|Spaghetti-O Jello-O Mold (with Wiener garnish)|
Mind you, I've got books from Hawai'i, China, Thailand, and, I think, every church that ever produced a cookbook as a fundraiser - including my absolute favorite "Two and Company" produced years ago by St. Thomas' Church, Garrison Forest, MD.
This morning, my hands fell on a cookbook I had forgotten I owned. It's one of my favorites, although I don't cook from it often. If I did, I'd probably be dead right now of coronary artery disease. It's 'White Trash Cooking' by Ernest Matthew Mickler, a collection of some of the most amazing recipes you're likely to set your eyes on.
What I love most about it is that Mickler has carefully copied down the recipes as told to him by the people who actually make the stuff.
There are people with names like Mrs. Ruby Henley of Social Circle, Georgia who comments on her Russian Communist Tea Cookies, "If you make a mistake and use one cup of flour instead of 2 1/2, they'll come out like thin wafers. They'll be just as delicious but won't make enough for Christmas."
Or, Miz Ina, who says of her recipe for Mock Cooter Soup, "To make a real one, just add cooter (turtle) meat instead of ground meet. That's the way we do it in Sandfly, Georgia."
Or, Miz Edna Rae's, of Starke, Florida, who comments on her recipe Butt's 'Gator Tail, "If you haven't eaten 'gator tail before, you're in for a surprise. It's gonna taste a little bit like chicken, a little bit like pork, and a little bit like fish. It's so good, you'll wanna lay down and scream."
|Hamburg, Hot Dog, Bacon Turtles|
Recipe after recipe is a witness to the fact that being poor requires creativity and imagination. It's a real triumph of the spirit to make something out of what little you have that will feed and nourish and satisfy your family when you live life hovering over - or under - the poverty line and still maintain your sense of dignity.
To wit - just check out a few of these recipes:
Hoppin' JohnThing of it is, most people equate "Poor White Trash" with the South and, indeed, these recipes come from behind "The Cotton Curtain", but my Portuguese grandmother made dishes very similar to these. She never went south of Rhode Island but many of these recipes are ones she used - and she used a quart fruit jar to mash potatoes, too.
Cook enough black-eyed peas with hog jowls until they are tender. Cook a cup of rice for every 2 or 3 hungry people. Stir the rice and peas together and serve. Some folks put in tomatoes and some put in okra but no matter what you put, anything with peas and rice is gonna be called its old White trash name of Hoppin' John. Always eaten on New Year's Day, and the more you eat the more good luck you are going to have. "That's common knowledge," says Kaye Kay. She also said, "You can make it out of crowder, field or cow peas."
Matty Meade's Corn and Tomatoes
1 part whole canned tomatoes
1 part whole canned kernel corn
1/2 small onion chopped fine
Thump together. Simmer until onion is done. Put in a bowl and serve. "If you don't like canned vegetables but it's all you got, put a spoon of vinegar in them while they're cookin. Add salt and pepper and a spoon of bacon grease. It'll make 'em almost good as home-canned." Mrs. Lulamae Bennett, Starke, Florida.
Mammy's Colored Mashed Potatoes
Boil 1/2 pound of carrots (3 or 4) and 1/2 pound of potatoes. Mash potatoes and carrots together till there are no more lumps. Add a tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons of cream (canned or other). They look so pretty and bright the children will love them and grown-ups too. There are many potato mashers on the market, but according to Mammy, the best one there is is a quart fruit jar. "The bottom's not too large and not too small. Mashes 'em up real good."
She and my mother also made "Hot Dog Stew". This made regular appearances on our table in the winter. Potatoes, tomatoes, canned string beans, canned corn (or, a large can of mixed vegetables) all cooked together with sliced hot dogs and served with hot, crusty bread and a big glass of milk.
When you're poor, you use what you got and make the best of what you got.
My grandmother and mother were absolutely convinced that, if you were disappointed by a friend or hadn't done as well as you thought you should have on the softball field or on a test in school, an egg could cure whatever ailed a heavy heart.
My mother was famous for her "Creamed Egg on Toast" - something she learned in Home-Ec class and taught me to make. It's real comfort food. I still make it, on occasion. There's something wonderfully satisfying in putting the hard boiled yoke through a sieve and sprinkling it on top of the creamed sauce with the chopped hard boiled egg white that you've plopped on heavily buttered toast.
My grandmother was much more straight forward. She made something like "A Martha's Egg".
Mrs. Arnold's Daughter Martha's Egg: Or, "A Martha Egg"Some people look for the 'Deviled Eggs' at a church supper or at a funeral repast. My grandmother and aunts always made something like this:
Beat an egg with 1/4 cup of milk, a pinch of salt and pepper. Fry in butter at a low heat. Serve with a sweet smile and a kind word. If serving to a kid, pat it on the head. This egg is pure love and heals all wounds.
Peggy's Pig EggsNow, tell me one of Peggy's Pig Eggs wouldn't cure whatever it was that was ailin' ya. Just don't eat one if your cholesterol level is high. You'll have to find another remedy for your blues.
6 hard-boiled eggs (peeled)
2 eggs, beaten
1 lb. of loose sausage meat
1 cup of breadcrumbs or cornmeal
Mix 1/2 of the beaten eggs with sausage meat. Pat the meat around the outside of the boiled eggs until it's even all the way round, then smear the rest of the beaten eggs on the meat-covered eggs and roll them in the breadcrumbs. Now you should have something that looks like 6 large goose eggs. Fry these in a heavy iron skillet with 1/2 inch of oil in the bottom until golden brown. Make sure you roll them round while they're frying so as to brown them evenly. Drain on a brown paper bag to get ride of the extra grease, and then chill them overnight before using. "Your company won't believe their eyes when they cut them open," says Peggy Lou Dawson of Pee Dee, North Carolina.
Except, they weren't really cookies.
It was chocolate, vanilla and butterscotch pudding, layered with graham crackers, slathered on top with Redi-Whip ("A little miracle in a box," my mother used to say) and sprinkled with colored "Jimmies". In other parts of the country, they're called "Sprinkles" but we always called them "Jimmies". I have no idea why.
She used 'boxed' pudding and lots of milk and always felt that she was "getting milk into the finicky eaters" like my brother and younger sisters. They weren't really finicky. They were just spoiled brats. Which worked out okay for the rest of us because we got the benefit of this special dessert. She would cut the pudding into squares and we would eat them like ravenous wolverines.
When she got really fancy, she would make "Ice Cream Pie", which wasn't a pie, just as the Ice Box Pudding Cookies weren't cookies. In fact, they looked just like the pudding cookies except the layers were ice cream and and great slabs of chocolate sheet cake.
No, we didn't have an Ice Box. We had a proper refrigerator, which my parents always called the Ice Box. It wasn't until we were in High School that they started calling it "The Fridge".
Okay. One more. Just one more. I've actually made the following recipe. It's easy to make, and I love the presentation.
Water Lily PieWhen you make something that looks and tastes like this, you don't feel poor.
3 eggs separated
1 cup sugar
1/4 pound of butter
1/2 tsp each of almond and vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Beat yolks of three eggs until light, adding, gradually, 1/2 cup sugar. Cream butter, almond and vanilla extract. Stir this into egg mixture. Beat egg whites very stiff. Add slowly 1/2 cup sugar and cream of tartar. Spread whites over buttered-and-floured shallow pie plate. Push toward edge, making a depression in center. Pour filling into middle, very carefully. Bake in a slow oven nearly an hour. "It should look just like a water lily - if it don't, you did something wrong," remarks Grace Agnes Booker of Chattahoochee, Florida.
For a long time, I was embarrassed and ashamed about that. It didn't help that I often felt like a visitor from an impoverished, foreign country when my friend's mothers would say stuff like, "Oh, poor dear. You probably don't get to eat a whole hamburger all for yourself without having to have it spread up mixed into a casserole or stew."
I think it took me until my 40s to reclaim my Portuguese roots and understand that, we may have not had a lot of money, but, my goodness, we ate well. And, we laughed and talked and told stories around the dining room table. A lot.
Oh, not everything was wonderful. There are a lot of hard memories in there, too. Really. Hard.
That's a lot of power, right there. Enough power to not make you feel poor at the time, and enough power to ease the pain of the realization that you once were.
Author Mickler writes,
"And what really makes us different from others is that we are 'in love' with our bad times and our weakest characters, we laugh at our worst tragedies, and with a gourmet's delight enjoy our simplest meals. We might tell stories that others think are vulgar or sad, but we make them tales to entertain ourselves and anyone else who will listen. And we always cook enough food for unexpected company. Cooking food, laughing and story-telling - that's what we're made of and that's what we enjoy the most."You know, it's true: Some people are so poor, all they have is money.
I think people who eat well and have fond memories know real wealth.
By that standard, I'm one of the richest women in the world.