One of my early mentors and friends in food writing was the late Marie Rudisill, whom you may have known as the outrageously frank Fruitcake Lady on The Tonight Show. Her first and best advice was, "Don't change your phone number, sugar: Half the fun you're gonna have from this thing is the phone calls you'll get."
The trouble was—and is—that I chose a profession that imposes solitude for a reason. I'm not outgoing by nature. But she was right; the best compensation for being reluctantly pushed into the public eye is that rare, unexpected call or letter that comes out of nowhere and lifts the spirit just when you need it most.
Over the years, they've sparked many treasured friendships, but none has meant more than the one that bloomed over a duck. Specifically, one that had been boned, stuffed with a boned chicken, and in turn stuffed into a boned turkey and roasted.
One day while typing away at some neglected correspondence, an email came in from the west coast. The sender's address wasn't familiar, and sure enough, it turned out to be someone I didn't know from Adam's housecat. The introvert demurred, but she'd addressed me as Mr. Fowler and signed with her full name, Dorothy Haase. Two points for her. I read on.
She was writing about that unlikely three-bird union, which goes by the equally unlikely name of turducken. It seemed to her that it was an awful lot of work for a rather questionable result. Did it have a long tradition, did people really eat such a thing down South? Had I ever made it and, if so, was it as much trouble as it looked, and more to the point, worth it?
I confess that the introvert was ready to dismiss it with a polite answer that I'd never made such a thing and didn't plan to start. But then she reeled me in. Her nephew, on no more authority than having once lived in Alabama, had pompously informed her that Southerners didn't eat duck, ergo the thing could not possibly be Southern.
The Southern Food Historian leapt out of its cage—talons extended—and was not going back. Those talons hit the keys and fired off a long, detailed response. In case you're interested (and you know it won't stop me even if you aren't), turducken is indeed a real Southern thing, though not of long-standing tradition. It was created by the late legendary Chef Paul Prudhomme.
As for Southerners not eating duck—with or without a chicken in its belly and a turkey wrapped around it—then why, I testily pointed out, did her idiot nephew think there were gun racks on two out of every three pickups in the South and duck calls in every sporting goods store? I signed off as (Mr.) Damon Fowler. Her warm thank you was signed (Mrs.) Dorothy Haase.
Thus began a correspondence and friendship that has lasted for decades. After all that time, like George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Campbell, we are still Mrs. Haase/Mrs. H and Mr. Fowler/Mr. F. Yet I treasure her friendship more deeply than some who presume to my first name.
What we share is ordinary. There are special moments, but mostly it's the mundane details of our lives. She writes of her two lovely grown daughters and grandchildren, Dungeness crab, a spouse known between us only as The Husband, and an almost insatiable appetite for reading and cooking. Occasionally, she asks about an unfamiliar ingredient or technique. I answer when I can, fess up when I can't, and share my own day-to-day routine and bits of my fiction for her razor-sharp discernment.
I don't know exactly what she gets out of these exchanges, but I'm inspired by her plainspoken common sense, her clean instincts about good cooking and writing, and more than once have been led by her adventurous spirit to explore something new or rediscover a neglected favorite.
Of all the foods we've shared, the one that perfectly illustrates our relationship is fish tacos, which, for one reason or another, I'd never eaten. And had it not been for Mrs. H, I probably never would have. But when she mentioned her fondness for them, it piqued my appetite and interest. I asked her to share her recipe, and I not only made her fish tacos, but fell in love with them. Now they're a regular part of this Southern boy's kitchen repertory.
Over the years, the influence of Latin American cooks have crept into my version, but I make them with Mrs. H on my mind and in my heart, and am warmed.
My Fish Tacos
This old favorite of Mexico's Baja Peninsula has long ago become a part of American cooking north of the Rio Grande and are perfect summer fare. Here, the fish is sautéed, but breaded and fried or grilled fish are also great. Choose a firm, white-fleshed fish such as grouper or snapper that will hold together when it's sautéed.
For 8 tacos, serving 4
1 pound firm, thick-cut white-fleshed fish fillets such as grouper or snapper
3 limes, 1 halved and juiced and 2 cut into wedges
Chipotle chile powder (available at specialty grocers) or regular chili powder
About 2 teaspoons olive or vegetable oil
8 corn or flour tortillas (your choice)
2 cups finely shredded iceberg lettuce
2-3 green onions, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced, or 1 cup diced red onion
1 large or 2 medium ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and diced
1-2 ripe Hass avocados, peeled, pitted, diced, and tossed in a little lime juice
Lime Crema (recipe follows)
1. Cut the fish into bite-sized dice. Sprinkle with lime juice, toss, and season lightly with salt and chili powder. Gently toss until all sides are evenly coated.
2. Film a 10-12-inch non-stick or seasoned iron skillet or sauté pan with oil and warm it over medium heat. Add the fish and raise the heat to medium-high. Sauté, tossing occasionally, until it's just cooked through, about 2-3 minutes. Remove it from the heat and transfer it to a wide, shallow bowl or plate.
3. Meanwhile, warm a griddle or non-stick pan over medium heat for at least 3-4 minutes. Lay 1 tortilla eon it and quickly heat it through, turning once (about 15-20 seconds per side). Remove it to a plate and spoon some of the fish down its center. Top with lettuce, tomato, and avocado, which I like to finish with a light sprinkle of salt and chili powder before drizzling with lime crema. Serve with hot sauce and wedges of lime on the side.
Lime Crema for Tacos
Makes about 1¾ cups
½ cup mayonnaise
1 cup sour cream or whole milk Greek yogurt
1 medium clove garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or oregano
Chipotle chile powder
1. Blend together the mayonnaise and sour cream. With a microplane grater, grate the zest from both limes into it. Lay a knife blade flat on top of the garlic. Give it a firm tap to lightly crush the clove, then peel and roughly chop it. Sprinkle it lightly with salt and rub it to a paste with the edge of the knife blade. Add it to the bowl.
2. Halve and juice 1 lime into the sauce, then mix it in along with the herb and a light sprinkle of the chili powder. Let it stand 15 minutes, then taste and add lime juice, chili powder, and salt as needed. It can be made up to 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate until needed.