I don’t know what caused me, after the passage of decades, to suddenly succumb to a craving so sentimental and mouthwatering. In fact, I was struck by two hungers from my boyhood in the same week and was uncertain either could be satisfied. It had been, after all, almost 60 years in one instance.
What started this nostalgic appetite attack was a new project in the planning stages. I am working on an Appalachian cookbook: recipes handed down in the various cultures that comprise the region.
Black, white, redneck, cracker, Native American, hillbilly, river rat, plantation aristocrat, hard scrabble farmer, Scotch and Irish, German, Amish, Welsh and French, Italian – all the mixes in between and the newcomers who settled in and today call the mountain chain and foothills their home.
My first step was to scour our family’s recipe collections and to talk with aunts and uncles on both my maternal and paternal sides. “Do you remember eating Granny’s whiskey pound cake with caramel icing?” was the way most of these conversations started. Of course, who could forget that rich baked holiday treat, made with lard, of course, because nothing passed your lips in those days – neither vegetables, meats or baked goods – that wasn’t prepared with rendered animal fat.
The problem was that the old folks never cooked with measured ingredients. It was a pinch of this, a dash of that. My grandfather joked that Granny cooked “on the fly.” He said, “She ain’t never followed a receipt (sic) in her life. But her cookin’ is good. That’s why I kept ‘er.” Then he’d cackle when she swatted his arm.
I hoped my aunts would be the key. Now in their 70s and 80s themselves, they learned kitchen skills from their mothers.
Indeed, they were able to share recipes – and approximate ingredient measurements – that were handed down. They still cooked some of the same dishes. Aunt Annie Lou, for example, still baked the incredibly dense and delicious carrot cake, and she had the seasoned batter recipe for fried fish, rabbit, squirrel and quail.
She recalled when no critter from field, forest or stream was culled, because on the other side of a full platter of meat was backbone-bending hunger. “Mama could take an old carp or buffalo fish, fry it in that batter and it was be so good, the preacher would cuss!” she laughed. I remembered and agreed.
“Bet you remember how she loved fried squirrel brains, too. You want that recipe?” she asked.
It was a good way to start, and I enjoyed reminiscing about those treasured dinners on Sundays and holidays when all the family gathered.
I blame another of my aunts for a craving so intense that I temporarily put aside my cookbook project and tried to replicate my grandmother’s recipe. Chocolate gravy had not stimulated my appetite since my maternal grandmother’s death in the 1970s. But it was a condiment applied to her homemade cathead biscuits that she made at breakfast for most of her life.
Thick and sweet (but not too much), perfect for sopping with half a butter-slathered biscuit, chocolate gravy was a staple at the morning table. “You loved your Granny’s chocolate gravy,” my aunt recalled – but she didn’t remember how to make it, only the basic ingredients: cocoa powder, sugar, water or milk and “something else.” Chocolate gravy was firmly fixed in my brain as an Appalachian recipe that had to be featured prominently in the cookbook.
I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Consulting my wife’s extensive country cookbook collection, I found chocolate gravy recipes and rejoiced. Unfortunately, when I tried to make the gravy taste like Granny’s, it didn’t. The formal printed recipes resulted in gravy too thin and runny or too thick like cake icing, too sweet or too bitter. I tried variations, experimented with the mixtures, even invented a passably good chocolate additive for churned homemade ice cream – but it wasn’t Granny’s gravy.
It wasn’t the quality of the biscuits. My wife makes a biscuit that would rival anyone’s. In my quest for Granny’s chocolate gravy, I gained 10 pounds on biscuits alone. But there was something lacking in the gravy, a back-of-the-palate finishing taste. I couldn’t duplicate it until I read a magazine article about bacon candy.
That’s right. Combining bacon with candy, ice cream and sweet pastries is a new craze. There is even a bacon-flavored whiskey and vodka movement underway.
After reading the article, I pictured, in my mind’s eye: Granny standing at her dinosaur-sized old stove — skillets sizzling, pots bubbling, delicious aromas rising in the steam of her cooking – and she reached out with a wooden spoon to dip hot bacon grease in the bottom of a pan, transferring it to a bowl of chocolate gravy in the middle of a platter of piping hot biscuits. She stirred vigorously and brought the dish to the table, where eager hands tore the biscuits into halves, spread on churned butter and ladled chocolate gravy.
Eureka! The wisdom of the ages is that bacon grease makes everything taste better. Granny knew it and used it. She might even have added a dollop of lard.
Now, my second craving must be satisfied and the recipe recorded by my cookbook. It is my paternal grandmother’s apple dumpling dish. This is going to be harder because I never witnessed her cooking the apple-cinnamon, doughy-inside but golden-crusted-on-the-outside delight. I figure it will take another 10 pounds of weight gain before I finally get it right.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.