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James Villas, Extracts from Between Bites


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James Villas: Extracts from Between Bites

James Villas’ memoir recounts his experiences of life, love, and libations beginning with 1961 cross-Atlantic trip to France and spanning over the next 40 years. The author offers vignettes of his intimate relationships with the famous personalities who have impacted his admittedly unconventional views of the evolution of cuisine. With his southern storyteller’s warmth and humor, he chronicles his own hedonistic adventures, including these three extracts. "Between Bites - Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist" was published by Wiley in May, 2003.

Editor's note: "Craig" mentioned in the extract below, is the late Craig Claiborne, Food Columnist for the New York Times and author of numerous books. He was a good friend of the author and they used to cook together in the Hamptons. "Don" is Don Erickson, who was the executive editor at Esquire. He mentored James as a young food writer. "Pierre" is Pierre Franey, a French chef who became famous as the chef of Le Pavillon restaurant in New York City from 1945 to 1960.

While I'm the first to credit Craig as being one of the most brilliant, exacting, and dedicated journalists I've ever known, it's also true that this legend who taught America so much about cooking was himself not a very accomplished cook and would never have attained such heights of success had Pierre (and other professional chefs) not been at the stove. Not that Craig couldn't turn out a perfect breakfast omelette or, so long as he followed a recipe to the letter and was given plenty of time, produce delicious moules marinieres, a correct osso buco, and genuine chili con carne. What he lacked was Pierre's natural instincts for the mechanics of cooking, the ability to conceptualize a dish and bring about its execution deftly, comfortably, and with a sense of total control. From vast exposure to good food, Craig generally knew whether a dish was right or wrong-and he could explain in detail the reasons why-but when it came to actually reproducing a brandade de morue, chicken Pojarski, or even Brunswick stew, the amount of time he would spend analyzing the recipe, his nervous assemblage of components' and his awkward cooking gestures betrayed an insecurity in the kitchen that could have translated into serious problems without the help of the experts who usually surrounded him.

Nor was Craig's interpretation of certain dishes always as valid as implied in some of the recipes he published, as when he once decided to reproduce authentic North Carolina chopped pork barbecue after a trip to Goldsboro and stubbornly insisted on using two loins instead of fatty shoulders and on cooking the meat in the oven.

"But Craig, you can't use loin," I protested when he called to tell me his plans for a dish I was weaned on. "The flavor and texture will be all wrong, and the meat's got to be slowly roasted somewhere over hickory or oak coals and mopped with sauce-even if it's an ordinary kettle grill. "

No amount of argument could convince him. Shoulder had too much fat for health-conscious readers, he insisted, and there'd be too much waste. He wasn't about to dig a pit outdoors, nobody wanted to go to all the trouble. of searching for wood chips, and besides, he had figured out exactly how he could barbecue lean pork loins in the oven for five hours at 250° degrees, then simulate a smoky flavor by placing the roast for a while on a charcoal grill.

Suffice it that, in utter frustration and near anger, I finally capitulated and left him to pursue his fantasy. In late afternoon on the day of the big feast, scheduled at 8:00 P.M. and attended mainly by non-Southerners, he called to say that the barbecue looked and smelled "fantastic" and asked if I'd mind driving over with my hatchet so he could chop it properly. When I arrived at the back door, Craig, smiling proudly, offered a piece of meat he'd pulled off for me to taste.

"That's delicious roast pork, some of the best I've eaten," I declared truthfully, "but it's not Carolina barbecue."

"Oh, you're just a prejudiced Tarheel from the western part of the state," he mumbled, slightly wounded by my candid verdict. "My version is like the eastern -style barbecue they do in Goldsboro."

Since the damage has been done, I determined not to pursue the matter, nor to ask why traditional Brunswick stew and hush puppies were not on his menu along with what turned out to be a credible barbecue sauce, delectable cole slaw and potato salad, and exemplary pecan pie. Then came the ultimate shock after all the excited guests were seated. To wash down all this earthy Southern food was not standard iced tea, or beer, or even water, but. . . French champagne! I truly thought this man from Mississippi had lost his mind.

Still, I held my tongue as Craig and the others relished the food and bubbly with imperceptive glee, just as I bit the bullet of professional friendship when Craig ended the feature he soon published with a little more than poetic license: "It so happens that James Villas, food editor of Town & Country, is a good friend and neighbor, a native North Carolinian, and, if you will pardon the expression, a barbecue freak. I invited him over for a sample, and he pronounced my barbecue the best home-cooked version he had ever sampled. That is high praise."

To point out a few of Craig's salient limitations might seem scabby and disrespectful, the only justification being that his flawed example taught me that an eminent food journalist need no more necessarily be a master chef than an acclaimed connoisseur of Bach is expected to perform the composer’s preludes and fugues with immaculate precision. Even after some formal training, I knew at an early stage in my career that I would never become—nor aspire to be—a gifted chef, a realization that might well have affected my ambitions and abilities as a food writer had I not witnessed how Craig Claiborne dealt so naturally and sensibly with the issue.

My Authentic Carolina Chopped Pork Barbeque

(Serves at least 8)

The Barbecue

One small bag hickory-chips (available at nurseries and hardware stores)

One 10-pound bag charcoal briquets

One 6- to 7-pound boneless pork shoulder (butt or picnic cut), securely tied with butcher's string

The Sauce

1 quart cider vinegar

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1 cup catsup

2 tablespoons prepared mustard

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

2 tablespoons salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes

Soak 6 handfuls of hickory chips in water for 30 minutes.

Open one bottom and one top vent on a kettle grill. Place a small drip pan in the bottom of the grill, stack charcoal briquets evenly around the pan, and ignite. When the coals are gray on one side (after about 30 minutes), turn them over and sprinkle 2 handfuls of soaked chips evenly over the hot coals.

Situate the pork shoulder skin-side up in the center of the grill about 6 inches directly over the drip pan (not over the hot coals), lower the lid, and cook slowly for 4 hours, replenishing the coals and soaked chips as they burn up but never allowing coals to get too hot. Turn the pork, lower the lid, and cook 2 hours longer.

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce by combining all the ingredients in a large, nonreactive saucepan. Stir well, bring to the simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 2 hours.

Transfer the pork to a working surface, make deep gashes in the meat with a sharp knife, and baste liberally with the sauce. Replenish the coals and chips as needed (maintaining a low heat). Replace the pork skin-side-down on the grill, and cook for 3 hours longer, basting with the sauce from time to time.

Transfer the pork to a chopping board and remove the string. Remove and discard most (but not all) of the skin and excess fat and chop the meat coarsely with an impeccably clean hatchet, Chinese cleaver, or large, heavy chef's knife. Add just enough sauce to moisten the meat further, toss till well blended, and either serve the barbecue immediately with the remaining sauce on the side or refrigerate and reheat in the top of a double boiler over simmering water when ready to serve. (The barbecue freezes well up to 3 months.)

Serve the barbecue (plain or on a hamburger roll) with Brunswick stew, cole slaw, and hush puppies.

When it came to his writers, Don took everything personally, even to the point of criticizing work of mine he happened to notice in other magazines. "Your Jovan piece is a knock-out, and it's good to see you so deft in conveying character," he once began a letter on a profile I'd done on a famous Chicago restaurateur. "I have to be honest and say that you've written the best words of your descriptive career for someone else and not for me. They are, of course, 'cushioned tirades.' I wonder if you know how good that is. But you don't get away unscathed. Your editor should have seen that 'individual (kitchen) duties strictly defined' and 'working as a team' are not, as you would have it, two different things necessarily. And I think' nefarious' is the wrong word for the place you've put it." Such frank, unsolicited memos from Don arriving out of the blue became routine, pithy commentaries that he simply felt compelled to write and that, perhaps more than anything else, taught me what a truly dedicated editor and friend are all about. Although Don was as obsessed as Alexandre Dumaine with classic French cuisine and revered every recipe Julia Child ever composed or demonstrated on TV, this hardly meant that he was not interested in and receptive to any gastronomic topic that might make a substantial impact in the magazine. As a result, over the next few years I produced a slew of articles that were as disparate in subject as they were often controversial in nature. Under Don's weighty influence and guidance, I wrote about making my own wine, working undercover at a fancy French restaurant, the joys of eating raw meat, menu ripoffs in restaurants, college cafeteria slop, the horrors of yogurt, Carolina pig versus Texas beef barbecue, how stupid government regulations were destroying great country hams, and the evils of the martini. "Fried chicken!" I remember hearing someone yell in the distance.

Looking across all the roaring traffic to the other side of a busy midtown street in Manhattan, I spotted Don rushing somewhere with Nora Ephron, his hands cupped at his mouth. "Fried chicken!" he repeated loudly. "Do fried chicken! We'll talk later." And that's how I was assigned an article that almost brought on a second Civil War and, thanks to Don, was so unorthodox in style that it was eventually anthologized in a number of college textbooks. Obviously, the subject of fried chicken had been mulling in his brain for weeks. I’m bored to death with dull, formulaic food writing," he exploded when we sat down to discuss what he wanted. "Let's really break some balls in this piece, take a definitive stand, and present it in a way that keeps the reader guessing what in hell is going on." This, he explained, would mean first setting myself up daringly as the world authority on fried chicken, followed immediately by the in-depth, perfect recipe itself, followed by an intricate analysis of the recipe details, followed finally by a scathing attack on what's wrong with all other fried chicken. In other words, everything in reverse. This also meant demonstrating for Don himself the entire cooking procedure, from actually cutting up the chicken to seasoning and battering to frying and draining on paper bags-all before I committed one word to the page. And to pass this initial test, which would prove to him without any doubt that I really knew what I was writing about, nothing would do but for me to show up in his small, nondescript apartment in Greenwich Village at the crack of dawn with three whole chickens, the right heavy cast-iron skillet, the right styles of shortening and flour, the right seasonings and buttermilk, and of course, the exact right paper bags for shaking and draining the chicken. Suffice it that by eight o'clock A.M. in that tiny, unventilated kitchen, I had cooked up some twenty-four pieces of golden, moist, crisp-skinned chicken, three of which Don devoured with approval for breakfast before heading for the office. As for myself, I couldn't face eating fried chicken again for months.

The Quintessential Southern Fried Chicken (Shortened Version)

(Serves 4)

One 3-pound fryer chicken, preferably freshly killed

3 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

3 cups buttermilk

1/2 lemon, seeds removed

3 cups (1 1/2 pounds) Crisco shortening

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup bacon grease

Cut the chicken into 8 serving pieces, rinse the pieces under cold running water, dry thoroughly with paper towels, and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt plus pepper. Pour the buttermilk into a large bowl and squeeze the lemon into it. Add the chicken pieces to the bowl to soak, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and allow to return to room temperature. While melting the shortening over high heat to measure 1/2 inch in a large cast-iron skillet (add more shortening if necessary), combine the flour, remaining salt, and more pepper in a heavy brown paper bag. Remove the dark pieces of chicken from the milk, drain each momentarily over the bowl, drop into the bag, and shake vigorously to coat. Add the bacon grease to the skillet and when small bubbles appear on the surface, reduce the heat slightly. Remove the chicken pieces from the bag one by one, shaking off excess flour, and using tongs, lower them gently into the hot fat. Arrange the pieces of dark chicken in the skillet so they cook evenly, reduce the heat to moderate, and cook for exactly 17 minutes. Reduce the heat slightly, turn the pieces with the tongs, and fry for 17 minutes longer. Quickly repeat all procedures with the white pieces of chicken, adjusting the heat as necessary and frying exactly 15 minutes on each side. Drain the chicken on a second brown paper bag for at least 5 minutes, transfer to a serving platter without reheating in the oven, and serve hot or at room temperature.

By ten o'clock, the Long Island sun is blazing. Our buckets overflowing with exquisite berries, Mother and I return to the rough country road to pay the farmer for our bounty, then drive to my home on the south fork so she can begin immediately to make the preserves that will last us through the year and help fill all her holiday gift packages. For years at home in North Carolina, Mother was never at a loss for relatives to participate in this annual summer ritual. But time passes, people disappear for one reason or another, and today there's only Mother and me left to carry on a tradition that is as sacred to her as making fruitcakes for Christmas. Of course every June when she comes to visit me on Long Island, she complains about her stiff knees and. weak hands and threatens not to go strawberry picking. Then, after she rages about the poor quality and outrageous prices of market berries, prompting me to suggest that we just ride over and check the northfork field, she inevitably forgets her ailments and off we go.

"I need a drink," she announces in the kitchen, reaching for the Bloody Mary mix while I begin rinsing some ten quarts of strawberries and placing them on paper towels spread out over every inch of counter space. "Now, sort them carefully, honey, and make sure the ones for preserves are firm and the same size," she instructs as if I hadn't been through the procedure a hundred times over the years. She then opens a new package of pectin, measures cups of sugar, and takes a big slug of her restorative libation.

Cooking strawberries for preserves is a very serious and private affair for Mother, and nobody, not even my neighbor Craig Claiborne when he was alive, would ever risk distracting her. Once the hulled berries are in a big kettle and the first measurement of sugar is added, I step away as she brings the mixture very slowly to a boil and begins stirring attentively with a large wooden spoon. More sugar, a little lemon juice, a slight heat adjustment, then further careful stirring as she quietly watches the berries gradually yield their juices, blend with the melted sugar, and almost magically turn a deep, glistening red. Her concentration is intense.

"Quick, help me move this pot off the heat," she suddenly directs, lifting one side of the large vessel up before I can grab the other side.

"I thought you said you had no strength left in your hands," I jest.

"Hush. I don't have time to think about that now," she huffs, stirring pectin into the mixture. "Have you got those bowls ready?"

Together we slowly pour the hot berries into two large mixing bowls, after which Mother begins the tedious but important task of skimming foam off the tops so that the preserves will not be cloudy.

"Here," she says, handing me the spoon, "stir them steadily till they cool slightly and begin to thicken. I'm dead." She wipes her hands on her apron and reaches for her drink.

Quite often, the cooled strawberries must stand overnight so that they will jell and plump enough to remain in suspension when preserved. After we've had lunch and taken well-deserved naps, however, Mother determines by early evening that the texture and consistency of the berries are already ideal, rousing her to begin sterilizing half-pint canning jars and lids in a steaming water bath while I melt paraffin in a saucepan. At one point, she drops a lid on the floor and asks me to pick it up, complaining about how she can't bend down that far.

"Sometime I'd like to drop a hundred dollar bill on the ground and watch you scramble for that!" I jeer.

"Smart aleck," she mumbles, popping me on the rear.

As I ladle luxurious preserves into the jars, Mother, with her experienced and expert touch, pours hot paraffin over the tops, slowly tilts each jar back and forth till the waxy substance begins to set and seal every edge, and caps each with a lid and ring band as a precaution against any improbable but always possible seepage. We then take each jar and apply a label that reads "From Martha's Kitchen." "Pretty, aren't they?" Mother comments quietly, standing back with her tired hands on her hips and surveying the twenty-odd jars lined up across the counter. "But Lord, that's a lot of work and . . . well, honey, I really do think my strawberry-picking days are over."

Playfully I put my arm around her broad waist, tell her not to be so ridiculous, and suggest that she go change clothes so I can take her for a good dinner. Outside, the warm setting summer sun now filters gently through the towering oak trees, and as I gaze wistfully at this season's fresh, brilliantly red preserves that will bring such happiness to so many, I'm once again seized by all sorts of confused childhood, adolescent, and even recent nostalgia pertaining to the lady known to family as Martha Pearl, to friends simply as Martha, and to me as Mother, Missy, Big Mama, and, when she gets particularly overbearing, Brunhilde.

Although this piece refers to strawberries, you can use the same technique to make peach preserves, which are now in season

Peach Preserves

Frankly stated, most people familiar with Mother’s pickle and preserves agree that there are no peach preserves on earth that can touch the ones she makes with Southern Elbertas each and every summer. They are undoubtedly my favorite of all her preserves, and there’s never a time when my basemetn shelves in East Hampton are not loaded with jars aging up to nine months. As I have learned by making the preserves repeatedly with her, the secret is impeccably fresh, firm, sweet peaches that are allowed to cook very slowly in syrup that must be watched carefully for just the right thickness.

Martha Pearl Says: To test the thickness of the syrup in these preserves, I spoon about a tablespoon of the hot liquid onto a saucer and place it in the freezer for about 5 minutes. If the syrup is not ready, it will be thin and runny.

Ingredients:

3 pounds fresh, firm peaches, peeled pitted and sliced ¼” thick

6 cups sugar

Procedure:

In a large pot, combine the peaches and sugar, cover, and let stand overnight to allow the peaches to leach out and moisten the sugar.

The next day, bring the mixture slowly to a boil, stirring frequently, then reduce the heat slightly and cook till the fruit is clear and the syrup is thick, about 40 minutes.

Spoon the peaches into hot, sterilized jars, seal, and store in a cool area.

Refrigerate after opening.

Post your questions here -- >> Q&A

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