Monday, January 7, 2008

Southern . West Coast . Yankee

I get a little identity crisis sometimes when I cook, and New Year's Day is always a trigger. My mother is a true southern lady. And though she's spent most of her life now in California, her food roots are seriously southern. I like the way the south eats. The south grows it's own meals, shares and trades with neighbors, and uses everything. This locavore thing that Mark and I are so inspired by is actually the way by grandparents have eaten their entire lives. The last time I visited them in the Arkansas Ozarks, I helped harvest peanuts, brought extra corn and green beans while out "visiting," and returned to find freshly caught fish left on the doorstep by a neighbor. I loved this.

But I'm a Californian. Here, fish on your doorstep sounds like some antiquated insult. Also there's my appetite. I don't like meat and I can't really pack it in, so there is usually a day in the south that I have to just spend in bed, resting from the eating. Hiding under the covers from the lard and the bacon, though it's oh so delicious.

One southern tradition that my family keeps is eating Hoppin' John on New Year's Day for good luck. This is basically a pot of seasoned black eyed peas, and it's delicious in a uniquely familiar way. It's the seasoning that trips up my usually smooth cultural combo. Gourmet magazine is all southern this month and in their Hoppin' John recipe, they call for a "meaty ham hock." For a variety of reasons, that's just not going to happen in my kitchen. So of course, I call my momma. She usually uses bacon to flavor her peas. And she says, "why not try a couple of slices of Smart Bacon?" It's The soy staple in my home. Well, it's available. A southern woman is nothing if not practical (even Scarlett made a dress out of what was laying around), so I give it a go.

I remember spending hours sorting peas & beans with my mother as a tiny girl. You never new what you were going to find in a bag of peas, and I always decided on the funkiest find at the end. Things are not so exciting these days, but I picked them over nonetheless. The funkiest find was kind of boring - a shrunken head version of a black eyed pea. Then they got a quick rinse. Into the pot with plenty of water, more to be added later as needed. Then ever so tentatively, I slipped in two slices of wiggly "facon" and started the simmer.

My mother had a few other cryptic tips. Don't add the salt until the peas start to become tender, maybe an hour in. And then, salt & pepper until the broth tastes just too salty. The peas will then taste just right. And you know what? They did. Along with fresh beer biscuits, the meal made me feel very lucky indeed.

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