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The Secret of 'Slaw

Though His Grandmother's Cooking Struck Fear in Many, One Recipe Remains a Family Treasure

April 28, 2002|MARTIN J. SMITH

In addition to being the world's finest purveyor of unconditional love, my father's mother--we called her "Ma"--was perhaps the world's worst cook. Mixed with my fond memories of Sunday dinners at her house in Birmingham, Ala., are somewhat less fond memories of a menu that seldom varied: oven-forged pot roast, lumpy mashed potatoes, limp green beans and sticky-sweet iced tea.

Her way with fried "pepper" eggs was as frightening as it was legendary. My older cousins spread dark rumors about sentient residents in the dusty cereal boxes atop Ma's refrigerator. I was even afraid of the candy dishes she placed around the house for visiting grandkids. Lint, moisture and hair from her malodorous, snuffling Boston terrier settled on the unwrapped candy she bought in bulk. The nuggets always fused into a single, sugary mass, and eventually to the bottom of the dish. Nothing was more awkward than the inevitable moment when she'd pull me into her prodigious, welcoming bosom and whisper an invitation that my parents couldn't hear: "There's candy on the coffee table, darlin'. Go get yourself some."

All of this presented a dilemma last year when we decided to create a cookbook of family recipes to distribute at our family reunion, which we've held in Ma's honor every other year since she died in 1985. How could we publish a chronicle of favorite family recipes without including at least something from the beloved family matriarch? Fortunately, there's Ma 'Slaw.

In the Deep South, coleslaw is the dietary equivalent of oxygen. It's everywhere--in teensy hard-plastic bowls perched on the edge of your rib plate, on top of your barbecue pork sandwich, oozing from its pile on one side of your fried catfish platter into the mound of fried okra on the other.

Recipes vary. Some even include vinegar instead of mayonnaise. They're all good. The only way to really screw up coleslaw--besides adding hair from a Boston terrier--is to dump everything into a food processor and hit the start button. The blades reduce the cabbage and other ingredients to a fine slurry about the consistency of wallpaper paste. It might taste OK, but coleslaw shouldn't go down like grits. It should crunch. You should have to fork it into your mouth like hay. It should be sweet, too, but fie on those with an overactive mayo hand. Restraint, people, restraint.

Ma's version upholds no tradition of which I'm aware. It has tomatoes in it, for heaven's sake, and a scandalous ratio of onions to cabbage. Preparing it is more mechanics than art. Armed with only a cutting board and a big, nasty chopping knife, you can hand-make a giant bowl of it about 10 minutes before you put it on the picnic table next to the collards and summer squash.

But take it from someone who knows: Just as there was no one like the woman in whose memory we still gather, there's no 'slaw like Ma 'Slaw.

Ma 'Slaw

Serves 12

From "Oleo, Velveeta & Mango Salsa," a self-published family cookbook not available for sale

1 head of green cabbage

1 small sweet onion

3 ripe tomatoes

1/2 - 3/4 cup mayonnaise to taste

Salt

Pepper

Cut cabbage in half and remove the core. Chop coarsely with a knife. Chop onion very fine. Chop tomatoes. Mix three main ingredients together in a large bowl with mayonnaise, then season with salt and pepper. Serve chilled.

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Martin J. Smith is a senior editor of the magazine and the author of three crime novels, including the Edgar Award-nominated "Straw Men" (Jove 2001).

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Food stylist, Christine Masterson

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