August 31, 2009

Bon Appétit, Y’All.

Los Angeles when it sizzles drives me indoors. And so with a friend staying at the house who loves to cook, we gravitate to the kitchen (I actually remembered where it was). We had recently salivated through two-and-a-half hours of superb cooking in “Julie and Julia”.  He told me that during a recent trip to Paris he was again reminded that many of the delicious things he ate as a child in the South are practically first cousins of well-known French dishes. Neither his mother nor her mother, Granny Ravenel of blessed memory, had ever laid eyes on a French cookbook, but it does make a statement about the creative affinity between gifted cooks when they are handed some first-rate ingredients, wherever they happen to live in the world.

The French are justifiably proud of their famous soupe a l'oignon gratinee, served piping hot over oven-toasted bread in individual dual earthenware or china bowls, each portion topped with grated Gruyere that's been melted in the oven. It was very like the onion soup that made a frequent appearance on his table at home. His mother combined a small amount of meat with a huge amount of beef and veal bones (thanks to the generosity of the butcher) and stewed them for hours, producing a rich stock that rivaled that of the French soup. Both are thick with sliced onions that have been cooked slowly in butter to a warm golden color. However, since his mother had never been exposed to the French soup gratinee, her version lacked the toast and cheese.

Onion soup was popular in the restaurants of Les Halles, the legendary district of food markets and eating places that served the tastes and tables of Parisians for centuries before sadly falling victim to urban gentrification. It was at Les Halles that I was first introduced to the delicious French dish known as andouilles (and the smaller andouillettes), a type of sausage filled with strips of chitterlings, or chitlins, as they are called down in South Carolina. Andouilles are boiled or grilled and served with lots of mustard and garnished with mashed potatoes or another vegetable. Sometimes they are cut into thin slices and served as an hors d'oeuvre. Chitterlings have a delicate taste similar to tripe.
Before cooking, his mother put them through a merciless scrubbing followed by an overnight soak in a pot of water laced with vinegar and baking soda and another washing the next day. They had to have been the cleanest chitterlings in town. Next, she simmered them for a long time in a broth of celery, onions, carrots, and a dash of red pepper flakes (he also adds beer to the broth). She then cut the chitterlings into small pieces, dipped them in beaten egg and flour, and fried them. They were accompanied by a piquant pepper sauce, a bottle of which was always on the table alongside the salt and pepper and the napkin holder. The sauce, made by steeping hot a peppers in cider vinegar, was sprinkled generously over greens, meats, and vegetables.

Chitterlings were often part of the refreshments at fund-raising events. People would walk around holding a chitterling sandwich while talking about the purpose of the gathering. This peripatetic exercise came to be known as the “chitlin strut”.

Another gastronomic surprise was his first French cassoulet, a name that originally suggested to him a rare delicacy. Upon tasting it, he realized it was actually a close relation of his mother's chicken, sausage, and bean casserole. The composition of a cassoulet is a subject of endless dispute among French chefs, but the fact is that it varies with the traditions of the region of France where it is made. Basically, it consists of beans baked with a combination of game, goose, lamb, pork, sausages, or mutton. When cooked, the meats are not always identifiable, the flavor depending largely upon the mixture of juices and the cook's seasoning skill. It is substantial country fare, a hearty treat on a cold wintry day.

During one of his first French dining experiences, he discovered something called creme brullee on the menu, a dessert which until that time had eluded him. Being adventurous in the food department, however, he decided to try it. Imagine his pleasure when the waiter brought a favorite sweet of his, cup custard but with a hard layer of brown sugar on top. He was immediately reminded of the custard he had loved since he was a boy, only his mother covered the smooth pudding with a thick dark caramel sauce and a dollop of whipped cream. To this day, caramel custard has remained a part of his cooking repertoire.

It is a repertoire that grows constantly, for these days there are few undisclosed culinary secrets. Television, books, and magazines have expanded the food horizons of millions of people. It is quite a different scene from his mother's time, when she learned to cook by watching her mother, her aunts, and her friends, as did most of the women of her generation. Judging by the results, they were good learners.

I hope the heat breaks soon, my waist is expanding at an alarming rate.

Recipes for Mom’s Onion Soup,
and, for the fearless,
Southern-Style Chitterlings are at hand.


TO Grandma said...

Thank you, very nice post.
You can come and swim in our pool anytime, if your waist is getting too wide.

a blog fan said...

What a nice way to end the month. Hope your neighborhood is safe from the fire.

Glenda said...

I'm game for both.
Nice read, thanks.

Charles said...

mercy me, he is not dishing you up that old tripe.

Bruce said...

that, and mint juleps by the gallon. Eat your heart out.

Charles said...

No wonder Los Angeles is burning. You exhaled.

Mona said...

Ms Edna in the kitchen? Wow, it must be really hot outside.

Peter said...

Lord, you have not cooked in ten years.

Ms Edna said...

That's to show you, NEVER say NEVER.
Live is to short.

Alistair said...

poor Bruce, you hit LA during it's worst time. Come to SM we'll make it a night out at the town.

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