Walter grew up at a time in the South when cooking meant home cooking. Even though his grandfather was in the fruit and vegetable importing business, everyday cooking in the Mobile of his youth largely depended on what was fresh, local and seasonal. You ate tomatoes when tomatoes were in season, peaches when peaches were in season. (“In Westchester County, ” he intones in the poem of the same name, they have seckel pear trees but do not make marmalade, confiture, or chutney. Instead, scandalously, “they let the fruit ripen and fall on the ground.”) His work seems to have anticipated most of the food trends of our own time — eat fresh, eat local, avoid the seduction of the pre-made, pre-packaged and pre-ground (particularly in the case of black pepper).
The recipes reflect a time when cooks, often far from grocery stores, were forced to be inventive — if you were out of an ingredient called for in a recipe, you substituted an ingredient you had. Eugene Walter knew that this sort of invention based on necessity is the soul of home cooking, and he encouraged it. “Do your own thing: invent!” he frequently coaxed. He realized as well that the inventiveness of home cooks extended to the canned and packaged goods that were increasingly available as the 20th century progressed. He referred to those who objected to the use of canned food as “food snobs, ” ignorant of the South in “the days before the refrigerator.” He even depends on Campbell’s soups for an occasional shortcut and affectionately calls them “Mr. Campbell’s soups.”
Another characteristic of Eugene Walter’s voice that is distressingly absent from the food world today is that it is a cultivated voice — a witty and educated voice that he translated into captivating prose. Walter wrote beautifully, and the recipes are a joy to read. Walter was an autodidact without the brittle edge that often characterizes the learning of the self-taught. He never lapsed into pedantry — in fact, he preferred a good story to factual accuracy. His writing voice is more like the voice of a learned uncle who wants to teach in the most pleasant way possible. He doesn’t talk down to his audience — he assumes, for example, that his readers know the difference between a pinch and a dash, between a dash and a splash. He encourages his readers to invent, to experiment, and above all to enjoy cooking, eating and drinking.
(Pour le matin apres le bal masque)
For ladies who are feeling delicate after a Carnival ball or wedding party, or horse race, or visits from out-of-town cousins, the following julep-type freshener, from Monroeville, Alabama, is the perfect medicine.
1 cup rose petals
1 ripe peach
1 piece crystallized ginger
1/4 cup cane sugar
1. Pick petals from old-fashioned, strongly perfumed roses in early morning. Put them into a bowl with a very ripe peach chopped fine, 1 finely chopped piece of crystallized ginger, and a little cane sugar. Pour a cup or so of the very best white rum over this melange. Let sit at least an hour or so.
2. Strain and chill. Dilute with best French Champagne sec and serve in thoroughly chilled Champagne glasses. If this is before noon, serve very hot, buttered, coarse-ground grits on a dainty plate after one such julep, then serve several more juleps.
Or, Pineapple Right-Side-Up Cake
The titles of this dessert are both examples of Southern jokiness. Christopher and his crew drooled when they tasted the pineapple on Guadalupe in 1493, then introduced it to Europe and the world: It was already being cultivated in China in 1594 and was a greenhouse pet in Europe soon after. Pineapple upside-down cake has long been a Southern favorite. Versions appear in Gulf Coast family recipe books as early as the 1870s. The pineapple is usually placed on the bottom of the cake, which is cooked in a heavy iron skillet and turned over when served. In this version, the pineapple is placed on top before the cake goes into the oven.
1 (8-ounce) can unsweetened sliced pineapple with its juice
2 tablespoons dark rum, divided
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
good pinch of salt
1/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1 beaten egg
pinch of mace
pinch of nutmeg
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Drain pineapple, saving about half of the juice, into which you pour 1 tablespoon of rum. Put pineapple and juice aside.
3. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and stir well. Combine juice mixture, milk, melted butter, egg, and spices; add to dry ingredients. Add rest of rum and mix all very well. Don’t beat the dickens out of the stuff; just be sure the dry ingredients are moistened.
4. Put batter into greased baking pan. Top with pineapple, sprinkle with brown sugar, and bake for a generous 30 minutes or until blade or pick comes out clean. Cool before serving. If you wish to be showy, you can serve with melon balls. For baroque tastes, whipped cream flavored with Cointreau or Triple Sec is always served alongside.
“The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink” edited by Donald Goodman and Thomas Head. Copyright © 2011 by Donald Walter Goodman. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Excerpt from foreword by Thomas Head • photos by Elizabeth Gelineau