On Paula Deen

I almost didn’t want to use this space to make any sort of commentary on the whole Paula Deen fiasco.  As a white girl foodie, part of me feels out of my depth in even having an opinion on such a complicated, racially-charged issue.  But I have to admit I can see both sides.  Let me explain:

As a Virginian and Southerner by birth, I’ve grown up eating and loving Southern food.  There’s nothing better than a flaky buttermilk biscuit stuffed with Smithfield ham, or a big bowl of grits with red-eye gravy.  But, like Paula and so many other white Southerners and Southern food fans, I have been ignorant.  Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more interested in history, both family history and the history of Southern food – Virginia food in particular.  I’ve started to discover the tangled web of influences on the style of cooking that is most well-known in the South – how things like barbecue ribs carry the hidden story of the slaves who received the least-desired cuts of meat, combined them with familiar spices and ingredients as well as those native to the Americas, and created something new and delicious.  How the okra and squashes and peppers that came from Africa on slave ships were brought into the kitchens of wealthy planters and politicians and became something altogether unique.  How a man named Jefferson brought his slave James Hemings with him to Paris to learn gourmet French cooking techniques from some of the best chefs of the day, then ultimately freed him and paid him wages as he worked in kitchens at Jefferson’s residences at Monticello, in Philadelphia and New York.

I read Michael Twitty’s “Open Letter to Paula Deen,” and I nodded my head as he explained how the controversy surrounding Paula stems from so much more injustice than whether she did or didn’t say the n-word.  I felt guilty for not having known the origin of hoecakes myself until I attended the Dinner with Jefferson Davis a few weeks back.  And I cringed as I read Anne Rice’s accusation that the media backlash is part of “lynch mob culture.”  Could two older white women that I used to respect really be so out of touch?

I think that’s what’s at the heart of all of this.  Do I think Paula Deen is a malicious person?  Not really.  Do I think she’s a racist?  That’s harder to say.  I can’t know what’s in her heart, but I do know that she has made her career and fortune on the Southern food tradition without ever really giving an explanation or paying homage to where that tradition comes from.  Look, I get it.  Talking about race issues is hard.  Especially here in the South.  But Paula and so many other celebrity chefs and foodies have the opportunity to open a dialogue here.  When I can sit down to watch a show about a barbecue cookoff – a style of cooking so steeped in slavery and the black experience (see “Barbecue in Black and White“) – and all three of the judges are white dudes, there’s something a bit “off” about that.  When a white dude from New England is the face of New Orleans/Creole food, we’re missing a lot of the story.

I’m a history geek, a foodie, and a Southerner.  And I want to know where the foods I love come from, even if their backstory is pockmarked and hard to talk about.  I want to learn.  I want to give credit where credit is due.  I want the Food Network and the mainstream food media to talk about the issues surrounding the Paula Deen controversy in a deeper way than just keeping a tally of which of her sponsors have jumped ship.  Maybe I’m asking too much.  Maybe this discussion is one that needs to be kept smaller, more human – talked about by all kinds and colors of people over meals in their local restaurants.  As I try to do with most things, I hope so much that something positive can come from this, and I wonder if the world of food  – nourishment, hospitality, pride in one’s traditions – isn’t the best place to start this dialogue after all.

“A Taste of History” showcases historical cooking techniques and recipes

I was flipping through the channels the other day and came across a show that has quickly become my new favorite – “A Taste of History” on RLTV.  On each 30-minute long episode, Chef Walter Staib, an international restaurant consultant, visits historic sites and uses their kitchens to prepare dishes of their time period.  Many episodes are filmed in Philadelphia, in the hearth kitchen of Rittenhousetowne.  Others are filmed on location at sites such as Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier.  Chef Staib makes full use of the various cooking implements as he demonstrates methods of cooking foods that were used hundreds of years ago.  What really struck me while watching was the high level of mastery a typical cook or chef needed to have in order to efficiently and expertly prepare all the different courses of meals that were typical of upper-class tables in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  The dance of “spiders” (cast iron pans with legs for setting over hot coals), hanging pots of stews and broths, roasting spits and dessert pans is truly intricate and impressive.  As a home cook, I don’t know that I’d ever be able to accurately and efficiently prepare such a feast and have all the dishes emerge from the kitchen at the exact time they’re expected, with the flavor they’re meant to have.  This makes me respect even more the cooks and chefs of the time, many of whom were slaves, such as George Washington’s famed chef Hercules, who was somewhat of a “celebrity chef” of his day.  He was able to sell leftovers of his dishes and bought himself fancy tailored clothing.  In 1797, he escaped from Mount Vernon, however he was later granted his freedom by Martha Washington in her husband’s will upon his death.

In my favorite few episodes, Chef Staib visits Monticello, the Virginia estate of founding father Thomas Jefferson.   There, he uses the kitchen on premises to whip up some truly unique and delectable dishes – Stuffed Cabbage with Fried Asparagus, Bouilli with Bouillon Potatoes, White Bean and Bacon Soup, Chicken Fricassee, Herbed Barley and Curried Lamb with Rice Pilaf and Stewed Mushrooms.  Along with his observations on how food was prepared in Jefferson’s kitchens, Chef Staib also discusses Jefferson’s penchant for gardening during a garden tour, as well as visiting the beer and wine cellars and learning more about James Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved cook who accompanied Jefferson to France in order to be trained in French cookery.

If you’re a fan of cooking shows and of history, “A Taste of History” will definitely keep you entertained, and might even provide you with the inspiration to look into some historical recipes and try your hand at old cooking methods.

Apparently, bear fat is awesome

For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I have seen two references to the use of bear fat in baked goods in the past week.

You see, my husband, yes he of dyed black dreadlocks and floor-length velvet coats in high school, has, over the past fifteen or so years, morphed into a fantasy football-obsessed, Skoal dipping, pseudo jock/redneck. Yes, of course he still loves death metal and old punk rock and 90’s drum and bass and – occasionally – twenty year old goth and industrial music. But for the most part, he’s become nearly a completely different person that the one I first started dating in 1996. One who enjoys smoking his own pork shoulder or beef brisket in our charcoal grill on the porch and who is the proud owner of a jacked-up four-wheel-drive Jeep and the not-so-proud owner of a badass 80’s van (which, by the way, I love and think is rad – down to the cushy, faded burgundy faux-shag carpet and the “mood lighting”). One who somehow convinced me to give up my RAI Italia channel, which was the only place on tv I could catch AS Roma soccer matches and see my current crush, striker Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, play (sometimes, when we wasn’t being benched for staying out too late and partying with Daniele de Rossi) in favor of a Sports subscription that included all manner of college football, martial arts and fishing channels.

But apparently, all those extra channels weren’t what my husband was after. Since we got the new tv package, our television has been stuck on one channel and one channel only – The Sportsman Channel. Yes, each evening, rather than turning on the nightly news or Jeopardy, my husband flips to The Sportsman Channel and we get to watch shows about sitting in tree stands for eight hours and occasionally get to see an actual animal get taken out. You see, the shows on The Sportsman Channel have somewhat of a formula: five to seven minutes spent discussing the preparations for the hunt – from the best suppliers of doe estrus (female deer piss, you guys!), to the wide array of hunting weaponry from which to choose, to the dispute over whether to use actual deer antlers from a previous kill to rub together, or whether to use plastic fakes you bought from Bass Pro. This is typically followed by a full forty minutes of footage of men sitting in tree stands or blinds whispering as they watch various deer or other animals walk past them. “Oh, he’s a big ‘un,” is a common epithet. “Look at that rack!,” is another. Then, when you check the clock and realize that there is absolutely no way they will be able to actually show a deer kill in the remaining four minutes, at least two minutes of which will be sprinkled with commercials for rifles and salt licks and boot warming insoles, KA-BLAM! Out of nowhere, you hear a gunshot and a deer (or elk, or duck, or bear, or turkey) goes down.

This was obviously getting monotonous to me, although my husband and son found it awesome. Then my husband listened to an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast with a guest named Steven Rinella, who has a show on The Sportsman Channel called Meat Eater. On his show, Steve captures all parts of the hunting experience, much as he and most hunters try to use all parts of the animals they kill. Besides hunting footage that is actually enjoyable to watch for a grown woman who has no interest in going hunting, Steve also brings his kill back to his house and prepares various dishes that look to be quite delicious. Cue the bear fat.

In a recent episode, Steve visited Alaska, where he hunted the apparently elusive black bear. Triumphant in the kill, he field dressed the bear, then rendered the bear fat over a wood fire. This piqued my interest, as he was using preparation methods that have been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And then, in his Thanksgiving Cooking Special, he did something that really made me love his show: he made a venison mincemeat pie with a crust made from bear fat. And a wild turkey galantine. For those not well-versed in French food and historic cookery, a galantine is “a French dish of de-boned stuffed meat, most commonly poultry or fish, that is poached and served cold, coated with aspic.” (from the Wikipedia). Oh, and he smoked a black bear ham in his backyard smoker. And immediately, I was a Steve Rinella fan. Then I found out he has written books, including one called “The Scavengers Guide to Haute Cuisine”, wherein his “obsession with a 100-year old cookbook leads him on a fascinating journey into the American wilderness.” This dude is speaking my language!

There is also merch (like the awesome Meat Eater t-shirt with the sweet logo) and gear, for those inclined to actually go out into the wilderness and do hunting type things with it. Not for me. But I will watch this dude cook dishes right out of vintage cookbooks any day of the week.

Oh, and that other reference to bear fat? Mark, redneck hunter extraordinaire of Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners, remarked in a nearly unintelligible Southern drawl (and that’s saying a lot for a girl born and raised in the South!), that pies made with bear fat crusts are the best pies you’ll ever eat. So yeah, if anyone has some spare bear fat laying about, I’d love to give it a go and make some pies with it. I’ll bake an extra one just for you!

New BBC show highlights English food history

If you’re in the UK, the BBC has a new series on the historical origins of our daily meals.  Over three episodes, host Clarissa Dickson Wright reveals the history of breakfast, lunch and dinner through interviews with food historians and other guests.  In the first episode, “Breakfast,” she blazes through English food history from the liturgical beginnings of “break fast,” to pig farming and the traditional “full English” breakfast.  She interviews an archivist with Fortnum & Mason, London’s original gourmet food store, and explains the cultural reasons for the rise of the middle class and the need for stores like Fortnum’s.  John Harvey Kellogg, the American doctor who pioneered cold breakfast cereal, is profiled, with emphasis on his scientific motivations in creating a “perfect laxative” for health spa clients.

Viewers in the UK can watch the first episode, “Breakfast,” on BBC’s iPlayer.  American viewers can locate episodes of the series on Bolt.cd or other file sharing sites.