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REBECCA WEST: TEARS OF JOY NOT SORROW FOR A HAPPY COOK

I didn’t mean to make anyone cry. Quite the contrary. I write thejemimacode to honor invisible women and to celebrate — as in party over here! But recently, more followers of this space are sharing intimate stories off-line of the women whose cooking made them feel special. Now, however, thinking about how unfairly the women were treated makes them terribly sad. Reconciliation can do that.

So, I’m here to cheer you up with news that after the hurt comes the heal, at least that is what we experienced following difficult dialogue at gatherings of the Southern Foodways Alliance. I also want to share the uplifting story of two women who came together to preserve the work of one of those obscure cooks in Rebecca’s Cookbook.

In 1942 while the world was at war, Rebecca West was traveling the country with her “lady” amassing a treasure-trove of receipts and recording her escapades in the local newspaper. That “lady,” known only by the initials E.P. helped West record dozens of dishes, from from terrapin to pate de fois gras, as well as  childhood recollections of her visits to South Carolina and miscellaneous ruminations about the Bahamas.

Thankfully, E.P. did not resort to the demeaning Jemima stereotype when she transcribed West’s thoughts and recipes. Yes, West speaks in the broken English that is evidence of a rural upbringing, but she is not portrayed by the maliciously exaggerated speech we’ve seen in recent posts. No elitism here either. E.P. obviously respected West’s knowledge and  talent, making no claims to her recipes and stating in a brief editor’s note that “Rebecca is so noted for her terrapin, that it is only right for terrapin to have a separate section all it’s own in her cook book.”

West also tells us a bit about their cozy relationship in numerous references to their experiences together in the kitchen. As the introduction to the Fish section, which  features examples of modern cuisine such as red snapper fillets sauteed in olive oil, herbs and shallots, then braised in a tomato cream sauce; stuffed baked black bass; sauteed sea scallops; and scalloped oysters, West offers the following amusing tale.

“One night when my lady was out to dinner the butler came runnin downstairs all out of breath.  He said, “The lady said she had the best fish tonight at dinner that she ever had an she wants you to try to fix somethin like it.” I says, “Now wait a minute, wait a minute. How does she know it was fish she was eatin?”

He says, “She said she could only see the tail of the fish stickin up out of a cream sauce an she don know what kind of fish it was, but it was good. You better figure out what it was, Rebecca.”

“So I got to figurin…I know the lady who does the cookin where my lady was havin dinner, so I says to the butler, “Joe you skip over there an ask her will she oblige me with the recipe for the little fish with cream sauce they had for dinner tonight…Just as I expected, the dish wasn’t made of little fish at all. It was ham. My lady was so surprised when I told her. She says, “That’s what comes of dinin by candlelight.”

Anyways here’s some receipts which is really fish…”

Precious, isn’t she?

Anyways, after a quick flash in a hot skillet, Rebecca layers red snapper fillets in a baking dish and covers with a cream sauce before baking. We don’t eat much cream at my house so I adapted Rebecca’s snapper to suit my family’s tastes and today’s demand for food that is light, fast and hassle-free.  I started with my kids’ favorite way with spinach (lightly sauteed with a little garlic and onion), then used the mix as a bed for rolled and stuffed fillets. Rolling the fish is beautiful and makes dinner seem special. A quick steam, some hot cooked rice, and a healthy dinner is done. Thanks, my ladies.

In Her Kitchen

Red Snapper Roulades with Spinach

  • 4 red snapper fillets, skinned and boned
  • Salt, pepper
  • 1/4 cup prepared spinach dip, about
  • 1 tablespoon each olive oil and butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1 pound fresh baby spinach, rinsed and drained

Instructions

  1. Season fillets lightly with salt and pepper. Place fillets skinned-side-up on a board. Spread each fillet with 1 tablespoon dip. Roll fillets to enclose dip, beginning with the widest end of the fillet. Secure fish rolls with a wood pick and set aside. Heat oil and butter in a large skillet until sizzling. Add garlic and shallot and saute until tender. Add spinach to the pan and cook about 5 minutes until wilted but still bright green. Place fish rolls on top of spinach. Cook, covered, over medium heat, 10-15 minutes, or until fish is no longer opaque. Remove wood picks before serving.

Note: Do not dry spinach leaves completely. The moisture from rinsing provides the steam that cooks the fish without over cooking the spinach.

Number of servings: 4

In Her Kitchen

EMMA JANE JACKSON: A DOMESTIC WITH ADVICE FOR BRIDES

Everyone asks me the same question when I hand out my business cards:

“What did you think of The Help?”

Sheepishly, I admit that I haven’t read the best-selling novel. I can’t.

You should know that my calling card bears the image from this blog on the front, and a 1904 photo of a black cook on the back. That is because the women of thejemimacode are the backdrop of everything I do — from my writing and speaking to the nonprofit organization I’m building in Austin.  I’ve spent so many years researching real domestic servants, that it is taking some time for me to warm to the idea of another fictionalized accounting of their lives. I’ll tell you why.

When I began this project I promised never to purchase any of the plantation cookbooks that degraded African American cooks with distorted images and vernacular language. Nor would I collect any of the “black Americana” kitchen collectibles featuring bug-eyed household servants as salt and pepper shakers, and on dish towels, spoon rests and the like. (My ambition is to collect artifacts that improve the image of African American cooks, not destroy it.)  Trusted friends tell me that this new novel is fair and pleasant, but I have spent too many nights crying myself to sleep  from reading slave narratives at bedtime to bankroll overt racism. I’m not saying The Help is bigotry; I’m just mustering the courage to see for myself.

My anxiety can be traced to the horror I experienced when I finally obtained a copy of Emma Jane’s Souvenir Cook Book And Some Old Virginia Recipes, Collected By Blanche Elbert Moncure, only to discover its encoded sentiments. I optimistically hoped that the shared by-line to this book represented an end to the common practice of recipe books published on behalf of black domestic workers deemed too ignorant to record their own recipes. And, I was pleased that the introduction to this 80-page collection included Jackson’s photo — not a cartoon — with this innocent characterizatization: “a good and faithful servant who has lived in the writer’s family for over 50 years.”

Jackson, a real woman? Yes.

Moncure, her advocate? Probably not.

From here, Moncure went on to tell a fanciful tale about how Jackson came to be  known by the name printed as the cutline beneath her portrait: Emma Jane Jackson Beauregard Jefferson Davis Lincoln Christian. She followed the wistful tale of Civil War soldiers and “the little nigger baby” with Emma Jane’s culinary advice to the bride-to-be derisively:

“Well, Miss Sally, I sho‘ gives you all of my complements an‘ good wishes! Fur, when a young lady laike you is, begins to compensate matimony, de very bes‘ path she can take is dat one dat leads straight to de kitchen…But look here! Why is you a comin‘ to me, fur de informity? I aint no cookin‘ teacher! I is jes a plain uneddicated cook-o’man, what can’t even read her own name, much less a ‘ceat book! You have to go to college an‘ ‘tend dose Messy Sciences Classes dese days, to be what you calls a fuss class cook! So don’t come in dis kitchen, effen you wants to be in de fashion…Of cose, I been cookin’ fur a purty long time when you come to think of it…I recon I ought to be able to give you some ‘vice ennyways, what may come in handy — dat is — effen you lissins to it.”

I was not dismayed by the familiar storyline, but did I want it as part of my library? Did I enjoy reading it for entertainment? Not so much. What I did do was manage to distill a few bits of Emma Jane’s culinary wisdom and some of her thoughts about locally-sourced, seasonable foods, the way that the women of my muse prepared nourishing meals from discarded garbage. I’ll paraphrase.

  • We eat first with our eyes, so always pay attention to the table, whether it is just a plain pine kitchen table or a shiny mahogany table dressed with fine lace and candles. A floral centerpiece is good for digestion. The sight of it is good for sore eyes.
  • Making biscuits is easy, but pay attention! Have that oven hot. And I mean hot before you put those biscuits in there. A cold oven is responsible for more brick “bats” than most people think. The poor bride is blamed for it all, when in fact the oven is more to blame.
  • Some folks serve stewed oysters for breakfast down in this part of the country, but try to get them as fresh as you can for they can “kick up Hally-lu-ya” (make you sick) if they are old. Of course, the winter months are the best time of year to get the most flavorful taste. In the summer, they are poor and milky-like.
  • Don’t go to the store for your holiday turkey. They aren’t fit to eat. Go to a dependable person who knows his business (know your farmer) and let him pick, slaughter and prepare a plump hen for you. Half your preparation troubles will be over.

Maybe The Help won’t hurt after all.

What were your thoughts after reading it?

In Her Kitchen

Emma Jane’s Buttermilk Biscuits

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lard, cut into pieces and chilled
  • 3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Cut the lard pieces into the flour mixture using two knives or a pastry blender until mixture is crumbly and lard is evenly distributed. Using a fork, stir in the buttermilk, adding just enough to make a slightly sticky dough. The amount may vary because buttermilk is thicker than milk. When dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, pour out onto a lightly-floured board. Sprinkle with a small amount of flour and knead the dough about 10 times to make a light dough. Do not add too much flour or handle too much. Pat dough into a 1/2-inch thick disc (or use a rolling pin). Cut with a floured biscuit cutter. Place on a shiny baking sheet, about 1/4-inch apart, or in a baking pan just barely touching. Do not re-roll scraps. Gather into one biscuit or scatter the leftover pieces on the pan and serve as a snack. Bake in a preheated 450 degree oven 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Number of servings: 12

In Her Kitchen

FREDA DEKNIGHT: THE ART & SOUL OF SOUTHERN COOKING

Spending the week preparing for my talk on Southern culinary traditions at the Austin Museum of Art this week led me to a comparison of iconic dishes in cookbooks written by black and white authors. The difference? Not much.  Not that I was surprised. For years Southern food expert and cooking teacher Nathalie Dupree and I pondered the art and soul of Southern cooking. Our judicious conversations involved unresolved exchanges over thorny topics like boundaries and ownership — a classic study in “my dog’s bigger than your dog.”

If we were having that conversation today it would be muddied by African American authors coming to print with topics that don’t conform to the putative soul food paradigm. Add to that the sheer number of books written about the Southern food “experience” and its no wonder the gap between black and white culinary experiences has narrowed. Finally.

Things weren’t always this way. Southern food is perhaps America’s earliest example of “fusion” cooking, influenced by the rainbow of French, Spanish, West Indian, Dutch, German, Chinese and African traditions that seasoned its pots. It is comprised of iconic dishes such as crisp fried chicken, delicate biscuits, crusty cornbread, barbecue, Hoppin’ John, greens and grits. And, it was born in poverty. The cultural quagmire ensued when cooks, both white and black, tried to shed this humble image.

One of the first women to advocate for African American culinary dignity and ownership  was Freda De Knight. She is my hero.

As a recipe developer for food manufacturers, and food editor for Ebony Magazine, De Knight understood the work of the kitchen, and she was familiar with the publishing scene when she undertook the first retelling of black cooks’ lives from a culinary point of view in her 1948 recipe book, A Date with a Dish. (Date was revised and reprinted as The Ebony Cookbook, in 1962. Several years later, the Carnation Company tapped De Knight to pen a booklet of “Favorite Carnation Recipes” using evaporated milk.)

With the help of a device she called the Little Brown Chef, De Knight asserted great confidence in her ancestors’ creative accomplishments, their “natural ingenuity” and love of good food. She elevated the tricks of “old school cookery” in a way no one before had tried – beyond the limits of poverty food. She wrote:

It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and homemakers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone and hot breads. Like other Americans living in various sections of the country they have naturally shown a desire to become versatile in the preparation of any dish, whether it is Spanish, Italian, French, Balinese or East Indian in origin.

De Knight obviously recognized that a well-organized compilation of explicit recipes would have staying power and attract a wide audience.  In more than 400 pages, she offered something new– entirely new at least as far as black cookery was concerned – to the cookbook buying public: The secrets of proficient African American cooks, in a “non-regional cook book that contained recipes, menus, and cooking hints from and by Negroes all over America.”

De Knight built a strong case for the versatility and adeptness of African American cooks by expanding classic cookbook sections on household hints and cooking tips. She suggested colorful vegetable plate combinations for holidays and spring menus. Gave clear and concise directions for humane preparation of live lobsters. Recommended methods of preparing and serving new food varieties.  And, she infused her technical instructions with entertaining vignettes, which she collected while traveling from South Carolina to Michigan to conduct  interviews and gather recipes from black chefs, renowned caterers, celebrities, and everyday home cooks.  It is a cruel irony that the delightful tales in her “Collectors’ Corner” galvanize the mission to honor invisible African American expertise, but they were omitted from later editions.  If you can get your hands on the 1948 edition, snap it up. Meanwhile, enjoy this little sample:

My father died when I was two and because my mother was a traveling nurse, I was sent to live with the Paul Scotts in Mitchell, South Dakota. The Scotts were famous at that time as being the finest caterers in the middle west and among the finest in the country. They had their own farm and raised most of their own products. They raised chickens, made their dairy products, did most of their canning and had the traditional country smokehouse for their own meats. the made the first Potato Chips for retail sale in that part of the country.

“The Scotts were the inspiration for my early cooking aspirations which gave me every opportunity to absorb all of their fine recipes and rudiments of cooking, preparing food, and catering. Although Mama Scott’s education was limited, she could measure and estimate to perfection without any modern aids, and her sense of taste, her ability to create was phenomenal…

Because of De Knight we can see how an old school cook might have been unable to tell you whether three pinches of salt was equivalent to a half-teaspoon, but she knew whether  it was enough to season your cornbread. As a result, she imparted more tips, more insight, and more wisdom at a time when modern kitchen conveniences and TV dinners minimized a housewife’s encounters with food, and threatened to turn mealtime into a brief, impersonal experience. De Knight’s self-assured truisms uplifted cooks:

Cooking is not a problem,” she said. “It’s just knowing how and mastering the little tricks of the profession with ‘thought’.

Who is your kitchen hero?

In Her Kitchen

Freda’s Spanish Rice

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter, bacon drippings or oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/3 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped celery
  • 1 cup whole grain brown rice
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • 1/3 cup tomato sauce or 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in a heavy skillet. Saute onion, pepper, garlic and celery until tender. Do not brown. Stir in rice, stirring until well mixed and rice is lightly browned. Add water, tomato sauce and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook over very low heat, covered, until rice is light and fluffy. Stir lightly with a fork before serving. Grains should be whole and firm.

Number of servings: 6

In Her Kitchen