Whipping up recipes from a fictional 1930’s creek picnic.
Ivan Doig’s characters take their food seriously. Doig (1939–2015), a canonical writer of the American West, was shaped by the effects of the Great Depression. His family were Scottish farmer-settlers. In his 1978 memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Doig recounts his ancestors’ struggle to ranch the poor, high-altitude land of the Tierney Basin. It was a “peculiar” and “maybe treacherous” country where instead of homesteads, the land “turned out to be landing sites, quarters to hold people until they were able to scramble away to somewhere else.” In English Creek, the first novel in Doig’s acclaimed McCaskill trilogy, the 1930s landscape is littered with abandoned farms. The thirteen-year-old narrator, Jick, cursed with a teenage boy’s appetite in a rural environment of relative scarcity, is always on the lookout for his next meal.
I find reading and rereading Doig’s work to be a moral tonic. It’s soothing to encounter a writer who values small communities, stewardship of the land, and the merits of human endeavor. He extracts meaning from the simplest things—a teenage boy’s appetite, for example—and when pleasure comes along for his characters, he celebrates it fully. Cooking to keep up with Doig’s women, though, is a challenge. Here’s a description, through Jick’s hungry eyes, of a Fourth of July creek picnic prepared by his mother and a friend:
There were the chickens my mother spent part of the morning frying. Delectable young spring fries with drumsticks about the thickness of your thumb. This very morning, too, Toussaint had caught a batch of trout in the Two Medicine and now here they beckoned, fried up by Marie. Blue enamel broilers of fish and fowl, side by side. The gateposts of heaven.
Marie’s special three bean salad, the pinnacle of how good beans can taste. My mother’s famous potato salad with little new green onions cut so fine they were like sparks of flavor.
New radishes, sweet and about the size of a marble, first of Marie’s garden vegetables. A dozen and a half deviled eggs arrayed by my mother.
A jar of home-canned pickled beets, a strong point of my mother’s. A companion jar of crabapple pickles, a distinction of Marie’s.
A plate of my mother’s corn muffins. A loaf of Marie’s saffron bread. Between the two, a moon of Reese home-churned butter.
An angelfood cake by Marie. A chocolate sour cream cake from my mother.
I, with lesser capabilities, decided to make chicken, corn bread, Marie’s three-bean salad, and a chocolate sour-cream cake. I would have loved to do the whole thing—I am drooling for the saffron bread and deviled eggs and pickled crab apples and home-churned butter—but owning a butter churn would be taking things too far, even in Brooklyn.
Instead, in search of authenticity, I considered that people back then ate a lot of canned stuff. Jick observes with delight that if you’re thirsty, canned tomatoes are a drink, and if you’re hungry, they’re a meal. So for an old-fashioned American three-bean salad recipe, I turned first to The Georgia Federation of Republican Women Cookbook, compiled in 1983 by Mary Stivers, my grandfather’s second wife and a notorious cooker-from-cans. I found a three-bean casserole made entirely from cans and packages (water chestnuts, small lima beans, stuffing mix!), along with things like “Nancy Reagan’s crabmeat salad,” and “Ronald Reagan’s Favorite Mac and Cheese,” but there was nothing I could bring myself to cook. Instead, I bought fresh farmers market yellow and green beans, colorful bell peppers, and dried Rancho Gordos, and chose a “Basic Three Bean Salad” from More-with-Less, a Mennonite cookbook that I sometimes use as bedtime reading. The recipe looked vintage in its simplicity, and surprised me by turning out to be “the pinnacle of how good beans can taste.”
The corn bread is a family recipe from a Southern writer friend, and the chocolate “devils food” cake is from a Victorian recipe I found here on Food52, which included sour cream as Doig specified, and whose devilish character seemed appropriate since the other cake mentioned at the creek picnic was angel food.
All of these recipes take old-fashioned technique. The corn bread asks for bacon grease, which is easy to generate but not something one always has on hand. For the bean salad, I made the dried beans in a pressure cooker, since no combination of adding a potato slice or squashed tomato or pinch of baking soda has ever enabled me to get beans tender, though presumably it was an easy matter for a 1930s housewife.
The cake recipe instructed me to melt chocolate in a double boiler, which I kludged with a ceramic bowl floating in a saucepan of simmering water. As usual I forgot to chop the chocolate fine; and then remembered how slowly chocolate melts. Fiddly stuff like this is not my cooking forte. This cake also has a boiled icing made from egg white and sugar heated to 235 degrees. Mrs. McCaskill surely didn’t have a candy thermometer and neither do I, so I tested the temperature of the boiling sugar by dripping it into cold water to see if it formed a soft ball. Miraculously, this worked. The cake, just like the bean salad, the chicken, the corn bread, and even the radishes seemed all to be as superlatively delicious as that long-ago feast of Jick’s memory. Or maybe, just like him, I was hungry.
Mrs. McCaskill’s Three-Bean Salad (Adapted from Less-with-More)
Use 2 cups each of three kinds of cooked, drained beans. Choose from an attractive color combination of:
cut green beans
cut yellow wax beans
red kidney beans
great northern or navy beans
chickpeas or garbanzos
In a large bowl, toss beans with:
2 medium sweet peppers in attractive colors, chopped
For the dressing:
Combine 1/4 cup of white vinegar with 1/4 cup sugar in a small saucepan and simmer till slightly thickened.
1/4 cup olive or other oil
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
Dress to taste and season more if need be. Let this dish sit for at least several hours and preferably overnight before serving. That is when the magic happens!
Bell-Family Corn Bread
Preheat your oven to 425 and put a 9-inch cast-iron skillet inside to heat up while you’re making the corn-bread batter.
2 cups cornmeal
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 eggs beaten in 2 cups buttermilk
2 tbsp hot bacon grease (the more flavorful the bacon, the better the finished product)
Carefully pour the batter into the hot skillet and bake 20–30 minutes at 425.
Roasted Young Chicken
Mrs. McCaskill fried her chicken, but since Jick spent more descriptive time on the small size, freshness, and youth of the original bird rather than his mother’s batter, I decided to share my delicious, easy and foolproof method of roasting a “young” chicken. This “young” option seems to have recently appeared at my supermarket and I find them tastier than the “old” (I suppose!) alternative. I like the ones from Murray’s; Freebird and B&E also have them, and my supermarket brand (Fairway) does, too, in the kosher section. D’Artagnan Green Circle chickens are also excellent, and while they aren’t advertised as “young,” they do seem to be smaller-sized.
Preheat the oven to 400.
Wash your bird and pat it dry with paper towels. You want the bird to be dry because this is what makes the skin crispy.
Put the bird in a roasting pan and salt and pepper it much, much more than seems reasonable.
Pop it in the oven for 40 minutes.
In the meantime, chop up 3–4 cloves of garlic and 1 tbsp of fresh thyme.
At the 40-minute mark, take the bird out of the oven and tilt the pan so the juices, including those from the cavity, pool in the corner of the pan. Drop the garlic and herbs in the juice, let it sizzle a little, then use the resulting mixture to baste the chicken.
Roast for 20 more minutes.
Let rest for at least 15 minutes before carving and serving.
Devil’s Food Cake
This recipe is slightly adapted from a user recipe on Food52.
Makes one 8-inch 3-layer cake
For the cake:
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Butter and paper three 8-inch round cake pans.
Chop the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler or a small bowl floating in a pan of simmering water. Set aside to cool slightly. Do this first. Melting chocolate is slow!
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the sour cream and vanilla. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy and lighter in color, about 3 minutes.
Add the egg yolks to the creamed butter and sugar, separating them from the whites as you do it. Ideally, you’re putting the whites in a bowl that can be used to whisk them to stiff peaks. (I find it easier to do this by hand rather than transferring the cake batter to yet another bowl and washing my mixer, but that’s also an option.)
Beat in the melted chocolate until combined.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and gently fold the flour mixture in half, then the sour cream mixture, then the rest of the flour. Stop when there are still a few streaks of flour left.
Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter.
Divide the batter evenly between the three pans and bake. Start checking for doneness at 18 minutes; the cake should be pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.
Let cool completely before frosting.
For the icing:
My cake as seen in the photo is “naked,” which is a wedding-cake trend, and is pretty and means “not frosted on the sides.” Nonetheless, you want a ton of frosting between the layers and on the top, because the frosting is delicious and it seems to shrink a little over time. The following quantities give you enough to spread very liberally.
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
4 large egg whites
1 tbs lemon juice
In a saucepan, stir together the sugar and water. Place over medium heat and cover the pan. Let cook for three minutes, then remove the lid. Gently swirl the mixture and continue to cook at a low boil until it reaches 235° F on a candy thermometer.
If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can test for doneness by dripping the mixture into a bowl of ice water. If it forms a “soft ball” upon contact with the water, it’s done.
While the sugar syrup is cooking, whip the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until they hold medium peaks.
Once the syrup is done, stream it into the mixer while running it on low speed, then turn to medium high and beat until the bowl is cool.
Beat in the lemon juice on low speed.
To assemble the cake, spread as much icing as possible between each cooled layer, then top it with mounds of the rest!
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York.
Read other installments of Eat Your Words here.