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Down-home diarist

Times Staff Writer

JOHN T. EDGE is kind of infuriating.

On one hand, the food writer and director of the Southern Food Alliance has a noble curiosity about quirky small-town ways. It’s spurred him to collect lots of regional recipes, resulting in a series of four books: “Fried Chicken,” “Apple Pie,” “Hamburgers & Fries” and the latest, “Donuts.” Each consists of leisurely accounts of his quests for one specialty or another, with a recipe from his travels at the end of most chapters.

He’s spent a load of time visiting off-the-beaten-track restaurants all around the country, and he records their food ways with zest: chile-spiked apple pie, doughnuts caked with crushed Oreo cookies, the San Antonio hamburger that’s topped with refried beans, corn chips and spray-can cheese spread.

This is fascinating stuff. If he’d stick to a chronicler’s role, Edge could be our Charles Kuralt of road food, wandering down the nation’s byways and gabbing with small-town eccentrics. (He has a taste for eccentricity, and sometimes you may get the feeling he’s laying it on a little thicker than life.)

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On the other hand, he dabbles in food history from time to time, and he’s not that well-informed or discerning about his sources. (Mind you, I feel odd saying so, because he quotes me in the burger book.)

For instance, he has a bee in his bonnet that fried chicken is African and confidently writes, “We do know this: the tradition of cooking in deep oil has probably West African antecedents.” West Africans do fry things, mostly little cakes -- the hush puppy is certainly African -- but batter-frying is Spanish. We have medieval recipes to prove it.

Well, there’s a lot of half-accurate food history out there. What makes Edge uniquely infuriating is the way he writes this mixture of genuine food lore and guesswork history.

Purple prose

HE’S won awards for his writing, but it’s the kind of prose a newspaper copy editor could wear out a red pencil on. Edge never uses one word when he can get away with three or four -- which is hard to take in books as small as these (about 5 by 7 inches, averaging 175 pages). And he’s addicted to the overblown language restaurant reviewers used to throw around 30 years ago: “iconic,” “transcendent,” “pantheon,” “acolyte” and all that.

Put it all together and you get sentences such as this: “But even the luxurious drape of two emerald-colored lobes on a burger capped with cheddar can seem a kind of self-conscious attempt to claim terroir for a dish that was not born here amidst the pinon and juniper.”

Apparently this means something like it’s bogus for people in New Mexico to put green chiles on cheeseburgers because they didn’t invent the cheeseburger. Altogether, Edge often seems to be all glaze and no doughnut.

But give him his due, he has visited all those out-of-the-way restaurants. And he has clearly put a good deal of thought into the recipes he includes in this book.

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There aren’t many of them, only about 15 per book, but on the whole (for some reason, the doughnut range doesn’t have many surprises) they’re both unusual and worth trying. He has not hesitated to tinker with some of them to make them better; for instance, changing a traditional milk custard to a buttermilk custard for richness.

Some of them do need a bit of tweaking. The hypocrite pie recipe calls for one cup of sugar but only uses three-fourth cup; we decided three-fourths cup was right. The strawberry doughnut recipe from Glendora’s famed Donut Man shop doesn’t mention mixing the strawberries with syrup for the filling, and we found its dough needed more water than specified.

Edge encounters some dishes for which he doesn’t give recipes -- understandable in the case of the soy-extended “slug burger” or flour-extended “dough burger” of northeastern Mississippi. Apple pie milk shake, yes; even doughnut soup, yes; but no slug burger.

I’m glad he’s left in the PC burger (“PC” standing for pimento cheese), which is topped with a mixture of pimentos, green onions, mayonnaise and six (6!) ounces of extra-sharp cheddar. It makes you proud, somehow, to know you have fellow citizens who can put away PC burgers and live. You might even think it’s worth wading through Edge’s pirouetting prose to discover such down-home marvels.

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Onion-entangled griddle burgers

Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: 6

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Note: From “Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story” by John T. Edge. This emphatically oniony cheeseburger is a tradition in El Reno, Okla.

2 onions

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound ground chuck

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1 teaspoon salt

6 slices American cheese

6 hamburger buns

2 tablespoons yellow mustard

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1. Cut the onions into the thinnest possible slices, using a mandoline or a very sharp knife. (You should have about 5 1/2 cups sliced onions.)

2. Put 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet and heat over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Loosely gather a handful of meat (amounting to one-sixth of the total) and slip it into the pan. Repeat with the rest of the beef to make 6 burgers, frying in batches if necessary. Burgers should be free-form lumps, not neat patties; using the side of the spatula, shape them roughly round as they cook.

3. After 1 minute of frying, pile one-sixth of the onions onto each burger and sprinkle with half of the salt. With as much force as you can manage, smash the onions into the meat with the spatula. Again work the burgers into a roughly round shape with the spatula and fry 1 minute.

4. Flip the burgers and mash them hard with the spatula. Drain some of the grease from the pan. Sprinkle the remaining salt on the burgers. Put a cheese slice on each burger and cook until the cheese melts and you can smell the onions starting to burn, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. (The burgers may be rather greasy; if necessary, hold with the spatula against the side of the pan for 20 seconds to let them drain.) Serve on buns brushed with mustard.

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Each serving: 402 calories; 23 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 68 mg. cholesterol; 942 mg. sodium.

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Hypocrite pie

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

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Servings: 8

Note: Adapted from “Apple Pie: An American Story” by John T. Edge. The idea of combining apple pie and custard pie was widespread 100 years ago. Edge’s version in “Apple Pie” is based on a North Carolina recipe, altered by basing the custard on buttermilk.

6 tablespoons butter, divided, at room temperature

3 tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced

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3/4 cup sugar, divided

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

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1 tablespoon flour

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

Unbaked crust for a 9-inch, deep dish 1-crust pie

1. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet. Add the apples, one-fourth cup sugar and the cinnamon. Cook over medium heat until the apples are tender, 4 or 5 minutes. Set aside.

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2. In a large bowl, combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter with the remaining one-half cup sugar and beat until creamy. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Mix in the vanilla, flour and buttermilk and beat until silky.

3. Prick the bottom of the pie crust with a fork. Spoon the apples into the crust and spread them around as flat as possible. Pour in the buttermilk custard mixture, ensuring that it covers all the apples. Set in a 300-degree oven and bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes.

Each serving: 357 calories; 4 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 20 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 77 mg. cholesterol; 191 mg. sodium.

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Baptist cakes

Total time: 1 hour plus 1 hour, 15 minutes rising time

Servings: 40 to 50 cakes

Note: From “Donuts: An American Passion” by John T. Edge

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1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups whole milk, at room temperature

1 tablespoon salt

3 tablespoons sugar

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2 tablespoons shortening, melted and cooled slightly

8 to 9 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/2 gallon peanut or vegetable oil for frying

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1. Dissolve the yeast in one-half cup warm water, stirring.

2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine 1 cup cool water, the milk, salt and sugar.

3. Add the yeast mixture and the shortening. Add the flour, stirring until the mixture is stiff.

4. Remove the dough to a floured work surface and knead as you would bread, until a rough ball can be formed.

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5. Grease a heat-proof bowl or kettle with the softened butter. Place the dough in the bowl and cover with plastic. Store in a warm place until the dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.

6. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin to a thickness of one-half inch, then cut into 2-inch squares. Place on a cookie sheet and cover with plastic. Set aside for 15 minutes.

7. Pour the oil into a cast-iron Dutch oven or other deep, heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat the oil to 360 degrees. Fry each square for 1 to 2 minutes per side or until golden on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon to dry on wire racks.

8. Serve with a dunking bowl of warm milk topped with a pat of butter, or maybe a bowl of maple syrup heated until warm.

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Each of 50 cakes: 134 calories; 3 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 2 mg. cholesterol; 143 mg. sodium.


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