Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dining-In: A Culinary Tour of America-Monroeville, Alabama

The Location: Monroeville, Alabama
2013 population: 6,289; 55.6% African American, 41.8% white. Per capita income: $14,764.
The region around Monroeville was home to the Choctaw tribe prior to the European invasion. The area was taken over by the Spanish, but was purchased by the United States in 1795. The city of Monroeville was built in 1831, but not incorporated until April 5, 1899. After the Civil War, it took Monroeville from 1865 to 1900 for it to be completely rebuilt again.

Monroeville's big claim to fame is that it is the hometown of some of America's most famous authors. Truman Capote spent several summers during his childhood there, and Harper Lee, his friend, was born and raised there. She still lives there to this day. In 1997, Monroeville was named the "Literary Capital of Alabama," by the state legislature.

The Food: Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner
One of my favorite books of all-time, is To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Harper Lee was born in Monroevill, Alabama, on April 28, 1926. She is best known for that novel, though she recently released a second novel called Go Set a Watchman. It takes place after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, dealing with the same characters, yet it was written first. Go Set a Watchman is actually the impetus for the story that became To Kill a Mockingbird. I have not read Go Set a Watchman, and do not plan to, because I think To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Food is mentioned a lot in the book. It's also mentioned in the film as well. I decided that when I got to Alabama, I would choose foods mentioned in the book, and focus on them. I chose three dishes to try out, and wasn't disappointed by any of them!

One of the most memorable food scenes in both the book and the film doesn't actually mention what type of food is eaten. I would love to have featured it for this post, but needed to choose others that actually mention the food eaten. The scene is set during a lunch break early in the school year. Jem and Scout have brought their friend, Walter Cunningham, home to eat with them. Atticus joins them for the meal and makes Walter feel at home. Walter, the son of a poor farmer, rarely gets to eat lunch, and is clearly looking forward to this meal. He requests syrup for his meal, which Atticus, unhesitatingly, asks Calpurnia the housekeeper to bring. He pays little attention to Walter as the boy proceeds to drown his food in syrup. Unfortunately, Scout doesn't do the same, and points it out, loudly, that one doesn't drown one's lunch in syrup.

The scene would be almost comical if it wasn't so heartbreaking to watch. The pure joy and anticipation on Walter's face is palpable. You can feel his excitement about the treat he's about to enjoy. But the second Scout points out his faux pas, his joy is immediately replaced with shame and humiliation. His meal, something he so rarely gets to partake in, has been ruined before it even began. It hurts to read or watch this scene. I think it's one of the things I keep in mind by choosing not to judge others for what they do or don't eat, or how they eat it. Why take that joy from somebody? Why be that cruel for no real good reason?

Anyway, the three foods I chose are quintessential Southern foods, and one of them I had been holding off on for just such an occasion as this post: Fried chicken. Such as simple dish, yet so easy to do wrong if you're not careful. I didn't want to end up using fried chicken as a default for all the Southern states, so I made sure to use it when it would have the best use. I had trouble finding recipes specific to the state of Alabama that I could or would eat. This state was the perfect location for the dish.

"It's not time to worry yet," Atticus reassured him as we went into the diningroom. "We're not through yet. There'll be an appeal, you can count on that. Gracious alive, Cal, what's all this?" He was staring at his breakfast plate.
Calpurnia said, "Tom Robinson's daddy sent you along this chicken this morning. I fixed it."
"You tell him I'm proud to get it--bet they don't have chicken for breakfast for breakfast at the White House."

Though it's not described how Calpurnia prepared the chicken, I'd say it's a safe bet that it was fried. There was no oven-frying then, and I doubt she made it into a stir-fry or chicken Parmesan. I chose a fried chicken recipe from my own recipe card collection, and I don't know the source of it, but it was amazing! I was really happy with how this turned out.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
1(3lb.) fryer, cut into pieces
2 cups buttermilk or plain yogurt
1 onion, sliced
1 tsp. each dried parsley(I did not add this, it doesn't really add much flavor), tarragon, and thyme
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. garlic salt(For this and the onion salt, I didn't have either, but I used granulated garlic and granulated onion instead. I just added a bit more salt and it turned out fine.)
1/2 tsp. onion salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 cups canola oil

1.) Soak chicken 8 hours to overnight and up to two days in the buttermilk with the onions, herbs, paprika, and cayenne.(My note: I didn't have 8 hours, mine marinated for around 3 hours. It was still highly flavorful, though I am curious what it would have tasted like to have the full 8 hours.)
2.) Drain in colander, leaving some herbs on the chicken. In a paper or plastic bag, mix flours with seasonings. Meanwhile, heat 2 cups oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet on medium-high heat until a pinch of flour starts to sizzle when dropped in the hot oil. (Have a lid nearby for emergencies.)
3.) Place chicken pieces in bag with flour and shake until thoroughly coated. 

Add chicken to hot pan and fry on one side for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown, and then use tongs to turn the pieces over for another 10-12 minutes again, until golden brown. (Be careful to keep the oil hot enough to fry the chicken, but not so high that it burns the chicken. To do this on an electric stove, alternate the settings between high and medium-high several times while cooking.)(My note: Do not turn the chicken if there is any resistance. If it is still stuck to the bottom of the pan, it is not ready to turn. All you will do is rip the batter off the chicken. Patience is really important for frying chicken. You'll be worried that it will burn, but it won't. Just trust it, it knows what it's doing better than you do.)
4.) Use tongs to remove chicken from pan. Place on a rack over a cookie rack to drain the excess oil. Add more salt and pepper to taste. (My note: I tested the temperature when my chicken was fully browned and it wasn't quite hot enough inside. I finished it off in the oven just to make sure there was no chance of eating undercooked chicken. It turned out fine that way.)
Makes 4 servings

I ate this hot last night but have a second serving to eat cold today. I have to see how it tastes cold vs. hot. That's the key to good fried chicken. The flavor of this was amazing. The thyme and tarragon work really well with it. You wouldn't necessarily think tarragon for fried chicken, but it really works! The batter was ridiculously crunchy and amazing. I may never be able to eat fried chicken again except for this kind because it was that good.

Aunt Alexandra met us and nearly fainted when Calpurnia told her where we were. I guess it hurt her when we told her Atticus said we could go back, because she didn't say a word during supper. She just rearranged food on her plate, looking at it sadly while Calpurnia served Jem, Dill, and me with a vengeance. Calpurnia poured milk, dished out potato salad and ham, muttering, "'shamed of yourselves," in varying degrees of intensity. "Now you all eat slow," was her final command.

Potato salad felt like the perfect accompaniment to the fried chicken. It can be eaten with the hot chicken, or the cold chicken the next day. I chose another of my own recipes, but again, I don't know the original source. I thought this was really amazing too.
Creamy Low-Fat Potato Salad
2 lb. small red potatoes, cut into 3/4" pieces
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small bay leaf
1 cup buttermilk
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. tarragon vinegar(I did not have this, and couldn't find it at the grocery store. Instead, I used 2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar and put in about 1/2 tsp. tarragon and let it sit for a while to infuse the vinegar. I kept the tarragon in the vinegar when I added it to the rest of the ingredients, rather than straining it out. I think this worked just fine.)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard with seeds
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
4 green onion, chopped
1 large celery stalk with leaves, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves(I didn't do this. I rarely/never use parsley when a recipe calls for it. It's either for garnish or flavoring and I don't think parsley really adds that much, flavor-wise, to a recipe.)

1.) In 4-qt. sauce pan, heat potatoes, garlic, bay leaf, and enough water to cover to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 10-12 minutes, until potatoes are fork-tender.
2.) Meanwhile, in large bowl, with fork, mix buttermilk, olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper until blended. Stir in green onions, celery, and parsley.
3.) Drain potatoes, discard garlic and bay leaf. Add warm potatoes to buttermilk mixture and gently stir with rubber spatula until well-coated. Cover and refrigerate if not serving right away.
Makes 8 servings: 130 calories, 4 grams fat

I would never have thought to use buttermilk for a potato salad dressing, but it really worked well! With the other ingredients, it really tasted like it was a mayonnaise-based dressing. I was really impressed. There was too much celery for my tastes, but that's easily altered. I highly recommend this one if you like potato salad, but are trying to be healthier too. Also, I only made a half batch of this, and it was just fine. Some recipes don't divide very well, but this one did.

Perhaps Calpurnia sensed that my day had been a grim one: she let me watch her fix supper. "Shut your eyes and open your mouth and I'll give you a surprise," she said.
It was not often that she made crackling bread, she said she never had time, but with both of us at school today had been an easy one for her. She knew I loved crackling bread.

Crackling, most often pronounced without the G at the end, is simply cornbread with cracklings added to it. What are cracklings, you may ask? If you're unfamiliar with traditional Southern cuisine, or have never read the Little House on the Prairie books, you may have never heard of this food before. Cracklings are the pieces left after frying up chopped salt pork. What is salt pork, you are now asking? Well, it's salted pork belly. It's the same cut of pork that bacon comes from, the only difference is, it hasn't been smoked. Salting food was a common way of making it last through the long autumn and winter months before proper refrigeration and freezing was available.

These are the cracklings I made last night. They don't taste the same as bacon. You can substitute bacon, but it isn't the same experience. Cracklings are very salty, but not at all smoky. They smell very different from bacon when you cook it. It takes longer to render than bacon, but be patient and keep stirring them as they cook. They will get there eventually.

This recipe comes from an article I found in the Chicago Tribune. I will share the link in the sources section, and do check it out. It has several other recipes available, all from foods mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird. I will paste the recipe here from the article.

Cracklin' Bread
1 cup finely diced salt pork
2 eggs, beaten
3 cups yellow cornmeal
2 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup lard, melted
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon each: salt, baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat a skillet over medium heat; fry the salt pork until well-browned and crispy, about 10 minutes. Remove cracklings with a slotted spoon; drain.
2. Combine the eggs, cornmeal, buttermilk, flour, lard, water, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl; stir until thoroughly blended. Stir in the cracklings; scrape batter into a 13-by 9-inch buttered baking pan. Bake until golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Serve hot.
Nutrition information Per serving: 284 calories, 48% of calories from fat, 15 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 44 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 435 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

The only thing I did different from this recipe, was to substitute the lard with a plant-based oil instead. I had lard I could use, and I was even measuring it out when I changed my mind. With all the oil I was already using, and the salt pork in the recipe, and the fact that I had used lard in last week's blog post, I couldn't in good conscience use it when a healthier oil would work just as well. It turned out fine, but if you want to use the lard, by all means, go for it! Mine only needed the 25 minutes to be perfectly baked through. It makes a lot! If you don't have people to share it with, I suggest making a half batch. I don't think cornbread freezes very well. This one was really good too! I can see why it's a popular dish in the South.
There is the completed meal in all its glory. What a sight to behold. What a pleasure it was to eat. I wish I could eat like this every day, if only it wasn't so unhealthy! 

This was a really fun experience. Cooking a meal based on an iconic novel set in a small town in the South, really helps to make you feel like you're there. You are stepping into a world not your own, and understanding what life was like there. If you have been thinking about rereading To Kill a Mockingbird or rewatching the movie, I recommend trying something like this. It enhances the experience that much more. It isn't a brand-new concept, trying foods based on a book or a movie, but it sure is fun!


1 comment:

  1. MMMMMMM! Yes, I am envious. Sounds incredible. :D