All that meat and no potatoes Just ain't right like green tomatoes . . . I don't think that peas are bad, With me most anything goes . . . But woman you know without rice Beans just ain't right . . . From "All That Meat and No Potatoes," By Fats Waller, 1941
THE FIRST thing to learn about cooking traditional black dishes is that, like the Red Onion Jazz Babies, you improvise. "I don't know what I do," said one of my Swann Street neighbors, Mamie Johnson. "I just add this and that as I go along, but I can't say how much."
She was watching television on a Sunday afternoon, playing cards and babysitting one of a dozen grandchildren, all at the same time.
"Well, do you add a cup, a half-cup, or what?"
She threw down a jack of hearts, picked up another card and said, "I couldn't tell you."
My education had begun, and the first lesson was the most frustrating: recipes passed orally from one generation to another don't fit easily into standardized formats. Johnson tells of how foods should taste and how they are meant to look and how long before work they must start to simmer, rather than of tablespoons, cups and degrees on thermometers. I like to see things on paper, footnoted if possible, and the more statistics the better. But for Johnson, measurements aren't as accuate as the five senses.
The basic ingredients of Swann Street specialties are easy enouth to obtain: starches like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, corn bread and rice; all sorts of greens, such as mustard and collard; eggs; and beans -- blackeyed peas, red beans black beans. Meats range from conventional types -- pork, chicken, beef -- and fish -- to more eccentric 'possum, raccoon, rabbit, squirrel and oxtails. With the raw materials, according to Johnson's lessons, you harmonize, syncopate, "season to your taste" and almost magically arrive at a meal suited for an army of children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins.
James woodley, another neighbor, prevents children's hockey pucks from flying through windows when he's not garnening. Woodley cooked for the Old Stein Grill on Connecticut Avenue, then the Metropolitan Club until he retired eight years ago. The 73-year-old es-chef was raised in North Carolina and remembers dishes like barbequed ribs and Brunswick stew. But most of the items on his yellowed and dusty Old Stein menu are typically and transregionally American. For example, from his Chef's Special Full Course Dinners" on an April 1950 menu, Woodley offered grilled steak with mushroom sauce for $1.50; jumbo shrimp with french fries and cole slaw for $1.30; sauteed calves liver with grilled bacon for $1.25; and roasted Long Island duckling with dressing for $1.40. And at the bottom of the menu, under the Heineken, Pilsner and Guinness, is the message: "To Our Patrons: We Use No Cannes Vegetables in the Preparation of Our Menu.
Still, in the glaringly non-parochial Old Stein bill of fare, Woodley managed to slip in his "Chef's Famous Barbeque Ribs Dinner" and "Broiled Maryland Corn Fed Chicken on Toast." And, gradually warming to a ready audience, he finally gave in and told me about oxtails, bread pudding, and how 'possum aren't too clean because they're scavengers, but racoons are right because they wash everything they eat.
Woodley's friend, Martha Bellinger, remembers game dinners in Virginia when the men would return home with rabbits, muskrat, squirrels, 'possum, 'coon and pheasant; then the women would prepare a feast. She explained that you must not only skin the animals, but remove the bones before cooking. They can be stewed, fried or baked, seasoned to taste, and garnished with potatoes (sweet or white) and greens. She also suggested soaking the game in salt water to "get out the animal or wild taste." What does she mean by that? "It tastes wild, like the woods -- more like animal than like meat."
Bellinger also remembers Brunswick stew -- slowly cooked in a huge iron pot on an open fire, with meat remnants, vegetables and tomato sauce -- always served at cookouts. And don't forget hoppin' John, she said -- blackeyed peas with rice.
Now Woodley, who keeps old menus pasted in albums, mostly feeds the neighborhood cats who gather each morning and late afternoon at his doorstep, meowing like crazy for cat food and coversation. But he remembers that his barbequed chicken used to inspire people to line up for an entire block. They paid $1 for half a chicken with slaw and fries, then tipped him. "Honey," he said grinning, "that's a good seller." JAMES WOOKLEY'S BARBEQUED CHICKEN (4 servings) 1 fryer, split or quartered 1 teaspoon black or white pepper 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon paprika Vinegar
Wash chicken and blot dry with a paper towel. Combine spices in shallow bowl or dish. Sprinkle chicken with vinegar. Roll chicken in spice mixture and place in baking dish. Bake for about 1 hour at 350 degrees. SWANN STREET CORN PUDDING (6 servings) 4 ears of corn 2 eggs 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup milk or cream 2 tablespoon brown sugar 2 tablespoon butter 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon vanilla
Boil corn in 3 to 4 inches water, covered, until tender. Scrape kernels off ears into mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and beat unitl smooth. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch pan and bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes. If necessary, place pan into another, large pan of water to prevent burning. This is served as a dessert. SWANN STREET BREAD PUDDING (8 to 10 servings) 1 loaf white bread, diced 2 eggs 1/2 cup or cream 2 tablespoons brown or granulated sugaer 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 teaspoon nutmet 1 teaspoon allspice 1 to 2 cups raisins, simmered in waterintil softened (optional)
Combine diced bread, eggs, cream, sugar and spices and mix well by hand. Add raisins and mix gently. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch pan and bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until golden brown. Place pan into larger pan of water to prevent burning, if necessary. JAMES WOODLEY'S SPECIAL OXTAILS (4 servings) 12 pieces oxtail 2 teaspoons allspice Salt Pepper 3 to 4 whole bay leaves 2 to 3 medium onions, chopped 1/2 cup celery, diced 1/2 cup green pepper, diced
Place oxtails in roasting pan and season with allspice, salt and pepper. Add 2 to 3 inches of water, bay leaves and vegetables. Braise in oven at 350 degrees for about 3 hours, until meat is tender enough to fall easily from bones and vegetables are cooked. BEEF HASH (4 servings) Any quantity of corned beef, left over 4 potatoes, peele and boiled 1 green onion, diced 1 green pepper, diced 1/2 cup celery, diced Salt Pepper Grind the corned beef and potatoes together with the onion, pepper, celery. Season to taste. Put in shallow pan and cook about 1 hour at 350 degrees. SWANN STREET POTATO PUDDING (6 servings) 4 white or sweet potatoes 2 small eggs 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon nutmeg 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup milk or cream
Peel potatoes and grate into a deep mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and beat until smooth and thick. Pour into baking dish or casserole and bake for 1 1/4 hours at 325 degrees. Allow to cool and then refrigerate to set. It is served as a dessert.