Friday, February 25, 2011

Minnie Pearl's Chess Pie

Vintage Minnie

Minnie Pearl never said hello and she never said good-bye. You’d pick up the phone and there she’d be. There was no mistaking the voice.
“Did I tell yew to pick me up at eleven-thirty? Then without pausing for my response, “Better make it eleven Click.
Sitting in her sunny home office next door to the Tennessee governor’s mansion, Minnie worked the phone line like a Wall Street broker. Despite being in her mid-seventies, she maintained a hectic schedule as she micromanaged her career. A typical conversation went like this:
“Where do I need to be? What time? Full costume or just the hat? “ Click.
At twenty-five I could barely keep up. I’d initially learned about the character Minnie Pearl (her real name was Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon), from her television appearances on the country variety show Hee-Haw, which I watched growing up in West Virginia. I came to know her more intimately when I was assigned – as a feature writer for a Nashville newspaper – to assist her in writing a weekly column about the early days of hillbilly music and the Grand Ole Opry recounting her exploits in the company of such luminaries as The Gully Jumpers, Possum Hunters, and Uncle Dave Macon and The Fruit Jar Drinkers.
As Minnie’s co-writer, I often visited her spacious, California-style stucco home with a rose garden and swimming pool, where I tape-recorded her stories for articles. At eight o’clock on these mornings she’d be at her desk sipping Pepsi with her finger ready to hit the pause button for frequent, off-the-record asides – usually the best part of the story – or a colorful, R-rated joke that would never make the Opry act.
I relished my time with Minnie who sometimes acted out the dialogue of her stories. Once, she spontaneously picked up an umbrella and twirled it to an old song-and-dance number she recalled from childhood. I was going through a divorce at the time and, sensing my need for a mother figure, she adopted me as her wayward child whom she counseled in matters of business and love. Between her monologues, Minnie interjected life lessons she learned as a single woman traveling with all-male hillbilly bands. She never hesitated to chastise me for a romantic interest if it happened to be a musician (not unusual in a town like Nashville). “You mustn’t take them seriously,” she’d say, somewhat annoyed that she had to remind me of this yet again.
Minnie’s personal style was the antithesis of her cornball stage character dressed in a gingham dress, straw hat with a $1.98 price tag, and size ten Mary Janes. She had a flair for fashion (in a wedding photograph of Minnie and her husband, Henry Cannon, Minnie is dressed in a leopard-skin coat, chic wool suit, alligator pumps and matching handbag), and was a voracious reader of literature and liked to quote poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her years at an exclusive finishing school where she studies “dramatics” were still evident in her speech and mannerisms.
Her politics were Ronald Reagan-conservative and she was crushed, after receiving an award from him in the Oval Office in the mid-1980s, to discover the man whom she admired “wasn’t all there.” I accompanied her on that visit. We met afterwards in the Round Robin bar at the infamous Watergate Hotel for a drink. Minnie took a long drink of Bourbon, patted me on the knee and said in her inimitable direct fashion: “Let me be the first to tell you James Baker is running this country.”
I was spending more and more time with Minnie as her driving had been curtailed due to her failing vision. I became a part-time chauffeur of sorts, driving Miss Minnie hither and yon in her yellow Eldorado as she read through the week’s column. (For a while I was well-known at the Opry security gate). She usually gave the column short shrift and mostly I listened as Minnie held forth on some interesting person she’d met or a book she’d just read. As in life, when it came to conversation Minnie preferred the state route to the freeway.
Minnie loved to go out to lunch, usually at a music business hangout where she received lots of attention. If the well-wisher was a handsome man, all conversation stopped as she focused completely on him. Minnie adored men and had a way of making them feel as if they were the most fascinating specimen she’d ever encountered. Despite her senior status, Minnie was still a very sexy, attractive woman and relished in these occasional flirtations: “Oh mercy, but you’re such a smart man…and sooo handsome!” To Minnie this was lunch.
But nothing compared to being in the kitchen with Minnie and her longtime housekeeper, Mary Cannon (no relation), as both were incredible cooks. Their fussy banter was like a comic routine. Minnie would sample a dish and observe that perhaps it needed a bit more this or that. Mary would roll her eyes, fold her arms over her bosom and shake her head, “There she goes again … would you leave me be and get on out of here?”
Minnie, in fact, wrote a self-published cookbook (Minnie Pearl Cooks, 1970), filled with great southern classics. I still use it all the time. It includes Mary’s shockingly good hot-water corn cakes and a beef stew that, I’m sorry, beats Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignonne hands down. The first time I made the recipe it tasted nothing like what came from the oven at Minnie’s. Then one day Mary shared the secret, missing ingredient – several glugs of Maker’s Mark. Just like most southern households, there was always a sweet on the kitchen counter like buttermilk pound cake, warm blackberry cobbler, or chess pie, the original crack pie (as addictive as the drug) in my book.
Our friendship continued beyond the life of the column and after I moved to New York. Minnie had her doubts about my leaving: “I worry about you there …” she wrote to me in a note with a book she sent me (southern writer Celestine Sibley’s autobiography, Turned Funny.)
I saw Minnie before a series of debilitating strokes and shortly before she died fifteen years ago (March 4, 1996). I was visiting from New York where I was working as an editor for Glamour magazine. I drove the familiar route to Minnie’s house to take her to the Opry matinee. She was outside working the New York Times crossword puzzle (a daily routine), on the hood of a new yellow Eldorado. She looked tired standing on the Opry stage waiting for her cue but when the stage lights found Minnie she brightened with a brilliant smile and years fell away as she spun her stories and jokes to an appreciative audience. She stopped to chat with a few fans and sign autographs on the way out, something she’d done for more than fifty years.
On the way home she seemed little melancholy. She told me she hated to see me go but knew it was where I needed to be.
“That’s where I would have gone at your age. To Broadway,” she said. “But I could never get the Nashville dust off my shoes”.
That was the last time I saw Minnie, but it ended the same way as always. Minnie said what she needed to say. She did not say good-bye.

Minnie Pearl’s Chess Pie

Chess pie has nothing to do with the game. A bit of a cousin to a vinegar pie or pecan pie, chess pie contains cornmeal (not really detectable) as a thickener, and lemon juice to offset the sugar. It’s particularly good served with a strong cup of coffee or espresso. There are theories as to its origins including its derivation from an English cheese pie or it’s storage in a pie “chest,” which was shortened to “chess.”  The ingredients are simple yet tasting it you’ll be impressed by how a simple gooey wedge can be so fabulous. Truly it’s one of the all-time great southern pies.

Makes 1, 9-inch pie; serves 6

1 blind-baked 9-inch Butter Piecrust (recipe follows)
4 large eggs (preferably country eggs)
1 1/4 cups cane sugar
2 tablespoons white cornmeal
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 cup whole buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Prepare the piecrust and blind bake it as directed. Cool completely.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Place the eggs in a large bowl and beat on low speed. Gradually add remaining ingredients (except confectioners’ sugar, obviously). Beat until well combined. Pour into the pie shell and place on a rack in the lower third of the oven. Bake 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 20 to 25 minutes longer, or until sides are beginning to pull away from the crust (the center may be slightly jiggly).
Transfer to a rack to cool. Serve warm or room temperature. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

Butter Pie Crust

Makes enough for one, 9- or 10-inch pie crust or tart

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water

In a food processor bowl (or by hand with a pastry blender), combine the flour, sugar, salt and butter. Pulse until fine crumbs form. Add 4 tablespoons of water and pulse (or mix with fork), until the dough just holds together. If necessary add a little more ice water.
Turn dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and using the wrap, gently press the dough into a flat, burger-shaped disc. Wrap tightly and refrigerate 30 minutes.
Roll dough out on a lightly floured surface to a 1/4-inch thickness (a 13-inch round for a 9-inch pie plate). Place in a pie plate or pan and trim so you have a 1/2-inch overhang of dough. Fold under and crimp the edges. Pick the shell a few times with a fork and refrigerate 30 minutes.
To blind bake: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Line shell with a piece of wax paper filled with pie weights, dried beans or rice. Bake 10 minutes. Remove wax paper and weights. Return pie shell to oven to bake 5 minutes. (To fully pre-bake the crust, bake an additional 5 to 6 minutes until crust is golden.)
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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Listening to Wendell Berry

I've had the pleasure of meeting and hearing Wendell Berry speak about the state of agriculture and the importance of local food systems several times. If you ever have the opportunity, definitely go see him. In the meantime, you can read one of his books, such as The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. I recently came across an interesting  article with Berry written five years ago by Louisville writer, Holly M. Brockman.
Here's an excerpt:
"Because the most secure, freshest and the best-tasting food supply is local food produced by local farmers who like their work, like their products and like having them appreciated by people they know. A local food system, moreover, is subject to the influence of its consumers and the dangers and vulnerabilities of a large, high-centralized, highly chemicalized, industrialized food system held together by long distance transportation. A locally adapted local food economy is the most secure against forms of political violence, epidemics and other threats." 

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