Who expects to have one of the top 10 meals of their lives at a book launch party? That was the thought running through my head as I left Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. Wednesday night after a Bon Appetit- and Band of Outsiders-hosted dinner celebrating the publication of Kevin West's book "Saving the Season: A Cook's Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving," a confluence of culinary magic the likes of which I've rarely experienced.
The Southern-flavored feast -- served family-style to a hundred seated guests at two long intersecting tables -- was whipped up by Horse Thief BBQ, one of the soon-to-open new additions to the Grand Central Market mix. The first course included deviled eggs with roasted red pepper relish, Tennessee bruschetta ("killed" greens with pickled ramps and Benton's country ham), Flora Bella arugula and pickled okra, the okra and ramps pickled by guest of honor Kevin West himself.
The second course included heaping platters of barbecue, including beef brisket, pork spareribs, pulled pork and pork belly; fennel slaw; macaroni and cheese; beans with confetti relish -- all accompanied by dill pickles and zucchini spears, also pickled at the hand of West.
No detail of the dinner seemed too small to make perfect, from the bottles of Mountain Valley Spring Water on the table (the brand, which dates to 1871, was, according to a company rep we met at the dinner, "the only water Elvis would drink") to the slabs of butter that landed on the table to herald the arrival of dessert.
When whispers started circulating around the table that the butter had been home-churned and flown down from Northern California for the occasion, we had to find out the provenance. When we found West he explained that the butter had indeed been made for him by a friend up north (something like a college roommate who worked at Chez Panisse; by the time we chatted with West we were nearing a butter coma) and flown down in the custody of Louesa Roebuck, whom West explained was the person responsible for the flowers and tendrils of grapevines decorating the space.
And that wasn't even the most down-home and over-the-top part of the dessert, either. Thanks to an introduction by Valerie Gordon, namesake owner of Valerie's at Grand Central, we had a chance to learn the back story of the biscuits that would bring our night to an end and linger long in our memories. Shortly before dinner, Gordon ushered us back to the kitchen of her stall in the market, which she had lent to the evening's cause, where a bespectacled fellow with salt-and-pepper hair stood at the kitchen table manhandling a chunk of dough the size of a toddler. "Meet Scott Peacock," Gordon whispered with nothing short of awe.
How did the award-winning chef of American Southern cuisine, co-author of "The Gift of Southern Cooking," and contributing editor and columnist for Better Homes and Gardens, end up as a one-night-only, behind-the-scenes biscuit baker at the Grand Central Market? West would later elaborate on that for us too.
"We were introduced, digitally, by Alice Waters," West explained, "and we emailed back and forth and really hit it off and I asked him to write a blurb for my book. He agreed to fly in and make the biscuits for me because today, the publication date of the book, is also my Gran’s birthday."
As Peacock worked feverishly on the biscuits (we were later told he had only about a 20-minute window from the time the last batch of biscuits came out of the oven before he had to head to LAX to catch a flight back to Atlanta), we had a chance to find out what what went into the biscuits -- and what didn’t. "I use homemade baking powder," Peacock told us. "Commercial baking powder has aluminum salts in it; I can taste it." He's also a stickler about the provenance of his lard. "I only use lard from pigs that come from Georgia and Alabama."
Were the biscuits worth the effort? I'd say so. And so did the rapidly emptying serving plates. The combination of the biscuit -- split open and topped with a pat of of the home-churned butter and finished off with a spoonful of West's Blenheim apricot jam (blackberry jam with Bandol was also on offer) -- was the night’s culinary coup de grace.
If what's between the covers of "Saving the Season" ends up even remotely approaching the caliber of the dinner that celebrated its publication, West’s career as a canning wunderkind has just begun.