We unpack the weekly basket from Randy’s farm. Mark moves the kale aside (it is particularly unpopular now, since its fibrous stems clogged up the garbage disposal last week, requiring dismal hours of plumbing labor) and examines the broad flat leaves of collards.
“I’d be interested in trying collards,” he says. We have been binge-watching seasons of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives; he often indulges in collard greens, long and slow-simmered, especially at some of his southern stops. And Fieri, whose genius is to make you crave the foods he favors, loudly loves cooked greens.
I am not so sure. They look a little…swampy to me, but the next day, James and I do some research. We find a recipe called ‘Sunday Collards’ in the Lee Brothers cookbook–Jim’s good suggestion: he figured southern cooks like the Lees would have a recipe for collard greens. We make a shopping list; I am doubtful about finding something like smoked hog jowl. But my supermarket surprises. There, in the cold case with the hams and bacon, are several shrink-wrapped packages of interesting smoked hog parts. I don’t find jowl, but I do put a package with three hefty pieces of smoked hog neck into my basket.
At home, I pull out the cookbook and begin. First, I create a pot liquor by searing a chunk of the pork (I freeze the rest, in case we want to try this again) in hot oil , and then boiling it with a generous helping of red pepper flakes. The Lees instruct me in how to prepare the greens after giving them a good washing–removing tough stems and rolling the leaves up like cigars, then slicing them into half-inch coils.
Once the pot liquor is bubbling and the tastes have melded, I throw the sliced collards into the pot, cook them down, add more. When all the sliced leaves are immersed in the liquor, we let it simmer for an hour.
Finished, the dish DOES look swampy. But the taste is a revelation.
“This is GOOD,” says Mark, going for seconds.
“It’s good,” I agree, “but hot.”
Mark, who likes hot food, grins. “I,” he says proudly, dipping his noggin so I can see the dew on its noble crown, “have a sweaty head.”
“Sweaty head?” says Jim, coming in to get more Alfredo. “Is that a beer?”
It’s not, we explain, but I think maybe it should be. Sweaty Head: the beer you drink with collard greens.
Inspired by that hot and smoky success, I start thinking about the kohlrabi waiting on the counter. I clip a recipe from a supermarket flyer for an Asian slaw. This will require another trip to the store for ingredients we’ve never stocked regularly on the home shelves: things like toasted sesame seed and sesame oil. And Chinese chili paste.
I cut the shoots away from the kohlrabi bulbs and peel away the tough outer skin, then cut them into chunks I can shoop into the food processor. I stir the resulting shards into slaw mix, adding sesame seeds. I whisk up the dressing, with its sesame oil and soy sauce and generous, generous helping of chili paste.
I chop up an unlikely topping: honey roasted peanuts.
Just before dinner, I mix the two together, tangy sauce and chilled slaw, and sprinkle the chopped peanuts on top.
Again, we like it. Again, it is HOT.
It’s promising to be a summer of heat-stoked cooking adventures.
Neither of us grew up in households where spicy food was served. Mark remembers his dad dressing field greens with oil and vinegar, but never with red pepper. My dad loved oil and vinegar, too, and other things we thought weirdly decisive in flavor, like limburger cheese and braunschweiger, but he was not a hot food kind of guy. And my mother cooked solid, substantial meals–meat and potatoes, a gentle chili, an innocuous spaghetti sauce. She was a good cook, but her offerings were geared to her audience. Red pepper flakes did not enter the discussion.
And then–college in the early seventies, in western New York, in the first flush of the chicken wing era, and all spicy hell broke loose. I ran with a crowd that liked food hot–as hot as you could stand it, and then, maybe, add a little more Tabasco. We devoured umpteen tumbled plates of crazy-hot wings, dowsing the fire with ice-cold beer, learning, to our rue, never to rub an itchy eye after handling a steamy, saucy drumette. We sampled the offerings of many fine establishments and settled on a favorite wing place–a hole-in-the-wall bar with a kitchen attached to the back.
We made pilgrimages to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, where wings, legend told us, originated.
The story we heard, back then, was that Teressa Bellissimo, co-proprietor with husband Frank (they opened the Anchor Bar in 1939), invented the wing recipe for her son Dominic. He brought a bunch of friends to the bar and said, “Ma! Fix us something good to eat!”
She looked at the hungry crew, and she looked in her cooler, and all she could find was some chicken wings. To many, back in the day, chicken wings were throwaways–useless parts. Others put them in soup, and there were bars that would bake the bony things and give them away as free bar food. But that night, Teressa was inspired to cut the wings up and deep fry them, then toss them with hot sauce.
[I wonder now, if that’s the true story, so I look it up. Thousands of sites purport to offer the true history of the Buffalo chicken wing. I choose, because it darned well should be reliable, the Smithsonian’s site (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-the-buffalo-chicken-wing-10260772/).
That tells me the legend we heard may well be true. But then some of the Bellissimo family maintain there’s a little bit different reality–that the butcher who should have delivered a batch of meaty chicken necks–which the family used in their red sauce–delivered wings instead, and Frank said to Teressa, “Find something to do with these things!”
Whatever–in 1964, Teressa served up deep-fried wings, glazed with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, and the city went nuts. By the time I hit college ten years later, wings were an international sensation, and it was a mark of honor to eat them with as tangy a saucing as one could stand.
(Do note, though, that there are other versions of the wing legend, and others who claim they invented the treat.)]
But college days–despite an extra year or two of study for some of us–inevitably wane, and domesticity takes the edge off hot food cravings. Tender children don’t like crazy-hot wings. And people on the autism spectrum, with their especially sensitive palates, often can’t tolerate the zip and tang of hot sauces. We moderated our menus to meet Jim’s needs. Our wild indulgences morphed into medium-hot sauce for our tacos.
We ate well. We just didn’t do ultra-spicy.
And life went on, taking us on unexpected adventures, veering us down uncharted roadways, and, finally, bringing us here. I’m teetering now on the career fence, sticking one foot out, ready to step off, joyfully, into retirement. A weekly basket brings us food we’ve never eaten or prepared. We’re ready to try something different, to add a little zip.
So we buy three different kinds of hot sauce. We experiment with chili paste. Mark and Jim, exploring an exotic market, stock up on cayenne and hot mustard and red pepper flakes.
Is it, maybe, time of life, a new era beginning? Maybe we need to celebrate the segue into our sixties with zip and zing.
Or maybe it’s aging taste buds, and we need to slather our food with ever-hotter spices in order to detect the tang.
Could it just be opportunity? We have new foods and a little more leisure, so a buried sense of adventure is rearing its feisty head?
Whatever. We’re looking forward, in more ways than one, to a little summer heat.
(I found a great blog that discusses the history of hot and spicy foods, if you’re interested in learning about origins: http://sxxz.blogspot.com/2005/06/spicy-foods-chemistry-is-history.html)