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Food and Music

6 Apr

First of all, the News-Miner, our local paper, asked me to write a monthly food column, and I was more than happy to oblige. My first one is out today, a short little piece on Salmon Cheesecake. Second of all, I want playlists. Dinner party playlists to be exact. I bumped into the Dinner Party Playlist website while looking around for ideas, and I have to say, their play list, recipe, and beverage suggestion for Grilled Chicken with Root Beer Barbeque Sauce is spot on. But they have slim pickings for what I currently have on hand. I have a pork roast in the fridge (what else is new?) and it’s fairly large, which means I will probably have friends over to share the bounty. So I find myself in a common predicament: What should I make? And more importantly, what music should I play?

Music can set the stage for the appearance of a certain kind of food, basically dressing the set so that when the star of the meal shows up, it appears to be exactly what you wanted. When you sit down to chimichangas and margaritas, Don McClean’s “Miss American Pie” might ruin the mood. Music can shape our response to the environment around us, changing the way we feel about where we are. Marshall McLuhan, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, says that “song is the slowing down of speech in order to savor nuance,” and this is what we do when we sit down to eat a good meal—we savor the nuances of what would otherwise be a simple utilitarian task.   No doubt, there is something in us that slows down, lights up, and turns on when music plays. The British composer Richard Baker once remarked that song (like good food) owes its existence “to a human impulse which lies much deeper than conscious intention:  the need for rhythm in life… the need is a deep one, transcending thought, and disregarded at our peril.”  The need for aesthetic experience, whether culinary, musical, or poetic, surely makes us human, makes us more than self-replicating machines.

So, I want to create a fun, pork-filled, snow-thawing, grilled meat and beery evening. What should I make and who’s on the radio? My first thoughts are: a hot pepper jelly-glazed pork roast, honey-mustard roasted red potatoes, and broccoli slaw for the food, a hopeful summer ale (if I can find one) and well, frankly, I’m stumped on the play list. Help me out, readers. What do you suggest?

Alaska Style Southern Food Fest

24 Feb

Miss Tequila's Collard Greens.

Well.  I’d had it. I’d finally wept enough over the distance of Southern food, the geographic distance and the emotional distance, so on Saturday, in recognition of the completion of UAF English Dept’s Graduate Student 6 Hour Comprehensive Examinations I threw together (with the help of a few friends) a Southern Food Fest to end all Food Fests.  Virtually everything was homemade. Here is the menu:


Pulled Pork
Citrus Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Vidalia Onions
Corned Beef and Cabbage (which is arguably not Southern, but I’ve never seen any other folks eat it the way I ate it growing up)

Beef Brisket

The corned beef brisket. Irish? Southern? Who knows...



Texas Caviar (Black-eyed Pea Salad)
Collard Greens
Cole Slaw

Boiled Peanuts (10 lbs! a Valentine’s Day present ordered by the Hot Boyfriend from the Lee Bros. of South Carolina)
Pan Fried Green Beans with Bacon and Onion
Creole Stewed Okra and Tomatoes (although I cooked it in a Paella pan)
Sausage and Cheese Grits Casserole
Sweet Potato Biscuits
Corn Bread


I remember helping a matriarch or two snap green beans before cooking.



Pecan Pie
Peach Cobbler
Old Fashioned Banana Pudding with Shortbread
Red Velvet Cake

Banana pudding with shortbread instead of Nilla Wafers.


Sweet Tea


Two friends (let’s call them Miss Tequila, and The Shark) came over rather early on Saturday to begin cooking.  I also had the help of the Lady Adventurer, the real nickname for Fran Harris, a fantastic travel writer who was visiting from London.  She runs Lady Adventurer, a website for women of means who like to explore new places.  Fran was here for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile sled dog race that makes the Iditarod look like a practice run.  I had a great time playing hostess, and I think Fran left with only a mild case of frostbite and new found preference for sober Alaskans over the drunk ones.

Miss Tequila (called so because you will never forget this former South Carolinian once you’ve had a few shots with her) was in charge of the Collard Greens and let me tell you, she loaded those babies up with enough bacon grease and butter to make Paula Deen say “whoah”.  They were heart poundingly delicious.  She also made the sweet potato biscuits (which I am not supposed to eat) which I later found out (by eating them in a bourbon and poker induced state) were superbly good with a barbeque sauce made from the Texas Caviar dressing and some leftover tomatoes.  Miss Tequila, bless her heart, kept this little cook’s brigade supplied with mimosas while preparing the feast.

The Shark (called thus because she waited until we were all drunk to start washing the deck, peeling off cards at the speed of light, and using dealer slang… She’s a hustler.  A Pro who apparently kept the table going until 3 a.m.) arrived later in the afternoon and had already made the Red Velvet Cake and put the Pulled Pork in the oven to cook which it did for over 6 hours.  The Shark can clearly hustle as well in the kitchen as she can at the poker table because the sauce on the pork (I tasted mustard and apple cider vinegar, but she can’t remember the recipe) was as authentic as any I may have had from a Georgia pit-style BBQ joint.  She and Fran helped drink the mimosas, turned up the stereo when particularly good CCR or Allman Bros. tune came on, and generally kept us all entertained in my tiny over-heated kitchen.

It was one of the best Saturday afternoons I’ve ever had.

Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts... 5 lbs of Heaven.

Later, when the test-takers had done their best, and the feast had been laid out on the quilt-draped ping-pong table, we all gathered around it and Miss Tequila said a few words to the group.  Now, in the South this would be followed by Grace and maybe we’d all hold hands, but in this Arctic Wonderland we Southerners are surrounded by heathens who don’t take well to anyone saying grace, and they sure as hell won’t hold hands around the dinner table.  Honestly, I’m not religious nor was I ever comfortable with the hand-holding gesture, but I’m glad she opened the meal that way.   She explained to everyone the significance that a shared meal has for Southerners.  I don’t think outsiders really understand the central role that it plays in Southern culture.  It’s not solely about the food, or the family, or the communion.  It’s not solely about tradition, or reciprocation, or sharing the wealth.  The Southern table is, like any other meaningful symbol, more than the sum of its parts. It is Die Gestalt. It’s a zeitgeist. And for me, it’s the very thing that keeps my heart forever divided, split between where I am and where I’ve come from.

Lest I leave without sharing a recipe, here is the Grits Casserole.  This is an “open” recipe.  You should be able to use whatever meat, cheese and veggies are around or leftover.

Grits Casserole

  • 2 cups grits (use the instructions on the box to cook them, usually 4 cups water for 1 cup grits plus butter and salt)
  • 2 eggs
  • shredded cheese (I used 1 cup American and 1 cup shredded Manchego, but other cheeses in varying amounts can be used too)
  • 1 package of country style sausage (you can use bacon or shrimp as well, the amount can vary)
  • *1 sauteed onion
  • *1 small can of green chilies
  • *1 small can of chopped jalepenos
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tbsp of cracked black pepper

*use other vegetables in place of these if you want.  This casserole is a good way to use up leftovers like corn, green beans, or tomatoes.

  1. Let the meat and veggies cool, then mix all of the ingredients except for the grits in a large bowl.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
  3. Fold in the grits and then pour the whole thing into a large glass baking dish.  Bake for 45 min or until the center is “set up”; it should only jiggle slightly when you shake it.  I also put cornflake crumbs and a little extra cheese on the top sometimes.
  4. Serve it to everyone except the guy with the heart condition.  He might sue.

Mexican Train Style Pork

15 Nov

On cold winter weekends I occasionally marinate myself in tequila (you would too if the sun only made a cursory 3 hour appearance each day), but during the week I soberly teach English at the local state University.  As adjunct faculty I come into contact with a new round of MFA grad students every year.  They usually stick around for 3-5 years, during which time I usually become very close to a handful of them.  Then, when they have finished their degrees and realized that Fairbanks is a Coldhearted Bitch, they abandon me in my Palace of Ice, and I miss them terribly forever after.

The most recent spate of amigos were quite fond of a domino game called “Mexican Train.”  I love this game because it’s challenging enough that I don’t get bored, yet it’s simple enough that, after one too many margaritas, I can still play.  Well… to a point.  Those nights were good nights and the company was even better.  Last week I got the following email from one of those friends:

Don’t you wish we were playing mexican train this weekend? Maybe with some wine (like five bottles)? I was just thinking about you yesterday because I was remembering that really good marinated pork you made one of those nights. Do you  remember that stuff? I think it was Spanish style. If you do remember it, and you get the notion, you should send me the recipe, even if it was kind of makeshift. That stuff was GOOD!

The pork she’s referring to was a complete accident. Another foodfreak galpal of mine and I were preparing for Mexican Train Night, and I had fried up a couple of pork chops just to get them cooked and eaten before they turned on me.  I had the heat up way too high at first and then lowered it too much (I was trying to prepare 4 or 5 other dishes at the same time…what can I say?) so I was left with 4 overdone pork chops lying in a pan full of the juices they’d released because I cooked them wrong.  But all that juice looked delightful, and so I decided to wing it and go with an appetizer.  The result was a marinated pork that has now become lore within my small social circle.  Of course the ribeyes that I once oversalted and destroyed are also lore, but of a different kind.  I responded to her email as best I could.  Here is the recipe based on what I can recall from that margarita soaked night:

Mexican Train Marinated Pork

  • 3-4 boneless porkchops
  • 1/4-1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 large shallot bulbs
  • 1 handful of fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1/4 cup of Modena balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp white pepper
  • salt to taste

1. Pan fry some room temperature boneless pork chops. Get a pan really hot with the olive oil in it (about 1/4 – 1/2 a cup of olive oil.  1/4 should do for about 3 pork chops) but not so hot that it’s smoking.

2. Throw the pork in the hot oil and put a lid on them.  Pork releases all its juice if you cook it on a high heat and let it remain high (in other words, slow-fry them if you want them to stay juicy) but for this dish you want them to release all their tasty porky juices.

3. FINELY slice about two or three big bulbs of shallots.  Like paper thin.

4. Take a handful (1/2 cup or so?) of cilantro leaves and tear the whole leaves off the stems.  Chop one half of that and leave the other half whole.

5. Once the chops are *done, remove them from the heat.  

*How to tell if a porkchop is done: Make a slightly relaxed fist and touch the meaty part of your hand between the thumb and first finger. Make a tight fist and touch that part of your hand…that’s overdone.  Totally relax your fist and you have trichomoniasis.  Basically, you want the pork to be ever so slightly pink.  Not raw pink, but like the faintly pink cheeks of a little cherub in an obnoxious baroque painting.

6. Once the heat is off, pour the juice and oil into a bowl.  Then let the chops rest for about 15 minutes or so.  Until everything has returned to room temp or slightly warmer.  If you didn’t get much juice out of them, add 1/4 cup or so of chicken broth (if you use bullion don’t make the broth very strong).                                                                             

7. Add the shallots and cilantro to the juice. Then add about 1/4 cup or so of MODENA balsamic vinegar.  The kind that’s really dark and syrupy.  Then add about 1 tablespoon of white ground pepper (black won’t taste even remotely the same).

8. Finally, slice the pork chops very very thin and add them to the liquid.  Let them soak for at least 10 minutes and then I think you can call it good.

I’ve made this pork a few times since then, and I think the recipe is pretty consistent.  Most folks scoop out a few dripping pieces and eat it atop sliced french bread.

These days I put on Mariachi music and imagine myself in a sunny, dirty town some place far away from here while I cook it.  And, of course, there is always a raucous group of domino playing friends with me.

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