Reeling from the sudden loss of her beloved brother, Oliver, as well as a breakup with her handsome fiancé and ejection from the apartment they’d lived in together, food writer and former New Yorker editor Emily Nunn traveled the country by cooking comfort food and staying with relatives and friends. In this selection from her resulting book, THE COMFORT FOOD DIARIES, Emily shares an anecdote about discovering an old family cookbook and the recipe for “Flo’s Barbecue.”
Before my parents got divorced, my mother took a trip to Pennsylvania Dutch Country with her friend Patsy, who lived across the street. She returned from this vacation with wonderful stories and a green spiral-bound cookbook whose cover was decorated with a drawing of what I assumed was a Pennsylvania Dutch woman, dressed in a giant bonnet that hid her face and a long apron over a puffy ankle-length dress. She was holding up a pie, to no one in particular, probably shoofly pie. My mother used this book to make me and my siblings scrapple. She sliced and fried it. I imagine it gave her back some of the happiness that was permanently taken from her by her mother’s early death when she was only nine years old and her father’s subsequent and immediate disappearance, and it might have even delayed the inevitable disintegration of my parents’ marriage.
In 1997, after her cooking had faded somewhat from my memory, and before everyone in my family had gone to separate corners to sulk permanently, she sent each of us an “Illustrated Cook’s Notes,” in which she had inserted notes written in her loopy, elegant script, “Recipes from your life . . .” as well as a quote from the musical Mame, a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and a food-related limerick: “A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill will hold more than his belican/He can take in his beak/Food enough for a week/But I’m damned if I see how the helican.”
I loved getting it. It was a sweet gift that reminded me of how funny she was. I cherished many of the recipes; others—Dot Foster’s Mother’s Chicken Salad or Liz Vaughn’s Egg Mold with Caviar— made me wonder where the hell I’d been when everyone else was enjoying them, or how in the world the broccoli cheese soup had been attributed to me. I’ve never made it in my life.
Opening this book again recently, the recipe that came closest to ringing my lost chime was Flo’s Barbecue “Oliver’s favorite!,” meaning my great-aunt Flo and my late brother, Oliver. It was the one I wanted to make as soon as possible.
Flo’s Barbecue Recipe
Here it is, verbatim:
1. Boil a large chuck roast or large fresh ham until tender (when it shreds.) Cool. Shred. Save the broth.
In a large pot mix together:
- 1 tablespoon allspice
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon celery salt
- 1 large bottle Heinz Ketchup
- Dash of cayenne pepper
- Broth from the meat
- Salt, to taste
2. Add the shredded meat. Cook down very slowly to desired thickness. Must serve on large buns that have been toasted, with slaw (below).
- 2 cups cider vinegar
- Salt and sugar, to taste
- 1 cup sweet pickles, chopped (or use jarred sweet relish or sweet pickle cubes)
- 1 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
- 1 small green cabbage, chopped
Mix together the vinegar, salt, and sugar. Heat to boiling and pour over chopped vegetables. Refrigerate.
(Wonderful with Mom’s potato salad, beer, and dessert. Great picnic fare.)
This dish isn’t true barbecue, of course, and it’s not really trying to be. Yet I’d pick it over some of the best I’ve had. You should go heavier on the cayenne if you like a bigger kick, but taste it first, and do not deviate from the other instructions. The slaw’s texture and tang are essential to the sandwich’s overall embrace, as is toasting the bun—not just to hold it together longer, but for the toast flavor.
To read all about Emily Nunn’s travels across the country, and the healing meals she shared with family and friends along the way, pick up a copy of THE COMFORT FOOD DIARIES, now available in paperback.
Want more comforting recipes? Don’t miss these 5 fall cookbooks for cozy nights.
Excerpted from The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn. Copyright © 2017 by the author. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.