By Herb Gardener –
Sometimes, our intent is to serve dishes that seduce, excite, or challenge. Not so most holiday menus. For me, at least, family favorites such as oyster rice dressing and the oft-maligned cranberry mold create a sense of warmth and good cheer by their familiarity and reflection of celebrations past.
I admit that I started out with pyrotechnics in mind when I volunteered to host a gathering that had come to town for a different kind of ritual, not of the December holiday variety. It was a memorial service for a spunky and beloved family member. Aunt Jay lived long and well and food and family gatherings were a cherished part of her life. I realized that nourishment —body and soul — was my priority. Put another way, food should be the vehicle and not the destination.
As several out-of-state family members arrived I began planning a dinner to serve the evening after the funeral mass. My initial emphasis on complicated recipes and fussy flavors was misplaced — I missed the comfort of meat and potato.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle understood that a speaker must find common ground with an audience. Likewise, a cook must analyze what diners crave when they gather to share a meal and what the occasion demands. Nearly all the guests were from or still lived in the South, thus my menu shifted appropriately away from Asia and swung closer to the Gulf Coast.
Bottom sirloin tri-tip is a Pacific coast cut, but a taught Texas rub and smoky BBQ sauce imparted a Muscle Shoals drawl to my grilled beef. Be sure that you don’t exceed medium rare and slice against the grain for best results. A “caviar” of black-eyed peas, bell peppers, green onions and vinaigrette was a simple side to prepare a few hours ahead. Cast iron skillet corn bread and the shrimp dish below completed my contribution. No kafir lime leaves needed to apply.
Breaking bread carries powerful symbolism for communal life. The promise is fulfilled when that bread is lustily consumed and washed down with conversation, stories, and memories. Here’s to the dishes from dog-eared books and yellowed index cards that crowd our family tables at their most important moments.
My mother’s family tree is rooted in the rich delta loam of Louisiana. For my appetizer I turned to the very first cookbook I purchased. Justin Wilson’s Homegrown Louisiana Cookin’ (Macmillan Publishing, NY) may seem quaint and unpolished by today’s standards, yet the following recipe has always won raves. Perhaps you will hear Justin whisper as you serve, “If they don’t like this I don’t want ‘em in the house.”
½ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
¾ cup white vinegar
¼ cup honey
1 cup pitted green olives with juice
2 medium-sized white or purple onions, thinly sliced
Louisiana hot sauce or ground cayenne pepper to taste
Salt to taste
In a large mixing bowl combine the lemon juice, hot sauce, oil, vinegar, and honey, and stir until the honey is dissolved. Add the olives and mix well. Then, add the onions, shrimp, and salt, stirring gently. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour or even overnight.