Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: David Cecelski

David Cecelski and his daughter Vera.

I recently discovered the food blog of David Cecelski, which chronicles David’s culinary adventures in the state of North Carolina.  I sent David a fan letter of sorts because of his focus on the connection between the food that people eat and the places in which they live.  David is uniquely qualified to write about this topic because he was raised on the North Carolina coast and he’s also an accomplished historian.

In addition to having an amazing blog, David is the author of several award-winning books, including The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina.  He’s currently finishing up his most recent book, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway’s Civil War, a biography of a slave who became a notorious Union spy.

Since David's blog is full of fabulous recipes, I asked if he was willing to share one for this questionnaire.  He suggested a recipe for Beatrice Mason’s Pickled Green Tomatoes and said he thought of this one “because it’s seasonal today.  People here make them when they’re expecting the first frost to kill their tomatoes imminently.  And because I'm making them today.”  You'll find the recipe after the questionnaire.

Thanks, David, for your recipe and your questionnaire responses.  I hope our readers will check out your blog NC Food for further information on North Carolina foodways.  I know I will!

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire

1.  What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
That's a terribly hard question to answer. I'd probably have a different answer for every month of the year. Right now, though, the oyster season just opened here on the North Carolina coast and I think I'd have to say "roast oysters." We get them out of the bays a few miles from here, clean the shells, and roast them outdoors over over hot coals, covered with a burlap bag that we sprinkle with water to make a little steam. Around here old men carry oyster knives in their pockets all autumn and winter, just in case they happen up somebody having an oyster roast. Not being quite an old man yet, I just keep my oyster knife in the car.

2.  What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
There's nothing I love more than making muscadine grape-hull preserves. I enjoy every part of it--picking the grapes in late August or early September, removing the hulls and separating them from the seeds, which is kind of a Zen thing, and the intoxicating smell of the hulls and the grape insides as they're cooking on the stovetop--just divine.

3.  Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/it an inspiration to you?
Probably my grandmother, Vera Bell. Her Sunday dinners were unforgettable--fried chicken, oyster fritters, collards with corn dumplings, homemade vegetable soup, fig preserves, lacy cornbread, and more. I think that I'd relish those dishes anyway, but because I also connect them to her I've always wanted to cook like she did.

4.  What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
Has to be my oyster knife. I am a (very) amateur blacksmith and I made it myself, and I modeled it after a late 19th-century one that my great-uncle used to have--he was an oysterman by trade.

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
My big meal was Saturday night at my 88-year-old cousin's house and he made fresh pigs feet, served in apple vinegar with a little salt. Very tender, and quite a delicacy among the older crowd here. Not my favorite, but any meal that I get to share with my cousin is a good meal. 

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what do you eat?
Yes, as I mentioned above, we had dinner every Sunday after church at my grandmother's home, an old, antebellum farmhouse on the North Carolina coast (which is mine now). Because we lived on the coast, we tended to eat a lot of seafood--oyster fritters, soft shell crabs, clam chowder with corn dumplings, etc. Fried chicken every week. And lots of vegetables--fried corn, collard greens (also with corn dumplings and white potatoes), butterbeans, etc. It was always my grandmother, my family of six, and a couple of great-aunts, but sometimes others, too.

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Yes. This year I grew pole beans, a couple kinds of butterbeans, sweet corn, cantaloupes, watermelon, okra, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, broccoli, and some herbs. Also, a few eggplants that succumbed to flea beetles.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
You're kidding, right? Some things are best left off the printed page....

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
Hmmm. Really hard question. Well, it's not exactly a meal, but.... My grandfather had an African-American half-brother with whom he was very close (a rare thing in the Jim Crow South--the being close part and out in the open, not the half-brother thing). That was back in the 1920s and '30s. I never really got to know him--he died when I was a small child-- but he was famous in this area for making top-of-the-shelf corn liquor during Prohibition and beyond. He was also a master carpenter and farmer, I should probably say, and very successful at everything to which he put his hand. Anyway, if I could dream up a meal, I'd love to have that gentleman make me a tumbler full of his 'shine and maybe roast some oysters and jumping mullet. I don't really like any homemade moonshine that I've ever had, but I'd still like to try his and I'd like to sit and share a meal and listen to his stories about his life and his life with my grandfather.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is________." 
Sounds cheesy, I know, but of course it's who you're sharing the meal with, and how much you love them. Having a few ears of sweet corn right out of the garden as a side dish doesn't hurt, either, though.

And as promised, here is David's recipe for pickled green tomatoes, which he got from Beatrice Mason, a family friend and neighbor who grew up in Core Creek, North Carolina.  For the full story behind the recipe, check out his blog NC Food.  Once you read the story, the pickles you make with this recipe will taste even better!  Our tomato plants have stopped producing for the season and I've already pulled out most of the plants, but I look forward to trying this recipe next year.

Combine and cover with 2 quarts cold salt water:
·      2 quarts green tomatoes, sliced
·      2 cups, green pepper, sliced
·      1 cup onion, sliced
·      4 medium hot peppers
·      1 tbsp. turmeric

Let stand 3-4 hours. Drain. Cover again with cold water. Let stand 1 hour. Drain.
Tie in cheesecloth and set in pot:
½ cup black pepper
2 tbsp. mustard seed
2 tsp. whole cloves
2 tsp. allspice
Add to pot:
2 sticks cinnamon
1 and ½ cups brown sugar
1 quart apple cider vinegar
Simmer until very hot. Bring to boil. Remove cheesecloth. Seal in sterilized jars.