I’m eager to break the ice on my new project, which for now I’m calling, America’s Food Secrets – I think that title is apropos to my premise, that many of America’s finest treasured family secret recipes appear in those little spiral bound, soft-cover (and unfortunately fragile) fund-raiser cookbooks which were printed in the millions over the past fifty years – In all fairness and objectivity, they also contain some of the world’s worst recipes, which I chalk up to democracy and diplomacy at work. However, if one is interested in digging out America’s culinary history, or development, one could do much worse that culling through some of these little gems – and that is precisely what I intend to do. And I’ll be commenting on my findings here in this blog, hopefully on a bi-weekly basis – hopefully!
Sometimes, the history that you uncover is perhaps revealing, but not necessarily pleasant – for instance, the postwar period of the sixties were typified in these little books by an avalanche of recipes for casseroles made up of macaroni and innumerable cans of soup or whatever, all baked up and proudly served as an infamous one-dish dinner! While we no longer think that this is necessarily dinner-worthy fare any longer (I’m sure some still do!), it does tell us quite a bit about our nation’s eating history, and how wartime can affect such things. And like it or not, it is part of America’s culinary history.
I remember reading that Julia Child was once asked by a friend to review a church fund-raising cookbook – she agreed, but only on the condition that she be allowed to be completely objective and constructive in her comments – her friend replied that that was exactly what they wanted (Sure!). Julia looked it over and sent her comments to her friend – essentially she said that it would be a crime against the world to publish this cookbook, and as an example she picked out a particular gelatin salad (another popular wartime dish), of which she said that instead of including as a recipe, they should include it as a list of ingredients which should never be combined. Rumor is that the cookbook never saw the light of day.
Frankly, I think Julia was a little hard on the admittedly unseen book – I have seldom seen one of these books that didn’t have at least one or two redeeming recipes – and most have many more than that. And regardless of the degree of respect we now hold for such culinary dignitaries as Julia Child, we must remember that it was Julia who very openly admitted that she was addicted to those tiny marshmallows baked on top of her Thanksgiving sweet potatoes! And James Beard once said that he thought it was silly for housewives to be baking biscuits when those Ready-to-Bakes in the grocery dairy case were so good! Yup, I think Charlie Tuna was correct back when he correctly observed that Good Taste is a difficult thing for Americans to define, and even harder to agree on.
Picking the first cookbook to kick off America’s Food Secrets was no small task – so I cheated. My cookbook collection is spread all over the house, but the largest shelf area is all along one side of our front door hallway – and over the years, those cookbooks I value most can be found in this section. Among those valued cookbooks are a dozen or so of these community cookbooks – and among that small representation I found a volume titled “Twickenham Tables” (copyright 1988 by the Twickenham Historic Preservation District, Huntsville, Alabama).
The fact that Twickenham Tables was published as part of a commemoration the Twickenham Historic District’s 100 year anniversary reinforced some of the rationale of this project – because, perhaps non-intentionally, in the process of commemorating the historic district, they were also celebrating the area’s food history as well. So, as I reviewed the recipes included, I looked for those with a history, even if that history wasn’t necessarily hundreds of years in the making. And I found a wonderful one to share, a butter based BBQ sauce for chicken, which, in a region gone bonkers over BBQ, has a mystique like no other BBQ! And in this case, it comes with a personal story too.
Back in the mid seventies, we lived in Sebring, Florida, a small town in the middle of Florida’s orange groves – every year the Lions Club would have a chicken BBQ, which was wildly famous – they used a butter based BBQ sauce, but no one knew the recipe for the sauce – it was so secret that it was a local joke. At the time, I was friendly with the County Administrator, Charlie Cullins, who was part of the club’s “BBQ Crew” – this was a big deal! You had to have been a club member for many years, and even then, you had to be invited to be part of the crew. Charlie had connections, and he was part of the crew – I just knew I could get the sauce recipe from him, …, eventually.
At the time, I was working on a degree in Public Administration – Charlie was the only live person I knew with such a degree, and so I used him occasionally as a resource for my research project during my studies. I knew he enjoyed doing this, and I figured that during one of these “discussions”, I’d get him to share the sauce recipe. Finally, the right time occurred, and I asked – he just gave me a cute little smile, and said “John, there are two good reasons why I’m not able to do that. First, I don’t know the recipe, and second, if I did know, I’d be sworn to secrecy, so …, sorry.”
There’s a very good chance that Charlie was BS’ing me, but it shows how seriously BBQ is held in the South – you really have to live there to know how very seriously! But, as a part of America’s food history, BBQ is much like jazz in the world of music–an American creation-and arguably, the South is the center of America’s BBQ history.
In truth, I have not yet tested this particular recipe, although I’ve tried other butter based BBQ sauces, and this is very much the most sophisticated version I have yet seen. So, I will be adding it to my short list of summer grilling recipes, and fully expecting it to bring back long suppressed memories of excellence.
Bill’s Famous BBQ Sauce for Chicken
(Twickenham Tables, 1988, page 123)
(Enough for 4 chickens)
- 2 sticks of butter (8 oz)
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 or 2 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- 1 Tbs. catsup
- ½ cup orange juice
- 1 or 2 Tbs. lemon pepper (optional)
- 2 or 3 crushed, finely minced or pressed cloves of garlic
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- Mix all ingredients, and boil for 2 minutes – turn heat down and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes – keep warm for basting chicken.
- Prepare grill fire – start with a medium high heat – grill split ½ chickens for 7 minutes on each side – turn down heat to low, or move chickens to cooler side of grill, and begin basting and turning chickens every 10 minutes until done (if skin pulls away from bottom of leg bone, stop grilling!) – total grilling time should be 1 to 1 ½ hours.
You can make a nice table sauce for serving with the grilled chicken by adding a few tablespoons (more or less) of mayo to whatever basting sauce is left over.