Well. I’d had it. I’d finally wept enough over the distance of Southern food, the geographic distance and the emotional distance, so on Saturday, in recognition of the completion of UAF English Dept’s Graduate Student 6 Hour Comprehensive Examinations I threw together (with the help of a few friends) a Southern Food Fest to end all Food Fests. Virtually everything was homemade. Here is the menu:
Citrus Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Vidalia Onions
Corned Beef and Cabbage (which is arguably not Southern, but I’ve never seen any other folks eat it the way I ate it growing up)
VEGGIES & SIDE DISHES
Texas Caviar (Black-eyed Pea Salad)
Boiled Peanuts (10 lbs! a Valentine’s Day present ordered by the Hot Boyfriend from the Lee Bros. of South Carolina)
Pan Fried Green Beans with Bacon and Onion
Creole Stewed Okra and Tomatoes (although I cooked it in a Paella pan)
Sausage and Cheese Grits Casserole
Sweet Potato Biscuits
Old Fashioned Banana Pudding with Shortbread
Red Velvet Cake
Two friends (let’s call them Miss Tequila, and The Shark) came over rather early on Saturday to begin cooking. I also had the help of the Lady Adventurer, the real nickname for Fran Harris, a fantastic travel writer who was visiting from London. She runs Lady Adventurer, a website for women of means who like to explore new places. Fran was here for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile sled dog race that makes the Iditarod look like a practice run. I had a great time playing hostess, and I think Fran left with only a mild case of frostbite and new found preference for sober Alaskans over the drunk ones.
Miss Tequila (called so because you will never forget this former South Carolinian once you’ve had a few shots with her) was in charge of the Collard Greens and let me tell you, she loaded those babies up with enough bacon grease and butter to make Paula Deen say “whoah”. They were heart poundingly delicious. She also made the sweet potato biscuits (which I am not supposed to eat) which I later found out (by eating them in a bourbon and poker induced state) were superbly good with a barbeque sauce made from the Texas Caviar dressing and some leftover tomatoes. Miss Tequila, bless her heart, kept this little cook’s brigade supplied with mimosas while preparing the feast.
The Shark (called thus because she waited until we were all drunk to start washing the deck, peeling off cards at the speed of light, and using dealer slang… She’s a hustler. A Pro who apparently kept the table going until 3 a.m.) arrived later in the afternoon and had already made the Red Velvet Cake and put the Pulled Pork in the oven to cook which it did for over 6 hours. The Shark can clearly hustle as well in the kitchen as she can at the poker table because the sauce on the pork (I tasted mustard and apple cider vinegar, but she can’t remember the recipe) was as authentic as any I may have had from a Georgia pit-style BBQ joint. She and Fran helped drink the mimosas, turned up the stereo when particularly good CCR or Allman Bros. tune came on, and generally kept us all entertained in my tiny over-heated kitchen.
It was one of the best Saturday afternoons I’ve ever had.
Later, when the test-takers had done their best, and the feast had been laid out on the quilt-draped ping-pong table, we all gathered around it and Miss Tequila said a few words to the group. Now, in the South this would be followed by Grace and maybe we’d all hold hands, but in this Arctic Wonderland we Southerners are surrounded by heathens who don’t take well to anyone saying grace, and they sure as hell won’t hold hands around the dinner table. Honestly, I’m not religious nor was I ever comfortable with the hand-holding gesture, but I’m glad she opened the meal that way. She explained to everyone the significance that a shared meal has for Southerners. I don’t think outsiders really understand the central role that it plays in Southern culture. It’s not solely about the food, or the family, or the communion. It’s not solely about tradition, or reciprocation, or sharing the wealth. The Southern table is, like any other meaningful symbol, more than the sum of its parts. It is Die Gestalt. It’s a zeitgeist. And for me, it’s the very thing that keeps my heart forever divided, split between where I am and where I’ve come from.
Lest I leave without sharing a recipe, here is the Grits Casserole. This is an “open” recipe. You should be able to use whatever meat, cheese and veggies are around or leftover.
- 2 cups grits (use the instructions on the box to cook them, usually 4 cups water for 1 cup grits plus butter and salt)
- 2 eggs
- shredded cheese (I used 1 cup American and 1 cup shredded Manchego, but other cheeses in varying amounts can be used too)
- 1 package of country style sausage (you can use bacon or shrimp as well, the amount can vary)
- *1 sauteed onion
- *1 small can of green chilies
- *1 small can of chopped jalepenos
- 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 tbsp of cracked black pepper
*use other vegetables in place of these if you want. This casserole is a good way to use up leftovers like corn, green beans, or tomatoes.
- Let the meat and veggies cool, then mix all of the ingredients except for the grits in a large bowl.
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
- Fold in the grits and then pour the whole thing into a large glass baking dish. Bake for 45 min or until the center is “set up”; it should only jiggle slightly when you shake it. I also put cornflake crumbs and a little extra cheese on the top sometimes.
- Serve it to everyone except the guy with the heart condition. He might sue.