Wednesday 30 April 2014

Chicken and Ham Croquettes

One of my favourite novels when I was younger was Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. It's probably still one of my favourites, but I don't read as much as when I was a teenager, and I don't really read "the classics" any more - I was a bit studious (and pretentious) as a teenager I think!
Look Homeward, Angel is a 1929 coming-of-age novel, and highly autobiographical. The book tells the story of Eugene Gant, a precocious, sensitive young boy born into a family of larger-than-life characters who run a boarding house in Altamont - a fictionalised version of Wolfe's own home town, Asheville in North Carolina.
The novel is written in a sprawling stream of consciousness style and the language is both very much of its time and reflective of Eugene's romanticism and pretention, with paragraphs like "Come up into the hills, O my young love. Return! O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again, as first I knew you in the timeless valley, where we shall feel ourselves anew, bedded on magic in the month of June."
The author and his mother (my photo of a framed picture in their house)
But that's to take it out of context of course, and when I first read this novel - I was au pair to a German-American woman who had studied at school and I borrowed it from her bookshelf - I was swept away by the beauty and somehow importance of the language and the ideas. The opening lines of the novel are particularly weighty and memorable:
“. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”
I'm sure I've lost some of you there so should probably reiterate that this really is an outstanding novel, the author's masterpiece and most famous work (admittedly he died young, but it is in the canon of great American literature).
My photo of the author's writing
Fast forward 15 or so years and I was planning a road trip to my boyfriend across four or five US states, starting in Baltimore (where I was going for work), travelling as far as we could in just under a week and looping back round to finish in Washington D.C. We knew that we had time to venture as far as North Carolina and I was researching what we might do there, and came across somewhere called the Biltmore Estate - the Vanderbilt property that is the largest house in America. It actually turned out to be similar to many stately homes I've visisted in England and not actually any bigger than a lot of them, but for America it is quite unique. Anyway, Biltmore is in a small town called Asheville, which rang absolutely no bells at all until I was reading up on other things to do there - and came across the Thomas Wolfe house. I almost fell off my chair (literally) when I realised this was the Altamont I had read of - it is portrayed in such accurate detail in the novel and was so true to the real Asheville that I knew we had to go there. And when I discovered we could visit "the most famous boarding house in American literature" (NY Times) there was really no question. I'm not suer my boyfriend particularly appreciated the hour-long tour of what is not a particularly big house as the guide made continued references to the author and the book, which he had not read! But I was very excited to know I was standing where Eugene Grant - and in fact Thomas Wolfe himself - had grown up and that this was the inspiration for the novel.
The boarding house in Asheville

 What has all this got to do with food, I hear you ask.... I often like to cook dishes inspired by fiction, whether it is books or films (the latter as I take part in the monthly Food 'n' Flix challenge). This month Chris at Cooking Around the World and Galina from Chez Maximka are hosting a new challenge, called Read, Cook, Eat - the idea being to make a dish based on any book. That's quite a wide brief, but after my trip to Asheville I knew I had to make something from Look Homeward, Angel.
The book is full of food - mainly family meals cooked and eaten in the boarding house, though there are also passages describing how the paying guests ate in the dining room while Eugene and his siblings were squeezed into the pantry. There are very evocative descriptions of food as Eugene absorbs everything around him and describes the food in as much detail as he describes everything else.
In the gift shop of the Thomas Wolfe Museum I was thrilled to find a recipe book called "Papa loved hot biscuits and corn bread - recipes from the Old Kentucky Home" (the name of the boarding house in the novel). It was put together by the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Advisory Committee and in the book was a recipe for croquettes, which I decided to make. I adapted the recipe a little, to leave out the mushrooms as we don't like them, and the celery salt as I didn't have any. I've also rewritten the recipe in my own words.
To serve two, you need:
Two chicken breasts, cooked, or equivalent amount of leftover cooked chicken
100g cooked ham
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp chopped fresh parsley
1 egg 
about 50g plain flour
about 200g dried breadcrumbs
1 cup croquette sauce - see below.
For the croquette sauce:
4 tbsp butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup plain flour
1 cup milk or cream

First make the sauce. In a small pan melt the butter, add the flour and stir until blended. Gradually add milk, stirring continually. Bring to the boil and simmer for two minutes then remove from the heat and allow to cool.

To make the croquettes, place the chicken and ham in a food processor with the salt and the parsley and pulse until you have almost a pate. Then stir in the croquette sauce; if there is room in your food processor you can blend again.

 Shape the mixture into balls.

Crack an egg into a shallow dish and beat it and place the breadcrumbs in another.

Roll the croquette in flour then in beaten egg then roll in the breadcrumbs until coated. Repeat with each croquette.

Fry or oven bake until golden brown.

Only a couple of these per person are very filling. They are definitely better homemade than from the freezer cabinet too!
 I'm sending these to Chris at Cooking Around the World and Galina from Chez Maximka


  1. Very very intriguing you have there from the beginning of the book. It's still in my head now. For sure those croquettes are very delicious. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Splendid essay on the novel and your own adventures! Love the recipe, and you are so enthusiastic about the book, I want to read it. Thank you for the wonderful poetic entry!

  3. I have never read the book, must pick it up now. That house looks fascinating and love the croquettes as well, they look lovely

  4. makes sense ,now i have read it all. the croquettes look good.


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