Saturday, September 26, 2009

oh my

First of all: user-friendliness.  This is a talking point I meant to introduce early on, but I keep changing my mind about whether I want to quantify it.  Obviously I think any food I blog about is worth eating, but some foods are more user-friendly than others, by which I mean they are less likely to alienate, confuse, or upset someone trying them for the first time. Just as obviously, what is normal to you depends on where you live and how you grew up, and when I make these generalizations I'm going to assume a typical American background, because it would be a pain in the ass to add a lot of qualifiers every time.  For instance, when I list "goat's milk cheese" under "might be bothered by," I realize that on the one hand, Americans whose parents skewed towards the hippie or the yuppie may well have grown up with goat cheese, and won't be bothered by it at all; and that on the other hand, if you come from a culture where cheese itself isn't part of the cuisine, any cheese becomes less user-friendly.

By and large I try to leave out user preconceptions when considering user-friendliness.  A kangaroo steak, for instance, is perfectly unremarkable until one starts thinking of it as kangaroo, at which point some people get all weirded out that they're eating an animal Grandma never prepared for them.  Those kinds of hang-ups are too arbitrary and unevenly distributed to account for.

Foods a first-timer will not be bothered by: peach crisp, buffalo, sheep's milk cheese, Asian pears, tomato jam.

Foods a first-timer might be bothered by: goat's milk cheese, pork belly, candied jalapenos or other uses of appreciable levels of spice in sweets, raw oysters, raw fish.

Foods a first-timer is likely to be bothered by: most organ meats, boiled crawfish (particularly if the first-timer has never had lobster or crab either), double-salted licorice, bitter liqueurs (particularly if the drinker buys something commonly available like Jagermeister, Campari, or Pimm's and drinks it straight, not knowing what else to do with it).

Foods that can be traumatic for the first-timer: durian, natto, uni, fermented shark, turkey soda.

Clearly many people will not be bothered by anything on this list, regardless of prior familiarity, or will be perfectly okay with everything up until "traumatic," or will have their own arbitrary list of foods they don't like for reasons that may make sense to them.  That doesn't mean the differences in these rough groupings don't exist, just as adult readers don't see significant differences between a third grade reading level and a sixth grade reading level.  It's still a useful way to generalize; if you're cooking for parties unknown, serving kidney and licorice is a different proposition than serving chicken and potatoes.

Food that isn't user-friendly isn't unpleasant, just unfamiliar or contrary to expectation.  Obviously you can become more friendly with it.

One reason to talk about user-friendliness is because of that divorce from hang-ups and preconceptions.  I don't give a shit if you think beef cheeks sound weird.  If I serve them to you as beef stew, it'd never even occur to you to ask what cut of meat it is, unless you're really food-literate, in which case you probably wouldn't be bothered by beef cheeks to begin with.  But I do give a shit that if I serve you pigs ears, the cartilage gives them a bit of an unusual texture, which is worth giving you a heads-up about.

Pigs ears are objectively weird in a way beef cheeks are not.

All of this implies a map, a paradigm, a frame of reference.  So.  On to the pie part thereof.


American cuisine includes the increasingly dominant national cuisine, the ethnic cuisines which may or may not be syncretized, and the regional cuisines which wax and wane but mostly wane in prominence.  

At the national level, sweet pies come in a small number of varieties: fruit pies using chopped fruit (almost always berries, apples, or peaches); custard or cream pies; and citrus pies such as key lime or lemon meringue.  There are four main types of lemon pie: cornstarch-thickened, lemon curd, sweetened condensed milk, and Shaker lemon pie, which isn't unique to Shakers at all and which uses whole sliced lemons.  Lime pie is never made that way, the rind and pith aren't palatable enough.

Then there are a great many regional pies, some of which may continue to enjoy mainstream popularity in their home region (particularly if, like huckleberry pie, they are compatible with the national-cuisine pie paradigm), some of which have become more rare.  Various examples include rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pie, bean pie, raisin pie, sugar-cream pie, shoofly pie, vinegar pie, pecan pie, and Derby pie.

Buttermilk pie is right about at the goat cheese level of user-friendliness.  It's a custard pie, but the tang of buttermilk puts it outside the normal paradigmatic experience of custard.  There's a long history of taking pantry staples -- milk, eggs, sugar, flour -- and turning them into a pie by finding something to add to contribute flavor other than just sweetness, whether it's the lemon or lime in citrus pies, the cinnamon and cloves in Bob Andy pie, the vinegar in vinegar pie, etc.  These are pies that predate the availability of sacks of frozen fruit or Chilean blueberries in the supermarket -- pies that could be made when there was no fruit to be had, though they also work well to complement the fresh fruit of summer and fall.

Closely related here is chess pie, which I consider the best of all year-round pies (as opposed to pies made with in-season fruit, a whole nother genre).  The key ingredient in chess pie is cornmeal.  We'll talk about it another time.  Like some time when we make chess pie.  Hold your horses.

Buttermilk was my favorite pie until I got my chess pie just right, and the truth is, I sometimes muddle the difference between the two, by using buttermilk in my chess pie.  Some people flavor their buttermilk pie with small amounts of lemon juice, cinnamon, or some other additive, and in fact if you google around, you will find plenty of people who think buttermilk pie is always made that way; as with any regional or niche food, people often don't realize that the variation familiar to them is not the only authentic choice.  I usually prefer it without such additives -- though I don't think I will ever be someone who drinks buttermilk, and I'm generally not even a fan of buttermilk salad dressings (my salad dressing selections are basically 1940s chophouse: vinaigrette, sweet and sour, Catalina, Green Goddess), in a pie I prefer the pure tangy taste of buttermilk.

However.  I had peaches to use, and it's the tail end of the fresh peach season, and I thought, hey, what about a peach buttermilk pie?  Normally I'd say the best use for a fresh peach is simply to eat it, but New Hampshire peaches ... well, they are perhaps best when they're cooked.  I'm spoiled by the peaches of, believe it or not, Indiana, which though still the north has a long enough growing season and hot enough summer for a lot of produce associated with the south to thrive there.  I ate a couple dozen delicious fresh peaches this summer, peaches so juicy you can't eat them in polite company ... but they were shipped from an orchard in Georgia.  The local ones, I cook with.

Buttermilk peach pie

I roasted two peaches, because I didn't want them leaking a lot of liquid while cooking in the pie, and making those weird pockets fruit can make when they're surrounded by custard.  Because I roasted them peeled at a high temperature without sugar, I lost about half a peach to charred bits that I removed before dicing the peach and combining with the buttermilk filling.  

This recipe makes slightly too much filling for the size of pie pan that I have, but that always happens with buttermilk pie.  There are all kinds of ratios you can use for a pie like this, a huge variety of proportions out there.  This is just one version:

1 stick butter, softened

1 1/3 cups sugar

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

spoonful of flour, dash of salt, dash of bourbon

Cream butter and sugar together, combine remaining ingredients, fold in diced roasted peaches, add to pie crust, bake for about an hour at 325.

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