Friday, February 6, 2009

In a Cook’s Kitchen By Augusta Scattergood

“I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more, and in that cheeriest, most aromatic of places to celebrate in - the home kitchen."
Eudora Welty

I’m a better writer than a cook. In fact, I once started an essay for Mississippi Magazine with I’m not a serious cook, but I have a serious cookbook collection. And it’s true. My shelves are filled with cookbooks. I’m especially drawn to books published by schools and women’s auxiliaries, featuring dishes with intriguing names like Last Minute Leftover Casserole, Tomato Soup Aspic, and Dr. Carr’s Prescription (vodka, peach brandy, lime juice, sugar and ice).

My most spattered and dog-eared cookbooks are compiled by church ladies, mostly Southern. Into each recipe, I read a story. Sometimes the cooks’ familiar names take me back to a bridesmaid’s brunch, a baby shower, a funeral. My grandmother’s Canasta partner’s homemade Divinity Fudge, the football coach’s Lemon Chess Pie, my friend Irene’s mother’s asparagus balls fill up the pages of those spiral-bound volumes with memories.

And I feel that way about kitchens. I love their stories.

This New Year’s Eve, standing in the Mississippi kitchen that originally belonged to my sister’s mother-in-law, Christine Carlson, the talk turned to artichoke pickles. I’d never seen a Jerusalem artichoke till I met the Carlsons. Dr. Carlson grew them in his garden, Christine pickled them, and I ate them. With great appreciation. After her death, I knew I’d never taste such a delicacy again. I saw Jerusalem artichokes for sale once in my hometown supermarket in New Jersey, and I almost bought them. Then I saw the price. And realized they required peeling. So unless somebody steps up to the plate and plants Jerusalem artichokes in my sister’s backyard, scrapes and jars them, Christine Carlson’s pickles will remain a perfect culinary memory.

After my friends the Alleys have thrown a party, I like to land in their kitchen. Their food never ceases to amaze me. This year they served Hopping John and cornbread on New Year’s, homemade bread with basil butter and shrimp casserole for Christmas supper. Topped off with pound cake and lime curd. Sadly, I missed the original celebrations. But appearing at their house, post holiday festivities, guarantees not only the most fabulous leftovers but also stories that never stop. When we dug up a journal documenting a trip we took together ten years ago, we laughed at our stories of subway rides, rooftop bars, exotic foods we have eaten and lived to tell about. There’s nothing like a belly laugh to make you forget whatever holiday slight, the gift Santa overlooked this year, or even the arduous flight delays it took to get you there.

Stories that waft out of the kitchen like oregano in the soup pot end up in my writing, even if it’s hard to recognize them. Fig preserves a child turned her nose up at, biscuits shared on a front porch swing, the sweet tea, the artichoke pickles.

Southerners, even those who are fair-to-middling cooks, love to talk about food, love to eat it, and- if so inclined- to sprinkle it into their writing. My friend Helen Hemphill, author of popular kids’ books not necessarily about food, once told me her editor (himself a Yankee for sure) pointed out way too many food references in her first middle-grade manuscript. “I had my characters eating pimento cheese sandwiches every time they turned around,” she told me.

Well, of course, that’s what we do.

Like Miss Eudora, most of my best recipes bear the name of the friend who first made them. And although I wish my kitchen produced original, memorable dishes worth passing along, I’ll probably stick to writing about them. After all, is a story really a story without a pimento cheese sandwich or Aunt Emma’s fig preserves?

Standing in a familiar kitchen, handing the chef a wooden spoon, a red and green pot holder, a new microplaner to zest the lemon, I say hats off to my friends, the cooks. And, please, keep those stories coming.

Augusta Scattergood is a contributing writer for Skirt! Magazine where she writes about Book Groups and would love to hear about yours. Her essays and book reviews appear in Mississippi Magazine, Delta Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and various websites. Read more about her reading and writing at her own blog:

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