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.
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
- 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