I remember being on Good Morning America — early spring, 1993 — with less clarity than I do the Sunday afterwards.
When, in the kitchen of the restaurant I then owned, I was standing over a 16-inch skillet of eggs, watching intently as they poached, the viscous transparent whites turning milky, coagulating in on themselves to cradle the small suns of each yolk. The dining room was full with guests out for Sunday brunch (though we got great reviews in Gourmet, may it R.I.P., and the New York Times, and Southern Living, I was always unreasonably proud of the fact that our place was the only restaurant in the county the health inspector would go out to eat; Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Easter brunch, there he and his family would be).
And, that Sunday morning, a couple of days after the GMA appearance, I was in the zone. The groove. The wholly focused, addictive state professional chefs and cooks hit when they’re in the kitchen on a busy shift and there is nothing, nothing but the world of getting orders out, getting food out, hot and beautiful and in a timely fashion, to those who have paid you the compliment of believing you can and will provide it. And then the next order, and then the next.
Someone was next to me; the woman who assisting that morning. She didn’t work for us that long; I can’t remember her name. Only that she was tall, had back problems, and was next to me by the stove at that moment when I was in poached egg universe.
And she said something to me, and it was so far from where I was at that second that I literally couldn’t understand it and asked her to repeat it.
She did, her manner edged in — what? sarcasm, perhaps? — a tone I read as wholly dismissive of where we were and what were doing at that moment — poaching eggs in a restaurant kitchen on a Sunday morning in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
She said, “It’s a long way from Good Morning America, isn’t it?”
Was she trying to be jokey-empathetic, imagining that, to me, being on a television show in New York was such a hugely big deal that poaching eggs in my own restaurant’s real kitchen would have to be a come-down?
As I say, she had to repeat it for me to even come out of the poaching egg zone enough to have any idea what she was talking about… to even remember I had been on Good Morning America … to even remember what Good Morning America was. It may sound disingenuous to say this: on one level I knew (though not at that exact moment) that I had just been on a television program which was viewed by millions of people. But — I don’t have a TV. There is no show I watch daily, nor have I ever. A “million” is not an amount, of anything, I fully comprehend.
Some things, I guess, look glamorous from the outside, and no matter how much someone tells you they aren’t in reality, you don’t believe it. Getting picked up from a hotel in New York City earlier that week by the GMA limousine at 4:00 a.m., the city streets unearthly in their relative dark and quiet; there was a little “Oh wow I can’t believe this is happening!’ but it was overshadowed by being so very, very sleepy. And having make-up put on you; what I remember is the make-up artist half-frowning and switching to a heavier concealer than the one she’d first picked up; the circles under my eyes clearly required more serious intervention. I remember it was hot in that room where she spackled on foundation, the light bulbs circling the mirror just like in the movies.
And then being interviewed by famous people who were only famous for interviewing other people, some of whom were famous.
At some fundamental internal level none of this was important or real to me. The eggs were.
I mean, GMA: yeah, I did it; I experienced it. I remember that the male interviewer, whose name was Charlie something — I would have to Google it to find out what — had a spoonful of the pumpkin tomato bisque I demo’d while the cameras were rolling and said it was “really good.” Then, after the cameras stopped rolling, had three full cups of it. With much more enthusiasm than he’d had on air.
I remember that the green room actually was green.
So the GMA experience was real, in its way. And it certainly helped sell books, for which I am grateful.
But it was not kitchen-real. It was not change-the-way-you-think-about-yourself real. It was not as real as an egg, the heat of the water in which it bathed gradually changing its strands of protein from liquid to semi-solid.
I used to say that the cornbread we served in that restaurant was the sun around which the planets of the menu revolved.
The restaurant was in the Ozarks. To me, there was never any question that cornbread belonged there. This was a matter of perplexity to some locals, who could not quite wrap their minds around the concept of “cornbread” (a down-home food, loved but long traditionally associated with poverty) being served at a “fine dining restaurant.” I was, not to put too fine a point on it, doing local-and-organic-and-regionally-rooted-but-creatively-reinvented long, long before it was cool or even comprehensible. The first cookbook to come out about the inn, The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, was published in 1986 (it has just been reissued by its original paperback publisher, Cato and Martin, by the way. You can get it here, new).
(Just for a reference point: according to Wikipedia, “The word ‘locavore’ was the word of the year for 2007 in the Oxford American Dictionary. This word was the creation of Jessica Prentice of the San Francisco Bay Area at the time of World Environment Day, 2005.” So, we were doing that stuff nineteen years before there was a word for it. )
We called our style of cuisine nouveau’zarks; in fact, the first chapter of The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook is entitled “Old-Time Ozarks Country Cooking vs ‘Nouveau’Zarks’ Country Cooking, ” and in seven pages it pretty much laid out the ethos which informs so many good restaurants today: respect and honor the place where you are, its history, ingredients, climate, traditions, people. Seek out local farmers, growers, producers, gleaners.
Take all that bounty — morels from the scruffy bearded guys who showed up each spring with their precious collected fungi — did I ever know their names, or how they found us? — rabbits from the down-to-earth farm wife whose husband slaughtered them the same morning she delivered them ( along with a quart of rabbit blood; yes, vegetarian me used this to thicken the rabbit gravy in the traditional French manner), and lettuces as frilly as full-skirted ball-gowns, UFO-looking kolrabi, voluptuous tomatoes, brought by monks, sometimes in habit, from Little Portion , a farm/monastery in Berryville, Arkansas (of all places, I was and am always tempted to add). All this, delivered right to the restaurant’s back door… for there certainly was no farmers market in Eureka in those days.
So. Take all that bounty and… see where you can go.
But, even as I sought out and found Oklahoma prosciutto, Arkansas goat cheese, and even White River caviar (from paddlefish) — the kinds of foodstuffs that are now, but were not then, known as “artisinal” — there were some traditional dishes which were so good, so central, so perfect as they were, I just didn’t mess with them. Cornbread was one.
The dish I was poaching the eggs for the Sunday after the Tuesday I had been on Good Morning America was Eggs Eureka. Its creation came about via what’s today called mash-up — ideas and influences from all over layer and conjoin to make something new. But “mash-up” is a distasteful phrase when applied to food. Eggs Eureka were in no way a mish-mashy dish.
Instead, they took that brunch cliche Eggs Benedict, making it local and making it Ozark.
Instead of English muffin, the foundation was wedges of our skillet-sizzled cornbread, split, toasted and very lightly buttered… we always had the leftover cornbread on hand at the restaurant.
Instead of Canadian bacon, we used crisp slices of Arkansas bacon (vegetarians got smoked tempeh strips instead).
A great big thick round of dense, juicy height-of-summer tomato, underneath that bacon, had no Benedict equivalent, but just belonged. And on top of all that, poached egg, sauced not with Hollandaise, but a ladleful of good old piping-hot from-scratch Sauce Mornay … cheese sauce. We tried it with milk gravy, which, especially if we had used biscuits instead of cornbread, would have been closer to traditionally Ozark… but the Mornay was just so much better.
A little grated cheddar atop that, an in-and-out run under the broiler to gratinee it, a sprinkle of paprika, a sprig of parsley, or maybe a spike of rosemary or a sage leaf, and out it went.
It was so good, and well-appreciated by those who ate with us.
One of our more well known guests was the feminist Betty Friedan, who wrote The Feminine Mystique. The weekend she was visiting us, the Eggs Eureka were on the menu. She told me, “This is so much better than any Eggs Benedict I have ever eaten anywhere, Crescent. This dish is… it’s genius. Pure genius.” Nice to hear from an icon, there’s no denying that.
And, Eggs Eureka began with our cornbread.
As much did, over the years.
Featherbed Eggs, our version of breakfast strata (where eggs and milk are poured over bread crumbs and seasonings the night before, and baked in little ramekins or one large casserole the next day, and they puff up just beautifully) — ours was done with cornbread crumbs, not wheat bread, plus green chiles and Southwestern flavors and “Arkansalsa” on the side.
Of course, the dressing at Thanksgiving was cornbread-centric. And eventually, I even began to do bread pudding with cornbread.
Five years after I left the inn and Arkansas, I wrote a whole book on cornbread, The Cornbread Gospels. Gospels with an “s”, because I had learned that there is way more than one right way to make cornbread. (Though most people who are cornbread lovers disagree — they think there is only one right way: the way their grandmother made it. They indulge me, mostly, in my insistence that gospel be pluralized; but they know there is really only one right way: their grandmothers’.)
It took me about six years to write that book. There was researching, talking to people and sometimes eating in their homes, going to mills and to the National Cornbread Festival (see picture below; three generations of cornbread lovers). There was testing recipes, developing recipes, and writing. I finally stopped because I had to; it was time to end the book. I could have continued for another six years; this is what happens when you fall in love with a subject. There’s no end (and despite all that time, I am still learning things about cornbread I didn’t know and hence didn’t put in the book).
Why did I fall in love with cornbread? Because it tastes so good. Because I was genuinely was fascinated by the stories behind this American, and Ozarkian life-staple. Because the more you find out, the less you know. Because it turns out that everything is connected to everything and, because I was looking at cornbread, cornbread was right there in the middle of it all.
And, of course, because when you love something, you love something; you just do.
And I love cornbread.
Because I do, I still make it. Not daily, as I did when I lived in Arkansas and ran an inn, but here, in private life. in Vermont, at least a couple of times a month.
I should say cornbreads, again plural, because I don’t make just one kind. Sometimes I do the type we served at the inn, which is essentially African American (half cornmeal, half wheat flour; a little sugar, not much; buttermilk; baked in a hot cast iron skillet). Sometimes I do the straight Southern cornbread (all cornmeal, no sugar or flour, buttermilk, skillet sizzled). Sometimes I do an embellished Southwestern style cornbread (green chiles, chopped onion, minced garlic, corn cut off the cob, grated cheese). Sometimes corn muffins, or cornsticks. And very very occasionally I do Yankee cornbread (as much or more flour than cornmeal, quite sweet, milk instead of buttermilk, baked in a cold pan instead of a heated skillet).
As I write these words, it is the height of summer. We bought too much fresh sweet corn on the cob (so easy to do) earlier this week, so I wound up making a spicy corn chowder. And nothing, it seemed to me, could accompany it more perfectly than cornbread: straightforward, unembellished, crisp-edged classic Southern cornbread. So that is what I made (the Truman Capote’s Family’s Cornbread, on page 13, for those of you have The Cornbread Gospels.)
Because there are only two of us here, even though of course we ate more of that always-excellent cornbread hot from the skillet, than perhaps was prudent, there were a few leftover wedges.
The next morning, at breakfast, I said to David, “You know, I used to make this really good breakfast dish back at the inn. We called it Eggs Eureka.”
And, then and there, half a country and fourteen years away from the inn, my beloved co-innkeeper long, long gone, I split and toasted the leftover cornbread wedges from dinner the night before. I didn’t make cheese sauce; it seemed like overkill for just the two of us. If I’d had tempeh bacon I would have used that, but we didn’t, so that, too, was skipped.
But there were slices from one of those God-almighty-I-love-summer tomatoes. And this year the swiss chard in our garden has grown with exceptional, beautiful vigor. David went out and quickly harvested some, and washed it, and I cut it up and steamed it.
So the Vermont riff on Eggs Eureka yesterday went like this: toasted cornbread wedge, nest of steamed chard with a little garlic, slice of tomato, egg over easy (not poached), a little sprinkle of Vermont cheddar.
And it made me think about Eggs Eureka, and the old inn days and what that woman — Vicky! I just remembered her name — Vicky! — said to me. And how much it perplexed me at that moment.
Ingredients, and the dishes we make from them, are always changing, as are the people we eat them with, and the circumstances under which we eat them. Always changing, yet affixed by memory. In time, yet out of time.
How many times has the earth circled the sun since I stood in that kitchen with Vicky? Let’s see… the book that got me onto Good Morning America, Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread, was published in 1992. So twenty years worth of days. Twenty!
My beloved co-innkeeper, my late husband, Ned Shank, left this spinning globe twelve years ago (by which time we had already closed the inn and restaurant, founding a still-existent writers’ colony, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow). I left Eureka Springs two years after his death, to live in what had been my family’s summer home, in Vermont. Four years after that, I was joined by my present partner, David Koff, the gentleman for whom I made the sort-of Eggs Eureka last Sunday.
The Vermont home in which we live was once owned by my Aunt Dot, who used it as a summer place. She had no children of her own and outlived her money; my buying it gave me a home with which I had connection but not as much association with loss as I had by that time in Arkansas, and it also allowed her to live out her remaining days in her winter home, an apartment in New York, on East 57th Street. Three years after I moved up here, Aunt Dot, too, exited this green globe.
One day not long after I moved to Vermont, I went down to New York for one of my periodic visits. I had come to see Aunt Dot, in the apartment she was by then sharing with her caregiver, Zorina. Zorina was in the kitchen, and you could hear something being chopped.
“What’s that sound?” Aunt Dot asked me.
I said, “I think it’s Zorina, making your dinner. Do you want me to go check? ”
“Yes,” said Aunt Dot, very decisively.
I did. Then I returned to the bedroom.
“Yes, Zorina’s making dinner, ” I reported. “She’s chopped up some onions and some red peppers and she’s frying them in a little oil. I think it’ll be good. ”
Aunt Dot looked up at me, her exceptionally blue eyes always startling. “Will there be enough for Jim?” she asked me.
Jim was Jim Cherry, the man with whom she had spent twenty late-in-life years. They had dated in college, married other people, outlived the other people, and then, in their 70′s, got back together. They remained coupled until his death at age 94. That, his death, had been about 4 years before Aunt Dot had asked me if there would be enough for him.
I said, “Well, I don’t think Jim is coming to dinner tonight, Aunt Dot. But if he did, there’d be enough for him. ”
Aunt Dot nodded, and then she said, slowly, thoughtfully, “Where do all our Jims get to?”
That’s a question, of course, to which there is no answer. And yet, somehow, at the largest table on which the deep feast is laid, dish by dish, season by season, memory by memory, absence by presence by absence, we join together, the living and the dead, the harvests of a hundred years ago meeting those picked yesterday.
After a few minutes, Aunt Dot said dreamily, “I know. You know that big house I have in — is it New Hampshire?”
“Vermont, ” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “We can have a dinner there. And Jim can come, and Ned can come, and Daddy and Mother, and Sissy, and you, and me… ”
I have a friend who makes the scientific case that all possible realities actually are, or have, or will, or can happen, simultaneously. He bases his argument on quantum physics; and it’s very convincing when he makes it, thought I can’t quite follow. But I do like to go there when he explains it; I like it a lot. I like the generosity of this idea, since merely to pick one skein in a life so lush and full of possibilities, yet bounded by time, is almost too poignant to bear otherwise.
To really help yourself to all that’s on offer at the deep feast takes accepting the unknown and unknowable.
Side by side with the known.
That the quick dazzle of celebritude a television show confers is fleeting.
That any given meal, too, is a brief transaction in a transitory world, where seasons and people and places change and change and keep changing.
And yet, that swiss chard will produce greens as well as seeds, allowing a kind of immortality in the form of next years’ garden. That a hen will live and die, but hens themselves will go on laying eggs.
Some of those eggs will become chickens. And some of those eggs will not.
Some of those eggs, subjected to very hot water, will transmute from liquid to solid.
Will poach. Will become breakfast. Will become part of those who eat that breakfast.
And while those breakfast-eaters, too, will be here only briefly, someone will remember. Eggs, under the right condition, will always poach.
And this fact, like a recipe, is a love letter from the past to the present, and from the present to the future.
Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life
Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.
|Date:||Sunday, July 29, 2012|
|Place:||the farm in Vermont, on the screen porch|
|At the table with:||