I recently took my first trip to New York City-an obvious hub of culture, history, art and society. My sister in law Diana, who also majored in English at Oregon State, was my traveling companion, and so the literary sites that sprung from around every corner were certainly not lost on either of us. Though the Shakespeare Garden in central park was cool and I enjoyed Walden Park in Brooklyn, it was a monument of different kind that most affected me.
Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness tells the story of two New Yorks: the past and present. The modern day and turn of the century versions of the city are connected through the, often, bleak and devastating backdrop of the subway tunnels.
Though initially a bit intimidated (give us a break…we were born and raised in the epitome of suburbia), Diana and I set out to tackle the NYC subway system. The sway of the cars, the intricate tile work on the walls, the smell of piss…my initial excitement at conquering this “beast” was replaced by solemn reflections of McCann’s novel, the best I’ve read in years. I thought of NathanWalker, the “sandhog,” who devoted his life to burrowing underground during the excavation of these tunnels, and of Treefrog, a homeless man who called these tunnels home.
This Side of Brightness is not a “happy” book and the characters’ lives offer little hope. Like many of us, however, the characters all dream of returning to their happy place or time…for Walker this means escaping New York for his boyhood home down south. He recalls romanticized memories of live oaks draped with Spanish moss, running down dirt roads without shoes, and eating his mother’s home cooked food.
I’m more than happy to indulge Walker in that which would bring him joy. So while a gin cocktail may seem the obvious pairing for this novel, I’ve elected, instead, for one of my favorite quintessentially southern foods: cheesy grits. It pairs well with shrimp or a simple roast chicken and goes great with biscuits.
3 cups vegetable stock
3 cups milk
1 ½ cup quick cooking grits
4 TBS butter
¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese
¼ cup shredded sharp cheese
¼ cup heavy cream
Place vegetable stock and milk in a large saucepan. Season stock with mixture of kosher salt and pepper. Add grits to the liquid and let sit for a about 5 minutes to begin hydration. Turn heat to medium high and bring to a simmer. Once liquid simmers, reduce heat to very low and continue to cook, whisking occasionally for about 40-60 minutes or until the liquid is mostly absorbed. If the consistency gets too thick, add more milk or stock.
Stir in butter, cheeses and heavy cream. Sprinkle with paprika. Serve warm.