Near the top of the list of my most-loved pleasures: Eating a good meal cooked by someone other than me.
Oh, I truly do enjoy cooking in my own kitchen, reading recipes and recreating comfort foods. But I do plenty of cooking trying to keep this family of six going, so an occasional break from food prep and cleanup is a welcome treat.
Lucky for me, Beau’s grandmother (Ma) and mother (Mim) — both of them excellent Southern cooks — planned for months beforehand what we would eat during this past summer’s vacation in Alabama. I happily indulged in menus executed to perfection, washed only a couple dishes while I was down there (the kitchen was milling with aunts who seemed to be on top of the whole dirty dishes situation, and I was all too happy to slip out the door to check on the kids in the lake), and after we returned home to Montana my mouth was still watering for the yumminess I’d grown accustomed to eating in Ma’s lake house in six short days. They say that even a sandwich tastes better if someone else has made it, and I believe that to be true, but in this case the food truly was outstanding… down to the last morsel. Some of the good stuff we enjoyed down there:
• First of all, no Southern meal would be complete without an ice-filled red solo cup brimming with sweet tea. No Southern grocery store — I just had to take a picture of this Piggly Wiggly —
— would be complete without an extensive display of store-bought sweet tea completely overshadowing the milk display. Sure, you can make sweet tea at home — and I do, on special occasions, here in my Montana kitchen — but when you can buy a jug of Milo’s for less than a gallon of milk, why not? With extended family and friends at the lake house over the Fourth of July holiday, I couldn’t even make a guess as to how much sweet tea we went through!
• For breakfast Beau’s brother regularly cooked up scrambled eggs and Conecuh sausage on the outdoor griddle (you read that right; not a grill but a griddle — I need one!). Conecuh is an everyday word in the homes of my in-laws, but if you’ve never ventured southeast of Colorado you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s good ol’ pork link sausage, made in Evergreen, Alabama, perfectly seasoned, good for breakfast or good chopped up and stirred into your dinnertime jambalaya. You can actually find packages of Conecuh sausage for sale in the refrigerator at most any gas station in Alabama! When we returned home from vacation this year, I searched the internet and almost ordered a case of it to be delivered here to our home… then realized it was going to cost about $100 in shipping. Darn it. Next time we’ll stuff our suitcases with it before flying back.
• Oh! And breakfast in Alabama wouldn’t be complete without a bloody mary. I like mine short on the booze and long on the ice-cold salty savory tomato deliciousness! For some reason I didn’t take any pictures of the wonderful food prepared in Ma’s kitchen this summer. Back home, though, we re-created more than a few jars of bloody mary, so this Montana-made photo will have to suffice:
• On a sultry July afternoon on the lake Ma whipped up a batch of creamy sweet peach ice cream, the pale custard dotted with chunks of perfect peaches grown right there in Alabama. Back home in Montana I bought a case of peaches at Costco, looked up a recipe, and tried to recreate peach ice cream… but it was missing the love.
• During our vacation Beau’s mom kept us supplied in that good ol’ Southern summertime sandwich fixin’: pimen’o cheese. (As far as they’re concerned there’s not a T in pimento!) Slathered on white bread or scooped out with corn chips, pimen’o cheese makes a great quick lunch. I’ve tried several recipes for pimen’o cheese here at home, but Beau says the one that hits closest to home is Pioneer Woman’s.
• Boiled peanuts. They were the first treat we bought this vacation. We were fresh off the airplane that delivered us to Birmingham, making a pit stop on the drive down to the lake at a gas station. Beau grew up on boiled peanuts: green (un-roasted) peanuts simmered long and slow in brine, then sold out of crockpots by the styrofoam-cupful at any convenience store worth its salt in Alabama. You put the peanut shells in your mouth whole and suck out all the delicious brine, then crack the shells open and fish out the delicious (and surprisingly soggy) nuts.
• During a day trip away from the lake to visit Jim and Chelsea (Jim is Beau’s faithful childhood friend who stood up with us in our wedding; we both stood up with them in theirs), we were treated to jambalaya and fried green tomatoes. A lot of Cajun influence seeps into Alabama cooking (Beau’s grandmother and mother are both gumbo pros; red beans and rice is a regular dish on my mother-in-law’s table), and Jim’s jambalaya was a special treat. Didn’t compare, though, to the mouth-watering fried green tomatoes on their table, which inspired me to take the only food picture I took while on vacation:
The natives (meaning my kids) are restless here at my little home in Montana, so I will try to abbreviate the remainder of this food list. But each line deserves mention:
• On the evening of the Fourth: ribs, homemade mac ‘n’ cheese, baked beans
• A drunken watermelon graced the bar one day: a halved melon hollowed out and filled with chunks of juicy cold watermelon swimming in vodka.
• Tubs of Barbecue were stuffed in the frig and served us sandwich-makers well all week long (Beau’s uncle, as part of an annual community club fundraiser, had helped with the Fourth of July project of slow-roasting pork in earthen pits, then chopping and packaging the resulting Barbecue for sale to the community). Mind you, Barbecue in the South has nothing to do with grilling. Barbecue, in Alabama, is not an action but a proper noun: it’s basically slow-cooked chopped pork. It also has nothing to do with the goopy red sauce we associate with BBQ here in the North. The Barbecue we enjoy down there is most often tossed in a light salt-and-vinegar sauce that needs no additional condiment.
• Beau’s mom’s way of preparing yellow summer squash is a comfort to him: Sauté onion (and bacon if you’d like) in a heavy pot with butter. Add in rounds of sliced yellow squash and continue to sauté. Season with salt and pepper. Add water to the pot to about halfway up the squash; cover and simmer for 20 minutes or more. So tender, easy, and tasty!
• Field peas. Think black-eyed peas, but if you’re from the North like me you probably didn’t know that there’s a whole extended family of field peas, and the Blake and Epperson women prepare them all deftly. How do they make them? Like you would dried beans, in a stock seasoned with a ham hock or bacon. In the particular pot I’m thinking of a few rounds of sliced okra (all the garden had to offer that week) were cooked right along with the peas. You serve prepared field peas — always — over cornbread. Remember, as I’ve written before, that cornbread in the Deep South has nothing to do with butter and honey. Rather, it’s a pale, dry, savory flatbread baked in a cast-iron skillet and made for soaking up the likker (juice) at the bottom of your plate.
• Chicken soup. Beau’s grandmother’s kitchen wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a pot of chicken soup, made from a whole chicken, simmering on the back of the stove. It’s not chicken noodle soup at all. It’s just tender chicken pieces simmering in their own broth. Beau often enjoyed his chicken soup over rice growing up.
• Ma and Dee’s garden famously overflows with sun-sweet homegrown tomatoes every summer, and baskets heaped with picked tomatoes graced the lake house kitchen. Ma put the bounty to use one morning and made tomato gravy to serve over homemade biscuits. I’d never even heard of tomato gravy before Beau came into my life, and I haven’t mastered it yet in our kitchen… but I was delighted to enjoy it at Ma’s table.
Truth be told, I had never heard of — certainly never tasted — most of the foods mentioned above before Beau and I got together. When we say that the two of us come from different worlds, we are almost serious! My first trips down South when we were dating were culinary shockers. I wasn’t used to the savory flavors stirred into good Southern cooking. In my 19 years before that I had eaten lots of beef but very little pork beyond bacon, very little seafood beyond canned tuna, few fresh tomatoes, no okra, and the list goes on. In the years since, though (we’ve been married since 2003), and after many many trips to Alabama, I’ve learned to enjoy and even long for a good many of the traditional Southern foods. Many I try to recreate in our Montana kitchen occasionally, using what I can find in the local grocery store (or, in the case of green peanuts at Christmastime, order on Amazon), with varying levels of success. My cooking doesn’t compare to that of those Alabama ladies. Beau’s mom and grandmother not only have experience and culture on their side, but the time and love they stir in are unmatched by my efforts as yet.
On the plane trip home Beau and I got to talking about the only Southern treats we didn’t get to enjoy this trip down: Cooked greens (think turnips and collards; we were there in the wrong season this time) and seafood (though in a coastal state, we were still about three hours north of the Gulf, and I suspect the grandmothers feared our little kids wouldn’t like a seafood dish). Ever since we landed Beau has been pining for a plateful of his grandmother’s shrimp and grits. He may get some soon; he’s thinking of making a quick trip down to visit his daddy, who is fighting cancer.
In the meantime, I just might have to try to whip up some shrimp and grits here in my Montana kitchen… knowing full well whatever I make won’t taste quite so good as Ma’s would.
© Tam Blake