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From the Publisher“Alexander Smalls dances and sings and cooks his way through a brilliant and fascinating portrait of Southern comfort.”
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Combining a memoir and a cookbook, Alexander Smalls, owner of Manhattan's Cafe Beulah, fills the pages of Grace the Table: Stories and Cooking from My Southern Revival with down-home anecdotes and traditional recipes, some updated with piquant international influences Citrus Chicken Strips with Puree of Sweet Potatoes and Roasted Garlic; Turnip, Parsnip, and White Bean Salad. Written with Hettie Jones, Smalls's book shares love of family, food, laughter and good times.
In Sparkle City, Sunday seemed a just reward for my week of trials and tribulations—"Bring your father his bedroom slippers," "Get me my sewing basket," "Take out the trash." Sunday freed me from all that, and besides Sunday school and church and dressing up, it offered the best eating to be had all week.
I lived for Sunday dinner. I'd start thinking about Sunday on Wednesday. Southern fried chicken, fried okra, creamed corn, powdered buttermilk biscuits, a mountain of potato salad with sweet pickles. The smell of Mom's caramelized brown onion gravy dripping off the largest roast loin of beef ever, the bowl of slow-cooked green pole beans with ham hocks that steamed my father's glasses when it was set before him. And since Dad was a Geechee in the truest sense, no meal could be served without fluffy Carolina long grain rice. (I'd seen him leave the table, refusing to come back, until my mother, who was trying to break the habit, made him some.) Mom also made the best macaroni and cheese in town and, knowing it was a favorite of mine, she would often place this heavenly casserole in front of my plate like a trophy. I was her favorite—an unspoken but all-too-well-known fact—so all my beloved dishes were generously considered and prepared. There was no order or balance to Sunday dinner, healthwise or otherwise, except plenty of everything and everything good, including large glasses of lemonade or the usual "sweeter than sweet" iced tea, spiked with the mint I'd gather from our garden.
I was a curious, energetic boy, so busy being busy that I sometimes had no idea what I was being busy about, but I did knowthat food excited me like nothing else. I was Mom's chief helper in the kitchen, since my older sisters, Cynthia and Delores, were never as willing. To me food was magic, and cooking was creative as well as satisfying to a kid who always needed a lot to do. Early Sunday morning I'd head for the kitchen in my cowboy pajamas and slippers. Was there okra to chop? How many ears of corn to shuck? Mom would send me out on the side porch with a brown paper bag full of corn, old copies of the Spartanburg Herald Journal to shuck it on, and a toothbrush to scrape out the silk.
On Sunday all the life of our house moved to that side porch, a big, screened-in area with cushioned chairs, gliders, reclining seats, and a dark green bamboo shade that came down when we dined, because Mom insisted on privacy. Two doors, one from the kitchen and one from the living room, opened onto it. Every Sunday morning, while religious music played on the television, or a tape of Mahalia Jackson on the stereo, my father would come out on the porch to shine and spit-polish all his many pairs of shoes—he was always immaculate, one of the best-dressed men in our community. He also had an amazing tenor voice, often heard solo in our church choir. As I sat there shucking corn, he would sing church hymns, or old songs that seemed too personal to understand. And I'd hum along. Father-son relationships are often difficult, and ours was no exception. But on Sunday, on that side porch, we were bound together in our grace.
Mom would venture out on occasion to check my handiwork or speed me along. Sometimes she came out to iron a shirt or blouse for one of us, or sew a button or a hem. She loved that side porch, needed it. Years later, when they remodeled the house and enclosed it, she had another porch built outside.
Sunday dinner had been started on Saturday night. In fact, all day Saturday had been devoted to getting ready for Sunday—the car washed, the house cleaned, "Boy, go out and cut the grass" followed by "Son, I need you to weed the flower beds." My mother and I would begin cooking about eight in the evening if there were pies or cakes or yeast rolls to be made.
At six years old I was quite fond of icebox lemon meringue pie, and (until I experienced the revenge of the lemon, which sent me running to the bathroom) I would always make two—one for the family and one for myself. How I loved making graham cracker crust, molding soft butter and crumbs together with cinnamon and nutmeg and often chopped coconut. The condensed milk filling, whipped with juice from fat Florida lemons, spiked with crushed mint and a drop of vanilla, brought me to my knees. What I disliked, though, was grating lemon peel. I still do, even now finding that my knuckles are often caught too close to the grater. I would assemble those pies of mine, separate egg whites to whip up a stiff meringue with lots of sugar holding it firm, and then, with the meringue spooned on, would run the pies under the broiler. What a wonder to me, the sight of that golden fluff! Now as then I am hard-pressed to eat such a treat in moderation.
By Sunday morning, breakfast and dinner were both happening at once—roast roasting, bacon frying, grits bubbling, potatoes boiling—so the kitchen was already a profusion of smells when I brought in the shucked corn. Mom would rinse it and begin to strip it. I find it amazing now that with only three good knives she could do anything. She cut the kernels off the cob with an upward motion and then scraped down to get out the juice and the remaining pulp. After she'd done the first two or three ears, we'd take the rest to a pot on the kitchen table, and I'd do them. My mother trusted me with that knife—a butcher knife with a 5-inch blade—when I was only six.
After I finished the corn, I might be given pole beans to snap, or I would be handed a paring knife to cut up okra. I'd cut the ends off, slice the rest into N-inch rounds, put these into a mixture of one part cornmeal and one part flour in a brown paper sack, and then run around the kitchen shaking it. While Mom prepared macaroni and cheese or a hen to be baked, or fried chicken, I told her stories about school, or we talked about the flow of Sunday dinner and about going to church. I was learning not only about food, of course, but also about caring and relationships.