Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fried Okra & Auntie Colleen's Cornbread Save the Day!

Fried okra w/Aunt Colleen's cornbread -- Porkchop M.I.A.:  Dinner of Champions!
Tonight I burnt a pork chop something fierce. Charred it on the outside, left it raw on the inside, burnt the pan. Filled the place with toxic smoke and heat on a day when the temperature hit 110 degrees in the shade, even here in this usually breezy canyon location. Had to reschedule a phone session with a client, the gifted and soulful poet Amelia Ponomarova, who said kindly,
"It takes guts to burn things," then,
Bonnie Parker standing in front of a Ford Model 18
"Bonnie would've burnt the pork chop."
Bonnie & Clyde
How insightful, and intriguing. She'd read my post from yesterday about how I felt more kinship with Bonnie Parker than Betty Crocker. Which got me thinking -- wait a second -- didn't I write a bit about Bonnie burning a pork chop from her point of view? Years ago? In the aborted retelling of Bonnie & Clyde with the ex? The book that never was? How strange would that be. How utterly bizarre. Hadn't there been a fever dream prologue before the short first chapter featuring Bonnie and her first husband, Roy? What if I spliced that in as I shared about my attempt at a Southern-fried meal.
Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves) and Janet Fitch at the Love Junkie launch party, 2009
The other day at a literary "s'lon" (more on that in another post) I ran into Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint It Black, writer extraordinaire and one of the most down-to-earth, generous, spirited women I know. When she told me she was reading the blog, I swooned.
Janet Fitch at recent lit s'lon, devouring last bit of finger-lickin' good blood orange-avocado vinaigrette!
"You should have a camera for when you're cooking, capture your face when you're dropping things or staring at foods that confound you, hacking up vegetables like a madwoman, you know, strap it to your belt or something."
Janet Fitch blissed out w/her new man
Then, when I told her I'd actually made a rack of lamb this past Saturday (post TK!), she said that was cool not to shy away from meat. So many people these days recoil from even the mere mention. She gave me encouragement to pursue the pork tonight. Her new man suggested I think about alternating the old love junkie self writing with this newborn cooking adventuress for a wild upcoming reading (LitCrawl II this Saturday night at the Echo in Silverlake -- come!). I thought about a quote from White Oleander:  "You've got to let go of who you were, to become who you will be." Thanks to his provocative suggestion, in this post I'm going to experiment by weaving in the prologue I wrote for Bonnie which was inspired by my then crazy relationship, teenage impressions of Alabama, and a slew of research and dreaming about Bonnie, who'd been a poet as well as a gun moll. Here goes.
I am dreaming, Mama, I am climbing a steep hill. Barefoot. Somewhere I lost my shoes, the ones with the silver snaps. Cain’t find the blueberries. The grass done turned to razor the higher up I go, cuts my feet to flesh ribbons. Tracking warm, slippery blood, I keep on. Hungry. Don’t even pay no mind to the sun’s blazing. Furnace air fisting my lungs.
"King of the Moon" Robin Williams in Terry Gilliam's "Baron von Munchausen"
I am writing this as a full moon blazes down, bathing my skin in silver light. There's nowhere to hide. Tonight was a culinary failure, at least a partial one. A necessary stage in the cooking odyssey, maybe. Still painful -- even though I laughed, too, as I wiped soot from my jeans and char from my lips.
I can see blueberries, fat and ripe, sweet-busting out their blue skins, but I cain’t find them. After hours and days, I get to the top and see a junked, rusted-out Ford coupe under a tree. My feet hurt, I am wearing a new red rayon dress that sweat-sticks to my body like a skin, so I climb in the car and sink down heavy into sleep.
Inflatable Okra Man from Imro Okra Festival
This story starts with okra. When I hit the tail-end of my first Santa Monica Farmers Market last week, I saw a pile of okra and bought it on impulse. Because I am currently single, because I have no one to answer to, no partner, no children, I can follow my impulses in this cooking odyssey. Trace a path motivated by taste, and desire, and whim. Inspired by dinner guests, occasions, or by memory.
When a low growl wakes me there’s a leopard pacing outside, staring me down, green eyes like kerosene lamps burning bibles through the shade. I didn’t know there was leopards in Texas. Why am I wearing a new dress? We lock eyes, time stutters. My heart seizes up, then swells like a blood-fat tick. I swear, Mama, the eyes are a man’s eyes, and I am gone.
The okra reminded me of Alabama, where I lived the last three years of high school with a pleasant foster family with whom I had little in common. Nor did I fit into small town Alabama. Though that family cooked more Pennsylvania Dutch style, which is where they came from, I'd grown close to a brilliant, eccentric older woman who became my mentor, guru and guide and she was pure Southern. It was a time of much confusion about all things intellectual, sexual, spiritual -- in a town obsessed with virginity, salvation and the Civil War. This woman taught me many things -- there is a much longer story there for another time -- including how to drive on the dusty red backroads of Sylacauga in her navy blue Lincoln Continental, the floor always strewn with crushed Diet Coke cans and discarded fast food wrappers. But at her house, the cook would make traditional Southern food. It is there in the sun-dappled dining room filled with antiques dating to the Confederacy that I developed a taste for fried okra, pork chops and collard greens, and teeth-achingly sweet sun tea and sugary cakes. Somehow, I would figure out how to fry okra. As usual, I became hellbent. Today was okra day. What would go with okra? Chef Maili was busy getting one daughter to school and homeschooling the other. I would have to strike out on my own. Explore Epicurious. Wing it. Eat my fear.
When he leaps into the backseat -- a raw blur of grace and power, sinew and will -- it is the savage love of Jesus come upon me. Jaws gaping wide, skull-crushing teeth at the ready. He’s goin’ to eat me, Mama, but I’m not scared.
Found a fried okra recipe (Epicurious Fried Okra). Googled what would go with okra. Fried anything. Fried chicken, pork chop. Pork chop. Okay. I could do that. Something new. Even though meat scared me. Then I remembered Maili had a recipe for cornbread on her site, so I added that to the menu. (Auntie Colleen's Cornbread via Chef Maili). There were too many new things to invite someone to taste. Tonight would be a practice run. Bought most of the ingredients at Vons. Picked up some items for more halloumi-cuke-lentil salad from Trader Joe's (that and puttanesca sauce are becoming staples), then a piece of pork at Whole Foods. Again, I figure if that's where the Top Chefs go...I had scribbled down the exact description of the meat from the Pan-Fried Pork Chops recipe on the Epicurious site:  "7-ounce center-cut pork loin rib chops (each about 3/4 inch thick)" though it truly was Greek to me. I appealed to the butcher. There was only one piece of meat fitting that description left. It looked monstrous! Bloody, bony, thick and...scary. I read the description to the butcher. He said, sounds right. But I had a bad feeling about this slab of meat.

I remember sweat hanging off the upholstery like jewels, the way the car rocks and fat black crows rip through the screaming sky above, and how tiny I am imprisoned between the cat’s claws, the heat coming off his furred body arched over mine. There is no slaking this want. I am his water in the jungle, I am the moonlight he tracks by, I am his crowning kill. 

Ann-Margret, "Tommy"
I started with the cornbread. Oh, a tip for everyone:  clean your station! Again, heard it repeatedly on Top Chef. Then Chef Maili repeated it. And since I'm already overwhelmed by the mere prospect of cooking and have to plunge in as if I were, say, throwing the hammer for the first time in college (which I did, until the time I threw wrong and the hammer flew into the crowd, almost decapitating someone) -- just go for it. Channel Julia Child and her tipsy, wacky self. So cleaning up as I go helps immensely. Somehow it makes me feel I'm all right, everything's going to be all right. You can do this. Not end up buried beneath burned food, dirty dishes, a molten explosion of baked beans. Pop the cornbread in the oven. Half hour for that. Now onto okra. 
Mama, I cannot help myself. Don’t you see? Mama? So much is wrong.
Trim and chop the okra. Pour it into a bowl, drench it in buttermilk for 15 minutes. (What happens?) Prepare the breading.
Then drain out the buttermilk and dust those okra with a coating of cornmeal, flour and other stuff.
Get the pan sizzling with oil and drop them in. Everything's going so smoothly. Two dishes down. Now, it's time to deal with the meat. 
I stare at it, consider its size, width. Is that 3/4"? Looks like two inches. Should I cut it in half? Is that a chop? I don't know how. There's a big hunk of bone in the way. The butcher must've known what he was talking about. I'm panicked. Lost. Usually I have way more guidance, more check-ins with Maili, with others. What did they say in sports? Never underestimate your opponent. Yeah. Never underestimate your protein. I figure, go for it. Just...pat it with salt and pepper (you pat the flesh and it's gnarly -- alive-ish but not). Wash your hands. Wash them again. Rinse away bacteria. Then prepare the coating or whatever it's called. Drop the big slab of beef in there. Heat the pan. The recipe calls for an inch of hot oil. Whut? Cannot handle that. As is, when I have a tablespoonful it spatters. I even purchased spatter screens. How will it cook, though? Something feels terribly wrong.
Yet, I dutifully, optimistically drop the meat in. The recipe calls for 5 minutes on each side 'til it turns golden brown and is done.
After a few minutes, the crust and oil burns. I panic. Check underneath. More charring. Isn't charring toxic? How can such a thick piece of meat cook in the middle? Still, I muscle through.
At the end of the ordeal, the house is filled with billowing smoke, the meat's burnt -- and when I cut into it, it's raw inside.
The cornbread, however, is perfection. And the okra -- a challenging vegetable -- tastes divine. I pour a glass of wine, and prepare a plate of cornbread and fried okra for dinner. Throw the pork into the oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes and hope that works. By the time I finish my meal, the pork seems finished so I eat a few bites. Not bad! Tough, yes, dried, yes, but that tasty crust! And, amazingly, it does taste like pork. Can only go up from here.
Faye Dunaway & Warren Beatty, "Bonnie And Clyde"
For your dessert, here is the never published, unfinished draft that followed the dreamy prologue spliced above, all from Bonnie's point of view. After much searching, I found this and learned Bonnie did indeed burn a pork chop in the scene. Whether this speaks to the mysteries of creativity, or to channeling characters, or to Bonnie Parker's and my kinship across the bounds of time and flesh, I dare not say. Enjoy. And remember, if I can cook -- ah, clearly -- anyone can. RRxo

BONNIE, Chapter One (draft of scene from many years ago)

“Darlin’, hike up your dress so’s I can see them pretty little thighs."

Roy was looking fine that night. Hair slicked on the sides and top, wearing that maroon gabardine shirt I liked so well. Eyes afire. Strong kissing mouth already fresh-wet from drinking. We’d been married down the First Baptist less than a month before. Whiskey became him. I scraped my fork across the congealed gravy and china. The chop on his untouched plate looked sad and shrivelled-up. I dropped a napkin over it.

“Bedtime for you, chop. Roy must have forgot he asked for you special. Must have had more important business to take care of than eating a poor nickel chop such as yourself. Could be Roy’s given up pork for Lent, maybe. Or he’s speculatin’ it’s not fit grub for the King of East Dallas. Or maybe he’s plain tired of keeping company with his new wife. Don’t you take it personal.

"Bonnie! C'mere."

He squeezed his groin, then spread his arms for me to fold into. Like they were wings and he was a drunken thug angel come to redeem me, Bonnie, through the holy act of fornication. I got up and brushed past him, shaking my head. This was not the Roy I pledged my love to, ‘til death do us part. Thinking he must have confused me with one of the gold-digging floosies hung around the American Hotel. Roy took hold of my hair, wrapped it around his wrist, then grabbed hold of my dress and pulled me back toward him, tearing a bit of the zipper seam along the way, pinioning my arm against his chest like it was some rare species of sugarcane he wanted to both cradle and crush.

“Look what you done.” I tugged at the seam with my free arm, ignoring how the touch of his body left me warm, electric-tingling, even now. “Fool.” 

I turned my voice all the way sassy, still burned up over the ruined chop and being stood up. Roy leaned his face down into mine, still holding tight to my hair. His pupils sharp like icepicks.

“That ain’t nothin’, Honey.”

I was so rattled, didn’t even see his hand coming. What I heard was a slap. I heard a fish, smacking against a cabinet, thudding onto a wet boatdeck. Maybe a striped bass. Greasy fat catfish. Didn’t Papa used to fish like that? Reeling in the catch, then heaving it into the air so the fish smacked down with a scaly theatricality. Racking my poor brain to remember as much as I could about Papa before he up and died and I only five -- did he used to smoke apple-scented tobacco, and how fast could he gut a fish? What kind of boat did he use, and did he wear suspenders or a waterproof belt? Panicking. Needing to remember, losing all of Papa in a vapor as I slumped down against the counter, holding on then pushing back up. Then I was aware my head was in an awkward position, jaw snugged in above my collarbone. And heat-streaks raced out from my cheekbone, trying to get away from a thumping pain. Dull ache in the back of my head. My face was struck dumb, Roy’s slap like a stone tossed into a still pond, spreading rings from this moment in time out into the waterway of me. Lapping the shore of my skin, all the way live, every nerve at attention. My tongue lapping salty blood from somewhere inside my mouth amidst bits of bitten-off flesh, that blood dripping down without cease, giving me the sign I’d been searching for. Shaking my head like a dazed mule what’s just knocked his fool head against a fencepost, looking down and seeing Roy wrapped around my knees, hugging them so hard they were buckling, and me feeling a bone-bright truth straighten my spine, a cold metal hardness come into my eyes, what’s called Experience. Putting my hand on Roy’s head and the warmth spreading from those tiny fingers, spilling over, waterfalls of obedience, white hot lightbolts of duty and the bondage of such love. Knowing full well I bore the sin of a smart mouth.

“This woman you married don’t need no mercy,” said I. “Go on and hit me again.

And Roy, sobbing at my knees, and me knowing he’d raise his hand to me again. If not now, soon. Next time without pity or restraint. Watching Roy’s hand scootch up my stockinged leg, me thinking any moment he would smote me again, then feeling the hand burrowing under my slip, over the garter, and finding purchase beneath my panties. Fingering me, and I was honeycomb in his hands. Was that night my first and only child was conceived, never to be born.


  1. that isn't a center cut pork chop! but good instincts to sear on stove and finish in oven. also, that cut would be better braised in oven.

    I think we need a pork class so you can see difference between pork tenderloin, pork loin, pork chop (both with and without bone), pork shoulder, etc. great job on Okra and Corn Bread!

    Sorry I was unavailable. Busy school day and then Norah Jones concert last night. You can try my cell when I'm not on the computer. I don't check email at all when I'm teaching. Phone usually turned off too but I had it on again in the afternoon but never got to email until late last night.

  2. Maili! Thank you so much for posting. All above and beyond. I know how hugely busy you are. I bet Norah Jones was fabulous. I had a feeling it wasn't the right cut of meat. Too funny! I am learning that whether I triumph or fail or make crazy mistakes, I'm still filled with joy. There's so much to learn and it's so challenging. Then, at the end (hopefully) you get to eat something delicious, and share it. What's not to love? I'm constantly amazed at how I'd ignored this whole other dimension of life that was right there for the taking, and exploring. Course it did help that I nailed the okra and cornbread (which was insanely good -- so much so I had to freeze a bunch so I wouldn't pig out all day). Thanks for confirming it was the wrong cut of meat, not something else. Now I have to learn what the term "braised" means...ha! Thanks for your continued guidance, support and pure inspiration!

  3. I LOVE this post. Bonnie's voice is absolute gorgeousness. Thank you for the beauty.

  4. Cannot get over this stunning beauty:

    When a low growl wakes me there’s a leopard pacing outside, staring me down, green eyes like kerosene lamps burning bibles through the shade. I didn’t know there was leopards in Texas. Why am I wearing a new dress? We lock eyes, time stutters. My heart seizes up, then swells like a blood-fat tick. I swear, Mama, the eyes are a man’s eyes, and I am gone.

  5. I so want to come to this LitCrawl! I love the way your words are so heavy with images, in my mind they remind me of those old fashioned contraptions that flip the black and white images while you watch through glasses. It's magic you make with words, and now you are making a new sort of magic with your food. I love all your fat happy cakes. The cornbread and before with the grapefruit cakes...all these flavours and textures and tastes, it's both intoxicating and contagious.

    How do I say it Rachel? You make me want to cook okra.

    You make me want to nourish and feed, and eat a thick piece of cornbread and a jug of sweet tea in a moss laden tree in front of a crumbling mansion in the south. I want peach pies and sweet sticky juices. I love how your words give me pictures. I am so grateful to see this part of your journey.