Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On gravy.

I don't experience things in isolation.

Whatever stimuli lap up on the shores of my consciousness join other stimuli, some still foamy, some soaked in.

My experience of a meal this time last week--a tangle of dishes, smells, laughs, and stories at a potluck--was layered onto the sum of meals shared with friends and family in every corner of the world over a lifetime.

So when I recounted to a new friend what red-eye gravy was (essentially ham grease and hot coffee), I was on a stool in downtown Seattle and, at the same time, in the kitchen in a farmhouse on a red dirt road in Van Buren County, Arkansas in the 1960s.

And when I talked to my dad on the phone this weekend, and he told about how he and his brothers still make red-eye gravy for Saturday morning breakfast at the cabin, he was holding a cell phone link between himself and his Seattle daughter, as well as standing knee-high to his own mother in the kitchen he knew first.

"Oh, I remember that sound," he said. "She would take up the ham and put it on a plate and while it was still sizzling, she'd pour that coffee in with a big old 'WHOOSH' and Lord, that would cause a cloud of steam." He paused. "I miss that old girl," he admitted. And I paused, too. Mamaw, in her dress and clip on earrings, but with sturdy shoes, an apron, and a lumberjack jacket--because a preacher farmer's wife is both a lady and needs to get the hogs slopped, after all. Mamaw with her slightly high-pitched voice and her flour bin drawer built into the cabinetry. Mamaw with her pans of biscuits and jars of sorghum.

Dad and I rehearsed whole litanies of memory in the instant it took the "whoosh" to cross the airwaves, but litanies require a moment of silence as punctuation. We gave it. And then we moved on to other matters: how the dogs are; how well the pond and lake are filling up; how I want to spend some time in the darkroom over Christmas with him and his brother with some old school black and white film and chemicals.

I hung up, but stayed, Matrix-like, caught between there and here. At the farmer's market on Saturday, I didn't steer toward the things I might: chanterelles, local apples. No, I packed my bag with turnips and greens, scoured each stand for still-green tomatoes, accepted fresh cranberry beans as a local compromise (had we known them in Arkansas, surely they would have been our floral, fragrant legume of choice). I also tucked in a packet of pig skin, courtesy of Sea Breeze Farm, which I turned into cracklings later that day.

Sunday passed, Monday, Tuesday, and me still psychically stuck in the foothills of the Ozarks, but unable to leave work and other commitments aside to go there wholly.

But tonight was the night. I put rendered pork fat in my treasured skillet and put it in the oven at 450 to heat. I measured out two cups of stone-ground cornmeal into a bowl with a bit of salt, soda, and baking powder, and then quickly beat in an egg and 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk, plus a handful of cracklings. When the skillet was smoking, I pulled it out of the oven, swirled the grease around in a flash and poured it with the most luscious sizzle into the batter and beat like hell, quickly, and then quicker still back into the still blazing hot iron skillet, and back into the oven. [Whew. If that takes more than 30 seconds, start to finish, pitch it out and start over, friends.]

Beans were already simmering and the turnips and greens were in the pressure cooker (the jiggle also a sound of my childhood).

I tossed the green tomatoes in the leftover cornbread batter still in the bowl, tossed them in more cornmeal and quick, into a skillet with more rendered pork fat.

I cut up a bit of fresh onion and trimmed two radishes. Once the cornbread was done, I took it out and turned it onto a cutting board. No need to run a spatula around, this skillet is so well-seasoned that the cornbread slides right out. A matter of pride, that.

It was good. It was very, very good, in that way that memory foods are.

And now, full circle, the host of last week's potluck has sent a note that we are gathering again, impromptu. We can come in our sweats, our PJs. We can come as we are, because as we are is good. As we are: funny, smart, engaged, busy, committed, curious, talkative, sense-appreciators. Who know better than to let experiences pass. Who know to gather up memories greedily.

Who know that gravy is not just gravy.

Measurements for Cracklin' Cornbread + Cracklin' recipe

rendered pork fat or bacon grease

2 cups stone-ground cornmeal 
1 t. salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1 egg 
1 1/2 cups of buttermilk
1 handful of cracklings 
(process outlined in blog)

Cracklings: for 1 1/2 lbs. pig skin, cut it into strips, simmer in 2-3 cups water with 4 t. baking soda and 2 t. salt until skin is tender (45 minutes-1 hour). Remove from water and dry completely. Place skin side up on jelly roll-ish pan (i.e. heavy and shallow, but still a bit of wall) and place in 425 degree oven. Skin will blister and render fat (it's a mess when the blisters pop, no way around it). When the skin is rich brown and blistering has subsided, it's done. Cracklin' image here. Drain on paper towels. Clean oven. 

1 comment:

LC said...

I can smell the down-home goodness from here. Alas, I won't be staying in tonight to cook, but thinking about getting some Gumbo from Steelhead Diner with friends. Good damp weather food.