Brain Food

Poverty is endemic among students; tuitions are ridiculous, and booze ain’t cheap, either. Fortunately for scholars, ramen provides a warm meal that sates and doesn’t drink too deeply of the beer budget. A nice hot bowl of chicken ramen will knock out a Heineken hangover in less than an hour (trust me) and you need nothing more than a sack of ramen, a bowl, and hot water. Cheap, fast and simple, ramen is the ultimate convenience food.

Ramen — along with microwave popcorn and breakfast cereal — remains the food item most likely to be found in American dormitory rooms. (Ironically or not, it’s also one of the most popular items in prison commissaries.) Despite its ease of preparation, rumor has it that stoners skip the cooking, shake the seasoning packet on the dried noodles and gnaw them with dazed gusto. Ramen has of late been held up as an example of impoverishment in an insurance commercial citing the example of a “ramen every night” diet for not buying their coverage. Frankly, when it comes down to not having auto insurance or eating ramen every night, I’m going to sell the damn car. I don’t care if Elvis did drive it once.

Having said that, I’ll admit that ramen is a good item to have on hand; noodles in an instant. I keep several packets in a kitchen cabinet alongside my Zatarain’s rice, Sunflower quick grits and Ore-Ida flake potatoes. Purists might deride this cache of processed starches, but it’s a sure bet that those who do will have a stock of Bertolli on their shelves. Just use the noodles when you have a need for them, and forget about that little packet of salt, food coloring and powdered animals you’ll find packaged with them. Hydrate the noodles, rinse, toss with oil (NOT olive oil, mind you) and set aside in a covered container before use. This preparation might sound unnecessary for instant noodles, but unless you’ve been hitting a bong, you’ll thank me for this advice when using ramen in anything other than hot soup.

Also be advised that you’re going to find that ramen, like so many basic foodstuffs, has not escaped the foodie tendency to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. Ramen has found its way into hundreds of inappropriate recipes; while I have yet to try ramen pizza or ramen mac and cheese (with ham, no less), the very idea of them makes me wonder about the aberrations of the human mind. Let’s not try to reinvent the wheel; the best way to use ramen is in a dish that echoes its origins and ease of preparation: in a stir-fry. Take one prepared packet of ramen noodles, 2 cups diced raw chicken (substitute cooked kidney beans if you like) and 2 cups sliced vegetables (peppers, onions, celery, etc.) per person. Heat vegetable oil, add a bit of garlic, cook chicken until firm (or heat beans), seasoning with black pepper and lite soy, add vegetables and cook until just done. Toss in your ramen, another dash of soy, and mix well. Then read a good book, for chrissakes.

 

The World from Gillespie: A Neighborhood Memoir

I am not from Jackson, nor (even worse) am I from Belhaven, and though I realize that this confession relegates me to something near akin to troglodyte status for those of you who are native to this fair city, before you begin casting aspersions (or something sharper, heavier and with far more substance) let me assure you that I have grown fond of Belhaven and say that Seta Sancton’s The View from Gillespie goes a very long way towards explaining to me why those of you who are natives love it profoundly. Given my primeval ignorance, of course I had to find out who Mrs. Sancton was, and given that I know so few people here, I decided to simply do what I do best and research the matter. This eventually led me to contact Tom Sancton, who among other things is former Paris bureau chief for TIME magazine, professor of journalism at the American University of Paris, Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane and a jazz clarinetist. In response to my query, Mr. Sancton wrote:

Dear Jesse,
Seta Alexander Sancton (1915-2007) was my mother. She was born in Jackson, on North State Street, into a prominent local family (Whartons on mother’s side, Alexanders on father’s side). Her father was Julian P. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton and Ole Miss law school, and an associate justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she was a member of Chi Omega. She was a close personal friend of Eudora Welty, a neighbor from childhood. (My mother’s family lived first on Gillespie Place, then at 1616 Poplar Blvd; Eudora was on Pinehurst.) Seta married my father, New Orleans journalist and novelist Thomas Sancton, in 1941. They lived mostly in New Orleans and had three children of which I am the youngest. When my mother was in her 70s, she decided to write down some family stories and memories for her children and grandchildren. She started jotting down stories on notepaper, the back of envelopes, whatever she had at hand, adding stick figure illustrations as she went along. The result was the book you have in hand. In the 1990s she recorded readings of some of the stories.
Best regards,
Tom Sancton

Seta’s View from Gillespie, simply put, is a childhood memoir, the memories of a girl who grew up in Jackson, a city that through her eyes was full of of “sugar and spice and everything nice”; June bugs and fig trees, lavender lantana and magnolia fuscata, braided biscuits, sidewalk parades and Victrolas. “Though Edward VII was no longer on the throne,” Seta writes, “the temper of the times remained Edwardian for our mothers, our grandmothers and for us children.” In The View from Gillespie you’ll find a Jackson where maids took children to Smith Park where they would play on the swings and slides and sit in the miniature Greek pagoda and eat sugar cookies. Home libraries inevitably carried volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and the best-selling works of Zane Gray. Gillespie Place itself was a new subdivision off State Street, and having a mother who was Episcopal and a father who was a Presbyterian presented the occasional social awkwardness. Going to the state fair was a landmark event as was going downtown to eat at the Bon Ton or the Pantaze or the Edwards House.

Yes, Seta wrote this book from a child’s perspective, yet through such eyes you can discern the superficially genteel character of the city of Jackson during the 1920s and yes, of course poverty and oppression were no doubt rife at the time, and other unpleasantries such as war and epidemics are also swept aside to make room for bridge parties and swimming in Livingston Lake, but who among you will find fault with me, an outsider who walks the streets of the city as it is today, for being charmed by this picture of its past?

Discomforting Food

Much is written about foods as panaceas against the stress of everyday existence. I’ll be the first to say that a bowl of chicken stew on a crisp November night or a dish of of banana pudding on a warm May afternoon is every bit as comforting as a Mose Allison tune or slipping on an old pair of shoes. But dishes that challenge us should have places on our plates as well. At some point in our lives, many of us become complacent when it comes to food, and we tend to eat the things we prefer almost to the point of stultification. But Auntie Mame is right: “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  I’m not urging you to sample fleshpots that you might find totally repugnant or that compromise your ethical convictions, but I encourage you to try dishes you might forego for superficial reasons.

In particular, childhood prejudices should come under review. Unless you were the subject of abuse of the most dastardly kind, the dishes you disliked as a child were most likely cooked improperly and fed to you by well-intentioned people who loved you and wanted you to do well in the world but simply did not know how certain things should be prepared. Perhaps it is their fault that you now refuse spinach in any form or fashion, but the lingering shadow of their benign ineptitude should not deny you of present or future pleasure. My culinary bugbear was eggplant, invariably fried. I hated it. But once I went to a Lebanese event at Ole Miss where a spry little lady served up the most wonderful dip for flat bread. It was cold, almost creamy, and absolutely delicious. I asked her what it was, and she turned to her husband, whose English was better, and he said “eggplant.” Had I known what it was in the first place, I probably wouldn’t have tried it at all, but I was pleasantly surprised that my old bête noire could take on such an appealing form. The dish was baba ghanoush.

3 medium eggplants
3 cloves of roast garlic, mashed
1/2 cup of tahini
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon salt

Stem, pierce and roast eggplants in a hot oven until soft. Scoop out the flesh, taking care to get the browned meat, mix with the other ingredients and blend in a food processor until smooth. Adjust salt to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with wedges of your favorite flat bread.

 

The Olympian from Calhoun County

In 1936 with the world on the brink of war, the summer games were held in Berlin, where Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler was to stage a celebration of his rise to power and a confirmation of the Nazi ideal of Aryan racial supremacy, an ideal that was shattered by African-American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the track and field events. Among Owens’ teammates that year was another gold medalist, a native of Calhoun County, Mississippi, who rose to a commanding position in track competitions at Louisiana State University, dominating the 400 meter hurdles around the world throughout the 1930s and offering equal competition in the 400 meter flat race.

Glenn “Slats” Hardin, was born July 1, 1910 near Derma, Mississippi, a small town in the southern half of Calhoun County, Mississippi. The family moved to Greenwood when Glenn was in the 2nd grade, and there Hardin became one of the most outstanding athletes of his generation, earning his nickname “Slats” because of his long legs. He began competing in state track and field competitions during his junior year. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported in May, 1930 that “the tall blond boy ran the 220-yard hurdles in 25 flat. The old record was 25.6. He stepped the quarter-mile in 50 and the half-mile in 1:59, slipping 5 seconds off the latter record.” According to observer Fletcher Oaks, “He was a tall, lanky, long-legged boy. There was a guy I went to school with in south Mississippi, Jack Burnett. Jack had won the 100-yard and the 220. Hardin had won the hurdles and the half-mile. They both competed in the quarter on the second day, and while Jack ran a good race, he was no match for Glenn. Burnett had to run hard, but Hardin was just loping out there, with the easiest–looking stride, just like a deer running.”

Hardin, to the chagrin athletics at both Ole Miss and MSU, attended Louisiana State University, which dominated the old Southern Conference in track during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. While at LSU, he won four NCAA individual titles, the 440 in 1933 and 1934 and the 22-yards low hurdles in the same two years. Hardin was a member of the LSU Tigers outdoor track and field team that won the school’s first ever NCAA Championship in 1933. In 1935, his senior year, he finished second in the hurdles at the NCAA championships to an Ohio State runner with whom he would compete in Berlin. That runner was Jesse Owens. Hardin qualified for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where he finished second in the 400 m. hurdles in 52.0 but was given credit for a world record when the winner, Bob Tisdall from Ireland, knocked down a hurdle, an error that in those days disqualified a performance for world record consideration. Hardin lowered the record to 51.8 in the 1934 AAU championships and then bettered it to 50.6 during a meet in Stockholm later that year. That record would stand for the next nineteen years.

Hardin along with Owens qualified for the Olympic team at the trials in Randall’s Island, N.Y. in 1936. Owens was certainly a good bet to win his three individual events—the 100, 200 and long jump—in Berlin, and Hardin was close to a sure thing for a gold medal in the 400 hurdles where in the final of six runners, Hardin drew the outside lane. U.S. Teammate Joe Patterson, running from the inside, went out so fast that he was actually ahead of Hardin at the half-way point despite the difference in the staggered start, but in the third 100 meters, Hardin surged past Patterson and entered the final straight one meter ahead of John Loaring of Canada. He held the lead to win the gold at 52.4.

Hardin retired from athletics after a failed effort to organize a professional track circuit, married in 1937 and settled in Baton Rouge, never finishing his degree at LSU. He worked for the Ethel Corporation and his wife taught high school history. In the late 1960s he began to travel for the state overseeing voting machines. His second oldest son, Billy, was also an NCAA champion hurdler for LSU in the 1960s and made the Olympic team in 1964 for his dad’s event, the 400 m. hurdles. Glenn Hardin died in Baton Rouge 1975.

Side by Side: A Review

T.J. Ray’s story of the hanging of Mathis and Lester is one of those books you read and come away thinking, “Wow, that would make a damn good movie.” And it would. Death as the circumscription of all human activity is also the Great Equalizer, uniting men of all stripes, but the hanging of Will and Orlando brought fate and justice together in a jagged gray crescendo. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Dr. Ray’s meticulous research, his informative narration that moves us through the court speeches with appropriate dispatch, his accounts of media coverage that enhance the drama now as it did then and his descriptions of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphan stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.

At the turn of the last century, north Mississippi was still for the most part a wilderness, little more than a network of villages and towns strung together along dirt and gravel roads, traveled by or with a horse, united only in proximity. The scars of the Civil War still ran deep, and the nascent justice system of the newly-Reconstructed state was itself reeling from legal ramifications of military defeat. Yet justice had to be established, the state was growing, and the cases of Will Mathis and Orlando Lester, grisly in detail, proved to be a public circus that ended in a lethal trapeze. Side by Side is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the abject South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.

A Remoulade Salad

Use your favorite recipe for the remoulade itself, shrimp or lump crabmeat, at least eight ounces per serving. Toss meat in remoulade with finely-chopped celery. Dice very ripe tomatoes and place in a hearty vinaigrette. For each place setting use half of a Bibb or a small head of iceberg lettuce; remove stem and heart, shred the heart. To assemble, place lettuce halves on plates, cutting a small slice from the bottom to stabilize. Fill the lettuce halves with shredded lettuce, spoon tomato vinaigrette around the rim and scoop the shrimp or crab remoulade into the center. Paprika provides a nice accent for flavor as well as color. This is a good way to serve a remoulade in a formal fresh air setting.

 

In Praise of Folly

Where has it gone, that brash, unapologetic feeling we once had of “Yes, we are Americans, deal with us”, the singular aspect of Ugly Americanism that seemed in any way justifiable? Have we as a nation lost our innocence? Can we ever again conceive of presenting such a tray of confections as depicted in this 1950 cookbook, replete with such charming details as delicate, braided handles, tiny maple leaf pastry motifs, a miniature marzipan pumpkin and excruciatingly exact lattice-work crusts, not to mention that bravura draping of crowning fruit as if to say, “Oh, I just had them on hand and thought they’d look nice.” Who among us now would be so brave (if not to say industrious) to fashion and display such unadulterated whimsy at a gathering and not expect some jaded guest—well-dressed,  imbued with cynicism and no small degree of ill-will towards if not you then the world in general—to snicker behind a manicured hand at your utter lack of sophistication? I would, my people, and I would smile in the face of that sneer and say, “Try the glazed grapes.”

The Original, Definitive and Incontestable Stage Planks Recipe

This recipe for Gingerbread Without Butter or Eggs was first published in The Picayune Creole Cookbook, c. 1901.

1 cup molasses, 1 cup sour milk, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 8 tablespoons shortening, 3 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda.

Melt the molasses, shortening and ginger together and blend well. When thoroughly melted and warmed, beat for 10 minutes. (While the original recipe as printed omits the use of the sour milk, let’s assume it’s added before the flour.) Dissolve the soda in 1 tablespoon boiling water and add to the molasses mix. Then add just enough of the sifted flour to make a stiff batter, beating thoroughly and vigorously. Pour into several greased shallow pans and bake for ten minutes in a quick oven.

This bread makes the famous “Stage Planks”, or ginger cakes, sold by the old darkies around New Orleans in old Creole days, to those of their own race and to little white children. The ancient Creoles, fond of giving nick-names, gave to this stiff ginger cake the name of “Estomac Mulâtre”, or “The Mulatto’s Stomach”, meaning that it was only fit for the stomach of a mulatto to digest.

The cookbook does not include an icing recipe, but I’d suggest a royal icing. Pink, of course.

Food at Welty’s Wedding

Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik, in a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be its predominant use in fiction, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Eudora Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord. Though three main meals are described, a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards, people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book, and a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household during the Coolidge administration. In both instances, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement.

Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.

As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes Welty, who is subtle and understated, it’s easy to miss things; read it again.