When I moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina in 1995, I worked at Helen’s Kitchen, a country restaurant in Jacksonville, where I learned about the different foods offered in my new military town. I also was taught how to speak the Southern food language, and to appreciate the culinary differences between my two home states.
If you say, “I’ll have tea,” in MA, you will be served with a steaming cup of hot tea. Sometimes it will come with a tiny metal pitcher of hot water with the little thumb tab. Tink. Other times, it will come in a large Styrofoam cup with a lid, tea bag dangling off to the side displaying your preference. Green?
In NC if you say, “tea, please,” you will get a large glass of iced tea, sweetened with a syrup made on the stove with sugar, water, and love. A request for hot tea in NC must be specified, and unsweet tea should be asked for quietly. Sweet tea can be quite the cure for too much Jack Daniels the night before, and will repair wooziness from low blood sugar or heartbreak. People drink sweet tea daily with their country ham, chicken and pastry, or even while they nibble on a pig’s thinker.
“What are brains and eggs?” I asked my friend, Opal. Only once.
“Honey, they’re brains and eggs,” she answered, amused.
“Like real brains?” I asked.
“Yes, hog brains,” she laughed.
Brains were the most delicate pink, as expected, and came in a small can. The cooks would mound them up high on a plate next to a heaping gob of bright yellow scrambled eggs. Usually, the consumer would mix the eggs and brains, and the soft mixture didn’t require much chewing, unlike the empty hot dogs that were served, also known as chitlins.
Chitlins, or chitterlings, is another food I had to get used to the scent of. They are made with hog intestines and when they were on special, their pungent scent would dance around the restaurant all day long. They were usually dressed with red pepper flakes and people would put extra vinegar on top of the heap. I remember holding the plate steady so the jiggly, brown chunks wouldn’t slide off onto the floor. If one piece wanted to jump off the plate, a quick flick-of-the-wrist would place it gently back with the rest.
Let’s fix our grossed-out brains:
Helen’s also turned us on to biscuits, sausage-gravy, tangy, vinegar-based pulled pork, and hush puppies. After many failures, and burnt biscuits, I learned.
There are many foods from North Carolina I practiced then added to my mind’s cookbook that are considered favorites of me and my sons. I now make skillet corn bread, the creamiest macaroni and cheese with a spicy topping, and one of our favorite foods from NC, banana pudding.
The following recipe is for a dessert that is requested quite often for special occasions or by the most cherished visitors, like my niece, Shyla. It is always in a very large, heavy bowl, surrounded by happy people and sometimes colored eggs or decorated winter pine. It has served well as a weapon in a food fight, and tastes the best in the middle of the night with only the fridge light to illuminate the delicious sweetness. After many attempts at making it perfect, I finally came up with the most decadent recipe.
Recipes for banana pudding can vary, and I have perfected mine through years of observing and trying different ingredients. Simple is best.
My Banana Pudding
(You will want to at least double this.)
1 block of cream cheese, 8 ounces, softened
I large container of frozen whipped topping, thawed *
I small can sweetened condensed milk, 8 ounces
1 box of instant banana pudding mix (or vanilla then add 1 tsp. of banana extract)
2 cups whole milk
1 box of vanilla wafer cookies
A few bananas
Beat cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, pudding mix, and milk until the lumps are mostly gone. Fold in half of the whipped topping. Once that is incorporated, add half the box of wafers, not crushed. (The wafers will absorb the flavors.) Once mixed, carefully place the rest of the whipped topping neatly on top of the rest. Layer with the remaining wafers. The bananas can be added to the main mixture or the top, but any leftover (I laugh) pudding will turn brown quickly if bananas are in it. I usually add them right before serving, or sometimes not at all.
*Normally, I would say to use homemade (or even canned) whipped cream, but in this case, tradition dictates the use of whipped topping.