The cook, the painter and a knack for storytelling

“A Good Meal Is Hard to Find: Storied Recipes From the Deep South” by Amy C. Evans and Martha Hall Foose (Chronicle, $24.95)
“A Good Meal Is Hard to Find: Storied Recipes From the Deep South” by Amy C. Evans and Martha Hall Foose (Chronicle, $24.95)

Martha Hall Foose recollects the time she ran across the recipe for Mrs. Munson’s Cold Tongue in an old community cookbook. Written underneath it “in immaculate, sharp-penciled script” was the combination for a safe — “Turn Left to 18, Turn Right to 32,” and so on. She immediately sent a photo of the yellowed page to her friend Amy Evans. “It was just the sort of thing that makes us swoon.”

The James Beard Award-winning author of the 2008 tribute to her Mississippi roots, "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea," shares this tidbit to explain how the two came to collaborate on what may be the most delightfully imaginative cookbook of the season: "A Good Meal Is Hard to Find: Storied Recipes From the Deep South" (Chronicle, $24.95).

Evans and Foose met years ago while Evans was conducting oral histories in the Mississippi Delta for the Southern Foodways Alliance based at the University of Mississippi. Foose, a Paris-trained baker, had just resettled in Greenwood, near where she grew up, to open a bakery. The two bonded over their mutual affinity for the big flavors and oddball characters that define the Deep South, and continued to stay in touch after Evans returned to her hometown of Houston to focus on her art.

Evans’ still-life paintings depict seemingly mismatched vintage objects and fabric patterns “as a way to set a lady’s life story in a particular era,” she explains in the foreword. Foose told her she thought their titles would make great recipe headnotes. That got them conjuring up a cast of colorful characters to fill a community — and a book — with retro-modern recipes such as Grace’s Four-Corner Nabs, Lenore Anne’s Delta Hot Tamale Balls, and Etta’s Third-Date Chocolate Brandy Pudding.

The mysterious portrait of a country ham slice, a gold locket, and a folded-up note nudged me to try Ruby’s Red-Eye Gravy. Instructions were crystal-clear, and the result, delicious. But the vignette that precedes it only hints at the “promises broken” hidden in that paper-clipped note in the picture.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

Paintings such as this one (to go with the recipe for Ruby’s Red-Eye Gravy) can be found in “A Good Meal Is Hard to Find: Storied Recipes From the Deep South.” CONTRIBUTED BY AMY C. EVANS
Paintings such as this one (to go with the recipe for Ruby’s Red-Eye Gravy) can be found in “A Good Meal Is Hard to Find: Storied Recipes From the Deep South.” CONTRIBUTED BY AMY C. EVANS

Ruby’s Red-Eye Gravy

Like many of the recipes in “A Good Meal Is Hard to Find,” this one is steeped in nostalgia, yet a bit more modern and refined than earlier versions. The coffee gravy is enriched and thickened with a butter/flour roux and a dollop of ketchup that adds a sweet note to balance the saltiness of the ham. I happened to have a bag of rice grits on hand for the suggested accompaniment, which is an excellent use for them, but the more traditional grits or biscuits would also be great. Included here is the helpful “Notions and Notes” sidebar that accompanies each recipe in the book.

“Ruby read the note again while her country ham was in the skillet and then quickly refolded it and tucked it away where prying eyes would never see. After putting the ham on a plate, she pondered promises broken and tipped her coffee into the drippings. If only everything came together as simply as a gravy.”

Ruby’s Red-Eye Gravy
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
  • 2 teaspoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 (1-pound) center-cut country ham slice (cut in pieces, if needed, to fit in the skillet)
  • 1 cup strongly brewed black coffee
  • 3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
  • White rice grits (see note), hominy grits, or biscuits for serving
  • In a small bowl, using a fork, mix 1 tablespoon of your butter with the flour and set it aside to thicken your gravy after you cook your ham.
  • Heat a big skillet over medium heat. Add your remaining 1 tablespoon of butter to the skillet. When the butter has melted, add your ham. Cook the ham for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until it begins to brown and curl up slightly. Remove the ham from the skillet and set it aside until your gravy is ready.
  • To make your gravy, pour the coffee into the skillet and scrape all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add your ketchup and 1/4 cup water. Cook and stir your gravy for 2 minutes, until very bubbly. Add that little bit of flour and butter you saved and mix it in with a fork. Let the gravy come to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Return your ham to the skillet, then flip it over to coat with the gravy. Serve over piping-hot white rice grits, hominy grits, or biscuits. Serves 4 to 6.

Nutritional information

Per serving: (including ham), based on 4: 292 calories (percent of calories from fat, 63), 23 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 20 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 75 milligrams cholesterol, 1,661 milligrams sodium.

Notions and Notes

Make a few slits in any fat around the edges of larger pieces of country ham to keep it from curling too much when it cooks.

Always, always be sure to thoroughly dry your cast-iron skillets. We return them to a hot oven or heat on the stove until dry. We also moisturize our skillets after each use with a spot of oil wiped on with a paper towel. A well-cared-for cast-iron skillet will last through generations of use.

Rice grits are what are termed “middlins,” broken pieces of rice.

Tripp Country Hams in Brownsville, Tennessee, produces some fine country hams. They will even send them right to your front door. If you give them a ring at 1-800-471-9814, you can ask for whole hams, slices or biscuit-size pieces.

Cooking rice grits

Heat 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in a saucepan with a lid over medium heat until it melts. Stir in 1 cup rice grits, making sure they get thoroughly coated in the butter. Add 2 cups water or vegetable broth and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, stir, cover, and turn the heat to low. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the water is all absorbed. We like Delta Blues rice grits from Ruleville, Mississippi, and Anson Mills rice grits out of Columbia, South Carolina.

— From “A Good Meal Is Hard to Find” by Amy C. Evans and Martha Hall Foose, reprinted with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020.

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