When the body was hauled off the plane a week ago Sunday, any resemblance to the bright eyed, highly verbal creature that had left St. Paul three weeks before was purely coincidental. I was finally home after a 20-day stretch on the road doing a book tour to promote our new tome, How to Eat Supper
(Now, from the outside looking in, book tours look like a string of days at the beach. You do stage shows, cooking demos, all kinds of interviews for press, radio, and TV, and intimate little dinners at very good restaurants with 50 or 60 folks who have paid amazing amounts of money for the privilege of being in the same room with you. Yes, for this little window in time, it is all about you, and your deathless prose.
Reality is something else again. Usually this "you time" begins at 6 AM, goes nonstop to midnight. It always includes running to catch yet another plane for yet another city, and always presents the greatest frustration ? you do meet some pretty swell people, but rarely get a chance to exchange more than a few words with them. And in the midst of it all you find yourself amazed and profoundly grateful that people care enough to stand on lines waiting for you to sign their book.)
So back to that Sunday. First I fell into my husband's arms, then I slept, and slept and slept on and off for about 36 hours. As numbness wore off, the realization hit that I didn't want to think about food, especially my food, for at least six months and cooking was out of the question. That state of being held until late Tuesday afternoon when memories of Portland, Oregon's Restaurant of the Year circa 2007, Pok Pok, began teasing my appetites.
Only a maverick city like Portland would name a place like this Restaurant of the Year. Pok Pok is a Thai street stand with a cement room and bar nearby in case you want to eat indoors. The food is stunning and those teasings of memory turned into Tueday's chicken salad supper. Chunks of thigh were marinated in fish sauce, garlic, sugar, and ginger, then grilled and tossed with leaves of mint, coriander and spring greens. Lots of nuts and fresh chile finished it off. We rolled it up in lettuce leaves and ate everything with our fingers. So maybe I would cook again.
A meal in Chapel Hill. North Carolina kept coming back and tickling me. Bill Smith, chef/owner of the iconic Crook's Corner, keeps local southern traditions thriving. His fried oysters could make you weep, his shrimp and grits (in fact, just his grits) are the stuff of lust, and everything else on the menu is worth many visits.
I wanted his grits, I wanted greens and beans, and good Southern food. By Thursday, any thoughts of never thinking about food again had gone the way of the Dodo. I was itching to cook stuff I'd not done before and wanted to do it for friends. Friday night we had our pals in for a non-meat, southern inspired supper, and I'd found some great recipes in books I'd not cooked from. And, wonder of wonders, I actually followed those recipes and didn't fool with them.
Bill Neal (the chef/food historian who first created Crook's Corner in 1981 and passed away in the 1990s) had done a book called Biscuits, Spoonbread, & Sweet Potato Pie (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). Bill become a near legend among Southern food scholars for his early work in local culinary history. I took his topping for his Pear Plum Cobbler (p. 166) and put it over a filling of rhubarb and dried cherries. The man was a genius. Chunks of nuts and candied ginger keep turning up in the streusel-like topping ? luscious.
Crook's Corner sells their grits, so that was a cinch. The double boiler method and letting them slowly swell over a two-hour steam worked like a charm. But what makes grits is the corn and freshness. This was great corn and it was fresh.
The Lee Brothers, Matt and Tom, did The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (W. W. Norton, 2006). Their Butter Bean Pate (p. 74) and Pimento Cheese (p. 90) with lots more roasted pepper in it made up my cracker plate. That was our starter and we're still happily snacking on them. Their Sneaky Collards (p. 210) that sidestep the usual smokey pork by using smoked paprika, tomatoes, onion, garlic, balsamic and olive oil that you grill under the broiler went on the main course plate with the grits and pintos sautÃ©ed with onion and bay.
The message here? It's once a cook always a cook. It's in your blood.