Hello. My name is Lauren Elyse, and I cook for fun. And now I write a series about others who write books about cooking for fun. Every season, I will be focusing on a new cookbook, and then I’ll spend some of my cash money re-creating their recipes/convincing myself that I can make food like a civilized human being. Essentially, I’m trying to get my shit together via cooking, and this season, I am focusing on Paul Fehribach of Big Jones and his book, The Big Jones Cookbook. Let’s fall in love!
The Cookbook: The Big Jones Cookbook by Paul Fehribach
Chapter 2: “Inspirations from the Lowcountry”
The Recipes: Shrimp and Grits, Coconut Cream Cake, Cream Cheese Icing
The Lowcountry, as the extensive coastal plain and Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia are known, has one of the most distinctive regional cuisines in the whole country, even the whole world. Its cuisine is particularly noteworthy for its ancestral rice industry and what came to be known as the Carolina Rice Kitchen…
-Paul Fehribach, The Big Jones Cookbook
In lieu of recent events, I have summoned up the courage to admit that my happiness is inevitably in the hands of both the fragility of being and the oft skewed perspectives of the general public at large.
And if you know anything about either of those entities, then yeah, things are feeling pretty fucky right about now.
Look, I don’t have to tell you what is wrong in the world currently, which was how I initially and impulsively intended to wax poetic about death and the destruction of morals. It is what it is, which grossly shouldn’t be the case at all. However, as you and I both know, my opinions, albeit valid, are but a tiny turd in the shit storm that is the political and soci0-economic wailing and gnashing of teeth. Rather than have my words dissolve into the media abyss, Twitter can tell you what is wrong in the world right now – often more eloquently than I can – in a convenient package of 160 characters or less:
But politics aside, as painful as that is right now, I came back to my humble, semi-ridiculous little site, slate cleaned, with a better and more composed impulse to keep trudging along no matter what. I previously had this cookbook series on a Chicago culture website, and two articles in, I knew it was the wrong format for me to vomit out my pathetic, Wonder-Bread-crusty innards. People read culture sites to skim reviews and to ensure that The Spongebob Musical is, in fact, bullshit – not to hear about how I feel about mis en place and that time I force fed my coworkers coconut cake. That’s not how life works.
The less-quaint reality is: I bust my ass 6-7 days a week. My ankles are giving out. I quit my writing gig so I could sleep more. I think I might have cried in a professional setting. Twice. I re-read every. damn. essay. on this site, and decided it was depressing, poorly written, and were the rantings of a 16-year-old failure on her way back from prom. I trashed it all. Finally, as for the cherry on top of this fundamental, 20-something piss sundae, I thought my house was getting broken into the other morning – a sure sign that I was living my life to its fullest potential. All the while, I was this certain that my dying thoughts were going to be about the lack of informative opinions surrounding the EU vote and how I needed to leave a text message to my sister so that there would be some form of physical evidence present for what would eventually become my Dateline episode.
Needless to say, I later found roommate Kretz asleep on my front porch. I then managed not to vomit my literal pathetic, Wonder-Bread-crusty innards as my month began to spiral fiercely downhill. You can connect the rest of those dots yourself, bucko.
Ironically enough, I am not unhappy, per se. Exhausted up the wahoo, sure, but in retrospect, my problems are small compared to the opportunity I get each day to have them – whether I have a functioning fridge in my apartment or not (Which, at the moment, I do not. The 20-something piss sundae strikes back!).
Regardless, I am not proud either. Mostly, I have become aware that I was not proud as to how I was living my life by dragging along the corpse of my youth through 60-hours-a-week workdays.
But do you know what I am proud of? I’m proud of this bowl of dried out, overdone shrimp gravy on top of a bowl of curdling cheese grits.
That’s right. And If every host of every Food Network competition is correct, and timing is everything, then call my timing “Casper the Friendly Ghost” – dead, well-intentioned, and getting, like, zero action. – which was how I got this bad boy to the table. And I was alright with that. Food doesn’t have to be beautiful, I told myself. I don’t have a pair of tweezers or a puree squeeze bottle, much less a cookie sheet that won’t bend in mild heat. I’m a real pioneer bitch. Trust me, there’s enough butter and cheese in this trainwreck that it must taste good.
And I was right. It didn’t matter, because cooking is reminiscent of a teenager’s rationale when they tell their parents they want to skip college, move in with their 26-year-old boyfriend Pablo, and leave to California to become an actor: You do it because you love it.
Or You do it to keep yourself/your children alive. Whatever.
Either way, you do it, and suddenly, you’re that much closer to presenting your homage to your salt-of-the-Earth ancestors, or at least the Food Network’s The Pioneer Woman. Point is, you’re closer to something in some idealistic, Pinterest-fueled existence, and in that way, you may feel fulfilled.
But in my way, I’m doing it to keep my bearings. I’m doing it to survive.
Alright, so maybe claiming “survival” is a bit mouthy of me, but when I get two, three, four days off a month, every free day is massively important and spent sleeping for 10 hours while avoiding the laundromat out of an inane fear that my time would be wasted on something that, yes, is ultimately productive, but then again, is it really?
The answer was “no”, and off I was, chopping tiny little vegetable pieces into tiny little piles, realizing that I had effectively spent 5 hours cooking a dinner for two. Go me!
And after I chopped up those tiny little vegetable piles, I moved on into the next stage of what may be considered the apex of cooking banality: stirring shit. Stirring shit non-stop for 45 minutes. Stirring grits, to be more specific, which is the Lowcountry’s response to the arguably more sophisticated Italian risotto. But if risotto is too sophisticated and too bougie for your new wave tastes , then grits are a-okay – underrated even. Stirring shit is even underrated. I was at peace with the world, man. Me and my Pandora shuffle station, featuring all of the greatest hits heard at a toddler’s Halloween party – we were one with the shrimp and one with the grits. Hell, there was even a cake I had baked two hours earlier chilling in the fridge. Sara Lee could kiss her domestic ass to the back of the freezer section for all I cared. I was gold.
More than that, I was useful.
I was cooking for a reason, an end goal: to publish a cooking article on a humble website for my friends to read. Not only that, but I was cooking for my coworkers so they could have cake the next day. I was cooking for Kretz so that he could eat two bites, claim he was “cutting back on carbs”, and then force me to begrudgingly eat the rest of the leftovers. My heart was light with the ambition of a mission: cook food for the people. In a way, baking and stirring was my equivalence to religious penance or Christmas gifting: I don’t want anything in return – God no – I just want to donate this $5 bill to the orphans or give you this Brat Pack DVD set you’ve weirdly been wanting for forever and witness your happiness. I just want you to be happy.
Please be happy. I know it’s hard, but try.
And cooking was my journey to Mecca in order to get there. Peaceful. Serene. Chop, chop, chopping little vegetables. Sharp knives. Dirty dishes. Destruction. Butter absolutely everywhere. Carbscarbscarbs. Lighting socially acceptable fires. Arson.
I was a happy little shrimp girl – even as my literal shrimp gravy was drying out from simmering on the back burner. Who gives a shit? I thought. I’ll add more chicken broth later. Science. Will my cheesy grits probably break apart while I’m doing this? Psh, yeah. But again, who gives one bits, two bits, six bits, a dollar? Cheesy oil is, like, the best oil. And, oh shit, is KRETZ HOME? FUCK. I NEED TO ICE THIS CAKE. KRETZ WILL ICE THIS CAKE FOR ME. SORRY BUT NOT REALLY.
Then it all became extraordinarily clear why dinner party hosts don’t like when their guests to come two hours early to “chat”. If you want to chat, you better know how to ice a bloody cake. You brought this life upon yourself, rude guest. I will not apologize.
However, the unfortunate truth was: Kretz didn’t bring this life upon himself. He was on time. Not unlike Pinocchio, I had not let my conscience be my guide – aka the host of every Food Network competition ever – and I had improperly timed my descent into dinner party hell. So there I was, icing a cake like a 6-year-old after eating two pack of Poptarts – manically and as if I were on speed – hollering to Kretz to please save me from my life choices, that I would YouTube “how to frost a cake” later or whatever. Just grab this mini rubber spatula, and get to work.
The thing about Lowcountry cooking – or about Southern-style cooking in general – are that the naysayers of the cuisine are inevitably right: There’s a lot of damn butter in this food. Note that Paula Deen may be a Muppet-ized version of this fact, lathering butter on to the sacrificial carbs for some god unbeknownst to most of humanity, but even so, I threw in a good half stick of butter into this dish. It was decadent. It was cruel. It was and is one of the few socially acceptable dishes where combining seafood and cheese is not a sin nor a tragedy.
But it was also broken, drying out, and maybe a tad too salty. Meanwhile, I had tossed a pecan-crusted image of the Alamo on to my coconut cake as some sort of reminder that there was a part of me in this purely Southern entity of a dessert – that my history still mattered, or whatever self-righteous reason I had done it out of – but that couldn’t save it from its own dryness and my withering disappointment. I was like Norma Bates, up in arms that my child couldn’t be a normal kid rather than a psuedo-sexual lady killer with an Oedipus complex: Just be a normal cake, coconut cake. Please.
The thing is: Even despite the fact that the dish was a sodium bomb, and even though my whipped egg whites did little to alleviate the black-as-tar soul of my semi-demon cake, it was still good food. More significantly: The food represented a larger image than most political and social statements at this moment can. It does, dramatics aside, represent a form of survival.
Because while this essay took me a couple of weeks to conjure up out of a lot of empathy and anger, and as tragic world events kept dog-piling up, there are much larger images of destruction and depravity happening outside of our little oven doors, so much so that often writing about food feels trite in comparison, especially now. However, aside from its smallness in a world wallowing in its perceived largeness, it is consistently a good thing among a multitude of bad things.
So no, my mediocre grits and coconut cake will not reverse a potentially destructive EU vote or fan the fanatical flames of the travesty that is Capitol Hill. It will not create much needed gun regulations or bring back the lives of the people unjustifiably shot this past week, this past month, this past year. It will not make you nor I less angry or hurt about the things other humans sometimes do to other humans, whether it be on a personal or a global scale. It will not take away our insecurities to be better people, or happier people, or people forgiving enough to understand that we are enough doing enough. Yes, we sometimes are trite and are perspectives skewed, but we are not less. We are more.
And if something as insignificant as a coconut cake can give us that perspective or that peace of mind for even a measly portion of our day-to-day lives – as it did for me or my coworkers the next day – than that is enough.
It’s impossible to talk about the Carolina Rice Kitchen without paying respects to the people who were doing the work – enslaved people of African descent. Only by an accumulating body of scholarly work over the last few decades have we been able to realize the epic contributions Africans made to the development of both the rice industry and cuisine of the Lowcountry… All known evidence points to the conclusion that it was the ancestral knowledge and keen ingenuity of these people that established and built the mammoth rice-growing systems of the wealthy plantations on which they were enslaved. They contributed what would today be considered intellectual property. They were awarded no patents and shared in none of the wealth, but scholarly research is finally recognizing the important intellectual contributions these slaves made to the building of America.
-Paul Fehribach, The Big Jones Cookbook
Update: This is merely a curated, Internet-sponsored beignet menu. The kind people of The University of Chicago Press have allowed me to publish one recipe (I think. More on that later.), and to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, I’m not throwin’ away my shot. I’m saving our one recipe for a really nifty occasion, so hold tight. But until then, here are links to some similar recipes. Watch me not get sued, readers! It’s really awesome following the law!
I could give you sacrificial carber Paula Deen’s recipe, or I could just give you the real deal. It looks like you might have to jump through a few obnoxious hoops and various surveys to get it, but I’m sure you can hack the system much better than I can. I honestly don’t know how I even manage to successfully post on this website.
So apparently Bobby Flay threw down this recipe against The Peninsula Grill’s own apparently famous-albeit-cocky coconut cake, and per Wikipedia, he apparently won. So here you go, champ.
I used cream cheese frosting on my cake, and Molly Yeh uses cream cheese frosting on her non-Red Velvet cakes too. Molly Yeh is to be trusted.
And might I mention that my aforementioned coworkers didn’t think my cake was dry, because they are saints and not animals. There is mercy, even in small, Alamo-dusted doses.