Friday, February 22, 2008

Going Home

Recently my wife and I made a trip to North Eastern Kentucky to visit with her aunt and family. I had met Aunt “Bunny” at other family gatherings and had already formed a high opinion of her. I expected that we would have a nice dinner and a nice chat about old times.

After an unremarkable trip along the Interstate we wandered into the little working class neighborhood in which my wife’s family has lived for a couple of generations. Aunt Bunny had her house built in 1956, and although she was widowed in 1955, she managed to rear her two children and has been the center of life for her extended family ever since.

My wife Gail vividly remembers her childhood visits to her grandparent’s home adjacent to her Aunt’s and she remembers clearly how the children of the family gravitated to the warmth and food at Aunt Bunny’s. Homemade doughnuts were (and still are) a great favorite.

I had heard the stories and was looking forward to a pleasant enough visit as we walked up to the front porch. It was then that I smelled the cooking aromas wafting from the kitchen. I was honestly not prepared for the sense of encapsulated time that I experienced in those first whiffs. Fork tender roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and beans from the previous summer’s garden and of course sweet tea made up the perhaps unremarkable sounding menu. Guests included grown children and their spouses, a granddaughter and a new great grand baby gathered around a dinning room decorated with furnishings very similar to that of my grandmother.

My own mother passed away almost 35 years ago and it has indeed been a very long time since the last time I sat down to dinner at her table, but as members of Aunt Bunny’s family made small talk, I found myself thinking of my mother, Aunt Bunny and their generation. These are women born between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Great Depression. These were the girlfriends and wives of the men that fought the Second World War and in some cases were in the service themselves. These are the women of the Greatest Generation and the mothers of the Baby Boomers.

As I watched the happy interaction at the dinner table in a quite corner of Kentucky that day, I found myself musing on the role of these women as “cultural custodians”. They provided the structure that held middle class American society together through some very dark times. And I was reminded by a charming 87 year old Aunt that this was achieved by their love and their cooking. I do wonder if in fifty years individuals that are children today will be as moved by the aromas of fast food and microwave cooking as I am by the foods of my childhood.

Coffee and Apricot Nectar Cake finished the occasion, while Aunt Bunny’s son-in law shared with me his impressive knowledge of the Western Theater of the American Civil War. The food continued to come even though I objected at first thinking that I was trying to spare Bunny more work. But, as she deftly turned out Fried Apple Pies I realized how natural cooking was for her and that it was how she had manifested a lifetime of love. I certainly ate my share of hot fried pies and then went on to enjoy left-over roast beef on bread with mashed potatoes and gravy. I know this dish as a “Kentucky Hot Brown” while my wife recognized it as a “Hot Shot”. Bunny said she just called it “Roast Beef” and when I quizzed her on her preparation, she said “roast beef is the easiest thing to fix, you just brown it with salt and pepper, put it in a roasting pan with a little water and cook it until its tender”. Seasoning with just a little salt and pepper was the accepted practice in most middle class homes, the widespread use of herbs not so common until the last few decades.

Biscuits, jellies, fried eggs, bacon and a great deal of coffee appeared for breakfast the next morning. Breakfast was barely over when chicken breasts began to boil for the chicken casserole that we enjoyed for lunch. As I watched her cook and talk, Aunt Bunny slipped out on the back porch to feed a stray cat, she smiled at me and remarked, “Nobody goes hungry here”. I believe it. As we hustled about loading the car and preparing to take our leave, I gave Aunt Bunny a big hug and said, “Thank-you for treating me like family” and she said “Well, you are family”. I knew what she meant and I think she knew what I meant.

On our way home, Gail and I wandered through the Red River Gorge in the beautiful Daniel Boone Forest and as the subject of eating came up, I commented that after a weekend of Aunt Bunny’s comfort food, I didn’t think I could eat fast food on the road. Gail agreed and we dined on left over Apricot Nectar Cake and an Ale 8 One, a locally bottled Kentucky Ginger flavored soft drink, dating from 1926. Named in a contest “A Late One” the product’s name “Ale 8 One” is a local joke and play on words.

Thomas Wolfe not withstanding, and even though I may have never been to this part of Kentucky before, this Baby Boomer was privileged to get to go home again.

Aunt Bunny’s Doughnuts
An Original Recipe From
May William’s Motel Diner circa 1938

2/3 cup scalded milk
2/3 cup water
4 Tblsp. sugar
4 Tblsp. shortening
1 tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten
4 cups All Purpose flour
2 cakes yeast
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
Shortening for frying
Mix 1 box powdered sugar with a few drops of vanilla and enough water to make thick paste. Use to glaze hot doughnuts.


1. Combine scalded milk and water and cool to lukewarm.
2. Add yeast, then sugar, salt and shortening. Stir in beaten egg.
3. Add flour and mix well. Place in covered bowl and allow dough to rise until doubled in size (about 40 minutes).
4. Roll out and cut with a doughnut cutter. Let doughnuts rise again until doubled.Fry in shortening and drop each in glaze when cooked. Drain and enjoy hot.

Chef Joseph Lowery is the Chef Consultant at Avanti Savoia. He has worked as a chef, author, and cooking instructor since 1971.


Anonymous said...

Joseph, what a wonderful, nostalgic story! Even as a vegetarian, I could *taste* that soul food (food that nourishes the very soul) just reading your words...

The doughnut recipe sounds yummy! Gonna try it for a Sunday brunch treat.


Anonymous said...

Joseph - I have a request of you.

My husband and I are on a 'low carb' diet. We *love* pasta and dipping oil (with Vito's wonderful Italian and Mediterranean spices!).

Could you recommend a scrumptious menu for a low-carb, vegetarian or pescatorian (I don't eat land animals) meal?

A Lover of Culinary Treasures!!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your Valentine's Day article. I always thought baked Alaska was difficut to make, but you made it sound doable.

Tammy Sue Bernice

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Joseph, What an incredible observation you made! Your story painted a perfect picture and made your point so clear. I do have a roast beef usually ends up tasting like 'roast beast'. Would love to have some suggestions. I'm afraid that alittle salt and pepper and cooking time never quite did it for me. Thanks!

john said...

Having been raised among the caliche roads and cotton fields of South Texas(Alice, TX. to be exact) chili was a staple dish in our household just as clams and lobster are at my in-laws in Massachusetts. I've tried for years to concoct a chili receipe that I could be truly happy with and now I can stop thanks to Chef Joseph! Your chili receipe is superb and well worth the effort to prepare!