I’ve a good friend, Lola-Mae Flannagan, just as Southern and Irish as she sounds. These past many years she’s been separated from the South Carolina of her childhood by way of a failed marriage that was disapproved of from the start (he was a biker bum from Jersey) and the loss of both her legs above the knee after a motorcycle accident which all but killed her. Her husband, who was supposed to be in charge of the Harley that took them over the high side, walked away without a scratch; physically and from her. She didn’t.
Today she lives in a small ranch in the town I used to live in before I left for the coast and she has made a life for herself as a gifted still-life photographer. More personally, I consider her to be a mentor in the kitchen, especially in the way that she considers and explains the different elements of any dish she’s working on. One yesterday afternoon of a long time ago I called to see if there was anything I could pick up for her as I was going to the market and things led to another, as they will, and we all ended up having dinner at her house. You fly, I’ll buy she often says, to which I always answer you cook, I’ll look.
She made a lemon and artichoke pesto, mixed it in with two ripe tomatoes that had been cut into small pieces and braised with a finely chopped Vidalia onion and some minced garlic. A little white wine. A pound and a half of fresh shrimp. All tossed in the wok with some Kosher flat noodles, but just before the noodles were allowed on the field, she took a pinch of cayenne pepper and dusted it across the pesto mixture and then we ate.
“Cayenne pepper is like a moral authority for some dishes. Gives them spine. But the amount must be just right.”
I allowed that I couldn’t actually taste the cayenne, didn’t get that (to me pleasurable) hot bite on top of the other flavors.
“More often than not cayenne should be the pixie dust of cooking. You need just enough to do its job with no trace or evidence on the tongue to show it was ever there. Angels leave no footprints in the butter.”
It was delicious and I finally understood I needed to stop my arbitrary rough-shaking of cayenne into everything. And Lola-May is an angel, footprints or otherwise.