Penny Eggs

Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew. Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the harkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.

Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other. Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors. He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common. Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.

“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”

Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Pudgy little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage. If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from MDOT bush hogs that had run over an old fence. “You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.

“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny. You’re eight, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”

“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless. I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, salmon and saltines, but he lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his heart.

Painting by Jean Townsend

Painting by Jean Townsend

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Comeback: The Taste of Home

Mom was a fine cook, and if she used a basic mixture of emulsion and tomato sauce for a simple salad at a steak dinner, so be it.

But her version of this sauce needs some catching up with what passes for comeback today. All sorts of exotics have found their way into this combination, and the recipe is well past its salad days. I suspect that because the main ingredients (mayonnaise and ketchup) are available to most people, and since the resulting mixture looks and tastes a lot like Thousand Island without pickle relish, this “Ur-comeback” soon became a popular substitute for bought dressing at home. Its commercial popularity (at least in Jackson) harkens back to the Rotisserie, a restaurant the Dennery family ran at Five Points way back when that part the city was cool, probably around the time poodle skirts were popular.

Nowadays people use comeback for almost everything. I’ve even seen recommendations for it with meats such as chicken and (Lord deliver us) beef. Me, I’ve always liked it on seafood; I do a version of it with a little horseradish, chopped parsley and lemon juice that’s just fine with shrimp or fish. You’re also likely to find another version of it in stores that’s marketed specifically for those deep-fried onion “blossoms” that have become so popular lately. Dare I add that while nobody’s stopping you from dipping a whole Vidalia in some sugar-saturated batter and deep-frying it, by doing so you’re pretty much denying the vegetable’s essential nature as an onion, a vegetable you should have an intimate relationship with already.

Comeback dressing has come to be a signature recipe of our state, so as a Mississippian of any degree, knowing how to make comeback dressing should be as much a part of your repertoire as knowing how to pass a batwing bushhog on a two-lane highway. I’ve even seen it referred to as “Mississippi Comeback”. I like that. If Mississippi were to have any sort of signature dish, then it should be one that beckons her weary children home.

To put it mildly, the ingredients of comeback are a bone of contention. Most recipes for it involve an emulsion combined with something red, which in our locale usually involves a processed tomato. Now, you could probably very well take a little tomato paste and add a bit of vinegar to it, but be nice to yourself and just use ketchup. There are those who prefer salad dressing instead of mayonnaise, and those who seem to think that cocktail sauce (with or without horseradish) is superior to the more pedestrian ketchup. As to other additions, I’d stop well short of ground rosemary, but you’re the cook.  My version of comeback, like my mother’s, is quite simple, involving not much more than mayonnaise, ketchup and black pepper. She put Worcestershire in there, too, but more for color, I suspect. Any recipe for comeback dressing is always improved by the addition of onion powder and a smidgen of garlic. If you’re serving it with seafood, a little lemon juice in the mixture is a nice touch.

 

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John R. Lynch Monument

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Pumpkin Gourds

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Acorn Squash

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee includes a short but telling passage on the life of a rural Southern lawyer. She describes how Atticus was often paid by clients who were cash-poor in goods that they grew or garnered themselves.

    I asked Atticus if Mr. Cunningham would ever pay us.
    “Not in money,” Atticus said, “but before the year’s out, I’ll have been paid. You watch.”
    We watched. One morning Jem and I found a load of stovewood in the back yard. Later, a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps. With Christmas came a crate of smilax and holly. That spring when we found a croker-sack full of turnip greens, Atticus said Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him.

So it was with my father, a lawyer in a very poor rural county in Mississippi during the 50s and 60s. We never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of farm-slaughtered meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and while I don’t remember holly or smilax, I do remember well that around Christmas Daddy would at times go to the door late at night and return with bottles discreetly wrapped in paper sacks. I also remember how every fall Daddy would drive my sister, brother and I to the nearby community of Ellard, where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house, the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d gather all we could carry, which really wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch and talked with them. Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man.

“Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny because I felt so bad for them, but he’d be insulted if I didn’t come out and get some of these squash every year. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who has very little to give.”

The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards. The Hubbards were peeled, cubed and parboiled for a casserole, but the acorns were spit, seeded, scored, brushed with butter, sprinkled with brown sugar, just a dashing of salt, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly browned. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork before eating. Now when I see them in the store, I know winter is coming, and my mind goes back to that lonely farm in the country with the withering vines.

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Mrs. Hannah’s Good Eats

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Smedley’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream

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