Author’s note: The following column from September 2009 has become all the more meaningful, to me, at least, because of the news that Pat Conroy died recently. In the years since I wrote the piece, I did finish reading all of his works, and I also managed to get a copy of “Charleston Receipts.” I’ll be making the benne seed wafers soon in his memory.
One of my prized possessions is an autographed copy of “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life,” a collection of food stories as well as recipes from the author of “The Prince of Tides.”
I ordered the book off the Internet from a store in Decatur, Ga., that has numerous signed copies of his work (Books Again), so there’s no backstory of standing in line to meet Conroy after a reading or bumping into him at some literary gathering.
But I did meet the author once, about 15 years ago, when he made an appearance in Sarasota, Fla. I hadn’t read anything of his at the time, and that kept me from interviewing him for the newspaper where I worked. It seems Conroy’s fame had taken him to the point where he could ask that he be interviewed only by someone who had read his work.
That may seem odd, but it really isn’t. Conroy wanted to discuss his work, not what Barbra Streisand or other Hollywood types had done with it when translating his stories into movies.Yet he agreed to come to the newspaper office, which, at the time, also housed a 24-hour TV news station.
While waiting for the interview room to be set up, Conroy wandered through the newsroom, introduced himself to a couple of us and talked about how his visit was going. He was jocular and ingratiating, a sort of bear that seemed to be enjoying life, even if it meant having to sit for yet another interview.
How nice he was made me search out his books, first “The Prince of Tides,” then “Beach Music,” “The Water Is Wide” and so on. I haven’t finished all of his output yet, but I have enjoyed each volume I’ve picked up. It could be the Southern boy in me that relates to his almost poetic prose about Charleston, S.C., a city I have longed to visit. Then, there are those grand sweeping sentences that match the sweeping emotions he conveys.
Or maybe it’s just the food. Not the famous dog food scene in “Prince of Tides,” mind you. But food pervades much of Conroy’s writing. This is a man who honestly confessed at the beginning of his cookbook: “The subject of food is nearly a sacred one to me.” And that permeates his writing. I could practically taste the pasta in the Italian scenes of “Beach Music” and the Lowcountry fare in just about all of his other novels.
The food of his home state pervades his new novel, “South of Broad,” which deals with, among other things, the integration of schools in the South. Food is one item that transcends racial barriers, and it’s no wonder food is used as a way to bring people together. Here’s a short passage in which our young hero, Leopold Bloom King, is making cookies for some new neighbors:
“I opened the copy of ‘Charleston Receipts’ that my father had bought on the day I was delivered at St. Francis Hospital, and I turned it to the benne seed wafer thins, a recipe submitted by Mrs. Gustave P. Maxwell, the former Lizetta Simons. My father and I had cooked almost every recipe in the ‘Charleston Receipts,’ a transcendent cookbook put together by the Junior League and published to universal acclaim in 1950. Father and I placed stars each time we prepared one of the recipes, and the benne wafers had earned a whole constellation. I began toasting the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet. I creamed two cups of brown sugar with a stick of unsalted butter. I added a cup of plain flour sifted with baking powder and a pinch of salt, and a freshly beaten egg that my father had purchased from a farm neat Summerville. …”
Doesn’t that just send you into the kitchen to make your own batch? Well, I don’t have a copy of “Charleston Receipts,” complete with the old-fashioned term for what we now call recipes. But I did find one on the Internet, which appears below.
I also include a recipe for Conroy’s killer crab cakes from his cookbook. As he writes in the introduction, “I think I make the best crab cakes and shrimp salad in the world, and I will take on all comers.”
That’s it for now. I’m headed back to “South of Broad.”
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over and cleaned, with all shell fragments removed
1 egg white, lightly beaten (until foamy, not stiff)
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons finely snipped fresh chives
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt, divided use
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons peanut oil
Place the cleaned crabmeat in a medium mixing bowl. Pour the egg white over the crabmeat slowly, stopping occasionally to mix it through. When the crabmeat has absorbed the egg white and feels slightly sticky to the touch, sift the flour over crabmeat and sprinkle the chives, black pepper, cayenne pepper and 1 teaspoon salt over the top. Lift the crabmeat from the bottom of the bowl, turning it over gently, to mix the ingredients without overhandling.
Separate the crabmeat into 8 equal portions and gently roll each between the flattened palms of your hands to form loose balls. Flatten slightly and transfer to a plate. Sprinkle both sides liberally with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before cooking.
Line a baking pan with paper towels. Fry the crab cakes in two batches to ensure a crisp crust. Using a small (8-inch) heavy skillet that conducts heat well, melt half the butter and oil together until the mixture is foamy and begins to brown. Carefully place the crab cakes in the hot fat and fry until a crust forms, turning once, about 2 minutes per side. (The fat should be sizzling hot enabling a crisp crust to form before the crab absorbs the cooking fat. This is the Southern secret to perfect crab cakes.) A small pastry spatula (with a thin tongue) will make lifting and turning the delicate crab cakes a lot easier. Remove the crab cakes and drain in the prepared pan. Cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm while you make the second batch.
Carefully pour off the cooking fat from the first batch, wipe out the pan and return it to the heat. Prepare the second batch of crab cakes using the remaining butter and oil.
Serve hot with lemon wedges.
From “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life”
Benne Seed Wafer Thins
1 cup sesame seeds
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place the sesame seeds on an ungreased baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes, watching closely, until lightly browned. In a large mixing bowl mix the brown sugar, melted butter or margarine, egg, vanilla, flour, salt, baking powder and toasted sesame seeds together until blended. Drop dough by half-teaspoonfuls onto a lightly greased baking sheet, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between cookies. Bake benne wafers for 4 to 6 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cookies cool for about 2 minutes on baking sheets; remove from baking sheets to a wire rack to cool completely. Store cooled sesame seed cookies in an airtight container.
Makes about 72 cookies.