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Monday, October 15, 2012

White trash eatin'

Spaghetti-O Jello-O Mold (with Wiener garnish)



Sometimes, when I'm of a mood, I stand in front of my shelf of cookbooks (pared down a great deal since we moved here), close my eyes, reach for a book, and let inspiration take over.

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
Or, Netty Irene's Macaroni and Cheese who said, "This recipe is from Miss Myrtle Talmade's Home-Ec class and I made it for the Senior Prom Dinner. It was so good, I been makin' it ever since."

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' John

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
bacon crumbs

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."
Thing 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.

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"

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.  
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:
Peggy's Pig Eggs

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.
Now, 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.

When you're poor, the real test of creativity is dessert. My mother used to make "Ice Box Pudding Cookies".

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 Pie

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.
When you make something that looks and tastes like this, you don't feel poor.

That's the point, you see. I know I didn't realize we were poor until I started getting invited to stay over for supper at some of my friend's homes and noticed that they didn't eat the way we ate - I mean, apart from the obvious Portuguese stuff.

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.

It amazes me how many of them are diminished by the memory of all that wonderful food.

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.

23 comments:

Brad Upham said...

Let's not forget easy Sloppy Joes: Fry up hamburger meat in a skillet, throw in some Lawry Salt and Ketchup. Or Kraft Mac-n-Cheese with a tin of tuna. Lasted all week when I was in college.

James said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I cried through the whole reading of you post. You've reminded me of days long ago, and people long moved to the Church Triumphant. We, too, were po'folk, but we kids didn't know it. I'm going to make your lily pie. I'll think of your mum and granny, as well as mine. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brad - There's actually a recipe for that in WTC, except, it's not called "Sloppy Joes", it's called Aunt Rosie Deaton's All-American Slum-Gullion (The Best).

Tuna Casserole is also featured - along with lots of tuna recipes, some of which are "served on saltine crackers slathered with mayonnaise."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

James - I'm so glad it touched you and brought back fond memories. Let me know how the pie turns out.

Marthe said...

And in your vast collection of cookbooks, do you have "Lutheran Church Basement Women" by Janet Letnes Martin and Allen Todnem, wherein the joys of jello and the six proper knots for kitchen towels are discussed alongside the very worst coffee instructions on the planet and gossip/myth about Martin Luther his own self? A classic.

A culture clash incident: will never forget the look on my mom's face when a certain overly precious fiance arrived to visit and actually had the nerve to ask just what kind of pickle is this when she tasted one of our fabulously good homemade watermelon pickles -- her response, "You make pickles out of garbage? Ewwww." Suffice to say she was never quite welcome ever again. We "poor, white, and perilously close to trash" had better manners than to ever say anything like that, and being of Scandinavian descent, never forgot an unkind word ... ever ... such things were preserved in the frozen tundra of the soul as surely as Viking refuse in Greenland.

And seriously, the coffee in North Dakota is awful ... bring your own!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

No, but I found it at Amazon and have it on my wish list. http://www.amazon.com/Lutheran-Church-Basement-Letnes-Martin/dp/1886271690

I'm forbidden to bring in new books of any sort to the house, but, you know, if it's a gift......;~)

Susan Pederson said...

What a wonderful post. The Spaghetti-O's picture almost did me in but the recipes you shared are wonderful!
Do you have More With Less? I love that cookbook, written by our Mennonite brethren. This is one of my favorite.
Pickled watermelon rind is wonderful!!! And the coffee in Minnesota is pretty bad too. My grandmother made it by the gallon in a big enamel pot and cracked an egg into it to hold the grinds together. Ick!

Anonymous said...

You brouht back wonderful memories. I never thought about it much growing up; but, looking back I realize we ate more beans than anything else. We had so many different dishes with beans: pinto beans with bits of ham and red onion with cornbread; great northern beans with a bits of ham; red beans and rice; black beans and rice. Let me tell you we had a receipe for every type of bean around. Hoppin John and greens were always two of my favorite dishes too.
Thanks for the memories.
Maria

Unknown said...

Hot Dog Stew? Really? My husband used to make that for the kids, I thought he made it up.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susan - The only bad coffee I've ever had is some of what passes for coffee at Church Coffee Hour. As bad as that is, I can't imagine what the Spaghetti-O thingy tastes like. I'm betting kids love it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maria - I think no matter where we come from, so many childhood memories are around food. Glad I brought back some good memories for you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, Hot Dog Stew.

Please leave your name next time or I'm afraid I won't be able to post your comment.

Brian Davis said...

What memories this stirs in me! Staples in my childhood were pinto beans, cornbread, and greens. Navy beans, pole beans cooked to a turn in a large pot, and boiled carrots or potatoes for every meal. Simple cheap foods cooked with love.

We turned out a pretty good feast for the major holidays but daily fare was simple, cheap, and filling. Hot dogs wrapped in a biscuits and slathered with mustard called Pig In a Blanket was my favorite. Thanks for this lovely trip down memory lane!

Kay & Sarah said...

Your post did bring back wonderful memories.....cooking with my mother, freezing and canning food from our garden. The food may have been inexpensive but we were rich in family and friends.

We have started freezing and canning again. It makes delicious winter meals. Oh, we also started making a little blackberry wine and it is not bad

howdidIgethere said...

As one of 5 children of a school teacher father "back in the day" when teachers made peanuts, I remember eating pancakes for supper -- what a special treat! Now I realize that it was probably more a case of "too much month left over at the end of the money".

Gotta get a copy of that Lutheran Church Women book as I was born and reared in the Lutheran church, though PA German, not midwest Scandanavian. Veteran of MANY a basement potluck!

(Will skip the spaghetti mold, though.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brian - We also had Pigs in a Blanket. My mother would pull out the trusty box of Bisquick, make some dough, cut them in triangles and roll them up. We squealed like little piglets when they were brought to the table.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kay & Sarah - My grandmother would can. Not my mother. As I remember, it was lots of work but oh, my goodness, didn't we love it when winter came and we had tomatoes and beans and squash and peas! My grandfather also made vats of wine from the grape vineyard in the back yard. Made up a special batch just for the kids which we later discovered was slightly fermented grape juice. Ah, such wonderful memories.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Howdy - well, we often had pancakes for dinner. Also oatmeal or Cream of Rice. My mother said it was because it was a cold winter night and this would warm our tummies, but I think, sometimes, she didn't even have enough at the end of the month to make soup. We had no idea. We just loved pancakes and even oatmeal because we were allowed to use maple syrup and brown sugar. At night. How lucky were we?

Muthah+ said...

I too have been forbidden to bring anymore books into the house. I am waiting for the professional organizer this morning. She will whittle me down even more. But this post has been a hoot. I have a couple of trailer trash cuisine to add: mock stroganoff, and even tho you had hot dog stew, I have a similar recipe with kielbasa, potatoes,onions, kale and Munster Cheese that we got from Gourmet mag. that sounds pretty close to grandma's. If if tastes good--I don't care what cookbook it comes from.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah - I've also had mock stroganoff and Portuguese sausage stew. You does whatcha can with watcha gots. I just found a recipe for onion pie that I remembered my grandmother made, except it was onions, garlic, tomatoes and - when times were good - bacon. Unbelievably yummy. Made a BLT pale in comparison. What's not to love about a hot slice of flaky crust BOGT? Unless, of course, you have to watch your cholesterol. Or, your breath. Everybody in my house smelled like onion and garlic so it really didn't matter much. Until I was a teenager and then it was "Ewwwwwww". Silly girl!

gerry said...

Love the Post! Brought back fond memories of Friday nights before Vatican II. One of the favorites was what the family called Welsh Rabbit. Later realized that my great grandmother in who's cookbook we found it was more than a little deaf.

Mother's cooking was pretty white bread Irish American. Dad on the other hand would try anything. He learned to cook in the army in the Pacific Theater. When he fed us there was a strong hint of the mess and we kids adored it.

If you were sick in bed with a cold, creamed egg on toast was a staple along with Tom and Gerry's which was a nog made with milk, vanilla sugar and raw egg, whipped to a froth. Dietitians are shuddering if they've read this far.

Gerry Hough

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, my goodness! I had forgotten all about Tom and Gerry's. My mother would say, "It will coat your tummy". She never mentioned our arteries!

Sextant said...

I am about as white trash as you can get and I have the culinary sophistication of a nine year old. Living high on the hog is mac and cheese, add diced stewed tomatoes to it and it is the comfort food of the white trash gods.

But...

That jello mold with the Spaghetti O and wieners is just plain ghastly! Blaaaaggggghhhhhh!

Back in the first years of our marriage, my wife tried to expand our repertoire of culinary delights. She had sent away for several "cook books" from various food concerns such as the Heinz Ketchup Cookbook. Now that is white trash. Anyhow I was counseled on my bitching about some of the new recipes. So...

We were eating minute steak stew. It was orange. I had been in the military, imagine how many times I had some hideous orange stew. But I was dutifully holding my tongue and saying not a word about this retched dish.

The cat came along and I set a morsel of meat on the floor. The cat sniffed it. She spread out her paw as wide as she could make it and attempted to cover it up.

"My thoughts precisely, kitty!"

My wife who had also been suffering the stew in silence, busted out laughing and agreed it was one of the worse things she had ever made.