Monday, June 11, 2012

Rage, Race and White Trash Cooking

My friend Bonnie and I are so much on the same wavelength much of the time it gets scary. Our biggest point of departure is the fact that she is not only a voracious reader who retains roughly 95 per cent of what she reads, but she formulates ways in which she can translate her information into action rather than rage.

When she does get exercised, it's because of this country's continued use of torture, the lies that are spread in defense of it, the people who perpetuate it and those who practice it. I'm angry about just about everything, from official abuse of authority, to pollution, to political lies to Texas heat, so I sign petitions, send certified letters and emails couched in the most temperate language I can summon to corporate bullies who are unworthy of temperate criticism.

When we get together over lunch or dinner, Bonnie and I come to earth long enough to talk about Molly and/or food. And so it came to pass that in a conversation more than a year ago we decided to have a party that would celebrate the culinary traditions of a group of people who have been long lost to our social consciousness.

The idea came about, as near as I can recall, because we were sitting in some fabulous Mexican dive of a restaurant that served the most exquisite ceviche and tacos, tamales and empanadas. Hardly anyone spoke English, and you waited while your food was prepared because everything was made to order. Nothing fancy, just good solid food as good for the soul as it was for the body.

Somehow, we detoured into favorite foods growing up and I told her about the onion sandwiches my father and I used to make -- a slice of Bermuda onion and a slice of Beefsteak tomato between two slices of Wonder bread slathered with Miracle Whip and finished with a generous sprinkling of black pepper. No, not mayonnaise. I mentioned that I had been surprised the find a recipe for the same sandwich in a 1986, spiral-bound volume of "White Trash Cooking." Turns out Bonnie had the same Ernest Matthew Mickler book (Ten Speed Press has since published a 25th anniversary edition). The Mickler family had the good sense to know their foodways were to be treasured, not ridiculed.

We then got into a conversation about how white trash cooking is not much different from what has come to be known as "soul food." Which then made us wonder why one iteration of the same foods should have one name and the other a different name. But before we could get too existential about it, our Mexican food came and we had decided to do what we often do when we eat: have a party.

An homage to white trash cooking.

It took a year to convert conversation to action. We scoured recipes from White Trash volumes I and II. We came up with far too many components, winnowed them down and sent invitations. As expected, some recipients were, at best, ambivalent; at worst, horrified. We decided that those who didn't get it, oh well. Others began to reminisce about their own roots in Texas, or Kentucky or West Virginia or Maryland or Missouri. They told of Jell-o molds with bananas and canned fruit cocktail and lime Jell-o with cottage cheese. Greens cooked with fatback. Okra and tomatoes. Black-eyed peas, pickled okra,  peas and smoked ham hocks. Buttermilk cornbread. Red soda. RC Cola and Moon Pies. Macaroni and cheese made with Velveeta. Fried chicken. Biscuits. Potato salad. Cole slaw. Corn Pudding. Hamburger Gravy.

OK, so even though we found a place to buy dressed possum, squirrel, alligator and raccoon, we bypassed the opportunity in deference to our budget and the fact that nobody would eat raccoon stew even if we did make it with locally sourced, organically grown herbs and vegetables. Willie's Swamp Cabbage Stew didn't make the cut, nor did Jail-House Chili, Esther's Five-Can Casserole, Lady Divine's Chicken-Asparagus Pie, or Mama Leila's Hand-Me-Down Oven-Baked Possum.. It might be The People's Republic of Austin, but, well...

Anyway, this dinner party would be a tribute to the resilience of a group of people who had to make do all their lives with foods that generate upturned noses among the well-heeled, especially those lacking the empathy gene. Again, we figured folks would either get it or they wouldn't. As it turned out, about 60 people did get it. They realized you didn't have to be from Hot Coffee, Mississippi or Dime Box Texas to relate. They came, they ate, they talked politics they talked food. They were young, old, Democrats, Republicans, black, white and Asian. Some allowed as how they also came with Tums and Alla-Selzter. Eri Weinstein made peach cobbler in a cast-iron skillet with peaches picked from the tree where he is co-owner of a massage therapy school and spa.

Yes, there were Moon Pies and fruit pie and red velvet cake.

A year or so ago, when Bonnie and Gary, my brother Fred, his wife Denise and I were in New Orleans with a group of friends, we sprung our white-trash dinner plan. Bonnie asked Fred and Denise, "Will you come?" To which they replied, "Sure; we'll come as friends of white trash." They too grasped the concept.

In the best white trash/soul food tradition, we had too much food. We still have leftover Orange and Grape Crush. Some guests entered so thoroughly into the spirit of the occasion that they brought not Cotes du Rhone and Pinot Grigio, but cheap beer and Boone's Farm Strawberry wine. The first guests arrived right at 6, and the last left at about 11. By then we had already decided to do it again next year. We haven't exactly decided on a theme, but two of the guests, a couple displaced by Katrina, brought shrimp and white beans. It set us to thinking...other than Native Americans and Afro-Americans, what group's culinary traditions survived to become among the trendiest of recent food trends?

Stay tuned. We'll be stirring it up.

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