Will Oldham on his Double Chocolate Chess Pie, as told to Gabe Soria (Arthur, 2004)

Come On In My Kitchen (column)

This issue’s chef: WILL OLDHAM of Louisville, Kentucky
as told to Gabe Soria

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (April 2004)

I’ve been making different kinds of chess pie for most of my life; it’s like pecan pie without the pecans in it. I think vinegar pie is similar, and transparent pie is similar. It’s just slightly different proportions of the different ingredients and consistencies, otherwise it’s the same thing: the magic of sugar mixed with butter mixed with eggs thrown in a piecrust.

Will Oldham’s Double Chocolate Chess Pie

1/2 c. Butter
2 oz. Chocolate, unsweetened
1 c. Sugar
3 Eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 c. Crème de Cacao liqueur
2 tbs. All-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tbsp. Salt
1 Pie shell
Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a saucepan over low heat, melt butter and chocolate. Remove from heat. Blend in sugar, eggs, liqueur, flour, salt and vanilla extract into melted butter and chocolate. Beat until smooth. Pour into the pie shell. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until set. Cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes.

There’s a place in Louisville called Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen that makes a really insane chocolate chess pie, and that might be where I first had it, ‘cause it opened when I was a teenager. [In Louisville] there’s also Derby Pie, which is pecan pie with bourbon and chocolate chips in it, but that’s not a full-on chocolate experience. In Birmingham, Alabama there used to be a place by the airport called BJ’s on the Runway and they made the best pies ever. They had a chocolate meringue pie, and the chocolate was… it was like a black hole. You got sucked into the whole thing and you didn’t come out until the pie was gone. It was six or seven inches high, with this meringue. Amazing pie. I think that that was when I realized what the possibilities were in a chocolate pie.

[I make chess pie] probably three times a year, ‘cause sometimes it’s easier to go to Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen to get a slice. I’ll make it for a recording session and we’ll just eat it over the course of the session. You get the rewards all along the way. It helps the music stay psyched. This

is nice, though, because it has this Crème de Cacao, and that’s a very good liqueur. I like it. I can have a scoop of vanilla ice cream with whiskey poured over it. It’s good. In Italy they call it an “Apogato”, which means drowned man, and you can have it with your choice of liquor. Sometimes sweet potato pie with a little bit of bourbon or rum cooked into it can be really delicious.

Chess pie and sweet potato pie are two things widely available in varying recipes all across Louisville. It’s a very exciting place for pie. There’s a bakery in Louisville called Plehn’s Bakery that makes a caramel ice cream, and the caramel ice cream from there mixed with the chocolate chess pie from Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen is… it’s beyond description. When you take a bite of it, it’s like… how you know… it helps you recognize how omnipotent and indescribable God is. Because this food, you know, goes beyond, and obviously God, you know, God would go beyond anything a Pope could tell you, or an imam could say about, or rabbis, you know? They can pretend that they can tell you about God, but it’s way fucking beyond their comprehension, no matter how many books they read or how much they whip their back or do whatever they do. It’s the same thing with the pies when you realize that the way things work is way beyond anything you could comprehend. We can put [the ingredients] together, but we can’t explain why, when you put them together, why they do what they do.

CHRIS GOSS in the kitchen (Arthur No. 17/July 2005)

From the “Come On In My Kitchen” column originally published in Arthur No. 17 (July 02005):

First, singer-guitarist-songwriter-producer-artist-pottery collector-Southern California desert denizen Chris Goss a true three-stripes vet of rock and part-time Master of Reality and Queen of the Stone Age, takes a weirder than usual deep-career turn with his involvement in the pan-prog Soft Machine-Hawkwind-and-Yes-burn-one trio with Hella drummer Zach Hill and ex-M. Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez called Goon Moon, whose inexplicably wonderful debut EP release, “I Got a Brand New Egg Layin’ Machine,” has recently been released through the Suicide Squeeze label. Now, for this month’s “Come On in My Kitchen” column, Goss gives us a recipe for an Italian-American pasta sauce that has no garlic. It figures. Watch out for this guy on the freeway, he’ll signal a change to a lane you didn’t know existed…

IMMIGRANT’S SAUCE
by Chris Goss

1988: Newly arrived in Los Angeles, it becomes obvious within a few months: I am not going to find the style of Italian-American cooking that is so easy to find in my former stomping grounds of Upstate New York, or for that matter, all of the Italian American communities that stretch from the Jersey Shore to Chicago. With further investigation, I find this had been a favorite L.A.-gripe topic among displanted New Yorkers since the Rat Pack days. Every so often, a new tip: “There’s a place in Brentwood.” “There’s a place in Silver Lake.” Mythical stories of truckloads of New Jersey water brought in for bread and pizza dough. Lots of added-up little reasons and harebrained schemes…this is our world. But today, it’s the pork sauce. And the theory: It’s the economy, ‘Stupidon’! And the weather. And the soil.

1920: Shiploads of poor Southern Italian immigrants like Mr. and Mrs. Anthony and Rose Modafferi hit Ellis Island and spin off to any Northeastern industrial city that may have a brother, a cousin, or best yet, a cherished factory job waiting for them. In most cases, the poorer they are, the less West, or South they travel. To this day I wonder, “Jesus, Tony! Why did you stop at Syracuse?” It turns out, food aesthetic-wise, I’m really glad he did.

1950: Plain and simple. The men’s asses having been worked off holding down two shifts at the iron foundry or whatever factory, for the first time in their lives they can afford to buy meat. From the beloved family butcher to the dinner table in their own two-story duplex in the Italian part of town with a new flock of grandchildren and expanded family living upstairs. Oh yeah, and just enough room for a backyard garden with the Eastern clay soil and sticky, humid summers that tomatoes seem to love. (You can smell a sweet Jersey/NY/PA tomato in August from 20 feet away. Serious.) So the nonas have a ball with their expanded food budgets, gardens and neighborhood import delis. Don’t get me wrong. Remember, they had just survived TWO world wars, a depression, and a disease-ridden trip across the ocean with a few dollars on hand. Death and starvation spawn amazing cooks. Holds true for ALL of the world’s cultures. My nona and her friends were foragers in the summertime. Wild dandelions, rhubarb, onions from the empty lots down the street wrapped in their aprons. Trading homegrown tomatoes for backyard pears or handmade pasta. Always making do for a large family with very little and wasting nothing. The thought of their strength and perseverance still gives me hope for this world. “Get together, one more time” – Jim Morrison

1965: Everyday at 5p.m. in my newly built Upstate suburban neighborhood, the air smells like sausage and peppers frying. Tomato and basil simmering. Eggplant and zucchini baking. Every family’s sauce is slightly different from the next. The Modafferi meat sauce didn’t have garlic in it, so the myriad of possible side courses—meatballs, braciolla (stuffed steak rolls usually included on Sunday) and sauteed greens that had lots of garlic included really stood out against the sweet sauce. Store-bought, canned tomatoes are allowed, sometimes even admired, for their sweetness and convenience when the home canned tomatoes ran out in springtime. Every nona (now in their 70s) thinks she is the best cook around. And actually they ALL are the best cooks around. Unbelievably good food. Pass it on.

2005: Here is a simplified, reasonable facsimile of Rose’s rich, meat and fat laden sauce. Give yourself a full day’s time to do this properly. It needs constant tending. Your kitchen will most likely end up being a greasy, tomato splattered mess. If you live in Southern California like me, keep in mind the brutally cold East Coast winters can almost stretch to six months long, and it’s hard to eat like this as often in the consistently warm climate of the Southwest. The same holds true for the Northern European cuisine that my German dad cooked so well. But HA, that’s another page, in another issue, of this wonderful rag: Arthur.

You’ll only need:

1.5 pound of whatever pork meat is on sale this week. (cheap chops, ribs, neckbones. Or no bone necessary. Some fat with meat attached.)
1.5 pound Italian pork sausage (most store brands are acceptable. Look for clues; if you can see fennel seeds and red pepper flakes, that’s good)
2 chopped med. onions
1/4 cup olive oil
2- 28 oz. cans tomato puree (save the empty cans, I’ll explain)
2- 6 oz. cans tomato paste
20 oz. of water (2/3 full of the empty can that you will later use for skimmed fat. The other for your spoon rest.)
1/2 cup (7-8 leafs) fresh, torn basil (or, if you have to use dried,1 tbsp)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbs sugar (none admit it, but most nonas use it)

In a heavy, large saucepan that you know won’t burn easily,(at least 10 qt. to give you lots of room for stirring and meat) thoroughly brown the pork meat and sausage on medium heat. Remove the cooked meat and sausage. Set aside. Leave the fat and browned renderings on the bottom of the pot.

Add chopped onions and olive oil. This process will deglaze the bottom of the pot and turn the onions brown quickly. Saute’ until onions soften and go transparent.

Add tomato paste and a few tablespoons of water. This mixture of paste, onions, fat and renderings needs to be constantly stirred. It will spit and glop like lava. It’s alive. Don’t let it stick. In about 10 minutes the paste will seem to change from its original dark red color to a lighter orange. Apparently, this is a sign from St. Anthony (patron saint of big eaters) that the sugar and acidity levels in the tomato paste have reached their perfect balance. When Mario Batali mentioned the color change a few years ago on Molto Mario, that’s the moment I knew he was for real. This is secret knowledge of the Southern Italian Ragu Illuminati. (Now formerly secret knowledge.) This is food alchemy.

Now add the two large cans of tomato puree and 2/3 can of water. Stir in thoroughly. Lower heat to a very low simmer. Cover. Take a breath. The grease and paste splattering battle of the last hour has calmed. Clean up the stove and kitchen a few minutes. Keep an eye on the sauce. “Feel” the bottom with your spoon to always make sure no sticking is happening.

Add pork meat and sausage back to sauce.

Add basil, salt, peppers, sugar.

Play your fave CDs, put Leave it to Beaver on TVLand in the background. Gently stir and feel every 10 minutes and cook covered at a very low simmer boil for about five hours. During all of this period lots of the water will start to evaporate. Fat will rise to the top. The sauce will thicken.

Start to skim. We wanted all of the fat to start with, but now we don’t want it too greasy. The once-empty can will now be about a third full of skimmed fat.

By now, the pork meat and sausage will be almost tenderly falling apart and infiltrated with the sweet tomato sauce. Boil your pasta water.

Lordy. Cook your favorite pasta shape.

This was served on Thursday and Sunday at nona’s house. The men usually liked the heavier Rigatoni, Rotelle (‘springs’) and homemade Gnocchi shapes. And always a platter of spaghetti too. Always topped with grated Locatelli romano. (Available at the Monte Carlo/Pinnochio Italian Deli in Burbank on Magnolia. Go there.)

Eat. Have a heart attack. Enjoy.

Note: I had promised Jay Babcock a meatball recipe and the world’s best pineapple upside-down cake recipe. But alas, I’m going back to sleep now. Hope I’m invited back. Bye.