Confederate Ghost Jasmine Syrup

April 2, 2018

The practicalities of home-work life for the self-employed are not lost on me. I’ve lately struggled with how to carve out a space for myself inside this shotgun house. It’s difficult since there are only two rooms, the front dining area and the kitchen,  which are basically open to each other. There is a small bathroom at the back of the house, but it’s a unique situation which I will write about when I’m ready. That, and it’s much too small to sleep in.

What preoccupied my mind for a few days was where to lay my weary head at night. At first, I slept in the backseat of the Oldsmobile. I got tired of that real quick.

I really didn’t like the idea of sleeping out in the front room floor, and I didn’t want to sleep on the kitchen floor either.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself, perhaps not. But the next time you walk into a bakery or patisserie or cafe, look at the counter: the trapezoidal-shaped counter that holds all of the delicious pastries, with an elegant angle that allows the customer to loom over the goods without contaminating them with their profuse saliva.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that most counters are elevated a foot, maybe two feet, off of the ground. Underneath that bottom shelf of the counter, there is plenty of space for a slightly-above-average height woman to sleep. And so I do, raising the bottom shelf just a hair higher so that from my supine position I can get a peek of anyone entering the bakery.

Cozy, snug, secure.

 

One evening, as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard two voices, both male, very southern and very white. They seemed to be debating something, perhaps whether to go inside or not. My primal adrenaline rush prompted me to pop up, and in doing so banging my head against the shelf above me.

The men hushed. After a few minutes, they began whispering to each other.

As scooched up my head to see who was there, the front door quietly opened and two men dressed in Confederate soldier uniforms entered the bakery (no, I didn’t lock the door. We’re in rural delta land, people).

For real. Gray suits, epaulettes, pistols, little caps and sashes. Clean. Dashing.

And what the hell? Was there a reenactment in the area that I didn’t know about?

And then, that feeling…that deep in the gut, goosebumps, all-knowing feeling: Ghosts.

The men stood about, confused. Not entirely sure where they were, but realizing there was food, they started talking furtively about gathering all the edibles that were still on the shelves above me. I held my breath as one of the soldiers stood over the counter looking at the biscuits, breads, and donuts I hadn’t bothered to dispose of earlier that evening (because sometimes I like a little midnight snack myself). Using his pistol, he pointed out which ones looked tasty and which ones looked like dog shit (his words, I’m just reporting here…I don’t stand by that assessment) as he twirled and shined the gun.

The other soldier moved around to the back of the counter and opened the door. He then grabbed one of the white paper bags, shook it open, and filled it full, repeating until he had three bags full. His boots bumped and scuffled near my feet, up my legs, the curve of my back, and next to my head.

He closed the counter and both men started for the front door. The pistol-twirling soldier exited. The second, arms full of goodie bags, began to step out. As he closed the door, he quickly stuck his head back in for a moment.

 

“I thank you, kindly,” he whispered as he gently closed the front door.

 

The next thing I knew, it was morning. Birds chirping, sunlight streaking through the windows. I recalled what happened, bumped my head again and laid back down.

I was up way too late. I missed my morning baking. And surely, I thought, that was all a dream.

But when I crawled out from my “bedroom,” I looked at the pastry case.

Empty…save for the dog-shit-looking danishes.

 

I’ve tried to rationalize this: I probably emptied the whole case before I went to bed, but dreamed it was full. But the dream was so vivid, and sometimes I do leave a few (ok, a lot) of baked goods in the case.

And look, living in New Orleans is living with ghosts, whether people like to admit it or not. So this isn’t my first rodeo. But then again, I don’t know if they were ghosts.

It’s really bothering me, and making me homesick in a strange way. So in homage to things that haunt us and what transpired here at the Chickering Café, I decided to include my recipe for jasmine syrup, made from Confederate jasmine flowers.

Drinking helps me cope, but you can use this on cakes or anything else you like.

 

Confederate Ghost Jasmine Syrup

To make (confederate) jasmine syrup, first you must mix yourself a stiff drink, pour it into a cup, grab a paper bag or basket, and go for a walk. Walk and watch the sun set; you’re bound to see a cotton candy sky of pastel pinks and blues. Or you might see a vibrant red sky. Sip your drink, preferably on Bayou Saint John, and watch. Wait until dusk to gather the jasmine flowers. You can find them in New Orleans growing on fences, lamp posts, and oak trees.

Cut some of the winding stems and place them in your bag or basket. It is better to carry them this way because they will seep a sticky, milky sap.

Once safely home and toasted, make a simple syrup. Ratios of sugar are to your discretion. Most simple syrups are 1:1 sugar and water. But if that is too sweet, you can reduce to a 1:2 ratio. Whatever your measurements, the amount of sugar should be the same as the amount of jasmine flowers (1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of jasmine flowers).

This is a lot of fractions. Be careful, be cautious: you’ve been drinking.

Once the simple syrup is underway, make yourself another drink to congratulate yourself for your accomplishments thus far.

Remove the flowers from the stems and place them in a strainer to rinse them clean. Then place them in a beautiful bowl to make yourself feel good.

Once the simple syrup is completed, add the jasmine flowers and let steep for a few hours. Drain the syrup to remove the flowers, pour the jasmine syrup into a mason jar, and make yourself another drink with your new syrup.

It’s late, and you’ve got nothing better to do. And as far as suggestions, you be the bartender. I’d just mix it with rice vodka and ice.

Kitchn | How to make yourself a simple syrup

My Persian Kitchen | Jasmine Syrup

Advertisements

King Cake

January 17, 2018

I’m sure you’ve been worried: a holiday season without so much as a telephone call or a card or a letter can burrow into our anxieties. But I’m sure you also had a pot roast to keep unscorched, a liquor cabinet to stock, dishes and dishes and dishes…so allow me a belated hello and seasons greetings.

Hello, sweetheart.

It was my first Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years alone. Much of those days were filled with the quiet dread of regrets and a hindsight that burns.

I baked a lot of cake. I kneaded a lot of dough.

Aloysius was gone; I milked a lot of teats.

A man who comes by every now and then stopped more frequently, bought cookies and cakes, took me for joy rides in the country and hikes along the river. It was fine until we fucked in the back of his old red pickup. I haven’t seen him in a few weeks.

I’m not sure how to feel about it.

So, I’ve been thinking about feelings…how we bury them and eat them, among other things. I’m tired of layering truths with half-truths and outright lies. It makes for tiresome mental acrobatics.

I could bore you with the various thoughts I’ve had around the prelude of a hook up and the negligible outcomes, but it’s nothing you haven’t already experienced yourself.

instead, I suggest you make king cake…or queen cake…or most appropriate, a galette des rois, which is a laminated dough (imagine tens of layers of dough and butter) filled with almond paste. Basically, it’s a giant almond croissant.

Yes, I know you can just walk down the street for a slice of king cake. And you could hit up Boulangerie for a galette des rois. But crafting a galette in the traditional style will do two things for you: one, allow you to see parallels to your inner layers, shortcomings and strengths, and two, slow you down quite a bit so that you appreciate the process of life.

i keep saying “you,” but please know that I’m really talking to myself. I’ve had all the feelings of shame, guilt, anger, and frustration that I thought I left behind in New Orleans wash over me, and I keep waiting for the water to run clear so I can move on…

 

galettes des rois  |  Mimi Thorisson

 

 

Roasted Poverty Point Pumpkin

November 22, 2017

I don’t know where to start except to say that he came back.

At least, I think it’s him. He looks a lot like him. And I don’t mean it in the “all black guys look-alike” idiotic sense. It’s him…but different.

For starters, he’s set up shop in the field across the road from the bakery. He has a wagon filled with pumpkins, and on the side of the wagon he attached a painted sign that reads: Poverty Point Pumpkins. They are all shapes and sizes of beautiful, cool-toned creams, green, peach. I think they’re called heirloom. Not the obnoxious and loud orange pumpkins that remind me of drunks hurling the fruit from balconies, the crack and seeds and goo everywhere. These pumpkins the man has in his wagon, with nary a tractor or mule in sight to have brought it here…these pumpkins speak to my soft core. A yellow ochre tender underbelly handled with gentle hands. Sacred; unscathed by common men with common thoughts.

He doesn’t have the same texture. He doesn’t have the crisp clothing like before, but he has a similar style…linen this time rather than wool. His hair is longer. The sunglasses more modern. The same stance, hands in pockets and headed slightly cocked. I think I can even see that he’s chewing on a toothpick.

Yesterday, a customer traded enormous bulbs of garlic and cheese for some marshmallows for his daughters. I started to imagine a dreamy, creamy autumnal soup.

It’s quiet. The man, the pumpkins, the garlic. I knew I had to talk with him. He knew I had to talk with him. The stalemate gave way as I opened the screen door and walked across the rocky, dusty road.

“Have I seen you before?” I asked, already knowing he would deny.

“I don’t think so,” he responded. His voice startled me: melodious and warm as it tumbled through his lips. He sounded a bit like Nat King Cole. I said so.

He laughed, “I get that a lot. The name’s Aloysius.”

“You’re kidding.”

He laughed again, a little harder this time. “Sometimes I wish I was. But nope, that’s my name: Aloysius Freemann,” making special note of the extra n tacked onto the end of his surname. “And you are?”

I hesitated in my introduction only because I hadn’t really been asked in so long.

He could sense this perhaps and interjected, “no need, I call everyone ‘baby’ anyway. But I’m gonna call you ‘Honey’ because…well, you’re a little different from everybody else around these parts.”

My mind usually screams at a pet name. But solitude has a way of wearing the jagged, rough ego in a smooth stone.

“Honey it is.”

“Well, Honey. I was over the next town and heard about a lady who is running a bakery all by herself. And someone said, Aloysius, you’d be good help to that lady. So I came to see about a lady, and I suppose that lady is you.”

“I suppose so. But I’m not sure I need much help.”

Aloysius cocked his head from one shoulder to the other and gesture with an upward motion that let me get a peek into his dark, round eyes. “See that cow other there? She needs milking. That cuts into your baking time.”

He tilted his head down and looked at me over his sunglasses. “And,” he paused for dramatic effect, “I knows about the pie-ano.”

I almost laughed, seeing that he skipped from southern accent to western cowboy accent.

“Ok, but what about your pumpkin business?”

“Honey,” he lowered his forehead again and grinned, “I do suppose you’ve heard of a pumpkin pie? Bakers delight!”

He couldn’t have known that I had no desire to bake a pie, but I think he sensed my lack of satisfaction with that exclamation. He followed quickly with an anecdote.

“But if you’re interested in something else, I learned how to bake a pumpkin underground when I was a shepherd out west in Idaho with the Basques.”

My brain said to me, this is not normal. “You did what? Roasted a pumpkin underground? In Idaho? With…the Basques?”

“And I was working as a shepherd, yeah. I did tell you I was 5,000 years old, right.” He grinned.

“I’ve seen a lot in my days.  Underground pumpkin is pretty easy, but takes a few hours. Can I make you some?”

He grabbed a good-sized pumpkin and walked towards the shotgun, his gait slow with a slight dip on the right leg. He opened the screen door and went inside. I thought he would just be rummaging through the food stuffs, but a slow, deep song began to sound from the piano harp, and a voice that alternated from crackled to velvety,  followed:

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails…

Oh my god. What is my life?

I stood on the porch. He continued to play the song, though he had stopped singing. I walked in, and he looked over his shoulder and began to play a livelier jazz song, smiling and letting his shoulders dance to the tune. He threw his mouth over his right shoulder and said, “so what do you want to put in the pumpkin, then?”

I glanced over at the counter and saw the garlic bulbs and cheese. He noticed the same.

“Honey…now we cookin’. Just tell me we got some bread up in here, please!”

I prepped the food while Aloysius dug the pit and made a fire. While the food cooked, he milked the cow, which he christened Lusa. He then pulled a tent from his wagon and set it up next to the shotgun.

Did I just hire a gentleman? How the hell did this guy end up here of all places?!

The pumpkin was incredible. As we ate the gooey, garlicky, pumpkiny cheese, Aloysius started to talk and then stopped. Finally he said, “Honey, I need you to understand something.”

My interest peeked for the umpteenth time that day, I asked him to elaborate.

“Sometimes,” he paused. “I am really happy to work with you, but sometimes I have to go away without notice.”

Ah.

Ah, ah.

A glimmer of the truth: the shadow that follows all the seemingly good ones; not that I’m thinking of him in that way, but still…there’s always something. An estranged wife, a child, a probation officer, a drug addiction, a warrant.

But again, the smoothed ego was lonesome.

“No problem, Alo.”

 

The Kitchen Sisters | The Sheepherder’s Ball: Hidden Basque Kitchens

Cotton Ball Marshmallows

October 7, 2017

One day the cotton field was there. The next, it was gone.

I woke late on this morning, having drank too much bourbon the night before. My spinning head had slept through whatever tractor contraption had mowed the field, back and forth, back and forth, until all the soft balls of cotton were chopped away with their stalks.

The disappearance was startling. And there were signs of foul-play, of course.

I would consider it foul-play…I had grown so accustomed to the fluffy field that I had began to regard it as my own…that it was my private expanse of whiteness, the snow I hadn’t seen in years. And that, surely something so big and looming couldn’t possibly go away so quickly. What of the stories of black people picking cotton from sunrise to sunset?

But it did happen. It happens so quickly, just like everything else now. One day you are here, the next you are gone.

The evaporating cotton field made me think of my friends…my friends? All the people who knew me back in New Orleans. I was gone, like the field. Did they care?

There were cotton bolls that had drifted away from the harvest, kicking and rolling and lolly-gagging at the edge of the road. I began to collect them so I could make a little pillow for my hard chair. I had gone about a quarter of a mile when I saw him. A black man with sunglasses and a sport coat. He looked like he had popped up from New York City…but not like that. I mean, he looked like he was fresh from the 1950s. Sharp. Clean. Handsome. Cool. Not exactly the type of person you expect the see in the Deep South today.

I turned around to look behind me. I don’t know why…I guess I figured a man looking like that couldn’t possibly be alone. But there was no car, no one else…you can see for miles and miles in this flat landscape. It’s impossible to miss anything.

When I turned back to him, he was gone.

TF?!?

I won’t lie: I am a bit freaked out. I’m not sure what to think or do. Sometimes the mind can play tricks on us. And I am a bit lonely.

I got a bit inspired by the cotton caper and decided to indulge in some fluffy white marshmallows to get my mind off of what I thought I saw or didn’t see…

Local Milk | Earl Gray & Lapsang Souchong Marshmallows

Lost Cow Cream

September 23, 2017

The heat sifted around my limbs, and beadlet pearls of sweat rolled down my forehead and neck and shoulders. Fanning myself with an old, white pastry bag on the porch, I began to think this whole venture a folly.

Drifters, adventurers, and confused folk bought seven slices of the poked blueberry pie over the last three days. Our last lonesome slice sits on the old cake stand under the glass dome on the counter. Not many people roll through this part of the country. It’s partly why I chose to meander through these parts in the first place. And so we are both lonesome partners today.

The old woman hasn’t returned or called. For a day or two I thought she was kidding around, but now I think she believed that I came by divine providence.

She was expecting me, I can feel that to my bones.

I wrote letter on wax paper to my sister and my friend, Mary-of-the-Weeds, not to worry. I gave the letters to a biker couple to mail at the first town they come across. I’m guessing it’s 24 miles away based on what the old woman said. I fashioned envelopes out of the wax paper too, but the only stamp I could find is for 25 cents…I’m not sure what year that would be from, but I have yet to see a mailman anyway.

I’ve written out fantasy recipes, which reminds me of the time my ex-husband (it’s still so strange to write ex) and I went to a pizzeria in Florence. We weren’t sure what to order, so we told our pizza maker to do whatever they wanted. He looked at us with wide-eyed delight.

“You want fantasy pizza?” he asked in his heavily accented English.

That sounded like the most magical thing ever, and it was: eating someone else’s fantasy as the sun took a bow, light flittering through arches and walkways leading to romantic kisses and locks and throw-away keys. The thought makes me hungry in the deep pool of my heart.

And I am pretty hungry in general. I’ve got $21 from my pie sales so far. But no one has come by all day. I’ve gone through all the food I had packed in my car. There’s all the trappings to make a cake or pie, but not for a regular old meal. Tap water with a funny aftertaste is keeping me on.

Sitting on the porch fanning myself, I could feel the heat delusion begin to take over my mind. I began to think I heard a bell clanging behind the building. I dozed off only to be started by a large face nudging my left foot. What I saw was what I thought to be a mirage: a dairy cow.

A beautiful black sheen speckled with white dots here-and-there dairy cow.

A lost cow for a lost woman.

The heifer’s udders were swollen; she hadn’t been milked in at least a day. Her low, desperate moos evoked her discomfort, as if she were trying to say, “Mmmmmmmilk mmmmmmeeee”.

I ran inside for a pitcher. Then I came back out, stroked her neck, guided her to the shady side of the building and got to work.

She needed relief; I needed sustenance.

I didn’t want to tie her up afterwards since I didn’t know her origins. I even tried to shoo her away, thinking perhaps she would get a whiff of a trail, the scent of a salt lick with her name on it. I wanted her to eventually wander off on her own accord. She didn’t take the hint. She stays close to the building, munching the verdant and quick-growing grass.

At least she serves a purpose here.

I looked at that last slice of pie, and then looked at the milk pitcher. The cream had separated to the top.

I found a whisk and got to whipping.

Here’s how you make Lost Cow cream recipe…

You need at least two things: heavy cream and powdered sugar.

You can also add other things like liquids like vanilla extract or rosewater; spices like cardamom or cinnamon. But for simplicity’s sake, start with the first two.

I always eye-ball the whole thing. Feel out how much cream you’d like by pouring the heavy cream into a bowl. Then take a hand mixer and beat the cream at high speed. Add a little sugar. Continue to whip the cream to stiff peaks, but be careful: too much whipping and you’ll have sickly sweet butter.

 

Poked Blueberry Pie

September 19, 2017

Dust speckled my sweaty face, the bits and pieces stuck to my forehead, nose, and cheeks. The wind picked up and died down upriver just like it does downriver in New Orleans. The thought comforts and disturbs me simultaneously. I’ve come so far, and yet despite the vast difference in scenery, the desolate expanse of fields on either side of the road and the sky bigger than God…despite this, the pulse, the heart beat I felt through the dirt was the same.

I left New Orleans early in the morning, my entire life in the car plus a blueberry pie for my sister, who I realize is starving herself for her wedding day this weekend. Certainly I wouldn’t have thought that the Cutlass would expel its dying breath on the soil of another land–for that is what this is, a foreign land that I know nothing of…but if there was an inkling, I suppose this would be considered poetic justice. Or it would at least fulfill expectations that others have of me, which are none.

By all that I mean to say, my landlord died last week. His children decided that his home, which includes my shotgun apartment, is worth so much more than they were getting from it in its current state. Short-term rentals are huge in the Crescent City. I was politely evicted. I think if I had more at stake I would have fought back…but without children nor a partner nor money to fight them, I saw how fruitless the entire endeavor would be. I left behind all the furniture I didn’t have the money to move.

I moved into my ’89 Cutlass Oldsmobile, which I kept parked down the block from the shotgun just to see what they would do with it. Two days after I moved out, a couple lugged their rolley-wheeled suitcases up my front steps and entered the home with a key kept in a box that they opened with a special code. A group of six loud white women, all with horrendous dye jobs and opaquely painted gargantuan eyebrows, also entered my landlord’s side that same day.

Mother. Fuckers.

The few friends who were left over from the divorce offered to let me stay with them. I declined because I didn’t want to feel unwanted, to be expected to leave, again. I also felt like, given the choice, they would have gone with my cool ex-husband except for the fact that they’ve known me longer than him. I don’t say this out loud, but we all know that once I leave town, they can hang out with him again without guilt.

I accept invitations to shower, to share dinner, to bake, to have coffee. I decline a bed and I sleep in the backseat of my car. I’m not sure what all of this means. You could read into it a bit, but I’m just a person who has limits. I knew my time with them, and my time in New Orleans, was coming to a close…but I fully expected to at least make it to goddamn Nashville.

I’m not sure where I am. I threw away the smartphone weeks ago when the marriage came crashing down. I’ve spent weeks leaving notes of cars and in mailboxes, because practically no one answers pay phone calls.

It’s all a spectacular mess.

And here we are. On the side of a dirt road surrounded by more dirt and sky and more sky.

I saw ahead down the road a white shotgun house. As I approached it, I could see that it was quite worn, with baby kudzu curling around the storm pipe. It was also evident that this wasn’t a home, but a business. A faded sign hung dangled by one chain, swinging gently in the ever-so-slight breeze, groaning with each turn. Parked on the side of the building was a golf cart covered in bumper stickers that read, among other things, ‘Too Blessed to be Stressed,’ ‘God Answers Knee-Mail,’ ‘J.C. On the Main Line’.

I stepped up onto the porch to come inside. As I did, an old black woman opened the front door, wiped her hands on her apron, and stared at me.

“Hi, ma’am. Could I possibly use your phone to call…”

She shook her head. “Who you gonna call?”

I was struck by her frank query. I really didn’t know who to call. I had no phone numbers memorized except for a Chinese take-out place in Lafayette, Indiana. Sesame chicken couldn’t save me now.

The woman approached me. She stared deeply into my eyes, then squinting, “What did you want to be when you were eleven?”

Stunned…I said the first thing that came to mind. “I wanted to have ten kids and run a bakery.”

She hummed, looked down at the pie in my hands, and stuck her finger through the buttery top crust. She glazed her finger in the blueberry filling.

She hummed again.

“You can have the kids or the bakery, but not both.”

She plopped her finger into her mouth and sighed.

“You best forget the kids, honey.”

“Wait…what?”

The woman passed by me down the steps and climbed into the golf cart, slowly edging away from my confusion. I put my pie on the porch and ran after her.

“What do you mean??” I asked as I grabbed onto the rolling cart.

“Look, you can ride this cart with me for 24 miles as a coward, or you can wait and see what comes for you at the bakery. I can’t tell you anything else. I can’t tell you what to do. But if I was you, I’d stay put and make some pies or cakes or whatever else you want to vend to these souls who come down this a-way. The key’s on the counter, there’s flour and sugar and salt and a few other things. You could make dirt pies for all I care, but do something!”

She gently pried my fingers from the cart and smiled at me and hummed once more. I stopped following her and watched her glide off, a puff of dust fluttering behind her.

A piece of blue paper flew off the cart, floated through the air, and landed at my feet. It was a religious ad, maybe for a tent revival. It had a tear in the corner and read: “OD PROVIDES”.

I slowly walked back to the shotgun, so bewildered by what had just happened. I picked up the pie and opened the door. Inside there was a counter and display case filled with what the woman had made earlier that day. I found a place for the pie in the case. An upright Chickering piano was situated next to the front door. A few tables and chairs. A rickety ceiling fan. Kitchen ware. Linens…an old rotary dial.

I found some masking tape and taped up the religious ad next to the cashier box, and with an old, worn sharpie added my own flourish of an extra D:

ODD PROVIDES

I went out to the porch, holding the marker in one hand like a friendly cigarette to calm my nerves. Suddenly, I felt driven by an instinct–that feeling that crawls up your spine and fogs the brain and send you on a mission–to name the bakery. On the fade wood panel hanging from the single chain, I etched with the same worn marker:

CHICKERING CAFÉ.

The Kitchn | Classic Blueberry Pie