19 January 2010

The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook



In reading through my pile of Alabama cookbooks, I couldn’t help but think of that old adage, “Everything old is new again.” That could be a problem.

Every chef waxes poetic about the vegetables at the Farmer’s Market, how they are fresh and organic and beautiful. They speak as though this is some new phenomenon, an amazing discovery on their part. I worry that this comes from a “fashion” in food as much as a love for the product. I can’t think of a living soul, especially a chef, who would pass up fresh black-eyed peas for canned ones. All those farmers in Alabama with amazingly beautiful fruits and vegetables have always been there. As a child, my great-uncle had a huge organic farm. I can’t remember buying vegetables at a store once we moved to Alabama.

When my Uncle Knox reached his 90’s and was no longer able to keep his garden going, he rose early three days a week all summer long and met a truck farmer from Chilton County to get his vegetables and their extraordinary peaches. When he moved into town and could no longer drive, he told the farmer he wouldn’t be seeing him. The truck farmer asked where he moved and each day he drove into town, he stopped at the curb in front of the house so Uncle Know could come out and get his vegetables.

In 1884, Orange Judd published Truck Farming in the South, detailing how farmers could move their produce to buyers in the North. Southern farmers have always been there, providing amazing produce to everyone, not just chefs.


I am trilled that farmers are getting their due, but let us never forget that they have always been there, feeding the nation. That is a fact and not fashion. What does make me happy in all of these Alabama cookbooks is the celebration of the traditional foods and the love of family that has always been at the forefront of Southern culture. No one celebrates that more than Chris and Idie Hastings.

In 1995 they opened The Hot and Hot Fish Club. While the restaurant might be new, The Hot and Hot Fish Club is over 150 years old. As articles and profiles are written each week about those “culinary pioneers” who gather in homes to prepare meals for cooking clubs and roaming restaurants, and formal gatherings, truth be told, it has been done before.

Chris’ great-great-great-great-grandfather, Hugh Fraser, was a founding member of The Hot and Hot Fish Club in 1845. After meeting informally to discuss the weeks work, fishing and planting, one person would offer up his catch and vegetables and the men would enjoy a simple meal among friends. After a time they decided to become a formal epicurean gentleman’s club complete with rules, regulations, and dues.

There were eighteen rules for The Hot and Hot Fish Club. Six of the rules involved baskets of champagne. That's my kind of club. Here are two of the rules outlining officer's duties.

RULE V DUTIES OF THE PRESIDENT

Each member, in rotation, and in order of residences, shall act as President. He shall furnish a ham, and good rice, and also attend to the preparation for dinner, to be on the tables a 2 o’clock p.m., or not later than half-past 2. He must preserve order, and select sides with the vice-President for games. If absent he must send his ham and rice.

RULE VI DUTIES OF THE VICE-PRESIDENT

The Vice-President shall, in addition to his dish and wine, supply the Club with water and ice, and attend the games. If the President is absent, the Vice-President will preside, and his next neighbor officiates for him. He must also announce whether champagne will be brought at the ensuing club.

When the The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook was published, the rules from 1845 form the decorated endpapers. Clearly, this cookbook is worth the price just to read those rules. But it is not the only reason. In his introduction writer and sportsman Charles Gaines writes,
“The recipes here are as elegantly form-following-function contrivances as a Le Corbusier chair; unprissy, unhistionic, uncomplicated, and honest.”
Unprissy” is the key. If I have a complaint about many Southern cookbooks, it is that prissy, often-precious quality they seem to have, as though that is the norm. The Hastings take the indigenous food of the South and make it unprissy and honest. Why argue with Charles Gaines. There is grouper, dove, bobtails, okra, muscadines, green tomatoes, and hot and hot fish of every kind.


As a testament to this cookbook, it took me forever to pick a recipe. I finally chose one of my favorites. In the introduction to the recipe the cook is told not to tell anyone what the soup is as one might lose the chance to impress your diners of you tell them this is just cauliflower.

Cauliflower Soup with White Truffle Oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sliced tallow onion, about 1 medium
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 pound white cauliflower florets
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
White truffle oil (optional)

Melt the butter in a medium stockpot over medium-low heat. Add the onion and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until the onion is softened and translucent. Add the cauliflower and stock and bring the mixture to a boil; reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the cream and cook for an additional 15 minutes or until the cauliflower is tender and the mixture is slightly reduced.

Transfer the cauliflower mixture to a blender and process until pureed. Season the soup with the salt and pepper. Ladle 3/4 cup of the soup into six bowls and drizzle each serving with 1 to 2 drops of truffle oil, if using. Serve immediately.
For some really wonderful recipes, check out The Hot and Hot Cookbook. Remember, when you are getting all misty-eyed about those fresh carrots at Whole Foods, Napa did not invent fresh farm produce, it has always been there.

Also, when you visit me in Shirley, bring a basket of champagne. It’s a rule!

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