The winningest state fair entrant

About 12 years ago I wrote a story for the Nashville Banner on Nancy Johnson of White House Tennessee, who seemed at the time to be the winningest-ever state fair entrant.

In 1991 she entered 23 categories of pickles, preserves and baked goods, winning 13 of them. In 1992 she entered 34 categories and won 25 prizes, which she called “a good year.” In about 1997, she won $300 in prize money: $125 from Pillsbury’s pie contest and the rest from competitions that paid from $3 to $15. Do the math: that’s a lot of winning. Her biggest year was ‘75, when bumper crops in the garden let her enter 30 canned goods, along with nine baked goods. She won almost every category.

She was a great interviewee and a fascinating cook with a sure eye for a winning recipe. Everything she made, from biscuits to salsa, was first-rate. I still have and use three of her recipes. One is a two-alarm, very limey salsa that stands up well to canning. The second is a matchless blueberry muffin with a butter-and-sugar-dipped top. And the third is the best damn apple pie you’ve ever had, I don’t care who you are. It’s won prizes from Tennessee to England to California. 

This year I made Nancy Johnson’s Apple Orange Pie for the family Labor Day/August birthdays gathering. I used an apple I don’t see often, Wolf River, which I only ever find at the Howells’ stands in Green Hills. Wolf River is an early apple from South Carolina. I really love the flavor. It’s slightly flattened like York apple. This year they were a little underripe. I’ve never cooked with Wolf River apples before, only eaten them fresh. Fortunately, they cooked really well, holding their shape and texture and developing a nice flavor.

I always make the same pie pastry — 10 tablespoons of butter and shortening, 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons ice water — but this time I used too much shortening and the crust was very soft. You can see on the finished pie where it settled around individual pieces of apple, rather than acting as a lid. When cut, the pieces didn’t hold their shape — they were more like a cobbler. But it was still the best apple pie, I don’t care who you are.

I’ve been thinking about Nancy a lot lately, so when I go to the fair, I’ll have to stop at the baked goods and pickles to see whether she entered anything.

State Fair Winning Apple Orange Pie

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon apple pie spice (or cinnamon)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3 or 4 large cooking apples
  • 1 (2-crust) pie pastry
  • 1 egg white, beaten with 2 teaspoons water

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium low heat. Stir in the flour and the spice, Add the sugar and juice. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Peel and grate or chop the apples.

Arrange the pastry in a pie plate. Spoon the apples into the pastry. Pour the butter mixture over the apples. Top with the remaining crust, sealing the edges. Brush with the egg white mixture. Cut steam vents. Bake for 45 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

Food Old Rockytop

Despite lifelong Tennessee residence, I’d never visited the Great Smoky Mountains, unless you count an overnight in Gatlinburg with a youth group. It’s the most-visited national park, but I never had the opportunity to go.

That changed last year, when I was included in an annual hike with a great group up Mount Leconte to spend a night at the lodge. The company, the scenery, the whole experience all left a deep impression. This year, I remembered to bring a camera. The wooden cabins and lodges and the alpine climate are like nothing else in Tennessee, and it feels like a Swiss mountain town. It’s quiet and peaceful and the air is sweet.

There’s very little plumbing — you fill a wash basin from a pump — and no electricity. Cabins are lit by oil lamp, heated with propane and the staff cooks with propane, working by lamps and headlamps. There’s aggressive bear activity in the area, according to the park service. (And since I slept on the floor by the door, bear thoughts were never far from my mind.)

In March, when the season begins, a helicopter brings a massive load of canned and other packaged food to the site. (If you’re willing to spend a week unloading, the lodge offers a week of free room and board.) During the season, llamas trek up the mountain to resupply the lodge, bringing fresh eggs and (just a guess) more wine.

Bears, propane, canned food: Seems like a challenge to cook in those conditions for 40 people twice a day. So it’s a pleasant surprise that the food is good, and it’s even better this year than it was last year.

The meal starts with soup, which was a really good creamy chicken and wild rice this year (vegetable last year). 

You can see the glass of wine, refilled frequently by the extraordinarily efficient, patient and physically fit staff, and the thermos of butter lugged up the mountain by one intrepid hiker, who declared that the sensation of cold margarine squishing through her teeth at last year’s meals was something she simply couldn’t repeat.

Main course: beef with gravy, green beans straight outta the can, skillet apples. 

For the meatless, black beans.   There was chocolate birthday cake this year and last year, freshly baked by the staff.

I didn’t know what to expect from the food. Probably basic hiking food, maybe glorified Rice-A-Roni and oatmeal, rather than flowing wine and chocolate cake. And if there’s just nothing else you can eat on the table, there’s a basket of cookies.

But honestly, here’s the real dessert.

C’est un lapin qui fait du poulet

Little Monty Python joke there.

I really like rabbit, which tastes a lot like chicken. And you might ask “Why cook rabbit, then?” And you’d have a point.

True, it comes cut up like chicken, into a white saddle and dark thigh quarters, very chicken-like. Also true that, chicken-like, there’s a mixture of white and dark meat. However the white meat is more like dark meat because it isn’t dry and chewy like chicken breast. It’s also more flavorful than a 6-week-old chicken. And there’s something slightly less factory-like about farmed rabbit than farmed chicken.

So this is a rabbit, here, cooked to an exquisite perfection in szguazet, a herbed reduction of tomatoes and wine, along the lines of cacciatore. Perfumey, wine-y, falling-off-the-bone tender. Served over pasta, with lots of the pan juices.

That’s a copy of Cucina di Lidia in the background, a wonderful cookbook of dishes from Lidia’s native Istria, which is Slovenia now, not Italy. Great place, Slovenia. Nice people, great food, awesome real estate. The spirit of Italy at half the price.

What makes the book distinctive is the simple, homey food. The ingredient lists are short, and there’s nothing exotic there, so everything should be perfectly fresh. The seafood chapter features the freshest catch, simply prepared. There’s a chapter on game, another on risotto and gnocchi and a butter/egg/milk pasta I’ve never heard of (bigoli) and rougher fare like white bean cake and plum gnocchi that seem really connected to the land and seasons. For sure I’m making one of the sausages from the book, either Mantuan sausage or cotechino (but I may have difficulty finding the “two pounds of face and butt fat” that it calls for).

Someone in our house would never, ever eat a fluffy bunny. So this coniglio magically transformed into the lowly chicken, no one was the wiser and everyone left the table well fed.

Coniglio (or Pollo) in Szguazet

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 2 slices bacon, diced
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 4 sage leaves
  • 1 teaspoon fresh or dried rosemary
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1 (2 1/2- to 3-pound) rabbit, cut up
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups chicken broth

Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven or coated casserole dish. Saute the onion, bacon, bay leaves, sage, rosemary and cloves until the onion is tender. Season the rabbit and add it to the pan. Brown it for 3 minutes on each side. Add the tomato paste and mix to coat the meat. Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to loose the brown bits. Add the stock and simmer, half-covered, until he sauce is reduced and the rabbit is cooked through, about 30 minutes. (Or use a pressure cooker and cook the rabbit 12 minutes. Release the pressure by running the cooker under water, remove the lid, and boil to reduce the sauce somewhat.)

Strain the sauce (or at least remove the cloves and bay leaves). Serve the rabbit and sauce over pappardelle or gnocchi. Makes 4 servings.

It almost works

Behold the meat thermometer’s last day on earth. I won it in a blogging contest — it replaced a cracked thermometer purchased at a grocery store about 14 years ago. The new thermometer seemed a little off from the beginning: you’d roast the turkey breast/pork roast for the recommended time, and the thermometer would tell you that it was still 15 degrees below the safe point. Or it would register very low, then 15 minutes later, the meat was suddenly 10 degrees overcooked. So I calibrated the thermometer. The photo shows the fourth test in which the thermometer was put into boiling water or set into a cup and boiling water poured over it. Even given that the water loses a couple of degrees on its way into the cup, this thermometer is still nearly 20 degrees off.

It’s not too early to start my Christmas list, is it?


The last picture of the last real cheese grits in the mid-South

Tupperware Avalanche has become Kraft Garlic Cheese Roll Central against long odds. Despite lifelong Southern-ness, a love of cheese grits, and two previous posts on Kraft Garlic Cheese, I hadn’t ever purchased it. My mom used it, and millions of other Southern moms use it, but I just never had occasion.

      • (If you’re new to the

Kraft Garlic Cheese Roll story, it was unceremoniously discontinued around the 2007 holidays by some sharp business minds at Kraft.)

A dear friend read one of the previous posts on the story, and sweetly bought a roll of it for me, which I hoarded in the fridge for four months. (Oh stop making the “ewww” face — as if processed cheese EVER goes bad. It probably would have been just fine in the cabinet for four months. Ewwww.)

    When just the right occasion arrived, I made cheese grits. Mmmmm. Waaaaarm. Cheeeeezy. Griiiiitty. I had never used Kraft Garlic Cheese roll to make them before, and I admits, it’s seductively easy. Too late I discover this.

Just as a note, “Kraft Garlic Cheese” is the most logged search term on this blog. So it’s possible you reached this page looking for a substitute for the discontinued Kraft Garlic Cheese rolls.

If you reached this page looking for a substitute for Kraft Garlic Cheese roll, try this recipe I found on the Kraft chat boards. I modified it so the roll sizes match the Kraft 6-ounce roll.  

Garlic Cheese Rolls

    • 1 1/2 pounds sharp cheddar cheese, grated
    • 1/2 pound processed cheese product such as Velveeta
    • 3 ounces cream cheese
    • 1 teaspoon seasoned salt
    • Garlic powder to taste
    • Soften cheeses and mix all together well. Shape into six rolls and wrap securely in foil or plastic wrap.

To reach the Kraft kitchens and request they revive Kraft Garlic Cheese roll, call 1-800-847-1997 and follow the prompts.

Crapples to applesauce

A friend’s apple tree was loaded down this year, so we took home a bag of homegrown, organic apples. Thank you Carole! Sure they were a little mis-shapen and a couple had split places, but that’s no problem. We were planning on applesauce.

At the same time, we were asked to bring a healthy snack to a group lesson. So we bought apples at a large chain grocery store. In keeping with this well-known store’s approach to food, they were the worst apples you can imagine being sold in a first-world big name supermarket.

At the height of apple season, with apples practically falling into our hands from the branches, the store located a stash of last year’s brown, beat-up, soft apples and put them out for sale for about $5.70 a bag. The nerve. But I was running late and in need — they really count on that.

It’s not an isolated incident. There are many such insults, both to customer and food. Don’t get me started — but if you’ve got an anecdote, I’m collecting them.

Anyway, the “crapples” were not popular with the kids, so most of them came home. We cut out the bad parts, then cooked them in the pressure cooker for about 10 minutes with the nice homegrown apples. Then we put the mush through a food remove the seeds, skins and stems. I only use the food mill for apples and persimmons, so it doesn’t see a lot of use. Still, only a food mill does what it does, so I gladly grant it cabinet real estate.

I cooked the mixture with lemon juice, sugar and a cinnamon stick until it reached just the right thickness. Homemade applesauce has a slightly different texture than store-bought, but it’s a little silkier, and tastes better. I would have taken a picture of it, but it’s one of those “looks bad, tastes good” goods — you probably have one of those, too.