Real Soul Food: 30 Years of Marriage, and the Best Damn Fried Chicken in the Country

On September 6, the Mate and I celebrate 30 years of marriage. I don’t know what we’ll have for dinner. All I know is, it won’t be fried chicken.

Not because we don’t love it…but because we do. Specifically, we love Mama Dip’s fried chicken from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where we met in 1977 and were married ten years later). We loved Mama Dip’s chicken so much we got her restaurant to cater our wedding. So now we’re spoiled; no one else’s fried chicken comes close.

Mildred Council, a.k.a. “Mama Dip” (courtesy WRAL)

***Sigh…might as well have spaghetti…***

Of course with fantastic fried chicken come all the fixins: fried okra, stewed greens and tomatoes, black-eyed peas, cornbread, biscuits, corn on the cob…Some folks would add mac ‘n’ cheese to this list, or Brunswick Stew, or pulled pork, but to me those are meals in themselves, demanding their own sides: cheese grits, home fries, slaw…OK, I’ll stop.

“Care for dessert?” Are you kidding? I’ll just start over with another meal. (courtesy Black Hair Media Forum)

The Mate and I are very health-conscious people. We’re lifelong athletes–in fact, distance running is how we met. But we LOVE our soul food. In fact, I love even the IDEA of soul food.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

Soul food is a variety of cuisine originating in the Southeastern United States. It is common in areas with a history of slave-based plantations and has maintained popularity among the Black American and American Deep-South “cotton state” communities for centuries; it is now the most common regional cuisine in southern cities such as New Orleans, LouisianaCharlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. Soul food influences can be commonly found as far north as Richmond, Virginia, as far east as Jacksonville, Florida, and as far west as Houston, Texas. The expression “soul food” may have originated in the mid-1960s, when soul was a common word used to describe Black American culture (for example, soul music).

Home, sweet home. (courtesy TripAdvisor)

I TOTALLY dig the idea of food feeding one’s soul. Soul food is culture, family, love. Yearning. Nostalgia. Gratitude. Nourishment of your deepest parts.

The Mate and I might not be southern by heritage; we might have abandoned the south to live all the way across the country. But Mama Dip’s chicken and okra and cornbread fed us and our 250 guests on a day of torrential September rain back in 1987, and that food and those memories continue to nourish us daily in this hard-work miracle known as marriage.

Since we can’t be in North Carolina on September 6, I’ve asked my parents, who still live there, to go out to Dip’s for us. Their own marriage is in its 63rd year. Guess they must have found some soul food of their own.

 

This Means War: My Neighbor Food-Gift Arms Race

It started with lettuce. You can’t freeze the stuff, right? Or bake with it, or make lettucesauce or lettuce jam. It’s just…lettuce. And there’s only so much salad two people can eat.

So I brought a bag to the neighbors. They were grateful.

Next week I brought some more, plus some arugula. Same story. Except Neighbor Rick mentioned they were going crabbing and would bring us some if they got lucky.

For a time, they didn’t. Meanwhile, I brought them more lettuce.

Then the crabs found their way into Neighbor Rick’s pots.* He brought us two–cooked and cleaned. We dined in ecstasy. And I brought them a small bowl of raspberries.

[One of my favorite sayings is, “I don’t want a ____, I just want a friend with a _____.” In this case: boat, pot, crab license.]

Couple days later: two more crabs. “I work at a bakery,” I told Rick. “Can I bring you some treats?” But no–Rick and family are trying to stay away from those kind of temptations. Curses! Nothing for it but to bring more raspberries.

Then Neighbor Rick upped his game. “We’re gettin’ a buncha crab now, gonna make some gumbo,” he told us. “Can we bring you a little?”

We were imagining a wee side dish for our dinner, and we were excited for that. But when Rick came over with the gumbo…well.

Unfortunately, I did not think to take a picture of the beautiful domed island of white rice, sprinkled with spices, rising from a sea of okra, tomatoes, shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, fish, with four more crab-halves dangling their claws over the edge of the dish. But here’s what the leftovers looked like the second night:

This is only about a third of the leftover crabmeat…

…which is also when Neighbor Rick dropped off the rack of “extra” baby back ribs, barbecued in a marionberry sauce. This time I remembered to take a picture.

So…full…but it still makes my mouth water!

At that point I FORCED him to take home a fresh baguette from my bakery, and a bowl of truffle balls from my freezer.

If we don’t achieve some kind of detente soon, I may forget how to cook. But I see no end in sight. And me with no zucchini!

It’s August. Anyone have a food-gifting story to share? (I still have raspberries.)

Reuse, Recycle, Renew Your Appetite: “Upcycling” Cooking Boo-Boos

If you’re like me, you HATE throwing away good food. The more you need to toss, the more you hate it. So imagine the loathing that accompanies needing to compost an entire 20×30″ pan of overbaked brownies, for example. This tragedy plays out all too commonly in commercial kitchens.

But it doesn’t have to!

At Holly B’s Bakery, we are becoming (we modestly think) the masters of up-cycling “useless” food. Let me give you three scrumptious examples.

Example #1: those overbaked brownies. We tossed them in the Cuisinart with a little butter to glue them back together, then pressed them into a buttered pan as a pre-baked crust…which we then proceeded to top with dulce de leche cheesecake filling. Sprinkle with sea salt…bake…heaven.

Honestly, it’s more like cheesecake frosting on a brownie. Only more so.

Example #2: over-toasted Cappucino Bars (our name for espresso shortbread with tiny chocolate chips and a cinnamon-espresso glaze). Once more into the “Cuize” with…wait for it…a glob of ganache (a.k.a. the essence of a truffle: dark chocolate melted with whipping cream). And a healthy dash of Kahlua. Form into balls, dip into more (much more!) ganache with toothpicks, and voila…Kahlua Truffle Balls.

Even better than they look. Seriously.

Example #3 isn’t due to an overbake, but rather a scraps problem. When you cut croissants from dough, you end up with bits. Lots of bits. What to do with them? After only a couple of weeks of croissant-making, we were drowning in bits.

Too…many…bits!

So…we baked them. Note: please force yourself past this part of the process. If you stop here and just start eating warm croissant bits, all is lost. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mmmm…the bits…the bits are calling me. DON’T GIVE IN.

Once baked and cooled, we bag them and freeze them until it’s time to make strata. Guess what? It’s always time to make strata.

Strata before…

Strata = croissant bits (Most people just use stale bread–I recommend this! Much healthier. A little less delicious.) + beaten eggs + a little milk or cream + tomatoes (fresh, canned or dried) + cooked greens of any kind + sauteed onions and mushrooms + mozzarella. Topped with Parmesan. Baked till brown and bubbly.

Strata after. Yes please.

And the best part is feeling so good about avoiding waste! No, I’m lying–the best part is eating your creation. But that no-waste thing is pretty cool.

So…what do you think? Pretty droolly, right? Got any delightful/delicious food-upcycles of your own to share?

One Last New Zealand Blast (Before Hitting the Road Again): My Top Seven Random Faves About Kiwi Culture

I’m never getting New Zealand out of my system, just so you know. But since the Mate and I are embarking on Road Trip VII next week, this will be my last post about all things Kiwi for now. Promise.

That said, here’s my Top Seven Random Favorite Aspects of Kiwi Culture:

1.TEA. Like the Brits whose Commonwealth they share, New Zealanders are a nation of tea-drinkers first. My tribe! This picture from our first night’s accommodation in Christchurch tells you everything you need to know: one tiny bit of crappy instant coffee, and several varieties of gourmet tea.

Welcome to my world, coffee people. How ya like it?

Welcome to my world, coffee people. How ya like it?

(That said, Starbucks culture has made huge inroads. Euro-style cafes are everywhere now, more ubiquitous than the old-fashioned “tearooms”, and you can now buy commuter mugs–unheard of, 20 years ago.)

2. Holiday parks. No, they aren’t amusement parks–they’re a super-efficient type of accommodation, offering, in one location, everything from a place to pitch your tent or park your camper to cabins to motel rooms, ranging from the suite-with-bathroom-and-full-kitchen to a space just big enough for a bed, and everything in between. Communal kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, wifi areas and kids’ playgrounds fill in all the in-between needs, and we’ve always found them friendly and orderly. What a great idea! Why don’t these exist in the U.S.?

Sometimes all you need is a bed and a roof!

Sometimes all you need is a bed and a roof!

This adorable cabin in Okarito was exactly what we needed after four days of tramping.

This adorable cabin in Okarito was exactly what we needed after four days of tramping.

3. Meat pies. How are these not a “thing” in the US? How, I ask you? And don’t give me that health-food-GF-DF-locavore-movement argument–people still eat KFC, don’t they? I don’t GET it.

Mmmmm, stike poi. (Actually this one's chicken and mushroom. Still delicious.)

Mmmmm, stike poi. (Actually this one’s chicken and mushroom. Still delicious.)

4. Multisport. I know, my last post was entirely devoted to this topic. But I still don’t get why Americans aren’t more into the idea of cross-country running-riding-paddling-or-swimming races, not as teams or as made-for-TV spectacles like The Amazing Race, but just…fun.

Granted, the logistics are tricky! Multisport athletes need lots of friends.

Granted, the logistics are tricky! Multisport athletes need lots of friends.

5. Podocarps. OK, these aren’t exactly cultural aspects…they’re botanical. Trees, in fact. New Zealand has no native coniferous trees; they have podocarps. (The name means foot-seed in Greek, I guess from the shape of the seeds.) Evolutionarily, they are much older than conifers–and boy are they cool-looking. There are many varieties–totara, kahikatea, matai, kauri–but my favorite by far is the Rimu. Let me introduce you.

rimu branches--so graceful

rimu branches–so graceful

Towering above lesser trees...

Towering above lesser trees…

closeup of Kahikatea bark

closeup of Kahikatea bark

6. That accent. Ex-cent. It just gets me. In fact, I was forced to come up with seven (sivin) Faves because six would be pronounced “sex”, and I really didn’t want to go there. Stike poi for-ivah!

7. Tea again. After the Mate and I went for a paddle around beautiful Okarito Lagoon on the South Island’s west coast, the kayak rental company treated us to complementary tea…complete with china cup. My people!

Ta, Kiwis. Miss you already!

Ta, Kiwis. Miss you already!

I hope everyone reading this gets a chance to find an equally “simpatico” spot for themselves outside of their own culture…and hopefully, not quite so far away!

Resisting the Tyranny of Christmas Materialism…Or Not

Diamonds = true love. Therefore, lack of diamonds means…?

Owning a home = success. So renting means…?

Top-end equipment = mastery of craft. So crappy stuff means…?

We’ve probably all struggled against these Western constructs at some point. Maybe we’ve found comfortable alignment, maybe we’ve rejected the whole shebang; probably somewhere in between. But nothing raises my love-hate complex with materialism more than Christmas.

I had it all down this year. For my Mate and Sons One and Two: a special book, or an article of clothing I’ve heard them wish for. Everyone else: homemade granola.

Christmas list? Checked off. Christmas shopping? Done. Y’all can fight over my parking space at the mall.

The Mate and I have talked; he feels the same. I wasn’t expecting any gifts less modest than what I’m giving him.

And then my electric mixer broke.

You have to understand something about mixers. There are KitchenAids, which START at $250, and then there are the cheap, hand-held kind–$25. I got a cheapie as a wedding present 29 years ago. It worked fine, but I always told myself, “When this one breaks, I’ll get a KitchenAid. I’m a great baker. I should have great gear.” It lasted 16 years, but when that cheap mixer broke (in the middle of a cake), I zipped out and got a new one…for $25.

“It’s good enough,” I told myself. “Why spend ten times that much? And I’m in a hurry. A KitchenAid…that’s a commitment. I’m not ready.”

“Y’know, REAL bakers have a KitchenAid.”

“I’m a real baker! I’m a big girl! Just look at all the incredible pies and cakes I’ve made over the years with my cheap-ass hand-held.”

“Right. So don’t you deserve the good stuff now?”

“I’m not buying into your materialistic orthodoxy! Good enough is good enough!”

“Oookay…But you could have a blue one. Or purple. Just sayin.”

Fast-forward nine years. It’s Christmas season, and Cheap Mixer #2 breaks–again. In the middle of a cake. I’ve just congratulated myself on successfully fighting off the Demons of  Buy-Buy-Buy. But I have a choice to make.

This time, I caved. Or triumphed. Whichever way you choose to look at it. But from the pride with which I’m now displaying these photos, I guess you know which way I’m looking.

Who's a big girl now? I'm a big girl now!

Who’s a big girl now? I’m a big girl now!

Lesson? I’m going to try and be less judgy about materialism. If something new and expensive makes me or someone else feel fulfilled…I’m going to consider why. That might be enough.

ka

 

 

That Wicked, Wonderful Weed: My Blackberry Obsession

They’re ba-ack.

They’re everywhere.

Blackberries.

These days I can’t ride my bike in increments longer than 100 yards without wanting to stop again. “Ooh…look at those clusters! These are definitely plumper than that last batch I just stuffed in my face.” Or: “Hmm, those were a bit sour. Better stop for some sweetening-up.”

Bike gloves and blackberries: made for each other

Bike gloves and blackberries: made for each other

But even more than roadside grazing, blackberries mean one thing to this girl: PIE.

It’s not that I need to be eating blackberry pie, or any kind of pie, on a regular basis.  I work in a BAKERY, OK? But this time of year, the urge to collect berries for my freezer is like a squirrel’s to store nuts: I NEED them. The feeling is strangely desperate. What would happen if the summer passed and I ended up with a freezer free of blackberries?

Ahh....all is well.

Ahh….all is well.

I don’t know. I can’t imagine such desolation.

For 10 1/2 months of the year, blackberries are a noxious infestation of thorny horror. Ask anyone who’s tried to clear them, or hike through them, or pretty much go anywhere near them. But during blackberry season, they suddenly represent bounty: the sweetness of sharing, the safety of plenty in the cold times, the memory of years and years past where I did just the same…reach for the berries, freeze the berries, bake the berries…repeat.

Is there a lesson in there? Probably. But I’m too busy picking and baking to figure it out. Anyone?

Road Trip V, Days 9-11, Albuquerque-Memphis: New Mexico Has a State Question; What’s Yours?

Red or green?” That’s it. That’s the New Mexico State Question. Simple as it is, it tells volumes about the culture of this mini-nation-within-a-nation. It’s different.

Forget the Republic of Texas, which prides itself on being the only state with the right to fly its flag at the same height as the US flag. Forget “Don’t Tread On Me” California. Both those states are as quintessentially American as you can get. Even if you’ve never been to either, you know them–from movies, TV, ads. They’re what foreigners think of when they think of us.

New Mexico? Here, an American from any other state feels like the foreigner, but in a good way. New Mexico is different. Although The Mate and I only spent two nights here on this trip, our family lived in Santa Fe for five months in 2004, and all those memories of first impressions now jump to the fore.

Think you know multicultural society? How about a state where the dominant culture is not only “minority” (Hispanic), but also older than the rest of the US? (Santa Fe is, arguably, the longest continually-inhabited town in the US, competing only with St. Augustine, Florida for this honor.) I remember seeing campaign signs for some local election in 2004; every single name was Spanish. That’s who runs the place, and they are NOT immigrants.

Think you understand the relationship of Indian reservations with surrounding towns and states? New Mexico’s pueblos are more numerous, vibrant, and front-and-center than anything I’ve seen from Arizona to South Dakota to Washington. This is NOT to say they don’t struggle with dire poverty and all its issues; they certainly do. But in New Mexico the pueblos are right there, not tucked away. It’s no accident that the annual Gathering of Nations, the largest powwow in the US, is held in Albuquerque.

Fancy-dancing at UNM's Pit (courtesy Nic McPhee, Flikr Creative Commons)

Fancy-dancing at UNM’s Pit (courtesy Nic McPhee, Flikr Creative Commons)

Architecture is New Mexico’s most striking feature. Between Pueblo Style, with its adobe (or, today, stucco) in the brown spectrum from beige to rust, its gorgeous curved lines, its ladders and vegas and juniper-post fences, its ristras of red chiles hanging at every porch, and Territorial Style, with its Spanish colonial Zorro-esque balconies, New Mexican towns can feel like movie sets. (In Santa Fe, where this look is coded into city rules, even Burger Kings are humbly brown and curvy.)

The Loretta Hotel in Santa Fe (courtesy Wikimedia)

The Loretta Hotel in Santa Fe (courtesy Wikimedia)

Now that I think about it, the curve is a fitting symbol for New Mexico. The adobe walls, the higgledy-piggledy streets, the mountains and dormant volcanoes; the white sand dunes and cottonwoods and piñons and chiles. Ah, the chiles…

Ristras for sake (courtesy wikimedia)

Ristras for sake (courtesy wikimedia)

which brings me me back to the State Question: Red or Green? It refers to your choice of chile sauce on your dinner. Can’t decide? There’s a third choice: “Christmas,” which means–duh–both!

Mmmmm...Christmas! (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Mmmmm…Christmas! (Courtesy Wikimedia)

If my current home state had a State Question, I think it might be, “Salmon or apples?” or perhaps, “REI or Cabela’s?” (Washinfton’s pretty polarized, east-west, but we’re all outdoorsy!) My native state, North Carolina, would probably ask, “Biscuits or cornbread?” Most states in the Lower 48 aren’t distinctive enough, in my opinion, to have a State Question. But if they did–what would they be? Use your imaginations, and let us hear! I’ll feature the most creative in my next post.