“There were always oysters…and those to praise them”
How odd that my introduction to oyster soup should come via novels written by mainly landlocked authors in the America of nearly two centuries ago; the Laura Ingalls Wilders and Susan Coolidges who wrote of fathers walking through the door carrying flat cans of preserved oysters in their pockets, a treat for families tired of sustenance fare after a winter of blizzards, pressed up against the blunted end of the hunger gap when fields and orchards had yet to catch up with spring-awakened appetites.
Londoners revolted against being served oysters too often which were so cheap and plentiful even Dr Johnson fed oysters to his cat, Hodge, but back in the American Midwest where the newly-laid tracks for the iron horse allowed time and seasons to be overcome via haulage of delicacies such as the canned oyster or those shipped fresh in barrels of straw and ice, they were a treat. The first canneries were built near the oyster ports and over time oyster farming replaced the naturally occurring shellfish scraped up from the bottom of the gulf and eastern coastal waters. Native Americans might have been eating them for over 3000 years and New Yorkers had long grown accustomed to feasting upon the great oyster beds that originally fed the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch as they built Manhattan from the ground up, until the beds expired from familiarity and pollution, but inland they carried the cachet of the new. By 1860 canned, pickled and dried oysters had made their presence felt alongside their fresh brethren, a contrast to the platefuls of stodge needed to sustain people as they toiled in the fields, manual labour always threatening to outpace what could be loaded into their bodies in the form of calories.
Ma Ingalls sometimes cooked her oyster soup with salt pork, served with little saltines crumbled over a broth rich with fresh milk from their own cow. When the Long Winter had caused their cow to go dry, they thinned the broth down with water and made do. Their soup wasn’t a prelude to the goodness to come as Louis De Gouy believes it should be but was instead the main event; this may not have been through choice.
In parts of Kansas oyster stew possesses symbolic and ceremonial meaning and is served on New Years Day, a custom dating back to the arrival of that iron horse and the belief that the oysters would bless diners with fertility in the coming months although those hardworking Christian prairie dwellers might wish to draw a delicate veil over such matters of the flesh. So popular were the bivalves over a hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for ordinary Kansas families to possess their own set of oyster serving utensils even when their kitchens were otherwise sparse in their appointments.
M.F.K Fisher was concerned that we might confuse an oyster soup with a stew. ‘An oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup,’ she declared.The difference seems to be time and impulse, the soup being made as fast as the hand can follow the mind; thickened with flour, crumbs or eggs; and leaving room for what is to follow, namely the main course. A stew, according to Mary Frances, will suffice on its own and it is, as she says, a meal in itself and a more timely one to prepare at that.
The oyster soup in Wharton’s Age of Innocence might have been thickened with cream although it stops short of using the more refined term, bisque, to describe itself: ‘After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise,’ canvas back being turtle and shad a fine and seasonal fish enjoyed by people living close to the Potomac on the east coast. Its roe is particularly sought after. When Martin Scorsese filmed his version of the book, he engaged the services of food stylist Rick Ellis to bring Wharton’s dinner scenes to life. Ellis turned to Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mrs Mary F. Henderson, published in 1878, to provide a recipe for the oyster soup served to the diners. This soup had a flour and butter roux and was augmented by cream and cayenne pepper and Henderson makes a similar distinction to Fisher; ‘An oyster soup is made with thickening; an oyster stew is made without it.’
Make Helen Bullocks recipe for oyster soup from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion and what you’ll taste is oyster soup in its nascence; the oysters being seasoned with salt and pepper and thickened with milk and a liaison of butter and flour. The recipe was published in 1938 but dates back to 1742 and would have used fresh oysters and their liquor, whereas once canning became popular, the quality of the product was determined by a lack of liquor, thus offering the purchaser more oysters weight for weight. It is a shame because I consider the liquor invaluable. Later recipes see all manner of inclusions such as Worcestershire sauce, mushroom and the fatback or salt pork of Ma Ingalls.
It is to the homely comfort of Ma Ingalls and Laurie Colwin that I gravitate though, as opposed to the froideur of a grand society setting. Colwin is bang on the nail when she wrote about soup being the only thing you need to feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night.
“In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.” By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Hunger is the best sauce, said Pa. Here’s my version of Ma’s simple oyster soup.
two 8oz cans of smoked oysters (in brine or oil)
2 rashers streaky bacon
4 oz Jacobs cracker crumbs
1 tbsp butter
16 fl oz full fat milk
8 fl oz single cream
pinch ground mace
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch black pepper
salt to taste
Put the bacon into a hot pan and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel, keeping the rashers warm. Drain the oyster liquor into a measuring jug (if you are using oysters canned in liquor and brine) and add enough water to make this up to 8 fl oz. If you are using oysters canned in oil, drain them well, ensuring as much of the oil as possible is removed and just use water or 8oz of seafood stock. Pour into a saucepan and add another 8 fl oz of water. Take the crushed crackers and stir them, along with the butter into the hot liquid. When it comes to the boil, add the oysters and slowly simmer for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, the cream, the mace, nutmeg and pepper and bring back to a slow boil. Reduce to simmer for 30 seconds then take off the heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, pour into bowls, crumble the bacon into shards and sprinkle these over the soup.
British school lunches in the seventies and eighties saw Spam frittered, rissoled and fried, then plopped onto plates where it left a damp shadow of grease in its wake. Liberally coated in salt and dipped into cheap ketchup, Spam provided a hit of salt and sweet that some of us found strangely addictive, and those who did could easily find a liberal supply of fritters from the many Spam-hating pupils keen to fool the vigilant dinner ladies who would make you sit until you cleared your plate. Introduced to the UK in the forties, this cheap and easy to store product was on the menu at least once a week in British school lunch-halls from the early sixties until the late eighties at least, and even graced the tables of upmarket restaurants where dishes with such exotic names as ‘ballotine de jambon valentinoise’ were created to disguise its humble nature.
Spam’s popularity has never died in in other parts of the world, especially so in Hawaii where the sales of Spam nudge into super-consumer levels with each person getting through around 5 cans per person per year on average. (Official figures indicate that 6 million cans of Spam are eaten each year in Hawaii.) Hormel, makers of Spam, celebrate their 126th birthday this year and business has never been better. Even more remarkably, all that Spam is still only produced in two American locations, Austin, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska, and three other countries, Denmark, South Korea and the Philippines.
According to the Hormel website, the roots of Spam adoration can be found in the Second World War when the luncheon meat was served to GIs because it required no refrigeration in a hot tropical climate and had a long shelf life. When Congress passed the 1941 Lend-Lease Act in 1941, Hormel ramped up wartime production to supply over 15 million cans to Allied troops, producing over one hundred million pounds of Spam which Kruschev once described as having saved his army from starvation although President Eisenhower was less complimentary about it, describing how he contributed his fair share of “unkind words about it-uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as a former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it,” in a letter to Hormel in 1966. Across the Atlantic, in the UK, the future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to it as a ‘a war-time delicacy’, remembering one Boxing Day 1943, when she ‘had friends in and … we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.’ As the daughter of a grocer, her family would no doubt have received shipments of Spam to sell in their shop.
Referred to as special army meat which is possibly a source of its name, some say Spam derives from the words spiced ham whilst other people believe its name is an acronym for shoulders of pork and ham. Hormel aren’t confirming or denying, understanding that the mystery is part of the publicity. “The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus,” says the official Spam website.
Like many other army supplies, surplus cans made their way from the mess into the kitchens of locals such was the need for a black market to relieve the mundane nature of wartime diets and by the end of the war, Hawaiians had developed a lively appetite for it, creating meals such as Spam with fried rice, Spam musubi, (a sushi-style slice served with rice and seaweed), Spam fried rice and Spam with eggs. Margaret L, who lives on the Big Island grew up eating it:
“My love for Spam derives from my family, both Mom and Dad, who had hard times during the Depression and were both involved in World War II — my Dad in the Navy (and at Pearl Harbor on December 7) and my mom as a cadet nurse (a special unit). So SPAM and Vienna Sausages were frequent choices at our house growing up.
And as Margaret explains, the continuing popularity of Spam isn’t just to do with nostalgia and habit but about a foods ability to adapt to changes in the way we eat and what we can afford:
“Now that I am in my 60s, I seem to return to it as a comfort food reminding me of the past in some part of my memory bank, but also finding it very tasty and economical in today’s economy! When I first returned to it, I truly didn’t think I would like it as much as I do, and, as I said above, I haven’t even gotten around to adding pineapple yet.”
“As a child we would make Spam sandwiches straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise,” says Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 50s and has written several Spam-inspired cookbooks where recipes for corned beef manapua with Spam, Depression dinner party mix, and eggplant and Spam tempura rub shoulders with more prosaic sandwiches. She talks of local grocery stores having to restrict shoppers to five cans per person when new stock comes in otherwise supplies would soon run dry. [Hormel itself says it manufactures about 395 cans a minute and has sold EIGHT BILLION CANS since its invention]. A recent CBS documentary about Hawaii’s love for the canned meat showed an entire supermarket shelf stocked with fourteen different flavours. There are rows and rows of tins in rainbow colours: pink tins of Spam with cheese; Spam with garlic; Spam with turkey breast meat and with Portuguese sausage; smoked with hickory; spiced with jalopeno, or containing whole macadamia nuts. It is mind-boggling and gloriously quirky to me, but not so much for those Hawaiians who have grown up eating the meat on a regular basis. And since I’ve written this feature, I’ve no doubt there’s even more flavours on the shelves.
When that first can rolled off the conveyor belt back in 1937 Hormel’s competitors were selling canned meat made from the lips, snouts and ears of the pig but Hormel refused to use these parts and nowadays the U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer permits any non-meat fillers in lunch-meat and does not allow it to be made from pig snouts, lips, or ears. About 90% of Spam is pork from pigs shoulders and the remaining 10% comes from pig butt and thigh, which we would also know as ham. Today, pork shoulder is a very popular cut but when Spam first hit the shelves, this part of the pig was under-utilised.The original recipe remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel began to add potato starch to mop up the layer of gelatin that naturally extrudes from bone and connective tissue when meat is cooked. Customers reported being put off by the look of the Spam with this gellified layer and so an aesthetic rather than gustatory choice resulted in this tweak to the original recipe. All things considered, if you eat hot dogs whose ingredient list is considerably lengthier (and spookier!), Spam should be rather less of a leap.
Despite this, and the fact that pork shoulder is used plus water, salt and nitrites to preserve that pink colour, Spam retains an unwarranted reputation as a can of ‘meaty floor sweepings’ as one anonymous food writer told me and there still remain Hawaiians who aren’t that enamoured of it, says Courtney Turner who blogs about life on Maui from a jungle bungalow:“I rarely eat it unless it’s in musubi and I don’t eat it that often but there is a Spam cookbook from Hawaii,” she says.
“People on the mainland look down on it as white trash food because they’ve never had it,” agrees Corum. “If you’ve only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that’s understandable.
“But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it’s really good,” Corum adds. “It’s the same negative feeling some people have toward organ meats like tongue. But if you go to France those things are a delicacy.”
Spam is seen as a trash product by many Americans and Brits who might have a few cans pushed to the back of their pantries along with marrow fat peas, miscellaneous canned soups and something untranslatable they bought on holiday because they liked the label. You might eat it when you have run out of everything else, the zombies have attacked or global war has destroyed the infrastructure and you’d expect to see rows of it stacked in the garages belonging to preppers. But in Hawaii, Spam is not seen in the same light and, although there is no longer the same need for an easily affordable substitute for ‘real’ meat, it remains part of their culinary heritage and consumption cuts across the social and cultural strata. As food writer and historian Rachel Laudan writes, in her book The Food of Paradise, ‘to take on Spam is to pick at all the ethnic and economic seams of Hawaii’ of which more later.
These little cans released millions of people from the monotony of dried, salted meats, the only other option where fresh meat spoiled all too easily and whilst it might once have been a godsend during times of privation nowadays, local people choose to eat it. In fact, Hawaiians know what the rest of us are slowly realising: Spam is a perfect ingredient for proprietors of food trucks, those ex-bankers who got out and sunk their savings into a silvered dream machine selling dirty burgers and poshed-up musubi.
Obama is no food snob, ordering Spam musubi during his last Hawaiian sojourn before becoming president and the product can be found on islander McDonald and Burger King menus, (ask for Hawaiian steak) or visit Tikiiniki, owned by former rocker Todd Rundgren and his wife Michelle where the Iniki hamburgers are made from beef and Spam ground together. According to Rundgren, the writing of his famous hit ‘Hello, it’s me’ was fuelled by copious platefuls of Spam about which he said, in an interview, “is better than a hotdog because it doesn’t have any snouts or anuses in it.” A taste for Spam musubi is apparently one of the things which separates the ‘real’ Hawaiians from the tourists and this mash-up of Asian and islander culture comes neatly wrapped up in nori and ready to eat on the go. Recently, Hormel even introduced a teriyaki-flavored Spam product to encourage consumers to eat more Musubi and if you want your baby to resemble the food on its parents plate, why not dress it up in a musubi baby costume? There’s a yearly festival in Waikiki known as Spam Jam Hawaii, too.
You can trace Spam’s journey from the army mess and store cupboards into the kitchens of Japanese, Filipino, and Korean immigrants to Hawaii too who, among many others, became enamoured of it- indeed if you visited the Philippines in the last six months, you may well have eaten Spam at a local restaurant, SpamJam. The tiny island of Guam (where there is a huge US naval base, built after the liberation of the island from the Japanese) boasts an astonishing rate of consumption of more than sixteen cans per person per year; more than any other nation per capita, and has hosted the annual Spam games. After the Second World War, the Chamorros of Guam had no homes to return to, malnutrition was rife and refugee camps had to be built where food rations, including spam and corned beef, were passed out by American forces. Spam has become part of the local cuisine and dishes such as Spam kelaguen where it is chopped then mixed with lemon juice, diced onions, and local hot pepper have evolved. Colonised three times over the last 400 years, Guam and Spam exist in a relationship marked with mixed feelings as American forces continues to ‘militarily occupy’ what their leaders refer to as an unincorporated territory of the USA and in this context, some Chamorro people see Spam as a symbol of cultural oppression and one of the causes of rising heart disease and diabetes caused by high-fat, high-salt and sugar diets.
The popularity of SPAM with Koreans is an interesting circular process with roots in the Korean War: American soldiers introduced the meat to well-connected Koreans where it became a popular status food after a lengthy period of Japanese rule and a severe proxy war had left Korea with severe shortages. Displaced Koreans living in villages decimated by war also supplemented meagre food supplies with handouts of food from US Army bases. Upon immigration into Hawaii, those same Koreans continued to eat and cook with Spam whilst their relatives back in Korea consume it at such a rate,they are now the second largest market.Spam is so popular in South Korea, it is sold in special gift packs which have become a common hostess gift; I’ve spent several sojourns in South Korea and can recall market stalls selling Spam-branded t shirts and school bags, alongside those gift packs.
When offshore fishing was temporarily halted in the Hawaiian islands during the Second World War and restrictions places upon movement between the islands, the islanders were ever more dependent upon the charms of this canned meat. Some historians claim that Spam’s popularity has more to do with the restrictions placed upon Japanese-Hawaiian deep-sea fishing operations by the American government in the years leading up to the Second World War. The Hawaiian islands were home to so many people of Japanese descent that it was unfeasible to intern them all in camps as happened in the contiguous, states: internment had the potential to be ruinous to the island economy but the Japanese still had to feed themselves and their families, deprived as they were of the fish and seafood that had until recently augmented their diets.
As often happens during times of privation, members of the forces take advantage of local food shortages to make a buck or three and local people experimented with what food they did have, using SPAM to replace the pork or fish which also became hard to come by during the war. Spam soon appeared cubed and sliced in noodles, in sushi and stir-fry. Ever versatile, Spam was substituted for the beef in Korean bulgogi, a dietary love brought back by American soldiers stationed in South Korea and these tastes survive today. In LA, chef Roy Choi makes his version of “army stew” (budae jjigae) at POT, his restaurant inside the Line Hotel where a bubbling pot of anchovy broth, pork stock, noodles and Spam keeps the clientele happy. Other versions of Korean Army Stew include slashed hot dogs, ground meat and sweet potato noodles which grow fat and slippery in the gochujang and kimchi- infused broth. Also known as Johnson Tang soup it is an eclectic mix of army rations and centuries-old Korean foodstuffs and the city of Uijeongbu retains its fame for good budae jjigae because of its high concentration of U.S. military personnel.
Spam’s texture lends itself well to the carving knife making it useful for sushi making and it absorbs and holds onto other stronger flavours. Chefs from Hawaii, such as Jovi Magdual, are fascinated by the challenge of blending different foods- Island, Asian and American- into a brand new and eclectic cuisine. “It’s not gimmick food, we’re adding different flavours from different cultures. Pineapple is tropical in a tropical climate and, if ham, then why not SPAM?” he says and other chefs in Hawaii are coming up with new spam concoctions all the time. At Da Kitchen even dessert has become an excuse for serving more spam in the form of pineapple spam upside-down cake.
Hawaiian-raised chef-owner Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco has been hailed as one of the new breed of chefs who use Spam in interesting ways, refusing to turn their backs on what was, and is, an important part of island culinary history. Kapur makes his own SPAM, grinding a mix of high-quality pork shoulder, ham and seasonings, and then steaming it in a rectangular pan to ensure the finished item has that characteristic Hormel shape. Added to rice alongside shrimp, furikake, uni and abalone mushrooms, the result is a high-low fried rice. For customers in the know, the restaurant also serves Spam over rice with spicy mayo, furikake and pickled cucumbers, off-menu.
Across the Atlantic in London, Chef Jeremy Pang who runs School of Wok, opened Cha Chaan Teng in Holborn last year and serves up coconut-encrusted spam with fried egg and wanton in a noodle broth and a crispy spam & fried quail egg crusty roll accompanied by sriracha and pickles, which he says are “a deliberately inauthentic and playful interpretation of the hugely popular Hong Kong cha chaan teng diners that took the region by storm in the 1950s.” (Read a more expansive interview with Jeremy Pang, here)
Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi was born and raised in Mānoa Valley and is co-founder of The Pili Group, LUNCHBOX, and the former Mission Social Hall & Cafe. He agreed to chat with me about Spam and whether it still has cultural relevance for him and his customers. Whilst he says that it is only prepared for sale at Lunchbox, a cafe for Hawaiian Airlines employees, and not sold at his other businesses, he admits customers there are ‘stoked’ when they discover that Spam is on the cafe menu. And like most chefs, his own professional creed of cooking local, responsibly-made food means that while he feels there is an important need to “make smart choices about what we consume”, he admits that “when you get out of a kitchen at 1am your choices are limiting. Many of us congregate at a favourite watering hole, and SPAM… is plentiful. Usually in a musubi or fried rice or fried noodle form.”
Chef Noguchi has used Spam professionally though. “At my first restaurant, He`eia Kea Pier, we made our musubi by simmering Spam in a teriyake tare until it caramelized and coated the Spam. Then we would make our musubi with it, and that’s still my favourite,” he says.
“Shirokiya at Ala Moana makes an awesom Spam musubi and MW Restaurant has an off-menu item they save for their VIP’s. It’s a house-made Spam (basically a country-style pork terrine.) Out of all the people trying to make Spam, they come the closest. Spam gets its unique flavor and texture because of the specific way they package it in the can and then pressure steam/cook it.”
“So although Spam may have a bad rap as a processed, high sodium food, I think it’s important to understand how food came to Hawaii,” Chef Noguchi explains, firmly rejecting food snobbery. “Spam became ubiquitous in our home because of World War Two, it’s part of our culture. Hawai`i’s demographic’s have changed, and so has our palates; however I still believe in celebrating our foods of the past (including Spam,) and understanding why it’s a part of our heritage.”
The myriad of ways in which Spam is consumed provides us with a fascinating and fruitful example of culinary derring-do as cooks and chefs take their national histories, marked by culinary privation caused by colonialism, migration and war, and blend them with a new and creative use of ingredients. The chefs I spoke to who use it seem to come from a sincere place; their use of Spam borne from nostalgia, personal history and a desire to forge new gustatory connections, rather than a place of daring or punk attitude. They aren’t using Spam to shock and awe, or garner click-bait headlines via the ‘othering’ of an ingredient which we should remember, may have helped save those lives rendered precarious, during and after the Second World War. However, if you’ve bought a tin, tried it and still don’t like the taste or texture, you can always follow the frugal example of American soldiers during the Second World War who inked slices of Spam to use as playing cards. They were able to play poker with them for several months before the ‘cards’ expired. That may or may not dismay you.
There’s so much more to the food of the American south than barbecue, cornbread and bourbon and this tart, topped with luscious persimmons which are one of the signature fruits of the region, deserves its time in the [autumnal] sun, and to be more widely eaten in the UK.
In the USA, persimmons are usually left to fall from the tree and if you travel around the south in the autumn, it’s not unusual to see mattresses and tarpaulins scattered around the base of each trunk , ready to catch these readily-bruised fruits. They split easily, spilling out soft flesh which attracts all kinds of critters so you have to be swift.
The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) can give you a nasty, mouth-puckering shock if you eat it before the first frost because the fruits needs that cold snap to convert their tart soluble tannins into a sweet jelly-like mass. Because of this, there’s a Japanese variety of persimmon called ‘Fuyu’ whose fruits are sweet from the start which stores in Britain are starting to stock around now. It’s pretty hard to find American persimmons over here because they do not travel easily.
Fuyu doesn’t have much of a core and its skin is edible making it easy to prep and even easier to eat on the go. And the flavour? There’s some papaya notes, a lot of floral and a little tomato, a honeyed sweetness and something unique that defies description. It’s a fruit with flavour that deepens after cooking, becoming more than the sum of its parts and possessed of tender flesh easily incorporated into cakes, breads and puddings, made from recipes that are centuries old. Southerners still make a persimmon bread pudding with a burnt sugar syrup which is the descendant of a recipe learned from the Delaware and Cree tribes of Native Americans who showed the pioneers who crossed the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley how to use the fruit.
For this tart, I’ve added a sliced layer of persimmon to a base I use often, made from a soft pressed-in dough, flavoured with spices. The persimmon cooks down into a soft and wobbly jelly, each slice collapsing as you spoon it up. It’s this quality that makes persimmon so useful as a filling because it creates its own juicy setting and all you need to do is add a little spice, some crunchy sweetness in the form of brown sugar and you’ll soon have autumn on your plate.
It’s vital to let the tart cool before slicing to allow the cooked persimmons to meld with the sugar and ginger syrup to produce that semi-set jelly (or jam to us Brits). So don’t worry if there seems to be a lot of liquid sloshing around the fruits as it cooks.
*Caveat* I usually test recipes at least six times. This one has only been made twice but it turned out well each time.
Spiced Persimmon Tart
8 oz plain flour (all-purpose in the USA)
2 tablespoons of soft brown sugar and a further 6 tablespoons of demerara sugar
3 oz cold butter, cut into little chunks
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
3 ripe small to medium Fuyu persimmons
tbsp ginger syrup from stem ginger jar
Switch oven to 180C .
Make the pastry base using a processor or by hand: combine the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, the mixed spice and the butter until fine crumbs form or pulse in a processor until you have that fine crumb. Add the egg yolk and whirl or stir by hand until the dough comes together in a soft ball. Press the dough over the bottom and the sides of a 4- by 14-inch tart pan with a removable base (or use a 9-inch round tart pan).
Combine the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, the lemon juice and brandy in a wide bowl.
Slice persimmons into slim rounds and check for seeds, removing if they are there. Slice the rounds in half and muddle them into the brandied sugar mixture, ensuring they are thoroughly coated then arrange fruit in 2 overlapping rows on top of the dough (or arrange in circles if using a round pan). Plaster any leftover sugar mixture from bowl over the fruit then ladle over the ginger syrup, ensuring it coats the slices.
Bake the tart until the crust is golden which will take around 25-30 minutes. Check the persimmon slices for doneness and if they are still a little hard, cover the tart loosely with foil and bake until they are tender when pierced. (Another 10- 15 minutes but this really does depend upon the ripeness of your persimmons.)
Remove tart from oven and allow to cool completely. Don’t worry if it seems to have some liquid sloshing around the persimmon slices. As it cools, this will set to a light jelly (jammy) consistency. When it has thickened and set, its time to slice the tart. Serve with creme fraiche, mascarpone or ice-cream if you like it even sweeter!
Matt & Ted Lee refer to Ronni Lundy as a ‘native daughter of Kentucky’ and Victuals, her latest cookbook kicks off with a handy lesson in dialect for those of us not to the local manor born: apparently in southern Appalachia, ‘victuals’ is pronounced ‘vidls’ and not ‘vittles’ which is how I might have pronounced it. It’s just one example of how misunderstood this part of the USA is.
Lundy has form when it comes to providing us with the tools we need to understand Appalachia. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance she has always emphasised the role that culinary genealogy plays in helping to define what actually constitutes southern food and in doing this, she has challenged some of the more common – and inaccurate- tropes that have flourished in the minds of the lazy and those who wish to erase contributions from people based upon age-old prejudices. Lundy tells us about Malinda Russell, a free black woman and native of Appalachian who fled to Michigan during the civil war, leaving the bakery she opened in East Tennessee. Whilst living in Michigan she published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 and this compendium of recipes used by her when she ran a boarding house and pastry shop and also cooked for the first families of Tennessee may well be regarded as the first published cookbook about the Appalachian south. As Lundy adds, Russell’s recipes may or may not be reflective of the recipes common to the region at its time of writing but ‘it certainly broadens our perception of 19th century Appalachian foodways.’
Victuals is the result of Lundy’s travels around the region where she was raised, a limning of history, people and place but it is not a regressive paean to times gone by although Lundy has always drawn upon the rich Appalachian heritage (and especially in a previous cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) to explain its foodways.
“People who come to and from these mountains want to know where they are when they eat,” writes Lundy, quoting one of the great pioneers of the contemporary mountain food scene, John Stehling. In 2011 a study headed up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabham and environmental anthropologist Jim Veteto validated Stehling’s opinion when they declared southern and central Appalachia to be the ‘most diverse foodshed in North America’. She celebrates the knowledge of the local people who are farming, brewing, producing high quality ingredients and trying to steer a course through the fiscally tricky waters of an American economy which doesn’t always seem to prize their endeavours, favouring multi-national corporations over the local and artisanal. These people are rooted in one place but they aren’t fixated upon it and have been able to help move Appalachian foodways in new and exciting directions.
Appalachian cuisine cannot be divorced from the land and feeding local families often involves more than a stroll to the local store. And when Lundy writes that ‘food was magical also because I got to be part of the making’ we get to read recollections of her aunt Johnnie’s garden full of half-runner beans and descriptions of local cider apple orchards which have to co-exist with nearby large-scale and homogenous commercial growers. For Lundy, the apple is rooted in her love for Jo from Little Women whose own pockets were filled with windfalls as juicy and taffy-sweet as the ones she remembers as once growing freely in the mountain hollers. There’s a meditation on the art of making apple butter and a description of what to aim for; ‘dark as sable, thick as pudding and deeply fragrant,’ is more helpful and evocative than any photo could be. Developing the master-recipe further, the reader is given mini recipes for Sherri Castle’s vinegar kiss and Lundy’s own ‘splash’ with a good glug of bourbon added ‘for the grown ups biscuits’.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the culinary genealogy of Appalachia (something I predicted was on the cards, several years ago) and local chefs such as Sean Brock, Shelley Cooper and John Fleer are all referenced via a selection of recipes and their accompanying text. One such recipe is Fleer’s buttermilk cornbread soup which takes an old tradition (although one not exclusive to the region) and turns it into a bowl of comforting something-something that looks at home on the table of either a good restaurant or plonked in front of your kids at suppertime. Like all apparently simple meals it relies on the very best ingredients and slow, steady time at the stove (which can be a comfort especially when one is busy and over-stimulated). The value of taking twenty minutes out for stirring the pot cannot be overstated and like all rhythmic actions, it soothes. Does it sound overly romantic to say this is also what connects us all to the past? I don’t think so.
Many Appalachian recipes and techniques have been hard won over time and it’s important to grasp this if you want to take the principles behind Victuals to heart. One emblematic recipe – the apple stack cake- is as much building as it is baking and both of these require a decent investment in time and technique. In this cake, dried apples are cooked and layered onto thick hearty disks of dough which were originally cooked in cast iron skillets then sweetened with sorghum. Lundy’s aunt Johnnie would pick and dry apples in June for cakes like the stack and for fried or baked hand pies although her cake recipe comes via her great-aunt Rae who made the cake for Lundy’s father.
Maybe the stack cake began life as a wedding cake with each family contributing a layer, or maybe it didn’t, but it is at its best after sitting for a couple of days which allows the spiced apple to seep its sweetness into the layers of cake. As Lundy says, ‘it reflects the pioneer spirit of converting something totally old (the eastern European tradition of layered tortes, brought to the region by German immigrants) into something totally new with the ingredients at hand.’ Necessity was the mother of invention but although the stack cake remains pretty austere in appearance and ingredients compared to the richly adorned tortes from the old country, its flavour is anything but.
Victuals reminds us of the great traditions of home preserving and also includes recipes which contained ingredients which would otherwise be unavailable to a landlocked part of the USA had commercial canning not existed. Fresh-water fish and shellfish were caught and eaten regularly but seafood such as oysters would have been out of the question had it not been for the fine tradition of smoking and canning. If you grew up reading Susan Coolidge and Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be familiar with the oyster soups made with this delicacy, transported via railroads in thin flat cans and Lundy’s version of a smoked oyster stew for two is a reminder that no matter how bountiful a region is, sometimes what is longed for is what cannot be grown or caught there. Oysters, she writes, were a salty mineral-rich addition to an Appalachian miners lunchbox designed to replenish their own salt levels after a hot and sweaty shift. They were added to simple potato soups or served with saltines and packed away in a tin pail for the fishers in the family and Lundy’s more luxurious version is flavoured with the olive oil the oysters are preserved in.
Alice Waters gets the credit for the farm to table movement which champions seasonality and a locavore lifestyle and went on to place California on the gastro-map yet Appalachia and the American south in general has always lived by this creed. James Villas posited that where farm to table is concerned, the south got there first and in her book, Lundy’s focus on seasonality and sustainability through heritage adds a decidedly contemporary twist to this philosophy. Modernity coexists happily with tradition in Appalachia and Lundy’s book smashes old and tired stereotypes of Appalachia into smithereens.