Getting Wrinkly With Martha!- Rum Raisin Shortbread!- 98 eggs, 78 cups of sugar, 76 sticks of Butter, and 87 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 118 recipes to go!

August 26, 2010

Martha's Rum Raisin Shortbread

André's Rum Raisin Shortbread

“It’s official. I’m a purist AND a cookie snob. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the rum raisin shortbread. In fact I had no trouble eating them all. But I can’t put it in the shortbread family because the buttery, melty pleasure of shortbread was overwhelmed by the chewiness of the raisins. Decent cookie. Wouldn’t crave it. Especially when I was in the mood for shortbread. I’d consider making them for the holidays…does that count?”

-The Baroness Von Shortbread

Well, there you have it. The Baroness’ review doesn’t really surprise me. I baked a batch of these cookies as a fond farewell to a co-worker who is heading on to greener pastures. I wanted a cookie that was unmistakably adult so Rum Raisin seemed the perfect solution. It’s a tasty cookie and one I would make again, but as far as having the Je ne sais quoi of a buttery shortbread, as the name promises, it’s a bit disappointing.

The recipe doesn’t really call for raisins precisely. Currants are Martha’s dried fruit of choice. What are currants? Technically a currant is a small berry that grows on shrubs throughout Europe and Asia. Their cultivation in the United States was banned until 2003 due to fear of them carrying a disease that would seriously impact the timber industry. It is because of this ban, most currants consumed and grown in the United States are, in fact, raisins derived from Zante grapes. The Zante Currant is cultivated from small, black, seedless grapes named from their Greek geographical origin, Zakynthos island.  The term, Currant, is an Anglicized pronunciation/spelling from the French Raisin du Corinth. There’s a bit of useless trivia you can use to impress and/or alienate friends and family.

I began preparing the currants for this recipe three days in advance of baking. I put a cup and a half of currants in the fridge submerged in dark rum and let the flavors infuse. After draining, I added them to a simple shortbread dough made of flour, butter, salt, vanilla extract and powdered sugar. I then rolled the dough into logs and refrigerated them until firm. They were then sliced into 1/8 inch doubloons and baked until golden.

Rum always makes me think of pirates. Pirates make me think about treasure and treasure makes me think of an interview I conducted with an honest-to-God, genuine, bonafide treasure-hunter in 1999. Before I go on with this story, here is a excerpt from Lyle Saxon’s book from 1945, Gumbo Ya-Ya:

‘All buried treasure has got spirits watching over it. Like Lafitte. You know how he used to do? He would take five or six men along to hide his stuff, and he would tell them all but one who he was gonna have kilt. The one he picked was the one what would be the spirit to watch his treasure forever. After they buried all the gold and silver and jools, Lafitte would say very quiet, “Now, who’s gonna guard my stuff?” and the man who didn’t know no better would want to shine with his boss and he’d say, “I will.” Then he would get kilt. Of course, Lafitte didn’t shoot him, himself. He was the general and he always stayed in the back. You know how generals don’t never get near to where the shooting is at.’

It was my sixth season with Swine Palace Productions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the company wanted to create and perform an adaptation of the book, Gumbo Ya-Ya by Lyle Saxon. The book, published in 1945 under the Federal Writers’ Project – a tiny division of the WPA, was a collection of folk tales and cultural observances of the diverse and segmented people of Louisiana.

One chapter focused on buried treasure and recounted the stories of Louisiana treasure-hunters and the superstitions attached to its practice.

Again, from Mr. Saxon’s book-

Tom devotes himself exclusively to the supernatural angle of the treasure-hunting business. ‘I just masters them spirits,’ he says. ‘I don’t dig; anybody can do that. I just fights the spirits. There ain’t none of ’em can mess with me. There’s land spirits and there’s water spirits, and you gotta know how to talk to both kinds. The land spirits is bad and the water spirits is good. They got seven kinds of land spirits; that’s part of the trouble. There is bulls, lions, dogs, babies, snakes, persons and pearls. When you see a cat, that’s a bad one and if you ain’t careful your hole’s gonna lap up water right as you dig.’

I was curious. 1945 didn’t seem that long ago. I wondered if there were still a few treasure-hunters or spirit-controllers around. I did a little research. I called a friend of mine at the Times Picayune,  and asked if he’d heard of anyone. He said he’d put some feelers out and let me know.

A week had passed and I resigned myself to the conclusion that the treasure-hunting mystics of South Louisiana had all died off or got jobs with the chemical plants in Cancer Alley.  The phone rang. My friend told me there was a man, a reverend in Opelousas (pronounced Op-Uh-Loose-Us), Louisiana who still practiced as a spirit controller and treasure-hunter. His name was Rev. Darnell Fourcier and he lived with his grandson in a trailer park/brothel next to the railroad tracks down the road from the major industrial chemical plants.

I grabbed my video camera, my notebook, and a copy of Mr. Saxon’s book and headed an hour-and-a-half down the road to Opelousas. When I arrived at the trailer park I was greeted by a couple of teenage girls sitting in shorts and smoking on a wooden picnic bench.

“Ya here for business or pleasure?”- they giggled suggestively.

I politely waved and knocked on the Rev. Fourcier’s door. A young Creole man with golden skin and sparkling green eyes answered the door. It was a hot August day in Southern Louisiana and my host was wearing a pair of light blue boxers and a few tattoos that I later found out he acquired while serving a six month sentence at Angola State Penitentiary for burglary. Entering the tiny metal home I was first struck by a welcome blast of frosty, air-conditioned air, followed by the not-so-welcome blast of nag-champa incense mixed with pork fat and boiling mustard greens. The aroma was thick and nauseating. I held my breath, taking in only enough to sustain consciousness as I was guided to the kitchen where the Reverend sat before a steaming cup of coffee and a large, black leather bible opened to the Book of Psalms.

The Reverend was dressed in a floor-length, royal-purple cassock. A large, ornate, golden crucifix hung heavily around his shoulders dangling from a thick brass chain. His skin was as dark as skin can be and his yellowed eyes seemed to almost glow from behind thick, dark plastic-rimmed glasses. His hair receded into short, coils of white wire. He looked up, resting his sagging chin on his large, folded hands. Enormous golden rings inscribed with religious symbols decked almost every finger.

“Are you familiar with the book of Psalms?” – he asked with a frail and withered voice.

“A bit.” I replied.

“They were originally sung. They were songs, not psalms. They were prayers for the joyous. They were to please the ears of God. Not like that trash my grandson listens to.”

He smiled and beckoned me to sit. I explained what I was working on and I read to him from Lyle Saxon’s book. As we spoke I saw his smile broaden. No one came to see him about treasure hunting anymore. His ways, his beliefs, his superstitions were all but forgotten. He was truly the last of his kind. The last of the spirit controllers. The last of the treasure-hunters.  I set up my camera and we began the interview.

He spoke of learning this practice from his father. As a child he was born with a gift. He could sense demons. He knew when demons were present and his father would take him to locate demons in the swamps. If a demon was present, it was guarding a treasure. If you could wrestle the demon enough, you could shake the treasure away, if not, that demon would follow you and whatever good you tried to do with that treasure would be tainted. He spoke of his uncle who found a box containing $30,000 in Spanish gold protected by a demon spirit. He used the money to build a new home for his wife and four children. A week after they completed the home, the house caught fire in the middle of the night. His aunt, and his four cousins died. All that was left was a handful of gold coins. His uncle brought the coins to the reverend, and even though he was no more than twelve years old, he could see the demon walking behind his uncle. It was a pig. A wild boar with razor teeth and piercing red eyes. It was grunting and smiling. The reverend then told how, at age twelve, he wrestled that demon. He recounted the prayers and incantations. His voice grew louder and he stood to demonstrate how he grabbed the pig demon by the ears and threw him to the ground sending him back to hell and releasing the spirits of his Aunt and four cousins to be with their maker.

I am not a mystic. In fact, I am about as skeptical as a person can be without being a total cynic. I was, however, impressed by the Reverend’s conviction, passion, and storytelling skills.

“Would you like to see a treasure site?” – he asked.

I nodded enthusiastically.

“Well, c’mon then. But no cameras. The spirits wouldn’t like that.”

The Reverend and I hopped in my car and he guided me down towards the banks of the bayou to an abandoned farmhouse. Behind it was a dense marsh. I parked at the edge of the swamp and the Reverend guided me through the thick brush to a small clearing between a circle of moss-covered trees. There was no sound. No breeze.

“There’s spirits here. All of nature and earth is scared of them. But don’t you worry. You’re with me.”

He then began to shout in a nonsensical language that only the spirits would understand. I looked about at the trees surrounding the clearing. Enormous, wide, and perfect webs were spun neatly between each tree. At the center of each thick web rested a banana spider. Banana spiders are common in Louisiana, and even though they’re not venomous, they are imposing in size. An adult is slightly larger that a fully-extended human hand. Its thorax and abdomen is a rich yellow with black & brown tiger-stripe markings. Its legs look as though they were carved from shiny teak wood and its web is constructed with thick yellowish strands strong enough to capture adult birds and rodents.

The Reverend told me that the spirits were restless that day and we should go. He took a stick and used it to etch into the mud a large upside-down cross. He then grabbed my shoulders and kissed me on each cheek. He placed his hand over my heart and uttered a few words of jibberish. His eyes opened and we quickly headed back to the car.

I dropped him off at the trailer park which was starting to see more action in the late afternoon as plant workers began to stream in for a late afternoon rendezvous/transaction.

The reverend turned to shake my hand as he opened the car door.

“Many people don’t believe. That makes the demon stronger. If you don’t believe in the demon, believe in God. If you don’t believe in God, believe in good. If you don’t believe in good then you are the demon.”

I don’t believe in the supernatural.

I never really have.

Maybe I am a cynic.

But I believe in good.

André – 1 / Demons – 0

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