Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"The Cracker Kitchen" and "Southern Sideboards" - Easter Ham (using Coca-Cola), Potatoes au Gratin and Tart Cherry-Pineapple (Jell-O) Salad

Date I made these recipes:  April 20, 2014 (Easter Sunday)

The Cracker Kitchen – A cookbook in celebration of cornbread-fed, down-home family stories and cuisine by Janis Owens; Introduction by Pat Conroy
Published by:  Scribner
ISBN:  13: 978-1-4165-9484-0
Recipes:  Easter Ham (made with Coca-Cola) – p. 6 and Potatoes au Gratin – p. 7

Southern Sideboards by the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi; recipe submitted by Mrs. Frank Byers, St. Petersburg, Florida
Published by:  Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi
© 1978
Recipe:  Tart Cherry-Pineapple (Jell-O) Salad – p. 89

I don't know why or how it is that Easter sneaks up on me every year, it just does.  I blame Christmas and Valentine's Day for this predicament.  With Christmas and Valentine's Day there is no guessing, no sneaking, no near-miss on the date. Christmas is always, always, always December 25th and Valentine's Day is always, always, always February 14th.  But Easter?  Easter is stealth.  Stealth holidays are not my favorite.

Also not necessarily my favorite?  Making a ham because it's expected.  I do like to change it up a bit and hey, if the actual day of Easter can change up from year to year, so should my menu, right?

And so I was all set to do something different such as make a lasagna like I did one year, but then that damned Catholic guilt set in:  "Make a ham.....Make a ham....You know you should make a ham.  Everybody makes a ham....What is wrong with you???"

And so I decided that I would make a half-hearted attempt to find a ham recipe but if I didn't, then I wasn't going to put much effort into it.  It's always wise to find a compromise for guilt, no?

Luckily, this cookbook, The Cracker Kitchen, was prominently displayed among by 1,900 cookbook (and let me tell you, that is no small feat) and there on page 6 was a recipe for ham in Coca-Cola and page 7 had a recipe for Potatoes Au Gratin and well, I win!  I win!  In fact, the ham recipe is titled "Easter Ham."  Be still my heart....

I must confess that when I purchased this book, I thought the title was interesting (The Cracker Kitchen) and I believe a quick glance at the time suggested it was filled with southern recipes, but that information goes out the window when it comes time to select a book.  And so silly me—somewhere down the road, I thought the term "cracker" applied to coal miners but I found out via the internet that the correct term is "coal cracker."  "Crackers" all by itself is often a derogatory term for poor white southerners.  I do believe my high school and college history books glossed over this little items and this is why reading cookbooks is important!  I've learned more about history and culture from reading cookbooks than any of my textbooks.  In fact, had I endless hours available (and I don't), I could probably compile an anthology of the history of the United States as told in cookbooks.  Some other lifetime....

Our cookbook's author though, does a pretty good job giving us the history of the region and the origin of the name and some darned fine recipes in between.  She describes a "cracker" as "...your family lived in Florida for at least three generations, had Southern roots, and among themselves, still talked like raccoons."  (For clarification on the raccoon issue, you'll have to read the book.) And then to make things interesting, she talks about her daddy, a Pentecostal minister who runs a ham radio net called "Ambassadors for Christ."

Again, it appears that selecting this cookbook for Easter, what with it's "Easter Ham" recipe and an "Ambassador for Christ" was a matter of divine intervention.  "And the Lord lasagna."

This cookbook is nicely divided up by seasons so there are recipes and menus for spring (Easter, Mother's Day), Summer (Memorial Day, Fourth of July) and so on which I find helpful when planning something like my Easter Dinner.  I could have gone whole hog (hahahaha) and make the Green Bean Bundles (with bacon) for this meal but decided to hold off in favor of my Jell-O salad.  I can have green beans any time but occasions like this just scream for a Jell-O salad and so I made one – because I could.

Oddly enough, the heartiest (and delicious) food came from a cookbook about "crackers" – poor white folks – whereas the more "common-man" recipe for my Easter repast – Jell-O – came from a Junior League cookbook.  Huh.  "Class, for your essay compare and contrast the social order and economic status of "crackers" with members of the Junior League...."  Two more different classes of people you could not meet. 

I must admit that the purpose of the Junior League has always puzzled me.  If you look at any of their websites (they are in most major cities), you'll see that their mission is to build communities by volunteering.  Okay...volunteering within the Junior League or outside of it?  It's unclear.  But what I do know is that being a Junior League member is not for the feint of pocketbook.  It takes money to join (dues + "tuition" in a mandatory training class) and money to remain a member in good standing via generous donations to every fundraiser the group puts on and there are several. 

In addition to money, and I suspect this is more of a southern thing, you need to know the right people and by "know," I mean that in order to join the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi, you need "sponsorship" by at least four current members.  So obviously, waltzing into a meeting unattended is frowned upon.  And in certain circles, waltzing in  without hat and gloves is rumored to be cause for immediate banishment to a desert island.  And based on what I've read and heard, who your kin are (or aren't) is of incredible importance to most southern Junior Leagues.  Let's just say a cracker from Florida (poor and without pedigree) is as unlikely to "win" a coveted spot in a Junior League as they are to win the lottery (assuming they play it).  It bothers me greatly that a class system still exists in volunteer ranks (never mind in life) but such is the Junior League way.  Maybe for this reason alone, my Junior League cookbook collection is limited.  I salute that these cookbooks are a great fundraiser for their activities, and some Junior League cookbooks (mostly southern) are highly sought after, especially earlier versions but I don't have the shelf space or interest to collect the "whole set."  But this particular cookbook, Southern Sideboards, did impress, not only for it's size (almost 400 pages, spiral-bound—impressive!) but for the variety of recipes. 

Of interest in this cookbook were recipes for things like "Bull  Shot," which sounds like a Bloody Mary only made with beef broth; "Wassil" (High, Ho, the Merry-O, a wassiling we go!), dove and other wild birds/game (I've never seen dove recipes outside the south); and fruit cakes of every kind and variety.  Other "southern" staples include lots of pork recipes (BBQ ribs, pork chops, etc); relishes and pickles; homemade ice cream and desserts galore.  I'm not sure this group left anything out and sure enough, and bless their hearts, they even included "recipes" for Play Dough, Finger Paints and Soap Crayons.  No task too small or too mundane for a Junior Leaguer! All the recipes were submitted by club members who, as was usual and customary at the time, went by their husband's name.  As I've said in other blog postings, this irks me to no end but it was a sign of the times and so I just have to roll with it.

Now in a total "shut the front door" moment, as I was flipping through the front of this book to look for the copyright, I noticed an Introduction, Of Food and Fellowship, written by Wyatt Cooper.  "Not THAT Wyatt Cooper," thought I.  Yes, THAT Wyatt Cooper—as in father of CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper.  Don't ask me how I know these things, I just do.  (Just like I know that Anderson's mother is Gloria Vanderbilt of THE Vanderbilt family.  Gloria is still alive and well although sadly, Anderson's father, a native of Quitman, Mississippi, died in 1978, just after submitting the introduction.)

So there I was, flipping through this cookbook wondering what I could add to my "cracker" Easter repast and then...Jell-O.  Who doesn't love Jell-O?  (Don't answer that!).  I told my friends that I made it not only because I could (freedom to make Jell-O is a lesser-known Freedom, as outlined in our Constitution) but because I do not recall a holiday where mom didn't make a Jell-O salad.  Like most people, we had our Thanksgiving Jell-O, our Christmas Jell-O (actually, mom rotated between four or five salads), our Easter Jell-O, Valentine's Day Jell-O (made in heart molds) and even green St. Patrick's Day Jell-O.  This "Easter" Jell-O though, is nothing like mom made as it's rather tart but it's a nice change-up for once as some Jell-O salads (like the ones with marshmallows) can be overly sweet and who needs more sweet what with all that great candy the Easter Bunny brought to our homes?

Now before I get to these delicious recipes, let me just say that trying to find a five-pound (or less) ham at Easter time is akin to finding the Holy Grail.  It may exist but you're going to have to go on a crusade to find it!  Luckily, and unbelievably, Target had a 6 pound ham priced at $13.00 and change and it became mine, all mine!  The rest of the stash was all 9 pounds on up.  As it is, we now have frozen ham slices and a frozen ham bone to deal with so you should expect to see some more ham recipes popping up here and there.  Maybe next Easter?  (Pays to plan ahead!)

Easter Ham – serves 8 (Ann's Note:  requires overnight marinating)
One 12-ounce can cola
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
One cooked 5-pound ham

In a large sealable bag, mix the cola and sugar until dissolved.  (Ann's Note:  no need to mix; the minute the Coke hit the sugar, the sugar was a goner!)  Add the ham and shake it around to make sure it's coated.

Marinate overnight in the refrigerator, occasionally giving it a shake to make sure the marinade stays on the ham.

Preheat the oven to 350.  Put the ham in a roasting pan and bake for 1 hour, basting once or twice.  Let it cool a few minutes before slicing.  Serve right away, or later, cold.

Potatoes au Gratin – serves 6
4 cups peeled and thinly sliced white potatoes
½ cup salted butter (Ann's Note:  if you only have unsalted butter, add about ¼ teaspoon of salt; the ration is ¼ teaspoon salt per ½ cup butter)
3 tablespoons plain flour
1 cup sour cream
½ cup whole milk
1 ½ cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese, divided
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Dash of hot sauce

Preheat the oven to 325. 

Fill a large pot with water and put your potatoes in.  Bring to a boil and boil 2 to 3 minutes.  Drain the potatoes.

Spray a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and spread the potatoes in it in a thin layer.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Sprinkle in the flour and stir until blended.  Stir in the sour cream, milk, 1 cup of the cheese, the salt, pepper, and hot sauce.  Cook, stirring, over medium-low heat until smooth, adding more milk to thin it if necessary.

Pour the cream mixture over the potatoes.  Bake for 30 minutes, until bubbling. 

When you take the potatoes out of the oven, top it with the remaining ½ cup cheese and let it sit for 5 minutes, until melted.

Tart Cherry-Pineapple Salad – Serves 8-10
Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange
1 (16 ounce) can tart cherries (reserve juice)
½ cup water
1 (3 ounce) package lemon gelatin
1 envelope unflavored gelatin, softened in ¼ cup cold water
½ cup sugar
½ cup chopped pecans
1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple with juice

Boil the fruit juices (lemon, orange, cherry) and pour over the lemon gelatin and the softened unflavored gelatin.  Stir well to dissolve. Cool.  Add remaining ingredients.  Spoon into a ring mold or individual molds.  Chill to set.

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