I Am the Greatest Cook in the World

… and these are my secrets.

February 1983By Comments

When I say I’m the world’s greatest cook, I don’t mean chef. The word “chef” reminds me of some character in The Marx Brothers Hang Out at the Ritz: “Ze soufflé! You haf make it go fall. I spit in the potage of your mother!”

Also, I don’t mean I’m a cook like Richard Simmons or Graham Kerr or any of those other 87-cent phonies you see chopping cauliflower and harping about nutrition on TV. I don’t cook anything I wouldn’t personally eat, and I’d rather eat a boiled tennis ball than cauliflower. Some other things I don’t eat are zucchini, mushrooms, bananas, and anything amandine. I also don’t eat mayonnaise (Miracle Whip is okay) or put ketchup in my coffee. As for nutrition, I can look at my belt size and tell that I get more than my share. Nutrition is something you worry about in East Calcutta or maybe Detroit.

My taste buds were educated during World War II, when America traveled on its stomach. Arlington, where I grew up, was still a country town, a couple of stop-lights between the Liliard Hog Farm and the Eastern Star Home. My family enjoyed cooking, especially my daddy and my granny, and I enjoyed watching them because the kitchen was the most gregarious room in the house. Long after supper the family used to sit around the kitchen table, talking about Roosevelt and ration stamps and the day to come when butter would again be yellow. Well-being was a tub of iced beer, a bowl of chile peppers, and a pot of red beans simmering on the back burner. Daddy taught me to revere the lowly legume and respect the violent chile, and to keep both handy. Granny taught me to wring the necks of chickens and singe off the pinfeahers, and to appreciate green onions, which cure colds, and zinc oxide, which cures everything else, and to abide by the cryptic message of Roy Acuff and the Great Speckled Bird.

You could tell the days of the week around our house by what was on the kitchen table. Roast beef and chocolate pie, it must be Sunday. Monday was roast beef hash. Tuesday was ham with hominy. Wednesday might or might not be meat loaf. Late in the week we’d have what was called BBF (balance brought forward), which was whatever was left over, done with considerable imagination. Saturday night was spent at the counter of Mrs. Douglas’ tiny cafe, a little greasy spoon beer joint across the tracks from Southern Ornamental Iron Works, watching that splendid little lady cook burgers.

I loved to play the pinball machine and filch corners of beer from the bottles of Grand Prize consumed in heroic numbers by the factory workers who gathered to play dominoes. Miz Doug’s hamburger secret, which became mine, was to use second-issue meat—not the pale brown stuff that looks like dirty Crisco, but not the bright red stuff either. Medium-priced meat that sizzles the second you splat it on the hot, well-seasoned grill, that’s what she used. Everything must be sliced thin—the tomato, the onion, the pickle—and the meat patties should be pounded thin, too. Sour pickles only, please, and tomatoes that are slightly overripe. The lettuce should be loose leaf, the bun thin and small. The bun is grilled face down along with the meat, making use of the drippings, and in the final stages it’s burned slightly on the top side. The warm bun is then stacked on top of the sizzling meat and pressed down with one final slap of the greasy spatula. This final slap and sizzle is a matter of faith.

So is the manner in which the hamburger goes together. First, slather one half of the grilled bun with a lot of mustard. Lay on the lettuce, then the paper-thin slices of tomato (salt and pepper at this stage), then the onion and pickle, finally the meat and the other half of the bun. Miz Doug immediately wrapped the burgers in sheets of waxed paper (paper towels will do) to seal in the flavors and served them so hot you could faint just inhaling the aroma. No matter how many you ordered (a half-dozen was barely enough for a twelve-year-old), she cooked them one at a time so they always arrived hot and fresh.

There are other ways to cook hamburgers, though none with the perfect symphony of taste and texture achieved by Miz Doug’s creation. One acceptable example is the J. G. Melon Burger, named after my favorite hamburger joint in New York. This is a thick patty of ground sirloin grilled fast and rare and served on a toasted English muffin with Dijon mustard and a slice of purple onion. The other worthy is the specialty of a walk-up stand a couple of blocks from the Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth. Famous Hamburgers, I think they call it. What they do is pound some chopped onions into one side of the meat before grilling. The buns, of course, are grilled along with the meat and onions. The only condiment is mustard.

Incidentally, if you don’t own a well-seasoned grill, a heavy, well-seasoned black skillet will do. If you don’t own a heavy black skillet, do what the French do—run for it.

I was a freshman in college when I discovered that raw hamburger meat won’t kill you. Steak Hun, I call it now. I was working as a dishwasher in a Colorado resort called Troutdale-in-the-Pines. The chef d’el was a Norwegian bully who seasoned everything with anise and fennel, but the real artist in that kitchen was a gin-soaked short-order cook named Foley, whose Steak Hun with capers and anchovy kept me from starving and gave me new insight into the animal kingdom. Foley ground only the freshest, choicest sirloin, mixed it by hand with capers, chopped green onions, chopped peppers, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, fresh lemon juice, an egg yolk, and usually a few ashes from the unfiltered Camel that always dangled from his lower lip. Served on toast and topped with an anchovy, it’s one of the great delicacies of Western civilization.

The secret of a good french fry is a red potato sliced as thin as a swizzle stick, blotted dry with paper towels, and cooked in hot grease until it sounds like gunfire when you snap it between your teeth. The trick for thicker sliced potatoes is to fry them twice—first in medium-hot oil, then, when the grease is blotted away, in very hot oil. Forget the ketchup; dip them in white wine vinegar.

Another of my secrets is buttermilk. I am told that buttermilk is an acquired taste, though I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love it. It’s got to be fresh and moderately chilled. Taken straight, it’s indispensable for a hangover after a three-day drunk, and mixed with toasted day-old cornbread, chopped green onions, salt, and freshly ground pepper, it’s far superior to yogurt. You can achieve the perfect crust for fried chicken by marinating the skinned pieces in buttermilk for several hours prior to frying. Shake off the loose drops of milk and double-dip the pieces—that is, dip them once, set them aside for about ten minutes, then dip or roll them a second time—in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and a lot of grated Parmesan. Cook in sizzling-hot vegetable or peanut oil mixed with a few spoons of bacon drippings. It’ll make you sing and chop cotton.

A buttermilk bath is good for any food that is battered and fried, such as oysters, shrimp, chicken livers, and the mandatory chicken-fried steak. People who didn’t grow up in Texas believe that chicken-fried steak is a put-on, like those jackalope trophies you see in roadside souvenir shops. It is even possible, I suppose, for people born and reared in Texas to be suspicious of this ethnic creation—witness that renowned fop, Larry McMurtry, who once wrote that chicken-fired steak looks like an old piece of wood with the paint sanded off. For all I know, McMurtry has never eaten a real CFS; for all I know, McMurtry was born in New Hampshire, the illegitimate son of Noel Coward and Aimee Semple McPherson.

It is true that only about 1 out of every 96 CFS’s prepared commercially can pass muster. It has taken me years to reproduce and perfect the stiff, brown fried meat that they used to serve at the Shorthorn Cafe on the campus of North Texas Agricultural College in Arlington. Start with the round steak trimmed of all fat. Get the butcher to run it through his tenderizer, or do it yourself by pounding the flesh with the blunt edge of a knife blade. Give it a short soaking in buttermilk, not more than twenty minutes or it will fall to pieces in your hand. A true CFS is double-dipped in seasoned flour, but an interesting variation is the country-fried steak, which is prepared with a single dusting of flour. Either way, cook in very hot oil until the pieces are crusty and dark brown.

Fried chicken or steak should always be served with a lot of cream gravy. Basic browns and white, author Dan Jenkins calls them. Jenkins doesn’t eat anything that is not brown or white, or that still has eyes or legs. The way I prepare cream gravy is to do what Jenkins would do in the same situation—I yell for my wife.

This is her method: first, drain the cooking oil and scrape away most of the glaze from the bottom of the skillet. Return six tablespoons of drippings to the skillet and make a roux by stirring and browning six tablespoons of seasoned flour. Slowly add milk (about one and a half cups), stirring constantly until the gravy has a free-flowing liquid consistency. Keep stirring over medium heat until it thickens, which won’t be long. Salt and pepper it.

Gravy is always served with biscuits. Also with slices of fresh tomato, when available, and with some onions and cucumbers marinated about fifteen minutes in heavily peppered vinegar. During the hot summer months, fresh okra rolled in two parts cornmeal to one part flour and fired in oil or bacon drippings is compulsory. Forget all the crap you’ve heard about dipping okra in egg yolk. Okra is born with all the sticky stuff it needs. Folks in the East have never heard of okra, a vegetable introduced by African slaves from seeds smuggled from their native lands, but Thomas Jefferson is said to have been addicted to it. Jefferson believed its absence in the diet explained the weakness in British character.

Like all good Texans, I have my own secret recipe for red chili: I buy a package of Wick Fowler’s and follow directions.

STATE AGRICULTURE COMMISSIONER JIM HIGHTOWER suggested during the last election campaign that Governor Bill Clements complete a course in Spanish in order that he might become bi-ignorant. Sound advice. I lived for about six months in the small Mexican fishing village of Zihuatanejo largely through the exercise of bi-ignorance. This is how I happened to learn to love the traditional fish salad, ceviche. It’s made with lots of onions and hot chiles and is not for the timid. One Peruvian recipe I read recently advised: “Do not touch the eyes or genitals after handling chiles.” More sound advice.

I discovered ceviche one blistering-hot day while drinking beer under a palapa near Zihuatanejo’s grubby downtown beach. After every fourth or fifth Carta Blanca I drank, the old lady who ran the place served a bowl of chopped fish, onions, and peppers. I’m not wild about fish, but this didn’t taste fishy. It tasted refreshing and made me believe I was on the road to long life and prosperity. I’d eaten several bowls before I realized the fish was raw.

Most ceviche served in this country tastes like iceberg lettuce soaked in cod-liver oil. But you can make the real thing yourself with a minimum of effort. Marinate two pounds of any fresh filet of fish in lime juice for four or five hours. Any firm-bodied fish will do—red snapper, bonito, sea bass, even octopus or squid. Shrimp will fall apart. Drain off the lime juice and mix with a variety of chopped vegetables. For two pounds of fish I use two or three ripe tomatoes, two onions, eight to ten fresh peppers (both bell and hot), a jar of green salad olives, a bunch of fresh cilantro, two tablespoons of olive oil, and black pepper. Allow the vegetables and fish to intermingle for a few hours before serving on a bed of lettuce or spinach with a slice of avocado.

Refrigerated, ceviche will keep for two or three weeks. After that, take it to a lab and have it tested. The lime juice cooks and preserves the fish and makes it magic. It is worth reflecting on the fact that human flesh retains little, if any, vitamin C, while marinated fish contains it in abundance. If certain tribes of cannibals in South America had merely alternated roast rump of missionary with a few bowls of ceviche, they wouldn’t have gone belly up with scurvy.

A good thing to serve with ceviche is tostadas or chicharrónes (fried pork skins), along with a bowl of refried beans. This brings me to the subject of pico de gallo, the secret of secrets as far as I’m concerned. Loosely translated, pico de gallo means “rooster beak.” It’s that green or red salsa found on most tables in Mexico. (I always keep a bowl in the fridge.) Like almost everything else in Mexico, the creation is devilishly simple: throw some onions, tomatoes, tomatillos (“Mexican green tomatoes”), bell peppers, hot chiles, and cilantro into a Cuisinart.

Remove a few scoops as needed and add a little vinegar, replacing the remainder in the fridge. You can use the salsa in a hundred ways—on nachos with refried beans and goat cheese, on chicharrónes with a squeeze of fresh lime, on eggs, on melted cheese, on ham, in cold soup. In fact, you can add some tomato or V-8 juice and some lime, and it becomes cold soup. You can add more tomatoes, a little sugar, and some spices and cook up a good ranchero sauce. Or you can just eat it with a spoon when you feel an onset of the vapors.

A LOT OF WRITERS DON’T COOK, or at least don’t admit it. Many of the authors who contributed to The Great American Writers’ Cookbook, brainchild of that famed epicurean and literary gadfly Willie Morris, proudly confess that they couldn’t find the kitchen with a road map. “The only time I ever go into a kitchen,” says John Cheever, “is when I’m being chased out the back door.” An annoying number of writers’ recipes begin in this spirit: “First, open a bottle of gin and consume contents.”

Cooking is one of the best ways I know to break writer’s block—the closest alternative is being staked to an anthill. There is something mindless and therapeutic and faintly atavistic about vanishing into a well-stocked kitchen. Most of the time I’d rather cook than eat. The mere aroma of a pot of simmering beans can seduce me into believing that typing is fun, or at least bearable.

My favorite is pinto, or what my family called red beans because of the intemperate amount of chili powder we mixed therein. There is a ritual to cooking beans—I’m talking about dry beans here—that must be observed. First, remove the beans from the package, shake them into the palm of your hand, and observe the uncommon number of rocks, nails, and unidentifiable objects, which come at no extra cost. You may do with these as you please. Wash the beans thoroughly. If I can remember, I cover the beans with fresh water and soak them overnight, though never longer than ten hours. Beans soak up a prodigious amount of liquid, so the next morning add enough water to provide a good inch or two of cover before cooking. If I forget the overnight soaking, I bring the beans to a quick boil, cover, and allow them to sit for an hour before resuming cooking. This will tenderize the hell out of them. Sometimes I use a pressure cooker, even though cookbooks say you may be taking your life in your hands. It’s not a bad idea to take a walk while the pressure cooker is active. Better yet, take a run.

The secret is the seasoning. For one pound of beans I season with a two-ounce jar of Mexene Chili Powder, a chopped onion, a whole lot of garlic, a chunk of salt pork, and plenty of black pepper. When I can find them, I throw in a few smoked jalapeños (chiles chipotles), which are sold by the kilo in most markets in the interior of northern Mexico but are difficult to find in this country. A fresh jalepe&ntildeo is a substitute, but a poor one, and will likely kill out-of-state house-guests.

As your are seasoning, bring the little beauties to a quick boil, cover, and simmer for five or six hours, until the beans are soft enough to mush with a fork and the juice is dark red and thick. Check the liquid from time to time, making sure to add only boiling water. The finished product should be slightly soupy. Goes great in chili.

The best thing about red beans is leftovers, which I mash with a fork as they are frying in three or four (or more) tablespoons of bacon drippings. Mexicans call these refritos. Huevos rancheros are made by spreading refritos on a warm tortilla (flour is best, for my taste) and topping with eggs cooked sunny-side up so the yolk is still bight and runny, then with melted cheese, then with either pico de gallo or thick ranchero sauce.

Black beans are prepared the same as reds, only with much less chili powder (a couple of tablespoons is plenty), a few celery tops, and smoked ham hock instead of salt pork. If you cook the blacks until the juice thickens and the ham falls away from the bone, you’ve got the makings of a great soup. Skim off the bone and fat, and run the beans through a blender with a little red wine. Garnish with lemon slices or chopped cilantro or grated Parmesan. Or all three.

Navy beans (called small white beans in most groceries) are not among my favorites, though they make an extraordinarily delicious soup. Wash and cook them as you would any other bean. Season with smoked ham hock, a chopped onion, and a sliced carrot. When the beans are well cooked, stir in these ingredients: some chopped celery tops and a little chopped stalk, one chopped bell pepper, one chopped bunch of green onions, and one small potato, diced. Add more water and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally as the soup boils and begins to thicken. Finally, add a package of chicken noodle soup mix, two jars of pimientos, and half a bay leaf. Tabasco is optional but highly recommended. Cook over medium-high heat for another twenty to thirty minutes or until the soup is rich and thick. Skim off the bay leaf and pieces of ham fat and serve with cornbread sticks, buttermilk (optional), and very cold bottles of Czechoslovakian pilsner poured into slender, tapered pilsner glasses (compulsory).

Finally, a work about what I like to call the happy accident. No accident in the kitchen, short of catching your hair on fire, is without redemption. Here’s where the spirit of adventure comes strongly into play. While researching this story, for example, I invited several people over for one of my specialties, fettuccine Alfredo. After warming up on several bottles of very good and very cold Chablis, I accidentally boiled the Parmesan instead of the pasta. When I discovered my mistake while trying to grate egg noodles, I knew that I’d had another happy accident.

The problem was not the ruined fettuccine but what to do with half a pound of hard-boiled cheese. I simply scooped it into a pie pan, added some allspice, topped it with a graham cracker crust, and baked it for several minutes. Served with raspberry sauce, it wasn’t half bad.

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