Claiborne Peeled

Craig Claiborne seems overshadowed by James Beard and Julia Child, but Thomas McNamee’s biography The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance might change that.

Then again, it might not; though described by Betty Fussell as more “accessible” than the ostensibly warmer Child, McNamee initially seems to struggle against presenting the enigmatic complex Claiborne as anything less than a remote Olympian figure. When it boils down to it, though, Claiborne might best be described as the right man in the right place at the right time. His hiring as the first male food editor of a major newspaper came about as the result of crass opportunism if not (as is hinted) chicanery, but The New York Times provided Craig Claiborne with the preeminent platform to fulfill his mission, which McNamee describes as nothing less than “advancing the nation’s culinary culture”.

Claiborne’s call for reform (McNamee, off the bat, cites an April, 1959 column “Elegance of Cuisine is on the Wane in U.S.” as his gauntlet) came at a time when the nation was ripe for unabashedly elitist change; within a year, Jackie Kennedy, designer clothing and a French chef were in the White House. McNamee explains how Claiborne, with lavish finesse and training he received in Switzerland, set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. This biography confirms his pervasive influence on food and dining and easily dismisses his only serious detractors, backbenchers John and Karen Hess, as resentful nit-pickers.

By the mid-Sixties Claiborne had became America’s unquestioned authority (his columns went directly to print; no editor) on the full culinary spectrum of foods and restaurants, chefs and cookbooks. He wrote and co-wrote many best-sellers, first and foremost The New York Times Cookbook. He discovered and promoted chefs as cultural and media personalities – Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme among many others – helped publicize the West Coast/James Beard movement and introduced Americans to nouvelle cuisine. Claiborne also reveled in a “pan-global eclecticism”, promoting the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the war), among others. He also lived to celebrate a resurgence of great American home cooking. His influence extended into the Reagan administration, and his legacy is evident today in the treatment of food as an important media subject. He created food journalism, and his sheer adventurism still informs our attitude towards food and cooking.

Though adulatory – McDonald’s Ray Kroc and other fast-food titans have influenced America’s diet far more than Claiborne –The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat should assign Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography to a well-deserved obscurity. McNamee’s solidly researched and beautifully presented biography is a richly balanced and long-awaited feast for those wanting to know more (but not too much) about Craig Claiborne, an icon of his day and an avatar of ours, but I wouldn’t expect a biopic any time soon.

 

Mamaw’s Chocolate Gravy

Mamaw Onsby lived in a small two-room house set back from ours under a huge white oak whose thick knotted roots gripped the soil like the toes of Antaeus. She had come to live there after her husband of sixty-odd years had died, and she was perfectly content, rarely coming to our house to visit, usually sitting at home listening to the radio and reading her Bible. Daddy tried to put an air conditioner in her window, but she wouldn’t have it. She was a tiny old woman, not much taller than I was at 11 when she died, and like many women of her generation who considered smoking unladylike, Mamaw dipped snuff (Garrett) and would make snuff out of cocoa and sugar for us to dip with her on twigs from the big black gum tree that grew near the road.

Her home was a morning destination for me and her other great-grandchildren because she would make biscuits every morning, big, fat cat-head biscuits that she baked in an antediluvian skillet. Mamaw usually made sawmill gravy to go with the biscuits, but my brother Tom always asked her to make chocolate gravy. She’d look at him and say, “Oh, this thickenin’ gravy ain’t good enough for you, is it?” My brotherTom would grin, little devil he was, and say “NO!” as loud as he could, and Mamaw, with a mumble about him being “just like a damned Onsby” would make chocolate gravy. The rest of us to be polite always had a biscuit with regular gravy, but she made us have another with chocolate “so it won’t be wasted”. It never was.

Heat two cups milk with a pat of butter; mix very well three tablespoons cocoa, three tablespoons plain flour, three quarters of a cup of sugar and add to warm milk. Stir vigorously to prevent lumping, increase heat until gravy thickens. Some people add vanilla to this, but for the life of me, I don’t know why.

Hemingway’s Twister: The Candlestick Tornado

On March 3, 1966, a supercell thunderstorm developed over central Mississippi and produced a large tornado around 4:00 pm CST near the old Adams community in Hinds County, several miles south-southwest of Raymond.

Tracking generally to the northeast, the tornado moved through mostly rural areas, though several barns and a few homes were heavily damaged. Around 4:30 pm CST, the storm struck the southern limits of Jackson as an F4 or F5 tornado and leveled the Candlestick Park shopping center, which gave the tornado its name; cinder-blocks from the structure were scattered for long distances, a number of homes and businesses were destroyed, eyewitnesses reported pavement scouring and a few cars were tossed upwards of 0.5 mi (0.80 km). A brick church was destroyed with such force that it seemingly exploded. Once the storm moved through Jackson, it crossed the Pearl River and entered Rankin County, maintaining a nearly straight northeastward track through the county.

The tornado reached its maximum strength of F5 near the Leesburg community; multiple homes were swept away, large swaths of trees were leveled, pavement was scoured, and chicken houses were obliterated. In Neshoba County the storm began to weaken though not considerably as about a dozen more homes were destroyed before the system crossed into Alabama. The tornado finally dissipated near the city of Tuscaloosa around 7:45 p.m. CST. During the storm’s three-hour-and-forty-five-minute existence, it traveled roughly 202.5 mi (325.9 km), one of the longest paths ever recorded. Overall, the tornado ranks as the second-deadliest in the state’s history, killing 57.

The Candlestick tornado touched down in what was in 1966 rural Rankin County, which like the area around Cooper Road is more heavily populated today. The tornado crossed Highway 25 (Lakeland Drive), and homes and businesses in the area around River Oaks, the north side of Jackson International Airport, Laurel Wood and Castlewoods lie in or very near where the tornado passed. The storm was also going through the Jackson metropolitan area between 430 pm and 5 pm, during the afternoon rush hour. In 1966, the interstate system was in the process of being constructed, but today the tornado would have been moving near the Stack just south of downtown Jackson where Interstates 20 and 55 converge. The tornado would have also been passing near or through the heavily trafficked areas along Highway 80, Flowood Drive and Lakeland Drive in Flowood.

The tornado’s story is told by Lorian Hemingway in her book, A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever (Simon & Schuster; July, 2003). Hemingway, the granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway (the daughter of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, who left his wife and eight children when Lorian, the youngest, was 6 years old), moved to Jackson with her mother and stepfather into a house fifty yards north of Candlestick Shopping Center some years before the storm and moved to Nashville a month before the tornado hit, but in an interview after the book’s publication said the tornado, “… wouldn’t let me alone. I was haunted by it. I’ve been haunted by it all my life; I’ve been haunted by it in dreams. Each time I would go back to Mississippi — and I did not go back until I was well into my adult life — just by happenstance, just sitting around and hearing people talk, that tornado would come up. Not through any provocation of mine. I was amazed to see how much it had lived on and how much it had impacted people and become a part of their history.”

Hemingway’s book takes us back to Jackson with interviews of friends and neighbors. Included are the stories of Ronny Hannis, who was severely injured but helped dig survivors from the rubble,  and Donna Durr, who was sitting in her Volkswagen with her child and was carried away in the air, only to be gently set down in a field. As you might expect, there are plenty of people who talk of God and their belief that there was a plan to nature’s savagery. Hemingway, who shares her contrary thoughts with the reader, brings a sophisticated yet sympathetic tone to the conversations, never passing judgment. In fact, she seems desperate to reconnect with the people who made Jackson seem like home for her. Her style is radically different from that of her grandfather’s; the story is told in fully-rounded sentences often brimming with emotion, and the descriptions of the area around Caney Creek along Cooper Road seem pastoral.

She tells the story first in her own words then in the words of the survivors. Weaving nostalgia for the world of her childhood with apocalyptic images of that world “rolled onto a spear, of the sky punctured at its heart,” Hemingway draws the reader into the nightmare, describing the moments preceding the tornado and the instant when everything was turned upside down. Hemingway describes how a familiar setting is suddenly turned into a morass of shattered concrete, twisted metal, splintered glass, mangled cars and broken bodies and how everyone walks and speaks “with reverence because what is heaving and bending at jagged turns all around them is a burial ground they must undo.” Even after Candlestick Shopping Center was rebuilt, the people stayed away because they found they couldn’t bear to remember.

On March 3 of this year, the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, the City of Jackson, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service of Jackson hosted a special commemoration ceremony on the 50th Anniversary of the Candlestick Park Tornado, remembering the victims who lost their lives and honoring first responders, survivors, and family members.

 

On Heirloom Recipes

For a long time I was remiss about not getting recipes from someone when our lives were shared, particularly those relatives we all have who were known for making a dish that everyone remembers, most often for a pie, cake or cookie, but canning recipes ran a close second, particularly pickles, then there were sauces such as barbecue that invariably involved a method followed by casseroles, stews and breads.

I felt as if those recipes were riches were swallowed by the maw of time, but that feeling has passed. Now I’ve come to realize that this remarkable world does indeed go around, and those cooks who will be remembered are here with me now. We should all come to realize that getting recipes from others is important, perhaps even significant in some larger scheme of things, and we need to get them now even if we have to beat the holy hell out of someone to do it. It’s our duty as a member of the human race.

Mississippi Passenger Pigeons

The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science is a center for study and research, a treasure trove of information. The original museum was established in 1932, originating out of its founder Fannye Cook’s passion for studying Mississippi’s natural world. Born in Crystal Springs in 1889, Cook was the force behind the creation of the Mississippi agency known as the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and its educational and research arm, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. She was the first person to collect and catalog Mississippi wildlife and led the effort to protect and restore the state’s natural environment.

Libby Hartfield, the current director of the Museum, said, “Cook’s passion for wildlife conservation continued to the end of her life. The day before she died in April 1964, at age 75, she led a group of young people on a bird-watching expedition.” Though many of Cook’s specimens at the old Jefferson Street museum were destroyed by water during the 1979 Jackson flood, her documents and other materials form the core of the 18,000-volume library in the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. It was to there I sought information about the last passenger pigeons in Mississippi.

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird on the planet. John James Audubon watched a flock pass overhead for three days and estimated that at times more than 300 million pigeons flew by him each hour. But these birds were slaughtered unmercifully during the 19th century, and after a description of one massacre, Audubon wrote, “Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease, as they not unfrequently quadruple their numbers yearly, and always at least double it.” Yet as the forests fell, the passenger pigeons declined in number with proportionate rapidity, and their extinction was sealed by the death of the last known member of the species, a female named Martha (after the first First Lady) that died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

A long-time librarian at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Mary Stripling, provided me with this information concerning passenger pigeons in Mississippi. “Jesse,” Mary wrote, “You are grasping at straws looking for the last one sighted in Mississippi.” She then cited several primary resources for more information, and also gave me the last sight records in their collection, adding that they appear to be handwritten by Miss Cook herself.

Year:  1848; Observer:  T. J. Pierce; Place: Brookhaven – Bayou Pierre. “One fall the pigeons came one afternoon by the thousands. There were so many and they were so thick the sun could not be seen and they darkened the sky. They flew low, many of them only 10 or 12 feet, so low that they could be knocked down with brush. They settled in the trees just on edge of grandfather’s farm and weighted them down. Many men and boys went out and shot them to eat — meat dark about like guinea. Only this one time were they seen there.”

Year : 1878; Observer: G. M. Cook;  Place: Copiah County – Utica. “Still a good many pigeons in Pearl River swamp and on hills. Daddy killed several at one shot out of a flock of about 20 in the top of a big pine tree over 100 ft. high (short leaf pine). In 1858 very large flocks so large and so low that Daddy and other school kids would run thru them with arms spread. The birds moved out of their way just far enough to keep from getting caught by the children.”

Undoubtedly the passenger pigeon survived in Mississippi perhaps a decade afterwards, but were likely exterminated well before the turn of the century. Yes, I was grasping at straws, but I knew where to look for the information I needed about the natural world in the state of Mississippi. Whether you’re a hunter, a hiker or just someone who enjoys driving around this beautiful state, make plans sometime in this coming year to visit the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science In the meantime, support your local conservation groups and help take care of our piece of the planet and remember Martha.

 

 

 

Squash Crust Pizza

This recipe originally appeared in Molly Katzen’s wonderful work, The Moosewood Cookbook, and it was a favorite of our customers at The Bean Blossom Bistro, a vegetarian restaurant that opened in Oxford around 1980. It’s ridiculously simple to make and has a wonderful texture and flavor. The original recipe called for just zucchini, but you can combine zucchini with yellow squash for the color. You can either line a pizza pan or casserole with the crust, or do as I usually do and bake the mixture on a cookie sheet before topping. This is a great recipe for individual pizzas.

The crust can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen. Use 2 cups grated squash to one egg (the original calls for a 1:1 squash/egg ratio, but that’s a little much). Squeeze the liquid out of the squash; add the eggs and mix well with a good slug of olive oil and ½ cup each grated mozzarella and Parmesan and a little grated onion along with enough plain flour to make sticky dough. I like to use a little more Parmesan for a somewhat drier mix and add chopped peppers as well. Season with, salt, pepper, a little basil and thyme; I do not recommend using rosemary as in the original recipe. Bake in a medium hot oven (375-400) for about 40 minutes, or until nicely browned, and brush with oil before cooling.

As to the toppings, you can use those you usually like on your pizza, but I forego meats out of respect for the original recipe as well as for Molly herself. Go lightly on the tomato sauce, since too much will make the crust soggy. Bake pizza in a hot oven as you would any other.