Monday, May 16, 2005

East-West, and Cornbread!

Things to do, West Coast version:

Go see the Cutting Ball Theater's 6-person version of Macbeth at Exit Theater, now through July. I am royally pissed off about missing this, just because I lack the price of a JetBlue x-country ticket right now. The extremely talented Paige Rogers plays every woman in the show, from Lady MacB to the toil-and-trouble witches. Just go see it. Ticket info on the Cutting Ball website.

Things to do, East Coast version:

Oh, there's a million things to do here. But I can't afford any of them, because no one's paid me yet. So I'm sitting here, watching the sun on the brick wall outside my window, working on this cookbook-editing project and listening obsessively to Old Crow Medicine Show's andante version of the old blues chestnut CC Rider. There are a million recordings of this song (by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lee Hooker, and the Grateful Dead, to name just a few) and no one sings it using the exact same lyrics. O.C.M.S. seems to have made up a whole new set of verses, as well as having slowed the whole thing down to a country twang and added a mournful harmonica section.

It's a lot like cooking that way; cornbread and souffles and pie and every cook's version is just a little bit different, which means the arguments about authenticity can go on forever. There's a very funny Calvin Trillin quote to this effect, which I'll dig up when I finally get up off this hard chair in front of dutiful Ruby the iMac.

Ruby was a birthday present from E. several years ago and outdated as she may be now in these skinny-laptop days (as I found when I had to haul her bulbous red body down to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store for a little adjustment, and everyone else was clutching a tiny silver laptop or miniscule iPod. It felt like going to the vet, all of us sitting on the bench with our sick pets, waiting for for our names to be called. Except that, happily, Ruby didn't pee in her box) I'm grateful to her every single day for letting me earn my living, what there is of it.

However...speaking of cornbread, there's homemade warm yellow cornbread in my kitchen right now, and in just a half hour or so, there could be some in yours. (Or, heck, just come over and have a piece of mine. With guava jelly!) This is Southern-style cornbread, which means (to quote the guys over on Meathenge) "no cookie ingredients"-- no flour and no sugar. It's the Yankees, I'm told, that started sweetening the bread up, turning it into something more like cake than a sturdy hunk for sopping up the pot likker from a pot of greens. Personally, I like both kinds; I even like the kind of springy little muffins you get from the 40-cent box of Jiffy mix. But this recipe, from the very entertaining Stack Cakes, Shuck Beans, and Honest Fried Chicken, by Ronnie Lee, is my standard for the real thing.

Morning Cornbread

First, pop open a Dr. Pepper and find your smokes. Did you fry up some bacon yesterday? Or the day before? The pan's still on the stove, with a nice grungy layer of bacon fat in it, right? You want about 4 tablespoons' worth. Mmm. Now turn the oven to 450ºF and stick that greasy skillet--cast iron if your mama raised you right--right into the oven. Let it get really hot while you mix up the batter. If you don't have a skillet, any baking pan will do, and you can use a mix of butter and vegetable oil instead of drippings, but it won't taste as good.

2 cups cornmeal, on the coarse side and stone-ground if possible--I like Indian Head, which you can find in bright-yellow paper bags in most supermarkets
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

Mix dry ingredients together in a big bowl.

1 egg
1 1/2 cups buttermilk (or thinned-down plain yogurt)
(a tablespoon or so of honey or cane syrup, if you want)

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk, and honey if you're using it. Pour it into the cornmeal mixture. Stir together thoroughly--since cornmeal doesn't have the same gluten as wheat flour, you don't have to worry about its getting tough (as you would with a regular muffin or pancake batter). Now, take the hot pan out of the oven. Remember, hot things are hot, and cast-iron hot things full of grease, especially so. Swirl the grease around to oil up the sides of the pan. Then, pour that hot grease right into the batter. It should snap and crackle. Stir the batter a few times, then pour it into hot pan, and turn down heat to 425ºF. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until browned around the edges and firm on top. Serve warm with butter and blackberry jam.

Line of the Day

From a posting on Chowhound, dissing downtown restaurant Barolo,

"The food is only so-so, the service can be flighty and petulant, and it's wickedly expensive for basic Italian."

Flighty and petulant--could there be a better set of adjectives for that particular Soho style of bad service ?

Music to Type By

1. Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?"
2. Paul Simon, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover"
3. Old Crow Medicine Show, "CC Rider"
4. Rufus Wainwright, "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk"
5. Shelby Lynne, "Life is Bad"

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