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Thanksgiving: Those sweet potatoes. November 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. One of the more bizarre Thanksgiving traditions in my view is the sweet potato casserole. Like so many of the foods served at Thanksgiving—turkey, pumpkins, green beans, cranberries, and corn leap to mind—sweet potatoes are a New World food (they’re native to South America), so putting them on the table is completely appropriate. Besides, our friend Ben and I love sweet potatoes. So what’s my problem?

We’re getting to that. First, a little history: In my family (and in OFB’s), you baked sweet potatoes until they were so well done that the flesh literally separated from the skin with no help from you once you split them open. You added liberal amounts of butter, salt, and (if you liked it) black or white pepper, plunged in your fork, and sent your tastebuds soaring to sweet potato heaven.

If you’ve never had a good baked sweet potato, here’s the foolproof method: Choose orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that are long and comparatively thin versus short and stout. Wash but don’t dry the sweet potatoes, place them on a foil-lined cookie sheet to prevent drippings from ruining your oven, and puncture the top of each sweet potato with a fork every inch or so to let the steam escape so the sweet potatoes won’t explode while they’re cooking. (A very bad idea.) Bake at 375 degrees F for an hour or at 350 for an hour and a half, or until you can see dark brown caramelized goo oozing out of the puncture holes and the potatoes are completely soft to the touch. (If you’ve ever eaten—or tried to eat—an underdone sweet potato, you’ll understand the importance of letting them cook as long as it takes. Trust me on this.) Remove the well-done sweet potatoes from the oven, split them with a knife, and you’re good to go. Note: Dogs, parrots, and chickens love the cooled skins, escpecially if there are traces of sweet potato, butter, and salt left on them.

Sweet potatoes cooked like this are so incredibly delicious that it’s hard to imagine improving on them. OFB and I love them with rice, broccoli, and a huge tossed salad, or with creamy pasta, green beans (or mixed green and yellow wax beans in season), and salad. They’re a natural with chicken, or, of course, turkey, and they go oh so well with cranberry sauce. But there is one sweet potato dish that we love as much, and maybe more. It’s a specialty of a local country inn, the Landis Store Hotel, and they were generous enough to post the recipe on their website so fans like us could enjoy it even when it’s not on the menu. Check this out:

      Landis Store’s Sweet Potato Souffle

2 lbs. sweet potatoes

1 tsp. salt

1 1/2 sticks butter

1/2 cup cream

1 egg

Peel and boil sweet potatoes until they’re soft. Drain sweet potatoes and put in a food processor, adding salt, butter, cream, and egg. Add salt and pepper to taste and bake in six individual buttered ramekins or souffle dishes at 350 degrees F until the tops are light brown. Serve piping hot. [Note: Because Landis Store is a restaurant, they always make their sweet potato souffle in individual serving dishes. If I were making it, I’d put it all into one big souffle dish instead.—Silence]

Let’s get back to why I have a problem with sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving. If someone served up well baked and buttered sweet potatoes, or sweet potato souffle, I certainly wouldn’t have a problem. In fact, I’d be the first in line. It’s the idea of turning sweet potatoes (often from a can) into a substrate for marshmallows that floors me. Eeeeewww!!!! Who ever thought of this?! How could anyone eat it, and why would they want to? Aren’t sweet potatoes sweet enough without globbing a bunch of marshmallows on top?!!

Some people have accused this casserole of being a white trash concoction. So while I was researching it, I headed straight for the source of all things trailer-park trashy, the totally hilarious Ruby Ann’s Down Home Trailer Park Holiday Cookbook by one of our heroes, the immortal Ruby Ann Boxcar. Now, you know when a book’s back cover begins with “Decorate the panelin’ and pile on the hair spray… It’s time to celebrate the holidays—trailer park style!” that we’re not talking about your ordinary cookbook. (“Don’t let Elvis’s birthday blow past you like a Baptist in a Revival bus.”) And sure enough, Ruby Ann didn’t let me down when it came to Thanksgiving sweet potatoes. If you have to have ’em sweet, leave the marshmallows on the store shelf and try this casserole from Ruby Ann’s mama-in-law, Momma Ballzak:

        Momma Ballzak’s Sweet Potato Casserole

3 cups sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup milk

1/2 cup margarine

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup margarine

2 cups Kahlua liqueur

1 cup chopped pecans

Combine the sweet potatoes, sugar, eggs, vanilla, milk, and 1/2 cup margarine. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Put into a greased shallow casserole. In a large bowl, combine the brown sugar, flour, 1/3 cup margarine, 1 cup of the Kahlua, and pecans. Sprinkle over the top of the casserole, and bake at 350 degrees F. for 25 minutes.Pour the remainin’ Kahlua over the casserole and cook for 5 more minutes. Serves 6.

As Ruby Ann notes, “I dare you to have two servin’s of this and then walk a straight line.” I’m quite intrigued by this recipe, I’ll admit, but if I ever decide to try it I’d substitute salted butter for that margarine, and might add a half-teaspoon of additional salt to offset the sweetness.

There are other sweet potato treats that I contemplate for the Thanksgiving season, including sweet potato cornbread and sweet potato biscuits. Try them, they’re yummy! (I’ll give you the recipes in Friday’s Frugal Living Tip, which will be about great frugal uses for Thanksgiving leftovers.) But one thing you’ll never see me making or tasting is that marshmallow-topped gunk.

One more thing while we’re on the subject of potatoes: My family always served mashed Irish potatoes rather than sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving. I love mashed potatoes, so I can never resist making some for the occasion. I like to boil Yukon Gold potatoes until they’re thoroughly cooked, then drain them, return the pot to the fire, turn the heat to low, and mash them skins and all, adding lots of butter, light cream or half-and-half, salt (we like RealSalt) or Trocomare, and white or fresh-ground black pepper. I have a very heavy potato masher I inherited from my grandmother and it’s a real treasure.

Believe it or not, one of Ruby Ann’s friends at the High Chaparral Trailer Park apparently goes for mashed Yukon Golds at Thanksgiving, too. He adds butter, heavy cream, chives, salt and pepper, chopped parsley, and cream cheese to his. Hmmm. That actually sounds really good…

             ‘Til next time,


White trash cooking. July 10, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Marijuana-eating dogs (see yesterday’s post, “Why didn’t he wait for the brownies?” for more on this) aren’t the only things that have turned up in the search part of our blog stats recently. Yesterday, not one but three people came onto Poor Richard’s Almanac searching for, and I quote, “white trash almanac.” Harrumph! Just because our topics include lawn art and GooGoo Clusters does not mean we’re white trash. Whatever would our hero, Ben Franklin, make of that?!

Well, actually, old Ben would be laughing, and so am I. As you all know, I’m a compulsive cookbook collector. But I don’t collect just any cookbooks. They have to have character, and preferably tell a story. None of that dead-looking-photo-with-every-humdrum-recipe stuff for me. And white trash cookbooks have plenty of character. They are huge fun to read, and I have a whole armful in my collection. Today, I’d like to invite you to join me on a tour of white trash cooking.

Let’s begin at the beginning: What exactly is white trash cooking? Well, I’d say there are at least three types of cooking that could be labeled “white trash.” Let’s take a look at each one.

The first is shack cooking, the kind folks tend to make when they’re very poor and don’t know any better, the “Velveeta and white balloon bread fried in margarine and mashed nickel-thin to make a grilled cheese” kind of cooking. This is the cooking immortalized in Ernest Matthew Mickler’s wonderful cookbooks, White Trash Cooking and White Trash Cooking II: Recipes for Gatherin’s, as well as in the Foxfire series. It’s the cooking of which Jenny Pansy of Neck, Florida, says, “We used ta stir up somethin from nothin.”

This type of white trash cooking is about foods like chitlins and pot likker, or “Cornbread in a Glass” (crumbled cornbread in a tall glass drenched in buttermilk and eaten with a spoon). It includes recipes like “Peggy’s Pig Eggs.” (This is actually much more horrible than it sounds, including the directions to “drain on a brown paper bag to get rid of the extra grease”—please note that word “extra”—and the ominous comment from the recipe’s creator, Peggy Lou Dawson of Pee Dee, North Carolina, “Your company won’t believe their eyes when they cut them open.” I’ll just bet.) “Oozie’s Okra Omelet,” “Potato Chip Sandwich” (spread lots of mayo on two slices of balloon bread, pile one high with potato chips, cover with the second slice, and “mash down until all the potato chips are crushed”), “Day-Old Fried Fish,” and “Four-Can Deep Tuna Pie” are other recipes from this tradition. Not to mention “Soda Cracker Pie” and “Mock Pecan Pie” (Post Grape Nuts stand in for the pecans).

Or try “Single Boy’s Breakfast,” made from a pound of pork sausage, a box and a half of soda crackers, such as Saltines, crumbled, mixed into the sausage, topped with boiling water, and steamed. Is your mouth watering yet? Mercy. This type of white trash cooking must have shared some common ground with soul food, but somewhere along the way, the “soul” and “food” parts got lost. It’s actually easy to make really tempting, flavorful dishes from cheap ingredients like beans and rice, as long as you can toss in an onion and a little spice. But this particular style of white trash cooking left the flavor highway and turned off on a one-way street to diabetes and congestive heart failure.

But let’s get back to that “Four-Can Deep Tuna Pie,” because it brings us to the second and most universal type of white trash cooking. I call it “convenience store robbery cooking,” because it robs its dishes of any possible resemblance to actual food by making everything from conglomerations of cans, jars, boxes, and bags. If you read through a recipe and cannot find even one fresh ingredient, you’re looking at white trash cooking. The tuna pie, for example, is made from canned French-style green beans, canned mushroom soup, canned tuna, canned milk, and canned French-fried onion rings, with some margarine thrown in for good measure. Or, say, the “Corn Topper Casserole,” made with canned green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, canned cream-style corn, canned cooked ham, and the ubiquitous box of Bisquik. (Bisquik and Velveeta are hallmarks of this style of cooking.)

This pour-it-all-in-and hope-for-the-best cooking is also the hallmark of trailer park cuisine, whose doyenne, Ruby Ann Boxcar, has written some absolutetly deathless cookbooks that you simply have to check out. (Ruby Ann was generous enough to share an original recipe with the readers of Poor Richard’s Almanac in her comment on my earlier post, “George Washington: Virginian.” The comment will give you a great sense of her hysterical writing style, too.)

Ruby Ann’s books celebrate the trailer-park lifestyle and holidays trailer-park style as well as trailer-park food. Ruby Ann’s recipes employ liberal amounts of SPAM, Cheez-Wiz, Miracle Whip, and Government Cheese in addition to Velveeta, margarine, Bisquik, Saltines, and the rest of the white trash pantry staples. In my favorites, Ruby Ann’s Down Home Trailer Park Cookbook and Ruby Ann’s Down Home Trailer Park Holiday Cookbook, you’ll find recipes for such classics as “Sweet and Sour Wienies,” “SPAM’rackers,” “Dr. Pepper Eggnog,” “Donna Sue’s Day-Old Delight Cake,” “Billy Ray Cyrus Tribute Mashed Potato Cake,” “RC Cola Salad,” and, of course, “Two-Timin’ Beer Cookies.” Not to mention “Return to Sender Cheese Balls,” “Don’t Be Cruel Fried Pickles,” “Coconut Blender Pie,” “Kitty’s Lemon Beer Cake,” “Here’s Your One Chance Fancy French Fries,” “Martini Salad,” “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly Dessert Dip,” and other holiday delights.

It’s just a hop from Ruby Ann’s trailer park specialties to the gentrified but still recognizable Southern white trash cooking of Jill Conner Browne and the Sweet Potato Queens. Jill’s wonderful books, including my favorites, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love and The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner), are just packed with calorie-laden recipes that will make the “big-ass” part of the title self-explanatory. Like, say, “Danger Pudding,” a heated can of sweetened condensed milk. (Comment ruthlessly suppressed.)

Other Sweet Potato Queen classics include “Miss Lexie’s Pineapple Casserole,” “Chocolate Stuff,” “Armadillo Dip,” “Hal and Mal’s Come Back Sauce,” “Connie’s Death Corn Five,” and, of course, “Fat Mama’s Knock You Naked Margaritas” (you can buy the mix on the Sweet Potato Queens’ official website,  www.sweetpotatoqueens.com). Or how about “Pig Candy,” “Bitch Bar Bacon Swimps,” “Chocolate Gravy and Biscuits,” “Stinky Bread,” and “No-Spoons-Necessary Divinity”?

The Sweet Potato Queens may all be pillars of Mississippi society, Junior Leaguers, hugely successful entrepreneurs, and so forth in real life, but don’t be fooled. When it’s time to kick back, they love that white trash cookin’. (And drinkin’.) Settle in with one of their books and a “Fat Mama’s Knock You Naked Margarita” and get ready to  laugh yourself senseless.

Let me note here that white trash cooking is by no means a Southern-only phenomenon. Our heat-loving friend and fellow Poor Richard’s contributor Richard Saunders recently presented me with a cookbook, Happy Hal’s jalapeno cookbook,  written in nearby Lancaster County, PA.

I was looking forward to enjoying some great Southwestern recipes—and doubtless Richard was hoping they’d encourage me to crank up the heat at the Friday Night Supper Club—but was dumbfounded to see, instead of the from-scratch recipes I’d expected, an assortment of casseroles and the like made with canned, boxed, jarred, and bagged ingredients. The usual suspects—cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta, jarred spaghetti sauce, Mrs. T’s Pierogies, Minute Rice, Rice-a-Roni, Lipton dry onion soup mix, Cheez Wiz, crushed corn flakes, Saltines, canned mushrooms, balloon bread, and the like—were liberally represented.

Whoa! It was white trash cooking Southwestern style. Sorry, Richard! Not going there, no way, nohow. But I might just buy a jar of Happy Hal’s Jalapeno Relish (a local product, after all) and use it to add some heat to my homemade salsas and refried beans.

There’s also the issue of gentrified white trash cooking, as opposed to gentry reveling in white trash cooking as in the Sweet Potato Queens. A few years back, I bought a classic dessert cookbook by Wayne Harvey Brachman called Retro Desserts, celebrating diner favorites from the Forties through the Seventies. The desserts were classics, from “Strawberry Chiffon Pie” and “Ambrosia” to “Banana Pudding” (one of my own favorites), “Fruit Cocktail Gelatin Ring,” and “Chow Mein Noodle Haystacks.” Not to mention retro dessert classics like “Crepes Suzette,” “Baked Alaska,” “Peach Melba,” and “Bananas Foster.”

There’s bigtime white-trash potential here. But there’s a problem: It’s all made from scratch. Now, as all of you know who’ve read my recipes, I’m a big from-scratch cook myself. But, oh please! If I’m making “S’mores,” I do not want to make my own Graham crackers. I do not want to whip up a batch of homemade vanilla wafers for my banana pudding. Or make my own ice cream for “Cherries Jubilee,” or my own Jell-O-like fruit gelatin and fresh fruit for the “Fruit Cocktail Gelatin Ring.”

This is not haute cuisine, folks. You want to make banana pudding with real bananas and real vanilla extract, not by dumping in 50,000 artificial products and hoping somebody will eat your chemically dyed, flavored and textured glop. You want to use a vanilla (not banana) pudding mix you need to cook in a pan on the stove with real milk, not microwave with water. But you do not, repeat, not, want to make banana pudding with from-scratch pudding and homemade vanilla wafers! If you’re cooking dessert from scratch, make sure it’s something your guests will appreciate as such—a torte, a tart, a mousse, a sumptuous cake—not glorified diner food. Not only will your effort be unappreciated, but your friends will complain that “it just doesn’t taste right!”

Okay, I did promise to show you that budget-conscious cooking could be really, really good. Try my rice’n’beans recipe and see if you don’t agree! I like to serve dishes like this with a crunchy salad—Romaine and Iceberg are the best lettuces for crunch—or serve a coleslaw with shredded cabbage, carrots, sweet onion, and broccoli stalks for added nutrition as well as crunch. Together, you have a complete, protein-balanced meal, but you could eat the rice’n’beans alone if salad stuff was beyond your budget and still get a balanced meal. (Let’s hope things aren’t quite that dire at your place.) The cheapest way to make this is with dried beans, but I tend to used canned, keeping an eye out for store-brand sales that bring a can way under a dollar. Then you have a fast, easy dinner!

              Silence’s Basic Rice’n’Bean Cuisine

2 cans red kidney or black beans

4 cups cooked rice (white or brown)

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia or WallaWalla type), diced, or more to taste

butter or vegetable oil for cooking (look for sales)

hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa)

sliced jalapenos, optional

salt (we like Real Salt)

1/2 cup crushed tomatoes or 1 diced fresh tomato, optional

diced bell pepper (red, orange, yellow, or green), optional

3-6 garlic scapes, chopped, optional

fresh or dried basil, optional

dried oregano, optional

1/2 cup sour cream, optional

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar or Parmesan cheese, optional

Put rice in rice cooker or on stove to cook. Saute chopped onion, garlic scapes, and bell pepper in butter or vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add herbs, salt, hot sauce, crushed or fresh tomatoes, and jalapenos (if using). Add canned or cooked beans and reduce heat to low, stirring often to prevent sticking. Make salad or coleslaw if serving with this dish or cornbread, if desired. When rice is done and beans are heated through, stir sour cream into beans (if desired), then, when hot through, add rice, mixing well. Top with shredded cheese, if desired, and serve alone or with cornbread and/or salad and coleslaw. Both kidneys and black beans make a really yummy, filling, nourishing dish. Try it, you’ll like it! And you’ll enjoy the savings, too.

             ‘Til next time,