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Cooking with Soul - A Memoir with Recipes

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La Belle Cuisine


Cooking with Soul

A Memoir with Recipes

by Michele W. Gerhard

"Soul food is our personal passport to the past.
It is much more about heritage than it is about hominy."
~ Sarah Ban Breathnach. in 'Simple Abundance'


The kitchen is a sacred place to me. Mystical, because my authentic
creativity comes forth there, if only I will stand back and allow it to. I
have spent what sometimes seemed an inordinate number of hours in
the various culinary cathedrals of my life. But I have come to realize
that these hours were precious, and not at all excessive, as it was there
that I discovered a certain serenity. It was there that I was totally at
peace with myself and the world, creating works of love to be savored
by family and cherished friends. Some of these have been holy instants,
moments enhanced by the strains of inspirational music in the back-
ground and a divine presence whose identity eluded me at the time.
Now, thanks to Laurie Colwin's astute perception, I realize that I
have never been alone in the kitchen because:

"No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook
in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice
and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers."

My lifelong passion for cooking has led to some perplexing questions: Are
great cooks born or made? And, (dare I ask myself) am I a good cook? I
hope so. I think, perhaps, I may be. People tell me I am, usually followed
by the insistence that I should open my own restaurant. (Egad. Thanks,
but no thanks!)

After lengthy deliberation I have come to the conclusion that what matters most in cooking is instinct: an innate talent, a passion for excellent food, an exceptional palate, that elusive sixth sense about integrating flavors, com-
bining ingredients that have a natural affinity for one another. A great cook
has an instinct for cooking time, proportion, a certain touch, a sensibility,
that mysteriously communicates itself to the substance being created.

Could it be that this talent is simply a hereditary gift? Or perhaps divine
grace? Certainly it is important to read, to study, to learn all one can about
technique, to master the basics, to refine skills, and to practice, practice,
practice. How does one learn to cook well? By cooking! An excellent
cook is, after all, both artist and craftsman, and an extraordinary amount
of discipline is required to ride the crest of the culinary wave.

Nevertheless, I believe that if the essential ingredient - culinary instinct -
is missing, no amount of instruction or training will produce a truly great
cook. A passable cook, yes, but not an eminent one. And beyond that,
there is a mystical, magical essential ingredient: soul!

For the soulfulness they contributed to my culinary education, as well as
the possibility of genetic inheritance, I remain humbly grateful to my gifted ancestors. I consider myself extremely fortunate to belong to a family who possesses an inherent sense of value. Among my predecessors were several uncommonly gifted individuals who exposed me, from early childhood on,
to genuinely good food, nurturing my spirit as well as my body. These gracious ladies enhanced my knowledge of authentic quality. And beyond that, they introduced me to excellence.
Granted, the meals placed on our table generally could never be considered
haute cuisine. They were simple, hearty meals. They were exceptional
meals, lovingly, soulfully prepared. And that made all the difference.

I did not know my great-grandmother well, as she died when I was a
young child. Nevertheless, two memories of her are indelible, even today:
her beautiful sapphire earrings and her angel food cake. Actually, it's the preparation more than the cake itself that is so vivid in my memory.

I can still picture Grandmother Osborne in my mind's eye whisking egg
whites by hand in a large oval platter. It looked like hard work, but she
actually seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps it was a labor of love! I was totally
fascinated by the process and watched in amazement as what started out
as a relatively small liquid, translucent, gelatinous glob was magically
transformed into a voluminous, opaque, fluffy mass of foam which
appeared to be lighter than air. How could that possibly be? I was firmly convinced that my great-grandmother was nothing less than a magician,
a sorceress - perhaps even an alchemist. Which, of course, in a way
she was.
In a way all of us are, we who in our own way perform daily miracles in
our kitchens, large and small. As for the angel food cake, it remains the
best I've ever eaten. Is it all in the wrist? Was it the recipe? In part, no
doubt; if nothing else the recipe was a very important starting point.

Now that I've had a great many years to expand my culinary knowledge,
accumulate a recipe collection numbering in the thousands (and growing)
and more than 500 cookbooks (which I continue to read like novels), I've
discovered that my great-grandmother's recipe is not really unusual. I do
not wish to undermine its importance, but Grandmother Osborne, as well
as the generations of devoted cooks who followed her, had that certain
something, that sine qua non. She put herself - her heart and soul - into
her creative task. She instinctively knew how to combine the ingredients
in such a way that the resulting product was not just good, but excellent.
She called upon the intuitive use of her senses, rather than relying solely
on detailed written instructions.

Thanks to cookbook author Sheila Ferguson (Soul Food; Classic Cuisine
from the Deep South), I now understand that this is the true meaning of
soul food. She explains,
"Soul food is just what the name implies. It is soulfully cooked food...
good for your ever-loving soul."
And instinct is apparently essential to this art.
"You learn to hear by the crackling sound when it's time to turn over
the fried chicken, to smell when the pan of biscuits is just about to
finish baking, and to feel when a pastry's just right to the touch. You
taste, rather than measure, the seasoning you treasure... These skills
are hard to teach quickly. They must be felt... and come straight from
the heart and soul."
And to that I say, "Amen, sister!"

Have you ever noticed the brevity of "old" recipes? When you're a novice,
they can be very frustrating. God help those who lack this elusive culinary
sixth sense! Things like ".....and add enough milk to make a nice dough."
Or a list of ingredients followed by the instructions: "Mix in the usual
manner and bake until done." Here is one of my favorite examples from
my grandmother's handwritten recipe book, which, alas, is now in a sad
state of disintegration:


2 cups b. sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup hot water, 1/2 cup grated
chocolate, 1/2 cup sour milk, 2 cups flour, 2 well-beaten eggs, 1
teaspoon soda dissolved in hot water, 2 teaspoons vanilla."

Period. That's it. If I were a young bride with no baking experience and no ancestral culinary heritage to fall back on, I'd probably be pretty frustrated!

The chocolate cake I grew up on bears a distinct resemblance to "Good
Cake". It was always referred to it as "Aunt Ruby's Devil's Food Cake",
and we hoped it would appear after supper at least once a week. My so-
called recipe reads:
"1/2 cup hot water, 2 teaspoons soda, 1/2 cup cocoa, dissolve and cool.
Add 1 cup sour milk. Cream 3/4 cup shortening, 2 cups sugar, 2 eggs,
1 teaspoon vanilla. Add first mixture alternately with 2 1/2 cups cake
flour. 350."
My grandmother usually baked this scrumptious cake in a rectangular pan
and topped it either with mocha, fudge, or penuche icing, depending on her mood. Or if company was expected, she would bake it in three layers and crown it with a deliciously fluffy "Seven-Minute Icing", her favorite.

I learned some very valuable information just by following my grand-
mother around the kitchen and observing things she took for granted,
but whichwere not included in her very small collection of recipes. For
example, the first thing she ever taught me about cooking is one of the
most important culinary basics in existence: the concept, or principle,
of mise en place. There is no doubt in my mind that she had never
heard of the French term, but she knew how important it was to read
a recipe through from start to finish before she began to cook (on the
rare occasions when she bothered to consult a recipe), and to assem-
ble in advance ALL of the ingredients and cooking equipment neces-
sary to the preparation of the dish. (Or "get your mess in place!", as my
son the pastry chef delights in reminding me.) This was ESSENTIAL,
I was told repeatedly, followed very closely by the imperative of
"cleaning up as you go along" and maintaining an immaculate work
area. Amen!

Basics are extremely important, but apparently the most important factor
can't actually be taught - or at least not in a "cram course". Try as I might,
I have never been able to duplicate or describe my grandmother's biscuits.
They absolutely defied description. Everything I can think of to illustrate
their superiority (melt-in-your-mouth, featherlight, lighter than air, etc.)
comes across trite, hackneyed and totally inadequate.

Following one of my best efforts (which would always fall short), my
grandmother would try in vain to console me, then giggle and say to me, "Chances are you just didn't hold your mouth right!" Now I know that it
had nothing to do with my mouth - it was my sense of touch that needed
refining. My grandmother knew instinctively when the dough felt right,
how much liquid was enough, and how much kneading was necessary
(precious little). The lady had it - the magic touch! I, apparently, much
to my dismay, do not. At least not for biscuits.

Oh, my biscuits are good, don't get me wrong. I've never had to throw
them out. And I've been searching diligently for just the right recipe
for years! Irresistibly featherlight? Not yet, but I'm working on it. Maybe
if I baked biscuits every morning for 25 or 30 years? And if I really put
my heart and soul into it.....?

The same light touch produced an incomparable dish, a family favorite, always referred to by my grandfather as "beef and noodles". These noodles were actually rolled dumplings, and had the same amazing light texture
which set my grandmother's biscuits apart. I recall with nostalgic affection
the tantalizing aroma of simmering beef chuck or brisket which filled the
house for hours prior to the much anticipated feast. Chunks of beef surrounded by pieces of onion, celery, and carrot floating in deliciously bubbling liquid combined to produce a delectable combination of flavors which were later absorbed by the delicate dough added to the pot. Truly
a feast for all the senses.

Aside from her extraordinary biscuits, I consider my maternal grand-
mother's greatest accomplishment her ability to put together a really
fine meal using very limited resources. This was particularly true during
World War II, as the combination of rationing and limited funds put a
tremendous demand on her innovative skills. She proved time and time
again that she was equal to the challenge. No doubt she would have
understood the deeper meaning of the following astute words of advice:
"You can still live with grace and wisdom,"
M.F.K. Fisher encourages
us, if you depend on
"your own innate sense of what you must do with
the resources you have to keep the wolf from sniffing too hungrily
through the keyhole."

Those were extremely difficult years. I spent the last year of the war
with my grandparents, and I distinctly remember being served a number
of unrecognizable dishes. I considered most of them quite delicious until
I found out what was lurking among the familiar ingredients. Let's face
it, a reasonable, thinking person is not going to tell a four-year-old child
she's eating brains and eggs unless they're looking for conflict. Baked
heart was rather difficult to disguise, so they never did get me to eat
much of that. And I decided I'd rather go hungry than eat tongue, no
matter what name it went by.

Liver, however, was a different story. My grandmother, affectionately
known to me as "Mammy", was an absolute artist, a genius, when it
came to liver. Incredible. She created more liver dishes than I could
count, all of them delicious. She quite often served something she
called "Liver Gumbo" which I enjoy to this day. It wasn't a gumbo
at all. I can only imagine that she called it "gumbo" because she had
just recently moved to Lake Charles, LA, - Cajun Country - and this
spicy dish was served over rice. My notes (from her dictation) read:

"Cube about 1 1/2 pounds liver, coat with flour, season with salt and
pepper, brown in bacon grease. Use heavy skillet. Brown chopped
onions, celery and bell pepper. Add water and season with bay leaves,
whole cloves, Tabasco, soy sauce and Worcestershire. Simmer till
liver is done and flavors blended."

Not only did we have the traditional liver and onions (hers remain the
best I've ever eaten), but also we were treated to Liver Creole, Liver
Dumplings, Liver Goulash, Liver Croquettes and Liver Fandango. No
iron deficiency anemia for us, no sir! Those were the days...

My paternal grandmother, better known as "Dolly", was quite a character.
Her lineage included an intriguing combination of Osage Indian and French-Canadian. First and foremost, however, she was an Oklahoma girl through
and through, and plain ole' country cookin' is what she did best. I never
saw her with a recipe or a cookbook in her hand, but she sure did know
her way around the kitchen. She made incredible fried corn-meal mush -
soft and creamy inside, crisp and crunchy on the outside - just exactly
the way it's supposed to be.
"Has to be fried in bacon grease in a cast iron skillet," she instructed me,
"and you have to listen to Gene Autry while you're a-cookin'." And sing
along with him, I noticed. Her fried potatoes were to die for - loaded
with onions and always accompanied by gravy made from the meat of
the day. And country music...

When I was growing up, I quite often spent the summer with Grand-
mother Dolly, and it invariably resulted in some of the best food I've
ever eaten. She had a wonderful garden. What could possibly taste
better than freshly-picked butter beans, corn-on-the-cob (with freshly
churned butter!), vine-ripened tomatoes bursting with juice, succulent strawberries doused with fresh cream. Those really
were the days!
And if we were going to have fried chicken for Sunday dinner, the
first thing that had to happen was the wringing of the chicken's neck.
Talk about your fresh ingredients!

What lovely summers those were. The thought of them now brings
a tear to my eye and water to my mouth. I can remember eating so
many strawberries one summer that I had "strawberry rash" on a
very consistent basis. It was well worth it! Never in my life has a
strawberry tasted better. Grandmother Dolly and I would fetch our
baskets out just at dusk, when there was at least a chance of a re-
freshingly cool breeze. Just as the fireflies began their twilight dance,
we would make our way among the rows of maturing vegetables to
the fragrant strawberry patch. There was a beautiful symmetry to
life then, an innocence, an optimistic enthusiasm, that I have not
experienced since.
Maybe that's why I still can't resist a fresh, vibrantly red strawberry...

One of the valuable lessons I learned from Grandmother Dolly is that a
bean is not just a bean. She was a master. Everyone in the family (except
of course, for a jealous cousin or two) agreed that Dolly's navy bean soup
(or pinto bean, or lima bean) was beyond compare. To my knowledge, no
one has yet been able to duplicate it. Her reply to my inquiries as to her
secret was, "Honey, ANYBODY can make bean soup!"

Her fried chicken and cream gravy absolutely defied description. She
lived to the ripe old age of 91, and, unfortunately, took most of her
culinary secrets with her. As much as I can tell you is that she truly
loved  what she cooked, her ingredients were always fresh, and she
relied very heavily on cast iron cookware and country music. (You
may prefer classical, or jazz, or rock and roll. Play what makes your
heart sing!) The result was plain, simple, excellent food, cooked
with soul.

I remain indebted to my mother for the refinement of my culinary
education, the broadening of my tastes, and my introduction to haute
cuisine. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of dining in
New Orleans
with her. Owen Brennan had just begun his first
culinary enterprise - Brennan's Vieux Carré, on Bourbon St., across
from the Old Absinthe House. It was love at first bite! The entire
experience made such an indelible impression on me at age 6 or so,
that it has influenced my entire life.

Mother and I also dined frequently at Corinne Dunbar's which was a
set-menu restaurant located in an elegant Victorian home on St. Charles
Ave., the heart of the Garden District. There I was introduced to such
exotic delicacies as artichokes, oysters and real Louisiana gumbo, all
presented family style, as though one were an invited dinner guest.

Mother, better known as "Gigi" after the birth of my elder son, was a sophisticated lady of exquisite taste. She embraced life to the fullest
and entertained graciously and well. During her extensive travels, she
became a much sought-after hostess as her skill and her reputation
grew. She was by far the most educated cook in our family, as well
as a connoisseur and world traveler. That, along with this je ne sais
handed down through the generations, combined to make her
an excellent cook.

But Gigi was somewhat of a paradox. Despite her sophistication, she
displayed an appreciation of and respect for simple food. I fondly recall
a fantastic summer spent with her during which we canned all sorts of
vegetables, made corn relish and a marvelously aromatic mincemeat in
anticipation of the holiday season. What is even more noteworthy to me
is that she raised some of the most simple dishes to glorious new heights.
Even the oft-maligned creamed chipped beef became praiseworthy under
her influence. Not only has it become our family's traditional Sunday
morning fare (served over hot cornbread), but Gigi, undaunted by the
dish's less than savory reputation, dared serve it to her discriminating
Sunday brunch guests:

Gigi's Infamous Creamed Chipped Beef

Begin by melting 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter in a large heavy saucepan. In it
sauté 1 bunch of thinly sliced scallions and 8 ounces fresh mushrooms, stemmed and sliced. Add 1/2 cup flour, whisking the mixture, and cook
the roux over low heat, stirring constantly. Slowly add 1 quart milk
(preferably warmed to the scald), whisking, and bring to a simmer. Add
2 jars of dried beef, thinly sliced, and simmer briefly. Adjust seasoning.
 like to add pepper and a little Cajun seasoning. Please serve over hot
or biscuits. Toast simply will not do! Chances are you will
not need to add salt due to the saltiness of the dried beef. Enjoy!

Fine. Let us assume then that you are fortunate enough to have been
born with culinary talent. Can it stand on its own? What now?

First, I believe we must recognize the vast importance of accepting and
acknowledging the gift of own our talent. And then, if our gift is to grow
and blossom, we are called to pursue it with passion. The key at that
point will be our willingness to take a creative risk, to go beyond playing
it safe, to endow our creation with the essence of our authentic selves.
What will then evolve is a quite miraculous blend of craftsmanship,
artistry, and spirit.

Are you still with me? We are talking about mystical, magical forces here. Alchemy! Our composition - whether it be soup, stew, cake or pudding -
is about to be infused with the above-mentioned miraculous blend. The expertise and passion of the cook will therefore be communicated to the
partaker, just as surely as any great work of art touches the soul of the
beholder and leaves him in a state of awe. (You might want to have
another look at Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolateicon"...)

I concur with the legendary chef Alfred Walterspiel's philosophy on
this subject. He was a magnificent example of the miracles that can
be performed when vision, discipline and determination are combined
with imagination, boldness and the genius, the flair, that is inherent in
the sixth sense of a truly eminent chef. Walterspiel once compared
cooking to handwriting, maintaining that cooking is an art to which
each individual brings his own handwriting, and that no two people
cook alike, forgers excepted.

So where does that leave me? With a good deal of potential, an extra-
ordinary collection of recipes and a burning desire to continue to develop
my talent! And certainly with a better understanding of the true meaning
of soul, as it applies to food. In the words of Sarah Ban Breathnach:

"...while the expression 'soul food' is usually used to describe traditional
African-American cooking, this emotionally evocative cuisine is color-blind.
Real soul food only knows the borders of the heart. Soul food is universal
culinary memories, stories, and recipes. It's how to fry the chicken, or the
won ton, shape the noodles, simmer the brisket, roll the tortilla, sweeten
the iced tea."

Perhaps even more important, I am left with a storehouse of precious
memories, a deep respect for tradition, and an earnest appreciation of
my culinary heritage. There were no eminent chefs in my family tree,
but there certainly were excellent cooks who left us a legacy of soulful
cooking. Will this legacy be passed down through the generations? Will
an eminent chef emerge? Well, funny thing, my elder son, whose claim
to fame in his youth was an extraordinary athletic talent, has, much to
my surprise and delight, developed into quite an amazing pastry chef. I
guess it all started when he was three years old and I baked him a
wonderful Virginia pound cake...

Featured Archive Recipes:
Boeuf à la Bourguignonne
Coq au Vin à la Beaujolaise
French Apple Pie
Old-Fashioned Chicken and Dumplings
Oven-Fried Parmesan Chicken
Potage St. Germain
Sesame Baked Chicken
Shrimp and Scallops Gruyère
Swiss Steak
Grandmother, aka Mammy:
Angel Lemon Pudding
Banana Nut Cake
Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
Coca-Cola Cake
Corn Bread
Fudge (Mamie Eisenhower's)
Hummingbird Cake
Icebox Oatmeal Cookies
Mississippi Mud Cake
Red Velvet Cake
Rolled Dumplings ("Noodles")
Old Dominion Cobbler
Old Dominion Pound Cake
Old-fashioned Potato Soup with "Riffles"

Great-Grandmother's Lemon Pudding


Notes from a Southern
Expatriate, with Recipes

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