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Posts from the ‘recipes’ Category

Cathy Fields, The Skull & Bones, and Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding.

Every holiday season I end up making multiple lasagna pans full of corn pudding. It’s a Virginia holiday staple, one so important to my heritage to find it missing on a table is akin to find the star missing on a Christmas tree. The New York Times agrees with me. But I don’t make my Nana’s corn pudding. I used to. Until I met someone who changed my mind. About corn pudding and a lot of other things.

I’ve made a life of traveling from job to job, rotating through such various vocations as teacher, baker, daycare worker, waitress, bartender, CPR program coordinator, receptionist slash secretary, and events planner. I’ve worked in development, architecture, environmental remediation, and microbiology where I input data on AIDS patients. At that same hospital I temped in hospice, emergency, and every unit in between. I never planned it this way, but all those experiences sure have fleshed out my writing. And I’ve met a ton of people. So many after a while I started to group them by type. The ambitious ladder climber, the one counting the days until retirement, the young innocent who’s only doing this job until something better comes along. Five years later they’re still there, still insisting it’s temporary.

But a few defy type. A few I still remember fondly because they were sparks. Flashes of light blasting through my days of repetitive task drudgery. They made me laugh, taught me things, showed me infinite possibility in defining who it is exactly you want to be. They defied every stereotype and showed me no matter what the circumstance, you can still stand out. You can still ruffle feathers. Cathy Fields was one such spark.

I met Cathy 20 years ago while temping at the Medical College of Virginia’s Otolaryngology department which is just a fancy way of saying Ear, Nose, and Throat. Cathy was the personal secretary (they called them secretaries back then) to the department head, a rigid, intimidating MD so proud of his Greek heritage a giant bust of Hippocrates oversaw every office activity. I was Cathy’s assistant, hired to help sort through residency applications. I proved my worth, and after residency season they asked me to stay on as that lovely oxymoron the “permanent-temp” which basically meant I still made the same crappy wage with no benefits, and the agency continued to charge the department an arm and a leg for me to file papers, type envelopes, and answer phones.

The work was tedious but Cathy’s manner made it seem like the best game ever. I adored her. Tall and rail-thin, the ever-present spark in her eye and smirk on her face belied her age. She soon to retire and mentioned it often to anyone within earshot. She was brash, opinionated, joked often, and cursed much. Her voice had no filter whatsoever. To a naive introvert like myself she was awe-inspiring. Where I could barely look my boss in the eye, she told him off regularly, saying what she damn well pleased. All the while looking over the glasses perched on the end of her nose and smoking like a chimney. In a hospital. It was the 90’s. Years of smoking had made Cathy’s voice deep, raspy, rough, and loud. It carried. Especially when she laughed which was often.

Our days were spent doing what secretaries do, which most of the time meant chastising residents and putting out fires. Reminding the boss of meetings and filling out forms in triplicate whenever we needed more paperclips. We talked and chatted since we shared an office, our conversations carrying over into lunch. Usually spent at the Skull and Bones across the street with her daughter, also named Cathy. Cathy was a younger, equally-spry version of her mother and lunching together I often felt like I’d cheated time somehow. Like I was looking into a weird “present” and “future” funhouse mirror. And I couldn’t stop thinking about this Kids in the Hall sketch.

The Skull and Bones was a hospital institution at 12th and Marshall Streets where doctors, med students, nurses, and employees met to talk over olive and cream cheese sandwiches, chips, soda, and great coffee. Surly waitresses in uniform who’d probably worked there 50 years served you, and you’d better be damn ready with your order. Because they just didn’t have time for your shenanigans. I mention olive and cream cheese because that was my go-to old school lunch of choice. For $1.75.

The food was served up fast. This was a hospital diner after all, and the faster you were served, the quicker you could get back to work. Or in our case the more time we had to gab, smoke, and gripe.

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From “Historic VCU: A VCU Images Special Collection”

It wasn’t all griping. Over many months I learned about the life of The Cathy’s. Including how Cathy Senior’s mother was living with her because she suffered from Alzheimer’s. She spent her days accusing Cathy Senior of sleeping around (I believe the word “hussy” was used more than once) and hiding the kitchen stove burners. She’d found two in her purse once. We talked a lot about Big Stone Gap where Cathy Senior was from, mostly to mention how much better the food was in Big Stone Gap than it was at the Skull & Bones, but also because the book had come out and she was tickled to death her little corner of the Earth was being given a larger stage to perform on.

The first year our Thanksgiving potluck rolled around I offered to bring my Nana’s corn pudding, a sweet custard-like dish with lots of eggs, cream, and nutmeg. Cathy looked at me like I had three heads. No way dear. That’s my dish. I relented, silently resigned to the fact I’d eat this inferior pudding now, but enjoy Nana’s when I went to visit Front Royal in a few weeks. Then I had my first bite of Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding. Wow!

Sweet corn flavor melds into the nutty grainyness of a corn muffin which is then cut by the sharp tang of sour cream and cheese. Lots and lots of sharp cheddar cheese. After my first bite I knew two things: I needed the recipe like yesterday, and I could crush an entire lasagna pan in one sitting. When Cathy brought me the recipe, my favorite kind a “Mix and Dump”, I KNEW I’d never make Nana’s again. Easy as hell AND stuff your face good? Yes, and yes.

Decades later my mind turns toward Cathy every November. I wonder where she ended up, if her retirement was spent full of laughter and family. If she got help with her mother. If her daughter had children and those children enjoy their grandmother’s corn pudding. As I dump the ingredients into the bowl every November I say a silent apology to my Nana, that instead of making her sweet custardy creation, I’m making a corny, cheesy version made famous by a dear friend who showed me the kind of person I could be if I really wanted to. It was possible to be rid of my Disease to Please. It was okay if everyone didn’t like me. I could be anyone I damn well wanted. It’s okay to be loud.

After finishing that last sentence I got a wild hair (as my Momma used to say) and went to the Interwebs. Sadly, Cathy passed away in 2007. But her daughter is on Facebook. Cathy Junior’s cover photo includes the words, “Never forget to tell anyone how much they mean to you while they’re still alive.” True that. I wish I’d done it. But since I can’t I’ll continue to gorge myself on corn pudding. To laugh. And to be fucking loud. Thanks Cathy.

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Cathy Fields's Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 can creamed corn
1 can whole corn with juice
1 box Jiffy corn muffin mix
2 large eggs, beaten
8 ounces sour cream – room temperature
1 stick of butter – room temperature
1-2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
Sugar, salt, and pepper to taste

Mix everything well. Stir half the grated cheese into the mixture, setting aside the other half. Bake in a 9×12 pan (or so, any pan you cook lasagna in will do) at 325-350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle the other half of the grated cheese on top when you pull it out of the oven.

Kitchen Playlist – 80’s Cocktail Hour!

Habs.

When it comes to growing habaneros, I’m a badass. I suck at pretty much everything, but if you pin me down, this is one thing I’m good at doing. This year 8 plants grown from seed (from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) produced 6 POUNDS of peppers. Yep, 6 pounds. The irony? I can’t eat them and neither can anyone else. Too freaking hot. Like, don’t touch your eyes hot.

Why do I grow them? Because I can. Because I’m damn good at it. I’ve been gardening for almost 20 years, and have seen my share of failure. Gardening is a finicky mistress. A delicate chemical formula, requiring the right seeds, enough sun, no overwatering, which if you’re very lucky will result in good eats. There’s nothing more frustrating than babying a plant, doing everything right, but because of the weather or the plant gods, or whatever, seemingly healthy shoots shrivel up and die, sometimes overnight.

But I can grow some damn habs. I’ve tried serranos (great in Bloody Marys) and jalapenos (great roasted into chipotles) but I always go back to my apricot fire. What can I say? Some people obsess about pumpkins in the fall, I obsess about the tiny orange wrinkled globes my plants seem to produce at will.

Every January I sit with the seed catalog and dream. Some years I get adventurous, trying on new vegetables for size. Heirloom tomatoes, okra, exotic lettuces. Half the time these plants end up weak and disease-ridden, or the rabbits get them, or they produce such a low yield I have to wonder why I bother? I mean 9 heirloom plants producing 7 tomatoes? What’s the point?

As a result, sometimes I just want to be successful. To have a huge harvest without a lot of work. Plus, I’ve had a rough year. I’m in need of some success, a nice pat on the proverbial back. I want that confidence boost that comes from looking at your garden knowing, “I did that.” Habs fit the bill. Not only do they grow abundantly, but the only pests I’ve come across are aphids, which are quickly dispatched by insecticidal soap.

I figured out a long time ago most vegetables can grow in pots. I grow everything in them. Instead of slaving away in the hot sun, weeding, spraying, babying my plants, I just step outside, take a quick look, trim here, spray there, and I’m done in 10 minutes. The plants reach almost 4.5 feet in height and the lush green leaves, white flowers, and low-hanging green and ripened orange fruit looks glorious in the summer sun right into Autumn. And 6 pounds of peppers later, I look like a rockstar.

But what to do with 6 pounds of apricot fire? I sent 2 pounds to a friend in Georgia who insisted he wanted an entire quart-bag Ziploc full of these beauties. Made sure I included instructions like, “Use gloves when cutting. Do not touch eyes. Wash hands thoroughly. Keep fatty foods like butter, milk, and ice cream about in case of capsaicin emergencies.” When you’re dealing with a pepper that contains 100-350,000 Scoville units, this is imperative.

The remaining 4 pounds are a mixture of orange and green habaneros. Both are stellar vegetables, containing flavors of fruit, herbs, and lemony acid, NOT JUST HEAT. Another reason I prefer habs to any other pepper. Orange habs start off as sweet peach or apricot on the tongue, quickly evolving into a smoky heat that builds until it is capsaicin fire. Just a little adds a fruity spice to chili, stir-fry, spaghetti sauce, salsa, hell anything you can dream up that might need some fruity heat.

Green habs taste green, for want of a better word. Herbal like a meadow. They taste like springtime smells, before evolving into just as intense a heat as the orange. Use green habs anywhere you think an herbal element might improve the flavor.

I dried the orange ones in my dehydrator. Wear gloves, then slice, remove the seeds (the hottest part, trust me the meat of the pepper is plenty hot), and dry on racks at 135 degrees for about 3-4 hours. Place in Ziploc bags in the freezer. Just one pepper is enough for an entire crock pot full of chili. The smell permeating the house during the drying process is an intoxicating perfume of smoked peaches, apricots, spice, and capsaicin. I’ve come to crave it every Autumn. I’m used to the smell, but I’ve had a lot of folks say it clears their sinuses.

As for the green habs? I was fortunate enough to attend a demonstration by Paul Virant of Chicago’s Vie Restaurant during Richmond’s Fire, Flour, Fork festival last weekend. He talked about his own recipe for fermented pepper hot sauce which I’m dying to try! Ferment the peppers whole in a crock with an equal volume of salt and water for 2-3 weeks. Then simmer with equal weight of peppers, the brine itself, and vinegar. As he put it, “NO bacteria is able to survive in THAT soup!” I’ll let you know how it turns out.

What fueled this adoration for fiery fruit? Why do I grow something I can no longer eat comfortably? Because 20 years ago, I could. Because 20 years ago, during the infancy of the Interwebs, I was part of a listserv called the ChileHeads. Hot pepper enthusiasts traded recipes, growing and preserving tips, jokes, stories, and challenges to like-minded people as part of their daily digest.

I developed my palate for hot peppers by trying out different types of hot sauce, discovering that the best ones aren’t just a blast of heat, but contain full flavors of smoke, fruit, citrus, even beer, wine, or chocolate. To this day I use Mild to Wild Habanero Barbecue Sauce and Chipotle Barbecue Sauce on everything from french fries to mac and cheese to quesadillas because the owner was a member of the listserv. The best hot sauce I’ve ever tasted was developed in Indiana by Jim Campbell, who harvests 40 acres of hot peppers on his land, and invites fellow Chileheads out to his farm to camp every Autumn where they can pick to their heart’s content. Screw picking apples on Carter’s Mountain. Like Peter, I want to pick peppers!

So yeah, I’m still a Chilehead, even though my ingestion of said chiles has greatly diminished. I’ll always grow them. I’ll always have them to give away. I’ve got 2 pounds dried in my freezer if you’re interested. Not only are the plants beautiful, and the fruity flavor addictive, I love the feeling of success I get from growing them. When life kicks you down and makes you feel like you can’t do anything right, it helps to have something to fall back on that you’re good at, and that you enjoy. To remind you you’re a badass.

I figure I’m carrying on a tradition. My Nana always grew lush fields of iris every year, and my Muddy was a genius with geraniums. When I’m old and gray, I’ll be growing habs. In a pot of course.

Pepper Drying Playlist?  K-Tel Super Gold Hits from the 70’s. Of course!

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Hoppin’ John.

I’m not normally superstitious. I step on cracks and cool things happen to me on Friday the 13th. But last year was pretty volatile on the home front, so for the first time EVER I made Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. Figured what the hell, can’t hurt.

And I did it up right. Bought Sea Island Peas from Anson Mills and cooked these meaty gems according to the recipe on the website with a mirepoix of whole carrot, onion, and celery. Added just a touch of curry, one bay leaf, and let the whole thing simmer for a little over an hour in a mixture of chicken and ham stock. Chopped up country ham was added. Stuck some Carolina Gold White Rice from the same wonderful artisans of grain on the side and a main course was born.

Throw in some collards cooked in ham hock, vinegar, and apple cider and some cast iron skillet cornbread with bacon drippings, and our first meal of 2014 was a raging success. The peas were meaty and rich and their gravy soaked into the fluffy rice creating something comforting beyond measure. The sweet acidity of the collard greens, the sweet bacon-y flavor of the cornbread. . .it all added up to heaven on a plate.

What started as an experiment in good luck juju ended up being just a damn good meal. Still, when the Polar Vortex hit, I made more. Because there’s nothing like a little New Year’s Southern Good Luck to ward off icy demons.

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