Monday, January 20, 2014

Pork and apple pie, 1885

I would love to hear a foodie, a chemist, or some other wise soul explain to me why pork and apples are such a perfect combination. Or why they were. Perhaps, in earlier generations when pigs were fatter than they are now, the juicy acidity of an apple offset all that luscious grease, making a sensuous logic that everyone understood and crafted recipes by. Nowadays, when you cook a pork-and-apples dish using a modern, lean, and approaching-flavorless loin or chop, you might wonder why you would not do just as well with a nice dry chicken breast. Yet somehow you -- we -- don't do just as well, do we? Somehow the mental image, or if you prefer the racial culinary memory, of the taste of chicken and apples isn't quite as compelling as that other delicious pair of eatables.

Luckily La Cuisine Creole (1885) has preserved for us a nineteenth-century New Orleans recipe for pork and apple pie which is the most unusual treatment I have ever seen of this meat and this fruit. Scholars and other wise souls tell us La Cuisine Creole, though published anonymously, was the work of Lafcadio Hearn, of whom I will dare to say this. If you know him at all, I'll guess that you know him for the same reason I do -- because you grew up with the 1970s edition of The Golden Treasury of Children's Literature, within whose pages you found the delightful story "The Boy Who Drew Cats." That's (Patrick) Lafcadio Hearn. If later in a big city bookstore you also found and bought a copy of Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, that too was our friend Hearn.

Really, he led an extraordinary life. Born of an Irish father and a Greek mother on the Greek island of Lefkada (hence his name), he grew up in Ireland but made a career as a newspaperman first in Cincinnati and then in New Orleans. In time he moved to Japan, married a Japanese woman, and took Japanese citizenship. It seems -- more wise souls say -- he is very much responsible, through his writings, both for the popular understanding of New Orleans as an exotic, half-European, half-Caribbean city, different to the rest of America, and for the Western world's Belle Epoque mania for all things Japanese. 

La Cuisine Creole may not have jumped out at you from a library or bookstore shelf yet, but nor did it jump out at me. I found the recipe collected in The American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated History of American Eating and Drinking (1964). The editors there credit the cookbook, but make no mention of the man.

The dish is very simple, especially if you choose to buy your pie crust dough rather than make it. You will need:

  • pastry for a 2-crust pie
  • 4 "greening" apples (I used Granny Smith)
  • 2 pounds lean pork, cubed
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 egg, beaten

Line the bottom of a deep pie dish with a sheet of pastry. Peel, core, and slice the apples. In a small bowl, mix the thyme, sugar, salt, and pepper. Layer half the apples and then half the pork cubes atop the pastry. Sprinkle half the thyme and sugar mixture over. Repeat layers of apples and pork. Add remaining thyme and sugar. Dot with butter.

Cover with the second sheet of pastry, crimp and seal the edges, and slash in several places. Brush "lavishly" with egg. (The pie is going to bake a long time, so the dough needs this extra protection.) Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for one and a half to 2 hours. You may want to cover the pie with tin foil after the first hour, to ensure that even with its eggy coat it does not overbrown.

Further instructions stipulate that the pie must be served either lukewarm or cold, but not chilled and not piping hot from the oven. This makes it a good choice for something to bring to a Thanksgiving or Christmas buffet -- set it down on your hostess' sideboard and forget about it. An accompaniment of fresh grated horseradish and sour cream is said to be an acceptable "departure from tradition."

And by the way, in what sense is this pie notably Creole? It strikes me as much more redolent of cool, autumnal New England farms and orchards than of crawfish, jazz, humid nights, wrought iron balconies, and "the gateway to the tropics."

Regardless, it's very good. Cubed pork chops or pork stew meat, which might have cooked up rather tough in other preparations, stay tender with long simmering amid the apples, and the apples themselves cook down to a delicious mush. At least, I thought so. Thyme and sugar, too, are happy partners. Who would have thought it?

And after all, why not chicken? Chicken and sugar .... Chemists could perhaps rush to explain why that just seems wrong, but before they do, the racial culinary memory forestalls them with a sort of collective shudder.

Thank you, Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn). I must go and look up "The Boy Who Drew Cats" again, by way of tribute.

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