California Haute Cuisine
by Robert Hall
Having grown up in South Georgia, I miss the simple country food of my upbringing. A recent transplant to California, I sometimes help out in the kitchen of my friend Shoen, a personal chef returned from a stint cooking on Cher's latest tour. While I zest Meyer lemons for flambéed peaches with cognac and Cointreau, I explain my hunger for the ordinary. Instead of the nourishing goodness of Hoppin' John, collards, and cornbread, here in California even the humble burger is tricked up into something needlessly complicated and, thus, unappetizing. Draped with sheep's cheese and wilted radicchio bathed in balsamic vinegar, meatless patties are delivered to the table not with fries, but with a thimble full of chilled carrot, orange, and cardamom soup, with a delicate tower of sour-dough crustinni perched on top.
The Southern palate, I tell Shoen as I stir toasted cumin seeds, is fundamentally different from those of other regions. According to Mrs. S. R. Dull's Southern Cooking, the Bible in my grandmother's kitchen, Southerners don't even have the same food groups as other folks. Whereas y'all have embraced the Atkins-friendly Food Pyramid like a long-lost aunt with a fat trust fund, because the South never even got on board with the now-defunct Four Food Groups, we're as keen on the Food Pyramid as we are about the Metric System. This New Math is incompatible with our culinary calculations. Instead of Grains, Fruits and Vegetables, Dairy, and Meat, Mrs. Dull taught us that there are, in fact, Five Groups of Food necessary to nourish the body:
- Cereals, wheat, flour, corn meal, rice, bread, and macaroni.
- Milk, eggs, cheese, meat, fish, peas, beans, nuts, and game.
- Fats, butter, butter substitutes, drippings, cottonseed oil, olive oil, and bacon.
- Sugar, syrups, honey, jelly, and preserves.
- Vegetables and fruits.
As you can see from her list, where I come from, milk, meat, and beans commingle, while sugar looks down its nose at mere vegetables. If Shoen's menus of iced black bean soup with chipotle cream and char-grilled Belgian endive with Fontina and yellow pear tomatoes are any indication, however, Mr. and Mrs. Highfalutin of California eschew the humble staples of Southern cooking. Folks around here live their entire lives without the 'drippings' necessary to nourish the body. Shoen, herself a vegetarian, remains steadfast against my insistence that bacon is virtually a Food Group in itself.
Now, I've never eaten a 'possum, and I don't think I'd like to, but when one set up housekeeping in my basement, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to demonstrate my point about the simplicity and goodness of Southern food. A neighbor loaned me what he called a 'humane' trap to capture my pesky housemate. Four nights and three pounds of Purina Dog Chow later, I found a dazed but sated 'possum squeezed into a cage intended for an errant squirrel.
In the meantime, I consulted Mrs. Dull for advice about its preparation. As we are told in "An Appreciation," which opens her 1928 collection of recipes, her authority on such matters is absolute: "Not only by word of mouth has Mrs. Dull imparted her knowledge to those who desire to secure expert advice, but she edits each week the Home Economics page of the Atlanta Journal, which housekeepers read before turning to the society pages."
No haute cuisine Mrs. Dull's cooking. Of 'possum she advises, "Put ½ lime in about 1 gallon of boiling water and scald quickly, and pull off hair while hot. Scrape well-remove feet, tail and entrails-like you would a pig."
I photocopied the complete recipe, affixed it to the 'possum-stuffed squirrel trap, and left them together on Shoen's doorstep. Her apartment is one of those in which the entrances open onto a common hallway. As a result, mouths watering, neighbors sniff the air and lean in each day as they pass her door, wondering what delicacy simmers within. Shoen would not be home for some time, and to me, this was ideal. Neighbors would have ample opportunity to walk by and see the live caged 'possum waiting at her door. Hearing its faint scratch-scratch, they would move in for closer inspection, only to find those bulbous pink eyes staring up at them, along with Mrs. Dull's "Alma's Recipe for 'Possum."
Shoen's neighbors would not soon hunger for a taste of her gourmet cooking. Likewise, I imagined Shoen's own walk down the hallway, arms piled high with Bosc pears, watercress, and lamb shanks. Slowly the cage would come into focus, then the 'possum itself.
Now Shoen knows I like a good prank, and so I returned home to wait by the phone. We'd have a good laugh, she'd free the 'possum in the park across the street, and later, when I'd let down my guard, she would get even. Shoen can give as good as she can take, and so I set myself to imagining her revenge.
But no phone call came. Had Shoen stayed out all day? I worried that the 'possum might suffer in the cage, dehydrate, or worse, die. Should I return to check?
Late that evening, my doorbell rang. On my doorstep I found several covered dishes. Atop the largest was an artfully calligraphied menu:
Bacon, Arugula & Leek Salad
Petits Pois & Proscuitto Soup
Lemon Mint Tagliatelle with Truffle Butter
Alma's Baked 'Possum
As I expected, Shoen gave as good as she took. The next day she called to ask how I liked my supper. Only then did she reveal that "Alma's Baked 'Possum," which I'd secretly fed to my neighbor's German Shepherd, was, in fact, an organic free-range chicken.