After spending a long weekend in Kentucky, I thought it best to avoid getting on the scales this morning. I did my regular two-mile jaunt before breakfast and will need to do two more before dinner in order to offset the weekend eating spree.
I spent last Saturday morning cleaning and cutting and chopping vegetables for a salad while my husband, a city boy by birth, shucked 50 ears of corn. Ours was a small contribution, a mere drop in the bucket, compared to all the prep work everyone else did for the big gathering. There was barbecued pork and chicken and beans. Cole slaw and potato salad. Cakes and pies and candy. And papaws.
An old family friend brought two boxes of papaws he’d gathered from his own trees. They look like small mangoes and taste like…papaws. A member of the custard apple family, the taste and texture of a papaw is sort of like that of a banana — but not really. The papaw, like the plantains I wrote about last week, is best at its ugliest. Though it starts out green and gradually turns yellow, it is sweetest and has the best texture (like custard) when it becomes wrinkled and black.
The papaw’s closest cousin is the cherimoya. A few years back when we were traveling in Ecuador our bus stopped at a roadside stand where local farmers were selling huge baskets of cherimoya, a green, pimply fruit that is native to southern Ecuador and northern Peru. The fruits were so ripe and ready to eat that we broke them apart with our hands. The flesh was as white as cotton with plump black seeds and a unique flavor — a little peach, strawberry, banana, pear? It was hard to describe. When asked what a cherimoya tastes like, an Ecuadorian will say: like a cherimoya. Think about it…if you’re asked what a strawberry tastes like, what do you say? Like a strawberry. It really doesn’t taste like anything else. So a cherimoya is a cherimoya; a papaw is a papaw. I’ve bought cherimoya in the US but they are either green and hard or black and rotten. This fruit doesn’t seem to get better with age like a plantain or a papaw.
The weekend gathering was a celebration of my brother’s birthday and the papaws were a gift. Like the homemade fried apple pies, the chocolate fudge with hickory nuts, and Helen Abner’s peanut butter rolls, which are famous in these parts. Years ago, my mom made blackberry jam cake during the holidays and she liked to add hickory nuts to the batter. We’d gather hickory nuts in the woods and I’d crack them with a hammer on the living room hearth. The shell was extremely hard to crack and the nut kernels had to be picked out with a hairpin. There’s a reason why hickory nuts are primarily eaten by squirrels!
I did enjoy the hickory nuts in the chocolate fudge, but I watched helpless as the last of Helen’s peanut butter rolls slipped away just out of arm’s reach. I wasn’t quick enough. There were, however, two boxes of fried apple pies.
Today I searched through my cookbooks for the spiral-bound copies of Kentucky recipes collected over the years by various groups and organizations. I found recipes for the old favorites, from chicken and dumplings to pinto beans to blackberry cobbler, but I was also amused by some of the other “Kentucky” recipes women across the state had submitted to the local cookbooks: Spanish noodles, Madge’s Philadelphia Potatoes, Chow Mein, Chop Suey, and Crepe Suzette. There was also lasagna, Cornish hens with orange sauce, and a dish called Emma Lou’s Southern Style Spaghetti, which was made with bacon, onions, peppers, kidney beans, mushrooms, ground beef, and tomatoes…not the traditional Italian version, perhaps, but it sounds like it’s worth a try.
The first “exotic” recipe I ever attempted came from the Ladies Home Journal. I was in college and the dish was called Polynesian Sweet and Sour Pork. It was a simple sweet and sour recipe, but, as I recall, it had a mound of shredded wheat on top! The next challenge was a blender version of “authentic” Italian tomato sauce. And then I decided to roast a duck. We were living on campus in a tiny apartment at that time and none of the local stores sold ducks. So I asked the A&P store to order one. I was trying to learn to cook French and wanted to make Duck a l’Orange from a new cookbook. But the store couldn’t order just one duck from the supplier; they had to buy at least six. Every time I went to the A&P store during the next couple of weeks someone in the meat department would remind me of this fact and ask if I planned to buy the other ducks. Needless to say, that year I learned to roast an exceptional duck!
I’ve eaten a lot of stuff from a lot of different places, so not much seems exotic anymore, but I still like to experiment and still enjoy it all — regular chow made from plain old meat and potatoes, as well as those tasty mystery morsels with hard-to-pronounce names. It’s all good!