Friday, April 29, 2011

Chicago feels a long, long way from home today.

Little Chickamauga Creek, Ringgold, GA
You’ve probably heard of Ringgold in the news over the past couple of days. It’s the small town in northwest Georgia, just outside Chattanooga, TN, where a monstrous tornado set down at about 8:30 on Wednesday evening and tore up half of town. It’s also my home town, and thank God, my parents and their home are fine.
But the Tennessee Valley is part of my DNA, and it’s hard to be so far away when so many people are hurting and so much will never be the same.
Ringgold is the kind of small town where the folks at the post office will work to figure out who a postcard addressed to “Mom, Ringgold, GA” that says “Here’s our new address. Please send the money,” goes to. And they got it right. It’s been over ten years since I’ve lived there, and every time I go home I’m the one who gets sent into the post office to pick up the mail, since “they’re always asking about you.”
Catoosa County Courthouse
Ringgold is the kind of small town where American flags line the roads of town for a full four weeks around both Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. The flags that line the courthouse lawn top crosses that bear the names of the county’s veterans who have died.
It’s the county seat, and for years, folks came out to picnic on the courthouse lawn and see the returns come in on election night. They used to pull flatbed trucks on the courthouse lawn with backboards loaded all across them, and as the returns came in election workers would write them up on the boards. These days the results get projected on a large screen, but the idea is the same. While the media is covering state and national races, folks want to know how the local elections are going.
From the video I saw this morning, it looks like the 1939 Catoosa County Courthouse survived.
Too much didn’t.
When you get off I-75 at exit #348, you used to see most of Ringgold’s businesses strung along Ga-151 (or "Alabama Highway," as that’s where it goes). Gas stations, grocery stores, a handful of motels, and a whole string of restaurants, mostly fast food. As best I can tell from the pictures, now you mostly just see debris. The Ingle’s looks okay, and I hope Aunt Effie’s, across the street from it, survived. The schools are a mess. One whole wing of the Middle School, they said, is “missing.” A whole wing of the building just “missing.”

The Sherriff is saying that half the Ringgold business district and a quarter of its residential area has been damaged.
Among the dead is a family – father, mother, 21 year old son, and 16 year old daughter. I suppose it’s a miracle there aren’t more than the eight who died. There are places it’s much worse.
Chattanooga was mostly spared a direct hit, but many of the communities that surround it are devastated. Trenton. Apison. Cleveland. Tiftonia. Bledsoe County. Flintstone. Northeast Alabama. The death toll for the Tennessee Valley is at 78 as I write.
It’s hard to drive around Chicagoland under sunny blue skies today. I was in the Wheaton Chick-fil-A for lunch, and the woman ahead of me in line was from Jacksonville, FL and had lived in Arkansas and Texas. The man beside me was from Memphis. It made me wish for a place we Southerners could gather and find each other. Just be with people whose hearts are hurting for home, too. 
If you pray, pray for Ringgold and the Tennessee Valley, and Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, and all the communities in the South that have been devastated this week. And if you can give, they need help. The Greater Chattanooga Area Chapter of the Red Cross relies solely on local donations, and you can also donate to their local partners, the Chattanooga Salvation Army, by texting the word "GIVE" to 80888.
Chow Time, on Nashville Street, as it was for decades

(I don’t have the heart to post pictures of the damage, but there’s raw footage of the area at

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 5. Salt, Sugar, and Pepper

Thus continues a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.
I remember watching a chef who was cooking for a segment of some morning show several years ago. As they’re cooking, the host randomly asked him why what she cooked at home just never seemed to taste as good as what she ate in restaurants. Without even a pause, he answered, “You don’t add enough salt!”
It made me chuckle, because it was immediately clear that there was no way she was Southern.
There’s a “holy trinity” in Southern cooking, and after we ask Jesus to bless the food, the next thing you’ll hear is “Pass the salt!”
Salt, sugar, and pepper are the foundation for seasoning Southern food, and it’s the trick for making pretty near anyone like your vegetables. (That, and butter, but we already covered it.)
I learned about salt from one of my grandmothers, who I swear could go through a shaker of it in a week. When a diagnosis of congestive heart failure had the doctor putting her on a low sodium diet for a couple of weeks, she figured she’d just starve. (I did actually get her to eat and like it, but if I remember, it involved lots of lemon juice and pepper.)
I prefer sea salt, and it’s great to have both fine salt and course on hand, as the concentrated crunch of course, kosher salt is perfect for many dishes. I’ve become quite fond of my grinder of pink Himalayan salt that lets me adjust the grind from Trader Joe’s.
I learned about sugar (it’s not just for desert anymore!) from a wonderful black cook at the small college I used to work for in North Carolina. I went through the cafeteria line for lunch one day and got a bowl of ordinary looking black-eyed peas that ended up being one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten. Oh, my land, those were good! I’ve always loved black-eyed peas, but those were something special, so I asked who’d fixed them and then cornered her.
“How in the world did you make those black-eyes so good?!?”
“Well, I just fixed ‘em normal.”
“Really? So what did you do?
“Well, I soaked ‘em for a couple of days, and then I put some ham in and cooked ‘em all morning.”
“ You didn’t put anything but ham in?” (Not that ham isn’t a wonderful thing to put in, but that wasn’t what had made those peas special.)
“No. Nothing but salt and sugar, like I always do.”
“Salt and SUGAR?! How much sugar?”
“Well, enough so it’s right.”
“Hmm. So how do I know how much is right?”
“Just put the salt in your hand and mix in a little sugar, and taste it. Add enough so it tastes balanced.”
“Ah!!!! THANK YOU!”
And that little trick has made me a legend in one family I used to babysit for, where the boys will only eat “Jennifer’s” green beans.
It actually makes a lot of sense for vegetables, which have natural sugars which begin to deteriorate from the moment they are picked. Adding a touch of sugar is just adding the taste of freshness. It makes their natural flavor pop – especially beans. This is a great trick for any dried beans or peas, green beans, and corn. I use plain old cane sugar, but I also like the raw sugars and agave nectar in savory dishes. (Brown sugars are another animal altogether.)
And pepper. What Southern savory dish isn’t better freckled with black pepper? One friend described the appropriate amount of pepper in gravy by saying it should be enough “that the first bite makes you cough.” But pepper’s necessary for a lot more than gravy. Potatoes boiled in peppered water are always better. It’s as vital to grits as salt. And there’s no better way to cook cabbage than to sauté it in butter with a boatload of yellow onions and enough pepper to make you cough. The same goes for yellow squash.  Fried chicken. Bacon. Burgers. It’s all better with pepper. Fresh ground is best on the table, bet unless you've got a fancy electric grinder, it just takes too long for a lot of cooking. I keep a container of ground pepper by the stove (it stays fresher with a lid).
If you’re looking for a shortcut to Southern cooking, mix 3 parts salt, 3 parts sugar, and 1 part pepper and keep it in a shaker near your stove. It’s a start. Or better yet, add 1 part garlic powder, too.
Cooking up Southern goodness isn’t so hard. Just be sure not to serve a vegetable “crisp” unless it’s a cucumber (which is terrific, by the way, with a generous sprinkling of pepper).