Karen and Ben Barker will be the guest speakers for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina from 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. A reception will precede the reading from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. next door at Foster’s Market.
Jill Warren Lucas
There are many home bakers and professional chefs who aspire to be as creative Karen Barker. But now and then, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef – who used to dazzle customers at the much-missed Magnolia Grill – finds herself in the position of a fan who just has to know how a certain treat was made.
“There is a great coffee place in the East Village of New York City that Ben and I really like called Abraco,” Barker says from the kitchen of the couple’s Chapel Hill home. “They make a sweet-savory black olive biscotti that is just delicious.”
Barker has made her share of biscotti; the twice-baked cookie can be made from a wide variety of ingredients (different flours and fats, with or without eggs) and endless flavor profiles. But there was something about this one that was especially memorable.
“I’m not a big sugar person, so sweets don’t often excite me,” Barker says as she gathered ingredients on the heavy butcher block counter. “Once in Provence I saw someone make a dessert with black olive and tomatoes and herbs. But this was the first time I’d ever tasted a biscotti anything like that. I loved it.”
Barker was making a batch to bring to a meeting the next day of their dinner party club. Ben was prepping an appetizer of brined lamb tongue to be simmered with shallot in a red wine sauce. Karen was making the biscotti to provide a crunchy counterpoint to the final course, a dairy-free chocolate mousse served with a red Italian dessert wine.
“A savory cookie is not for everyone,” she concedes while giving the fragrant, purplish olives a quick mince and grinding a generous amount of black pepper into her mixer’s work bowl. “But dunk this into some wine, or scoop up some chocolate mousse … it’s just perfect.”
Barker says the recipe could be easily tweaked to substitute other ingredients: use lemon zest instead of orange, leave out the olives and add walnuts. “I wouldn’t try green olive, though,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I just don’t think that would work.”
Barker leaves the end slices on the counter after she returns the cookies to the oven for their final toasting. “Baker’s privilege,” she says, nibbling a slice deemed not pretty enough to serve. She closes her eyes for a moment to let the flavors fill her mouth.
“I have to say, I find these pretty addictive,” she sighs. “I have a hard time just having one of them."
Karen Barker’s Olive Oil Biscotti with Rosemary and Orange
Makes 1 loaf (about 24 slices)
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup semolina (fine grind)
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 tsbp. minced rosemary
zest of 1 orange
1/3 cup fine chopped black olives (such as kalamata)
a few grinds of black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine first three ingredients in the work bowl of mixer; combine well with paddle attachment.
Add remaining ingredients, mix again. Ensure that all ingredients are thoroughly blended but avoid overworking the dough, which will be sticky.
Transfer dough with floured hands to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Lightly press into the shape of a 12x3-inch log, adding pinches of flour if needed. Chill for at least 40 minutes but preferably about several hours.
Bake for 30 minutes or until loaf is lightly browned. Remove from oven. When cool enough to handle, use a serrated knife and cut half-inch slices on the diagonal; should yield about 24 pieces. Arrange flat on the baking pan - it's OK if they are crowded - and return to oven until toasted, about 5-7 minutes. Turn slices over and toast again, about 3-4 minutes, until golden and crisp on both sides.
Cool biscotti completely. Wrap in parchment paper or keep in airtight container.
Audra Ang will speak and sign her new book, To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in Contemporary China at Flyleaf Books
Wednesday January 16, 2013, 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
By Jill Warren Lucas
Like Dorothy on her journey to Oz, Audra Ang had an opportunity to travel far from her comfort zone to experience a world in which she had connections but felt like a stranger. The environment she experienced was just as bizarre in its extremes of hospitality and threat, and it took a long journey home to fully understand it.
Ang chronicles the seven years she spent in China as an Associated Press reporter in her compelling new memoir, To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China
(Lyons Press, 2012). She will talk about her experiences - which vary from savoring home cooked meals and reporting about dissidents to spending weeks amid the heartbreaking rubble of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - at Wednesday’s meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina
(CHOP NC). The free talk gets under way at 7 p.m. at Flyleaf Books
in Chapel Hill, where she will sign copies of the book.
For one of her last assignments in China, before she returned to accept a prestigious Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, Ang was asked to write a story that would reflect the span of her tenure. “I came up with a few ideas that were all shot down,” recalls Ang, who recently located to Durham and works at Duke University. “I decided to just write what I wanted to write about, which was food.”
Ang realized that having food, and especially not having food, played a role in most of the reports she filed while abroad. It may have started with the novelty of a foodstuff not often consumed in America, but she quickly came to appreciate the satisfying burn of sweat-inducing spice and, later, the calming aroma of a hot meal amid sickening decay.
“I wrote four vignettes involving food, but I always felt there was so much more to the story,” Ang says. “The article always felt unfinished to me. It was the one thing I felt strongly enough to commit to the need to turn it into a book.”
Ang traveled from Boston to Berkeley to focus on the yearlong project. “It was the most emotionally difficult thing I’ve ever done,” she says, explaining that she retreated to a cottage where she would write all night, sleep from morning to afternoon, then start again.
She did not return to China during this period and instead relied on her reporter’s notebooks and thousands of collected photographs. They were especially valuable in drafting the difficult final chapter about the catastrophic earthquake. The 7.9 temblor provoked global outrage when reporters revealed that thousands of children needlessly died in the wreckage of poorly-built schools.
“The last chapter is my favorite, but I sometimes worry that it’s too intense,” says Ang, who details unfathomable horrors in a restrained tone that nonetheless makes a reader’s heart race. Woven throughout is the importance of food as more than mere nutrient.
“Food is a very central part of life in China. Indirectly, I think cooking and receiving food did help people to heal,” she says. She tells the story of a mother and her critically injured son, who at first refused to eat but eventually asked for his favorite meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “She knew it meant that he was getting better. It fills a bit of the emptiness you feel after so much loss.”
Ang’s own initial connection to the earthquake has a link to food. She and a photographer were having lunch hundreds of miles away when they felt the restaurant suddenly rock. They had been reporting about babies who died from ingesting counterfeit formula, but it turned out they were closer to the epicenter than other colleagues. Ang manages to condense their harrowing journey, and the extraordinary weeks that follow, in 46 mesmerizing pages.
Ang is taking a break from such intense writing and is unsure if she wants to return journalism, though friends predict she will.
“Right now, I’m pretty happy to have a relaxed, stable, boring life,” she says with a laugh. “I have a good job in a wonderful city. I am excited and grateful that’s there is so much great food in one area.”
While glad to have found delicious Chinese and Vietnamese fare close by, Ang says she is especially enjoying her exploration of Southern cuisine. She finds contentment in a place that celebrates both traditional foods and cutting-edge cooks.
“Food is a big part of living in the South, too,” she says. “I’ve found that it usually it takes a year to settle into a place, but I’ve met great such people, including people who are very involved in the local food scene. I can see myself being happy here for a long time.” Jill Warren Lucas is the managing editor of Philanthropy Journal. She blogs about food at Eating My Words and freelances for Indy Week.
‘Foodsteps’ from slavery to the rise of Southern cuisine
By Jill Warren Lucas
There are those who say that talk of politics and equality have no place at the table. But for culinary historian Michael Twitty, that’s where the conversation begins.
“The table definitely is the starting point to be more honest with each other and express how we feel about our location and our past,” said Twitty, who will launch his Southern Discomfort Tour
with a free talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 7th,
at Flyleaf Books
in Chapel Hill. His topic, “‘Them Old Slavery Foods’: Liberating a Cuisine in Chains in Antebellum North Carolina”, is co-presented by Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) and the Southern Historical Collection
at UNC Chapel Hill.
“Whether we like it or not, those of us who study African American foodways face a social-political landscape every day,” he said. “Food helps us define our identity and sense of direction. It preserves a shared timelessness. “
An outcome of slavery, he added, “is that Africans and African Americans, who were marginalized groups, made important and often overlooked contributions to Southern and American cuisine. These are important economic and cultural facts.”
Twitty will document his travels to places where his ancestors were enslaved, “...as well as places of cultural memory related to slavery and the development and history of Southern cuisine,” on his blog, The Cooking Gene
. He also tweets at @koshersoul
As stated on The Cooking Gene website: “We are attempting to dialogue with the white families who owned my family - some of whom I am related to by blood - using food as the medium of communication and discourse. We are looking at the development of African American foodways from Africa to America and from the colonial South to the antebellum and postbellum South using my family tree and family geography if you will as a guide. We’re calling that connection ‘foodsteps’ instead of footsteps to describe those edible connections to the landscape and time.”
Twitty will experience that landscape in a very personal way later this week when he ventures east to walk the Halifax County fields that once were the property of his great-great-great-grandfather Richard Henry Bellamy
, a slave owner. (black and white photograph above)
Born in 1829 as the son of European immigrants, Bellamy was raised to enjoy privileges unfamiliar to the mixed-race offspring he and other well-to-do landowners sired and left behind to be raised, often malnourished, in surrounding communities. Here and in other places where the rambling roots of his family tree survive, Twitty believes he will find living blood relatives.
“I’ve reached out to people who say I can walk the land to see what he saw,” Twitty said. “He led a remarkable life, especially for the time. He was a decorated Confederate captain. He was a graduate of law school from the University of Georgia. He got to be a legislator in Texas.”
Bellamy’s biracial children, by contrast, never travelled further than they could walk. “They didn’t go to school. They weren’t special,” Twitty said. “It wasn’t until they had grandchildren that anyone thought to leave the blinding poverty of the South to go north. It’s a reality that’s part of so many stories.”
Twitty is eager to track kin and find clues to their lives through culinary records, but not all of his living relations and friends entirely understand his quest.
“Some people think this whole project is very strange,” he admitted with a laugh. “People expect me to go to the slave quarters and eat what they ate to learn who I am. By studying Southern-African foodways, my goal is to better understand where I come from. It brings a whole new meaning to ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’.”
Twitty’s travels will take him on a circuitous route from his base in Washington, D.C., to big and small Southern towns that cousins many times removed once called home. To make that possible, a diverse group of sponsors from across the country, but especially in the South, united to support his online fundraising effort. It came down to the wire, but Twitty eventually surpassed his $8,000 goal.
“I am emotionally and spiritually moved by the fact that so many people who do not know me personally gave their money and their time to get the word out,” he said. “It was awkward for me to ask, but it’s all about goodwill and love and vision.”
While Twitty, a devout Jew, is not likely to indulge in all that Eastern North Carolina may heap on a dinner plate, he is eager to experience foods and traditions that with were known to his forebears or are common to his surviving relatives.
(Mr. Twitty’s fried chicken in progress)
“One of my fantasies is to find as receipt book, a sort of recipe collection, from my great-great-great grandfather’s line – maybe a cousin who had a copy of The Virginia House-Wife
,” he said, referring to the 1825 guide that became the most influential cookbook of its time. “It would be a sort of Who Do You Think You Are
moment, a connection I do not have to any of my black ancestors.”
Twitty has discussed DNA testing with a few family contacts and hopes to broach the subject with others.
“It is a lot to ask, but with their help I hope to peel back the layers to reveal truth,” he said. “For a lot of African Americans, knowing if you came from West or Central Africa, or the Caribbean, is powerful. When they realize that we can help each other by doing this, and that so many supporters have donated money to make it happen, they see how important it is.”
Speaking just hours from the start of his great odyssey, Twitty expressed deep appreciation for his advocates and excitement about how the next few weeks will change his life.
“I have extreme roller coaster emotions,” he said. “There’s one thing in particular that comes to me. One of my grandmother’s brothers died when he was very young. The only thing I know about this young man is that his favorite breakfast was fried baloney, cinnamon toast and orange juice.
“I guarantee you I am the only person who ever thinks about this particular person, but that is part of his immortality,” he said. “By writing down what I learn about my family and our foodways, I hope to preserve it in my own small way.”
Jill Warren Lucas blogs at "Eating My Words"
Mildred Council will be the guest of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.
By Jill Warren Lucas
Mildred Council no longer messes with the heavy cast iron skillets at Mama Dip's, the Chapel Hill landmark she opened in 1976 with just $64 in her apron pocket. But she remains a towering figure in the cozy dining room, where she signals dawdling young servers with a glance and attracts excited whispers from diners.
"What are they doing out there," she said, gazing at a gaggle of her wait staff that, like startled geese, suddenly retreated from the door to her wraparound porch. "Move that table," she said quietly to another waiter, gesturing at one that had strayed from alignment. "Someone will trip over that."
Council, who turned 83 last week, is painfully aware of such potential hazards. She tripped last May and steps, slowly but confidently, with the aid of a wheeled walker.
Not everything in the restaurant, which on Saturday morning was filled with families and regulars, draws the boss's scrutiny. Out of the corner of her eye she spied 5-year-old Brendan Engler-DeSpain of Raleigh tip-toeing toward her. She beckoned him closer.
"I love Mama Dip's," he finally said, his face shining with joy. "Hmm," said the great-great-grandmother, sizing him up as his dad proudly filmed the encounter on his phone. "You look like you'd be good to hug. Come on over here."
Whether it's a pancake-loving child or a seeker of true Southern country fare, Council greets everyone with the same warmth. It's been like this since she charmed her father by taking over household cooking at age 9. After turning away from the cosmetology career he envisioned for her, she got her first paying job as a cook working as a household maid. She later cooked at a UNC dining hall and several Chapel Hill eateries - including Bill's Bar-B-Q, which was owned by her in-laws - before taking a chance on transforming a failed restaurant into the first Mama Dip's location 36 years ago.
Council's fame spread after UNC Press published her two cookbooks. The first,Mama Dip's Kitchen, was inspired by New York Times legend Craig Claiborne - and fostered by the late Bill Neal, who co-founded La Residence and Crook's Corner and dined at Mama Dip's nearly every Thursday.
"I didn't know who Craig Claiborne was. I thought he was a troublemaker, ordering everything on the menu - even chitlins - and making us all nervous in the kitchen," Council recalled with a laugh. "Why would the New York Times care about me? I was just somebody who grew up on a little farm in Chatham County. I never imagined someone so important would be interested in my food."
Council recalls that Claiborne wanted a little taste of everything and was especially keen on her black-eyed peas.
"We were still over there," she said, pointing across the street to her original site on West Rosemary Street. "We only had about 16-17 seats in the place and I didn't have enough of those little bowls to keep up with him. It wasn't like restaurants today. I only had so many dishes."
Claiborne wrote a glowing review of the restaurant a few weeks later and called to get some of her recipes, a few of which he included in his best-selling books. He pushed her to write down her own recipes - a daunting challenge given she never used measuring cups or spoons. It took nearly 10 years to draft her first book, and several more passed before it was published to acclaim in 1999.
"I learned how to cook in the dump style," Council said, instinctively cupping her large hands as if scooping flour for biscuits. "It was the same way in school. We never had a lot of books. You just had to pay attention and learn. That's just how it is when you don't have a lot."
Council is not surprised by the farm-to-fork movement that is influencing major culinary names and home cooks alike. After all, cooking with locally-grown, seasonal ingredients is both smart and frugal.
"I don't look at is as a health trend. It's more about the beauty of food at its best," said Council, noting, for example, that she never uses canned sweet potatoes for her famous pie. "I think we all should eat more vegetables and less meat. I still enjoy some chicken, but this time of year I start thinking about tomatoes and squash.
"Oh," she exclaimed suddenly, her eyes twinkling behind large glasses. "Next month we should have string beans. Yes."
Mama Dip's menu does feature its share of meat, and plenty of fried food, but for Council that has more to do with hospitality than trendiness. When you eat from her kitchen, you should enjoy yourself. And honey, that means putting down your knife and fork and eating fried chicken with your hands.
"When I traveled to promote the books, I was just amazed by how focused some chefs are about food looking pretty," she said, recalling a meal so artfully prepared that she relied on her publicist for clues how to eat it. "I had no idea where to start. I'd rather people relax and just dig in."
Council has no plans to write any more cookbooks but she does occasionally tweak her menu to include items that tug at memories.
"I've been thinking about adding bread pudding for breakfast," she said, picking a classic that similarly stretches ordinary kitchen staples. "It's the same idea as pancakes, really, but you add raisins and custard and bake it up in big pans. It's just so creamy and good."
The recipe for Council's Rum Raisin Bread Pudding is featured in Mama Dip's Kitchen, and more can be found in Mama Dips's Family Cookbook (2005). A few of her recipes are posted on her author page at UNC Press and others, like her sumptuous sweet potato pie, can be found online.
Lucas blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.