Mama Love & Breast Cancer Awareness Month Tuesday, Oct 18 2011 

I am a “mama’s girl.”

Mama and I travel quite a bit together. I love to ask her to come with me to book signings and cooking classes. I get a huge pleasure out of seeing folks ask her for her autograph. She’s got quite the following! Seeing my beaming proud mama in the front row of my cooking class also makes me smile.

It’s not all work. We take vacations together, too. We’ve tromped up steep, long, winding stairs in Italy, across sun-bleached limestone roads in Turkey, and wet cobblestone streets in London. She’s joyfully joined me in France for cheese, chocolate, and croissants; been starved, stretched, and sunned at the spa in Mexico; and held my hand and wiped my tears on one perfectly miserable trip to Hawaii.

Mama is now a dear friend to the new love in my life. It gives me infinite pleasure to see two of the most important people in my life enjoying one another, relating, talking. Being.

My Mama is my best friend.

We talk nearly every day. She’s heard plenty from me; that’s for sure. She celebrates my joys and blessings and consoles me when something goes wrong. We don’t always agree, by a long shot. And, we have very different attitudes on life in general. She was the baby girl, grew up in the country, and never worked when I was growing up. I am the oldest, have lived all over the world, and my work and my life are intertwined to the point of nonrecognition. One is not complete without the other.

As different as we are, there’s something in her saying, “It’ll be okay” that makes me believe it will – that somehow she knows that it will really, truly be okay.

Our daily calls started when Meme passed away. We were both devastated.  So, we started calling each other to see if the other was okay, to check on each other, to make sure. Ten years later, we call each other at least once a day, usually at night even if it’s just 2 minutes to say, “I love you.”

During the day or if one of us calls the other at an unexpected time as soon the other answers the phone, we’ll quickly say, “Everything’s okay – nothing’s wrong.”

One day in 2002 Mama called and it wasn’t okay.

I was grocery shopping and picked up my cell phone. I was in the parking lot of Whole Foods in Sandy Springs. She didn’t say those magic words as soon as she heard my voice. Instead, she said the words that no one wants to hear, “They’ve found something.”

They.

“They” are instantly known and identified – the harbingers of both good and evil, happiness and sadness, joy and despair – wearing lab coats over dusty blue scrubs.

My world went instantly blinding white. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t hear. All I could feel was my heart pounding in my chest. Somehow I could feel the blood rushing, crashing through my body, through my brain.

Blinking, blinking.

It’s that moment when you realize it’s happening to you. It’s not a story about someone else. It’s not a magazine story or on the news. It’s not your friend’s mama. It’s not a sad story in the paper that makes you shake your head. It’s you. It’s your mama.

I don’t remember crying. I don’t think I did.

Mama, like always, said in her soft Southern drawl, “It’ll be okay, I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right, Gin.”

She calls me Gin, sometimes Missy Gin. Me, adamantly the woman of no nicknames, but I love it.

Regarding her call, frankly, I don’t remember much other than that. Somehow I made it home. And, I think I called and told my sister. I honestly don’t remember. I have absolute zero recollection.

I went home – home to Mama – in the next days and we went to the doctor.

The surgeon said it was small. The surgeon said it was the kinder, gentler breast cancer. The surgeon said it was caught early and that she’d be fine.

“She’d be fine” didn’t sound anything remotely like “It will be okay” to me.

The first visit to the oncologist was surreal. The office was full of sickness and death. Pale hairless faces haunted with the look of fear. It was perfectly clear what we were up against.

I felt the blood rushing and crashing again.

Once in the examination room I asked so many questions the doctor looked at me and asked me what part of the medical profession I was in.

I evenly replied, “I am not; it’s my Mama.” To me that succinctly explained everything….

Thankfully, the surgeon was right. She was fine. She was all right. Mama had a small lump removed. Her lymph nodes were clean. She didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. She had several months of radiation.

My mama is now 9 years cancer-free.

Her kinder, gentler breast cancer was caught by a routine mammogram.

This month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you are 40, go get a mammogram. If you are over 40 and late on your mammogram, call and make an appointment. NOW.

You know who you are. Do it. Do it, dammit.

You are loved and the world is a better place with you in it.

And, while you are at it, call your mama and tell her you love her or call your daughter and tell her you love her. Call any woman you love and tell her you love her.

Peace be with you.
VA

Mama’s Pecan Pie
Makes two 9-inch pies

Too many pecan pies are mostly goo without enough pecans, making them far too sweet. The secret to the success of this pie is that its pecan-to-goo ratio is just right. As a child, I helped Mama make this pie. It was my job to help her coarsely grind the nuts. She still uses a hand-held grinder; it has a crank that forces the nuts through two opposing fork-like blades and a glass jar to catch the nut pieces. The metal top that screws into the glass jar is bent and dinged, but the tool still coarsely cuts the nuts just right.

Double recipe All-American Pie Crust (see below)
3 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare 2 unbaked 9-inch pie shells.
To make the filling, combine the eggs, sugar, corn syrup, butter, vanilla, and salt in a bowl; stir until blended. Add the pecans and stir to combine. Pour into the chilled pie shells.

Bake the pies, rotating once, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Remove the pies to a wire rack to cool. The pies can be stored wrapped tight in aluminum foil or in a pie safe (at room temperature) for up to 1 week.

All-American Pie Crust
pastry for 1 (9-inch) pie crust

1¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ cup solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, chilled and cut into pieces
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
3 to 8 tablespoons ice water

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the flour and salt, then add the vegetable shortening and butter. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.

Add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing to mix, until the dough holds together without being sticky or crumbly. Shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

Flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin. (If you are making a double-crust pie or two pie shells, work with one disk at a time, keeping the second disk chilled.) Place a dough disk in the center of the floured surface. Starting in the center of the dough, roll to, but not over, the upper edge of the dough. Return to the center, and roll down to, but not over, the lower edge. Lift the dough, give it a quarter turn, and lay it on the work surface. Continue rolling, repeating the quarter turns, until you have a disk about 1/8 inch thick.

Ease the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate. To keep your crust from shrinking or tearing, snuggle your dough into the pie plate by lifting the edges and letting the weight settle it into the plate contours. Trim 1 inch larger than the diameter of the pie plate; fold the overhanging pastry under itself along the rim of the plate. For a simple decorative edge, press the tines of a fork around the folded pastry. To make a fluted edge, using both your finger and thumb, pinch and crimp the folded dough. Chill in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

To blind bake, preheat the oven to 425°F. Crumple a piece of parchment paper, then lay it out flat over the bottom of the pastry. Weight the paper with pie weights, dried beans, or uncooked rice. This will keep the unfilled pie crust from puffing up in the oven.

For a partially baked shell that will be filled and baked further, bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the paper and weights. (You can reuse the rice or beans for blind baking a number of times.) The shell can now be filled and baked further, according to recipe directions. For a fully baked shell that will hold an uncooked filling, bake the pie shell until it is a deep golden brown, about 30 minutes total.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Top photo by Helene Dujardin

Others by me.

Happy Mother’s Day: Mama’s Pound Cake Friday, May 7 2010 

Any one that speaks to me more than a couple of paragraphs essentially knows I love my Mama. I am a Mama’s girl through and through. Mama and I have always been very good friends.

I was always a bookish child, curled up in a corner with a book, reading a book in the car, or hiding under the weeping willow tree with a book in my hand. Once when I was in elementary school the principal called mama in for a meeting because I was cutting class — cutting class and sneaking into the library. Mama didn’t think that was such a problem. A couple of years later just before summer break we were in the library choosing books for vacation. I was reading above my age and the librarian wanted me to read something more “age appropriate.” I vividly remember her telling me to stick to a certain children’s section for my summer reading, when what I really wanted to do was go over there to the hard back books. I wasn’t reading titillating teen material; I had started reading the classics. I was beginning to appreciate literature. Mama just let me choose what I wanted to read.

A bookish child turned into a bookish teenager. I was never part of the popular crowd. Didn’t kiss a boy until I was 16. Of course, that’s all more clear now, but the nut of it was, I wasn’t hanging out in the Dairy Queen parking lot with the other teens on Friday night. I was at home with Mama. Mama divorced my father when I was in high school, the summer between my junior and senior year. That same summer the private school I attended closed. I was 16. It was tumultuous. Mama and I leaned on each other and it was then that our “grown-up” friendship really started.

Instead of going to another school for my senior year I started college. I had to get my driver’s license so that I could live at home and drive to college. It just was the thing to do and I did it with Mama right there beside me. She never let on she was worried or that I couldn’t do it. She believed in me, if she had any hesitation about her sheltered bookish daughter starting college at 16, she never let on.

A lot has happened in my life since those big steps many years ago. I transferred to UGA and boy howdy, did my world open up. I went to England one summer for a couple of weeks and called her to ask if I could stay the summer. She said yes. I am sure she was scared to death, but if she had any hesitation, she never let on. After a few years of floundering around I wanted to go to culinary school. She supported my ambition and if she had any hesitation, she never let on. Later still, I wanted to move to France to learn and study. I was supposed to be there 3 months and was there for almost three years. If she had any hesitation, she never let on. Moving to New York City to be the kitchen director for Bobby Flay? Leaving that to work for Martha Stewart? Leaving a fantastic job with Martha to travel the world with Epicurious shooting stories about mustard in Dijon or pasta in Italy? We’ve traveled the world together, I’ve gotten her lost in Turkey, taken wrong turns in Paris, and we’ve trooped up many a tower stairwell in Italy.

If she had any hesitation, she never let on.

When I returned home to the South was another story. She “let on” how happy she was and I am very glad I returned. Life is good to me here. When you are young you can’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge and I found at least, when I got older I couldn’t wait to get the hell back. After 9/11 and being stuck in Manhattan as those towers burned and subsequently losing my job, I wanted to go home to Georgia and Mama. She’s been right beside me these past nearly ten years as my life has radically changed. My career has exploded. My book has significantly altered my life. My heart has also been hurt, I nearly cracked, quite frankly, and had to go away to the white beaches of Florida to heal. I am now experiencing a love like nothing I have ever known before and joyful in its beauty and all the while my Mama has been right there.

And, if she had any hesitation, she never let on.

I’ve always devoured books, still do. Words are magic to me. The fact that occasionally I can string together a couple and make a beautiful sentence or a moving phrase or an evocative thought thrills me. I love to cook, and as my life evolves and changes I realize I love writing almost as much. The fact that I can marry these two loves and pay my bills is a wonderful and wondrous thing.

And, that, like most of the wonderful and wondrous things in my life is as a result of the love and support of my wonderful and wondrous Mama.

I love you Mama.
Happy Mother’s Day.
I Love YOU the Most!
Gin

Meme’s and Mama’s Pound Cake
Makes one 10-inch cake

This cake has been a constant in my life and it has been my birthday cake many times. Our family holidays would not be complete without it. The best part is the crispy, dark-brown sugary edges. Much to my mother’s consternation, more than once, little pesky elves raided the opaque Tupperware cake container and nibbled away those tasty bits.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
3 cups White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, at room temperature
3 cups sugar

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Generously grease a 16-cup (measure to the rim) bundt pan with butter. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a large liquid measuring cup, combine the milk, eggs, and the scraped vanilla seeds. Set aside.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, cream together the 1 cup of butter, vegetable shortening, and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the flour and milk mixtures to the butter mixture in 3 batches, alternating between dry and liquid, occasionally scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Fill the prepared pan with batter (it should be no more than two-thirds full).

Bake for 15 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 325°F and bake an additional 45 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Remove to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely.

This cake will stay moist in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Fried Chicken: A Love Story Monday, May 4 2009 

Virginia and Meme

Fried Chicken: A Love Story
By Virginia Willis

I’ve been cooking as a professional for a little over 15 years, but my passion actually started when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter in my grandmother’s country kitchen. I called her Meme and she was the light of my life. My mother now lives in her home, the simple country house my grandfather hand-built over 60 years ago. The kitchen hasn’t really changed much. There never has been enough space for everything. The light still hums. Her recipes still are posted on the inside of the cabinet, some written directly on the wood. Her worn wooden-handled turning fork still hangs from the cabinet and her skillets and pans still hang on nails behind the door propped open with the same antique solid cast iron pressing iron.

She and I spent hours together in the kitchen. There are photos of me as young as 3 years old standing on a stool “helping”. I remember we’d roll out the biscuits and she’d let me make a handprint with the scraps of dough. The tiny fingers on my handprint biscuit would cook very dark in the heat of the oven, taking on a slightly bitter almost nutty taste. I know that’s where my love for cooking took root, working at her side on her linoleum countertop in the gentle breeze of the oscillating fan.

Oh, she could cook. Her pound cake was legendary. She’d wake in the early morning before the heat of the day and prepare fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned butterbeans, creamed corn, okra and tomatoes. Fried chicken would be my hands-down choice for my last supper if I were “on the way to the chair”. Meme knew how much I loved it and spoiled me. When I lived far away and flew home to visit, it didn’t matter what time of the day or night I arrived—2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.—she would be at the stove frying chicken to welcome me home. I was undeniably spoiled absolutely, positively rotten.

She was not the first bit shy about pretty much acknowledging me as a favorite grandchild. My cousin Gene was the male counterpart. He and I seemingly could do no wrong. However, she and my sister were oil and water, far too much alike to ever get along. She wasn’t exactly a twinkling eyed docile grandmother. She was formidable – a veritable force of nature. Before I was born, I was told she got tired of driving into town to go to church. Not going to church wasn’t an option. So, she had my grandfather donate the land and build a little country church.

My grandfather adored her and called her his better half. She would literally make the man take his shirt off so she could wash it. That never made a lick of sense to me. She would start on something and wouldn’t stop until her will was met. He’d mumble quietly under his breath, “Lawd, have mercy” but he would have moved a mountain range for her. My grandfather with his blue eyes twinkling said he always got the “last word”, and they were, “Yes, beloved.”

For as long as I can remember, they had a motor home, a camper. They drove as far South as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the far end of the Alaska Highway. I was able to take several long trips with them when I was young. She had an even smaller kitchen, but she would still fry me chicken and we would stop at farmstands for fresh produce. Dede and I would hike and walk in the woods often bringing her buckets of wild berries and she would make cobbler.

Once the three of us drove north, through Detroit into Canada, east to Nova Scotia, and caught the ferry to Newfoundland. Not a small trip. To familiarize you with the roads of Newfoundland, imagine a squiggly horseshoe starting on one end of the island that zigzags and meanders to the other side. We were about halfway across the island when Meme looked at my Grandfather and said, “Sam, pull over in that gas station and turn around, I’m ready to go home.” He did, and we did.

The very last time I saw my grandmother was on Mother’s Day nine years ago. She had a sore throat, went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer. She was 91 and quickly conceded defeat when she heard that ugly word. I thought my heart would break. I never knew anything could hurt so badly – I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was living in New York and would fly home at least every other weekend to see her. When I returned to that simple country kitchen, our tables were turned, and I cooked for her. It was not fried chicken that I prepared, but soft, rich custards and creamy desserts that she loved.

The very cruel irony is that the cause of death listed on Meme’s death certificate is actually starvation, not cancer. The tumor prevented her from swallowing. A feeding tube would have been an inviolate injustice. Nine years later and there’s still hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. To this day, the smell of chicken frying reaches into my soul. I often wish I could show her a copy of my cookbook and I so wish I could be in the kitchen with her just one more time.

Happy Mother’s Day, Meme.
Love you still.

Meme’s Fried Chicken and Gravy
Serves 4 to 6

1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup chicken stock or broth

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the flour in a shallow plate and season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Set aside. Line a baking sheet or large plate with brown paper bags or several layers of paper towels.

Heat the oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until the temperature measures 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer.

Meanwhile, to fry the chicken, starting with the dark meat (since it takes longer to cook) and working one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, turning to coat. Shake to remove excess flour. Reserve any leftover seasoned flour for the gravy.

One piece at a time, slip the chicken into the hot fat without crowding; the fat should not quite cover the chicken. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature at 375°F. At this stage, a splatter guard (a wire cover laid over the pan) may prove useful to contain the hot grease. The guard lets the steam escape, while allowing the chicken to brown nicely.

Fry the pieces, turning them once or twice, until the coating is a rich, golden brown on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked all the way through and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh should register 170°F.) Remove the pieces and drain on the prepared baking sheet. (Do not hold the chicken in a warm oven; it will get soggy.)

To make the gravy, remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off most of the grease, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons and any browned bits.

Decrease the heat to very low. Add the butter and cook until foaming. Add 4 tablespoons of the reserved seasoned flour and stir to combine. Cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the stock. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the gravy is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add more stock or water to achieve the correct consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

PHOTO CREDIT: TERRY ALLEN

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