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May 3, 2009

Food Friendly May: Possums and Collard Greens and Canned Soup, Oh My!

Filed under: Books,Food — Twistie @ 1:28 pm

Those who know me know well that I have an extensive collection of cookbooks. They range from genuine antiques to reprints of ancient works to modern writings that caught my eye either for the potential of the recipes or the potential for entertainment. Well, I recently picked up a book that filled both of those last two reasons.

It’s entitled Deep South Staples: or how to survive in a Southern kitchen without a can of cream of mushroom soup, by Robert St. John.

The title alone would have made this a necessity for me. I can’t resist a great title. The book seemed to fly into my hands from the shelf of my local friendly independent bookstore (or LFIB for short). I eagerly flipped it open and began to peruse for more reasons to buy. They came thick and fast. It’s filled with attractive, practical recipes for good, solid home cooking: chicken pot pie, pot roast, oatmeal raisin cookies, biscuits, and so on. There are also plenty of recipes for specifically Southern goodies  like grillades and grits, butter beans, and shrimp and okra gumbo. There’s a lot of great cooking ahead of me, trying out this book.

But there’s so much more than that. In addition to being a born and bred Southern boy (raised in Hattiesburg), St. John is also a chef/restaraunteur and a syndicated food writer. In between the recipes in his book, are layered some of the best of his columns on food and growing up in the South.

In one, he discusses the assumption that Southerners eat possum:

“As long as I have lived in the South I have never eaten a possum. No one I know has ever eaten a possum. I have never been to anyone’s house who served possum. I have never seen possum offered on a restaurant menu and I have never seen possum in the frozen meat section of a grocery store.”

A few pages later, comes the article resulting from a flood of responses in re: eating possum. In fact, said response includes some instructions for preparing possum, should anyone be inclined to give it a go:

“One reader stated that “baked coon and sweet potatoes” was better than possum any day. Another sent these cooking instructions: “Skin and gut the possum. Place on a nice pine board and slide that combination into a hot oven. Cook for four hours. When the possum is thoroughly cooked, remove from oven and eat the pine board.” Finally, some common sense.”

Whether discussing cadging secret summer second suppers from neighbors as a boy, the importance of sweet tea in Southern culture, or why his leg of lamb Easter dinners will never match those his grandmother cooked, St. John approaches his world with affection and humor. When writing his recipes, he’s clear and well-organized.

Oh, and as promised, not a single can of cream of mushroom soup appears in the recipes. Instead, he gives a recipe for a mushroom bechamel sauce to use where that can of condensed, over-salted soup would go. Miracle Whip, however, does raise its head in several recipes. Maybe it’s a Yankee thing, but I’m probably going to replace that with homemade mayonnaise. Why? Because I can’t stand Miracle Whip.

But I can’t wait to try out the Bananas Foster French Toast. That sounds about seven steps beyond delicious!


  1. Twistie, as a bookseller, thank you for supporting your LFIB.

    Comment by Margo — May 3, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  2. But you can’t beat cream of mushroom soup for your broccoli cheese casserole.

    Does he do his collards in bacon grease? I was thrilled to find collards for only 59 cents a pound last night. Usually, they are around $4 a pound here. Organic BS. In the South, collards are poor people food. In Milwaukee, they are a gourmet item. Honestly. Anyhow, we are having them tonight with our pork chops. Pork is a bargain now, thanks to swine flu. :)

    Comment by class factotum — May 3, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

  3. @Margo: Honey, I sold books for ten years, most of that time working for independents. I have a deep love of the LFIB.

    @class factotum: actually he boils ham hocks and adds the greens to the hocks and their liquor. Less potentially greasy, but equally porky. Me? I’ll eat ’em either way. And I’ll eat them other ways, too.

    As for cream of mushroom soup…you can have mine. And if you pick up the book, I’m sure you know you can easily substitute a can for the mushroom bechamel. I actually won’t use either. I can’t stand mushrooms. OTOH, I’m thinking of playing with that bechamel recipe and other flavorings that I prefer. Substitute for a can of cream of celery soup, anyone? Perhaps an herbed bechamel? I do think I’ll need to experiment.

    Comment by Twistie — May 3, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  4. I’d use celery tops and hearts finely chopped as the basis of the bechamel. Reinforce it with some ground celery seed and brown the butter more than you usually would for a bechamel, and I think you have a really savory sauce. I’d add a handful of chopped chervil or parsley at the end.

    Comment by Fabrisse — May 3, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

  5. And collards are $.79 per pound in DC at the moment. Kale too.

    Comment by Fabrisse — May 3, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

  6. As a relocated southerner I have a hard time believing I live in a place that doesn’t sell collards or turnip greens. It just breaks my heart. And this crazies up here in Connecticut put black eyed peas in the Asian section. I ask you, WTF?

    Comment by Mel — May 3, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  7. @Fabrisse: I do believe you have the right idea about the celery bechamel. I’ll probably give it a go sometime in the coming week. Hmmm…maybe I’ll write up the results next weekend. We’ll see.

    I haven’t checked the price of collard greens at my local grocery store in a few months (Mr. Twistie won’t eat them, sigh), but the last time I looked – when they weren’t exactly at the height of their seasonality – they were running about a buck thirty here in the Bay Area. Yeah, I could get carrots cheaper, but greens were a pretty good bargain for such an expensive area to live.

    @Mel: wait a minute…black eyed peas in the Asian section???????? Now that’s what I call confused.

    Comment by Twistie — May 3, 2009 @ 11:23 pm

  8. Today this Canadian found the secret as to why southern US folk love brewed iced tea, not our lovely sugar powder flavored with tea crystals (Canadian summer time staple). The Google told me to get rid of the unmistakable bitter in cold Red Rose, Southerners add a pinch of baking soda.

    Pure Genius.

    Comment by Bobbi — May 3, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

  9. Twistie, I’ll use cream of celery if that’s what I have on hand. Making my own bechemel sauce, as delicious as that would be, violates the whole principle of the fast and easiness of the casserole.

    As far as the collards, I tried the boil the heck out them version once and that was not to my taste. I chop them up and saute them in about a tablespoon of bacon grease and they are not too greasy, just yummy. Of course, they would be even better in more grease. :)

    Comment by class factotum — May 4, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  10. As a southern girl, I can vouch for several family members that have cooked, served, and eaten…ALL ON ONE TABLE…possum, racoon and sweet potatoes, and chitterlings.

    I also might mention here, that Hattiesburg is only about 1.5 hours from the coast.

    Collard greens? Free…plucked them right out of the garden. Same for mustards and turnips. For those who are so inclined, though, you get a 5# bushel for about 3.99 at the farmers market.

    Baking soda in tea….**hurls**

    Simple as 1-2-3. Boil water. Add sugar. (red diamond is my favorite although the Black English Tea from the Dollar Tree is giving a good run). Add however many teabags for your particular taste. I use 4. Cool. Serve over ice.

    Baking soda….bah!

    Comment by Jeanine — May 4, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  11. Jeanine, it is still a shock to me to see McDonald’s promote “sweet tea” up here (I moved to Milwaukee a year ago from Memphis). In the South, sweet tea is the default!

    Why would anyone put baking soda in tea?

    RE Collards. I am planting them in my garden, along with okra. Cross your fingers.

    Comment by class factotum — May 5, 2009 @ 10:45 am

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