Friday, January 17, 2014

The Plantation Cookbook's Chicken and Peaches, 1972

Can orange juice, peaches, brown sugar, vinegar, garlic, nutmeg, and basil produce something good, -- when combined with fried chicken?

In the hands of southern cooks, certainly. Having experimented with this Plantation Cookbook (1972) a few times, and salivating as I do over the mere Kindle-reading of Dishes and Beverages of the Old South (Martha McCulloch-Williams, 1913), I begin to suspect that American Southern cooking may rank perfectly comfortably with the world's more frequently acknowledged culinary treasures -- the French, the Italian, the Chinese. Perhaps the enthusiastic use of butter accounts for this excellence. We know the French saying "butter is the best cook." But it's the frank exaltation about food that seems to show a civilization's sophistication in the kitchen. Ninety-eight years ago Martha McColloch-Williams wrote, in her opening chapter "Grace before meat:"

Proper dinners mean so much -- good blood, good health, good judgment, good conduct. The fact makes tragic a truth too little regarded; namely, that while bad cooking can ruin the very best of raw foodstuffs, all the arts of all the cooks in the world can do no more than palliate things stale, flat, and unprofitable. To buy such things is waste, instead of economy. Food must satisfy the palate else it will never satisfy the stomach. An unsatisfied stomach, or one overworked by having to wrestle with food which has bulk out of all proportion to flavor, too often makes its vengeful protest in dyspepsia.

... I am leading up to the theory that it was through being the best-fed people in the world, we of the South Country were able to put up the best fight in history, and after the ravages and ruin of civil war, come again to our own. We might have been utterly crushed but for our proud and pampered stomachs, which in turn gave the bone, brain, and brawn for the conquests of peace.

Two generations later, the authors of The Plantation Cookbook -- no byline is given except to the Junior League of New Orleans -- do not wax quite so eloquent about the power of good food in history. They save their prose for the glories of Louisiana only, and for the thirty-odd fine New Orleans houses, bearing romance-novel names like Rosedown, Beauregard House, and Shadows-on-the-Teche, whose biographies form the first half of the book. The prose begins like this:

An eerie marsh, a land of green flocking sprinkled over still, dark water -- a dip of the wing and the jet-age traveler is introduced to Louisiana. It is a strange land, this lake-studded fringe of the state. It makes one think of the Greek Limbo, where lost souls wander mournfully through the gray mists ....

I am always impressed with what seem, now, unusual cultural assumptions made by authors and editors of yesteryear. Who writing a cookbook today, what cookbook-writing committee like a Junior League especially, would refer to "the Greek Limbo" amidst recipes for gazpacho and riz au épinards? What cookbook-writing committee would tell us with a straight face that "the names of heroic explorers like DeSoto, LaSalle, Iberville, Bienville are familiar to schoolchildren everywhere, and rightly so"? I was a schoolchild in 1972 and I remember nothing of Iberville. DeSoto and LaSalle, a little.

Or do we wax too curmudgeonly about the dumbing down of educational standards, impossible cultural expectations, cookbook style, and all? Should we return simply to the chicken and peaches?

Here they are. The ingredient list may seem outlandish, but compared to almost everything else in The Plantation Cookbook, it is outlandish mostly in omitting that cup of heavy cream and that stick of butter which every other offering seems to include. Ah yes. Surely Louisiana and its queen city are not French for nothing.

The Plantation Cookbook's (Junior League of New Orleans') Chicken and Peaches, 1972

  • 1 and 1/2 cups orange juice
  • 2 and 1/2 cups sliced fresh peaches
  • 3 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. white vinegar
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp. nutmeg or mace
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 16 selected pieces frying chicken, lightly salted
  • 3/4 cup flour mixed with 2 tsp salt and 1/3 tsp black pepper
  • cooking oil
  • garnish: crabapples or fresh mint

Prepare the sauce in a medium sized pan: combine the orange juice, peaches, sugar, vinegar, nutmeg, basil, and garlic. Simmer, tightly covered, for 10 minutes.

Then, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour. Pour the cooking oil into a large heavy skillet to a depth of half an inch, heat, and brown the chicken well. Remove and set aside.

Discard the excess oil, but save the browned bits; add 1/3 cup of the simmering sauce to the skillet. Replace the chicken in the skillet and pour the rest of the sauce and the peaches over.

Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until the chicken is done. Serve on a hot platter, garnished with crabapples or fresh mint.

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