We all have different definitions of comfort food—the dishes that make up those meals that leave our bellies (and our hearts) full. They are the dishes you crave when you are far from home; a hankering for something familiar and soothing. For me, this includes an array of casserole dishes, fresh garden vegetables, and my Gram Perkins’ egg salad.
When Davia and Nikki of The Kitchen Sisters agreed to be our featured chefs this month as part of our ongoing Factory Café Chef Series, I started browsing through my copy of Hidden Kitchens. Soon, I found myself totally immersed in the stories I’d heard on the radio years before. I began re-telling stories to the staff at The Factory, and we were all excited about a recipe I found in the chapter about NASCAR kitchens, titled “Slap It On the Thighs Butter Bar”—aptly named, since the ingredients called for yellow cake mix, egg, margarine, powered sugar, and cream cheese. The recipe was originally from the 25th anniversary edition of the Winston Cup Racing Wives’ Auxiliary Cookbook, published in 1989. Curious to know what other comfort food recipes from the kitchens of racing existed, we tracked down a copy of the book on Ebay.
The Grand National Racing Wives’ Auxiliary was started as a way to build relationships with families of race car drivers, and to create a community of emotional and financial support. Often, the auxiliary raised money for families dealing with the injury or death of a driver. The most successful fundraising effort was a series of cookbooks, filled with classic potluck recipes, popular among the racing circuit.
Below, the Kitchen Sisters, share their encounter with the hidden, mobile kitchens of NASCAR:
Nobody expects to hear “NASCAR” and “great food” in the same sentence. National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is primarily about the other senses: the smell of fuel, the glare of blinding sun on a stock car’s hood, the feel of sweat collecting under the bill of a baseball cap, the numbing sound of engines revving and tools clanging in the crew pit.
But the NASCAR tribe is on the move for some forty weeks of the year, from Lincoln’s Birthday to Thanksgiving, traveling from the Budweiser Shootout at Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to the Subway Fresh 500 in Phoenix, Arizona, and on and on. One race really takes up an entire weekend, between settling in and the qualifying heats followed by the actual race and then breaking down the setup to travel to the next speedway. Nobody actually wants to eat hot dogs for three days straight, not the drivers, not the pit crew, not the scorers, not the mechanics – not when racing has become big business and drivers train like athletes.
This is a loud, noisy workplace on wheels, a migrant industry, and the hundreds of people who populate it are almost always hungry. In fact, NASCAR is all about meals. It is the home of the ham ball and the polka-dot salad, of a smoked quarter of a cow and a dessert table that won’t quit, of high-carb, low-carb, and trucks full of produce. Kitchens sprout in between the haulers that carry the cars or inside a tagalong trailer. They hook up to a power source, and then they move on.
“We’re always in one of the corners in the NASCAR garage,” shouts chef Ken Enck over the deafening roar of the track. “If you look for the hardest place to find, you’ll find us. We’re down here in the corner, right on turn three, up against the fence. You’ve got to know, to know where to find this kitchen.”
Listen to the entire NASCAR Hidden Kitchens story on NPR.
The Grand National Racing Wives’ Auxiliary cookbook includes recipes for favorite race day dishes. (Think tailgating, but at a loud and bustling racetrack.) We are currently serving a version of Mrs. Marcia Parsons’ green bean casserole in The Factory Café, alongside local greens and kale and apple chips. Enjoy this simple comfort food in your home kitchen.
GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
Yields 9 servings
2 cups celery soup
3 1/4 cups green beans, roasted
1/4 cup gruyere, shredded
2 tablespoons French fried onions
Yields about 1 quart
1 1/4 cup celery, chopped
6 1/3 cup mornay sauce
Yields 3 quarts
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
6 cups whole milk
4 1/4 cup heavy cream
4 whole thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 cup gruyere, shredded
Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Pinch of nutmeg, grated
Melt butter in pan, stirring in the flour. Let cook for about a minute, until the flour develops a nutty aroma. Whisk in the milk and heavy cream, until no lumps are visible. Add in herbs and garlic; let simmer for about 8 minutes, stirring consistently.
While the mixture simmers, place the shredded gruyere, kosher salt, and black pepper in a separate bowl.
When the cream mixture is done, strain it into the gruyere and whisk until the cheese is completely melted. Top with grated nutmeg.
French Fried Onions
Yields about 1 quart
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
Black pepper, to taste
Paprika, to taste
2 cups onions, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups olive oil (for frying)
In a bowl, mix first four dry ingredients well. Set aside.
Toss the onions in dry mixture, coating evenly.
Heat the olive oil over medium- high heat. Test the temperature of the oil by tossing in an onion or two. Fry onions until golden brown. Drain on towel; let cool.
To prepare the casserole:
Roast the green beans, and then combine with soup and cheese in a casserole dish. Mix well.
Bake at 400 degrees for 7 minutes; top with onions and cook an additional 3 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.