by Deborah Miller
I hit my early 30’s with a couple of significant, but soon to be important, strangers in my how-fast-can-I-run life. One was my second husband, who I hadn’t quite met yet, the other was my kitchen where I mostly kept the beer cold, the coffee hot, and stashed take-out as I hurried on the way to somewhere else.
I didn’t hate cooking. In fact, there was something calm and almost Zen-like there that was non-existent in my day to day, but I hadn’t stopped long enough to appreciate it. Plus at the time, my kitchen was a converted closet containing a baby 2- gas burner stovetop /oven and the sink was around the corner in my bedroom. Not terribly conducive to culinary expression … not that I’m making excuses because I was, after all, brought up by the “it’s a poor craftsman/woman who blames his/her tools” proverb.
When we (and by we, I mean me, my best friend and our running buddies, who were all either art students, musicians and/ or roadies) would end up in one place long enough, I’d often bake bread and cook a big pot of something. Soup. Stew. Spaghetti … because have you ever seen a boy (or a man) turn down a plate of spaghetti? I’m still waiting for that phenomenon.
I rarely wrote recipes down, because I was fearless and not afraid to add ingredients (whether they went together or not) with abandon while stirring the pot. Add enough wine to the pot and the guest(s), and who cares, right?
My recipes back then, if you can even call them that, were haphazard concoctions based on 1) how my mother made it, 2) how my grandmother made it, and 3) what I could afford. I’ve already proven in earlier blog posts that between me and my siblings, we often have varying colorful and wildly different memories of the exact same thing.
There was one family recipe that I started doctoring just as soon as I was far enough away from home not to get caught. Bless her heart, my mother’s spaghetti sauce was just plain weird and not like anything I’d ever had before or since. She used to say that’s the way my Dad’s mother made it and it was German-inspired. German spaghetti sauce? Really? They were from Yadkinville via the Alsace region, but that could hardly account for this particular combination of ingredients. And there was nothing North Carolina about this sauce except for the woman opening the bottles. She’d saute onions and celery, maybe some dried garlic, brown some ground beef, then add a couple of bottles of Heinz Chili Sauce. I loved it until I tried “real red sauce” at a “real Italian restaurant.”
In an attempt to impress when I finally met the man I would marry, I bragged and embellished my kitchen skills as if I didn’t know, or care, that it would catch up with me sooner or later. We ate out a lot at first, and grilled almost every weekend, so coming up with sides for whatever hunk of meat was charring away outside was easy. And I was foolhardy enough to throw elaborate dinner parties and try out new dishes without even a rehearsal. One dinner, everything was held-up waiting for the rice to bake, a recipe my mother often made for fancy dinners. After 30 extra minutes, I finally pulled the bubbling beef broth out of the oven only to discover I’d never added the rice. Fortunately, there was wine a’plenty.
And still, the kitchen didn’t scare me. Our circle of friends became fooled into thinking I knew what I was doing back there in that room with the pots and pans. I’ve lost count of the times I’d just go back in there and rattle things around a little just for their benefit.
Once married, and without even consciously trying, we began to start our own food traditions. The holidays would roll around and I’d find myself homesick for a specific dish from my own childhood – breakfast strata, Christmas pie, baked fruit compote, or Mud Hens.
Yes, I’m talking about Mud Hens again. I honestly thought Mom created them until I pulled out my old dog-eared 2nd edition copy of Charleston Receipts to search for a dessert to take to a cookout and there big-as-life was her recipe. Exactly the same. They were such a hit, I promised myself I’d never forget about them again, though I’d smile coyly about our “secret family recipe” every time after.
Sometime during the summer of 1990, as I began to collect all those family recipes, including those that my brother and sisters had reworked and adapted to our adult tastes, it morphed into a family cookbook project. Everyone would send me their recipes, I’d re-type them all, make copies, and gather them in a ring binder. Sounded simple enough. I was either crazy or didn’t already have enough to do, so I also volunteered to design and cross stitch enough covers for each family to have their own book, plus an extra one each for the two 10 year old nieces who became in-name-only assistant editors. It became the big shared family Christmas gift that year and took its rightful place next to the old Joy of Cooking and Ladies Home Companion.
My copy is a treasure and is one of those things I’d grab if the house were on fire. It’s outgrown the binder in a good way, with other favorite recipes added through the years. The whole family even talks of doing a long overdue update. Bring it on, y’all. It’s about time. While we’re waiting on that, here’s that recipe for Mud Hens.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 ½ cup plain all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 stick butter (8 tbs, 1/2 cup), softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated keeping both yolks and egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup brown sugar
Sift the flour, salt and baking powder. Cream butter and white sugar. Add one egg and yolk of other egg. Blend sifted dry ingredients adding to butter and sugar mixture. Add vanilla. Spread about 1/3 inch thick in a greased pan.
Mix unbeaten egg white, brown sugar and nuts with hands and crumble over top of mixture. Bake 30 minutes or until straw or toothpick. It will be a little runny and gooey when you take it out of the oven. Wait until cool to cut.
*NOTE: The top will puff up and crack as it cooks. That’s how it got the name, so don’t worry!
Deborah Miller, Program Administrator at the North Carolina Folklife Institute, is a native Tar Heel and lifelong foodie with a deep passion for music.