Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Perfect Imperfect

I am getting much more out of this project than I imagined.  In working my way through the Bass Family and Friends Cookbook, I have learned wonderful new things about my kin.  I have enjoyed reading the many recipes that were submitted and getting a sense of the personalities that operate behind them.  It is a joy to connect with relations who have been long distant, and share their world through their recipes.

In this book of 262 recipes (by my own count, while my husband was discussing our Disney vacation – so who knows!), there are not one but two recipes for Porcupine Meatballs.  That must say something about our family, but I’m not quite sure what.  There are two different recipes for Hot Dog Bun Pie – yes, a dessert.  There is a Pina Colada Cake submitted by a Baptist cousin, and a single recipe called both Russian Tea Cakes and Mexican Wedding Cookies.  While it may be sad to be confused about one’s ethnicity, I am thinking my dessert may be deported. 

After my last post I learned that the Western Omelet, which I cooked because it was the very first one in the book, was not supposed to be the very first one in the book.  My Cousin Diane had done the typing and the ordering, but then had sub-contracted the book construction to other family members.  (I didn’t think to ask her what was supposed to be the first recipe.)

If this home printed collection of recipes falls short of being perfectly flawless, I find that to be a gift.  I would rather puzzle over mysterious instructions of the “Cook until done” variety, than navigate the inscrutable language of your more high-falutin’ published works.   Here, the contributors are average folks who just want to share with others the things that they have found to be good.  My deepest thanks for them.

For this entry, I chose two recipes:  Pineapple Casserole, submitted by Diane Taylor, and Hot Fudge Cake, by Tonita Bobo.  The Pineapple Casserole was wonderful!  The buttery Ritz crackers make a wonderful balance for the sweetness of the pineapple, and the recipe is really quick and simple to put together.

I was initially drawn to the Hot Fudge Cake because of its emphatic instructions.  It felt like having a cheerleader shouting from the sidelines, and with that I thought I couldn’t go wrong.  Wrong!  While I have to say this dessert is yummy, mine came out nothing like what I’m sure was intended.  First of all, it calls for a 9” square pan.  I don’t exactly have one of those.  The closest I could come was one of the little tin foil numbers that are meant to cook a dish for a picnic then get thrown away.  It was 9” square.  Surely that was good enough, wasn’t it?  What could possibly happen!?

What happened was that after pouring the water in, I tried to pick it up to carry it to the oven.  The container, not being sturdy, allowed the water (mixed with cocoa, etc.) to come pouring out one corner.  When I adjusted to carry it more levelly, the pan shifted and started pouring out a different corner.  This went on and on and led to chocolate sauce on the table, chocolate sauce on the floor, chocolate sauce on the kitchen rug, chocolate sauce on the inside of the oven door (that smelled great!), and some final chocolatey spatters on the cabinets.  Oh, what fun that was!

I cooked the cake for the proper length of time, but the jig was up.  Like a bolting horse, my cake knew I was no longer in charge.  The final product was cake-like on the edges, gradually becoming squishier through to the plain liquid in the center.  The kids loved it.

A practitioner of Zen would remind me that the texture of my hot fudge cake/pie/pudding/soup is just an outcome.  Neither good nor bad, it just is.  And if phrases like “nobody’s perfect” are running through my mind, I want to exchange them for something better.  Perfect isn’t the point.  In fact, most of the things we are tempted to call “imperfections” are gifts if we can only recognize them.

The notion of “perfect” all too often has more to do with our expectations than with any real standard of what is good.  Problems are the things we think exist when our expectations are not met, when things don’t turn out like we mean for them too.  And yet if we learn anything in our short jaunt on this planet, it should be that there are too many lovely possibilities for us to stay glued only to the ones we can predict, to think something can only be “good” when it fits our narrow criteria of what ought to be.  The quirks and the surprises of this world are often marvelous signs of a God of Possibility, whose work will offer much more variety than we can imagine. 

Todd and I have decided that the hot fudge cake/pie/pudding/soup will taste great on top of ice cream, a shift from our original plan of putting ice cream on it.  And so it will.

Blessed Eating!

Pineapple Casserole
2 cans (20 oz.) pineapple tidbits                 2 c. sharp cheddar
½ c. sugar                                                            1/3 c. flour
1 sleeve of Ritz crackers, crushed             ¼ c. melted margarine
Preheat oven to 350.  In casserole dish mix pineapple, sugar, and flour.  Top with cheddar cheese.  In another dish mix crackers with margarine and top casserole.  Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.

Hot Fudge Cake
Follow the directions explicitly for a delicious dessert.
Mix 1 cup of Self Rising Flour                       ¾ c. sugar
2 T. cocoa                                                            ½ c. milk
2 T. oil                                                                   1 t. vanilla
Mix well.  Batter will be very thick.  Spread in a 9” square pan.  DO NOT STIR THIS RECIPE ANY MORE!!!!
1 c. packed brown sugar                               1/3 c. sugar
¼ c. cocoa
Mix and sprinkle over the cake batter, but DO NOT STIR!
Pour 1 ¾ c. hot water over the cake and sugar mixtures.  DO NOT STIR!
Bake at 350 for 35 minutes.  The cake will rise to the top and the bottom will be a thick rich fudge sauce.  Great with ice cream.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Food is Love

Food is Love.  Your therapist might tell you different, and s/he would be correct if you are thinking of gorging on potato chips, ice cream and diet Sprite to mend a broken heart.  But viewed from the correct angle, I think there might be some truth to this statement.  That’s what this post is about.

Today I start cooking . . . and I start writing about cooking.  My first recipe:  Western Omelet.  My first ingredient:  Butter!  I’m liking this project better all the time.  My first cookbook to crack open is one that can’t be bought in stores.  Neither paper nor hardback, this recipe collection is contained in a gray ring binder with a label that came from a home computer:  The Bass Family and Friends Cookbook, 2006 edition.  I am deeply grateful to my cousins, Hazel Trawick and Diane Trawick Taylor for offering the time, love and effort to put this collection together.

In the flow of time, it is interesting to see which names will last; which ones will come to identify a family for generations.  In our case, that name is Bass.  My grandmother’s name before her marriage was Mattie Amelia Bass.  My father’s mother, she had 14 siblings most of whom had children and grandchildren.  Many of these bear different names now, but deep down we all know who we really are.

There are many occasions when we Basses dust off our hidden name, but one comes at the same event every year.  The Singing.  On the first Sunday in June each year, Shady Hill Free Will Baptist Church has its homecoming.  Shady Hill sits on an unpaved road just south of Carolina, Alabama.  Its homecoming is accompanied by a Sacred Harp Singing that has been held at the same time every year for at least as long as I have been in the world.

Growing up I didn’t do much of the singing, but I never knew the event by any other name.  Still, there is more to it than that.  There is The Praying.  There is The Fellowshipping, as friends and relatives come together after being apart since the previous June.  And most important, there is The Eating . . . also known as Lunch.  Like many churches of its era, Shady Hill has two long cement tables in the back of the church.  They are now covered though they were not when I was a child.  By noon these tables will be filled with casseroles, fried chicken, green beans, macaroni and cheese, pecan pies, fried apple tarts and a host of other delectables both urban and rural.  If you aren’t feeling hungry yet, check your pulse.

The creamed corn will likely have been grown by the person bringing it.  The pecans we have for dessert come from trees in nearby backyards.  And if KFC is getting to be a common source of fried chicken, there are still plenty of cakes made with eggs that were laid within walking distance of both home and church.  This is my family – extended, mind you, they’re not all Basses – but they are mine by default nonetheless.  We choose to celebrate both our kin and our Creator in song and in food. 

I wish I could say that whenever I go to The Singing I recognize all my relatives at once, that I can walk up and throw my arms around them with no introductions necessary.  Instead, I have to constantly whisper in my Dad’s ear to ask who is this relative or that.  There are many whom I fail to recognize on site, or if I know their faces I couldn’t pull their names from the files deep in my mind if you gave me a week.  But they are mine and I love them. 

These people love each other and they love their God.  They show it by bringing the most sumptuous dishes their kitchens can produce.  Through this act of feasting together our ties are renewed for another year, until we meet again in holy fellowship and song.  

Cooking for someone, feeding them, is like pronouncing a blessing.  It expresses a desire for the very best and healthiest for another, and it takes steps to make that wish a reality.  How do we love?  Just south of Carolina, Alabama we do it by bringing food.  But the food, however splendid, is only a token of something much more sacred: the hallowed bonds formed between friends and kin in the presence of the One who makes them possible.

The omelet was marvelous.  Since it is against my religion to have ketchup with eggs (seriously, I think it’s in the Book of Discipline), I used some homemade salsa I had frozen.  Many thanks to Cousin Greg Wade and family for submitting the recipe.  I probably need to get to know them better.

Blessed eating!

Western Omelet
Tablespoons butter                                        6 large eggs
¼ c. finely chopped green bell pepper      ¾ c. chopped cooked ham
1/3 c. finely chopped onions                         ¾ c. milk
¾ t. salt                                                                 dash pepper

In skillet melt butter.  Beat eggs and whisk in remaining ingredients.  Pour mixture into hot skillet.  Cook, stirring to cook evenly.  Turn and cook other side.  Serve while still somewhat moist and creamy.  Cook in smaller batches for Western sandwiches.  Serve with ketchup.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Eating to Live

I am no chef.  My love of cooking in no way guarantees knowledge or skill.  I’m not even an aspiring foodie, at least not in the educated sense.  I have no real ambition to delve into the deeper mysteries or technical proficiencies of great cooking.  Of the many dishes, desserts and other recipes I try, probably just as many will flop as fly.  This year, in the container garden on my deck I planted tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and basil.  My harvest was tomatoes and basil, a few caterpillars and a lot of experience.  Fortunately, I’m not keeping stats.  That would be entirely beside the point.

I cook because I love it.  And I love eating.  Stepping through recipes and coming up with an edible result is for me part therapy, part love, part enjoyment of good food, and part reflection on all that food means to us in the human family.  I do it because I like it, and because I like what I discover in the process.  The lessons learned tend to cover both cuisine and life.

In preparing food, we touch on something essential; our most basic need is to eat and be nourished.  Every culture has a particular cuisine that helps define it and give it color.  Our consumption gives us identity even as it draws us toward one another.  I can’t think of any recent meeting, gathering or coming together of friends that did not in some way include eating; whether that meant snacks or a multi-course meal.  Whenever I cook for friends I am moved by a sense of human togetherness, of taking part in an historic ritual as over the centuries friends have pulled chairs to tables in the sharing of a common meal.

Food also highlights our dependence on one another.  However self-sufficient we might imagine ourselves, even the most avid do-it-yourselfers will need somebody else to raise the livestock, plant the coffee or build the Cuisinart.  Food production is no country for loners.  Whether we like it or not, the need to eat forces us to rely on others and sometimes – even better – to work together.

Finally, as a pastor I love the way food – or more to the point, hunger – can remind us of our dependence on the God who provides it.  Ask anyone who has spent time fasting and they will likely tell you that we are built with a battery that needs frequent recharging.  We are not creatures who can go for a month on a single meal, but we are drawn to the table multiple times every day.  Like baby birds with our mouths open wide, we have a continual need to be fed. 

This is no mistake.  The need to fill our stomachs regularly can remind us of our dependence on a greater source of sustenance.  We are drawn to acknowledge our need for God’s nourishment and grace.  This diet comes from a compassionate source well beyond ourselves, but one who draws near and sits at the table with us.

This blog will be as much about life as about eating.  Following the format of this project, my next entry – which will be around Monday; I’m shooting for about two a week – will be based on the cooking experience of an actual recipe.  (See “About This Blog” for details of the project.)  I have picked out the first recipe book and am ready to go.

Blessed eating!