Cornbread is supposed to be hot, salty and greasy. That’s why it’s good with barbecue. This specimen, obtained at a barbecue place that you may be able to identify, is sweet, soft, and muffin-shaped. Read the menu really really carefully and you discover it’s not even cornbread — it’s called “cheese biscuits.” It’s not a biscuit, either. It’s a muffin. Eaters, take a stand on this dangerous, sinister trend!
If you don’t read cookbooks like novels, you might not have stumbled across Peg Bracken, and that’s a shame, because there’s really not been a food writer like her since. (Click here for an obituary.)
Fortunately, that’s easy to fix, since her books sold millions of copies. Any library or secondhand bookstore will likely have a copy of her most famous book, a compilation of the best of her books, called The Compleat I Hate To Cook Book. (Pictured sideways, which I can’t seem to correct.)
She did truly hate to cook, and asked friends to donate their easiest recipes, from which she put together her book of clever shortcuts and 5-ingredient recipes that were revolutionary for 1960. It was a great antidote to all the serious French cooking going on at the time.
Good recipes alone won’t sell a book — Bracken was also engaging and funny. Of canapés, she wrote, “Though I don’t like to pick on something so much smaller than I am, it is hard to think of a kind word to say about the canapé.” She had genuine insights into food and cooking, and a way with words.
She was a star at the time when culinary celebrities were nonexistent. She was so famous
that the book companies brought in Hilary Knight to illustrate her work — Knight’s work is instantly recognizable as the merry-hearted illustrations for Kay Thompson’s Eloise.
I loved her chapter on Cooking If Alone. “…The reluctant solo cook is rather a creature of habit, who tends to major in one — and only one — of several eating patterns.
1. The English Muffin with Something on It
2. The Egg with Something Under It
3. The Milk Shake with Something In It
4. The Soup with Something Beside It
5. The Baked Potato with Something Over It.”
Still true today, if you added one more category: Bag O’ Salad with Protein On It. Though the principles are up-to-date, the recipes show their age occasionally (That’s you I’m talkin’ to, onion soup mix and curry powder in everything). But plenty of the recipes are still around, including cheese straws, Grape Cream and the pie filling+cake mix concoction she calls Dazzleberry Tart and we call Dump Cake.
- Food writers these days, myself included, are so serious, with our precise recipes, scales, and meat thermometers. Bracken left the details by the wayside, smoked a cigarette and drank a glass of wine, and whipped up something for a family that probably felt lucky that anything got cooked at all.
Hurry Curry Sauce
This is an approximation of one of her recipes. It’s a good moisturizer for turkey burgers and bean burgers.
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
2 tablespoons milk
Blend together. Serve with turkey burgers.
Chocolate and marshmallow are for me what basil and garlic, what soy and ginger, what sour cream and paprika are for others. Perfectly paired, irresistible, unsurpassed.
So when the Southern Festival of Books asked me to host the session on David Magee’s MoonPie biography, it was really just an excuse for me to buy two cases of MoonPies.
Published by the University Press of Florida (which apparently isn’t associated with a university or it might have actually had access to an editor), the book tells the misplaced-modifier, dangling-participle, incorrect-possesive, comma-spliced story any snack food company would envy: A snack that represented good value in hard economic times evolved into an cultural phenomenon across the South. Soon the company dropped all its other products and for 50 years has produced only the Moon Pie. No advertising, little marketing, no synergistic partnerships. One product that means “Southern” to millions of people in five generations.
How much would you pay for a story like that?
But wait, there’s more!
Author David Magee, a very nice person who genuinely loves Moon Pies even the banana ones, retells MoonPie memories from ordinary people, many of which feature country stores, pick-up trucks and grandparents.
My favorite MP story is of MoonPie and Mardi Gras. Mobile, Alabama, city ordinance requires that “throws” from Mardi Gras floats be soft objects. MoonPies, therefore, have become the #1 “throw” in that city’s parades. Foreign suppliers who already produce beads and tokens also began producing knock-off snacks for less. When parade-goers discovered the treats were yucky fakes, they ditched them on the curbs in heaps and drifts that caused problems for clean-up crews. Mobile passed an ordinance that only genuine MoonPies can be thrown from Mardi Gras floats.
Between the lines, it’s also the story of a family-run business declining repeatedly to branch out. As the world’s biggest marshmallow manufacturer, they might be supplying it to other snack companies. For a marketing strategy, what could be better than a partnership between of Royal Crown and MoonPie sponsoring a NASCAR, or a bass tournament? But none of the above has happened, for reasons not addressed in the book.
Anyway we sold all the MoonPie books in the festival bookstore while handing out MoonPies. It was a fun afternoon, and plenty of people went home with a book that tells their own story as much as the MoonPie’s.
Prominent Nashville Cardiologist MoonPie Indulgence
A real recipe from someone who should know better.
Heat 1 Banana MoonPie in the microwave for 8 seconds in a microwave-safe bowl. Drizzle with amaretto. Eat with a spoon.
This summer we were all well and truly sick of the 100-degree days. Can I get an “amen”? But I can’t stop thinking with dread about those chilly drafts rushing along the hardwood floors of my house just a month from now. The family is relishing hot breads and braised foods but will miss summer’s raw salads, fresh pasta sauces and grilled everything. Ready for butternut squash. But sad to see the tomatoes and basil go. The end of summer? It’s a combo platter as far as I’m concerned. For instance, there won’t be any potato salads decorated like fireworks, like this one:
Basil Tomato Tart is this year’s last hurrah to summer. Every bite has the flavor of summer: a sweet/tangy bit of fresh tomato, a waft of basil, a salty savor of bacon, plus the richness of cheese and homemade pastry. It’s deliciousness itself, a wonderful way to wave bye-bye to the last little sweet tomatoes, the last great handfuls of basil.
To be honest, making this tart is a two-hour process. It’s about as time-consuming as a lasagna. Unlike lasagna, shortcuts are not a good idea. In the 21 years I’ve been making this recipe, here’s a list of shortcuts I’ve tried.
Do Not Try
Using a purchased crust and crumbling cooked bacon in the bottom (flavorless)
Not chilling the crust, just pressing the soft dough directly into the tart pan (tough crust)
Not salting and draining the tomatoes (disastrous)
Not brushing the top with oil (ugly)
Enjoy your last fling with summer. I miss it already.
Tomato Basil Tart
For the tart shell
- 4 ounces bacon
- 1 ¼ cups flour
- 6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into bits
- 2 tablespoons shortening
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Ice water
For the filling
- 4 large tomatoes, sliced 1/3 inch thick
- 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
- 1/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
- 2 large eggs
- 4 ounces mozzarella, grated
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
Cook and crumble the bacon. Combine the flour, butter, shortening, salt and bacon in a food processor and process until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Withmotor running, add 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water and process until dough holds together in a ball. Pat into a disk on waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour (or freeze for 20 minutes).
(This is the time to slice and salt the tomatoes on paper towels.)
Roll the crust into a circle and fit into a 9-inch tart pan, preferably with a removable rim/bottom. Prick with a fork and bake for 15 minutes.
Combine the basil, ricotta, eggs in a blender and process until well blended. Add the salt, mozzarella and Parmesan and process thoroughly.
Drain tomato slices and pat dry. Line the bottom of the tart shell with end pieces and any less attractive slices. Pour the filling over them. Arrange the pretty tomato slices over the top. Brush with oil. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes until filling is set. Let cool 10 minutes. Remove side. Garnish with basil and serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.
In the world of high expectations, mine don’t seem so big. I just want an ideal recipe. And that’s what we have here.
It’s easy, and it’s good and it’s fun. Seems like a simple formula, but everyone’s idea of “easy” is different. A troupe of “easy” lasagna and cheesecake trudges across my desk each year. Just to clarify my position: anything with layers, anything that is wrapped, filled or folded individually, and any recipe with sub-recipes isn’t easy. Simple, maybe. But not easy.
And don’t even get me started on “good.” (I’m looking at you, eye-watering, mouth-puckering Fresh Cranberry Cake recipe from Gourmet magazine.) Or “fun” as in Fun Greek Salad
Dream bigger people!
As a remedy, Crunchy Salt and Vinegar Potato Chip Tilapia arrived in a recipe swap. This entrée does it all – good, easy, fun. Four ingredients. Two steps. Kids will eat it. Now that’s easy and good, I don’t care how high your expectations are.
Crunchy Salt and Vinegar Potato Chip Tilapia
Milk (for coating)
Flour (for coating)
1 (5-ounce) bag salt and vinegar potato chips
4 tilapia or other fillets
Pour the milk in a wide, flat dish. Spread the flour in a similar dish or on waxed paper.
Pour the chips into a ziptop bag and seal. Crush them to crumbs (a rolling pin works well for this.)
Coat the fillet with milk, then flour, then milk, then potato chips. Arrange in a greased baking dish. Drizzle any leftover milk over the fish to help the coating cook onto the fish.
Bake at 400 degrees for 12 to 13 minutes until golden.