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Let’s Eat

Treasured recipes—and the stories behind them—from our staff.

By , , , and December 2013Comments

Illustration by Joe Wilson

Pig Pie, or Blackberry Cobbler
By Barbara Rodriguez

Before my mother cultivated her own backyard patch of brambles, most every summer weekend included a blackberry expedition. We’d head to our deer lease, outside Brady, or sweet-talk our way onto whatever private property she’d been eyeing. My brother and I would coonhound along, following our noses to any promising tangle of scrub. “Berries!” she’d shout at last, setting our dog to barking as we tumbled into one another. Dad would lie on the hood of the car while Jim and I dodged bees and grappled with the thorns. Even just a handful of the fat, sweet fruits made the bugs and stickers worth it. 

She eventually transplanted a few blackberry bushes to her garden, a wild, untamed space filled with figs, mustang grapes, and tomatoes. After her death, Dad hired someone to eradicate the brambles because they snagged his shirt, he said. I think maybe they reminded him too much of her. I’ll always wonder if they brought to mind the time she made him pull over after she spotted blackberry canes along an East Texas back road. He’d sat in the car—watching for the cops, he said—while she dug up the roots. Did he remember that day as he ate his way through the last of the clumpy preserves he’d labeled Stolenberry Jam?

What I remember is Pig Pie, a blue-black cobbler I preferred to any cake on my birthday. Mother made the crust by pinching butter into flour until it was like wet sand, then rolling out the dough and cutting it into pig shapes to lay atop the berries. I’ve spent years trying to get that cobbler just right. But the berries, even from the farmers’ market, never cook down into the dense filling that I recall. I think it’s because they are not the ones Mother whispered to every summer.

The last time I drove to my girlhood home, to put it on the market, I had to pry open the garden gate. I’d expected to find parched earth. Lo and behold, Mother’s fig tree greeted me laden with fruit. The brambles Dad had worked so hard to defeat embraced the house, framing the window from which Mother had watched her hummingbirds. Bees buzzed past.

And for one last magical time, there was Pig Pie for my birthday.

Ingredients 

3 tablespoons butter
3  tablespoons flour
1  teaspoon lemon juice
3  cups blackberries
1  cup sugar 
big pinch salt 
1/2  teaspoon cinnamon
milk, for brushing crust

Directions 

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Melt butter, stir in flour and lemon juice, and pour over berries. Add sugar and salt. Stir until berries are coated. 

Prepare your favorite pie crust. You can use a double crust or just a top crust, but to make a real Pig Pie, create pig shapes with a cookie
cutter to lay atop the berries. Pour the berries into a deep-dish pie pan and overlay them with the top crust or pig shapes. Brush the crust or pigs with milk and sprinkle lightly with sugar. 

Place the cobbler on a cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, until the edges of the crust start to brown. Then cover the edges with foil and bake another 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Allow to cool. Serves 6 to 8. 

My Mother’s Kosher Dill Pickles (made by Sammie Marshall)
By David Courtney

It’s been a dozen years or more since I last ate one of my mom’s pickles. They were the best I have ever tasted: crisp at the bite and perfectly piquant. Until I left home, the quart-size jars that held them were an unremarkable presence in our refrigerator, like mayonnaise or jelly. As a teenage boy growing up in Temple, I consumed these pickles with little regard to origin. What did I care how they got there? 

Because I couldn’t have known that there wouldn’t be more, the occasion of that very last pickle came and went without due ceremony. What was to be the final jar arrived with my mom on a visit to Austin sometime before her death, in 2005. I figured I had lost the pickles when I lost her—until a few years later, when, going through some boxes, I came across a recipe for “Kosher Dill Pickles” attributed to Sammie Marshall, an old family friend and a former first lady of Temple. 

This was it! The secret to the pickles! But with only a brief thought of one day using it myself, the recipe went into another box and back into storage. More years passed, and then I ran into Sammie, now in her mid-eighties, at a birthday party in Salado. When I mentioned the pickles, she lit up. The formula, she said, had been handed down through generations of Temple’s best kitchens. It had been used by Doris Floca, who got it from her mother-in-law, Mama Floca. Edna Thompson had also used it, and passed it on to Sammie. The way it worked best was when Mrs. Hruska, in Zabcikville—on the blackland prairie east of Temple—called on a May afternoon to let you know that she had a bushel or two of pickling cucumbers ready for harvesting. You’d drive out that day, bring them home to wash, and put them in jars with fresh—it had to be very fresh—dill and the rest of the ingredients. 

How funny, Sammie said with a chuckle, that my mother made the pickles herself just one time. What? My mom hadn’t made all those pickles? They had all come from Sammie? I was shocked. Thinking on it later, though, I can’t say I was really that surprised; while my mother kept me and my brothers fed, she was no devotee of the kitchen. Still, in my heart, I’ll always remember how the best pickles I have ever tasted, made with a mother’s love—by Sammie Marshall—came from my mom, who would have laughed at this story for a long, long time.

Use about half abushel of fresh garden cucumbers—not ones from the grocery store that have been waxed. Wash and scrub cucumbers with cold water, removing all dirt and blossoms. Dry well.

Using sterilized quart-size jars, place the following into each jar: 

small lump alum
1 whole garlic clove 
1  hot red pepper (chile pequins are good) or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper
1  large sprig fresh dill
1/2 to 1 teaspoon whole allspice (Sammie uses 1/2)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns (Sammie uses 1/2)

Combine the following in a large saucepan:

quarts water
1  quart white vinegar (such as Heinz)
3/4  cup canning salt

Get the liquid very hot but do not boil. 

In the meantime, pack the cucumbers into the jars, then fill to the top with liquid. (Make more liquid as needed until all cucumbers have been used.) Take a damp cloth and wipe around rims of jars. (Sammie dips the lids in boiling water to make a better seal.) Screw on caps tightly. Store for at least a month before consuming.

Fried Shrimp
By Courtney Bond

“The shrimp are running.” So would begin my family’s trawler-to-table extravaganza, a labor of love if ever there was one. Upon receipt of that phone call from a shrimper buddy on the coast, my uncle would make a beeline from Canyon Lake to Port O’Connor, his favorite place on earth. Mere hours later he’d return, his beat-up truck loaded down with Igloos full of the fresh-caught crustaceans, their arrival greeted like Christmas morning—until it came time to gather at his mammoth plywood work table in the garage and dehead every last one. Most would make their way to the deep freeze; the rest were destined for a simple preparation that’s likely familiar to anyone who has spent an inordinate amount of time crushing sleeve after sleeve of Nabisco Premium Saltine Crackers. That’s the job my mother gave me, steamrolling the crackers between sheets of wax paper with a water glass, my whining increasing in direct proportion to the mountain of crumbs (“Mom, do we have enough now?”). Meanwhile, she and my aunt spent hours on their feet, cleaning and deveining and butterflying the critters, who would hit the hot oil within 24 hours of being hoisted from the Gulf. 

My uncle died early this year, much too soon, and these days his grandsons make the trek, bringing back giant Yetis spilling forth like so many treasure chests. The undertaking begins anew, and it always ends the same way: with the “moms” standing vigil over the cast-iron pots, delivering to the table one paper towel–lined platter after another, until finally, when the rest of us are counting tails, they sit down to eat the handful of lukewarm shrimp we’ve left behind. 

pounds tail-on Gulf shrimp, peeled, deveined, and butterflied
3 eggs, beaten with a tablespoon of water
about three sleeves of saltines, crushed fine
canola oil, for frying

Dip shrimp in the egg wash and dredge in the cracker crumbs (it’s best to get them all ready beforehand). Heat oil in a deep, heavy pot to about 365 degrees, then fry the shrimp in batches until golden. Drain on paper towels and serve hot. Serves 4 to 6. 

Jane Smith-Garcés’s Pecan Pie
By Jeff Salamon

My neighbor Jane is our family’s honorary third grandmother. When my wife and I feel overwhelmed by our jobs and our domestic responsibilities, she takes in our six-year-old daughter, teaching her to make paper dolls, offering help with her Spanish homework, and treating her to ice cream and candy.

Jane attended the University of Texas at Austin in the forties, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature; her focus as a graduate student was Byron. But she grew up in Eldorado, outside San Angelo, during the Depression. “You couldn’t go to the grocery store, so we would eat only fruits and vegetables from the area,” she recalls. In the fall, that meant pecans. “It used to be that everyone had at least one pecan tree in their yard. We’d gather pecans and use a hammer or some other crude instrument to crack them.”

Though the neighbors used the nuts for candy and cookies and pie, Jane’s mother, Adele, mostly stuffed them inside fruit. “My mother had very definite ideas about what children should eat,” Jane says. “She thought we should eat very little sugar. So we were not given candy. And we were not allowed to drink soda pop. Our desserts were always fruit of some kind, or dried fruit—dates and raisins, things like that. We just thought that was awful.”

But Jane’s father, Herbert, loved pecan pie, and he eventually persuaded his wife to bake it for him. Her first effort wasn’t very good—she used almost no sugar—but she kept at it, adding a bit more sweetening each time, until she arrived at the recipe Jane uses to this day. Unlike a typical pecan pie, which literally oozes corn syrup, as if the pecans and the crust were just a delivery system for the Karo, Jane’s version is crunchy and chewy, almost closer to a brittle. Every fall she makes them in batches of three and gives us one, though we could easily take all three and make quick work of them. Our pie never lasts long enough to need to be stored in the refrigerator.

“My father liked it too,” Jane says. “He liked almost everything my mother made. Though he would say, ‘Perhaps a little more sugar?’ ”

Ingredients 

 eggs
2/ cup sugar
1/3  cup light Karo syrup 
1/3  cup dark Karo syrup
2  tablespoons butter, melted 
1  teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups whole pecans (or half or quarter pieces, but not the chopped kind)
9-inch deep-dish pie crust

Directions 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat eggs, then stir in sugar, light and dark syrups, butter, and vanilla. Mix well. Add 2 cups pecans and mix well again. Pour mixture into crust. 

Take a look at the mixture; you will see gaps with no pecans. Use as many of the remaining pecans to fill these gaps as needed. Bake for about an hour. Allow to cool. Serves 6 to 8.

Pork Tamales
By Andrea Valdez

The first year I threw my own tamalada, I sought my mother’s advice beforehand. “Tamaladas are fun,” she said, “but not for the host.” I shrugged off her warning. When I was growing up, my mom and her six siblings gathered every winter to make tamales, rotating hosting duties from year to year. I remember having to clean my room and help my mom prep food before the thirty or so aunts, uncles, and cousins filled the house. But mostly my memories are of the warm smell of cumin and laughing so hard my cheeks hurt the next day. What’s a little work when the payoff is so good? 

I promptly invited twenty people to my house—none of whom, I should note, had ever been to a tamalada. I fired off an email telling them to bring fillings and that I’d “take care of the rest.” The day before the party, I headed to Fiesta for everything we’d need: fresh garlic, a tub of cumin, a bag of onions, tens of pounds of lard and masa, fatty pork butts for more filling, plus ingredients to make homemade tortillas, borracho beans, and Spanish rice. Oh, and Ziploc bags for the finished tamales. And trash bags. And paper towels. And beer. And ice. And did I have enough spoons, knives, and spatulas to spread masa with? And—suddenly, as I stood in the grocery aisle, my mind flashed back to my aunts and uncles, gathered around piles of receipts and a calculator as they divvied up costs and tamales by family. This was not the cheapest of endeavors. 

I got home and began frantically trimming corn husks. I boiled, shredded, and seasoned the pork. I washed out coolers. I cleaned the bathroom and mopped my floors. I set up a rented table and chairs. I finally fell into bed at three in the morning, only to rise a few hours later to play hostess (“¡Bienvenidos, mis tamaleros! Beer goes in the cooler!”), trainer (“No, no, spread the masa on the smooth side of the hoja”), and manager to a group whose focus waned as the number of empty beer cans grew (“Please put that down. The filling is for stuffing the tamales, not your face”). Was I having fun? I wasn’t sure.

But when we tallied up our bounty at day’s end, we’d made nearly one thousand tamales—a right good haul for a bunch of newbies. And they tasted almost as good as the ones I ate as a kid. Best of all, coming together as a group of people who loved one another reminded me of my family—so much so that I’ve hosted a tamalada every year since. I love how my house smells like warm cumin and I laugh so hard my cheeks hurt the next day.

The chile paste:

20 to 25 ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
hot water for soaking

Soak chiles in water until soft. In a food processor, grind chiles into a thick paste, adding the soaking water as needed. (To make tamales spicy, also prepare 10 to 12 árbol chiles in the same way.) Set aside to use in filling and masa.

The pork filling:

1  four-to-five-pound bone-in pork butt
1  large onion, quartered
8  garlic cloves, 4 whole and 4 minced
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
8 tablespoons lard
2 to 4 tablespoons ground cumin
2/3 cup chile paste
salt and pepper to taste

Cover the pork with water in a deep, heavy pot and boil with onion, whole garlic cloves, salt, and pepper for 90 minutes, or until the meat’s internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Reserve at least 2 cups of pork stock. Remove the pork, allow to cool, then shred the meat, discarding bone and excess fat. 

Melt the lard in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons cumin, minced garlic, and 1/cup chile paste and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, until fragrant. Add shredded meat and enough stock to moisten the mixture. Add remaining chile paste, cumin, salt, and pepper to taste (use árbol paste here if you want heat). Set aside. Filling may be prepared a day ahead.

The masa:

1 ten-pound bag fresh masa (available at Fiesta supermarkets)
2 1/4 pounds lard
1/4 to 1/3 cup pork stock, warm
2 tablespoons salt, or to taste
1/3 cup chile paste, or to taste

On a large work space, knead the lard into the fresh masa for 10 to 15 minutes, adding pork stock a little at a time until the masa is cohesive. 

Add salt and chile paste to taste. You can test the masa’s readiness by dropping a small amount in a glass of water: if it floats, it is ready to spread. 

The tamales:

4 to 5 bags dried corn husks (available at Fiesta supermarkets)

Soak husks in warm water overnight. When you’re ready to start, dry off a handful and place within reach. Take a husk and thinly spread 2 or 3 tablespoons of the masa on its smooth side, covering the bottom two thirds of the husk. Down the middle of the masa, place about a tablespoon or so of filling. Now fold one side of the husk over the filling, followed by the other side. Then fold the bottom end of the husk toward the exposed edge. Repeat until all the tamales have been made.

Fill steamer pot with water to bottom of basket and bring to a boil. Fill basket with tamales, placed vertically with open end up. Secure lid and steam until masa is firm, about 90 minutes. 

Makes about ten dozen tamales.

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