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Posts tagged ‘comfort food’

Brunswick Stew.

I’m a creature of habit. When it’s hot out I reach for a tomato sandwich slathered in Duke’s mayo, salt and pepper. When it’s spring, I want to eat new potatoes with local green onions, sweet like candy when sautéed with butter. And at the first hint of cold, when it’s 40 degrees and raining, the worst weather ever in the history of man, weather where it feels like the finger of Winter is reaching down from the gray clouds and tapping you so hard on the shoulder you want to crawl back under the covers forever, I get a taste for Brunswick Stew.

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia we’d have a Fall festival in the parking lot of my elementary school every year. Old-fashioned cake walks, pony rides, games where you tried to bust the balloons with darts, yes, actual pointy darts. The fair itself was pretty low-rent, a lot of tables hauled out from the cafeteria with makeshift tarps over them, but I loved it because it meant our Saturday would be filled with something other than household chores or running to The Imp Peddler for clothing discounts. We’d play games, try to win a cake (and lose), get our faces painted, and look at the ponies because they cost too much to ride.

Then we’d wander over to where guys were stirring Brunswick Stew with paddles in big iron pots, breathing in the peppery, meaty smell, warming ourselves against the cold by standing in the steam being carried off by the wind. At least this is what I see in my rosy-colored nostalgia mind’s eye. We choose what we want to remember. In fact it was probably tired volunteer parents ladling already made stew into to-go containers for other tired, harried parents. Mom would buy quarts and quarts of the stuff and she’d serve it up for the next two weeks, stashing the rest in the freezer. Or at least it seemed that long. Three days feels like two weeks to an 8-year-old.

Just one problem. I HATED Brunswick Stew. I’m not sure if it was the taste or the fact between the ages of 5 and 11 I was served stew every night like some enormous Thanksgiving bird that wouldn’t die, but each time Momma waltzed over to the Stew Tent with her wallet out, I’d sigh and make a stank face. Great. More fucking stew. I remember one year she put two quarts on the roof of our car then drove off. They spilled into the road and I cheered. But no dice, she just gave me a look before putting the car in park and going back to the tent. In our house if it was Fall, we were eating stew. And I got a spanking for cheering.

For the uninitiated, Brunswick Stew is a Virginia tradition, although Georgians would argue against it. There are even arguments about “proper” ingredients. The stew I grew up eating was on the thin side, tomato-based, with pulled chicken, sometimes pork, lima beans, tomatoes, corn, and spices. Lots of peppery spices.

For many years I ate no stew. Left home and ate none. Was proud of the fact every Fall I didn’t have to stuff my face with stew. I’d see the canned variety in my International Safeway in their bright yellow cans trimmed in red and walk proudly past, opting for just about anything else. No stew for me.

Did I see it as poor people food? Too much like the homespun “vittles” enjoyed by my ancestors in their farm-based Shenandoah Valley community when all I wanted was to eat foie gras and just once try caviar with real blinis like I’d seen on “Great Chefs of San Francisco”? A reminder of my supposed “imprisonment” in my often dictatorial childhood where I never had a say and very seldom could voice an opinion? Did I just not like lima beans? It couldn’t be that because I longed for Muddy’s fresh-from-the-garden limas slathered in butter all winter long. So what was it? What fueled the stew disdain?

Even in adulthood, when I’d fully embraced my family’s Nelson 151 roots and began to enjoy homespun comfort food and disdain tweezer food my Brunswick Stew dislike endured. The Hubby and I went to the Apple Festival at Albemarle Ciderworks a few years ago, and they WERE stirring the stew with large wooden paddles. In large iron vats. But I argued the line was too long and why don’t we just get some goat burgers instead. They sounded delicious and exotic and I’d never tried them. Brunswick Stew loses again.

It wasn’t until this year that I found myself craving it. One Saturday afternoon, the very first cold one of October, I was closing out my garden for the season, pulling out all the dead plants and putting away the pots. The wind picked up suddenly and ran through the trees making the dead leaves rattle. I knew it would rain soon. And the chill from the wind cut through my hoodie and I thought out of the blue, “Sure wish I had some Brunswick Stew.” Just like that.

Ran inside to look up a recipe, but every one I found had about 1600 steps and 450 different ingredients. Blerg. It’s cold. It’s Saturday………my Sabbath. Maybe somebody in town? This is where having a blog comes in handy. All I had to do was ask the question. Someone mentioned the stew at the Apple Festival, but that wouldn’t happen for weeks. Then one helpful fan said those fateful words that changed my life, “Barbecue Exchange makes Brunswick Stew every day of the year.”

Um, wut? I mean seriously. . . What. The. Hell!? How did I miss this? I eat there quite a bit, drive past the place every time I go to Richmond, and I missed that Barbecue Exchange has Brunswick Stew? Every day of the year? Now I know I’m a BBQ Exchange addict. Admittedly. I’ve written about them a lot. But hell, when something’s good! So here I am again, recommending the Brunswick Stew at Barbecue Exchange. Yes you can order it in quarts. And yes, you can get it with cornbread. In fact, I highly recommend it.

What was that first taste like after so many years? Did I regress to my childhood self and make a stank face? Quite the opposite. Chef Hartman’s stew is thicker than what my Momma served up, full of big chunks of chicken, pork, and vegetables. What I love most is that first taste, an extreme sweetness followed by a deep tomato flavor which envelops your mouth before descending into a spicy, fiery afterburn. Really spicy, but not so much it prevents you from diving in again. This is the kind of spicy food I can get behind, even at my age. That sweet-to-fire flavor is so unique, and dare I say it? This Brunswick Stew is better than what I ate as a child. Much much better. Granted back then I despised all things stew, but imagine my adult self tasting my childhood stew. Yeah, I know, weird, but cut me some slack here. This stew beats that one all to pieces.

So yes, back then not a fan. But something came along my life’s timeline and flipped a switch. Sometimes all it takes is for the wind to change. Who knows, maybe I’m just a fan of memories. Nostalgia’s a funny thing. Tastes of food, scents in the air can instantly transport us. I still can’t walk into September twilight, smelling the sharp snap of cold and the wet dew that’s fallen on the grass, without thinking of Tuesday night band practice. And I can’t eat Brunswick Stew without thinking of elementary school and festivals. Even if there weren’t any vats or big wooden paddles.

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Fire, Flour & Fork. Part 2.

When I was 22, I had a dinner engagement with Joyce Carol Oates and I stood her up. Didn’t call or send a message. I just didn’t go. Yes, THAT Joyce Carol Oates. The uber-prolific National Book Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of We Were the Mulvaneys, and Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart. Her. I’m just naming the novels I know even though she’s written like 60? Not including essays and short story collections. Unbelievably talented, Mount Rushmore novelist. Chance of a lifetime.

And I didn’t go. At the time I was a freshman in college and my English professor saw something in me which I later discovered was a virginal youthfulness he wished to exploit and sleep with, but at the time I thought was a hope and concern for my burgeoning writing talent. My mentor turned out to be what Lena Dunham calls a “Sunshine Stealer”, just a dirty old man looking for a jolt of youth. And sex. But that’s a whole other story for another time. And we’re here to talk about Joyce. And Fire, Flour & Fork I swear.

The professor noticed me reading “Because it is Bitter…” in class and invited me to a dinner he was hosting for her. I was thrilled. Immediately went home and crammed another two books of hers in so I would appear knowledgeable and worldly. Which wasn’t easy since she’s prolific in the length of her novels as well. But when he called the night before and said he’d arranged for me to sit NEXT to Ms. Oates, I panicked. I’d hoped to smile discreetly from afar and maybe say a few words. Sit next to her at dinner? The whole night?! My social anxiety flooded up tsunami fashion. I didn’t go. Hid in my apartment for a week in case I ran into him, or by some weird possibility her, even though we’d never met. When I finally returned to class I mumbled, shrugged, and acted about as interested in literature as I was in contacting Ebola.

All this is a long way of saying I’m terrified of meeting my heroes. Always have been. It’s completely irrational. My head tells me they’re just people, but my heart, my gut sends up a ticker tape message along the lines of, “They’re better than you, they’re smarter than you, they’ve done more with their lives than you,” which runs on a loop until I end up in a corner with the shakes.

Case in point. When Anthony Bourdain was here, I purchased the VIP tickets, but did I get my book signed? Hell no! I sat in the back and stared at him like a crazed stalker, completely petrified. What on earth could I say to him or Eric Ripert that would be even remotely cool or intelligible? I was content my question, “What’s your favorite secret junk food vice?” was asked during their talk. That’s as close as I wanted to get. Another time at a dinner hosted by Chefs Michael Symon, Jonathan Waxman, and Bobby Flay, all I could do was grin like a buffoon.

Sadly, it was the same story for the Appalachian Memoir dinner at Fire, Flour & Fork. Chef Sean Brock was in the restaurant all night, but the most I could manage was a creepy smile in passing on my way to the bathroom. He wasn’t even looking in my direction and still my heart jumped up in my throat like a fucking spider cricket! Imagine talking?! Visions of gobbeldy-gook spewing out of my mouth like verbal diarrhea about how much I love, admire, and seriously CRUSH on him during every episode of The Mind of a Chef flooded my brain. No thank you. I’ll just smile and pretend my heart isn’t pounding out of my chest thank you very much.

Which left me even more nervous to meet another hero of mine, Chef Christina Tosi. Tosi, pastry chef at David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar, is a native Virginian, and a MASTER in the art of sweets. I made her cornflake, marshmallow, and chocolate chip cookies last Christmas, but substituted Fruity Pebbles as suggested in her cookbook, Milk. My family loves them and to this day calls them “Crack Cookies”.

Coincidentally, at her cooking demonstration she’d be making Crack Pie, one of her signature creations. This decadent confection resembles more a dense sticky toffee pudding than anything in a crust. Imagine a chess pie that’s chewier, sweeter, nuttier, and more buttery. Nestled in an oat cookie crust, this pie is so sweet your cavities will cry out in protest. I couldn’t wait to see her bake it.

I so dearly with all my baker’s soul wanted to ask her a question about an original pie creation I was working on. But would I have the courage? From the way I’d just acted at the dinner I thought not, but I also knew this might be my only chance to get an expert opinion. I mean, how badly did I want to win next year’s Charlottesville Pie Fest anyway? Pretty badly it turns out.

Her demonstration was amazing, a true expression of what public speaking with cooking utensils could be. Chef Tosi was engaging, funny, self-deprecating, and so at ease in front of a crowd it’s like she cooks in public every morning of her life. She mixed, rolled, kneaded and dusted, talking with an easy way and knowledge about all things pastry. I hated her. When she stated, “Milk powder is MSG for pastry chefs,” I scribbled it down furiously, tweeted it out, and sighed in wistfulness and envy that she could be so relaxed, so quippy, with an effortlessness and ease I’d never known. Not once.

“Milk powder is MSG for pastry chefs.” —-Chef Christina Tosi

After her demo, and after we’d all inhaled a slice of Crack Pie like it was medicine, I somehow found the courage to get an autograph for my well-worn copy of “Milk”. Maybe it was the intense sugar rush, or the fact I’m just over my damn self already and sick to death of my fears, but somehow I found the wherewithal to stand in line. I even spoke with two elderly ladies who’d never heard of Tosi, but had enjoyed the Crack Pie and were wondering which breakout session to attend next. I practiced talking to Tosi by talking to them, probably too much, even giving them my recipe for Tomato Candy of all things. I could hear myself babbling. I’m sure it was the nervousness. Or the sugar. Or both.

By the time I got to my hero, I was on a roll. I’d heard her tell someone she’d gone to UVA and latched onto that. Asked her about UVA, commented on the beautiful landscape, and before I could stop myself, launched into my soliloquy about one of her heavenly cakes and what did she think about turning it into a pie? I could sense the long line behind me growing restless, but I didn’t care. I was full of sugar and had a mission. Help me make this pie!

Chef Tosi was friendly and helpful and very carefully gave me suggestions on what she thought was a wonderful idea. She signed my book, wished me well, and sent me on my way. The whole exchange probably took less than 5 minutes, but in my head it lasted hours. Days. It was all in slow motion. My heart pumping the entire time. Which might have been the sugar. It ain’t called Crack Pie for nothing. Too late I realized I hadn’t gotten a picture.

Have I conquered my fear? Not quite. In my head I know opportunities only come around once, and when faced with a door, you should open it, but tell that to my beating heart and sweaty palms. For my gut it isn’t always easy. At least I now have concrete steps to take when faced with meeting your heroes. Eat a TON of sugar. If you’ve had a triple latte beforehand that helps. Have in your mind one question to ask. If you find out she knows your hometown, jump on that for all it’s worth. Never stop talking. Seriously, keep talking until the angry line of ladies signal you with their eyes your time is up. Or the event organizer kicks you out for being a stalking Creepy Creeper.

I often think what would have happened if I’d gone to that Joyce Carol Oates dinner. Sure, I would’ve had to fight off Mr. Grabby Hands but I might’ve also discovered a true mentor, one who could’ve opened doors for me. If I wasn’t so paralyzed, I might be further along. Maybe even have a book or two under my belt. But I do believe things happen for a reason, and for whatever I was supposed to be a no show. Even if it was only for a quirky blog post story some 25 years later. If it happened again? I’d go this time. And probably sit at the dinner smiling at Joyce like a buffoon.

And what, you may ask, was the question for Chef Christina Tosi? What pie am I interested in making? You’ll just have to attend next year’s Charlottesville Pie Fest to find out :0)

Thank you Fire, Flour & Fork for a terrific event. Who knew conferences could be so therapeutic? See you in 2015!

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Fire, Flour & Fork. Part 1.

“The food our grandmothers cooked is the most important food we will ever eat.” —Chef Sean Brock

I hate going to conferences. Just hate it. It makes me twitchy. All my social anxiety rises up from the basement of my being when I have to do something like go to a work event alone, or make a phone call, or leave the house to run errands, or get the mail.

But conferences are the worst. The break-out sessions not so much. Presumably you signed up for the thing because of a interesting topic. It’s the between times that make me feel I’m back at the outcast lunch table. Milling about, smiling, attempting small talk like, “Wow, that was informative!” to total strangers without looking like an asshole until the next breakout session begins and you can find a seat in the back and bury your head in your notebook and go back to what you do best at conferences. . . take notes.

But I go. It’s the nature of the beast. I’ve probably had 60 different jobs in my life and every single one of them had a meeting or conference deemed “must attend”. Plus when you’re a writer, if you don’t show your face at least twice a year people start thinking you’re a hermit or some kind of cellar-living mole man from a Stephen King novel. At least food events have food.

The first annual Fire, Flour & Fork  event in Richmond a few weeks ago had more than food. It had APPALACHIAN food. Chef Sean Brock’s food. Chef Travis Milton’s food. Throw in Chef Jason Alley of Pasture, one of my favorite folks on the planet, Christina Tosi, punk rock pastry chef from David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar, and other assorted noteworthies from the region PLUS some of the great friends I made at the Appalachian Food Summit in Kentucky last spring (Ronni Lundy, Kendra Bailey Morris I’m looking at you), and just maybe this particular conference wouldn’t be so bad. It wasn’t. In fact it was pretty fucking epic. Almost as epic as that run-on sentence.

Another reason I don’t go to many food conferences is the same reason I stopped judging contests. And stopped ordering 10-course tasting menus. My aging tummy can’t handle it. But when I hear Chefs Sean Brock, Travis Milton, and Jason Alley are collaborating on an “Appalachian Memoir” dinner I do what any self-respecting homegirl from the Shenandoah Valley would do. I fast for three days and pack extra Mylanta.

And what a memoir! From my guesstimate 100 people gathered at Travis Milton’s Comfort that first night to celebrate the bounty of Appalachia. And when I closed my eyes and blocked out the ambient noise, the tastes and textures entering and warming my soul could’ve been from Nana’s and Muddy’s kitchens.

First Course:
Pickle plate with mustard pickles, icicle pickles, pickled beets, dilly beans, pickled cauliflower
Angel biscuits with Alan Benton’s ham and pimento cheese
“Sunday Go-to-Meeting” deviled eggs

Second Course:
Soup beans with chow-chow
Sour corn
Greasy beans
Squash casserole
Catfish and tomato gravy

Third Course:
Leather britches
White Eagle hominy grits
Mixed pickle
Kilt salad with Fall greens
Rabbit with black pepper dumplings

Buttermilk pie with warm pickled peaches
Sean’s Grandma’s apple stack cake
Green tomato fried pies

I could’ve made a meal from the biscuits, ham, and pimento cheese alone. Sean Brock’s pimento cheese is extraordinary. Box-grated onion adds a sweet creaminess so smooth it tastes like silky cheese pudding. The fermented sour corn is fried in bacon grease resulting in a taste that’s by turns, sweet, sour, and bacon-smoky. The soup beans instantly fed my soul with their warm, tender and hearty goodness, and the greasy beans tasted just like Muddy’s.

Leather britches are dried green beans strung into long ropes for hanging. Once dried they’re soaked, cut, and cooked down until soft. Usually with bacon grease. I couldn’t get enough of their beefy flavor and neither could my Buffalo-born Hubby.

The White Eagle hominy grits were prepared the old fashioned way. Wood ash is mixed with water to create an all-natural culinary lye used to strip the outer hull off the kernel. The resulting grits are gray in color and taste of pure corn essence, the corniest hominy grit imaginable. It’s a difficult process and it makes me sad to think I can’t always eat grits this way. From now on all the grits I eat will be less than. They’re that good.

What is Kilt Salad? Just any sort of green, wilted or quickly blanched, then doused in hot bacon grease. Yes Ma’am! Paired with Sean Brock’s rabbit and black pepper dumplings and I was slapping the table, crying out Hallelujah! Instant chair-church-dancing ensued. Light, airy dumplings with sweet, tender rabbit in a big stew pot. I need to eat this at least once a year from now on. Just to preserve my culinary sanity. Seriously, I will go insane if I never eat this again.

At this point the entire restaurant was pleading for mercy. Chef Milton’s brother even joked aloud how the line for the bathroom was ungodly long, and why not with all the beans and greens and pickles on the menu, resulting in gales of laughter. But no mercy here folks, for dessert was the final climatic scene to this memoir. Four-layer apple stack cake with what tasted like an apple, salted caramel glaze in between each layer. Holy mother of God. The Hubby took one bite and immediately proclaimed it the best dessert he’s ever eaten. Guess I’d better master the recipe. When the buttermilk pie and green tomato hand pies started coming out I looked around frantically for a to-go box. No way in hell was any of this going to waste.

As we rolled, literally Violet Beauregarde-ROLLED out of the restaurant and walked back to our hotel, I was content, truly content. One of those life moments so sweet you know it won’t last, so you breathe it in, take it in with every sense, so you can remember it later.

We strolled down deserted downtown Broad Street past Jefferson Loan (where Bo Diddley shops, remember that commercial?) and I thought to myself, “Yep, hometown proud. Those guys have done good. Real good.” Then burped. Loudly. In any case, I was happy, Pappy. It thrills me to see this kind of no-tweezers-in-sight comfort food celebrated. There’s a respect I have for the technical virtuosity of what I like to call “Tweezer Food”, no doubt, but I must admit, my love, lust, and longing are held most dear for the chefs who cook the way of my grandmothers. I’m a whore for dumplings and grits. Not to get too nutty-crunchy—spiritual-hippie on you, but when I eat Appalachian food, for just a moment, that spiritual gap, that hole, that emptiness we all carry around with us every living moment of every day, that gap that’s there because something in our lives is missing, is filled. For just a moment, one sweet moment, I’m whole. A rare thing indeed. And one I tend to chase when I’m hungry.

Is it nostalgia? After all, Chef Milton’s mother joked with me as a child Travis hated the garden, and now all he wants to talk about are “…beans, beans, beans!” I can’t get enough of beans, greens, biscuits, and cakes that remind me of my grandmothers. Even Northern-born Hubby ran straight to his favorite fish shop the minute we checked in. The one right next to his old apartment that serves up a fine 3-filet fried trout sandwich on white bread with ketchup. For $2.95.

Is it nostalgia? The simplicity of ingredients? Or just damn good food? All I know is what I feel. And after that meal, I felt not only FED, I had a twinge of excitement because after all, this was only the first event. There were about 50 more left to come. Anxiety? What anxiety? Good food makes conference anxiety all better.

Stay tuned for Part Two of my Fire, Flour & Fork adventure next week. . .

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