Thursday, October 30, 2008

More Red Gravy

Making red gravy and tomato sauce made me think a lot about authenticity. When I made the sauces I made my grandmother's sauce the way she would have, not the way I would have today. Similarly, I made the red gravy the way I had learned to make it from cooking with friends, not the way I would have made it. Of course, I did it that way so that we would have a true test, especially since the same cooks, Sara Roahen and I, were making both dishes.

But being a child of New Orleans, I would normally put green peppers in my tomato sauce, even if my grandmother wouldn't have. Being a child of Sicilian grandparents, I would still add my anchovy to red gravy for depth of flavor. Making these dishes very different made chosing between them easier. This one tastes like Italy. This one tastes like New Orleans. But when we cook, we carry all of these things around with us, and our food, regardless of recipes and faithful renditions of food remembered, is personal. And I think that this is what makes it authentic.

As I get older I am more anxious to remember and leave the memory, either in writing or on tape, because I feel like a bridge to an earlier time. The food is the continuity. I am not sure how to keep that continuity from being interrupted. That is where a lot of my energy goes right now, to finding a way to keep the connection between the past and the future. It used to always happen in the kitchen, and without as many people cooking, I have not seen another bridge forming. The kitchen connection isn't sacred, but some connection is necessary. I want to find it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

red gravy

Last Monday night, about a dozen folks and I attended a culinary face off, of sorts, between traditional Italian tomato sauce and New Orleans red gravy. It was food writer, Sara Roahan's idea, since she wrote about the latter in her book Gumbo Tales. Liz Williams hosted the event and prepared both sauces: the tomato sauce was her Sicilian grandmother's recipe and the red gravy was based on her own experience tasting the sauce in other homes. One of the key differences between red gravy and tomato sauce is that the former has a roux to thicken it, while the latter is thickened only by time and lots of simmering. I will omit the comments Liz's grandmother made about red gravy, but tasting the two side by side was illuminating. After tasting the red gravy, one of the diners remarked "This tastes like New Orleans." It had the Hold Trinity (Liz grandmother eschewed green peppers) and the roux and well, yes, there was something familiar in it, even when served over pasta and looking like any other tomato sauce. But the truth is, overall, everyone at the table preferred the tomato sauce. The flavor seemed deeper, richer, which was probably a result of the concentration of all the tomatoes cooking down. And it tasted, well, more Italian. So what does that mean, really? Is one better than the other? No. One tastes like one place and one tastes like the other. And that's pretty cool

Thursday, October 23, 2008

SoFAB creates To Kill A Mockingbird lesson plan

Perhaps the highlight of participating in The Big Read project is the opportunity to create a lesson plan for teachers regarding food in To Kill A Mockingbird.

The lesson plan is available at no charge for download. Go to

Food is an important element in Mockingbird. There are more than 50 types of food items mentioned and many are considered to be quintessential Southern fare – fried chicken, peach pickles, Lane cake, pickled pig’s knuckles, and more. The food mentioned sets the tone for the time and place of the story.

More importantly, the book features food- or eating-related scenes in which important points are illustrated or the plot is advanced towards its conclusion. For example, at the front of the book, Jem invites Walter Cunningham home for lunch and he proceeds to drip molasses all over his meal. Scout makes a rude comment and is hauled out to the kitchen where Calpurnia gives her a lesson in manners and hospitality. It’s a great scene that illustrates one of the principle tenets of the book – you never know someone until you walk in their shoes.

In another example, the townspeople show their respect for Atticus by placing food on the Finch back doorstep as tribute for his representing Tom Robinson, even though Robinson could not pay. It’s an emotional scene that illustrates the racial atmosphere at the time, as well as the toughness of the Great Depression.

The lesson plan provides ways for educators to teach and celebrate the book from a new angle – food. It provides teachers with quiz questions, essay questions, lecture topics, puzzles, and more.

The lesson plan was designed by New Orleans local Virginia Howard who performed her services at no charge. She did a wonderful job.

If you have any questions, or suggestions to make the lesson plan better, let us know. We’d be happy to keep adding as we plan to keep the Mockingbird materials on the site for as long as they are needed.

Friday, October 17, 2008

SoFAB Grows

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum has made so many changes these past two weeks. I'll start with the newest. Right now, this second, there are Verges Rome architects building a giant birthday cake out of cans (out of things like Van Camp's beans and Veg-All. mmmm. sweet, creamy bean birthday cake) in one of our galleries. This marks the very first exhibit change we have made since we opened in June. Elizabeth Pearce is busy painting the the gallery a lovely shade of green in preparation for this new exhibit that will explore the history and importance of canning and display the winning sculptures from the Canstruction Contest.

All of this is going while Chris Smith eases into his new position as Director of Collections, which he started on Monday. Meanwhile, I am working on changing the newsletter and (finally) creating the ezine. I woke up in the middle of the night (3:18 a.m. to be exact) and could not fall asleep again until I had brainstormed ezine stuff.

And, our intern, Susannah, is creating a fantastic facebook page for us.

Come by the museum and see the new exhibit, check out our website, sign up for our newsletter, and see how we are growing.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Iceman Cometh No More, Because the Refrigerator Took His Place

When I was very young, I remember that my Grandmother Marguerite would refer to something in her kitchen called an “icebox.” She was referring to a refrigerator. When she was young, food was kept in an icebox to keep it cold. She simply never changed her language when the technology changed.

Think about it – just 75 years ago, Americans did not have refrigeration. Major advances in refrigeration came later. The reason I bring this up is because the timeframe in To Kill A Mockingbird matches the period in which major technological innovations regarding food, food production and food storage occurred.

In 1926, the Electrolux Servel Corp. received the first U.S. patent for a household refrigerator cooled by a sealed gas refrigerant.

In 1927, Clarence Birdseye of Massachusetts receives a patent in the U.K. for frozen fish fingers.

In 1930, retail frozen foods go on sale for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Birdseye had developed and improved the methods used to successfully freeze foods on a commercial scale. Various fruits, vegetables, meat and fish began to be offered for sale.

In the 1950s, when Harper Lee conceived of and wrote her masterpiece, refrigeration and frozen foods already had become commonplace. The jump from ice boxes to refrigerators took only one generation – or more likely, half a generation.

That’s the kind of thing I love about reading a great book – the ability to envision a very different past, like the period in which my Grandmother Marguerite was a child.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fedoras and Dancing Shoes

Joe Sunseri offered this thought about this week's Cinq a Sept, which will feature Leah Chase's Gumbo Z'herbs, live music by the New Orleans Gypsy All-Stars, and a cash wine bar from the Savvy Gourmet. "Bring your fedoras and dancing shoes." How could you possibly miss it?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lost in Translation

I returned this week from a week in Besancon, France, where I spent a week preparing for and participating in the food and music festival, Musique de Rues. (You will see a video of me talking about why I was there. Just scroll down.) This was a wonderful experience linking food and music, a totally natural combination. The people were welcoming and I explored the local food of the Franche-Comte region.

I also learned a valuable lesson. Recipes fall far short of explaining how to fix food that is not natively yours. In the kitchen with culinary students, I saw that "small pieces" of chicken were not as small as I thought. That onions, bell pepper and celery - sauteed for the gumbo - should not be pureed, just because they puree everything. That gumbo is a soup, but they think that it should be served on a plate. They don't want to mix the rice and gumbo. It is wierd for them to sprinkle file on at the table. I learned a lot about foodways, what I take for granted, about their curiosity and openness, how to write a recipe, and the universal language of the kitchen.

I appreciated the opportunity to talk about the many French influences on the food of Louisiana. I learned about the warmth of the people who welcomed me. They brought me home to eat with them. Oh what we learn in the kitchen and around a table!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I hadn't been to visit a Disney park since I was seven, but I returned from Epcot not long ago after participating with the New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, St. Bernard Parish and St. Tammany Parish Convention and Visitors Bureaus in the Louisiana Pavillion which was created as a temporary addition to the park as part of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. Yep, wine at Disney. And margaritas, too. Anyway, the imagineers at Disney recreated Louisiana scenes, complete with a Riverboat with a working paddlewheel, a Cajun cottage, a garconier, and sugar cane, rice and Tabasco peppers. Everyone who visited received a recipe card for shrimp Creole and was able to watch cooking demos of the dish as well as dance to the sounds of the Abita Blues Band, Amanda Shaw and the Treme Brass band. The goal was to promote Louisiana as a tourist destination and encourage all the visitors to Epcot to come to our state. Everyone who passed through the "iron wrought" gates remarked how pretty everything was and I hope both the state and the museum are able to garner some new visitors as a result.