaroni and another half cup of beef broth and THEN let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a hearty, filling soup you can eat for diner all by itself.

Beef or shredded chicken. V8 or Tomato sauce. Beef broth or chicken. Macaroni or spaghetti or even instant grits (trust me on this). Tomatoes or Rotel. White potatoes or sweet potatoes (What? Yes.)

It’s all up in the air. Mix and match. Live a little.

You deserve it.

Chips and Cheese

In high school, I worked at a grocery store after school. I worked from 4 to closing (which was 8 PM) during the week, and usually a good eight hours on Saturday, and would sometimes work on Sundays from 1 when we opened after the church was out, until 6 when we closed. Sunday was the worst because on Sundays you had to both open AND close.

It was a small town and a small grocery store. It was roughly the size of a Rite Aid or small Walgreens. I didn’t work every night, but most of them. I generally pulled 25 hours a week or more – probably more than was wise for a kid my age, but I loved it.

But the best part was after I got home. By the time we closed the store, it might be 9 before I got home during the week. Supper would be long over, and my brothers in bed, but Mom would leave dinner out for me, and I would fix myself a plate and heat it up in the microwave. Often she would then put everything away and go lay down and read, and Dad would sit up to watch the news before bed.

This particular night, I had gotten in later than normal and was starving. Mom had fixed Taco Salad for supper, which was what she called it when she would spread crumbled tortilla chips on a plate, then cover the plate with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes and shredded cheese, which was then topped with “taco meat”, which is what we called ground beef with an Old El Paso seasoning packet added, and jarred salsa and sour cream. It was very filling and good and seemed exotic in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1986.

All the ingredients were left out on the counter, waiting on me to put them together. Mom was already in bed, reading, and Dad was watching the end of a show, in anticipation of the news. I piled all the assorted goodness on my plate and, as I often did on those nights, sat in the living room with Dad and ate while we watched TV together.

When the show ended, I got up to put the food away. Dad followed me into the kitchen.

“Wait a minute”, he said. “I need a snack.”

He took down a large supper plate – one of the white Corelle plates with the blue flowers they had gotten as newlyweds – and spread chips over it in a single layer, edges just barely touching. Then he picked up the block of good sharp hoop cheese we always seemed to have in our refrigerator and, holding the box grater in his left hand, grated cheese over the tops of the chips in a dense layer, coving the chips until only the undulations of the chips under the cheese betrayed their existence.

He took this mounded plate of yellow marvelousness and put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, during which time the cheese melted and spread over the chips, flowing into the cracks and bubbling on top. He took it out, pulled a chip from the edge of the plate, watched the melted cheese string stretch an improbable length before breaking, then picked it high in the air and, head tilted back, put the whole thing in his mouth, cheese string first, the way some people eat spaghetti.

Then he shut the microwave door and went into the living room to watch the news. I had watched all this with curiosity, just waiting to see where this was going. Suddenly, the spell broke.

“Wait, “ I said. “I want some!”

“Well, make you some of your own. What do you want me to do, write the recipe down for you?”

So I made some, exactly the same way, and just as I walked into the living room, the news came on the TV. We sat together on the couch, in silence, with nothing heard above the sound of the TV but the crunching of chips and occasional sighs of satisfaction.

Creamed Chicken

They say smell is the oldest of the five senses we humans have. I certainly believe it – There have been times I haven’t smelled a thing in 30 years, and then I do, and I’m instantly taken back. It’s as if the smell is somehow a shortcut to the exact spot in my brain where that memory hides.

I will always remember that hot summer night on Parris Island whenever I smell rotting fruit. I will always think of my Great Aunt’s bathroom when I smell rusting metal. The smell of strawberries instantly transports me into a walk-in cooler in Byhalia, MS, where 16 year old me would hide when I should have been working and would eat the Louisiana strawberries that I should have been putting on the store shelves.

And the smell of hot tuna always transports me back to my momma’s kitchen on a day in 1980: A day I should have been in school, but was home instead, sick.

It was a cold day, and I had been running a fever all night and so Mom let me lay on the couch and watch The Price is Right on TV instead of going to school.

I had dozed off, somewhere before the Showcase Showdown and she gently woke me. The TV was off, and I felt a bit better, and she sat on the couch beside me and asked if I was hungry.

“I’m about to fix some creamed tuna over toast,” she said.

I told her I didn’t know what that was.

“I know. But I love it, and your dad doesn’t – he calls it cat food – and since it’s just us today, I thought I would make some.”

We walked into our small kitchen, and I drug a chair over to the stove, to watch.

She got out a small pan and drained a can of tuna. We only had the kind packed in water, because Dad was watching his cholesterol – and she heated up a can of cream of mushroom soup and stirred in a can’s worth of water, and added the tuna to it while it heated.

In the meantime, she put four slices of bread in our toaster, and when the toast was done, she tore it into small pieces, which she placed in the white Corelle bowls with the small blue flower trim they had gotten as newlyweds. She set them on the oak table that my grandfather rescued from the fire in the 1930s.

She took a serving spoon from the drawer and spooned the tuna mixture over both our bowls and then stirred it well, to coat the chunks of bread with the ersatz roux.

The kitchen did smell vaguely of cat food, to my dad’s point, but not obnoxiously so. At that moment, it just smelled good, and safe.

I still love it – creamed tuna over toast, even if I don’t make it that way anymore. I would learn, later, about bechamel sauce and seasoning and the value of aromatics. But that would all come later.

Mom and I didn’t have a lot of things that were just ours – we still don’t, actually – but our love of creamed tuna over toast was one of them. And to this day, when I don’t feel particularly well, I will make a version of this dish and just know everything is going to be OK.

I want to go on record that there’s nothing wrong with making it the way Mom did. I mean, if you are sick, or have been pulling lots of shifts, or just don’t have a lot of energy, spending 10 minutes dumping two cans into a pot and then pouring it over toasted bread may be all you have the energy for. And if that’s true, then go for it.

But, if you find yourself with 15 minutes and a smidgen more energy, you can make something remarkable. These days, I often make this using chicken, because my wife shares my dad’s feelings about seafood, and I want to keep living here. But you can replace the chicken in this recipe with tuna and it still works.

Everything you will need for this is in your pantry, or at least should be. Bread. Flour. Butter. Some leftover chicken. Salt. Pepper. Chicken broth, An onion. Milk. Love.

Before you get started, let’s talk about chicken. You can use leftover chicken of any sort. White meat. Dark meat. Canned chicken. Leftover rotisserie chicken. Chicken legs you bought on clearance and poached specifically for this dish. It doesn’t matter. Really. They all have different flavor profiles, but they are all good. You will need to shred it up, and you need about two cups of it.

You want to start with two tablespoons of butter, which you put in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.

While it’s melting, take a small onion, and dice it fine. You don’t need a lot of onion, and if I’m feeling fancy and it’s after payday, I would probably use a large shallot for this, and if it’s a few days before payday, I would probably use the 1/2 an onion sitting in the crisper drawer in a ziplock bag leftover from God knows what.

Sweat the onions for about five minutes in the melted butter – don’t let them burn, and this means you may have to reduce the heat. Then put in two tablespoons of flour, and, using your whisk, get the flour coated in the melted butter. Just like when you are making milk gravy, you don’t want this to burn. This is a white sauce, so all you want is the flour and oil to be mixed well.

Slowly add a cup of half and half, a 1/4 cup or so at a time, whisking all the while, until it’s all mixed in. Then do the same with the chicken broth – add it slowly, while whisking, until it is a lovely velvety smooth, and probably slightly yellow. That color is one of my favorite colors. The smell right now is something else, too.

If you are feeling fancy, this is where you throw in about half a cup of what we called English peas, and you probably call green peas or sweet peas. Little green round peas, preferably frozen, is what we’re going for here. And then add the chicken, stirring it all in, so the lovely creamy sauce covers the chicken and peas, and the peas look like little green islands in a light yellow sea.

You want this to simmer for about 5 minutes, to both warm up the peas and chicken, and to thicken the sauce. If it gets too thick, you can drizzle in a bit of hot water while stirring, and also remember that it will thicken a bit as it sits and cools.

While the sauce is simmering, start making toast – two to three slices per person is about right. When the toast is done, I like to rip it into rough chunks about 2 inches square. Then pour a generous half cup of sauce over the top, and if you have any, sprinkle the top with fresh chopped parsley.

This is one of my favorite meals. There are variations galore. This will serve two hungry people or 4 polite ones, but it scales up perfectly – 2 tablespoons of fat and flour per cup of broth and cup of dairy.

This is also lovely over biscuits, served like you would sausage gravy, or over plain white rice, which is how I serve it for supper or when company would show up unexpectedly in the before times.

Go buck wild and use whipping cream or half and half if you are a generally optimistic person, but whole milk is what I use most often. Some of you are scared of your food and will be tempted to use skim milk, and while I would discourage you, I can’t stop you.

Some people, I have learned, just want to watch the world burn.

Suppertime Cheese Grits

I got asked a while back by a friend if I was going to talk about grits on my blog.

If y’all thought cornbread was contentious, just wait till Southern folk start talking about grits. And do note that while they are very different things, they are both derived from corn, the poor man’s wheat, and they are both examples of peasant cooking, so of course, I’m going to talk about grits.

If ever there was an example of my adage that “Normal is just another word for whatever you are used to”, it’s grits. And if you can do it to a bowl of grits, I assure you somebody has.

Growing up, grits were for breakfast. Mom liked them because the preparation was simple, it was filling, and it was as cheap as could be. One thing she didn’t like about grits, unfortunately, was the grits themselves: She tended to prefer Cream of Wheat, but never managed to convert us. But she grew up traveling around the country with my grandfather, who was in the Navy, so one has to make allowances.

When visiting our neighbors, Monty and Doc, I would eat fried grits for lunch, which was basically leftover grits poured into a loaf pan, then cooled in the refrigerator until firm. They would then be sliced into inch thick slabs and fried in bacon grease, making an ersatz fried polenta. In fact, the first time I ate polenta, I was convinced it was just expensive fried grits. Spoiler: It pretty much is, although grits tend to be made with white corn, and polenta with yellow, which is sweeter, so there is a slightly different flavor profile. But grits and polenta are a whole lot closer than collards and kale, which are interchangeable.

But today I want to tell you about suppertime grits. Because I usually make these as a weeknight meal, I take some liberties to speed things up, but you can have this on the table in about 20 minutes. I tend to use them like you would pasta or potatoes, but if you add enough cheese or even a heavy meat sauce, this makes a fine main dish.

You will need some grits. White is traditional, and regular people eat just regular grits, although there are artisanal, stone-ground grits to be had out there. But for our purposes, some white grits – even the quick-cooking grits, like I do in this recipe-, will do on a weeknight. We don’t speak of instant grits, nor of anything that comes in a packet.

You will need a liquid. At its most basic, you can use water, and many people do, but milk is a fine choice too. But if you are going to the trouble to make them for supper, try chicken stock instead. In this recipe, we will use both chicken stock and milk.

And since these will be served as part of a meal (instead of by themselves) I would add some cheese. Now, any cheese will do – cheddar (my preference), cream cheese, Velveeta, American – just whatever you have laying around. Honestly, I use cheese grits like this as an opportunity to use up little bits of cheese I might have laying around.

Here’s how I would do it.

I’d put 8 cups of chicken broth in a heavy saucepan and heat it up to a boil, and then bring it down to a simmer. Now, if you don’t have chicken broth on hand, you can use something like Better Than Boullion’s Chicken Base, or even some chicken bouillon cubes instead. The point is, any of that will be better than just water.

Now that it’s simmering, slowly add 2 cups of quick-cooking grits while you which them in. If you just dump them in, it will clump up. I would do it slowly, stirring the broth as I slowly shake the grits into the pot. When they are all in, add ¾ of a teaspoon of salt, give the mixture a final stir for luck, and then put the lid on the pot, turn it down to low, and let them simmer for a good 10 minutes or so, until they thicken. You will want to stir them at least twice during this time, so they don’t stick.

You could stop now and have a fine bowl of grits, but we can keep going and make them extraordinary. Let’s add a tablespoon of butter (I use salted butter here because it’s what I always have, but unsalted would work too), and a cup to a cup and a half (let your conscience be your guide) of good shredded Cheddar cheese, the sharper the better. Just stir it in a bit at a time, and watch it melt. This will thicken the grits a bit, especially if you use pre-shredded cheese (it’s a weeknight, so you are forgiven), which is coated in cornstarch and thus has a thickening effect on everything. You then will thin it down with about half a cup of whole milk, or if you are feeling festive, half and half or whipping cream.

This serves four people if you do it as a main dish or about eight as a side. I’d serve it in bowls and sprinkle the top with freshly ground black pepper.

Now, of course, this is a starting point. One of my favorite ways to eat grits is to serve them with a red sauce made with peppers and Italian sausage, which makes them very fancy, indeed.



Why Do You Like to Cook?

Kaylee, age 13: Uncle Hugh, how often do you cook?

Me, age 49: I cook something almost every day, and some days I cook two or three times a day. Why?

Kaylee: Well, I could tell by the way you stirred the food around that you know what you are doing. Do you like cooking?

Me: I do. I really do.

Kaylee: Why?

Me: Hmmm. Well, there are several reasons. The first is that when I left home, I could suddenly eat anything I wanted. But most of the food I could afford and had access to wasn’t very good. So learning how to cook was a way to be kind to myself. I deserved to have good food, and the only way I knew to get it was to cook it myself.

But more than that, it was that there were people in my life that I dearly loved, and now they were gone. And when I thought back over my memories of them, most of those memories involved food. Like today, we ate chicken and dressing. I can never eat chicken and dressing without thinking of Aunt Louise. But how often in your day-to-day life do you get to eat chicken and dressing? But by knowing how to make it, I can feel that good feeling any time I want to. Knowing how to cook is like having a photo album filled with people you love, that you have an opportunity to see any time you need to eat, which is multiple times a day.

Another reason I like to cook is that most of my adult life has been trying to solve unsolvable problems. Like, no matter how hard I work, people are still hungry, still homeless, still lonely, still addicts. You can work hard all day, all week, all month, even, and at the end of that time feel like absolutely nothing has changed.

But I can have some rice and some sausage and a pepper and an onion and a few other things, and it doesn’t look like anything at all, but if you know how you can turn that pile of random things into jambalaya. I can start with chaos and end with something that tastes good, that reminds me of people I love, and that makes other people happy and fills your belly in the process. It’s the one part of my life I can fix. I can turn the chaotic into something good, and I can usually do that li less than an hour. How cool is that!

But my favorite reason? Today. We sat around a table, and we ate food that was good, and we talked about stories from our past, and people we missed who were not there, and the food reminded us of meals we had had like this before, and the people who had been there, and for a minute, we all felt very loved. I love knowing how to make that happen.

A Bowl Full of Luck

Saturday is New Years Day, which means it is time for my people to eat black eyed peas and collards. For luck, you know. And growing up in and shaped by the hills of North Mississippi, and loved and fed by people who were children of the Depression and grandchildren of Reconstruction, we ate simple food, and the food of our celebrations was also simple, although given a bit more time and intention.

Now, all food is regional and cultural. And I know up North it’s corned beef and cabbage, and in the Low Country of the East Coast they eat Hopping John, but this is what my people eat for luck. That we live in a historically and persistently economically depressed area that has been perennially unlucky is not lost on me, but what are you going to do?

SoI don’t know that eating black eyed peas is actually lucky. But I do know that I love them, and will make any excuse to eat them. And besides – if we engage in pleasure when times are hard, isn’t that a sort of making your own luck? While my parents were not big eaters of greens, the old people who cared for me were, and so eating greens reminds me of happy times and the purest love I have ever known, so I make a spot for them, too.

If we want to keep traditions alive, we have to make room for them. And any tradition that involves sitting down to a meal, made with care and love, that marks the entry point into a new time of with hope and intention is a thing worth preserving.

So on New Years, we eat Black Eyed Peas and Collards.

Black eyed peas aren’t peas. They’re beans, and they have to be cooked like beans. In fact, you can cook them just like pintos and have a fully acceptable dish. But you can elevate it a bit, too. And since this is New Years after all, I tend to fancy it up. The collards are an accommodation because I’m the only person in my house that likes them, and so cooking up a large pot doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Now, doing it this way makes enough for 12 polite folks or eight hungry ones. But it halves perfectly if don’t have a lot of people to feed.

What you need:

To do this traditionally, you need the ham bone leftover from your Christmas ham with about two pounds of meat. If you didn’t save leftovers and the bones from your Christmas ham, you can (and should) buy in two pounds of smoked ham hock, or if you find yourself in a part of the world where you can’t easily buy ham hock, dice up a couple of pounds of bacon.

Two pounds of dried black eyed peas. The thing about black eyed peas is, they’re beans. So you should soak them, but you don’t have to. They don’t need a lot of soaking, and some folk don’t soak black eyed peas at all. But I generally soak mine for a couple of hours. Just spread them out on a cookie sheet, sort through them for dirt and debris, then put them in a stockpot with enough cold water to cover them by about two inches.

Salt. People get fancy with their salt these days, but I use kosher salt to cook with and iodized salt for the table. You do you – salt is salt, and best done to taste anyway.

A large onion, as big as your fist.

Cloves. You only need a couple, so see if you can borrow some from a neighbor, but if not, buy the smallest container you can. You want whole cloves here, and you might have bought some for the Christmas ham.

A bay leaf. I feel like this can be left out, but I love this dish so much I’m afraid to try subtracting things.

Ground black pepper. Just like you have in the pepper shaker.

Allspice. This is something I picked up a few years ago and I love the depth it adds to the dish. I doubt my ancestors would have tried this, but I recommend it.

Vegetable oil

Four nice sized garlic cloves. Honestly, the four is a guesstimate. I mean, I would use at least four, but sometimes the spirit catches me and I might go as high as six or seven. I do love some garlic.

Crushed red pepper

Two bunches of collard greens. My people would just say “a mess of collards”, but I’m assuming you are going to the store, and they will look at you funny if you ask for that. The stores tend to sell them in 1 pound bunches, and you need about two pounds of greens. Also, if you are two good to eat collard greens, get over yourself. Kale and Collards are practically siblings and are both just unheaded cabbage. If you can’t get collards, you can use kale for this, because they are so similar. But collards is traditional, and if you are too snooty to eat them and end up unlucky this year because you did it wrong, don’t come crying to me.

What you do

Drain your peas and put them back in the stockpot. Dice up your meat (including the skin and fat) into pieces about an inch or two in size, and add them and the bone to the pot. If you are using the bone (and you should) don’t worry about cleaning it off – the meat will fall off it as it cooks. Some folk are panicking over the mention of ham skin here, but trust me on this – it will melt and meld into something approaching heaven before we are done.  Put in enough cold water to cover the beans about two inches and set the heat as high as it will go.

While you are waiting for it to boil, peel your onion and stick 2 cloves in it. Cloves are pointy, and you can just push them into the onion like thumbtacks. You will remove the onion later, and this makes it easier, but I have also just tossed the cloves in the pot and sliced the onion fine and left it in and that works too. It’s largely a matter of opinion, and this way involves less chopping and tears. Add the onion, ½ a teaspoon of allspice, ½ a teaspoon of the black pepper, the bayleaf, and a teaspoon of salt to the water and bring it to a boil. We will probably be adding more salt later, but depending on what meat you used, it may already be salty, and too much salt will ruin a dish.

After it comes to a boil, turn your heat down and let it simmer. Stir them every 10 or 15 minutes, just as you pass through the kitchen, and check your water levels at the same time. The water will cook away, so keep adding water to always keep at least an inch of water over the peas.

Cooking times will vary depending on how fresh the peas are, and how your stove cooks, but after about an hour and a half, start checking to see if the peas are tender. They generally take me about two hours to be right. They are done when a pea will mash evenly between your fingers. If nobody’s looking, you can taste it –  they shouldn’t be crunchy, but firm. Nobody wants mushy peas. The broth will be rich and dark, and should be tasted at this point for salt – I often put about another two teaspoons in here, but go by taste, adding a bit and stirring a bit and tasting as you go.

Remove the bone and the onion, if you left it whole, and discard after picking the bone clean.

About an hour and a half into the beans cooking, it’s time to make the collards. Rinse them off, and cut out the big pieces of stem and discard. Take the leaves and roll them like cigars and then slice into one-inch-wide strips. Shake the water off them, but don’t dry them in a salad spinner or anything – they need some moisture to cook.  Peel and mince your garlic now as well.

In a big (at least 10 inch, but 12 is better) skillet, add your vegetable oil and coat the bottom of the skillet with it, turning the skillet one way and another. Then put it over high heat and watch the oil – when it turns wavy it’s time to cook.

Add your garlic and a ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper to the oil and sauté it around, letting it sizzle – but don’t let it brown. After 30 seconds or so, when it smells amazing, add in the collard greens and stir them around in the oil, so they get coated. I sprinkle about a ¼ teaspoon of salt on them now, and then add a cup of water, stirring the greens around in it. This will begin to wilt the greens, which is what we are going for. Turn the heat down to medium and then put a lid on the skillet, leaving it slightly cracked so steam can escape. Let it cook for about 20 minutes, softening the greens, but not disintegrating them.

To plate it up, I put the black eyed peas and meat in a bowl with lots of broth, and then scatter the greens over the top, but this is controversial. Some folks prefer them served on a plate, drained, with the collards to the side. Either way, I would serve some cornbread, usually made in muffins because we are celebrating, alongside this, with some pepper sauce on the table.

I’m wishing you lots of luck and joy and wonderful meals this coming year, friends.

Happy New Year!








Biscuits I have known

When I pulled out of the cheap motel I had spent the night in the outskirts of Charlotte, NC, I couldn’t wait to hit the road. But first, I had to refuel. I grabbed some gas at the gas station, and spied a McDonald’s across the way. Say what you will about them, but they are reliable, if nothing else. I grabbed a sausage biscuit and coffee and hit the road.

It wasn’t all that good. Again – reliable, though. Like, you know how bad it’s gonna be in advance, and can brace yourself for it. And as often happens when I eat a food that is filled with memories, I reflect on previous meals I have had with that same food. And perhaps no food has more memories attached to it for me, in as many places, as do biscuits.

My momma didn’t make biscuits. Heresy, I know, but she wasn’t a natural cook. She married way too young, after a childhood of moving often as part of a military family. She had no traditions when she married dad. Dad’s mom died shortly after that. And we had to make it on our own, with nothing but church cookbooks, Southern Living, some elderly neighbors that loved us, and the back of boxes to guide us.

Mom never really enjoyed cooking. It was a thing she did, but you got no feeling she derived any pleasure from the act, nor appreciated the attention that comes from doing it well. It was a chore to be done, like washing the dishes or sweeping the floor, and gave her about as much pleasure as either of those tasks.

But Dad – now Dad could make a hell of a biscuit. Big, fluffy cathead biscuits, big as your fist. He didn’t do it often, but when he did, they were amazing. I remember weekend mornings when Dad would make breakfast – rarely, because when he worked for the gas company he worked Saturday mornings, and up until 14 or so we went to church regular as a family (one day, I’ll have to tell you the story of why we stopped. Or maybe not – some things are best handled around a table, late into the night). But when he did, you knew you were about to get fed. As a child, he taught me to make biscuits and scrambled eggs, because then you could always feed yourself for cheap, he told me.

My mom’s stepmother was a tiny woman who had grown up in the city, and while she loved me fiercely, she couldn’t make a biscuit. When we would go visit them in the summertime outside Dallas Texas, she would make sausage gravy and whop-em biscuits – called that because to open the can, you whopped em on the side of the counter – and they were a novelty for us. They were the cheap canned biscuits, small and round and flat topped, with a layered nature one never saw in a real biscuit. It almost felt like eating desert.

In the Marines, the mess hall would have biscuits, but they were square, for some reason known only to God and the Commandant, and I’m sorry, but you can’t really enjoy a square biscuit, even if it didn’t taste of too much baking powder, which these did.

Some years back, Renee got a biscuit cookbook and learned how to make amazing biscuits, a lot like the ones Dad made all those years ago. And they are huge and puffy and have little peaks and knobs, and because they are made with love and practice by someone who loves me, I love them.

But my platonic ideal of a biscuit is none of those.

Her name was Montaree, but we all called her Aunt Monty (pronounced Ain’t Monny). She and her husband Doc lived in a 900 square foot house they built on three acres my grandmother sold them at a time when our money was tight. My Aunt Louise’s husband had built and wired the house for them, and it had pine floors with amber shellac. And growing up, they played the role in my life grandparents would have traditionally, had my folks not all died off when I was little.

Monty made biscuits every morning of her life up until Doc died and she moved to be with her son in Jackson. But that wouldn’t be until after I left – my whole childhood, she made biscuits. She had a five-gallon sized metal bucket, with a tight fitting lid, she kept in the cabinet under the counter that she kept her flour in – self-rising flour bought in 25 pound sacks made from cloth, that had a dish towel that came with it as a premium. I don’t think she ever had a purpose bought dish towel.

She had a large bowl not used for anything other than biscuit making, and she would scoop out flour from the bucket, and put it in the bowl, making a depression in the middle of the pile of flour, into which she took a small lump of lard in the winter (after hog killing) or shortening in the summer (after the lard ran out) and massaged it all in, so it looked like corn meal when she was done. To this she added sweet milk a splash at a time until it was right, and then massaged it into a wad of dough.

She then floured the countertop and patted out the dough until it was thin and used a tin can with the ends cut out (that resided in the flour bucket, along with the biscuit bowl when not in use) to cut out the biscuits. She would place the biscuits on a small cookie sheet, perhaps 8×16, that was so old its origins were lost to history, and before putting them in the oven would smear a light coat of whatever grease she was using, lard or shortening, on top.

I must have watched her do it a hundred times. There would always be scraps of dough left over, which she would fashion into a small freeform biscuit that was meant for me. These were not elegant biscuits. They were not even all that pretty. They were flat, perhaps ¾ of an inch thick, the size of a regular tin can, with none of the knobs and bumps of the biscuits Dad made, and which I saw in magazines. They were lightly browned on the bottom and golden on the edges of the top, and had a crumb that reminds one visually, but not texturally, of English muffins.

These were not fancy biscuits but daily biscuits, which fed a well digger for 50 years and were literally their daily bread. It was the bread with their meals – they were made fresh and eaten hot for lunch, their big meal, and leftovers were eaten cold at supper and for breakfast. I can close my eyes and smell the hot bread and the plum jelly, made from the wild plums by the clothesline, and feel the melting butter run over my fingers and drop off my chin.

I love to cook. I derive pleasure from it, and pleasure from being good at it, and while I can make a passable biscuit, I have never been able to make a biscuit like Monty’s. Lord knows I’ve tried. Hell, I’ve never even seen another one like it.

I guess those biscuits will just have to live in my memory. But this fall, I did plant some wild plums out by the fence line, so at least one day I can have some decent jelly.