I have had many talented people visit me here in my kitchen. Creative in their endeavours as writers, but never one that admits to having kissed a frog in 1967. Y’all know I would not joke about such things but Carolyn Burns Bass admits to doing such a thing, let’s just hope Peta doesn’t find out. If that is not enough, she told me in the strictest of confidence, that her daddy was a sword swallower and her momma was a repentant chanteuse. She admitted, admitted y’all that her momma could sing right nice and pretty but her belief had no ambition and lacking in confidence.
All this might explain why she felt she had to wonder the Earth. Travelling to Yorkshire to walk the moors, bicycling around the rice paddies of Japan, riding elephants in Thailand and worst of all she stalked Kangaroos in Australia.
Now don’t get me wrong, Carolyn has her talents. Over the years, she has been assistant editor of a national music magazine (CCM), written magazine cover features, personality profiles, music reviews and food features. She has had her short fiction published in MetroMoms Fiction, The Rose & Thorn (Spring, 2007) and Breath & Shadow (October 2007). She is an active member of the Backspace writing community, where many of her short stories have placed within the top 3 in the Backspace Short Story Contests not to mention her personal blog Ovations
Trying my Southern best to be polite to a fellow food blogger, and that’s not easy y’all let’s get on with the interview.
1. Earliest memory of your Mothers or Grandmothers kitchen.
As a child, my family moved to a new rental place about every year until I was seven years old. With each move went my mother’s huge white stove, the double-door refrigerator, and the lime green Formica table and the slick vinyl chairs that made our legs sweat during the hot Southern California summers. My mom cooked with heavy cast iron skillets and Revere Ware pots, some of which she handed down to me and which I still use. My fondest memory of my mother’s kitchen was the old Autumn Leaf dishware she collected from yard sales and second-hand stores. I thought the Autumn Leaf dishware was the ugliest stuff ever made. My mother collected it because it was what her mother had used when she was a child on the farm in Iowa. Funny, I still think the Autumn Leaf dishware is hideous, but whenever I see a piece at an antique store, I fight with my inner child not to buy it. I inherited my grandmother’s teapot and a few other items and proudly display them in my dining room.
2. Do you like to cook?
When I have the time and inclination, I enjoy cooking. The preparation is not as important to me as the product. Since the process is important to certain recipes, I’ve learned to be patient with all of the steps necessary for great food preparation. I come from a long line of creative and inventive cooks. My grandmother took a job in a diner when she was a very young girl after her father died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1917. During the depression, she cooked huge meals for farm hands and her growing family. When she scandalized the family by divorcing my grandfather in the early 1950s, she moved to California and found a job doing the only thing she knew to do: cook. My mother learned to cook good, old-fashioned comfort food from my grandmother and augmented her skills from reading recipes and watching early cooking shows such as Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet. When she and my father divorced when I was seven, she also got a job doing what she did best: cook. Among my earliest kitchen memories are my mother calling me into the kitchen to do the odious things a cook must master before attempting to create a meal. I resented these prep tasks for pulling me away from whatever book I was reading at the time, or if I had no book underway, from the Gilligan’s Island reruns my younger sister watched every day. A wonderful thing happened while I was peeling potatoes or grating cheese, however. A magical thing really. Something neither my mother nor I expected. Without realizing it, I soaked up what my mother was doing to the food. Years later, when I began cooking for my future husband, the memories of which spices she used and in what combination, how she browned the meats, thickened the gravies, seasoned the vegetables, and roasted the beef flooded back as if by instinct.
3. If not why not?
While my children were young and I cooked a full meat, vegetable and potato/pasta dinner six nights a week, I wearied of cooking. The repetition of cooking the same meals for picky appetites every week became tiresome and I went through a phase of telling my kids that we were having “rocks and dirt” when they asked what we were having for dinner.
4. What recipe of your mother or grandmother do you make that sends you back in time watching (whichever one) in the kitchen?
I enjoy making all of our traditional Thanksgiving foodstuffs as I’d seen my grandmother and my mother prepare for years and years. My grandmother and mother are both gone now, but when I’m cooking Thanksgiving (and Christmas) meals, I feel their presence with me in the kitchen. I begin with the turkey, which I always brine, then bake unstuffed in a cooking bag. I make corn bread stuffing with pecans and cranberries in half of the dish (some family members don’t like the fruit and nuts), family favorite of green bean casserole (the kind with the fried onions on top), candied yams with browned mini-marshmallows, mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, corn pudding, and a garlic-onion bread ring we call “Robbie Rolls” after my sister who introduced the recipe. Then, of course, there are the pies. Always two pumpkin and one pecan—with real whipped cream. I wrote about my grandmother making the Thanksgiving turkey in the first draft of my yet-to-be-published novel, The Sword Swallower’s Daughter, in a scene that has since been cut from the manuscript. The scene appears in my blog:Ovations
5. What is your favourite herb or spice or both.
My single favourite herb is garlic. I use it frequently and abundantly. My favourite combination of seasonings I’ve dubbed, the Italian Trinity: garlic, olive oil and basil. This combination is the basis for all of my favourite Italian foods.
6. If you could be a ghost in that kitchen and watch yourself as a small child, what would you tell that child today?
My mother had a hard life. I wish I could tell the child summoned to the kitchen what a privilege it is to help her mother prepare the family’s daily nourishment. I’d tell that child that one day she will look back at those times as blessed moments of mother-daughter companionship, that one day she will cherish the time spent with her mother in the kitchen and wish with all her heart that her mother was still here to share in the joy of cooking.
7. Outside of your own country/county, which country’s cuisine do you like or prefer.
I am a huge fan of Mexican food and can make a good, hot salsa. Born and raised in Southern California, we had many friends who shared their regional specialties, and there are outstanding Mexican restaurants everywhere. My biggest challenge since moving to North Carolina a year ago is finding good Mexican food and food products. We stumbled into a fantastic place outside of Chapel Hill called La Fiesta. The owners are originally from Tijuana, but grew up in San Diego. Everything they prepare is authentic and delicioso—like a taste of home.
8. What is your families favourite dish.
My family is divided on what their favourite dish from my kitchen would be. Ask my husband, and he would probably tell you a good pot roast with gravy and roast vegetables. He’s a meat and potatoes kind of guy. A meal my whole family always loves is the Japanese feasts we have several times a year. I came to enjoy Japanese food of all kinds while living there for three years when my husband was in the Marine Corps. We had a favourite restaurant called Sanzoku, which the Americans barbarously called the Chicken Shack. Their grilled teriyaki chicken was crispy outside and moist inside, seasoned with a thin salty-sweet sauce. I’ve recreated their teriyaki sauce as best as I can, and my husband does a good grilling of the chicken. To this, I also make musubi à la Sanzoku (large rice balls stuffed with pickled plum, smoked salmon, stewed seaweed, wrapped with seaweed); rolled sushi with tuna, salmon and other veggies; udon noodles in fish broth, and chicken or pork gyoza (Japanese version of potstickers). We eat the feast with chopsticks in the Japanese dishes I bought while in Japan.
9. Since you like to cook, do you have a old fashion pantry, larder to you Brits… Do you recommend people start one and what would be the most important thing in that larder?
My mother had a well-stocked larder which consisted of a wide variety of canned goods and baking ingredients. I’ve tried to maintain the same, although I prefer using fresh vegetables rather than the canned varieties. I can’t imagine a functional home without a well-stocked pantry that contains flour, sugar, salt, olive oil, butter, garlic, onions, potatoes, pasta (pick your favorite), tomato sauce/paste/puree, and wine. Yes. Wine. Inexpensive bottles of both white and red for cooking. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something that my mother and grandmother would have had in their pantries, but oh well. It’s only eight miles to the nearest supermarket.
10. Of all the kitchen gadgets invented OLD and NEW which OLD and NEW are you favorite? (One old and one new)
Other than a good sharp knife, I couldn’t do without my cast iron skillets handed down from my mother. The new gadgets are hard to select a favourite among. I love the electronic rice cooker I bought in Japan more than 20 years ago that is still going strong. I would not have survived the rocks and dirt days of cooking every day for fussy children without my Crockpot. My automatic bread machine is the family favourite, hands down, and I really enjoy experimenting with breads. My Rabbit-style corkscrew is the smartest thing to happen to wine since corks. So there. Asking me to pick one is like asking a mother to pick her favourite child.
11. Having wondered the Planet what is the strangest food that you have eaten?
We were served some squiggly eel (unagi) concoction in Japan that I don’t remember the name of, so it doesn’t count. It was slimy, smelly and just plain gross. My husband, who can eat just about anything, couldn’t stomach whatever it was.
At a dinner with colleagues in Queretaro, Mexico, I enjoyed a delicious appetizer of small fried tostadas, with beans, lettuce, guacamole, cheese and bacon bits. Except they weren’t bacon bits. My colleague sitting next to me inquired if I liked the tostadas. I nodded enthusiastically, and took another bite to show my approval. He said, “Oh
good. This dish is from my home state of Oaxaca. The chapulines really give the tostadas their distinctive flavor.”
“Chapulines?” I ask.
“The brown crunchy things,” he replies.
“Oh, yes. They’re really smoky and good,” I say, taking another bite.
“So you’ve had them before?” He gives me a quizzical look.
“Oh, yes. I put them in salads and on baked potatoes.”
“Chapulines? You use them in the States?” At this point he looks across me at the man sitting on my other side.
My friend on the right, who is widely traveled in the US, looks to me and says, “I believe you’re thinking of bacon bits.”
“And these aren’t bacon bits?” I say, taking another tostada.
“No.” He and the other man exchange wry smiles.
“They’re deep fried grasshoppers,” says the Oaxaca man. “Chapulines.”
They really were delicious.
I’ve also had veal pancreas. Of course, it’s not called pancreas on the menu. It’s sweetbreads. This dish was served at a chef’s table dinner at the superb five-star/five-diamond Addison restaurant at the Grand Del Mar Hotel in San Diego. The sweetbreads were gently sautéed and topped with a white wine reduction. So tender were the sweetbreads, they literally melted in your mouth.
Thank you Carolyn, as polite as you were for your Southern California roots, Olives Gripes is proud to help your lil ole food blog along.