I once asked Opelika Chef Jimmy Sikes where he got his training. His answer was direct, “Walter, I’ve been eating all of my life”.
From the time I was tall enough to see over the top of our gas range, my dad woke me early on Sunday mornings to cook breakfast with him while my mother slept in. We cooked fried or scrambled eggs. We cooked sausage or bacon and grits. On special days we cooked waffles, French toast or pancakes.
My dad told me that he wanted to teach me how to cook the basics so that when I was out in the world, I would be somewhat prepared. I really think he just enjoyed the comradery. For all of my incessant complaining about having to get up so early, I enjoyed those mornings just as much as he did.
When I was twelve my dad, my grandfather and two of his old cronies, took me under their wing to teach me how to pit-smoke barbecue.
We first dug a three-foot deep pit in the dirt floor of my grandfather’s garage. There is always a chance of an early morning Alabama rain in July so locating the pit inside the garage just made good sense. In all honesty, the men did pretty much all of the digging. They did not have three days to wait for me to “help” nor did they want to listen to my rants. Smoking the meat was an all-night process of tending the fire, turning the meat on big steel racks, swabbing with marinades (concocted by my grandmother) and sharing their tall tales.
To me, listening to their stories was the best part. Our job was to smoke enough pork and goat to feed a small army, which is another way of saying that most of my “kinfolks” were coming to town for a big family reunion.
My uncle Howard from Montgomery raised goats, so he brought some goat legs and my grandfather supplied pork shoulders, known as “Boston Butts”.
From before the American Revolution, cheaper cuts of pork (not the cuts that were “high on the hog” like loins and hams) were packed in oak barrels, known as “butts” so that the pork could be shipped. The barrels and the particular Bostonian style of cutting the pork shoulder gave the name: Boston Butt.
One of my favorite uncles, Charles, taught me to grill a perfect steak. He drove me to his favorite butcher shop in his 1952 Ford F-100 pickup, explained how to look for proper marbling in meat and then how to pick the best cut in the meat case. My favorite in those days was a T-Bone. He showed me how to trim the steak, leaving enough fat around the edges to melt, drip on glowing charcoal, and enhance the flavor of the meat. He gave me his secret marinade recipe (alas, some of the ingredients do not exist today) to tenderize the meat and also impart the “Collins flavor.” He trained me how to test the doneness of meat by the way it feels when it springs back after being pressed with your index finger, and that after you finished grilling your steak, to let the meat “rest” for five minutes so that juices stabilized and did not run off of the cutting board and down the front of the kitchen cabinet.
During our time in Provence, I wanted to discover as many cooking secrets as possible in my limited stay there. French cuisine is defined by the seasons and its region (“terroir”), each one offering different specialties according to their products and customs.
Provençal cuisine ranks with the best in the world. It overflows with colors and flavors to bring great pleasure to both your eyes and your taste buds.
After reading and dithering for a while, I decided that the best way to accomplish my goal was to enroll in a local cooking class. There is no better way for me to learn cooking than hands-on teaching which would allow me to see for myself everything that is involved in the endeavor.
Next week: the class.
Images noted with an asterisk (*) are courtesy of Maureen Shaw, The Orgasmic Chef.