I finally finished the final draft of the fourth Alafair book (try saying that three times fast). For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been testing the recipes that will go in the back of the book. I’ll be glad when this research phase is over, since 1910s American country cooking is heavy, rich, and fattening, and I tend to overindulge in my test products. I was raised on this kind of food, and this is the way that I was originally taught to cook, so it isn’t foreign to me. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret, Dear Reader. This is not at all the way I cook at home, when I cook at all. We are very health-foody. I’m all over the organic, local, meatless style of cooking.
In fact, the kind of cooking that Alafair does is disappearing, I think, and that is one reason that I always put a special section of recipes and food lore in the back of each of the books. Just because I don’t generally eat like that any more doesn’t mean that I don’t have a certain nostalgia for it. So, when time comes to test and write about the recipes for the dishes that I mention in the books, I have to say that I really enjoy the heck out of myself.
Most of the time, I remember very well how to make the dish and can whip up the recipe in no time at all. Sometimes, though, I haven’t eaten whatever it is I’m writing about since I was a child, and recreating the dish is something of an adventure. When I was writing the first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, my mother was still alive, so it was easy for me to call her up and ask if I needed to have my memory refreshed about some ingredient. She was gone by the time I was writing Hornswoggled, and I was forced to begin expanding my resources. I had no trouble remembering most of the recipes in that book, except for two. I ate plenty of my grandma’s chess pie in my youth, but I never made one myself. I found a recipe for it that was written out by my aunt Alma Bourland in about 1989, which is what I used for the book. I did modify the language of my aunt’s recipe just a little, though I pondered long and hard before I did, because I so loved the way she wrote it. “Mix sugar and meal good,” she wrote. “Add beaten egg and butter and mix well. Add milk and vanilla. Pour into uncooked pie shell. Bake slowly until firm.”
Which brings up a problem I’ve discovered with old recipes. How slow is slowly? How hot is a moderate oven? “Use a hunk of butter about the size of an egg.” “Add about a teacup of milk.” “Two glugs of sorghum.” Huh? These recipes were written out by women who cooked by eyeball, who were so practised, and so familiar with the chemistry of cooking that they knew exactly what kind of reaction so many teaspoons of baking soda would cause when added to so many cups of flour and milk and baked for just so long in an oven that felt exactly so hot when they stuck their hands in to test the temperature.
So, in order to make the recipe intelligible to today’s not-so-talented cooks, Yours Truly included, I am forced to test these recipes over and over until they are right. Sometimes my experiments fail miserably. A couple of weeks ago, I tried to make an apple cornmeal pudding for Book 4, and ended up with something rather alarming. So, I’m going to attempt to figure out what went wrong, make some modifications, and try again. The sacrifices one makes for one’s art! The chess pie turned out pretty good, but only after I learned not to use salted butter.
For The Drop Edge of Yonder, I worked for days to recreate my mother’s okra pie (which is savory, and not really a pie, so you can wipe that look off your face). I used to make okra pie a lot in my youth, but it’s probably been 25 years since I tried, and I seemed to have forgotten the technique. I spent a lot of time e-mailing back and forth with my sister Carol, who remembered more than I did, and between the two of us, we finally managed to unlock the mystery of the okra-to-egg-to-cornmeal ratio. My first four or five efforts wouldn’t hold together, but they were delicious all the same.
For Hornswoggled, my sisters-in-law, Lorraine and Dolores, taught me the tea syrup technique. For the upcoming book, my brother Chris sent me our mother’s chocolate pie recipe, which was stuck up on their refrigerator. The chocolate pie is another recipe that I used to make quite a lot, before I married a man who doesn’t like chocolate. I’m also including a recipe for a tenderloin of beef with little meatballs, but since I keep a meatless kitchen, it’s Carol to the rescue again. She agreed to test the dish for me, once she saves up enough money to buy a tenderloin.
The new book, by the way, will be sent to my editor when she returns from a trip to New Zeeland in the middle of February. I expect she’ll have some rewrite suggestions for me, but barring anything major, I hope to have it ready to send to the publisher by the end of February or the first of March. I’ve been told that it’s scheduled to come out in January of 2009. And just in case you’re wondering, Dear Reader, the title is The Sky Took Him. I’ll tell more about it as the publication date draws closer. Until then, if you’d like to make chess pie, remember to use unsalted butter and to ‘mix your sugar and meal good’.
And last, Lesa Holstine at www.lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com, was kind enough to invite me to write a guest entry on her site, which appeared on January 6. Lesa is giving away a copy of Hornswoggled and a copy of The Drop Edge Of Yonder, both signed, to some (dare I say) lucky reader. I invite you to visit her site to read my entry and to discover how to enter her contest for a free book.
January 16th, 2008
Hi Donis — I just lived through this post. My German grandmother’s farm cooking (called soul food in our family) very memorable to us. However, with a 4th grade education on a not that prosperous farm, trying to decipher some of her recipes is a challenge. And, truth to tell, although my arteries harden right up when I read to add “greese” (translated bacon grease) or lard I know that my non-heart-attack versions will be pretty puny by comparison. Best, Carolyn (yes, that Carolyn)