The first person to greet me when I got off the plane in Libreville the day I arrived in Gabon in July 1996 was Peace Corps country director Frank Conlon.  Tall, slim, and stately, he reached out a welcoming hand to me, smiled genuinely, and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

 

Up to that moment, I’d been feeling anxious, disheveled, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, and much older than my 51 years.  Frank’s unexpected words made me feel, in addition, flattered, curious, and confused.  Why?” I asked him, hoping his response might help to ground me.  But there was a long line behind me of new recruits for him to greet, and he couldn’t linger.  Instead, he quickly hinted that “they” had “an idea” for me.

 

“Oh,” I said, reeling from fatigue and the weighty tropical heat.  “Okay.”

 

Word had spread in the Peace Corps bureau that I had been both a caterer and a cooking teacher in New York.  The latest issue of Vogue magazine, which had somehow found its way to Libreville, featured an hors d’oeuvre recipe I’d created for an all-American Thanksgiving dinner I’d cooked at New York’s James Beard Foundation, which had become one of my catering company’s signature hors d’oeuvres:  Mini BLT’s on Toast.  My culinary “fame” had preceded me.

 

The “idea” that “they” had in mind, it turned out, was for me to teach cooking to my group of incoming PCV-trainees during our ten-week training period in Libreville.   Attendance would be voluntary, and I could teach whatever I wished.  Did I like the idea? Frank asked.  Sounds good to me, I said.

 

So, during the course of our training — and subsequent newcomers’ trainings as well — I offered three-hour cooking classes, under the banner of what I called “Survival Cooking.”

 

I chose to teach the basics, assuming few had learned to cook at their mother’s knee and even fewer had ever been to cooking school.  I taught them how to shop and stock a kitchen pantry; how to read a recipe; how to prep all ingredients beforehand –what the French call mise-en-place; how to measure, chop, mince, and julienne; how to mix, blend, stir, and fold; how to test for doneness and how to season to taste.  I stressed M.F.K. Fisher’s philosophy, as she expressed it in How To Cook a Wolf:  “Since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto.”  I’m happy to report today that these classes were well received.

 

I did not teach then – but I’ll share now – the hors d’oeuvre recipe printed in Vogue, as well as in Mitchell Davis’ marvelous cookbook, Cook Something (Macmillian, 1997).  Frankly, dainty hors d’oeuvres were the last things we PCVs hungered for in that hot and steamy Central African rainforest.  But here and now, as the weather is quickly cooling and Thanksgiving is fast approaching, you might want to serve these before your Thanksgiving feast – and raise a glass to James Beard, “the father of American gastronomy,” to whom I dedicated this recipe.

 

Mini BLT’s on Toast

1 loaf thinly sliced white sandwich bread, crusts removed

½ head iceberg lettuce, very finely chopped

½ pound sliced bacon, cooked well, drained, and finely crumbled

1 pound ripe Italian tomatoes, seeded (but not skinned) and finely diced

¼ cup Hellman’s mayonnaise (no substitutes allowed :-)

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Working one slice at a time, roll the bread as flat as you can with a rolling pin.  Cut each into several rounds with a 2” diameter cookie cutter (or into four squares, if you don’t have a round cookie cutter).  Press rounds gently into mini muffin tins (to form small cups), then toast in preheated oven until golden and crisp, about 10 minutes (but keep an eye on them).  Remove toast cups from muffin tins and cool on a rack.  In a medium bowl, combine the remaining ingredients, adding more mayo, if necessary, and taste for seasoning.  (The mixture should taste exactly like an old-fashioned BLT.)  Just before serving, put a dollop of the filling into each toast cup.  Makes about 30 hors d’oeuvres, enough (perhaps) for a party of 10.  

 

Happy Thanksgiving!