I never remember thinking that my father was a fool – in my mind is an image of a simple man whose wisdom went beyond his education and status in life – and I took to heart many of the things he said to me. He once said – upon hearing me repeat a Polish joke – “Joe (Joe was a name he reserved for those with whom he had great rapport), you can’t tell Polish jokes if you aren’t of Polish blood – in your case, you can only tell Irish jokes!”. And he truly believed that.
I thought of that when I was recently reviewing my cookbook collection for a candidate to my next, America’s Food Secrets project, and I came across a classic cookbook of the south – “White Trash Cooking” by, Earnest Matthew Mickler. My father would have understood Mickler’s choice of title well.
Now, strictly speaking, this cookbook does not meet the criteria I set for my project – it’s not done by a non-profit organization – but it does contain a scad of fantastic traditional down-home southern dishes. So, I decided to bend the rules a little, and allow Mickler’s cookbook in – hey, it’s my project, and my rules! So, … its in.
Look at it this way- if we allow The Junior League, with all their professional “assistance”, what’s wrong with allowing a destitute guy from the swamps of Florida, who wrote a “vanity” cookbook on a lark, and it became a cult phenomenon – my god, if this isn’t a definition of “fundraiser”, what is?
Really. But for years, I thought this book was a prank, done by god knows who, and fully intended as a mockery of the poorest class in the south. But then I did some research and discovered that Earnest Mickler was for real, and in fact, he qualified to write about white trash, as per my father’s criteria, for he was born and raised true southern white trash – and just down the road (Palm Valley) from where we last lived in Florida (Jacksonville), before coming west to Oregon in ’97.
Although Mickler’s roots are deep into southern white trash earth, he eventually got a B.A. and Master’s in Fine Arts, and with his personal interest in cultural anthropology and food, he set to work on a collection of southern “white trash” cookery. Once the book was in draft form, Mickler found nothing but resistance from potential publishers, mostly in reaction to the title, which Mickler was insisting must not be changed. But Jonathan Williams, who oversaw an independent printing operation for undiscovered American poets (The Jargon Society), learned of the book, and liked the idea. He contacted Mickler and eventually agreed to handle the first printing – and as the book became unexpectedly popular, Ten Speed Press picked it up, and the sales took off – about 400,000 to date.
In hindsight, Mickler’s insistence on using the term “white trash” may have set the scene for making White Trash Cooking the seminal cultural event it became – and I’ll let Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” -arguably one of America’s quintessential literary views of southern social class distinctions- speak to that:
“I have never seen a sociological document of such beauty – the photographs alone are shattering. I shall treasure it always … Now that it’s harder than ever to identify the genuine article on sight – with two generations of prosperity, white trash looks like gentry – we’ve long needed something other than the ballot box to remind us of their presence; WHITE TRASH COOKING is a beautiful testament to a stubborn people of proud and poignant heritage.”
Mickler himself made the distinction between lowdown white trash, and White Trash -his own lineage- which he separated by “manners and pride”. However, he is quite clear that when it comes to food, there is not much that separates the two classes – and he admits to the close relationship between southern soul food and his White Trash cooking.
Additionally, Mickler identifies the key ingredients that set southern cooking in general, and White Trash cooking specifically, apart from other American regional foods: cornmeal; salt-pork; and molasses. It’s long been said that the the food pyramid of the South is topped by sugar, lard, and corn – and this is true regardless of class. It’s interesting to note just how much of White Trash Cooking utilizes these foods.
The recipe I’ve chosen to share with you is one that I learned early on in my own southern indoctrination, Stewed Cabbage. My own personal cooking style favors cooking vegetables much less than most old southern favorites – so I’ll also share my own variation of this recipe too, which except for time, really doesn’t stray from the concept much.
“White Trash Cooking”
1 head of cabbage
3-4 slices of fatback (salt pork) or 1 cup of Virginia smoked ham chunks
Cut cabbage into quarters, then break the quarters up with your hands. Fry down the meat in a cast iron dutch oven. Now put the cabbage in the pot and fry it down about 10 minutes (turning often). Salt and pepper to taste and add 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and then put on the lid and cook twenty minutes on medium low heat, or 35 minutes if you like it gray.
Now, if the above were collards -which I love dearly- I’d cook them EXACTLY to the specifics of this recipe – I think most cooks under-cook collards, which really benefit from a long, slow braise. But here’s how I usually do my cabbage southern style.
Prepare your cabbage as above – heat a heavy pot -cast iron is perfect- over a high heat. Put 2-3 Tbs of bacon grease or lard in the pot and as soon as it’s melted, begin putting in your cabbage. Stirring often, as the cabbage cooks down, add more until it’s all in there. Keep the heat high, and keep stirring, but not too much (you want to scorch some of the cabbage). Keep tasting as you cook, and season to taste – when it’s done to your satisfaction, usually 5-10 minutes for me, you’re ready to serve.
f you want an introduction to southern cooking, White Trash Cooking would be a good book to read. What you’ll learn there is that the base of southern food is doing the best you can with the least expensive ingredients available. All southern cooking moves out from that perspective. The elitist cooks in Savannah, Charleston, and Atlanta, all made upward adjustments via ingredients to separate their foods (New Orleans is in a class of its own!), but still all southern food is firmly rooted in peasant cooking.