Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Hooptedoodle Saving Cookbooks?

(Note: this entry was originally posted on 6/17/2010, but it was invisible to some readers for reasons that I don't fully understand. Sorry about that.)

Mark Twain once famously said "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," in response to persistent rumors that he was no longer with us. A recent article in the Hartford Courant, "The enduring cookbook," by Bill Daley takes a similar tone, noting that despite the presence of enormous volumes of free information from cooking Web sites, hard-copy cookbooks that you have to pay for remain extremely popular. As with Mark Twain, there have been persistent rumors of the impending death of print media for some time now in response to the growth of free stuff on the Internet. To explain the non-death of cookbooks, Daley quotes Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and drink at Chronicle Books, who notes that cookbooks provide stories that you don't find from other sources.

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing makes a strong argument against "hooptedoodle" in his last rule: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Noting, however, that Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday included chapters with titles "Hooptedoodle 1" and "Hooptedoodle 2," Leonard concludes with the following confession:

"Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters?

Every word."

In the same spirit, it is just possible that this kind of "extraneous" material is exactly the sort of intellectual and emotional spice we need occasionally, in the midst of the necessary tablespoons of this and reductions of that on which cookbooks are founded. What follows, then, are a few of the Noodle Doodler's favorite cookbook hooptedoodles.

Bill Neal's Southern Cooking

I bought Bill Neal's cookbook the first time I visited his restaurant, Crook's Corner, in Cary, North Carolina. It was one of the more memorable meals of my life, both because it was the first time I had ever tasted shrimp and cheese grits and because it was the first time I had ever had dessert wine. Along with Crook's Corner Style Shrimp and Cheese Grits, the book includes recipes for a lot of other delectable edibles: everything from Dog Bread and Natchitoches Meat Pies to Tipsy Parson and Burgoo. But names like these demand explanation, and Neal's book positively brims with informative hooptedoodle that does not disappoint. Burgoo, for example, is a southern stew made from mutton with an assortment of regional vegetables, and along with the recipe, Neal includes a brief discussion of some of the regional rivalries it engenders
("And, a little to the west, in Arkansas, it's said - though Kentuckians disagree - they make a pretty good burgoo as well.")

Being Dead Is No Excuse, by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays

Between the title of this book and its equally provocative subtitle ("The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral"), it should be clear that hooptedoodle abounds here. What may be less obvious is that this is, in fact, a cookbook, replete with recipes for everything from Bourbon Boiled Custard and Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake at the end of Chapter 1 ("Dying Tastefully in the Mississippi Delta") through Fried Walnuts and Methodist Party Potatoes in Chapter 2 ("The Methodist Ladies vs. the Episcopal Ladies") to Faux Dieter's Antipasto and Reincarnation Shrimp Dip in the last chapter ("The Restorative Cocktail"). I have tried several of the recipes in this book and some of them are delicious, but even if you never touch a tablespoon of anything described there, the outrageous hooptedoodle makes it a glorious read. The discussion of "The Crocheted-Bedpan- Award Chicken" in Chapter 5 ("Comfort Foods: There Is a Balm in Campbell's Soup") is, by itself, probably worth the price of the book.

Sugar Cookie Murder, by Joanne Fluke

Bill Neal's book is a classic example of a really good cookbook that adds a touch of historical and cultural hooptedoodle to pique your interest. Being Dead Is No Excuse is about equal parts cookbook and hooptedoodle, but with at least a slight majority emphasis on the food and recipes. Joanne Fluke's book is a mystery novel with a really surprising twist ending: after the 200 page novel ends, she includes about 160 pages of recipes, a baking conversion chart, and instructions for preparing Werner Herman's Catfish Bait, clearly labeled as "not for human consumption." All of these recipes are mentioned in the novel, which centers around the murder of somebody's glamorous new wife at a snowy Minnesota holiday party. Here, it could almost be argued that the recipes constitute the hooptedoodle, included to spice up the text. It must be admitted that these recipes are not in the same league with Bill Neal's, but if you're in the mood for Waldorf Salad Jell-O, Can Bread, or Barbecued Anything, some of them might just appeal.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Foraging through the food literature

I have always liked unusual literature - some (perhaps many) of my friends would prefer the term "obscure" here - but pondering the various genres of Poe's "quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore" can have its rewards. A culinary volume that I found at a used book sale some time ago is Egon Ronay's The Unforgettable Dishes of My Life (Sphere Books, London, 1989). As he notes in the preface to his book, Ronay grew up in Budapest in a family of restaurantuers and, over the years, published an amazing number of restaurant guides (an Amazon book search on "Egon Ronay" turns up 140 hits, many of them guides ranging from Egon Ronay's 2006 Guide to the Best Restaurants and Gastropubs in the UK, available used starting at 96 cents, to Egon Ronay's H.J. Heinz Guide, available used - with unknown binding - for $242.87).

From the outset, Ronay does not mince words: he notes in the preface that "these dishes are for enjoyment, not to pander to present-day health terrorists." The book consists of approximately 100 recipes, each of which is preceded by a brief personal history of the dish and some of the things Ronay associates with it. Not surprisingly, it is in these little summaries that Ronay's crustiness is most apparent, and often extremely entertaining. For example, on the page before his recipe for "The Original, Authentic Gulyas" (known outside of Hungary as "goulash"), begins with the following tirade:

"Never has a culinary term been so abused and degraded. Small wonder that the name of this soup (for that's exactly what it is, as many will be surprised to read) has acquired an almost pejorative meaning."

He goes on to emphasize that the paprika used in making the soup should be the sweet rather than the hot variety ("this is not a curry!"), and in discussing the meat, although he says "don't take my recipe as gospel," he continues by saying "other cuts of beef (it has to be beef) are acceptable". In the same vein, Ronay begins the commentary that precedes his "walnut beigl" recipe with the statement, "Let me hasten to warn you: this is not to be confused with America's bagel, which is not even a poor or modest relative." He goes on to emphasize the beigl's glorious role at the Christmas table ("strictly limited to family, never ever friends, however close"), following a meal of carp that was "unlike the fat and sickley British carp, lazy and dissipated in rivers or 'farmed' in lakes." In its persistent crankiness, Ronay's writing style is very much like that of M.F.K. Fisher, whom he praises in the preface of his book for her avoidance of the "single-minded concentration on the clinical, stereotyped, dry instructions of recipes, without a thought for their joyful purpose". For those unfamiliar with Fisher's crustiness, the following excerpt from "If this were my place" in A Stew or a Story (Shoemaker and Hoard, published in 2006) provides a representative sample:

"I think now, willy-nilly, of the most dismal restaurant in the American world, to my mind, the small-town coffee shop. I have been in hundreds of them, and I firmly believe that until their windows grow steamy and the waitress lets her hair fall vaguely out of place and the coffee machine sends off little pops of steam which the cafe manager frowns on because of Waste, they are just about the most horrid holes ever invented for such a decent ceremony as that of nourishing our poor tired puzzled bodies."

Whether you find Ronay's commentary entertaining or annoyingly curmudgeonly, his book is a fun read because of the eclectic range of its recipes, with everything from "Reveller's Soup" - made with sauerkraut, paprika ("sweet noble, not the hot variety"), bacon, chicken stock, frankfurters, and sour cream - to "Jellied Crayfish," "Sailor's Eels," and "Suckling Pig." As this partial list suggests, there are probably few palates adventurous enough to want to try all of these recipes, but the converse is also true: the person who couldn't find anything appealing among his recipes would have a finicky set of tastebuds indeed. In rummaging through the collection, I have found several I can't wait to try, but the one I want to try first belongs to a whole new culinary concept for me: dessert pasta. Ronay notes, in his discussion of a delicious-sounding "Ham Pasta" recipe (this one isn't a dessert pasta) that the Central European approach to pasta is quite different from that taken by the rest of the world. In particular, he says "unusual, too, is the sweet variety: you would miss a habit-forming experience if you didn't try them." Since he gives a recipe for "Walnut Noodles," I don't intend to miss out. The name alone almost makes it mandatory.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fried Veggies: Cymlings, Green Tomatoes and Tomatillos Fritos

A few years ago, my wife and I used to live a block away from a fabulous Cajun restaurant called Bayou. Sadly, it is gone now, but memories of their Sunday brunches remain, especially the fried green tomatoes with remoulade sauce they offered with their various Louisiana-inspired variations on eggs Benedict.

A recent food article in a newspaper featured tomatillos, sometimes known as “Chinese lantern plants” because of the papery covering that encloses the green bulbous fruit. Typically used in sauces like salsa verde, they have always reminded me of green tomatoes, which prompted the thought: why not fried tomatillos with remoulade sauce and eggs Benedict?

Several cookbooks offer recipes for fried green tomatoes, including Joanne Weir’s You Say Tomato (Broadway Books, New York, 1998), but the most interesting one I found was from Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking (University of North Carolina Press, 1985). This recipe was especially useful because he precedes it with a general discussion of frying vegetables, noting the range of different types that can be fried and giving specific advice for each, including green tomatoes. The thing that made this recipe particularly intriguing, though, was the one vegetable he gave the most detailed instructions for: fried cymlings. Fortunately, he defines cymlings, because I had never heard of them: they turn out to be a Southern U.S. vegetable also known as the petticoat squash, and Neal gives a parenthetical history of the name. Evidently, it first appeared in 1705 as a corruption of simnel, a Lenten currant cake that somewhat resembles the petticoat squash in appearance. I have never tasted a cymling, but it’s now at the head of my list of things to seek out on my next southern excursion.

Convinced that I had invented something completely new, I was all ready to adapt Bill Neal’s fried cymlings recipe to tomatillos. Before I actually did that, however, I decided I should check the Internet just to see if maybe one or two other people had thought of the idea before me. They had: a quick Google search turned up 287,000 hits, including one for Tomatillos Fritos from Recipe Zaar ( ). I ended up fixing that one, which I recommend: it soaks the tomatillos in milk and egg with hot sauce, and it uses a combination of cornmeal and flour for the breading. They went great with the remoulade sauce, the eggs Benedict, and the bloody Mary’s we served them with to round out the brunch. It wasn’t quite brunch at the Bayou, but it did bring back memories.

In the future, there are two variations I plan to try. The first is to go with my original idea of adapting Bill Neal’s fried cymlings recipe, in part because it is extremely simple (you coat them in cornmeal and fry them in bacon fat or peanut oil). The second variation is to replace the bloody Mary (delicious as that was) with one of the recommended wines from Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s book, What to Drink with What You Eat. They list five wine choices under their tomatillos entry, and their preferred one seems to be a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

When it comes to cymlings, though, it appears that I am on my own: Dornenburg and Page don’t have an entry for them.