Sunday, July 20, 2014


We were in Atlanta for the annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival a few years ago. The folks who started this up, have hit the sweet spot on all manner of Southern cooking and drinking with this fest. My son Justin and I were busy as bees over the 3 days and nights with various events ---  a dinner at the “Optimist’s Club”, a “nose to tail” demo on whole fish grilling at The Loews Hotel and finally a farewell party Sunday evening called “A Chorus of Greens” hosted by Atlanta star chefs, (and genuinely fine folks!) Annie Quatrano and Linton Hopkins. 

We did attend a few classes as well. One was on making Country Hams

The person many American chefs look up to on that subject is a gentleman from Madisonville, Tennessee named Allan Benton. The list of his fans would fill up a… pork barrel. He said at one point in his homespun presentation, “I’ve nearly starved to death doing this job…until now”. 

I’m glad he had the 'country steel' to hang on! Mr. Benton was joined on stage with 6 chefs from throughout the South who each had a ham they were carving from when we entered that porcine perfumed hotel conference room. Chicago based chef Art Smith had just handed me a ham filled biscuit not an hour before this class but it didn’t abate my lust for these works of edible art.

When I was about 19 I started hitchhiking with a couple of buddies on a pretty routine basis. One of the routes I came to know well was the one between my hometown in Northern Illinois and my soon to be adopted one of Key West, Florida. One of my pals was from Cincinnati…so we routinely rested up and re-fueled there...complements of his mother’s refrigerator and his step-daddy’s beer cooler.

Despite the quicker speed of the massive U.S. Interstates… we often got off...and hit the little two-lane “blue highways” to slow down...and have a look, a smell and a taste ... of America. 

I remember traveling through western Kentucky very near the Southern Illinois border one beautiful spring day and passing through the town of ‘Metropolis’, (where they had a big painting of Superman on the water tower) and another named ‘Monkey’s Eyebrow’, (named for reasons I still don’t know). It was in the town of Cadiz that I began to understand the allure of country hams. We entered a kind of General Store meets Luncheonette. A gentleman in his 80’s and smoking a white pipe was slicing up some fine ribbons of ham near the cash register. Seeing my interest, (via my twitching nose)...he offered a portion right off the ancient blade. I took it and it changed me. 

The folks who make them start with about a 50-pound section of pork meat. It is, somewhat troublingly, called a “green ham” at this point. Burying them thoroughly in a salt, sugar and/or pepper mixture for up to 3 weeks is next. They are not injected, which is a cheap, quick fix suitably only for commercial grade hams. Great hams take time, almost a full year in fact. 

Back at the Atlanta Festival there was a map printed by the good southern chefs doing the ham demo. There were hams from 11 Southern states. 

The only one missing in terms of representation was...ours.

Ham Master and James Beard Awarded Chef Linton Hopkins looked me squarely in the eye and said with the softest drawl but clearest intent, “Hope to see Florida in here next year”. 

The challenge lies before us. 

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s…. My Word on Food ©.
Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2014

© 2014 Norman Van Aken. Photo credit by author. Like this? Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014


The summer I became a golf caddie was one filled with suddenly unfamiliar routines and the deep lows and soaring highs of messy adolescence. I was 14 years of age and not skipping smoothly along the surface of life’s waters. My childhood pals, the Harris boys seemed to suffer no similar quandaries … so …. as is so often the case of adolescent logic I was infinitely attracted to them. In our family I was the boy child wedged between two sisters and … understanding what it meant to be male was not a commodity I could garner from them. The male ‘egg’ as it were was mine own … to crack. When the Harris boys asked me if I wanted to join them caddying when school let out that summer in my second year of being a teenager I was alternately thrilled… and nervous. It would be my first job. I didn’t know the ins and outs. When I showed up at their home in the pre-dawn hours that first morning I saw them pile into the oldest brothers beat up car with sack lunches they’d brought along. I was without that plan. The youngest of the boys, Wade, who was my age…and my best friend… told me he’d share but that I needed to learn to pack some food or I’d “be wasted from carrying two heavy golf bags by 10 a.m.!” When I asked him what was in the paper bags he smiled dreamily and said, ‘we make egg salad sandwiches’. 

I wolfed my half down just before heading to the first tee at ‘Twin Orchards Country Club’ that summer. It saved me I’m sure. And it taught me a valuable lesson about laying down a foundation before working. But the words that spiraled back to my ears as Mr. Malkin took the first “Mulligan” of a long morning were those of Wade saying “we make egg salad”. It had not occurred to me that the boys could make their own lunches. Power and control concepts flashed in my teenage mind!

Time spooled forward and it wasn’t long before the first job I got as a cook was as a breakfast one. And the egg and I became intimately intertwined. 

In recent years we have seen the ascent of the ‘slow cooked egg’. Even if you have not heard it by that term or another … ‘sous vide’ there is a strong likelihood you have had it. Through the precision of cooking instruments like the immersion circulator an egg can be brought to an incredibly specific internal temperature where the egg yolk is as sensuous as God intended. 

The egg is one of cuisine’s most important integers. It is both meal and agent. It fills the palate and taste buds with a kind of primal satisfaction that is both haunting and familiar. As an ingredient it has transformative powers beyond other basics like flour, milk, or any member of the vegetable kingdom! It is the beginning of life, but it is also a partner to a cook as intimate and needed as the knife … or the garden. Nora Ephron said, “When I fall in love it always begins with potatoes”. For me it would be eggs. When I finally mastered some dishes as a cook I came back to the shared home I had with some pals and I made them omelets for dinner. My stock soared! 

Next time around…it will be a slow cooked egg.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2014 Norman Van Aken

Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Foods of India

(From the NPR Radio Show, "A Word On Food" by Norman Van Aken)

A Word on Food’ is done with … words … of course. Where would I be without them? Our blonde-haired, blue-eyed granddaughter Audrey is not yet two… yet she is teaching me to try more communication … with the hand language known as ‘signing’. She has been taking lessons to learn how to say things with her hands. 
We were gathering the other night for her Daddy’s birthday celebration in an Indian restaurant. The unmistakable aromas of curry dominated the small dining room. It was just after opening … and the place was already popping! Audrey was seated with her back to the wall near a corner between her happy parents when her Grandmother and I arrived. She locked her baby blues on me and instantly made the sign one makes in this clever, language for “Grandfather!”.

Over time the room grew loud with laughter … folks strained to be heard… a sizzling platter of some fragrant dish swept past us several times making quite a racket! For some … it was hard to get heard. Audrey … sagely made the sign … for ‘hungry’ …. and her father twisted off some naan bread and spread it with a mild chick pea mixture. Audrey smiled. Another universal form of dialog that worked in the din!

India holds over a billion people. It’s cuisines are encyclopedic. As one would expect … Indian cuisine varies wildly as one moves from region to region.

North Indian is agricultural despite the presence of the large cities of Delphi and Calcutta and has extreme climates – summers are hot and winters are cold. North Indian curries are usually thick, moderately spicy and creamy. Samosas, Chicken Tikka and Biryani are very popular there. 

South Indian cuisine is perhaps the hottest of all Indian food. Meals are centered around rice to quell it some. Dosas … pancakes made from a batter of rice and lentil flour … are a favorite.

The Eastern region bears the strong influence of Chinese and Mongolian cuisine. Popular dishes there include Momos (meat or vegetable-filled wontons), Tomato Achaar (tomato pickle) and Jhaal-Muri (a spicy street prepared snack made with puffed rice and mustard oil).

Western India possibly has the most diverse styles of food in India. The climate is hotter and drier there so the relatively smaller variety of vegetables available are preserved as pickles and chutneys. Vindaloo is popular. Thaali … a large plate … is a style of eating there … A meal can consist of as many as 10 different vegetable dishes, rice and chapati … Indian bread. 

Due to the various Indian diaspora communities … Fusion Cuisine has become an exciting field of taste exploration. Anglo-Indian, Indian-Singaporean, Malaysian-Indian are some. Another is Indian-Chinese. And as with many fusion cuisines this one was born out of historical upheaval. It originated in the 19th century among the Chinese neighborhoods within Calcutta … during a period of escape from the Opium Wars. After tasting Indian foods … the Chinese began to incorporate many spices and methods of cooking into the cuisine they had known for centuries. During the reign of the British in India, the cuisine was considered by the Europeans closely to what Gods taught of ambrosia. ‘Heaven on a plate’ in other words… I will ask my granddaughter what the sign for “ambrosia” is … when she gets a little older. 

After the meal I was given the duty… and honor of helping her wash her expressive hands. 
Now we could … ‘speak’… without curry … sticking to our sentences!

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.

© 2014 Norman Van Aken
 Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Have you seen that now classic commercial where a bunch of cowboys get all freaked out about a salsa that is produced in NEW     YORK      CITY..!?!?!

Well, I found it similarly amusing to be in an elegant restaurant in NEW YORK CITY! recently where they were offering me a menu which included caviar service, foie gras and a Fried Green Tomato Salad. I had to have that salad! It was pretty good but it couldn't match many I've had in some mighty funky places in the South and… at the 14.00 dollar price tag, I could have had a Catfish Dinner with hush puppies, cole slaw and a pitcher of cold beer!

I'm not here to talk about the economic realities of a restaurant in The Big Apple than versus in say, Monkey's Eyebrow, Kentucky, (a place I've actually driven through, though I did not try their tomatoes). I'm here to talk about Fried Green Tomatoes

Who first thought of taking an under-ripe, hard as a stone tomato and putting it to use? 
Thank you wherever you are!

Maybe we put too much emphasis in having fruits… that is right… tomato is a fruit in case you thought it was a vegetable… so like I was starting to say...before I interrupted myself… maybe we put too much weight on only enjoying fruits when they are at maximum ripeness. In fact that is my favorite way but….let’s explore the range of possibilities! We have come to understand and embrace ‘nose to tail’ cooking where we don’t just select out one small percentage of a creature to consume. That is savage and wasteful in the truest definitions. 

So let’s look at it like if it were OUR garden an WE were the Farmers. Wouldn’t you love to reap the harvest in sequences… taking full advantage of what the cycle of nature gives up? Underripe, so to speak… to fully ripe? Often ripening comes after the moment of picking. If they all are ripe on the same day we face an “embarrassment of riches” that will lead us to have to throw treasures out. 

Instead….. if we pickle, dry, can, freeze or get ingenious we can enjoy the garden… 
‘nose to tail’ too.  

It is out of the School of Ingenious that I find myself raptly listening to something like, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” or “O Brother Where Art Thou” that I happily remake a dish out of the cookbook I wrote with my son, Justin. It’s simple to find a copy of “My Key West Kitchen”. 

Get yourself some green tomatoes. Ignore the look of pity from fellow shoppers who think you can’t seem to find the riper ones they found. Bring them home. The tomatoes that is. Rinse them and towel dry. Now slice the tomatoes medium and marinate them in a simple vinaigrette for half an hour while you mix a Dixie inspired cocktail. Justin and I dip them in a buttermilk mixture sparked up with hot sauce…. then properly coat them in a flour and cornmeal combo and pan fry them to a golden, crunchy luster! We also give them a little Caribbean flavor with Pick-a-Peppa and Cream Cheese. The late, great James Beard called for sprinkling them with brown sugar as they cook and finishing them with heavy cream. Now that's home cookin' too. 

Perhaps a bit on the heavy side…. but you could always head out to the “Back 40” and chop a little cotton…. 

As for me?

I'll just watch the movie….. ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’, that is.

© 2014 Norman Van Aken. Photo credit to Penny De Los Santos. Like this? Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014


When I was 19, 20 and 21 years of age … I seemed to be on a yo-yo between my boyhood home in Illinois and the place I was seeking. I wanted sunlight. I wanted music. I wanted good books. 
I didn’t know I wanted … Fried Chicken too!

I rode a bus from central Illinois to Jacksonville, Florida on one such sojourn with a buddy of mine. The bus we were on had a stop in Macon, Georgia and the driver announced that we would have one hour to “stretch … eat or shop”. We were young men and our noses led us to a soul food cafeteria. We opened a rickety screened door into a large room that smelled incredible! Black women in matching service uniforms stood behind the long, gleaming counter. They smiled as they ladled, spooned, sliced and poured food and drink for a steady line of customers. We entered the queue and I know I felt some preternatural instinct for the absolute quality of what we were about to experience. I ate nearly an entire fried chicken! When it was time to board the bus again I felt I had entered a state of grace and wasn’t sure Jacksonville could compete. But my buddy’s folks had a place near the ocean we could crash for free for ten days … so we climbed aboard …. watching that cafeteria as long as we could … through the smudged bus windows.  

We didn’t have that all American classic at our home. It wasn’t in the repertoire of my mother’s dishes. I occasionally had it at my best friend Wade’s home, but it was only served cold and brought to summer picnics. While good, it was not … right out of the fryers … and possessing a textural quality that I would search for in the years to come.

In 1983 … and by then a working chef ... instead of an unemployed dreamer… I traveled to New York City. One of the new ones then was a place called ‘Texarkana’. One dish on the menu that I missed that night … (they’d run out) stayed with me as an idea. 

It was called “Fried Chicken Salad”. I set out to work on it only having the title to … ignite my brain. For some reason … I reached for sesame oil when creating the dressing part of the recipe to accompany the salad. I think it is the reason it became so popular. How popular? Let’s fast forward. In 1985 I got an offer to return to work in Key West. It was the biggest break of my career to date … when I took on the job as Chef of “Louie’s Backyard”. The ownership was divided and … that is always tricky. The gentleman that hired me was at odds with one of the other proprietors. She wanted, (demanded!) that I keep a salad that had been on the menu with their previous chef. It was a “Steak Salad” and it was a big seller. I was not, (not!) going to have some other chef’s dish on my menu… So …  I presented a “Hot Fried Chicken Salad”. 

Time passed … My career rolled on towards new places beyond that track of time. 

17 years later, my wife, Janet, and I went back to Key West for a visit … and to ‘Louie’s Backyard’… 

The “Hot Fried Chicken Salad”? It was still on the menu.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2014 Norman Van Aken. Photo credit to Norman Van Aken. Like this? Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM.