James Villas, of course, already knew.

(Brief aside: I am posting this in August 2018, after having this piece neglected in draft form since September 2017. I am rushing it into publication in honor of Mr. Villas, who I should have paid tribute to a long fucking time ago.)

Around a year ago, if I can use my Facebook activity log as a reputable source for such information, I got the idea in my head to make vanilla biscuits. My husband pooh-poohed me, but was quickly won over once the little vanilla poofs came from the oven and were glazed. “These are awesome” was the basic consensus, and I’ve made them several times since, using them as snacks, as the bases for clever little desserts, and as something I could make fast to serve to children who needed a bit of a treat on a wintry afternoon. Poking around online I did find a couple of websites that were aimed toward the kind of thing I wanted to make, but if you Google “vanilla biscuits,” overwhelmingly what you find is recipes for what I’d call vanilla cookies.

Those British types. Always calling cookies “biscuits.” They’re so whimsical.

Anyhow.
So yesterday I found myself at a kind of country fete sort of thing, held in New Haven’s gorgeous Edgerton Park. There are games and rides for children, and vast quantities of flowers and plants and locally grown fruits and vegetables for sale, and there’s a White Elephant sale which is always a lot of fun. People bring their dogs, toddlers ride on dads’ shoulders, there are pony rides. That kind of thing. It’s good wholesome fun and we have been going every year for close to a decade now. This year, my daughter was old enough that I could say to her, “Ok, here’s money to buy tickets, you go do your thing for an hour and I”m going to the book sale, which is behind the greenhouse. Come find me in an hour.” So off she went, and off I went.

The first section I want to hit, in any book sale situation, is the cookbook section. Then humor, then children’s books, then fiction, and then I loop back to see what other random crap might catch my eye. I did my first skim of the titles in cookbooks and felt a little disappointed — nothing amazing jumped out at me on the first go — but my second time, reading spines more slowly, I found a James Villas book on biscuits. I grabbed it and brought it home with much excitement, basically coasting through the rest of the fete, despite my family’s having so much fun, because what I really wanted to do was go home and read James Villas’s Biscuit Bliss: 101 Foolproof Recipes for Fresh and Fluffy Biscuits in Just Minutes.

We got home and my husband went to take a nap, as I recall, and my daughter went to bathe, and I stretched out on the couch and read Biscuit Bliss from cover to cover. And what I discovered almost immediately was that James Villas had a recipe for true vanilla biscuits. Had I read this book when it was published, I wouldn’t have been floundering around making shit up with my vanilla biscuits — not that anyone was even remotely harmed by this process. I would have just looked it up and made it.

James Villas’s cookbooks are not spoken of in my set. I don’t have any friends who display his books proudly on their shelves next to Julia Child or Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver or anyone else. But I keep my copy of My Mother’s Southern Kitchen on my kitchen shelf, with the JoC and Nigella and my Colwin. That is the book I read at a formative age, the book that got me interested in Southern cooking, the book that made me think, “You know, I can avoid pork and have good Southern food, if I want to.” Nothing in that book was too intimidating to me, even in the mid-1990s, when I bought my remaindered copy and I was, believe me, no cook at all. It is because of James Villas I make pimiento cheese. It is because of him that I make biscuits. It is because of James Villas that I make about a thousand things, I expect, that I don’t even think about when I make them, anymore, because they’ve just imprinted themselves in my head, and I default to these things when I’m pressed for ideas for what to cook. Because the stuff I make out of James Villas is stuff that doesn’t require a lot of special effort. It’s good, homey, solid food that tastes delicious and isn’t overly ambitious. It’s a kind of pantry cooking I can get behind. Like the vanilla biscuits. They’re just biscuits, right? But there’s this little pantry item that you slip in there like a magic trick, and then, suddenly, you’ve got this entirely different, really special little thing that no one was expecting.

If you’d asked me, I’d’ve said, “Of course, by now James Villas must be an old man.” And he was. He has died, age 80, in East Hampton, New York, nowhere near the deep South. It is a shame, and I wish I’d brought this essay to the blog last year, if only to relieve my sense of guilt that I didn’t publish this tribute in timely manner. Maybe he’d’ve seen it, maybe someone would have read it to him or something, who knows.

But better now than never. Rest in peace, Mr. Villas. You may not have been in fashion at the time you went, but if you ask me, the diehards will always love you. I am not giving up any of your books anytime soon. In fact, this week, I will pull out the biscuit book and make a recipe from it. And some more pimiento cheese, too, even though I just made some the other night and it’s still in the fridge. You’d’ve liked it, I think…. I added some duck bacon fat. Just for the hell of it. And some horseradish. I know it’s not your mother’s recipe; forgive me. Think of it as Tante Eva’s Pimiento Cheese, I bet you’d’ve liked it, and asked for the recipe.

 

Cooking for Southerners

The Hausfrau has, for many years, had a short list of things she will almost always make for parties. Guests at our cocktail parties know that we are very likely to have cocktail meatballs — those sweet/sour little things you eat with toothpicks, the kind you make with incredibly lowbrow ingredients like canned cranberry sauce or grape jelly — and pimiento cheese. Normally when I make pimiento cheese I throw everything into the food processors and generate a thick paste that’s not entirely smooth, but quite close to it. Now, I know this isn’t “authentic,” but in my book, “easy” wins over “authentic” if it saves me six minutes of hand-grating cheese and mincing roasted red peppers. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.

But we were recently invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman who grew up in Virginia horse country and who also lived somewhere in the Carolinas for a long while. I offered, naturally, to bring something to the dinner party, and said, “Would you like me to make a dessert?” because it was my dim recollection that she is not a big baker. She wrote back quickly, saying, “Will you bring pimiento cheese?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Done and done,” I wrote back, but my brow was furrowed. I couldn’t bring Cuisinart pimiento cheese to this woman’s house! That would be heresy, or something.

So I did it all by hand. I got out my big orange-red Pyrex bowl and grated Cheddar into it, and then I minced roasted red peppers, and I scooped in some Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I suppose I could have made a special trip somewhere to find some Duke’s, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I used all my animal strength and put some raw horseradish through a garlic press to get some oomph into the mix, and added a little dry mustard. Then I mixed and mixed and mixed until the stuff looked right. “It doesn’t look right,” said my husband, peering over my shoulder. “It doesn’t look like how you usually do it. It’s not almost smooth.”

“Yeah, well, how I usually make it is wrong,” I said, “because I’m a lazy Yankee. You’re supposed to do it by hand, all the cheese grating and everything, and it’s supposed to look lumpy like this.”

“Oh,” he said, doubtfully.

We both looked into the bowl. The mixing bowl, while very pretty, was way too big for serving this dish attractively; it looked as though I’d thought I was making pimiento cheese for 20 and only came up with pimiento cheese for six. “I need to move this into a smaller container,” I said, and I grabbed another little Pyrex dish, a blue-grey rectangular tub that I bought on a whim at the English Building Market and have used more times than I can count since then. It’s funny because when I bought it, I thought, “I so don’t need this, but I cannot resist,” and it turns out to be one of the most-used serving pieces in the kitchen. I spooned the pimiento cheese into it and the tub was almost full, but it still looked a little… naked. “Needs a garnish,” I said. “What the hell do I have I can use as a garnish?”

I opened the fridge and stared into it. There was a big, big jar of green olives stuffed with pimientos. “Perfect,” I said.

I got about twenty olives out and sliced each one in half and then I began to place them around the edges of the cheese to make what I told myself was an attractive border. The thing is, no matter what you do, green olives just aren’t that attractive. They are inevitably that…. well, there’s a reason why there’s a color called olive drab. However, the deed was done. I pressed the last sliced olive into the cheese and stood back to survey the product. “Look,” I said to my husband, “It’s 1953.”

*********

We carried the tub of pimiento cheese to the dinner party and were introduced to the other guests; our daughter immediately ran off to play with our hosts’ son, whom she adores, and I held out the little tub of pimiento cheese and said, “Um, here’s your pimiento cheese.” I had never met the other guests to this party and hoped they wouldn’t be people who said, “oh, cheese? Not for me, I’m vegan.” I got lucky: both of them gushed, “Pimiento cheese?” and looked at me with great interest. It turned out that one of them grew up in Texas, where, I’m given to understand, pimiento cheese is kind of a food group. “I made this,” I said, “and I tried to be a little more authentic about it than I usually am, but — well, I hope you guys will like it.” The hostess brought out a tray of sliced baguette and some crackers and everyone dug in. “This is good,” the men told me. We addressed the possible variants involved with pimiento cheese. There was cheerful discussion of my use of horseradish versus the Texan’s mother’s use of jalapeños. “Are you from the South?” I was asked. I shook my head and explained that I am decidedly not from the South, I just have a thing about Southern cooking. By the time dinner was served and we were all seated around the table, the Auntie Mame jokes were flying thick and fast, we’d gone through three bottles of wine, and the tub of pimiento cheese was empty.

I’ll be making more today. We’re having brisket for dinner, and I have this idea that I should make biscuits and a green pea salad to serve on the side. Pimiento cheese would go very well with that,  I think, and it serves the Rule of Four (cf. Lee Bailey and Nora Ephron). In the meantime: better buy more peppers.

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