I finally finished the original draft of the sixth Alafair book (try saying that three times fast). For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be testing the recipes that will go in the back of the book. I’ll be glad when this research phase is over, since I tend to overindulge in my test products. This book is different from the first five in the series. It is not set in Oklahoma. It is set here in Arizona, where I now live, in the year 1916. So rather than test out the heavy, fattening Scotch-Irish country food I grew up with, this time I’ll be testing the heavy, fattening, Sonoran style cooking that a turn-of-the-20th Century Arizonan grew up with. So, when time comes to test and write about the recipes for the dishes that I mention in the new book, I have to say that I’m really going to enjoy the heck out of myself.
When it comes to the food of my childhood, I usually remember very well how to make the dish and can whip up the recipe in no time at all. Sometimes, though, I haven’t eaten whatever it is I’m writing about since I was a child, and recreating the dish is something of an adventure. When I was writing the first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, my mother was still alive, so it was easy for me to call her up and ask if I needed to have my memory refreshed about some ingredient. She was gone by the time I was writing Hornswoggled, and I was forced to begin expanding my resources. I had no trouble remembering most of the recipes in that book, except for two. I ate plenty of my grandma’s chess pie in my youth, but I never made one myself. I found a recipe for it that was written out by my aunt Alma Bourland in about 1989, which is what I used for the book. I did modify the language of my aunt’s recipe just a little, though I pondered long and hard before I did, because I so loved the way she wrote it. “Mix sugar and meal good,” she wrote. “Add beaten egg and butter and mix well. Add milk and vanilla. Pour into uncooked pie shell. Bake slowly until firm.”
Which brings up a problem I’ve discovered with old recipes. How slow is slowly? How hot is a moderate oven? “Use a hunk of butter about the size of an egg.” “Add about a teacup of milk.” “Two glugs of sorghum.” Huh? These recipes were written out by women who cooked by eyeball, who were so practiced, and so familiar with the chemistry of cooking that they knew exactly what kind of reaction so many teaspoons of baking soda would cause when added to so many cups of flour and milk and baked for just so long in an oven that felt exactly so hot when they stuck their hands in to test the temperature.
So, in order to make the recipe intelligible to today’s not-so-talented cooks, Yours Truly included, I am forced to test these recipes over and over until they are right. Sometimes my experiments fail miserably. For my fourth book, The Drop Edge of Yonder, I tried to make an apple cornmeal pudding and ended up with something rather alarming. So, I worked and worked to to figure out what went wrong, made some modifications, and tried again until I got it right. The sacrifices one makes for one’s art!