Sunday Dinner is a great American tradition that has all but disappeared. I want to bring it back. Join me in an exploration of roots food, culinary history, and kitchen folklore. Let's remake Sunday Dinner from scratch.
Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on June 22, 2008.
People think I have a secret recipe. I maintain that I do not. The recipe is for “Coconut Cake with Seven Minute Frosting”. It came from my Grandma Willie, who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, and anyone who’s tasted its magical fluffy goodness wants the recipe. I have a strict policy that I will not give anyone the recipe because I know people will have trouble making it and call me to complain. So I tell anyone who asks that the “secret” is in the frosting and that they can look up a recipe for Seven Minute Frosting in any cookbook made before 1960. If the person is insistent, I politely say that I don’t give out the recipe, but that they can come over to my house and I will show them how I make the cake. In the decade that I have been making this cake, nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.
The real secret to my “secret” recipe is that there is no secret. It’s just that Seven Minute Frosting is no longer popular and most people have never tasted it. It isn’t hard to make once you’ve seen it done, but somewhat challenging to learn through a written recipe. I watched my grandmother make her coconut cake for 20 years before it occurred to me that I should try to make it myself. It took me an entire day, several batches of droopy frosting, and numerous phone calls from LA to my grandmother and mother in Virginia before I finished a version of the cake that was edible. My grandmother and mother are patient women who love me, but I realized I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of these phone calls now that I was in on the secret.
There is an art to making this cake and after ten years of trial and error, I can now make my grandmother’s coconut cake without thinking about it much. It’s easy for me to bake the cake after a long workday and ice it the following evening. (I do it this way because the cake is perfect when it’s made 12 to 24 hours in advance. Any less and the icing doesn’t have time to work it’s magic. Any more and the cake starts to get soggy.) By Day Three, I’m ready for any Birthday Party/Christmas Meal/Easter Picnic. But it was a long road to get there.
There are some things that cannot be explained in words. Baking a coconut cake is one of them. It is something that needs to be witnessed to be perfected. There are many ways to make a good cake. Each recipe is particular, often a little peculiar, and delicious, as most things made with love and a certain level of obsession tend to be. So if you want my secret recipe, it’s yours. Just tell me when you want to come over.
This Sunday Dinner Questionnaire originally posted on November 29, 2010. We republish it today to congratulate Carol for winning the IACP award for Best Food Writing 2016 in the Personal Essay/Memoir Writing category for her essay “Churnin'”.
I knew about Carol Penn-Romine long before I actually met her. We both belong to the Culinary Historians of Southern California and I’d seen Carol from a distance many times, but I’d always been afraid to talk to her. After all, she was a well-respected food writer, chef, and culinary tour guide who knew everyone in the club. I was a television producer who hung around the edges of the food world on occasion. We officially met for the first time in the food line following a lecture about a year ago. I remember that Carol was very kind and funny and I was excited to have made a blip on her radar. Once we got talking she revealed that she was in the middle of a project called 52 Cuisines in which she was sampling food from 52 different cultures in 52 weeks. I read more about it on her blog Hungry Passport and I was hooked.
This photo of the Swedish Solögaon (at left) is from the 52 Cuisines project, for which Carol and the man she refers to as “Himself” made a mini-smorgasbord. I asked for details about the Swedish Solöga, which I knew meant “Sun’s Eye”, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Her blog report provided a lot of great information, as well as a recipe. Carol wrote back saying, “It’s so striking to look at and so tasty that it would be good to have occasionally just for the heck of it. You don’t have to be doing any international dining adventure to enjoy that one.” You gotta love that kind of enthusiasm, and although I probably won’t make a Swedish Solöga anytime soon, I do smile every time I see the photograph. Of course, that’s exactly why Carol sent it.
Carol has an amazing sense of humor about food, which is a treat. She also wins the prize for making me laugh more than anyone else in questionnaire history by saying that her ultimate food fantasy was to have “an ever-bearing bacon tree”, along with a few other genius ideas. But enough from me… I hope you’ll enjoy the questionnaire and the delicious-sounding recipe for “Roasted Garbanzos and Swiss Chard” at the end of this blog report. Thanks, Carol!
What’s for Sunday dinner after Thanksgiving: roasted garbanzos with Swiss chard.
Photo courtesy Andy”Himself” Romine.
The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire
1. What is your favorite food to eat? Why?
Hickory-smoked bacon. It’s just the right balance of pork, smoke and salt. I know bacon is trendy these days—or at least the business of putting it into all sorts of sweets and desserts is. But as a farm girl, I ate bacon every day of my life from the time I grew teeth until I left home for college. And since then, too. It has to be good bacon, though, not that mass-produced stuff lining the cold section of the grocery. That’s why I bring back packages of smoked pork in my luggage whenever I return from a visit back home in Tennessee. The local producers there do an amazing job. I stop by Tripp Country Hams in Brownsville, which is about halfway between Memphis and our family farm, and stock up on ham, bacon, cracklins and hog jowl.
2. What is your favorite food to cook? Why?
My mother’s beef roast. I love both the results and the procedure itself—the repetition of those steps gives me a feeling of connection. I’ve never had any beef as satisfying prepared any other way. I don’t make it often anymore, mainly because it’s difficult these days to find the required slabs of beef fat to wrap around the roast. It used to be that I could go to the meat counter and ask for several pieces of fat to be held for me when I bought the roast. But most meat you find in the grocery today has already had every scrap of fat cut away before it ever reaches your neighborhood market. Seriously, how many people go to the store and ask for hunks of fat? Anyway, the procedure involves searing the roast on all sides, then salting and peppering it, wrapping it in slabs of beef fat and slow cooking it overnight in a crock pot set to low—with no liquid. The next day it will loosen and fall into a hundred succulent bites as you lift it out of the crock pot. You don’t have to eat all that fat, of course, but this method of cooking breaks down any resistance the roast might have had if you’d just cooked it in water or some other non-fat liquid. I love beef fixed this way because it makes enough for several meals, and the more times you heat it, the better it gets.
3. Who or what is your greatest culinary influence? Why is he/she/it an inspiration?
Every unnamed and anonymous person who ever fed me the simplest food, like a serving of green beans cooked in bacon drippings in a well-seasoned iron skillet until they’re as black as the skillet. They have no nutritional value left in them at that point, but they’re good and they’re humbly and honestly prepared. Home cooks who manage to crank out the good stuff three times a day, every day are my heroes. I took them for granted until I grew up and discovered what was involved in performing that feat.
4. What is your favorite kitchen utensil? Why?
My chef’s knife is pretty important, because of how vital it was to most everything I did in culinary school and its daily use since then. I even treasure the callus at the base of my right index finger worn there by its constant rubbing against the top of the blade. But if I’m completely honest, I’d have to say my favorite kitchen utensil is the Homer Simpson bottle opener.
5. What did you eat for dinner this past Sunday?
After the Thanksgiving gorge fest we were weary of the leftovers and needed something that wasn’t quite so rich. My favorite penitential dish that doesn’t taste penitential is roasted garbanzos with Swiss chard, and that’s what we had for Sunday dinner. I’ve never liked garbanzos all that much, except made into hummus, but when you roast them, they develop the most wonderfully creamy texture. This is healthy stuff that seems really decadent with all those great textures and flavors, and it’s one of our new favorite meals.
6. When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought friends and family together on a regular basis? If so, what do you eat?
In the South, dinner is the meal you eat in the middle of the day, so dinner was what we rushed home to after church. My grandparents ate with us, and sometimes we went to their house, just down the road, and ate with them. The centerpiece of Sunday dinner was quite often that beef roast I’ve already mentioned, along with green beans, black-eyed peas, homemade relish, cornbread and iced tea…a good assortment of standard Southern fare. Sunday supper, which was the evening meal, was typically whatever was leftover from dinner. Or maybe breakfast-for-supper, which I still love. When I don’t know what I want to eat, it’s usually breakfast that I want.
7. Do you have a garden? If so, what do you grow in it?
I have the most pathetic of gardens, an embarrassment to my rural Tennessee upbringing. In the South plants beg to grow, and they require no irrigation and prodding. I still can’t figure out how to grow anything in the Southern California desert climate and soil. However, the herbs in my garden actually do quite well, and I take extraordinary pleasure in being able to dash out the back door and pick fresh ones to toss into the pot. I love brushing my hands through them and coming away smelling heavenly. I’ve even seen our cat, Prima, fall facedown into the rosemary and sleep deeply. I guess we both groove on that aromatherapy thing.
8. What is your ultimate food fantasy?
To have an ever-bearing fig tree and next to it, an ever-bearing bacon tree. And between them a magic well from which I could draw unlimited bucketsful of great cheeses, olives, chocolates and wine. That’s really not so outlandish, is it?
9. If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be? What would you want to eat?
Either Carême or Escoffier, because I’m curious to find out firsthand just what it was that made them so very important to fine cuisine as we know it. And I’d eat whatever they chose to prepare for me. I know it would be exquisite.
10. Fill in the blank: “The most important element of a good meal is ______.”
A cloth napkin. I say this because I think it really brings home for me that dining should not be a hasty gobble-and-go proposition. Sitting down, unfolding a cloth napkin and placing it in my lap tells me this is an experience to slow down and enjoy, a meal to savor and a time to share. A cloth napkin elevates even the simplest meal in a way that a paper napkin or paper towel—or a sleeve!—just doesn’t.
Roasted Garbanzos and Swiss Chard. Photo courtesy Carol Penn-Romine.
Roasted Garbanzos with Swiss Chard
Makes four servings as a main course or about six as a side. This is an easy dish to modify for vegans—just sub vegetable broth for chicken and omit the cheese garnish.
2 15.5-ounce cans garbanzos, drained
5 fat garlic cloves, peeled & quartered long ways (remove core if it’s green)
2 shallots, sliced
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ cup olive oil
salt and black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp. olive oil
5 more fat garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 shallots, sliced
2 bay leaves
2 bunches Swiss chard, stems removed & leaves chopped coarsely
1 cup chicken broth
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F. Pour garbanzos into square baking pan or dish, top with garlic, shallots, fennel seeds and bay leaves and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and cover with foil. Roast until garlic is tender (not caramelized), 35 to 40 minutes. While garbanzos are in the oven, prep ingredients to make the chard. (If garbanzos finish before you’re ready to cook the chard, just leave the foil on and set aside.)
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. When it begins to shimmer add garlic, shallots and bay leaves. Cover and cook until shallots are tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove, cover, add half of the chard and toss until leaves wilt, about 2 minutes. Add remaining chard and repeat. Then add broth and red pepper flakes, cover and cook until chard is tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes (you might need to remove lid to allow most of the broth to evaporate). Season with salt and pepper.
Remove bay leaves from garbanzos and chard. Pour garbanzos and their oil over the chard and toss over medium heat until warmed through. Adjust seasonings to taste, garnish with a grating of parmigiano-reggiano and serve.