Friday, November 22, 2013

What is Southern food, John Egerton?

When I wrote n Thursday about the untimely passing of Nashville writer John Egerton, I told about the first time I met him, after a keynote speech at the Association of Food Journalists meeting in Atlanta in 1994.

I told about being in the elevator and how kind and down to earth he was to me, a new and star-struck food writer. What I forgot was that when I asked about his speech and admitted I couldn't take notes fast enough to keep up with it, he graciously handed his own copy of it to me.

On Friday afternoon, I was digging through my files when I found that speech. At the time it was written, there was no Southern Foodways Alliance. There were no chefs like Sean Brock or Vivian Howard. John T Edge wasn't a food writer yet. And many of us were just beginning to look in the direction Egerton was pointing.

Here's that speech, from the copy he handed me.

What is Southern Food?

I trust that you are by now sufficiently welcomed to Atlanta and the South, both verbally and gastronomically. The fact that the Association of Food Journalists has gathered here -- in this region, this city, this hotel -- to hold its annual conference seems altogether appropriate to me, much as would a convocation of Civil War historians in Richmond, or an Elvis resurrection in Memphis, or a Democratic Party convention in Little Rock (in a phone booth this year, I regret to say).
What better place to talk about food -- or eat it -- than in the South? And what better Southern place than Atlanta (leaving aside New Orleans, which is in another order of magnitude, and a world unto itself). We all enjoyed an introductory taste of Atlanta's leading culinary establishments last evening, and now we have just had our first sit-down meal together, a splendid repast prepared by the Ritz Carlton's renowned chef, Guenter Seeger -- applause, applause -- and this is only the beginning. For the next three days, you can expect to be amazed and delighted by the virtually endless showcase of Southern food, drink, and hospitality that is coming your way.
As a native of this city and a lifelong resident of the South -- and as a sometime cook, part-time food writer, and an all-time eater -- I have been awarded the enviable honor of bringing you what Susan Puckett and the organizers of this conference have billed as 'the keynote address.'
With all due respect to Susan, I think 'keynote' is the wrong word here. That would be fine in music, where the keynote is the main not, or politics, where it sounds the campaign theme -- but we're talking about food. So let's put this presentation in context and in perspective: let's call it the hors' d'oeuvres, or the appetizer, or a snack -- a small serving of food for thought, a verbal follow-up to what you've already eaten, and a foretaste of what's to come. For the rest of this week, you're going to be presented with an elegant suffiiciency of Southern cuisine and table talk. And for the rest of this lunch hour, you're going to get one man's opinions on the questions before the house, namely: What is Southern food? What is its past? What is its future?
First, what is it? Well, for openers, it's history and tradition. The South has saddled itself with many negative images down through the years -- from slavery, rebellion, and violence to segregation, isolation and poverty -- but it is the region's positive contributions to American life that have made it a contemporary land of hope and promise. The nation is far more aware than it used to be of the South's attractive characteristics. Geography and climate, for example. And natural beauty. And homegrown music in a variety of styles. And lots of good writers (more, I sometimes think, than readers). And speech -- often lyrical, colorful, expressive, magnetic. And, as significant as any of these, Southern food. The best regional cookery in America, in my humble opinion. I'll come back to defend that claim in a minute.
The popular image of Southern cookery endures -- notwithstanding the complaints of some that the food is too sweet or too greasy (and I'll come back to that too). We've had a long and richly deserved reputation for producing fine foods, for preparing and preserving and serving them, for eating them with gusto, and for writing and talking about them endlessly.
No other region of the country has produced anything like as many cookbooks as the South, over as long a period of time - from Mary Randolph/s "The Virginia House-Wife" in 1824 to "The Black Family Reunion Cookbook," a phenomenally successful collection of the 1990s. And right now, two of the nation's most successful food-oriented magazines, Southern Living and Cooking Light (both produced in Birmingham, Alabama, by the same company).
The history and traditions of food in the South can be seen in almost every community. Atlanta is an especially impressive case in point. "The Dixie Cook-Book," published here in 1883, ran to more than 1,300 pages; Henrietta Dull, better known as Mrs. S.R. Dull, home economics editor for the Atlanta Journal, first wrote her no-nonsense classic, "Southern Cooking," in 1928, and the book has never been out of print; both the Journal and the Atlanta Constitution have maintained a tradition of excellent food editors and writers down through the years, and most, like Nathalie Dupree, have written outstanding cookbooks. None, though, have been nearly as successful as Nathalie in the relatively new -- post World War II -- medium of television.
Atlanta has long been a hothouse of creativity and productivity in the wide world of food. It has recently attracted the famed Virginia-born food expert Edna Lewis to live and work here. It has a wondeful array of great restaurants and equally outstanding chefs, from Guenther Seeger here at the Ritz Carlton to the seriously Southern Scott Peacock at the Horseradish Grill. It has the influential restaurant critic Elliot Mackle, and food detective Shirley Corriher, and lively chapters of IACP and AIWF, and a wealth of talented cooks, stylists, photographers and writers, such as Jane Schneider, Kay Goldstein, Al and Mary Ann Clayton, Tim Patridge, Susan Mack and many more. And just now, there is a small but very hopeful move afoot to establish a regional society for the preservation and perpetuation of time-honored Southern foods.
So Southern food is history and tradition. It's also diversity. Contrary to popular belief, there's a lot more to it than grits and gravy and gooey desserts. I don't deny that Southerners tend to exercise a highly developed sweet tooth, or that most of them are partial to the many-splendored wonders of pork seasoning. I myself have been moved to declare publicly (for laughs, if not for literal accuracy) that the six major food groups in the South are sugar, cream, salt, butter, eggs and bacon grease. But I hasten to add the the Big Six don't embrace such classic Southern specialties as fresh spinach, sliced tomatoes, ambrosia, boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, tree-ripened peaches and unsweetened tea with lemon or lime. Far from being narrowly repetitious and mediocre at best, real Southern food is wonderfully varied and generally pleasing to the eye and the palate. Even when it's sweet or greasy, it can be superior. If you doubt that, let me invite you to try a wedge of chess pie or a platter of catfish and hush puppies.
Diversity in the context of Southern food also has other meanings. The South, after all, is a big region, stretching from the Eastern Shore of Virginia through parts of Kentucky and Missouri and Oklahoma to the western border of Texas. Thus, what we have come to call Tex-Mex is arguably Southern, and so are the town and country cuisines of Louisiana: Creole and Cajun. And Florida fare, with its Latin and Caribbean flavors. And the seafood and rice-based cookery of the Carolina Lowcountry. And the distinctive elements of mountain cookery in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. And so, of course, is the down-home/soul food/country cooking/home-style/Junior League/New Southern/tea-room/cafe/dinner on the ground/all-you-can-eat/field-hand food that has come traditionally from the Deep South, from Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi and other states close by.
Diversity means, too, that this food is the historical property of all the South's people, white and black and brown, young and old, rich and poor. It was black cooks, both women and men, who did the lion's share of Southern cooking through the time of slavery and again in the segregation era. The white women for whom and with whom they worked in the kitchens of the region were ostensibly the teachers -- but in reality, it was the blacks who possessed the overall mastery of cooking that gave us this rich heritage and it was primarily they who lifted it out of the ordinary and up to the level of artistry. Without the contributions of black cooks, Southern food might well have been as dull and bland and forgettable as English food -- which is more or less what it was until it got a saving infusion of Native American foodstuffs and African creativity.
This is not to say, of course, that white women couldn't cook, or that all blacks were culinary geniuses; it's simply an acknowledgement that without what the nonwhites brought to it, southern food never would have soared. Ponder this: If most of America's hogs and corn are raised in the Midwest, and have been for over a century, why is that most of the best barbecue and country ham and cornbread, and roasting ears, and corn fritters and grits and corn whiskey have always come from here in the South -- and still do? The obvious answer is the natural superiority of Southern cooks and cookery.
So what is Southern food? It's partly an attitude, a way of thinking. It's technique. It's seasoning. It's a way of cooking, from the simplest to the most complex, that says to the interested observer, 'This isn't hard; you can do this -- roll up your sleeves and plunge in, and we'll delight in it together.'
And, finally, in the most concrete terms I can put it, Southern food is what we've eaten for generations, and what we still love to this day: country ham and beaten biscuits, spoonbread, pole beans, creamed corn and roasting ears, garden tomatoes, black-eyed peas, scalloped cabbage, almost any kind of barbecue (but especially pork) and the sauces that go with it, turnip greens and collards, Brunswick stew and burgoo, sweet potatoes and yams, plain and fancy grits, more kinds of cornbread than there are states in the union, yeast rolls, buttermilk, Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee sippin' whiskey, crawfish bisque, jambalaya, eggs creole, fried tomatoes, gumbo, red rice, roux (and its upcountry equivalent, chicken gravy), chicken and dumplings, chicken pilau or perloo, angel biscuits, french toast, hush puppies, country sausage, sawmill gravy, catfish, white beans, fried apples, cornbread dressing, fried okra, baked onions, wilted lettuce salad, shrimp and oysters, country fried steak, squash casserole, pickled peaches, chow-chow, cheese straws, sorghum, guava jelly, quince jelly, pralines, apple stack cake, half-moon pies, black bottom pie, key lime pie, blackberry cobbler, boiled custard and eggnog, syllabub, jam cake, bourbon pecan cake, coconut cake, peach cobbler, apple dumplings. That's a partial list, off the top of my head.
And, lest we forget, Southern food is also the treasures we have created and put out for the rest of the world to share: fried chicken, iced tea, pecan pie, peach ice cream, strawberry shortcake, peanut brittle, Goo-Goo Clusters, Moon Pies -- and of course, Coca-Cola, along with most of the other soft drinks you can think of. For good measure, the South has also sent forth many of its native sons and daughters to become nationally prominent writers on food -- Craig Claiborne, Peter Feibleman, Eugene Walter, Jeanne Voltz, James Villas, Sara Belk and Vertamae Grosvenor, to name a few.
What all this adds up to, in my view, is this: For reasons that no one truly understands, the South is a fertile food culture, a place where people are caught up in food, almost obsessed with it, much like the people of France and Italy are. And as a consequence, you have this wonderfully productive and creative atmosphere full of great restaurants and chefs, home cooks, cookbook writers and readers, recipes, memorable meals -- and, of course, eaters. We are big on food, in part, I think, because of our history. There have been times, most notably during the Civil War and the Great Depression, when the vast majority of Southerners confronted the specter of malnutrition, hunger, even starvation. People who have known deprivation tend to carry the fear, or at least the memory, forever. When you think about it that way, "all you can eat' sounds more like an antidote for having nothing to eat. Whatever the case, I may reluctantly concede that the superiority of Southern food is a matter of opinion, or a matter of taste - but the pervasive Southern interest in food is a matter of fact, and it generates a continuous round of eating, drinking and socializing that is a positive pleasure for all who partake.

That pretty much covers the question of what Southern food is, and of what its past has been. Now let me close with a few words about its future. Time marches on, and all things change. Our slow food is threatened by the age of fast food. Health consciousness has made us consider the consequences of eating sugar, salt, butter, cream and pork fat. . . . Nouvelle cuisine has made all the old and traditional dishes seem out of style, of not out of favor. The white guys who used to take it for granted that someone else -- probably someone black, certainly someone female -- would be fixing their supper are learning that if they can't cook, they might not eat.
Southern food has to change, or it will die. Nobody wants to stay in the kitchen all the time. The food we eat should be easier and quicker to prepare, and more nutritious, and everybody ought to know how to cook and clean up afterward. My only plea is this: Don't throw out the great old dishes with the dishwater. Don't settle for processed, pre-cooked, artificial food when the real thing can be had with just a little thought and planning and acquired skill. Don't surrender to the food police without giving as much consideration to your mental health as your physical health. I am reminded of the words of John Thorne, Maine's "Outlaw Cook," who should have been a Southerner. "The whole anti-fat movement astonishes me," Thorne once said. "We read things written about lard that treat it as the moral equivalent of crack. The upshot of all this hysteria is going to be a generation of teenagers who will be sneaking out behind the barn to smoke not dope but beef brisket. And grandpa is going to slip out with them."
I also remember what the great jazzman Eubie Blake said on his 100th birthday, this after eating Southern for a century: "If I'd know I was gonna live this long," he declared, over a plate of ribs, "I'd have taken better care of myself."
May we all be as fortunate as Eubie Blake. And for a benediction, I can think of nothing better than the words of the Methodist ladies of Maysville, Kentucky, in their "New Kentucky Home Cook Book," dated 1884, to wit:
"Bad dinners go hand in hand with total depravity, while a well-fed man is already half saved."

One Great . . . Thanksgiving adult beverage

You know Thanksgiving: You need something for the grownups to drink, but it can't be too high in alcohol. Just a little something festive.

Flipping through Gena Knox's book "Southern My Way," I spotted this idea. You can make the cider mixture in advance and take it on the road if you're traveling. It's just the thing to make a special toast while cooking the big meal.

Apple Cider Bellini

1 1/2 cups fresh apple cider
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
4 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 bottles chilled sparkling wine, preferably Prosecco or cava

BRING apple cider to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Simmer until reduced by half, about 12 minutes. Stir in cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg. Set aside to cool.

STRAIN cider through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding leftover spices. Pour 4 teaspoons cider mixture into each glass, top with sparkling wine and serve.

YIELD: About 10 servings.

The peculiarly interesting cocktail academy

On Tuesday night, I stopped by Dandelion Market on 5th Street for a cocktail seminar put on by Hendricks Gin.

While I'm a big fan of Plymouth Gin, Hendricks and its slight cucumber taste is also interesting. Kris Van Dopek, a Hendrick representative, led the making and tasting of three drinks, two summery cocktails and a more winter-appropriate punch.

A few things I learned from Van Dopek's (very fast) lecture:

By definition, gin has to be predominantly juniper. And juniper had legendary uses, including in ancient Egypt for embalming, by Roman gladiators for cleaning wounds, and by mystics for communicating with the spirit world. Different kind of spirits, but still.

In the 30 Years War, the Dutch gave gin to soldiers to make them brave in battle, hence "Dutch courage," and in London, there were private houses where you could get a dose of gin, hence "gin mills." Some of that gin was made with things like turpentine, which would blind you -- hence "blind drunk."

Hendricks is made in Scotland, in an old munitions bunker from World War II. It's still made in small batches using two old copper stills that have to run six days a week to keep up with demand.
The master distiller is a woman, Lesley Gracie. And the name Hendricks was actually the name of founder William Grant's gardener.

The distillation includes 11 botanicals besides the juniper and legendary essences of cucumber (English hothouse) and roses (Bulgarian): chamomile, lemon and orange peel, elderflower, citrus, cubeb berry (sort of like a peppercorn), orris and angelica roots, yarrow, caraway and coriander.  

The distillation base, by the way is "neutral grain spirits," AKA wheat-based vodka.

OK, on to the punch. Tenured Punch is so named, says Van Dopek, because "Tenured" means tested, and they've tested this recipe many times. If you need something refreshing for a Thanksgiving party, consider this one.

Tenured Punch
The recipe was given in parts instead of ounces. This is my translation to make it a little easier.

3 ounces Hendrick's gin
2 ounces fresh lemon juice
2 ounces simple syrup
1/4 cup (2 ounces) sparkling water
2/3 cup weak green tea
1 ounce Lillet rose
Angostura (or Peychaud) bitters to taste

Place a block of ice in a punch bowl or other medium-sized bowl. Add all the ingredients and stir gently. Serve in small cups.

YIELD: 4 servings.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thank you for everything, John Egerton

John Egerton, it's just not like you to miss a good feed. Losing you a week before Thanksgiving seems that much more cruel.

John, 78, who managed to be one of the nation's great writers on two all-consuming subjects, Southern food and civil rights, died Thursday in Nashville.

Just a couple of things he did? He was the author of "Southern Foods," a reference book that hasn't left my desk in 20 years of food writing, and "Speak Now Against the Day," a book on the civil rights movement that won the Robert F. Kennedy Award.

Another thing he did: He was one of the founders and leading lights in the Southern Foodways Alliance. In those first tumultuous years, when a lot of folks with big ideas were arguing over just what the alliance should be, he was the calm voice who tried to make sure everybody stayed friends.

 But not always calm: One of my favorite memories is still from when the annual Southern Foodways Symposium was so small we all fit in one room instead of an auditorium. Damon Lee Fowler gave a talk on the origins of fried chicken, including evidence of an early dish in England that might have been a forerunner.

John, always the gentleman but capable of being irritated, stood up at the end of the talk and basically called bull: "Well, now, Damon . . . "

And there was one other thing John Egerton did. He was the first good friend I made when I moved from news reporting to food writing. The first time I went to a meeting of the Association of Food Journalists, it was held in Atlanta in 1994. Man, I barely knew a soul and couldn't have told you the difference between Edna Lewis and M.F.K. Fisher. But I already knew the book "Southern Food," and was in awe of the author.

I arrived late, just in time for Egerton's keynote talk on what he thought was going to be a renewed interest in Southern food -- and why people should be interested. Afterward, I got on the elevator, and there was Egerton himself. I was struck dumb, scared to open my mouth for fear of sounding stupid. And I'll never forgot how he smiled, stuck out his hand, made my acquaintance and put me at ease.

That night, I got invited to join a group -- Egerton, his wife Ann, Ronni Lundy, Sarah Fristchner of Louisville and Karla Cook -- to go to the Watershed, the hot restaurant of the moment, where Scott Peacock was cooking with Edna Lewis. We argued over yellow cornmeal vs. white cornmeal and the best ways to cook beets and Edna Lewis got coaxed out of the kitchen to sit at our table, too shy to say a word but smiling the whole while. I still remember the food I ate, including Peacock's basil-stuffed, bacon-wrapped trout. But what I really remember was that feeling of being welcomed and gathered in. By the end of that meal, I knew that picking food writing was exactly the right choice, and I was right where I wanted to be.

In all the years since, I've stayed friends with John, always happy whenever I hear that drawl or see that smile when he hears something that strikes him as smart or just plain silly.

Thanks, John. Don't know what else to say but that.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Celebrate local foods at the Common Grounds Festival

Common Grounds, the farm stand that sells local vegetables and raises money for the Urban Ministry Center, has a great event coming up Saturday morning.

The 5th Annual Cornucopia, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at 119 Huntley Place in Charlotte, will be packed with unusual offerings. You'll be able to buy some great things to have on hand in the next few busy weeks, including frozen family-size dinners, soups and chiles, salsas and dips. There will be vendor appearances by Lenny Boy Kombucha, Your Mom's Donuts, The Naked Pig, the Scone Shop, Stella & Dot and Magnolia Coffee, and the food truck Maryland Crab Company. There will be music by Wicked Powers, and art from David French, Liz Saintsing and The Painted Elephant.

And there will be silent auction with offerings from a bunch of local chefs and restaurants, including Block & Grinder, Barrington's, Chef Alyssa's Kitchen, Mimosa Grill, Tin Kitchen, Harvest Moon, Upstream, Passion8, Reid's, Heritage Food & Drink, and the Wine Bar at Foxcroft.

Sounds like you can get a good start on entertaining food, family food and food gifts, all in one stop. And of course, it all still raises money for the Urban Ministry Center.

Live food chat and more in today's Thanksgiving coverage

It's almost Thanksgiving: Any questions? I'll be available for a live online chat today, from noon to 1 p.m. at You can post a question here, email me directly ( or go to the link on The Observer's website. And don't worry if you're busy at lunch: We'll repost the chat afterward, so if you can check back this afternoon.

Meanwhile, in other Thanksgiving coverage:

  • You don't have to be in a kitchen to cook a turkey. We looked at the manly arts of outdoor turkey cooking, including the web-legend Trash Can Turkey and the ever-popular deep-fried turkey. We have recipes for those and a basic grilled turkey here
  • Missing some of your basic recipes? I reposted some of our most popular ones, including the make-ahead potato casserole, a good sourdough dressing and a make-ahead gravy using a classic Creole roux. 
  • Need stuffing instead of dressing? (Don't tell, but they're the same thing.) The Kitchn has a recipe that breaks it down into simple parts. 
  • Add a little class to your Thanksgiving table with the roasted fall butternut squash soup from the Gallery at Ballantyne. You Asked For It, and Robin Domeier got it. 
  • If you're cleaning out the refrigerator to make room this weekend, do you need to pitch those old mustards and salad dressings? I address the question about how long the condiments will keep in today's Q&A.

If there's anything missing that you need, let me hear you in the live chat. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Carolinas food makers jamming on Good Food list

Seedling Projects, a California-based organization that supports sustainable-food projects, has released the list of finalists for its 2014 Good Food Awards, which recognizes entrepreneurial food companies all over the country.

It's long list (here's the whole thing), and it has quite a collection of great Carolinas food makers. There are a few glaring misses, including no N.C. cheesemakers, no Counter Culture coffee and no sign of Escazu chocolates. But given the heavy concentration of West Coasters, especially Oregon and California, the Carolinas are well-represented. A number of these were new to me.

Consider it a wish list as you roam around, or you could use it as a shopping list for unusual Christmas gifts. The final winners will be announced in January.

Hogwash Hickory-Smoked Porter, Fullsteam Brewery, Durham.

Culatello, Cypress, Charleston.
Smoked Hog Head Cheese, Guglhupf Bakery, Durham.

90% Dark Chocolate Ecuador Camino Verde, Videri Chocolate Factory, Raleigh.

Dark Chocolate Espresso, Christophe Artisan Chocolatier, Charleston.
Indian Kulfi Truffle, French Broad Chocolates, Asheville.
Mocha, WR Chocolatier, Raleigh.

Dill Kraut + Pickles and Beets + Caraway, Two Chicks Farm, Hillsborough.

Muscadine Grape Jelly, Farmer's Daughter, Hillsborough.

Monday, November 18, 2013

One Great . . . way to cook cauliflower

If you thought all cauliflower was white - and all cauliflower tastes boring - take another look. At the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market on Saturday, fresh cauliflower was all in the stands, including varieties in bright colors, including purple and a deep yellow that looks almost like it's carved from cheddar cheese.

When I spotted the yellow cauliflower, I immediately thought of a dish I've had in several restaurants in the last few years: Cauliflower steaks.

This is so easy to do: You just slice the whole head (yes, it looks like a brain) into fairly thick slices. One inch is the width of the first joint of your index finger and that's just about the right width, maybe a tad smaller. Then you briefly brown the cauliflower in a little olive oil in a hot skillet, then move it to the oven to roast through.

The finished cauliflower comes out sweet, mellow and tender. You can leave it plain, or dress it up with a topping, from a rough tomato sauce to an olive tapenade. For this one, I just topped it with a sprinkle of smoked paprika and a little coarsely grated Manchego (Parmesan would work, too).

Cauliflower Steaks

1 whole head cauliflower, any color
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 to 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup coarsely grated hard cheese, such as Parmesan or Manchego

PREHEAT oven to 400 degrees.

TRIM away any leaves from the base of the cauliflower and trim the skin from the stem, but leave the head attached to the stem. With the stem down, use a heavy knife, such as a chef's knife, to cut the whole head into thick slices, a little less than an inch thick. You should be able to get 4 slices. If any florets break off, set them aside and save them for another dish.

SPRINKLE each slice of cauliflower with paprika, salt and pepper.

HEAT 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Place each slice of cauliflower in the skillet and cook about 2 minutes. Use a flat spatula to carefully turn them over and brown the other side for 1 to 2 minutes. Drizzle about 1 tablespoon on a baking sheet. Move the cauliflower slices to the baking sheet and drizzle with a little more olive oil if needed.

PLACE in oven and roast for 12 to 15 minutes, until tender enough to pierce with a knife tip. Remove from oven and sprinkle each slice with some of the cheese. Return to oven briefly just until melted. Serve each slice whole.

YIELD: 4 servings.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What are you looking for? Ham loaf and suet

Where can you find . . . brands of butter, favorite cookies, specific cooking gadgets? My inbox is peppered with food wishlists. Most of the time, I can help. I pay close attention whenever I'm out and about, looking for good sources of maple syrup and pomegranate molasses.

Still, sometimes I get stumped. I'll throw these to out to you readers, in hopes that you have spotted them:

Pudding suet. This request comes in every year as the holidays approach, usually from either British ex-pats or people who love British food. Suet is the hard fat around the kidneys of cattle or sheep; hard fat from around the kidneys of pigs usually is used to make lard. But I've learned from British friends that just any old hard cubes of fat won't do. What they want is the shelf-stable version tossed with flour or some type of starch. It's common in England and hardly ever seen in America. It's what most people's steamed pudding recipes require.

Does anyone know a great source of good suet for steamed pudding? 

Ham loaf mix. It was new to me when Chuck Howard, transplanted Ohioan, wrote in. I've seen meatloaf mix, which usually includes ground beef, veal and pork, but I didn't know ham loaf. I had to ask Chuck to clarify:

"It's nothing more than the fresh pork and ham ground together and in Ohio I bought it by the pound like any ground meat. It could be used for patties or a loaf. I'm assuming here I'm going to need to find a meat department that will grind me a ham some time. I'll divide it, freeze and use as needed."

Has anyone seen a meat cutter or butcher who makes ham loaf mix? 

If you've seen either one, respond here or email me at And if you have more food unicorns you're trying to spot, pass them on. If I don't have a source, I'll see if I can find one. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Yes, it's fall food . . . and more

Today in food coverage:

Andrea Weigl, my colleague at the Raleigh News & Observer, admitted in a recent column that she can't make pie crust or gravy. That one resonated with me: While I was raised in a cooking family, I hit a point in early adulthood when I realized I couldn't make either of those things, either. Teaching myself to do it is what led me to realize I wanted to become a food writer. Today, Andrea shares the story of two readers who invited her into their kitchens to learn. Pie crust and gravy are Thanksgiving basics, but they are also the kinds of foods that teach you about cooking everything else.

Could trans fats go away? And is that a good thing, or will it just open the door to even worse things in processed food production? In my column today, I puzzle through this latest development.

The Charlotte beer scene continues to grow. In his Beer Here column, Daniel Hartis covers the opening of the two newest breweries, D9 and Unknown.

Yes, it's time to start planning your Thanksgiving dinner. Here's a countdown that might help.

Remember the Pillsbury Bake-Off? It's still a popular event -- and that $1 million prize doesn't hurt. Here's this year's winner and the winning recipe.

And elsewhere in our food pages:
Maple-glazed Brussels sprouts.
Cranbury Curd Bars.
2-Serving Slow Cooker Pot Roast.
Smoked Fish Dips.
Snapper With Orange Sauce for 2.

Find all that and more in today's food coverage, at

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

One Great . . . maple-glazed Brussels sprouts

I love word origins, the ways that seemingly bizarre words turn out to have logical connections. That's how I ended up digging around in dictionaries looking for the origins of the word "cruciferous." You'd think it would have occurred to me years ago to wonder why so many fall vegetables share an origin with the word "crucifer," or cross.

It turns out that those vegetables are all members of the family Brassicaceae, which is another name for Cruciferae. And cruciferae is a Latin word that means "cross-bearing." The vegetables don't carry crosses, but their flowers all have four petals and look like crosses. That includes the mustard and cabbage family, including cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

That's particularly interesting in the case of cruciferous-vegetable haters, who act like all of those vegetables are their personal crosses to bear. I share my life and my meals with one. He dreads fall vegetables as much as I love them, especially when I start bringing things like Brussels sprouts back into our kitchen.

Don't be so cross, dear. That also means I look for ways to make even you like Brussels sprouts.

Maple-Glazed Brussels Sprouts With Bacon

1 pound of Brussels sprouts (cut from the stalk if needed)
2 to 3 slices bacon, diced
1 teaspoon mustard seed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup good-quality maple syrup (not pancake syrup)

Check the bottom of each Brussels sprout and trim it off if it looks brown. (If you buy them on the stalk, this won't be necessary, but you'll have to cut each bud off the stalk.) Cut larger sprouts in half and cut really large ones into quarters.

Toss the Brussels sprouts, diced bacon and mustard seed with the olive oil. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet, trying to get all the cut sides of the Brussels sprouts turned down. Place in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until the Brussels sprouts are brown on the bottom but not burned.

Remove from the oven and drizzle with the maple syrup, tossing to coat. Return the pan to the oven for 5 minutes, just to warm through and glaze with the maple syrup. Serve.

YIELD: About 4 servings. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mashed potato success story

When it comes to reader response, I will put my mail up against any beat in the newsroom. There's something about the intimacy and connection of food that leads people to send me the best notes.

From this morning's in-box, we have Sharon Stark:

"Hi Kathleen,
I’ve been making mashed potatoes for probably 45 years now (started at a very tender age J) and thought I did a pretty good job. But last night, when making the potatoes for our sauerkraut and ribs dinner, I tweaked my technique a bit per some of the tips you gave in Wednesday’s article. I cooked the potatoes a little longer at a lower temperature and I melted my butter before stirring in. Following dinner my husband commented “Wow, those were especially good mashed potatoes. Really creamy! Did you use an Ore-Ida mix?” Yikes -- not sure if that was a compliment or not (when he camps he often mixes up some powdered potatoes so that’s where he gets his comparison). Despite my husband’s misguided assessment , I loved them too and will continue to make them this way from now on!"

Glad to help, Sharon. Reminding your husband of Ore-Ida potatoes may not be a bad thing. It's like the way some people prefer lumpy potatoes because they taste like the potatoes they had as kids. Comfort food should be comfortable. 

If you missed the mashed potato tips, you can still find them here, or go to With a cold weekend ahead and even snow possible next week, it's mashed potato weather. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Southern her way: Cookbook author at Reid's

In her book "Southern Food My Way: Family and Friends," Athens, Ga., author Gena Knox focuses on things like farmers markets, food foraging and figs - lots of figs. Apparently, she has an obsession with the kinds of figs that grow in yards all over the South.

Knox will be at Reids, 2823 Selwyn Ave., at 1 p.m. Saturday for a cooking demonstration and book signing. This is her third book, and her first one won an award from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. She and her husband also own Fire & Flavor Grilling Co., which carries all-natural cooking products.

 In other book signing news: If you're in Durham on Saturday, I'll be signing copies of "Bourbon: A Savor the South Cookbook" at a couple of spots. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., I'll be at the Barnes & Noble at the Streets of Southpoint. Then, at 3 p.m., "Biscuits" author Belinda Ellis and I will be at the Durham County Southwest Regional Library for the Culinary Club.

It's a good Saturday to get out and meet cookbook authors. Sounds like we're all out on the road.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cookbooks are books, too

After having two books released in September for two years in a row, "Pecans" and "Bourbon" in UNC Press' "Savor the South" cookbook series, I've gotten to know several great book events. One is SIBA, the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Association.

They meet in a different spot in the South every year, bringing together the owners of independent bookstores, like Park Road Books in Charlotte, Malaprop's in Asheville and Quail Ridge in Raleigh, with authors who have new books. My very first book event, the day after "Pecans" was released last year, was SIBA in Naples, Fla.

This year, they met in New Orleans. On the day we arrived, they invited all the authors to take part in making a video using a quasi-children's book called "It's a Book," by Lane Smith.

We were each given one page to read at random, while we held up our own book. SIBA released it this morning. Take a look, have a laugh - and wait for Amy Tan, at the very end.

Thanks, SIBA. I was honored to attend

Monday, November 4, 2013

One Great . . . sweet and spicy sweet potatoes

Is it too soon to be thinking about your Thanksgiving menu? While working on this week's story on mashed potatoes, I also turned my attention to thinking of those other mashed tubers. Sweet potatoes aren't really potatoes, but they're just as much a part of fall and holiday menus.

In Sam Sifton's 2012 book "Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well," I had seen a version of sweet potatoes with a combination of flavors I couldn't resist: Maple syrup and adobo, the smoky hot sauce that canned chipotle peppers are mixed in. The combination is way beyond marshmallows melted on yams.

Mashed and Slightly Spicy Sweet Potatoes

From "Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well," by Sam Sifton (Random House).

5 pounds (about 10 medium or 5 large) sweet potatoes, scrubbed
1/3 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B Amber
3/4 cup sour cream
4 teaspoons adobo sauce from canned chipotles
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Kosher salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place potatoes on a large baking sheet and bake until soft, about 40 minutes for medium sweet potatoes, up to 1 hour for large.

Whisk together the syrup, sour cream, adobo sauce, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl.

Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and either slice lengthwise, scooping out the flesh, or pull away the peel and cut into chunks. Process into a puree, using a potato ricer, masher or stand mixer. Add the maple syrup mixture and stir in with a rubber spatula. The mixture should be light and fluffy. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve warm.

YIELD: 6 to 8 servings.

Friday, November 1, 2013

History and beer: Celebrate with both

Ah, it's an event our forefathers (foreparents?) could appreciate: The Charlotte Museum of History and Crafty Beer Guys of Huntersville will hold the Backcountry Beer Fest from 1-5 p.m. Nov. 16.

Crafty Beer Guys is a bottle shop, but it also carries and installs brewing equipment.

Tickets are $10 ($8 for museum members) and include tastings of two colonial beers, two craft beers and a syllabub. (Yes, bub, I said syllabub.) As for the colonial beers: Crafty Beer Guys is working with historians at the museum to re-create beers that were being brewed in the colonial era and you'll be able to compare them with craft beers being made to today's tastes. Which actually does sound very cool. Plus you can tour the Hezekiah Alexander Home Site.

The museum is located at 3500 Shamrock Drive. You don't need a reservation, tickets will be available at the door, although you do have to be over age 21 to do the tasting.