What Southern Folks Eat: Mmm, Mmm Good – Memories of books and cooking
Books have always held a great deal of interest for me. From the time I was old enough to comprehend that books were a thing, thanks to my parents and their own love of books, I have treasured books of all kinds. I’ve always been an insatiable reader. I was the preschool kid dad recalls sitting in bed with him and mama as they read the newspaper, taking my own section that I’d “read” to them.
As I got a bit older, my mornings often began with a box of Life, Raisin Bran or Cheerios cereal, whose boxes I read over and over as I ate each day, from the fun trivia printed on the back of the box to the nutrition information on the side. When I went to elementary school, I remember taking home the Weekly Reader, and poring over it as I sat at the table or on the living room floor, and when the Bookmobile came to school in my early elementary days in North Carolina, I felt rich if I had a couple of dollars to purchase books with.
In my older elementary and middle school years, I continued my book addiction. Mom and Grammy would take my little sister and me to the library in Port St. Joe once a week during the summer, and we would peruse the shelves for things we’d not yet read. I always checked out the maximum number allowed. I would take my armful of books home, take them to my room, and carefully deliberate over which one I’d read first. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope that you allow your children and grandchildren to have it, as well.
Once that decision was made, I went a step further. I had a small brown paperback Webster’s Dictionary that I kept beside my bed as I read, in case I came across any words that I didn’t know. I remember how satisfied I was each time I reread a sentence with a word I now understood, and grasped the meaning of the sentence with new insight. I just loved words, and the patterns they made to create meaning intrigued me. Is it any surprise that I later became an English teacher, and then a journalist? Thank you, parents. Thank you, librarians!
It’s also no surprise, in retrospect, that I love cookbooks, too, considering they are a blend of two things I love to do most: cook and read. This was driven home to me one weekend a few years ago when my sister, Sherrin, and I were in a large antique mall. We walked along each aisle, stopping frequently to take a closer look at some interesting piece of art or furniture, talking about everything in the world as we went along. As we were on the last aisle, we walked past one small booth which contained something tomato-red in color that caught my eye as I passed; something familiar which made me stop in my tracks, and take a step backward to look more closely.
It was a cookbook.
Specifically, it was a cookbook that mama had kept in one of the cabinets at home in our small kitchen through the years. It was bound in hardcover with wire rings along the spine to allow it to lay flat on the home cook’s counter as he or she worked. It was the most perfect color of red; tomato-soup red, I like to call it. It was, in fact, the Campbells’ cookbook, called simply, “Cooking with Soup.”
Ok, so this friendly-looking cookbook is not the caliber of my grandfather’s copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. It’s not even the caliber of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that I have used since my marriage in 1990. However, it is the stuff my childhood cooking dreams were made of.
I recall taking that cookbook and sitting at the kitchen table with it, looking carefully at the simple line drawings displayed on every few pages. I would ponder the few photographs that the book had in it, as well, marveling at how the dishes were fetchingly served in copper pans or on plates the color of a Florida orange. (It was printed in 1970, so orange was a big deal in design, you may recall.) I read the recipes that sounded interesting to my young mind; one that stood out was porcupine meatballs, which featured rice which poked out and gave the savory spheres their prickly appearance.
I loved that cookbook, and I love that memory. Of course, I produced the six dollars the vendor charged for the book, and took it home to carefully remove the large white adhesive label she had so rudely smacked onto the front cover.
With the little tomato-soup red cookbook now restored to its 1970s glory, I happily searched through it to find a recipe that I thought my husband and I would enjoy for Sunday night supper. I decided on Swiss steak with vegetables.
It was a simple, straightforward recipe, made with beef, carrots and potatoes and a can of French onion soup, which I have to say, made a pretty wonderful and simple gravy. This tasted like old-fashioned pot roast with veggies, but it was faster to make, which is a plus.
Here’s the recipe with minor adjustments, in case you’d like to try it in your own kitchen.
Swiss Steak with vegetables
- 1/2 cup plain flour mixed with 1 teaspoon of your favorite seasoning blend, such as Tony Chachere’s
- 1 pound beef cube steak
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (original recipe called for shortening)
- 1 can Campbell’s French onion soup
- 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup water
- 4 large carrots, chopped into two-inch pieces, or 2 cups baby carrots
- 4 medium potatoes, halved, or about ten whole small new potatoes
- 1 tablespoon parsley, optional
- Place flour and seasoning in a bowl, mixing well with fork.
- Place each steak into the flour mixture, patting it so both sides are coated well. Set aside.
- Pour oil into large skillet, and heat over medium-high heat.
- When oil sizzles as a drop of water is carefully sprinkled into it, add the steak pieces to the pan.
- Brown steaks on both sides.
- Add the French onion soup, water, and vegetables.
- Nestle the vegetables down into the onion soup.
- Cover and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes or until potatoes and carrots are tender.
- Serve in soup bowls, find a comfy spot to sit down, and enjoy.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. Visit her online at facebook.com/whatsouthernfolkseat