How research fires writing: wills, inventories, archives, photographs, and what I learned in Howard Bahr’s Research and Writing class

Fiction and History

The conductor went back to his paperwork, and Artemus looked past him out the window where the woods, the moss, the houses—some of them on stilts now—passed in winter array, made soft and ephemeral in a light the color of old pearls.

Bahrposed06smc2That sublime passage is Howard Bahr from his extraordinarily beautiful novel, Pelican Road. And that’s one of many sentences that will stop you and leave you gasping in this novel of the old railroads of the south, specifically from Meridian, Mississippi, to New Orleans.

Howard and I have been serendipitously thrown together many times now, as if some higher power meant our association to be. Joe DeSalvo at Faulkner House Books was the first intercessor, putting Howard as emcee of a vibrant panel on civilians and the Civil War and putting me dazed in a mix of much more famous and deserving authors on that panel.

Sometimes…

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Blame it on Austen

Complete novels of Jane Austen

He was interrupted by a summons to dinner; and the girls smiled on each other. They were not the only objects of Mr. Collins’s admiration. The hall, the dining-room, and all its furniture, were examined and praised; and his commendation of everything would have touched Mrs. Bennet’s heart, but for the mortifying supposition of his viewing it all as his own future property. The dinner too in its turn was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins the excellency of its cooking was owing. But he was set right there by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen. He begged pardon for having displeased her. In a softened tone she declared herself not at all offended; but he continued to apologise for about a quarter of an hour.  ­ From Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”

For my taste in reading books with happy endings, I blame Jane Austen.

After having to study a massive amount of literature written by dead old men in school, I was quite taken with Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” A female author in whose world women were witty, intelligent, imperfect and terribly fun to inhabit ­in a good book, I still look for those qualities of character. I also like a bit, or a lot, of romance in my chosen fiction. So I tend toward to the romance genre, though there is an air of romance (or outright lust) in most genres. Please tell me you don’t think Westerns novels are just about cattle drives, right?

There is a reason that ”Pride” has been made into so many movie versions, the famous BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and even inspired a book with zombies. It is an amazing piece of fiction. In my opinion, a must-read book. Which is exactly what I told my mother when extoling the virtues of Austen. Unfortunately, my mom started her Austen experience with “Emma.” She did finish the book, but she didn’t like it. I can’t blame her. While I liked it, I didn’t love it.

“Persuasion” is my next favorite Austen novel. A woman for whom the first blush of young beauty is fading meets her former beau, now a successful sea captain. Who hasn’t run into an ex and thought, “I wish I had taken time to put on the jeans that make me look smaller and firmer in all the best places”? You root for Anne Elliot as you root for Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride.” A wonderful film of “Persuasion” was made in the mid-1990s starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root.

“Sense and Sensibility” comes next on my list. A great book and a great movie starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Alan Rickman. This novel showcases the social history that can be learned from Austen’s writings. The Dashwood women find themselves in a poor position after their step-brother inherits their father’s estate. Women of class couldn’t work without disgrace and couldn’t inherit entailed estates. So what are four gals to do? They depend on the kindness of a far-flung family member and try to build a life. Loves found, loves lost, London ballrooms, a near death experience, then loves found again. What’s not to like!?

Check these novels out, then move on to “Emma,” “Mansfield Park,” Northanger Abby,” and finally “Lady Susan.”

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Springfield Cashew Chicken

MyCashew Chicken husband and I grew up in Springfield, Mo., so it is no surprise that one of our favorite meals is Springfield Cashew Chicken. Now in Mississippi, I wanted to find a good recipe to make us both a taste of home.

I found a good recipe on allrecipes.com, but it needed some adjustment to suit our tastes. The original recipe calls for toasted cashews, but since there is plenty of cleanup involved in cooking, I just don’t bother. I prepare a box of Uncle Ben’s wild rice according to directions, but use chicken stock instead of water for more flavor.

In our younger days, all cashew chicken seemed to be served drowned in sauce. Now when we return home and order the dish, it often comes with sauce poured on top. That would preserve the crispiness of the chicken, of course. But that isn’t the way we like it. So I use my pasta pot to make the sauce, then add the cooked chicken and give it a good stir around to coat all the pieces. Serve over rice, sprinkle with chopped green onions and cashews and enjoy!

Springfield Cashew Chicken

Ingredients

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

5 tablespoons cornstarch, divided

3 eggs, beaten

Peanut oil for frying

2 cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 teaspoon white sugar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Dash ground white pepper

Chopped green onion for topping

Cashew halves for topping

 Directions

Cut the chicken breasts into 1 inch pieces. In a shallow dish or bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda and 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch. In another dish or bowl beat the eggs. Dip chicken pieces into flour mixture, then eggs, then flour mixture again. Heat peanut oil in a large skillet and fry coated chicken in hot oil until done through, turning once . Drain on paper towels.

Heat broth to boiling in a medium saucepan. Add oyster sauce, sugar, soy sauce and white pepper. Mix remaining 4 tablespoons cornstarch with a small amount of cold water or broth in a cup. Stir cornstarch mixture slowly into broth mixture to thicken, then cook for another 5 minutes over medium-low heat while stirring.

Pour sauce over fried chicken and top with cashews and green onion. Serve with soy sauce to taste over a bed of fried rice, if desired.

Recipe adapted from Springfield Style Cashew Chicken I by Teresa Dennis at allrecipes.com.
Photo by Tammy Yates

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Lemon Curd Tart

tart lemon blog edited lemon photo blog edited

When I received some beautiful lemons from Fritscher Farms in Covington, LA, I wanted to find the best way to highlight them. Ina Garten is my go-to source for cooking, after my mother, of course. Garten’s Lemon Curd Tart seemed the way to go. I checked with a local food columnist to see if I really needed a false-bottom tart pan, and she thought it would be best. I took the leap and couldn’t have been happier with the result. My husband and I both loved the tart, and cutting it was easy after removing the edge piece of the pan.

To thank my pal from Fritscher Farms, I decided to make something that would be easy to transport. I made the curd recipe and stored it in a four-cup disposable plastic container. I thought pound cake would make a nice curd-delivery device, so I took it easy on myself and bought a name brand frozen cake. I took the cake and curd to work. Happily, it was not stolen from the refrigerator, and I got a rave review.

Recipe from Ina Garten

 Ingredients

For the tart shell:

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing, at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch salt

For the lemon curd:

4 lemons, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1/8 teaspoon salt

Directions

For the tart shell:

Mix the butter and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until they are just combined. Add the vanilla. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-and-sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Press the dough into a 10-inch-round or 9-inch-square false-bottom tart pan, making sure that the finished edge is flat. Chill until firm.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter 1 side of a square of aluminum foil to fit inside the chilled tart and place it, buttered side down, on the pastry. Fill with beans or rice. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and beans, prick the tart all over with the tines of a fork, and bake again for 20 to 25 minutes more, or until lightly browned. Allow to cool to room temperature.

For the lemon curd:

Remove the zest of the lemons with a vegetable peeler or zester, being careful to avoid the white pith. Squeeze the lemons to make 1/2 cup of juice and set the juice aside. Put the zest in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the sugar and process for 2 to 3 minutes, until the zest is very finely minced. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar and lemon zest. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and then add the lemon juice and salt. Mix until combined.

Pour the mixture into a 2-quart saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 10 minutes. The lemon curd will thicken at about 175 degrees F, or just below a simmer. Remove from the heat.

Fill the tart shell with warm lemon curd and allow to set at room temperature.

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Photos by Tammy Yates

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