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December 2010

Hoppin' Mad

Like my darling Pinta, I can have a hard time pronouncing things, or in my case, writing them, as a friend of mine, the Charleston-born writer Jack Hitt, pointed out about the New Year’s Day Black-Eyed Peas post.

I got myself into trouble, apparently, with my suggestion that it had anything to do with another famous Southern dish of a certain name. “I think it's safe to say that the phrase has always been rendered, without affectation, as 'Hoppin' John.'" Hitt told me. "To even say the ‘g’ is to sound like someone referring to chitlins as chitterlings.”

“I'm pretty sure the first mention of Hoppin' John is was in a Carolina cookbook,” he continued, “and around Charleston anyway, the story, according to various sources on the Internet, is that “the dish goes back at least as far as 1841, when, according to tradition, it was hawked in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina by a crippled black man who was know as Hoppin' John."

“I've cooked these things all my life, and the key feature is to cook the peas (typically field peas, by the way, not black-eyed peas) and then reserve the 'pea likker' to cook the rice in,” he said.  “Most people cook the rice right in with the beans, but I have always found it easier to cook the rice in several cups of salty pea ‘likker’ and then fold the cooked beans back in.” He also prefers white long-grain rice to brown. And, he says, the rice and beans and collards should be presented together at the end.

“What your writer's talking about is just cooking typical Cajun, spicy black-eyed peas,” he summed up, “and I suspect anyone who's ever made Hoppin' John will react with cries of heresy and calls for blood.”

That hasn’t happened yet, but one reader did wonder if the he should use smoked or fresh ham hocks in the recipe. The answer is smoked—I’ve amended the recipe.

Grapefruit Madness!

We eat as much fruit as possible—bananas with our breakfasts, and fresh berries when they are available. During the winter we favor kiwis (especially the succulent golden ones, in season) and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits. Nina won’t touch fruit of any kind (not even in jams or preserves or pies), but Pinta gobbles them up.

Yesterday, Santa Maria was readying a grapefruit for her (Santa Maria takes profound care when preparing a grapefruit—she peels it like an orange, separates each section, removes all the white pith, and makes a “soup” of the delicious interior), and Pinta went crazy for it (you would too; if you have the patience, try it this way).

When Pinta was finished eating, she asked for another. “Groupfreight,” she called it. Sweet.

Everything New is Old: The Strange Story of Bernarr Macfadden


The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which was mentioned in yesterday's post, was founded in 1903 by a long-forgotten fitness guru and publishing magnate named Bernarr Macfadden, who lived from 1866 to 1955, and was way ahead of the curve when it came to organic food, celebrity-gossip columns, fad diets, vaccination-fears, and sexual frankness.

According to, he wrote more than a hundred books, including the following:

  • Fasting, Hydropathy, and Exercise (1900)
  • Virile Powers of Superb Manhood (1900)
  • Power and Beauty of Superb Womanhood (1901)
  • Strength from Eating (1901)
  • Vaccination Superstition (1902)
  • Creative and Sexual Science (1904)
  • Strenuous Lover (1904)
  • Muscular Power and Beauty (1906)
  • Making Old Bodies Young (1919)
  • Truth About Tobacco (1921)
  • The Miracle of Milk (1923)
  • Fasting for Health (1923)
  • How To Raise a Strong Baby (1924)
  • Physical Culture Cook Book (1924)
  • After 40 - What? (1935)
  • Practical Birth Control (1935)
  • Woman's Sex Life (1935)
  • How To Gain Weight (1936)
  • How To Reduce Weight (1936)
  • Be Married and like It (1937)

He made millions publishing magazines like True Detective, and True Story, and he produced one of the trashiest tabloid newspapers in America's history, the New York Graphic, which employed the notorious gossip columinst Walter Winchell. Macfadden started foundations and tried to correct the county's eating habits, but few listened, and he died in poverty. His complete story is told in “Mr. America,” a 2009 book by the journalist Mark Adams, who was kind enough to create the following video:


New Year's Day Tradition: A Cold Swim and Hot Black-Eyed Peas

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s New Year’s Day plunge into the Atlantic is a great New York City tradition. The annual swim, which is open to all, raises money for Camp Sunshine, a retreat in Maine for children with life-threatening illnesses, and their families. Abe de la Houssaye, who joined the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in 2004, is a Louisiana native who brings his own traditions to the holiday. He’s the father of two grown daughters, and he took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about being a Stay at Stove Dad. 

I love cooking, although I do it professionally. If you were in New York in the eighties you might have been to one of my restaurants—La Louisiana or Texarkana or, later, the Ludlow Street Cafe and Tramps Cafe. Since then, I downsized my career. I still cook, but now I do it for a great little catering company called The Upper Crust, so I can do more of the things I want to do, such as writing, drawing (that's a self-portrait, below), and swimming.  Abe4

To become a member of the Polar Bear Club, which meets every Sunday from November through April, you need twelve swims in one season, and I think you need to make four a year to maintain active membership. This year I've been there almost every Sunday. Coney Island is changing and those of us who love it want to make sure we are around to influence the changes if possible and if not to at least savor the last days. As some Polar Bears say - no matter what happens they can't take the ocean away.

After the swim on New Year’s Day and a beer or two on Coney Island my family will follow the Cajun tradition of a late lunch of Black-Eyed Peas cooked with andouille sausage and smoked ham hock, accompanied by a mixed green sauté of collard, mustard, and kale. We'll also have corn bread with cane syrup and butter, and spicy Bloody Marys. The Bloody Marys aren't exactly Cajun but they go along nicely. And we'll be checking our stockings to see if  "Le Petit Bonhomme Janvier" left us any fruit, candy, or pecans.

I was born and raised in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, the Crawfish Capitol of the world. It is a little town in the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin, and when I was growing up many people there did not speak English—only Cajun French.

Le Petit Bonhomme Janvier is the good little man of January. I've read that the early Cajuns didn't have a Santa Claus and instead the little man brought small gifts on New Year's Eve—mostly candy and fruit. I also read that early Cajuns celebrated Christmas on February 25th (Trapper's Christmas) because the birthday of Christ fell during the busiest part of the trapping season.

When I was growing up we were told that Petit Bonhomme was Santa's poor brother, and while Santa did the heavy lifting for Christmas, Le Petit Bonhomme bought candies, fruits and pecans and, perhaps, one little present on New Year's Eve. He actually saved the day a few times in my family when one of us kids experienced the disappointment of not getting what they wanted for Christmas through some miscommunication. In such a case a special plea could be made to the little man, who although he was very poor, always seemed very resourceful.

Having my daughters—one who is a teacher and lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the other who is getting her Masters at the University of Chicago—around for the holidays is, in a father's terms, about as good as it gets. During the early years when they were young, I didn’t spend much time thinking about what it would be like to relate to my girls as adults, and it's kind of mind blowing. First of all (fingers crossed and counting my blessings), they turned out to be fairly amazing young women and, dammit, they like their parents. Second of all, it's just plain good news for a dad (and mom) to be able to look at that long process with a feeling of accomplishment. Guess what? After all the ups and downs—the countless blessings and good fortune, including fun, successesm and friendships—these girls, along with their mother, jump to the top of the list of good things in my life.

Black-Eyed Peas are essentially the same thing as a Hopping John, though I just never heard that name in Louisiana. There is one legend that it got the name from the bastardized French pronunciation of the words "Pois a pigeon" but that one seems a stretch to me. I don't understand how you would pronounce either to make them sound alike, but don't blame me I saw it on the Internet; how could it be wrong?

Hopping John is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day to bring good luck, and so is the Cajun version. The expansion of the beans while cooking symbolizes prosperity, and the color of the greens served with them symbolizes money (the cornbread with a touch of syrup just taste good). Here’s the recipe for you to make some Black-Eyed Peas yourself.

Abe de la Houssaye's Cajun Black-Eyed Peas for New Year's Day


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 ounce of tasso (see notes; bacon can be substituted) - diced small
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 smoked ham hocks, about 6 ounces each
  • 1/2 pound andouille sausage (see notes) - cut in 1/8 inch rounds
  • 1 pound dried black-eyed peas (see notes)
  • 1sprig of parsley chopped
  • 1 small bunch of chives choppes
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper


In a 1-gallon stock pot, heat the olive oil.

When the oil is hot, render the tasso or bacon for 2 or 3 minutes.

Add the onions and continue sauteing for 2 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, bay leaves and ham hocks.

Season with salt and pepper.

Add the black-eyed peas and chicken stock.

Bring the liquid up to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer.

Cook the peas for about 45 minutes then add the andouille, and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the peas are tender and plump.

Remove the hamhocks from the pot and remove the meat.

Add the meat back to the peas and re-season if necessary.

Add the parsley and chives.

Sever with rice (white is traditional but we use brown and when we have guest we offer both), with one bottle of green and one bottle of red Tabasco served on the side.


Notes: It is advisable (but not necessary) to soak beans over night before cooking - it shortens to cooking time which allows for less nutrients to be cooked off and will make them  more digestible. Tasso, a specialty of Cajun cuisine, is a spicy, peppery version of smoked pork made from the shoulder butt. Andouille, a spiced and heavily smoked pork sausage, is another Cajun favorite. Both are available at specialty merchants and on the Internet.


Snowed In!

The blizzard that roared up the East Coast on Sunday and shut down travel across the country didn’t prevent us from getting home from the grandparents. I saw a weather report after my second serving of Christmas dinner and decided to start packing. We drove all night on Saturday and thanks to two late-night cups of coffee I didn’t get to sleep until after 3 a. m.

Sunday is usually a day of cooking and preparing for the week but yesterday, by necessity, it was a true day of rest. I did little more than read the paper, eat sublime Christmas dinner leftovers, and assemble a 5,000 piece Playmobil pyramid with the girls. Santa Maria showed me René Redzepi's Op-Ed in the New York Times about recycling your Christmas tree by eating it, and I’d like to share it here. Redzepi, the chef and co-owner of the restaurant Noma and the author of “Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine,” has a clever idea, but I found the readers’ responses more instructive than his suggestions for making spruce butter or spruce oil.

One tart commenter said, “Just make sure it's not a hemlock.” A good joke and an important point: it’s essential to know where your food comes from.


Merry Christmas!


Earlier this week, for the first time in about five years, I slept past 9:30 a.m. I woke to a house that smelled of gingerbread cookies, and came downstairs to find Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria in the midst of making wonderful houses covered in white chocolate and multicolored candies.

I'll be back on Monday with more stories from the kitchen and beyond. In the meantime, a very Merry Christmas to all my readers. Thanks for following my adventures, and I hope everyone has a magnificent weekend.

Nina Weighs in on My Pizza Recipe—Score One for Stew

The other night, after the beef-stew debacle (the kids didn't really have dinner that evening, unless you count pie and ice cream) we took a break and went out for pizza.

At the restaurant, in between bites of a slice, Nina said, "Remember that time daddy tried to make pizza," recalling one of my complete failures in the kitchen. "If you had to chose between last night's stew and my pizza, which would you rather eat?" I teased her.

She paused for a very long time before sheepishly saying, "a little bit of stew." Ouch.

Santa Maria’s Father Talks about his Cooking and She Shares Her World-Famous Chocolate Sauce Recipe

We are spending the week at Santa Maria’s parents’ house, where we’re catching up on sleep and getting into the holiday spirit. Usually when we arrive, Santa Maria’s father, who does most of the cooking, has a meal ready for us, but he’s been busy taking care of Santa Maria’s mother, who is recovering from her injury a few weeks ago.

On our first night here, he served us a beef stew that one of his neighbors had prepared. Nina and Pinta didn’t care for it, but they quietly ate enough of the meat and their asparagus to have a piece of Santa Maria’s mother’s peach pie, which she had made over the summer and frozen before she hurt herself.

Santa Maria’s father may be busy, but he’s still running the kitchen. He made sure there were organic eggs and milk for us (he is a considerate host, even though he doesn’t buy organic for himself), and he’s already shown me a ham we could eat as well as a nice rib roast that we’ll either have or he’ll “save for a dinner party.”

Yesterday afternoon Santa Maria went off with Nina to buy candy so we can decorate the gingerbread houses we plan on making later in the week, and I took a moment to talk with her father about the cooking he does.

My first real cooking experience was in the Boy Scouts, cooking, and then earning the cooking merit badge. After I was married and when the children were growing up I was working and their mother did most of the cooking. I would make breakfast things, waffles and crepes suzettes, which are really more of a dessert. I made them with cinnamon and sugar for the kids, but I tried to make them once in a while for myself with Grand Marnier because that’s the first kind I ever had. It was at the New York World’s Fair, in 1939. I was there with my daddy and he was Belgian so we stopped at the crepe stand. 1939fairhelicline

About two decades ago, when I retired, I started cooking more. My wife makes the salads, desserts and hors d'oeuvres. I make the entrees. I’ll also do soups. My usual soup is made with leftovers. I put all the leftover stuff from the entrees, and that includes vegetables, and mix it with a commercially available soup, such as Progresso, for flavor. There isn’t much need to add salt at that point.

 There aren’t very many other men around here my age who cook as much as I do. I like to do it because of my bachelor days as a mining engineer.  I was in a place called Grand Junction, Colorado, and we’d get three days in town, and then we’d spend eleven days in the field. You had to cook for yourself. To me it was not a choice. I found that the easiest thing to do was to get a chicken and some vegetables and a pressure cooker.  We all had our own trailers out in the field, and the chicken would last three or four days. Maybe once a week I’d invite someone over or go to someone else’s trailer for dinner. It was cook and eat or not. I tried a cherry pie once, but it ended up all over the oven.

My advice to men who want to cook is to put the television in the kitchen or in the next room, that way you can get the news as you make the dinner. Also, start with something simple, like a roast chicken.

Santa Maria’s father may think of himself as an entrée man, but one of his greatest legacies is dessert. If Santa Maria came with a dowry, it was her chocolate sauce, which she learned from her father. Anyone who has ever had it wants to know how to make it. As it turns out, the recipe is an old family favorite. “That was my mother’s chocolate sauce,” her dad says.

 Santa Maria's Family Chocolate Sauce Recipe


  • 1 bar 70% dark chocolate
  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T sugar (or to taste – I never measure these quantities, so do taste as you go and adjust accordingly)
  • 2 shakes cinnamon
  • ¼ t salt
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 t vanilla extract


Bring everything to a boil, whisking constantly.  Turn down heat and boil, low but rolling, for three minutes.

Serve hot over poached pears, vanilla ice cream, walnuts, or anything you desire. I survived on fresh, warm-to-the-touch Hungarian bread dipped in this gooey sauce for days on end in icy December while in Budapest as a student with my dear friend Betsy A. I did end up in the hospital, but that’s another story.  Dr. Ferenczi sent me cute, round, picture postcards of the city for a year or so after.

Three Cheers for Steak

Sunday night when Santa Maria was making gingerbread-cookie dough, I was cooking a quick dinner of steak, broccoli, and baked potato. This is a common division of labor in our house—Santa Maria handles the sweets, and I juggle much of everything else. Nina and Pinta go crazy for the treats she whips up, but they also applaud my efforts from time to time.

We aren’t the type of parents to do much childproofing. I’ve been in houses where there’s practically an armed guard in the kitchen, along with locks on the stove and barricades in front of the bathroom. I believe in teaching them what to watch out for, rather than trying to make the world perfectly “safe” for them.

I remind them to stay away from the stove or the oven when I’m cooking. They pay close attention. They like to be with me, but they have to be careful. Our kitchen in Brooklyn is so small that the refrigerator isn’t anywhere to be seen—it is in the hall, between the bathroom and the front door. When the four of us are in the space at the same time, it can look like we’re playing a game of Twister.

Whenever they hear the sound of something sizzling on the stovetop, I warn the girls to watch out, that the hissing and snapping mean that there’s something very hot up there. At my mother’s house on Sunday night, when I threw the sirloin in the smoking-hot frying pan, it snapped and crackled. Pinta, who was standing on a chair to my right, watching me, turned towards me and smiled and started to clap and cheer.

Stove-top Sirloin (All Thumbs Experimental Method)

I have yet to develop great skill in cooking meat, and it’s with a bit of anxiety that I post the following recipe. I wouldn’t rely on it alone—I can’t tell you how long to cook the meat, for example. I put it here to encourage people: the only way to improve is to practice. I can make a half-decent steak because I’ve tried many times before. The following worked well on Sunday night, and it’s more or less what I do every time.

  • sirloin steak, about 1-inch thick
  • Salt

Remove meat from refrigerator about a half-hour before cooking and allow to come to room temperature.

Heat a frying pan until it is smoking.

Throw a good layer of salt in it.

Toss on the steak.

Cook at high heat about three minutes, or until side is nicely charred.

Flip the meat and cover the pan.

Continue to cook for about three more minutes, then set aside and allow it to sit for about five-to-ten minutes. Slice and check a thick part. Pray that it is medium to medium rare.

Holiday Rush: A Gingerbread Dough and Cookie Recipe

We are headed to the grandparents in Pennsylvania for the holidays, but like much of family life, the journey has been anything but a linear progression. My office is closed the week before Christmas, and we intended to leave on Sunday. We accelerated our departure, though, because our landlords are renovating an apartment below us, and the fumes from refinishing the floors were making us dizzy (and cold and sick because we had to leave the windows wide open).

We left town on Saturday, but before heading west on I-80, we detoured to a pair of parties in Manhattan, and then headed to my mother’s place north of the city for what was to be just one night.

We arrived at my mother's late, had a rough night because Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria have coughs, and chose to stay an extra day. It was too cold to spend much time outside on Sunday, so Santa Maria decided to make gingerbread dough. When we get to Pennsylvania, we’ll turn the dough into houses, but for now we settled on a few cookies.

Gingerbread Dough and Cookie Recipe from Santa Maria (with her notes)

We only had a default 'boy' shape cutter and the girls were dismayed so I pinched some triangles of dough around the hips and other, tiny ones on the head et voila!  Gingerbread girls with hair and dresses!  (At our apartment in Brooklyn we have a tiny matched set, a gingerbread girl and boy, but not at SaSD's family home). Some we glazed with a simple confectioner's sugar frosting (mix in a bit of milk and spread on cooled cookies), others left plain for the more puritanical.

  •  3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  •  3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  •  3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter (room temperature, softened)
  •  1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
  •  1 T ground ginger
  •  1 T ground cinnamon
  •  1/2 t ground cloves
  •  1/2 t ground nutmeg
  •  dash of ground black pepper
  •  1/2 teaspoon salt
  •  1 large egg
  •  1/2 cup unsulfured molasses


 In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and spices. Set aside.

Cream the butter. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Mix in eggs and molasses. Gradually add the flour mixture (You may need to work it with your hands to incorporate the last bit of flour.) Divide dough in thirds; wrap each third in plastic. Chill for at least 1 hour or overnight. Before rolling out, let sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes.

Heat oven to 350°. Place a dough third on a large piece of lightly floured parchment paper or wax paper. Using a rolling pin, roll dough 1/8 inch thick. Refrigerate again for 5-10 minutes to make it easier to cut out the cookies. Use either a cookie cutter or place a stencil over the dough and use a knife to cut into desired shapes. Press raisins in the center of each cookie if desired for eyes, nose, mouth, and buttons on torso.

Transfer to ungreased baking sheets. Bake until crisp but not darkened, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Let sit a few minutes and then use a metal spatula to transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Decorate as desired.

Makes 16 5-inch long cookies.