For her birthday, this year I took my wife to one of our favorite restaurants, Central at 129 Coosa, and as we looked over the menu at the hoity-toity choices, I told her, “I’m so glad we have the same taste in food! We like all this stuff . . . but we also love a good Krystal burger, too.” She agreed wholeheartedly. It’s hard to be in a relationship, especially in a marriage, with anybody who is a picky eater. (Neither my wife nor I suffer from that problem.) And as much as we love the fine dining experience, we do also good ol’ Deep Southern eating experience, i.e cooked with disregard for the health effects of fat and cholesterol— all of it totally delicious! We both can pick our way through a salad of baby greens with goat cheese, etc. but we can also pick our way down to the bone of Boston butt with our fingers all greasy.
Over the years, I’ve learned not only to eat a variety of foods, but also to cook them. I started out in the restaurant-and-bar business in the late 1990s as a bartender then waiter, and later became the kitchen manager for one of Montgomery’s bustling lunch spots, Derk’s Filet & Vine, for a while. That’s probably where I really learned to cook. (I used to have people tell me that they drove across town to get one of my reubens, which has always been one of my favorite sandwiches.) That was thirteen years ago, and I’ve been building on that experience ever since.
As much as I respect the “foodies,” eating can’t all be top-of-the line goodies from high-end places. Sometimes it’s got to be country cookin’ goodness. Sometimes it’s got to be one of those nasty anti-delicacies that we learn to love over the years, like George W. Bush ate bologna and marshmallows together. These dainties won’t make the Southern Living cookbooks or John T. Edge’s columns, but they make the impromptu menu at my house often enough. They’re alway simple foods with simple ingredients, cheap and easily found at the Winn Dixie, but put them in the right combination . . . and man, they’re good!
The very first one: Conecuh sausage cooked all day long in a crock pot full of barbecue sauce and grape jelly. It’s simple . . . cut the sausage up, pour in a whole bottle of barbecue sauce, get a spoon and dig out the whole bottle of grape jelly, put it all in the crock pot and cook it on low all day! You got to let that sausage sit, and sit, and sit, but you do have to stir them every once in a while. Personally, I like Conecuh sausage, and I like Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce – I know it’s from Chicago but I like it – and Bama grape jelly. But pick your own favorites. I have never served this amalgam of flavors to anyone who didn’t like it. If you cook it all day, slow, those sausages will get so tender . . . even your vegan friends will be crossing back over to the dark side.
Another of my favorite little slices of redneck heaven: bologna and Kraft cheese on Ritz crackers. I can’t take credit for this, because I saw it in my son’s Lunchable, and said, Hell I could make that . . . And I could. So could any other idiot. Take four Ritz crackers, one slice of that old Kraft cellophane-wrapped American cheese, and one slice of Oscar Meyer bologna. Layout the crackers, quarter the slice of cheese and quarter the slice of bologna, and lay the quarters on top. Delicious! Granted, this is kinds of stuff that Larry the Cable Guy would serve you at a party in his trailer, I know that, but once again— man, it’s good!
Since the first two of my horse doovers were from the culinary gutter, I’m going to step slightly up the social ladder on this one: deviled eggs. I love them, and my whole family loves them. Hell, everybody loves deviled eggs. And everybody who makes them has their own recipe. Mine is a little quirky but not too bad: boiled egg yolks, mayo and yellow mustard, sweet relish, salt and pepper, sugar and . . . balsamic vinegar. That vinegar gives it a little whang! but it also gives the filling a more-brown/less-yellow tinge, which bothers some people— until they taste them. I’ve never had anyone criticize my deviled eggs. As for other people’s, I’ve seen some covered in paprika, which is what my mother does, and others that had chopped olives in place of pickle relish. Take it or leave it— to each his own!
And chicken salad is a lot like deviled eggs— everybody’s got their own way, which is fine. Some of it I like, some of it I don’t. I used to make chicken salad that was most appropriately served on a bed of lettuce: grilling then chunking breast meat, mixing in sliced green grapes and either pecans or walnuts, brought together with a dressing-mixture of mayo and red wine vinegar. But since I met and married my wife, my recipe has changed into a derivation of her mother’s recipe. (We all go through conversions, and this was one of mine.) Now, I make a concoction that’s more suited to spreading on sandwiches and crackers. I boil on-the-bone chicken breasts, then debone them, and put the meat in the food processor to chop it very fine. Then I add mayo, honey mustard, sweet pickle relish, a good bit of salt and pepper— and what my daughter calls my “secret ingredient”: sugar. If I mix it up right then the salt and pepper counteract the sweetness in the honey mustard, sweet relish and sugar. My chicken salad rarely stays in the fridge for long, before it gets ate up.
Moving on, another one of my absolute favorite munchies is the triumvirate of Wickles, block cheese and summer sausage. Wickles, in case you don’t know, are a spicy-sweet pickle made in Dadeville, Alabama, but most folks can get them since Amazon.com and Wal-Mart carry them. Sometimes when I say something about Wickles, people think I’m being funny, making a joke, but that’s really the product name. Anyway . . . I take some of those, cut some good colby or cheddar cheese and some summer sausage or deer sausage, and eat them all together. Sometimes I even eat that for dinner! It’s filling enough, and if you count Wickles as a vegetable, then it comes close to meeting some aspects of common dietary requirements . . .
I also have to talk another of my favorites that not everyone loves: cold fried chicken. I don’t mean leftover Zaxby’s or KFC. I mean, real, honest-to-goodness chicken that you fried in your own kitchen yesterday, that’s been chilling all night, that’s straight out of the fridge. Pull the skin back, dig your fingers in, and eat it up! Simple enough. You can eat it as-is, you can pull it off the bone and put on a green salad with honey mustard, you can put it on a biscuit in morning for breakfast . . . I don’t care. It’s all good! End of story.
Finally, I leave you with one of my summertime favorites: a slice of ripe, red tomato— slathered in mayo and covered in black pepper! I’m talking about, like, a heaping tablespoon of mayo on a thick slice of ‘mater, and so much black pepper that you can barely remember that mayo is (kind of) white. Tomatoes are one of the healthiest foods in the world, and nothing ruins that better than an overdose of corporate/industrial condiment and enough black pepper to choke a Shetland pony. Some of my family members are even generous enough to call this a “salad.” It’s a great compliment to any big plate of Southern homestyle vegetables.
Food is one of the great joys of life, and not to enjoy all of its many manifestations just seems like a shame. Yes, I know that some of the things that I eat are bad for my health – and no, I don’t want to die – but frankly, a fear of death is not one of my prime motivating factors when I’m perusing a menu or ambling down a grocery store aisle. What I want to eat is. And sometimes it’s got to be the good stuff . . . but sometimes I just want to munch on some old cheap horse doovers.