Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Morning Excitement

Christmas morning excitement is an emotion unmatched by any other.

Adult excitement pales in comparison to the holiday-exhilaration recipe of two-parts anticipation, mixed with one part delight, a dab of enchantment, and a pinch of joy that is experienced every Christmas Eve until our pre-teen years sweep the thrills away.

The excitement reaches its fever pitch just before sleep. Lying in bed— blankets and sheets pulled to the chin— listening to every bump and creak in the attic and on the roof. Occasionally daring to get out of the bed to run across the room and peek through the curtains to see if reindeer might have landed in the front yard.

I miss that thrill. Granted, it is a materialistic feeling at its core, and pales in comparison to the adult excitement of babies being born and offspring accomplishments, but it is a memory that is too strong to be denied. It is a singular emotion that is unlike any other we experience for the rest of our lives.

The anticipation begins at dusk on Christmas Eve. Children realize that the greatest kid-day of the year has almost arrived. It’s the day they have been waiting for since December 26th of the previous year. It’s the one day that is unlike any other— the day when children all over the world wake up and open gifts that have magically appeared from nowhere. It happens on only one morning and it is the crux of kiddom.

As Christmas Eve night progresses, kids realize that they are only hours away from waking up to the frenzy of flying wrapping paper, shiny toys, and colorful presents. Excitement mixes with exhaustion and anticipation— it’s almost time.

What a great concept. Waking up to stuff. New stuff. Stuff you have been dreaming about for months. Everyone is happy. What a great feeling.

Remember that Christmas morning feeling this holiday season. Remember the excitement and the elation. Let’s do what we can to revive that feeling in ourselves and in our neighbors throughout the year. Most of all let’s pass it on.

Some children won’t wake up to flying paper and shiny toys. For them, it’s not about colorful presents and new stuff. It’s about survival and getting by on a daily basis.

This holiday season make sure that the joy you experienced happens for everyone.

The man who learns how to put Christmas morning excitement into pill form will be a rich man, indeed. Meanwhile, many of us have the power to make it happen for the under-resourced children in our communities. This Christmas Eve, let’s pull the sheets to our chin knowing that we did everything we could to create Christmas-morning memories and excitement for everyone.

Cookies for Santa

1 stick Butter
1/ 3 cup Light brown sugar
1 tsp. Vanilla
1/ 8 tsp. Salt
1 1 /4 cups Flour
1 /2 cup Pecans, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on slowest speed until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and salt. Add flour making sure not to over mix. Fold in pecans by hand. Form dough into 1 1 /2 inch diameter balls and place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Using the palm of your hand, flatten the dough until it is about 1 /4 inch thick. Bake 15-18 minutes, just until cookies begin to brown. Yield: 16-20 cookies

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Fruitful Day Off

For 46 years I have been blessed with excess energy.

I seem to have been born with enough vitality and drive for two people. Though lately, I have been feeling my age.

Sunday I experienced my first “true” day off in six weeks. I planned to stay in bed most of the afternoon and treat myself to a full day of football for the first time since September.

My wife had to take my son to a birthday party and my daughter needed to stay home to work on a school project. Around 1:30 p.m. my daughter came into my bedroom wanting to know what we were having for lunch. I asked her what she would like, and she couldn’t decide.

As an offhand remark, I said, “Why don’t you go into the kitchen and make us a sandwich,” and turned my attention back to the football game.

When on tour or giving a speech, the most frequent question I am asked is, “Who does the cooking in your home?”

The answer is always the same, “My wife cooks for the family, and I cook for company.” It’s not written in stone. The roles reverse on occasion. If my wife decides to sleep late, I am happy to make a “Daddy Breakfast” for the children, or if she’s putting on makeup before the movie, I don’t mind throwing together a chicken casserole and salad. She, too, makes great lasagna, spaghetti, and pasta shells for company.

For the most part, we stick to our roles. Mom cooks for the family. Dad cooks for company and away from home. The children just eat.

Before long my 10-year old daughter came walking into the bedroom holding a tray. She was beaming. I know all of her expressions. This was one that I hadn’t seen before. It was an ear-to-ear smile filled with satisfaction and achievement.

On the tray was a triple-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Fritos, and a glass of milk.

I have eaten thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my life. In my first six years on the planet, they were almost all I ate, exclusively. I have eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches prepared by my mother, by both of my grandmothers, by my babysitters, by my wife, by friends, and by my own hands. I have taken them to school in lunchboxes. I have eaten them at church and on picnics, I have eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my formal dining room and I have eaten them in sparsely decorated bachelor apartments. I can truly say that I have never eaten one that I have enjoyed as much as the one prepared and served by my daughter at 1:47 p.m. on December 9, 2007.

An hour later, she came back in the room with a plate of freshly baked oatmeal cookies and another glass of milk.

“Thank you, precious.”

“You’re welcome, daddy.”

The cynical reader might say, “What’s the big deal? It was a sandwich and a plate of Fritos.” That is correct, but it was so much more.

It was a small act of independence born in original thought. The look on her face signaled a sort of self-sufficient culinary rite of passage. She has now reached an age where she can go into the kitchen and prepare food, and she is happy about it.

In the last 20 years, I have eaten at some of this country’s finest restaurants. I don’t know if any of those meals can match the sheer joy I experienced having a Sunday afternoon lunch in bed, prepared by my daughter.

The smile on my daughter’s face was one that I will never forget. It was a look of delight, independence, and accomplishment all at once, and one that could only be surpassed— at that moment— by the look of pride on the face of her father.

Now when I am asked, “Who does the cooking in your home?” I will have to change my answer. My wife cooks for the family. I cook for company, and my daughter cooks for special occasions.

Miniature Smoked Tenderloin Sandwiches with Three Spreads

2 Tbl Bacon Grease, melted
1 Tbl Steak Seasoning
1/2 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 pound Beef Tenderloin, trimmed and cleaned
24 dinner rolls, varied styles and flavors, cut in half crosswise

5-6 cups wood chips

Soak the wood chips for 2-3 hours and drain well. Prepare grill or smoker to cook at 275 degrees.

Rub the tenderloin with the melted bacon grease and sprinkle with steak seasoning.
Cook the tenderloin for 45-50 minutes, to an internal temperature of 130 degrees. Add more chips as needed to keep the smoke flowing.

Remove from heat and let tenderloin cool completely.

Horseradish Spread

1/4 cup Sour Cream
1/2 cup Mayonnaise
1/4 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
3 Tbl Prepared Horseradish
2 Tbl Red Onion, minced
1/4 tsp Garlic, minced
1 Tbl Chives, chopped
1 Tbl Parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp Salt

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and store covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Chutney Mayo

1 Tbl Olive Oil
2 Tbl Yellow Onion, minced
1/4 tsp Salt
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1/2 tsp Curry Powder
2 Tbl Sherry
3/4 cup Mango Chutney
3/4 cup Mayonnaise

In a small sauté pan, heat olive oil over low heat. Place onion, garlic, salt and curry powder in the hot oil and cook one minute. Add the sherry and reduce. Remove from heat and cool completely. Once the cooked mixture is cooled, combine it with the remaining ingredients. Store covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Honey-Spiked Creole Mustard

1/2 cup Creole Mustard
1 Tbl Yellow Mustard
2 Tbl Sour Cream
1 Tbl Mayonnaise
1/4 cup Honey
1 tsp Prepared Horseradish
2 tsp Parsely, chopped
1 tsp Fresh Thyme Leaves, chopped
1/8 tsp Cayenne Pepper
1/2 tsp Lemon Juice
1/4 tsp Salt

Using a wire whisk, combine all ingredients. Store covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Slice 1/8-inch thin slices of the beef tenderloin and arrange on a serving tray. Serve the cut rolls and three sauces on the side and allow guests to build their own sandwich.
All of the sauces may be made three to four days in advance, and stored in the refrigerator until needed.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

At a book signing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast last week, I was hit with a blinding jolt of reality.

I have been a victim of out-of-sight out-of-mind Katrina apathy. My hometown of Hattiesburg was hit hard. Yet we bounced back quickly.

At Pass Christian Books— a small, independent bookstore which used to overlook the Gulf of Mexico— business is not the same. As with most beachfront structures in Pass Christian— and all along the Gulf front in the post-Katrina world— only a slab of concrete remains.

Pass Christian Books has moved five miles north of the beach to Delisle, Miss. until the city’s infrastructure is restored.

I am a huge fan of the old-line seafood restaurants of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I have fond memories of eating at Baricev’s, The Friendship House, McElroy’s, and the like. I have always encouraged support of the independent restaurants of the Coast.

One restaurant that I must have passed a thousand times, but never once visited was Annie’s at Henderson Point. As with most of the independent restaurants within a few blocks of the Gulf, Annie’s was a casualty of Katrina. They, too, moved to Delisle after the storm.

As Wyatt Waters and I signed books we ordered a cup of gumbo from the newly relocated Annie’s (now Café Annie located next door to the bookstore). The gumbo was rich, the roux was dark, and it had the distinct taste of a well-made crab stock in the foreground.

As I finished my gumbo, I felt an overwhelming pang of guilt for not visiting Annie’s in its original location.

Annie’s restaurant opened on Henderson Point in 1928. The family-run operation withstood three hurricanes, two fires, and everything that Mother Nature could throw at it until Katrina blew through the Coast in 2005.

Annie Lutz— who recently celebrated her 89th birthday—has been working in the restaurant since she was a little girl and still mans the cash register out front. Her niece, Jackie Jex, says that Annie’s been there “Since she was able to reach the counter.”
Annie lived her entire life in an apartment attached to the restaurant. It’s gone, too.

In addition to excellent seafood gumbo, Café Annie serves a full array of old-line Coast favorites such as Trout Amandine, broiled fish, and Italian-inspired seafood dishes which have been the mainstay of independent Gulf Coast restaurants for over a century. As Jex gave me an oral history of the restaurant while pointing to photographs on the walls, I lamented the fact that I would never again know the restaurant in its original state.

The day before the Coast book signing, I was at a book event in New Orleans. During a conversation with a New Orleans customer, Hurricane Katrina came up. As the conversation moved to national attention and national media coverage of the event in the months following the storm, the New Orleans woman apologized to me for all of the coverage that they received and offered an, “I’m sorry” saying Mississippians hadn’t received enough of the attention.

I told her that everything is O.K. We never wanted a lot of attention. We took care of ourselves, we took care of our neighbors, and our governor took care of the rest.

To a person, everyone who bought books at the Pass Christian book signing had lost all of their cookbooks— and their homes along with them— to the storm. No one complained. No one seemed resentful. They had gotten on with their daily lives and to the business of rebuilding the Coast. “It’s only stuff,” one woman commented.

It’s people like Scott Naugle at Pass Christian Books, Annie Lutz at Café Annie, and the customers of those, and many other, businesses who have rolled up their sleeves and are back fighting the good fight— the daily fight, the hard fight— and doing business in what remains of a storm-ravaged community.

At Café Annie, 80 years of Gulf Coast restaurant history have been reduced to a small wall of black and white 8 x 10 photographs. There are hundreds of businesses with similar stories all along the Gulf. Let’s throw apathy to the wind and keep them in sight, and in mind, during the holiday shopping season, and throughout the coming years.

Shrimp and Okra Gumbo

1 /2 cup Canola oil
3 /4 cup Flour
2 Tbl File powder
1 cup Onion, diced
1 /2 cup Celery, diced
1 /2 cup Bell pepper, diced
1 1 /2 cups Fresh okra, sliced
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 1 /2 lbs Shrimp, small
2 tsp Salt
1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper
2 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Thyme, dry
1 cup Tomatoes, diced, canned or fresh
2 quarts Shrimp stock
1 Tbl Hot Sauce
1 /4 tsp Cayenne pepper

2 cups cooked white rice

In a large skillet, combine oil, flour and file powder to form a roux. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until roux is very dark (be careful not to burn). Add
vegetables, garlic, spices and shrimp and continue to cook for five to seven minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Meanwhile, bring shrimp stock and tomatoes to a boil. Slowly add roux mixture to boiling stock and mix well. Lower heat to a slow simmer, and cook 10 more minutes. Add hot sauce and cayenne pepper.

To serve, place 2-3 tablespoons of rice in a bowl then pour the hot gumbo over the rice.

Yield: 1 gallon
Bizarre Foods

Exactly one year ago today I was contacted by a producer of the Travel Channel television program “Bizarre Foods.” He said that they were going to be in the area and asked if I knew of anywhere in, or around, my hometown that served bizarre food.

I told him that my restaurants were out. The most bizarre thing they might find there is if someone orders the wrong wine to go with the Black Grouper with truffle and risotto.

I told them I knew of a place that served chitlins once a week, but the producer said that they already had “chitlins” covered.

I was suspicious at first, and after several phone calls I told the producer that I had spent a large portion of my writing career trying to bust all of the old-line Southern culinary stereotypes. I told him that we just don’t eat like they did on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and I don’t want to be a part of any program that would perpetuate those stereotypes.

“No one around here eats raccoon or possum,” I said. “I can take you to Louisiana where they eat the swamp rat, nutria. Those people down there will eat anything.”

“No thanks, we’ve already got nutria covered.”

“But there’s no food around here that’s bizarre. I promise. We just don’t eat like that. However I do know a barbeque place in town called Leatha’s that is a true ‘rib joint’ all the way down to the beach towels for curtains on the windows. They don’t cook anything strange there, the ribs are world-class, but the atmosphere should make for great television.”

After several more phone calls from the producer. We decided that Leatha’s was the spot where my segment would be filmed. Bonnie and Carolyn, two of Leatha’s daughters, would open the restaurant on Sunday afternoon (a day that they were normally closed) and serve ribs and pulled pork.

At the time, the show wasn’t on the air yet. I made the producers send both of the pilot episodes to make sure that the show was going to be reverential to my friends at the barbeque joint and also paint Mississippi in the most positive light.

After viewing both episodes, I concluded that host, Andrew Zimmern— in addition to being able to put the most seemingly inedible food items in his mouth and eat them— was a very talented chef and was extremely deferential to the eating habits and culture of peoples all over the world.

“I’ll do it,” I said on a follow-up phone call with the producer. “But on the pilot episodes, Andrew was eating grubs, and worms, and smelly plants. You’re not going to find anything bizarre down here. Again, we just don’t eat like that.”

“Actually,” the producer said, “Bonnie is going to cook coon and possum for us. I thought you said that people don’t eat that stuff down there.”

“We don’t,” I stammered.

“The girls at Leatha’s beg to differ.”

“Listen,” I said. “Those ladies are friends of mine. I am not going to be a part of any program that would make fun of anyone in this area who eats coon or possum. Y’all better not ‘Borat’ us.” The producer assured me that the episode would treat the Southern backwoods culinary oddities with the respect that they had shown in other foreign cultures, and I assured them that I would be on camera, but in no way could I eat coon or possum.

I wasn’t taking a stand on principle, or making a statement that I wouldn’t perpetuate regional culinary stereotypes. I have a weak stomach. I didn’t want to get sick during the filming.

In the end, the producers and the host were polite and respectful. The show was one of their highest rated to date. Bonnie and Carolyn get comments all of the time about being on the Travel Channel. The only question I get is “Why did you look so green and nauseous?”

In light of last week’s Associated Press story about a woman being arrested for eating monkey meat in New York, I think the South’s culinary reputation is still in tact.