Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sharing traditions

Certainly our commitment to the largesse and dominance of our Easter Basket is not the only Easter tradition (by the way, we were far and away the largest basket at the Blessing today, tell your friends.), nor the only bonafinde memory. Every child has a best Easter morning memory. Why, my Brother has many memories related to winning the household Easter egg hunt (several of which remain under contested protestation, causing me to have to tell you we have confirmed results for only one of seventeen hunts, and that is the one I won, 1989). Our guest, The Dashing Host, has dropped in for a cocktail (I assure you with relief he has graduated to the hard stuff) and an Easter tale from the land of Before, that place from which we all hail.

And, before I leave you with the Host, an indulgent little aside, but I tell you because I tell you everything that leaps to mind food-wise: I am a dedicated reader of cookbooks. I will purchase and read any cookbook, anytime, and do so, if I must, by candlelight. And I have. I own an autographed copy of a cookbook written in Italian which offers 221 recipes for radiccico (I ate in his restaurant because I am not afraid to make appauling mistakes which one does not need a crystal ball to forsee. But, he gave me the book, okay? I did not coumpound the error by then buying the book which includes a chapter on desserts of radiccico, for the record.). All of this recipe reading of formulas so close to one another at times, has caused my mind to hang on to some particularly memorable recipes; The high spots, one might say. These are not the Cinema Paradiso of recipes in many instances, but they are all manner of interesting. One which my thoughts always return to when I read a story like the Host's below is the receipt for Cooter Pie in the original Charleston Recipts cookbook. It calls for the ingredients of another time and circumstance: Terrapin, in it's shell, which is hollowed, meat blanched off in some manner, and then returned to the shell to bake in a casserole-like fashion. For all the time we lived in Charleston and dined at very fine Southern tables when I was then a young New Yorker still new to the South and knowing only what I read, including the Cooter Pie recipe, I lived in fear of the moment the Cooter Pie would be set at the center of the table on an enormous piece of Haviland. It could still happen, couldn't it?And now, I will have to be on the look-out for Easter Bunny in Bay Head as well. See you at the Display, ya'll...

Notes from The Dashing Host, over by the blender

Every Easter we found ourselves on a bay, Bay Head, New Jersey or Tampa Bay, Florida. There were yacht club memberships at both. I think it had something to do with the wind. Bays were calmer it seemed, and allowed you to soak up the sun without being chilled by April’s unkind gusts of wind that reminded you that summer was a little more than just around the corner.

Since it was officially Easter we packed away the grey flannel and I wore new khakis. I wore the same thing every year. Khaki pants (with pleats), stripped tie and Navy blazer. Only the shirt color would change. About the age of eight, my mother settled on a shade of salmony-pink that I would coincidentally enough, cover my whole body in later that year regardless of the amount of SPF 100 I slathered on. As a result I spent the beginning of every summer with a nasty bout of sun poisoning, I distrusted summer, never understanding my mother’s devotion to it. I think now that it was perhaps that the color reminded her of summer — as she hated winter with manic dedication.

There was the traditional Opening the door to find the basket o’ goodies, followed by the Easter egg hunt and, being good Episcopalians, we made a point to drive by at least one Church on our way to brunch at The Club. No one owned a boat, but they talked about it and that was enough for membership. Brunch started with drinks and then followed by more drinks served with colorful plastic swords through the fruit in whatever clever nautical titled room we found ourselves-- whether the “Crow’s Nest”, “The Lighthouse”, or the “Commodore’s Cove” they all looked the same to me, only the trees outside the window reminded me if I was in Tampa or Bay Head, but that didn’t matter, the Roy Rodgers and Shirley Temples kept coming and by the end of the night I was high as a kite off maraschino cherries and had a mountain of plastic swords with which to entertain myself. Eventually we would find our seats, I slowly navigated my glass tumbler with my pockets full of plastic cocktail swords that poked me in the leg. Once seated, we made our way to the “Display”.

Buffet is simply not the word — Buffets have Sterno cans and aluminum steam trays, this was a Display of Spring Bounty, hogs and roasts and lambs with fresh mountains different cheeses next to asparagus and fiddleheads arranged around ice sculptures of boats or bunnies (this being Easter) with exotic arrangements of melon and other fresh fruit (but nothing too exotic) It seemed like the table went on forever, always with something new and unexplored. I credit these displays for my aesthetic on how food should be properly presented— none of that mamby-pamby minimalist French crap or a Asian fused smear of sauce — more like the description of The Ghost of Christmas Present, a heaping mountain of excess, dripping au jus and glistening in the candle light framed by leathery wood walls.

One Easter I was in Tampa. As usual, my Grandmother requested that I sit next to her to her right at the front of the table. She grilled me on my doings, my studies and basically what I was planning on doing with my life (at the age of seven you better have a plan, I remembered, this would later turn out to be a family survival mechanism for any holiday involving my Grandmother) She would look at you like a homeowner looks at a contractor being given a quote for a bathroom remodel— Hope, thinly veiled with distrust, while always wondering “will I regret this partnership”. Sue was a student of free will, either you were in control of a situation (life) or it was your fault as to why you were not.

I sat there trying to make second grade sound as interesting and complex as possible. Periodically Sue, my grandmother, would chime in with that falsetto southern accent of hers, “You know,” She began, “Everything changes in third grade… some, can’t --handle it…” then with her tiny eyebrow perched precariously high on her forehead, she would look away from her fork and slowly turn her attention to me. “Third grade, is when everything changes.”

Sue was famous for ending conversation with a surgical precision. This was as good time as any to venture back up to The Display and lose myself in the color and magic of the bounty. This time I noticed something in the back, amber and lovely, perfectly golden brown – There it was, a small plate of fried chicken sitting there like a pile of “get out of Jail, free” cards. Sure the display was gorgeous and awe inspiring, but no seven year old appreciates perfectly cooked lamb, beef wellington or fiddle heads. Lets face it, something battered and fried to a seven year old might as well be dipped in chocolate--Even if it was a vegetable. Fried chicken was also a bit of a delicacy to me. Remember, the elevation of the simple fried piece of chicken has only recently danced on the griddles of finer establishments. Prior, it was humbly served in buckets. As for having it at home; while my mother was raised south of the Mason-Dixon, cooking was not her forte – the kitchen in general was more of a instillation sculpture then a room used to prepare food, and on the rare occasion she prepared food, it was more preheating, then actual cooking. Cooking was left to the men in my family, often disguised as a hobby or passion, but in reality, a method of survival.

So, I did what any decent seven year old would do, I piled my plate high (making sure to leave some for others) and teeter tottered my way back to the table. I remember seeing my mother’s head pop up from the far side of the table and stare at me as I sat back down at the table, eyes wide sending me a warning signal much like a white tail deer flashes her tail to warn her brood of possible danger approaching. I, like the fawn who strays too far from the group was lost, my mother lowered her head and occasionally looked back to see if I survived the impending disaster. I sat down and immediately dug into the chicken.

It was lovely. A delicate crust disguised a bite of spice and sweet, the meat - perfectly done, it was still juicy but not so much so to frighten my naive palette. This was fresh, fried, and complete with that round flavor that tip-toes on all taste buds. It was at this point in mid rapture that I noticed my grandmother staring at me sideways. She wasn’t frozen but rather, noticing me eating, she was still talking with a family friend but was slowing her talking and abruptly tying up her conversation so she could focus on me. I sat there with a piece of fried heaven in between my hands realizing this gaffe, that I had abandoned my fork and knife at some point, and feared this is what was making Sue take notice. I quickly placed the chicken back on my plate, cleaned my hands and grabbed up the knife and fork. Sue watched me as I pretended that the hands on fowl incident had never happened. As I fumbled with the knife and fork, Sue slowly put down hers and with her hands, picked up the fried chicken on her plate.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” she said keeping her head forward but looking at me out of the corners of her eyes.

“Yes Ma’am!” I responded. Was this an olive branch? A way to say, to hell with formalities, some things you just need to sink your teeth into?

“I was afraid you were going to waste what was on your plate.” I relaxed, living through the depression taught Sue to never throw anything out, it was the utmost sin to waste anything. This often manifested in the most terrifying methods of “recycling”- more on that later. I often suspected she just didn’t want to take garbage to the curb.

My head lifted with pride, I watched as Sue and I ate fried chicken with our hands, and at the club! Smiling I offered again “I love fried chicken”.

Sue slowed eating for a moment and a wry smile slowly crept across her face, growing into a grin, like The Grinch, it kept growing until it curled up in tight little spirals on either side of her face. Her back arched and she said slowly “Oh, this isn’t chicken.”

Still eating, I looked at her, slowly processing her words. Of course it was chicken, It was fried, it had to be chicken. It was fried chicken. Sue sat there slowly chewing. I looked back expecting some other word, Hen, Rooster – Sue delighted in nothing more than being right and proving someone wrong, even if it was the smallest detail.

“This is Rabbit… Bunny Rabbit” she said still facing forward.

I was halfway through my plate and realized the pieces did not form a bird at all. Looking down the table no one else seemed to have “chicken” on their plate except me and my grandmother. The sinking reality came on like the yacht club had broken away and had began to sail off into rough seas. The worst was that I knew that I was unable to waste anything, and the plate must be left clean. I finished the meal in silence, slowly finishing each piece and assembling it like a macabre jigsaw puzzle. I ate the Easter Bunny. I ate the Easter Bunny. I ate the Easter bunny…and it was delicious.

Sue at the end of the meal looked at me and smiled again, this time putting her hand on my shoulder. “You have nothing to worry about. Third grade will be fine, it’s fourth grade that gets really hard”

Easter at the Yacht Club – (Fried Rabbit)

2 rabbits
2 egg yolks beaten lightly
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
oil for frying (high point oil like canola oil)
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder
salt to taste

Wash rabbit and thoroughly disjoint.

In a bowl, combine yolks and buttermilk, slowly add flour, cornmeal, pepper, paprika, cayenne and salt. Beat until smooth.

Heat oil in a frying pan to 360 degrees. Dip rabbit in batter and fry in oil, 7-10 minutes on each side.

Reduce heat to 275 degrees and cook, turning frequently, until rabbit is done, about30 more minutes.

Remove rabbit and drain on brown paper.

Shirley Temple

Build in a large rocks glass (one with a wide enough base that the flailing arms of children telling stories cannot easily knock it over). Add ginger ale over ice and sprinkle grenadine syrup over.
Garnish with orange slice and a maraschino cherry ((add a shot of Makers Mark bourbon for the grown-ups).

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