A few years ago, I used to co-host a radio talk show, Food for Talk, on the local campus radio station. It wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but that’s what it turned out to be. She and I were always so serious about our topics, and the topics were usually completely frivolous or off the wall. Our show ended when she went to Memphis to pursue her PhD. She threatens me on occasion with the suggestion that we have a special one-off show when she comes home. Luckily, she doesn’t pursue it too seriously but she always brings home great oddball food stories.
At Christmas, she was talking about the “Green Bean Casserole.” I had a hard time visualising what she was describing. Now I never have to visualise, I can make it myself (but probably won’t). For my birthday, she gave me Deep South Staples by Robert St. John. The subtitle is: or how to survive in a southern kitchen without a can of cream of mushroom soup. That about sums it up, according to my friend. She says that everything is cooked with a can of soup, usually of the cream variety. Although she also described a pea dish with a few peas floating in canned cheese soup. Ugh.
According to the book flap and introduction, Robert St. John is a chef and newspaper columnist. He feels that Southern cooking has gone downhill with convenience foods playing such a valuable role in mainstream kitchens. He updates recipes you’d find anywhere in any Southern kitchen and mixes in old 50s pictures and his columns at appropriate points.
The Green Bean Casserole is in here, with a mushroom Bechamel sauce instead of canned cream of mushroom soup. There are other famous Southern dishes, like Potato Salad, Chicken and Dumplings, Bridal Pudding and two grits recipes and four different kinds of corn bread. I finally know what Hush Puppies (a cornmeal, bacon grease, buttermilk, and onion dough ball deep fried in peanut oil) and Hoppin’ John (sausages cooked with onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper cooked in rice and chicken broth) are. There’s a lot of things I’m not likely to make, like the okra and grits, or anything deep fried (fear of oil). But I’ll probably make the corn breads, and maybe try my hand at a chicken pot pie and creamed corn (for some reason, I thought cream corn was born in a can). And, interestingly, I felt a little culture shock reading through this book: it feels and looks different, and the recipes are not the sort of things I grew up, find in my local restaurants or ever thought about. So it really is a good birthday gift for taking me out of myself a bit.