My mother never let a scrap of food go to waste. Luckily she was a marvel at concocting wonderful recipes using whatever happened to be on hand. There were often times at the end of the month when the available fare was rather meager, but Mama somehow performed miracles and served us some of the best meals ever.
I’ve been watching a documentary on Netflix called High On the Hog. It tells the history of enslaved people who brought seeds and knowledge of foods from Africa. Ultimately, they introduced foods like okra, gumbo, yams to the new world. The people were taken from their native country to perform hard labor in rice fields, on cotton plantations, and at building sites. They often had had to get creative with whatever food was given to them. In the process they learned how to make soups, stews, and other culinary innovations from the worst cuts of meat and leftover vegetables. They used their knowledge of cooking from back home and handed down those recipes from one family member to another. Over time, they introduced a distinctive cuisine that features some of the favorite dishes in America.
It often amazes me how humans work so hard to create interesting menus from the items that are available to them. Like my mother they use new combinations of spices and sauces to change a recipe from bland to tasty. It takes a special talent to determine what combinations will create delicious flavors.
My grandmother Minnie Bell did not read nor write. A cookbook was of no use to her. She learned to cook from watching and with an instinct for creating tasty combinations. She had some amazing techniques with vegetables and made the best pies I have ever eaten. Her style was pure country cooking because the ingredients she had were those that she was able to grow in her yard or gather from a hunting or fishing expedition. I still drool when I think of her greens and pinto beans, and like my mother she never wasted anything. She used the dregs to make broths and soups and even created snacks like pork rinds. If anything was left over after that, she used it as fertilizer in her garden.
We live in such a fast paced world that we depend way too much on ready made foods and items that take little of our time to cook. Those of us who work are tired at the end of the day, and the idea of having to spend time laboring over our meals is often unappealing, but I still know people who have turned cooking into an art. I wish I could say that I am one of them.
I often call myself the “bean queen” because I can take any form of legume and turn it into a delightful feast. People really do enjoy my beans. I seem to have inherited my grandmother’s skill in turning them into something delightful. My secret is to always use the “trinity” of onion, celery and green pepper, but also to know exactly when to introduce those flavors to the mix. I cook my beans very slowly, starting with either vegetable or chicken broth along with a ham bone or ham hock, and then adding water over and over as the liquid boils away. I have to be patient and vigilant to end up with exactly the right flavor and consistency. Somehow it is one dish that I have mastered over time.
I also love to create soup from the leftovers that I have in my kitchen. I get quite creative when I try my hand at making a nice stew of vegetables and some bits of protein. I choose my spices depending on whether I am working with chicken or beef or pork or just vegetables. Again, I allow the flavors to slowly steep together, but I have to be very careful not to just end up with a pot of mush. The line between perfection and overcooking is very thin.
I suppose that I am best known for my gumbo, but I can’t take credit for the recipe. I have the benefit of literacy, and so I follow the direction for seafood gumbo from a cookbook that I purchased years ago at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I found a few problems with the concoction as described in the book, and so I’ve made a few changes. I add a bit more crab meat and am a more generous with the amount of shrimp that I use. I also add a bit more kick to the final product with spices. The real secret is in getting a dark roux without burning the thickening mixture. I’ve also learned to let the final product sit for a day or so before serving it to let all of the flavors come together.
Beyond that I would have to admit to being a very ordinary cook. Most of the time I have little desire to get fancy. In that regard I do not appear to enjoy the art of cooking like either my mother or grandmother did. It’s doubtful that I will ever be credited with creating something new like both of them were. I do, however, make a fabulous smoothy. I won’t give away my secret for that, but it is so yummy on a summer day, and rather healthy as well. I’d call it Sharron’s Summer Swirl. It’s the most original edible I’ve ever made.