New (to me) Way of Cooking

Field corn turning from green to brown.

(Editor’s Note: First of a multi-post series comparing traditional and improvisational cuisines)

I am doing a noggin analysis of how we cook.

I’m trying to wrap my head around the symbiotic relationship between traditional cuisines and improvisational cuisines found in American kitchens like ours. It’s complicated.

Last week, while dropping off a shipment of kale to friends at the city’s public library, I picked up half a dozen community cook books on the used book cart for a small donation. Included was Carolina Cookery, the front page of which asserted, “Dishes tried and true; Dishes old and new.” Published by the Equipment Committee of the Woman’s (sic) Club of Mullins, S.C., the plastic-bound tome lists five women editors, all of them using their presumed husband’s names. This cook book is an example of what I would call “traditional cuisine.”

Based on four-digit telephone numbers in the advertisements, Carolina Cookery was published before World War II. It includes recipes like Mammy’s Pan Cakes, an old Mammy’s recipe submitted by Mrs. Hughes Schoolfield; Hop’n John, requiring one pound hogshead, one pound black-eyed peas and one half pound rice, submitted by Bishop B. Anderson in the section titled “Men in Aprons;” and Sweet Potato Bread from Georgiana, who was Mrs. L.M. Roger’s cook. Mullins was incorporated in 1872 in a tobacco-growing region that today hosts the South Carolina Tobacco Museum.

What I haven’t yet said is the influence of chattel slavery runs throughout the book even if the authors are careful to exclude any but the most indirect mentions of it. Reading it immediately after finishing Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South brought that element of the recipes and narrative to the fore. It’s why I picked this South Carolina volume from the two dozen available on the used book cart.

Black cooks working in white households, referenced in Carolina Cookery, is a legacy that continued into my memory. During a visit to Sangamon County, Illinois I dined at a home with such an arrangement. I felt uncomfortable about the vestige of slavery then and today it would be outrageous for a salary man without further means to be able to afford a part-time cook. In the United States, hiring girls and middle-aged women for house work is a common form of lowly paid work. At a young age my grandmother left the farm and worked as a house servant and cook in the Minnesota Twin-Cities. She continued to work for wealthy clients into my teen years. Maybe I should get over it but there was more to the experience than a woman finding work she knew how to do. It is a form of economic white privilege I today find repugnant.

What do I mean by an “improvisational cuisine?”

It’s what I’m doing, and also how many Americans organize their cuisine. For me that means creating a food ecology from which I pull in elements of our kitchen garden, the farms where I work, and area markets to prepare meals based on what’s readily available. Occasionally I purchase items on-line or via snail mail when I want something that’s not available locally. Recently I bought bags of dried Mexican-grown Guajillo chilies and Mexican oregano on-line. It is a never-ending process that produces, as Tamar Adler called it, “an everlasting meal.”

At home, we are lacto-ovo-vegetarian which requires and fosters a constant dialogue about nutrition, cooking, ingredients, flavors and diet. Being vegetarian strips away most traditional dishes. Occasionally we mimic meat dishes with the growing number of manufactured meat substitutes. If we make a pie chart of our diet, those meat substitutes would occupy a tiny slice.

Improvisational cuisine draws from the broader society. For example, Mother was one of the first white women I knew who prepared tacos in her kitchen. When she did, I invited some of my friends to share them. In retrospect, a contributing reason she took up this dish was the introduction of tortillas into our local grocery store before the advent of “Mexican food” sections like one finds at a supermarket today. It was another chance to use many ingredients normally found in her pantry to make something different and special.

I make tacos today, typically for breakfast, and they are more improvisational than Mother’s were, but use some of the same techniques. I buy raw flour tortillas to cook as I need them and make my own with corn Masa. The tortilla is a delivery system for a pan-fried amalgam of fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, and protein topped with salsa or hot sauce, fresh tomatoes in season, and a form of soft cheese. It is a recognizable dish even though the ingredients vary from day to day.

Exploring the symbiosis between traditional and improvisational cuisine is a popular topic when talking to friends and neighbors about cooking. There is more to explore.

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