The Alpha Male in my life was still asleep. He’d leave later that day, on the 12:30 pm train, Vermont to New York.
I knew, when he awoke, that we would almost surely dalliance (which I wanted as much as he would). I also knew we would inevitably run short on time.
And yet, I also wanted to make him a good farewell breakfast.
I thought I’d get it started while he still slept. Then I’d come back upstairs, and see if he was awake, and then…
Hmmm: what dish would lend itself to this plan?
I decided to make Featherbed Eggs.
Or, my version of same. I had leftover cornbread, a key ingredient.
I’d learned Featherbed Eggs — a not-uncommon layered, do-ahead savory breakfast bread pudding —in its original form from the late Marion Cunningham. It’s in her 1987 The Breakfast Book, my copy of which is well-used and well-loved. Everyone else, including me, had called the dish “strata,” and I had made less-inspired versions of it. But I loved Marion’s cozy, inviting renaming, as well as the simplicity and clarity of her directions, and it opened me up to the dish’s possibilities.
I’d rung many changes on her Featherbed Eggs over the years. Especially the years back when I — with my late husband, Ned — had owned and run an inn, Dairy Hollow House, in the Ozark Mountain spa town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
In that period, that time and place, Featherbed Eggs, made in the manner I finally deemed perfect, was in regular and triumphant rotation.
I believe it was Ned who came up with the brilliant idea of using leftover cornbread rather than conventional wheaten bread.
From there, going in a Southwesterly direction seemed obvious. Green chilies for a bit of heat, little dabs of cream cheese or Neufchatel, to make nice little surprising pockets of creaminess mitigating that heat, giving each bite of the baked casserole its own pleasure. Serving it with a nice fresh pico de gallo-ish cilantro’d salsa on the side was a further natural progression.
But where was my recipe that morning in Vermont?
Though I remembered Featherbed Eggs clearly, it had been a while since I’d made them. I wanted the exact egg-milk-cornbread proportions.
I’ve published my version of the dish twice, once in Passionate Vegetarian, once in The Cornbread Gospels, attributing the recipe title to Marion both times (the attribution is in PV, but sadly, and not by my choice, was lost to editing in CG).
Aggravatingly enough, neither of my working kitchen copies of these books (my own books!) were at hand. I didn’t want to trash a brand new copy from my supply.
My Mac, however, was nearby.
I thought, “Well, probably someone somewhere on the net has reposted that recipe.”
It begins, “No matter what paroxysms of joy are brought on by various cornbreads over the next months (years) investigating The Cornbread Gospels, the book’s most useful contribution to my life will probably be the myriad of leftover cornbread recipes it provides.”
What cookbook author would not be delighted! Paroxysms, indeed!
I must have known about this post at the time (2009) and I hope, if I did, that I wrote and thanked Laura. But if so, I’d forgotten it. (If not, then right now, thank you, Laura).
And oh, it was beyond pleasing to find it, just like that.
What Laura posted was not exactly my recipe, as she states, but it was close enough that I could make what I wanted successfully.
So. I got the Featherbed Eggs made, and the pico, and I preheated the oven. But should I put them in? They’d bake for half an hour. How long after he woke would we be…?
I decided to leave them out.
Sometime later, upstairs: “Okay, before we get too deeply involved here, I made a casserole for breakfast, it has to bake 30 minutes. Should I go put it in the oven now, or…? ”
He said, “Go ahead and do it now.” I pattered downstairs and slid the dish in and came back upstairs.
30 minutes later the timer on his phone rang. Good timing for the Featherbeds, bad timing dalliance-wise. He looked down at me. “I’ll get it out of the oven. You stay here.” (Like I was going anywhere). He pattered down. I heard him open the oven door, slide out the dish, set it down, patter back up.
“Were they puffy?” I asked.
“Very puffy,” he said. “Now, be quiet. Where was I?”
By the time we got down to breakfast, it was almost 11:00. I quickly sautéed some of the Field Roast vegetarian soysage with apple and sage, and put a pretty little pile of fresh watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, and a wheel of orange on one side of the plate.
“Wow,” he said, taking a bite. “And what is this? Whatever it is, it’s really good. ” I told him what it was, and about finding Laura’s post. too.
A nice well-done-thou-good-and-faithful-servant moment for any cookbook author: you make one of your own recipes after not having done it for a while, and you go, Oh! This is good.
I sometimes get asked about how it feels seeing my material used online. I have mostly learned to love and be flattered by seeing my recipes used and referenced thus. I do get miffed is if someone quotes the whole thing word for word in its direct entirety without adding anything original of their own, and without attribution — without so much as a “this recipe originally appeared in…” or “this was inspired by… “
Now that is just plain rude.
But most people are not rude.
And it helps spread the word: not only about my book, but about good food, and a particular good recipe, and how to cook, and improvising to taste. Laura, in her writing and photographs, used my recipe to bring out and sing out her own personal creativity and storytelling in cooking as well as writing.
And we then, most likely, reinvent, and pass on further the inspiration or information we received, teaching others.
Cooking is a fluid art, changed by cooks. And I think this is a truth everyone who is learning to cook is served by understanding.
All recipes, like all lives, are works in progress.
We are, all of us, always, students and teachers.
Eating his Featherbeds at my oak dining room table, brought from Arkansas, a table that had once been in the inn;s restaurant, my guy said to me, “Now I see why you asked me if they were puffy. ”
Because, by the time we got downstairs to eat them, they weren’t.
I slid the laptop over to him. “See what Laura said,” I told him.
He skimmed her post and came to the next to last line. ” ‘Bake until the eggs are set and a little puffy–although Dragonwagon warns the puff will sink when the dish is pulled out of the oven.'”
He looked at me. “You warned them,” he said.
“I did.” I said. “And I’m warning you; we have to leave for the train in about 15 minutes.”
He made his train.
I came back home after dropping him there and seeing him off.
Bittersweet, always. I washed the breakfast dishes, made the bed. Moved back from partnered life rhythms to those that are solo. The transition is always disorienting, a little sad.
Then, within a few hours, I get reoriented. I get happy again.
That night, as he was arriving at his apartment in New York, I had the leftover Featherbed Eggs, cold, for dinner, on top of my hilltop.