by Jack Butler
1997. 258 pages. 50+ recipes.
-Universal Black Iron Skillet Pie Crust
I'm a little bit in love with Jack Butler. He's the author of Jack's Skillet. Jack Butler is my kind of guy. He likes to ponder the big issues like the meaning of life, the power of family, and what he's going to make for dinner. He's a proud defender of the humble black iron skillet, and proves that you don't need a Porche-priced pan to fry catfish or simmer chili or even make something a little fancier like Capered Chicken Kiev. And to make Skillet Cornbread in anything other than a plain old iron skillet would be like dressing Hank Williams in some cockamamie Versace get-up. Did I mention the picture of Jack Butler on the book cover? That he is very, very attractive?
By the time you finish the book (not that you need to read it straight through, but his storytelling style may make you want to) you know that Butler is a novelist, a poet, a husband (seems he finally got it right the third time around), a father, and the son of Mississippi Baptist preacher. Maybe it's his good ole boy roots that give his narrative an easy, unhurried pace. (This may drive Type-A types crazy.)
Guys who wouldn't ordinarily be caught dead within a three-aisle radius of the cookbook section of Barnes & Noble might think Jack's Skillet is not half bad because Jack is a Real Guy. (He has ripped rotting insulation out of his house; he plays pick-up games of basketball.) Which doesn't mean that he doesn't know the way to a woman's heart. (On Sundays he asks his wife what he can make her for breakfast; he likes farmers' markets.) He simply sidesteps culinary and sexual stereotyping. He's no vegetarian but he makes a mean Meat-Less Loaf (with tofu no less). He has finally stopped referring to all pasta as "spaghetti" (although he realizes that adding the word "pasta" to his vocab might "cause them to check your ID at the Good Old Boys Club)....but he still washes it down with a tumbler of Wild Turkey.
The book is a collection of food essays, most of which finish with one of his recipes, an eclectic mix of Southern cooking (Catfish Lite), homey goodness (Chicken Pot Pie), family hand-me-downs (Mom's Chow Chow), his own inventions (Creperitos), and modern standards (Spinach Quiche -Yes, real men not only eat quiche, but some even make it). His Black Iron Skillet Pie Crust is a straightforward classic and is the foundation for a number of his recipes such as his Crumbly Caketop Cobbler. This cobbler has an intriguing twist: the top develops a matte glossy surface like a just iced-over pond, which gives it a satisfying crunch when you bite into it.
Butler often gets to the recipe part of an essay by a circuitous stream-of-consciousness route. The essay "Avocados are My Avocation" starts with a musing on food as part of one's personal history: Oranges remind him of childhood Christmas'; avocados take him back to early adulthood when he was "writing poetry and trying as hard as I could to be a part of some latter-day lost generation". Which merges into a brief elegy for the sixties...."those were good and fascinating times, and I admire us as we were then, determined, fuzzy, hopeless, and full of good will. And full of avocado sandwiches." OK. Now he's ready to tell you how to make the World's Best Avocado Sandwich.
Butler gives two versions of each recipe. He presents the recipe in the standard format at the end of each essay. He precedes this with a laid-back one- or two-page dialogue which takes you through the whole process. His tone is so conversational that it's easy to imagine he's in the kitchen next to you chopping, chatting, maybe pausing every now and then for a sip of one of Jayme's Killer Margaritas.
Butler calls himself "the original improvisational cook", tracing his "penchant for wild-card experimentation" to his father, the creator of jalapeno chocolate cake. (Don't ask.) His free-wheeling attitude may not be the ticket for absolute beginner cooks. But for anyone itching to loosen up in the kitchen, Jack's the man. He's a big fan of trial and error, and cuts fear of failure down to size ("... suppose things do go totally wrong, what have you lost?" Not much.) After reading some of his recipe ramblings, you get a feel for the rhythm and reason in improvising. Here's a snippet of his instructive muttering as he invents Refrigerator Soup: "...Spices. Bay leaves? No, no, no too angry for this. Dill, no....Marjoram? Ok, just a touch, don't get too enthusiastic." On the other hand, he doesn't "believe in doing too much tinkering with a good thing", citing his basic biscuit recipe. Then, with a smile and a shrug he contradicts his own belief as he recounts the day he ran out of buttermilk and used goat cheese instead in his biscuits. I gotta say here, though, that there are a lot of recipes I didn't feel compelled to try like Post-War Pork and Beans Sandwich or Mutton Stew. (I realize these recipes would be music to someone else's mouth.)
Butler understands that we yearn for something other than meals that are convenience-driven (did somebody say Mc Donald's?) or perfection-driven (did somebody say Martha?). "What we really want is that sense of comfort and home that meals ought to provide." That's what Jack's Skillet is all about. Oh, and one other thing he wants to keep in mind when you're cooking: "Don't be afraid to play with your food."