Soul Foodie

Written 03/17/2010

My best and longest friend, Tanya, was a “foodie” long before the expression was coined. She loves everything about food, has a vast collection of cookbooks which she reads like I read fiction, and is the best cook I know. For Tanya, food is synonymous with love. And because of Tanya’s passion for all things epicurean, much of our relationship has always centered on food.

Tanya and I met in Huntsville, Alabama early summer of 1966. We were both young Army wives. Actually “young” is an understatement—we were babies. I was 17 when we met, and only turned 18 late that August. Tanya was 18, turning 19 on her birthday in July. I married right after high school graduation, as had Tanya—who had already been married a year when we met.

It pains me now, to think about how young we were. But it was the South, where child-brides were not uncommon. And it was a different time. Like now, a brutal, unpopular, and incomprehensible war was raging in a foreign country on the other side of the world. Unlike now, there was a draft. Both our young husbands had enlisted to avoid the draft and to have some kind of chance in hell at training for a specialty that would keep them out of Vietnam. They had gone through basic training together at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, and were stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville studying Nike missiles—which were not deployed in Vietnam.

The morning we met, Tanya and I were dropping our husbands off at work. She was driving her 1964 dark-blue Pontiac GTO convertible and I was in my ‘56 turquoise-blue Studebaker Sky Hawk. After our soldiers marched off to roll-call, Tanya and I leaned against our cars in the early morning heat and talked. I don’t remember the date we met or anything we said. I do know that we became instant friends. And I know that we laughed.

We’ve been laughing ever since—and crying, talking, enduring silences, forgiving, sharing secrets (we could blackmail each other with secrets!), and everything else best friends do when their friendship spans 42 years. (Now 46!)

Tanya was cool and seemed so worldly-wise. She was beautiful, she smoked, and she drove the hell out of that GTO. Tanya already had a job as a telephone operator at Southern Bell. Later that summer, after I turned 18 and could work, she helped me get a job there, too. Tanya was used to being a big sister and I needed a big sister. When she took me under her wing we were a perfect match.

Back then, our food budgets were limited. Our soldiers were making $75 a month and only got an additional $85 “allowance” because they were married. The Army didn’t pay more, because marriage was discouraged. The saying was, “if the Army wanted their soldiers to be married, it would have issued them wives.” The “bring home” telephone company salary of $40 a week, while helping out, never put us into the big time.

Because we were so poor, we almost never ate out. There was not the proliferation of cheap, fast-food choices there is now. Instead, we learned to cook inexpensive meals using lots of hamburger meat, pinto beans and rice, mustard or turnip greens boiled with ham hocks, and cornbread—all of which is now called “soul food.” We swilled gallons of liberally sweetened iced tea, instead of buying soda pop. The only exception to home cooking was the Big Boy combination plate at Shoney’s. It was really cheap and included a hamburger, fries, and a salad. The Shoney’s Big Boy in Huntsville had a drive-section. We parked, ate our hamburgers then left before the car-hop returned. We each collected a nice set of tiny aluminum trays, red plastic baskets, and glass mugs— poor girl’s wedding china.

The Army paid only once a month, so the Saturday after payday was a major shopping event at the base commissary where we stocked up on groceries for the month to come. I still remember the mounting anxiety I always felt as we waited in the ridiculously long check-out lines. As we slowly inched our way toward the register I mentally tallied the groceries in our overflowing cart, certain we would not have enough money to pay for everything. To avoid that potential humiliation I usually found some reason to step away at the very last moment—leaving my unwitting husband to settle the tab. I can still see him standing there pulling bills from his wallet.

Tanya never knew such fear. She filled her cart with all sorts of gourmet items, like Dijon mustard and pickled okra. The purchase she made that filled me with the most awe was a loaf of round bread. It was not round, rustic, Italian bread like we buy at Whole Foods. It was a long cylindrical loaf—like it had been baked in a very tall coffee can. For most of us, those were the Wonder Bread years—a tiny loaf wrapped in the familiar red, white and blue packaging cost a quarter. Buying the jumbo-sized loaf was a tremendous splurge and it would have had to be consumed much too quickly to avoid going stale. I would never take that risk. I bought tiny little loaves and hoarded every slice. Tanya was wild and reckless—she spent at least a dollar for a loaf of round bread and generously shared it with me. I still remember the perfectly round white disks encircled with rich brown crusts. Unlike the soft, gluey consistency of Wonder Bread, Tanya’s round bread was hearty and dense. I never got the courage to buy a round loaf, but I was happy that she did.

Tanya was an amazing cook. She and I loved cooking together and she shared her recipes with me. Once a week she made spaghetti sauce from scratch. The only prepared spaghetti sauces at that time were Chef Boyardee and Ragu. I probably would have liked either one of those just fine, but Tanya was already a food snob. She taught me the elaborate process of chopping and sautéing onions, garlic, and bell peppers. We added liberal amounts of herbs, cans of tomatoes, and allowed the sauce to simmer for hours. Sometimes, when the budget would allow, Tanya added hamburger. That made it a lot more work, because her husband wouldn’t eat the sauce if it was lumpy. If meat was added we had to brown it first then meticulously break it into tiny pieces with a potato masher. Meat or no meat, the smell of that delicious sauce permeated the apartment and could drive you wild with hungry anticipation!

My biggest honor came when Tanya shared her secret for making biscuits. Biscuits are a huge deal in the South—an entire food group unto themselves. Biscuits are served with breakfast, lunch or dinner. Always eaten hot, they can be simply served with butter and jelly, or wrapped around sausage patties, ham, or bacon. They are frequently served open-faced—smothered in thick, creamy, white gravy containing a hefty amount of fried, ground, pork sausage. (Pork is another favorite food group in the South.) Fried chicken is often served with hot biscuits and honey. And of course, there is the classic chicken and dumplings— dumplings simply being cut up raw biscuit dough cooked in chicken stew. In the South, biscuits are even eaten for dessert, sprinkled with sugar and baked on top of fruit or berry cobblers.

Even since the birth of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, a Southern woman’s reputation can be made or ruined by the quality of her homemade biscuits. A winning recipe usually becomes a family heirloom—a secret to be handed down through the generations. I had never even attempted to make biscuits. Why risk it? Tanya’s biscuits were legendary, and one afternoon she showed me her secret—Bisquick. Ordinary Bisquick made extraordinary by her secret ingredient—bacon fat. (It’s truly a wonder that we didn’t all weigh 200 pounds!) Southern cooks always have a container of bacon fat sitting on the kitchen counter in a coffee can. After bacon is fried for breakfast, the leftover fat is poured off into the can. When it cools, it hardens into an orangey-brown version of lard and becomes scoopable. The secret to Tanya’s biscuits was to follow the Bisquick recipe adding a melted scoop of bacon fat, gently shape the biscuits into rounds (instead of rolling, which made them tough), put them into a pan, brush the tops with more bacon fat, and let them rise on top of the oven before baking. Perfect biscuits every time!

Tanya’s husband was transferred in the summer of 1967 and we were all devastated when they packed up their GTO and drove away. Since that time, Tanya and I have only lived in the same town once. Most of our friendship, we have had an entire country between us, and several times an entire globe. But over the years, we have cooked and eaten countless meals together. And Tanya, being the extraordinary big sister she is, has fed me many times.

For almost a year, Tanya and her son lived with me and mine—hiding out while she fought an abusive ex for sole custody. When I came up from work, dinner would be ready—gourmet dinners like carrot ginger soup and tiny Cornish hens stuffed with herbs. After winning custody, Tanya moved back to her home state of Arkansas. But she visited and fed me while I completed radiation therapy for breast cancer—when everything tasted like shit and smelled even worse. While my mother was dying, and after she died when I was crazy with grief, Tanya came and cooked me comfort food. When I was recovering from hip surgery and had no appetite, Tanya stayed for 10 days, bringing me dishcloth covered trays of fresh vegetables and fruits—encouraging me to eat.

In the summer of 2009, I was her guest at a lavish wedding held on a private estate in Napa Valley. Tanya invited me because she didn’t know anyone else who would appreciate the food and wine she knew was going to be served. Tanya and I met in San Francisco and drove to Berkeley, where we celebrated her birthday with lunch at Chez Panisse.

But the highlight of our culinary friendship will always be November 8, 2006. Tanya was visiting me in Chicago and I had saved for months to surprise her with dinner at Charlie Trotter’s. It was a celebration of 40 years of friendship. Even the menus they gave us were personalized. Tanya and I sat in the pink candlelit glow of that magnificent dining room and shared both the Grand and Vegetable Tasting Menus, along with both Wine Accompaniments. There were many serious diners in the restaurant that night, but Tanya and I had the most fun. We talked with the wait-staff, got a tour of the kitchen, acted like goofy girls at a celebrity sighting when we got a glimpse of Charlie Trotter, and laughed all night long—especially when we saw that the dinner that night included crispy pig’s feet and mustard greens.

Tanya at Jeff's wedding, taken Oct. 5, 2012 at rehearsal dinner

Tanya at Jeff’s wedding, taken Oct. 5, 2012 at rehearsal dinner

2 Comments

  1. Maureen

    Sheila, I love this so much! I was back in the ’60s, on that Army base, in those kitchens as you cooked with your dear friend!
    What a fabulous story of friendship. I will savor it for a long time. Wonderful story, and storytelling.

    • Sheila Flaherty

      Maureen, I’m so happy you enjoyed “Soul Foodie.” Imagine, if we were in the same place in Alabama at the same time! The universe never ceases to amaze me!!!