Much of this week will be spent in the kitchen, and if you haven't planned your menu and want to throw a twist into your Thanksgiving festivities, take a look at The Happy Table of Eugene Walter, a collection of stories and recipes edited by Don Goodman and Thomas Head that showcases the talent and wit of a great, overlooked Southern bon vivant.
For those who are unfamiliar, Eugene Water hailed from Mobile, Alabama. Like fictional Alabamian Forrest Gump, he was always in the right place at the right time, touring the world, befriending the famous and influential, and in turn leaving his mark on everyone he met. He was a boyhood friend of Truman Capote and after moving away from the South was a neighbor to Andy Warhol in Greenwich Village. He moved to France and had a short story published in first issue of The Paris Review and later became an assistant to Federico Fellini, even appearing in a couple of his films. No matter how far he traveled and how glamorous the company he kept, Walter retained a love for the food and culture of his native South and years later, after returning home to Alabama, published the best-selling American Cooking: Southern Style, a volume in the Time-Life series on regional cooking.
After the writer's death in 1998, Walter's literary executor, Donald Goodman (in foreground at right), found a large collection of notes, recipes, drawings and various creations. Among the trove was a manuscript entitled "Dixie Drinks: And Sometimes We're Right Moderate. A History of Southern Beverages, and How to Prepare Such, with Forgotten Formulas for Home-Made Wines and Cordials and a Grand Selection of Southern Dishes Employing Spiritous Flavorings." With the help of travel and food writer Thomas Head, Goodman set about reconstructing this book. The result is The Happy Table of Eugene Walter, a collection of stories, illustrations and colorful recipes that Walter gathered from small towns all over Alabama, many of them pre-Prohibition, which accounts for the well-stocked liquor cabinet required to attempt these delights.
We delved into the book in earnest about a month ago when Goodman and Head stopped by for a book signing. We like to prepare a few recipes when we host cookbook events, and we had no trouble selecting several dishes for this reception.
In honor of the book's theme — "Southern spirits in food and drink" — we first selected a beverage, the delightful Summer Punch ("a good punch to serve to a crowd that needs livening up") which suffered none being served in October. A selection of cocktail snacks were set out: an olive-based Mock Caviar (vodka), a nice old-style Cheese Spread (sherry and cognac), and most outrageous, Goober Bread, which involved toasting buttered whole wheat bread smeared with Dijon mustard and peanut butter, then adorned with ice-cold dill slices right out of the oven. If it sounds like a vile conflagration, something Walter would toss together when he lived in Rome, just try it and you'll be as surprised and delighted as we all were.
While featuring many of the cornerstones of Southern cuisine, this book is distinguished by the plethora of unique and rare dishes (Nip and Snip Soup, Porcupine Pudding, Chicken Custard, English Monkey), and the convivial nature of Walter's prose makes these recipes uncommonly fun to prepare. It's as if he is there with you in the kitchen, offering anecdotes, memorable turns of phrase and hilarious asides while you cook. (The recipe for Monkey Pudding advises to bake spiced, wine- and milk-soaked stale bread "in the oven with a slow fire until it looks like an old monkey.")
A reader is left wanting to know more, and we'll point you to his currently out-of-print memoir, Milking the Moon, or, for a short taste, try this sample of his poetry, featured on the CD Rare Bird and read by the author in his unmistakable voice: