We are privileged to be featured today on the blog of a well-known Southern fiction writer, Michael Lee West. Here is my half of the post on “Interview with Two Authors.” You can go to her blog here to read about the other writer, Tomi Wiley who is also featured today. Michael has published seven books, including the popular GONE WITH A HANDSOMER MAN, which is currently a best-selling new release. It is very funny, fast-paced and will be a series that I predict is going to be wildly successful.
MLW: What was the catalyst for writing GENEVA?
Ellen: I needed a project to keep me sane. About three years after my mother died in 2002, we still had not sold our house. Ultimately it took four years! In 2005, my husband bought me a new computer, the Big Mac as I like to call it, and suggested I get busy. This was not my first stab at writing a book, but it was the first one I was serious enough about to finish it. As I began to organize my materials, I realized that it was not going to be just a cookbook, which was the original plan. The more I wrote, I realized that I was trying to make sense of a complicated woman with whom I had always had a very difficult relationship. I think I was trying to understand her so that I could move on with my own life.
MLW: Which part of the book was hardest to write? Do you have a favorite passage or line?
Ellen: The hardest part of the book to write was definitely Chapter 15, entitled “The Crash.” That chapter alone could be a book by itself. It recounts the period of time when she was showing signs of dementia and then ultimately became the child while I became the parent.
MLW: As a blogger and an author, you wear two hats. What is your writing schedule? Any “must-haves” for your writing comfort or to encourage creativity? Do you have any advice for beginning authors?
Ellen: I don’t have a real writing schedule right now. My husband is planning to retire, or at least cut back next year, so things might have to get more regimented. Mostly I write when inspiration strikes — late at night, early in the morning, but sometimes in the afternoon. I keep legal pads and post-it pads all over the house and a small notebook in my purse and in my car. If something hits me, a word or phrase or idea, I have learned to write it down RIGHT THEN because I won’t remember it later. I keep a running list of short story ideas, which is what I really like to write.
I don’t have any requirements for writing comforts, now that I type everything. I used to like legal pads and nice sharp No 2 pencils for the first drafts. Now, I think my laptop is the best thing on earth, because I can sit in bed or in my favorite reading chair and write, not at my desk. I have been known to stir pots while typing with one hand. Actually that big desk I invested in has become almost useless.
My best advice to beginners is to read, write, and then read and write some more. I think it helps to get in a writing class or form a writer’s group so that you can get some feedback on your work. Beware some of the services which offer to critique your work for a fee.
MLW: Where can people buy your book? Is an excerpt available?
Ellen: Right now, you have to buy the book from me. There is a PayPal link on the site, but I will also accept a check if I know you, or you can send a money order. Of course, for anyone in my immediate area, we can do the sale in person and save the S & H.
I have been publishing excerpts and recipes on the website and Fan Page on Facebook for a little while.
THe Facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Geneva/195197067161663
MLW: What’s your next project?
Ellen: I have been writing short stories for a long time. I would really like to publish a collection of them because I enjoy reading well-written short stories myself.
I am working sporadically on another novel, and I have finished a short novel which happens to be about a female chef, although I think it might need a little work yet. I have outlined a couple more using the same lead character, and I would like to make this into a series. One day I might publish a cookbook of my own. Cooking is often how I deal with things, both good and bad, and I am pretty creative with food. I used to be a decorator, and the need for making things pretty definitely carries over into food presentation.
What I really need is a literary agent! So I guess that may actually be my next project: finding an agent!
Here is an excerpt from GENEVA, Chapter 11, “Old Standbys” — “Everyday Southern food is discussed in detail.”
© by Ellen Shook
My mother’s recipes for the everyday foods we ate were not written down anywhere. They were just in her head, her hands and her heart. When she cooked meat and vegetables, it was just some of this and some of that. Then taste, taste, taste. Pay attention! Her favorite line to me, when she finally did really try to teach me to cook, when I was quite bored with waiting for pots to boil, etc., was “Dearie, you cain’t read and cook!” I have always had my nose in a book, and I cannot stand wasting time, waiting for something to happen so you can do something else, and not be able to pass the time reading. This habit has gotten me in trouble many times when I was working at a real job for a paycheck.
It occurred to me in the process of working on this chapter, that “Old Standbys” means not only food, but it can also mean habits and patterns of behavior, rituals, and the fellowship of certain close friends and family members. I could include our regular trips to visit the Joneses and the Thompsons, our extended family, as well as our regular attendance at church, or something as mundane as frequently putting on a favorite dress. One of the rituals which always brings back decidedly not fond memories was our semi-regular dose of Castor Oil. Back in the sticks in Beat 10 Walker County, Alabama, where my father grew up, it was customary to “clean out” your children at least once a year with a strong purge of Castor Oil. For anyone who doesn’t know, Castor Oil is an old-timey laxative, sickening in taste, texture and smell, and it causes you to experience violent cramping and generally be unbelievably miserable until it has run its course, so to speak. I have always had a strong gag reflex, and every time they’d pour it down my throat, one of them holding me and the other pouring, I would give it right back. For a long time I couldn’t stand the taste of orange juice because OJ was the chaser of choice. When my sister Iris was only about a month old, Grandma Thompson took it upon herself to dose the baby with one of these purges, saying every newborn needs to be cleaned out. The pediatrician told my mother it was a wonder it hadn’t killed her. I can’t help but wonder if the high infant mortality rate back then could be connected to this bizarre practice. It is certainly an effective form of torture. When I was a child,the Castor Oil was threatened now and then as a punishment because it would always cause me to straighten up and “act right.” So, having injected this little tidbit, I think I’ll just concentrate on the food, now.
For a lot of these foods which we’ll talk about in this chapter, I am going to describe how they are prepared, rather than try to give you exact amounts and cooking times. I recommend several good basic cookbooks like The Southern Living Cookbook, Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, James Beard’s American Cookery or Fannie Farmer. There are also many excellent books by Julia Child, such as The Way to Cook. It is surprising how the preparation of fresh food is not that different in French or Italian from our American food. The chief difference in our Southern food today and the food of fifty years ago is the use of less saturated fat, sugar and salt for seasoning. The late Edna Lewis, a well-known Southern cooking expert who wrote In Pursuit of Flavor, bemoaned the loss of flavor in modern food, because she said young people of today will never know what something is really supposed to taste like. It’s quite true that green beans taste better to our Southern palates with a piece of fatback cooked in them till they are “good and tender.” They should, of course, be served up with a big slab of hot cornbread, sliced Vidalia onions and red-ripe home-grown tomatoes. Good eatin’!
My mother’s recipes for a lot of foods were not clearly written down, as I discovered while going through her recipe collection when I began to prepare for this book. She often did not begin with a title; she wrote on whatever was handy, like the back of an old envelope; and she merely listed the ingredients, sometimes with the amounts. Frequently, the actual cooking instructions were omitted altogether. These snippets of paper were kept in a tray in the pantry. I once bought her an accordion pouch to straighten them out, but the order never lasted. She couldn’t find them that way. Having watched her cook all those years while getting a running dialogue worthy of a Food Network host, I have tried to channel her, getting inside her head to figure out what she meant.
When she baked, it was an entirely different scenario. She measured like a scientist, and kept an eagle eye on the oven and the pans. She took great care with her limited cooking utensils and equipment, treating them almost with reverence. She got as excited over a new kitchen gadget as some women do over a new piece of jewelry. She was a paradox in more ways than one.
By the 1960’s when so many new convenience foods began to pop up everywhere, and the very pace of life itself seemed to pick up speed, her cooking began to change. Fewer of the hearty old Southern country foods we used to take for granted appeared on the table. She had become quite heavy, and her doctor put her on a diet. She began to use Mazola corn oil in place of bacon drippings to fry things, and there were far fewer fried foods put on the table. She was by then having some gastric difficulties which culminated in her gall bladder being removed. My father had begun to experience heart problems which had their beginnings in rheumatic fever when he was nineteen years old. His diet needed an overhaul, too.
A lot of the foods which were so good and hearty, which gave the hard-working farmers enough energy to do all that heavy work in the first half of the twentieth century, are simply wrong for our lives today. We are too sedentary. Many food magazines, like our revered oracle here in Birmingham — Southern Living — have made valiant strides in helping us all to still cook Southern and cook healthier at the same time. But let’s face it folks — pie crust is flakier made with lard, and the beans and greens do taste better with a fat piece of cured pork. Of course, the Grande Dame of Southern Food, Paula Deen of Savannah, Georgia, knows that everything tastes better with butter and doesn’t mind telling us so with that infectious cackle. I do wonder about The Lady’s cholesterol count, though. I have studied all her books, and there are small differences in the way that my mother prepared some of the same foods, but not enough to matter. Maybe it was just a regional fluctuation — South Georgia to North Alabama.
Let’s get to those old standbys now, the foods that we had day in and day out for dinner, the mid-day meal. Congealed salads were a popular item, and I have included several of her best ones in the Salads chapter at the end of this book. One that she frequently made had no recipe, so I’ll just describe it. None of the rest of us liked it the way she did. She used a box of lemon Jello, a can of crushed pineapple and a lot of carrots that she had finely grated. She like to serve this on a bed of lettuce leaves, giving it the required little dollop of mayonnaise, and pass the saltines. Sometimes the leftover was our supper.
Freshly caught fish like bream, crappie and catfish were a regular item on our table. Caught by Daddy and his cronies, they were always cooked up fresh the same day they left the water. Mama refused to clean fish, so Daddy did it on the outside back porch, driving the neighborhood cats crazy. Meantime, she madly peeled potatoes for french fries, stirred up hushpuppy batter, and vigorously grated cabbage and carrots for coleslaw. The cleaned fish were dredged in cornmeal, and all four burners on that old gas stove would be blazing under the big black skillets full of bubbling bacon drippings and later oil, with one for the hushpuppies, one for the french fries and two for the fish. We did not use any condiments on any of these things, like ketchup, and we had never heard of tartar sauce. The slaw was simple, and just right: grated cabbage and carrots, finely minced celery and onion, all stirred up with mayonnaise and salt and pepper. She had a fetish about not not using too much mayonnaise. One of her famous quotes was, “I just cain’t stand slaw floatin’ in dang mayonnaise!” The hushpuppies were the same cornbread we had everyday with a couple of changes: a finely chopped onion was added to the batter which was mixed up with less buttermilk than usual. The stiffer batter was dropped into the hot grease by tablespoonfuls, and the hushpuppies flattened themselves out into round patties, and were turned over once.
This feast was served up on big platters lined generously with paper towels. Mama could not abide greasy food, so anything fried was always well “dry-cleaned.” Except for the slaw, which might be our supper with a couple of saltines on the side, none of these foods were kept left over because according to her, “They ain’t fit to eat!” Anything containing mayo was thrown out after supper. Both parents were adamant about never eating any leftover fish, especially. I have to say, this is probably the only time I ever saw any food thrown away, assuming there was any left. One of my father’s favorite meal-time sermons was, “It’s a sin to waste food.” He meant it literally. The hushpuppies were thrown out to Brownie, our Beagle hound, but he was not allowed to have any fish. He could have choked on the bones. When we were little kids, we got our fish de-boned before it was put on our plates.
With this big fish feast, we drank Lemonade-Tea. Mama made it by squeezing six lemons into the pitcher, adding the cup of sugar and pouring half-strength tea she had already brewed. The other inviolate rule was never, ever to serve any dairy products with fish. Both parents firmly believed it could “make you sick” or even kill you if you drank milk with fish or ate ice cream right after. Watermelon was the usual dessert after this meal — if anybody had room for dessert. I do not know where this dietary taboo came from. Both of them, but especially my daddy, were rather superstitious.
Occasionally we would have meat loaf, and it had brown gravy served over it with mashed potatoes on the side. I could not find the recipe I think she used when I was a kid, but in the Entrees chapter I included one I found in her files. Her mashed potatoes were another matter. They were light, fluffy and out of this world She always made a lot, and what was leftover was recycled into Potato Cakes. She called them “Eyeish” potatoes, as did most everybody I knew. This is Southern-speak for “Irish” of course. To make the mashed potatoes the way she did, you must have an electric mixer. Peel and cube the potatoes; cook in salted water till tender. In a small saucepan (she called it a “stewer”) melt a stick of butter with a cup of milk or cream. Add the hot milk and butter into the bowl with the drained potatoes a little bit at a time, then whip them, increasing the speed gradually, adding more milk if necessary. Add some salt last. Do not over beat or they turn gluey. When they are light and fluffy, put them into a serving bowl and keep hot. She never put in tons of salt, not in anything really, because she always said, “I let ever’ feller do his own saltin’.” The Potato Cakes were made this way: add about a half cup of self-rising flour to the leftover mashed potatoes along with an egg and a finely chopped onion. Form into little patties, and fry slowly in butter, turning once. Yum, yum!
If you haven’t caught on by now, Geneva was very country, and she talked very country, but “it did not worry her a straw.” As a kid I used to be so embarrassed at some of her colorful expressions. She was the master of the simile: a big hat made her look “like a bug under a collard leaf;” a tousled hairdo looked “like a stump full o’ granddaddies;” an odd taste such as beer, “tasted like stumpwater;” and if she was tired, she was “wore plum to a frazzle.” Anything not straight was “crook-ed as a dog’s hind leg.” A skinny woman was “not as big as a bar of soap after a hard days wash.” Pokey drivers were “slow as the itch!” Or else “so slow the dead lice wouldn’t fall off.” She described herself as being “fat as a baby elephant.” She also said she was “just a real hick.” Then she’d laugh so hard she’d cry.
Daddy was more annoyed than embarrassed at her use of the language, and having been a school teacher before he went to work for the Post Office, he felt duty bound to correct her at every opportunity. Murdering the King’s English and countrified pronunciations were the best way for her to needle him. She kept right on saying “Georgie” or “Chatt-noogie” — of course she could say it correctly — when she felt like it.
Homemade vegetable beef soup and cornbread was a favorite on cold winter days. It’s still one of mine. As I mentioned in another chapter, she always made up “soup mix” in the summer canning season. After she got a “deep freeze” she put it in freezer boxes instead. To make the soup, she used a piece of beef with a bone such as a little chuck roast. She did not brown the meat first, but she simmered it, covered, for a long time. Then she would strain it, skim off most of the fat and put the liquid back in the big pot. She added her vegetable mix with the tomatoes, and then added the cut up of pieces of beef back to it. Only then did she add salt and pepper, plus about a teaspoon of sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. The soup mix contained a variety of garden vegetables: corn, okra, butterbeans, green beans, potatoes, peas, onion, celery, and lots of tomatoes.
The cornbread was made this way: corn meal (always white), a small amount of flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, bacon drippings, an egg and buttermilk. NO SUGAR GOES IN SOUTHERN CORNBREAD, FOLKS! The black iron skillet was preheated with more bacon drippings in it in a hot oven. (I use 425°) The batter was then poured into the sizzling grease in the skillet. It “fried” in the oven. Please do not try to make cornbread without a seasoned black skillet. First, you’ll probably ruin your pan, and second, it won’t be “fit to eat.” Today, I use White Lily self rising white cornmeal mix which eliminates the measuring and makes fabulous cornbread which tastes exactly like hers did. The proportions are on the bag, and I cannot improve on them but I do use whole buttermilk, never sweet milk. I do not use bacon grease in the bread, but rather canola oil, and canola oil in the skillet, too. But I must confess, if I have any bacon drippings on hand, I add about two teaspoons to the skillet with the canola for the flavor. This simple food says “comfort food” to me more than any other when I am missing my parents. Having lived in the Southwest for some years, I acquired a taste for much spicier food than my parents preferred, and I sometimes like to add onion, garlic, jalapenos and grated cheddar. Some people like to add a can of corn, too, but I don’t.
My mother, especially, liked her pork. That is what was more available on the farm, because the cows were for milking, not eating. We frequently had fried pork chops or some other large cut of the pig like a pork shoulder or fresh ham. Sometimes we had Granddaddy’s country ham or side meat, fried of course. With this, we probably had black eyed peas, turnip greens, and baked sweet potatoes, along with the cornbread. Both my parents were fond of sweet potatoes, and we had them a lot. Baked was for everyday, candied was for Sunday, and whipped with orange juice and served in the orange shell topped off with a marshmallow was for holidays.
Chicken and dumplin’s were always a great day for rejoicing at my house. My Mother would stew a big fat hen with a celery stalk, an onion and a carrot, then strain the broth and return it to the big pot. I don’t think she worried much back then about removing the fat, unless it was excessive. She picked all the chicken off the bones, put that back in the big pot, salted the broth and brought it to the boil, then dropped tablespoonfuls of light fluffy biscuit dough on top of the boiling broth. She made the dumplings with a little more buttermilk than she would if she had rolled out the biscuits. The pot was tightly covered for about twenty minutes and the flame reduced. Every recipe I have ever seen says no peeking when cooking this, so I suppose she didn’t. I just know that when the lid came off and these clouds were ladled into our bowls with the rich thick broth and chicken added, heaven couldn’t possibly be much better than this.
Mama made her biscuits with flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda, then cut in Crisco and added buttermilk. Mama always said she wasn’t a good biscuit maker, but I was just a kid — they tasted great to me. She claimed Granny Jones was the best at making biscuits. Granny did not roll hers out, but instead pinched them off one at a time, rolled them over in her hand, then flattened them on the pan with the back of her fingers. Mama swore every last one of them would be exactly the same size. When Bisquick was invented, Mama started using that and never went back to scratch. I have done it both ways, and I really cannot tell much difference, either, in a dish like chicken and dumplings. My Aunt Ada always made her dumplings flat like noodles. I’m sure they were fabulous, but when I was little, I did not want to eat them because they weren’t like Mama’s.
On Fridays or Saturdays, we had Salmon Patties, made with a can of salmon. Daddy believed in pronouncing all the letters in a word, so Mama did, too — S-a-l-m-o-n. To make the patties, put the contents of a large can of salmon into a bowl, add an egg, and enough crushed up saltines to be able to form relatively firm balls. Squish it all together with your fingers and form patties. Fry them in the oil of your choice. She always covered them with a loose-fitting lid, but when she turned them over, she removed the lid. When I started doing my own cooking, I decided a little Old Bay Seasoning and a finely chopped onion and a little finely diced bell pepper drastically improved these, not to mention ketchup on the side. Of course, I use canola, not bacon drippings. We might have had cooked cabbage or perhaps slaw with these. To cook cabbage, you core, quarter and wash a head of fresh green cabbage, put it in a large covered pot with some bacon drippings, and simmer it till is is tender. Of course, you eat cornbread with it.
You need to consult one of the cookbooks I mentioned earlier about cooking collards and turnip greens. Paula Deen’s method of cooking collards and greens is the way I do it, using the fresh cut and cleaned kind in the bag from the supermarket. My mother had to wash them and soak them in the dishpan or some big container, because they have a lot of dirt in them. Then they have to be cleaned and picked through. You have to cook them forever with a hunk of fat pork, and they really stink up the house. I have never done this, and although Mama did it for my Daddy occasionally, she sure didn’t like doing it.
One more thing I was always happy to see was Fried Apple Pies. I did not find a recipe for that either, but there is one in Nathalie Dupree’s New Southern Cooking. I remember watching Mama do it, though. The dried apples were cooked till very thick with a little bit of water, sugar, butter and cinnamon. A pie crust was rolled out, and using a saucer as a guide, circles were cut out of the dough. A good dollop of the cooked apples was dropped in the center, and the edges were folded over and crimped together with a fork. The turnovers were then dropped carefully into a black skillet with the preheated oil of your choice and fried, turning once. She may have used butter or lard in the early days.
If you think we ate a lot of fried stuff, we sure did! I am reminded of a line from an Erika Badu song, “Southern Girl” — “I’m so country ya’ll — everything I eat is fried.” That about sums it up. My mother always “dry-cleaned” any fried food on a thick stack of paper towels. I think she might have used brown paper when I was very small, something like a grocery sack. I don’t recall ever eating any fried food, not just fish, reheated. The pies, however, were kept at room temperature in the pantry, probably in the canner or roaster, stacked between layers of waxed paper, and eaten as long as they lasted.
Before microwave ovens, leftovers were put into a slow oven and brought to eating temperature. Some water-based vegetables just had some more water added and then were reheated on the stove-top over a low-flame. Before Tupperware, there were Pyrex covered refrigerator boxes, as well as covered oven dishes. Most people only cooked what they ate for a given meal, though, because refrigeration was not as sophisticated. Country people kept things like pies and baked goods in a pie safe, which for you city folks is a cabinet with screen doors or doors with punched tin panels to let in air, but no flies can get in. I once had a boyfriend, when I was between husbands, who always asked me to fry him a couple of chickens when I went to visit him in Virginia. He stored the leftovers on a platter, uncovered in his kitchen cupboard. This was 1975, and this man was a doctor. I once asked him if he skipped class the day they taught the part about salmonella in med school. He just laughed, and said he hadn’t died yet. I never ate any of the leftovers.
Heavenly Peach Salad recipe:
“From GENEVA, this is from the 1940’s and it is still just as delicious today. The quintessential “ladies’ luncheon salad,” I have never seen a gentleman turn up his nose at it either! It is creamy, tart and sweet all at once.
“Drain a #2.5 can (28.5 oz) of cling peach halves, reserving 1/2 cup of the juice. Cut all but two of the halves into small pieces. Cut the two halves into slices. (If fresh peaches, use about four medium size.) Soften one envelope of plain gelatin in 3 T cold water. Add to warmed peach juice. (Use peach nectar if using fresh peaches) Cool. [Set aside]
“Soften one 8-oz package Philly cream cheese, and gradually blend in 1 and 1/2 T lemon juice and 1/2 cup mayonnaise. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. [Set aside]
“In another bowl, whip 1/2 cup heavy cream.
“Blend gently the cream cheese mixture with the cooled gelatin mixture, then fold the whipped cream into it. Fold diced peaches into this. Pour into individual moulds and chill until firm. (Spray mold lightly with cooking spray) Turn out onto salad plates lined with crisp lettuce leaves. Garnish with maraschino cherries and the reserved peach slices.
“I add ALL the peaches to the cream mixture, and garnish with other fresh fruit. In this photo, I have used arugula. I like to do this in little individual moulds, rather than the square glass dish my mother used. She always then cut it into small squares. Probably that is just what she had to work with. Here I used a bundt-muffin pan, because it makes 12 little moulds. Either way, it is pretty and tastes divine.
GENEVA by Ellen Shook: The book site is https://genevabook.wordpress.com/
and the Facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Geneva/195197067161663