Drama Peas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns. Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies or L’Amours, not to mention the latest John Grisham. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read in the first place.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels of unshelled peas. Being a reformed kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders and retreated—talking up a storm—back into the TV room. I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.” Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

The Geography of Beef

Many years ago at a conference for Southern fiction at Ole Miss, I took umbrage at the inclusion of Bobbie Ann Mason’s splendid novel In Country because the author is from Kentucky, which I do not consider a Southern state. Kentucky was in the middle border during the Civil War, not a member of the Confederacy, and though it is a beautiful old state, in my book it is not Southern. If it’s any consolation to my Kentucky friends, I feel the same way about Missouri, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

When a family from Kentucky moved to my very small rural Mississippi town in the early 60s they were of course welcomed and quietly became members of the community, though with them they did bring new recipes, among them Swiss steak, which my adolescent mind tagged as a Yankee recipe. For some reason the Swiss designation slipped right over my little provincial Southern brain, probably more because for obvious reasons Switzerland held far less significance than the North. Anything Yankee was automatically suspect, and as such Swiss steak entered the nether category Reserved for Further Observation. Little did I know that Swiss steak was very much in vogue during the 1950s and 60s and that people have been cooking it all over the world since tomatoes went global.

“To swiss” is actually an English verb that has little to do with cooking, meaning “a calendering process for cotton fabrics that produces a smooth compact texture”. Some food writers have taken a leap of faith and declared that because the cooking process renders a tough cut of meat “smooth”, this why beef cooked this way is “Swiss”. This claim is a stretch, but then I’ve always wondered why “cubed” beef isn’t cubular. (My world is circumscribed by seas where there be such dragons.) Swiss steak is a thinly-cut piece of tough beef pounded and stewed in tomato gravy. I say gravy because this cut should not be cooked in a tomato sauce, but beef gravy with tomatoes.

There’s certain to be an authentic Swiss version, perhaps several, but the ease and appeal of stewed beef with tomatoes is world-wide. Make a basic brown sauce, about a cup, add a can of diced tomatoes, a half cup each of tomato juice and water, a half cup chopped white onion, Season with basil, oregano, salt and pepper and simmer for one hour. Bread and fry thin trimmed pounded cuts of top round until browned, drain and place in a casserole. Top with sauce and bake until tender, at least an hour. If you’re a stickler for authenticity, top with Swiss cheese and serve with buttered potatoes.

The Local Deli

Well before the market deli opens at seven sharp the smell of chicken frying and biscuits baking drifts outside over people waiting for the doors to open. Always among them is a small group of older men who convene in the brief seating area after the end counter, for or five, I’m uncertain of the exact number, probably having a little breakfast, but they assemble more for coffee and company, sitting and watching the passing traffic on the street and sidewalk, joking and laughing, often debating, but always together until the deli readies for lunch, when they line up outside under the eaves of the building before going their separate ways. They remind me of the old men I saw as a child playing dominoes at the local pool hall, steadfast in their thorough knowledge of one another, comforted by the company and secure in their deliberated decisions on the state of the world. In time their numbers will lessen and their gatherings end, but it’s certain that another such group will come to sit, laugh, argue and watch the world pass by. Perhaps in time I’ll be among them.

The deli is to the left as you enter, right past the first checkout behind a case that stretches some forty feet down five aisles. First are the cakes and pies, then cold salads and cold meats followed by a line of steam tables. Most of the people who enter after the doors open are on their way to work, picking up something for the office—flowers, cupcakes or a cake perhaps, for some coworker’s birthday or donuts for everyone on no special occasion—then you have those who drop by the deli for breakfast to go, just a biscuit with bacon or toast and eggs, but the deli always offers a groaning board. Fried chicken is the only constant staple throughout the day, an impressive heap of breasts, thighs, legs and wings that occupies the first pan in the steam table, followed in the breakfast line by the eggs. The deli serves two kinds of grits, plain ole grits and cheese grits, both in generous servings. Fried potato wedges and chicken tenders are often offered, but rice is always on the breakfast menu, which might seem odd to some, but when I asked, one of the ladies explained that many people prefer them to grits, since the rice (to them) goes well with sawmill gravy, a milk gravy with crumbled sausage. Three kinds of sausages (smoked, link and patty), broiled bacon and salmon patties are the usual meat options; buttermilk and honey biscuits, white and wheat toast round out the morning buffet.

Southerners of all stripes like hearty breakfasts, and the deli makes every effort to provide in abundance. I remember a time when at the end of the line they would have an iced tub on the corner with small containers of milk beside a basket of breakfast cereals, Rice Krispies, Sugar Pops, Corn Flakes or Frosted Flakes, but no longer. I also seem to remember oatmeal on the steam table, but that was proved to be a passing fancy as well as the bowl of bananas, apples and oranges near the deli checkout register. The steadily diminishing sector of my soul that still holds some faith in the basically benevolent intentions of mankind likes to believe that the management of the market initiated these novelties in order to promote a healthier menu for their customers, but my ever-burgeoning lack of faith in man’s goodness towards his fellow tends to hold that expired stores of oatmeal and breakfast cereal (if not dairy products and produce) were most likely the motive. Either way, none of these purportedly healthy innovations seem to have been missed at all.

Standing in line beside someone at the deli has nothing of the impersonal nature of standing in line behind people in a fast-food joint. You can actually look at one another and talk, and the banter is continual and friendly. Our deli serves people from all walks of life. This eqality comes in part from its location near a key intersection in Jackson as well as from its casual walk-through character, but it’s the food that matters, and while the offerings do have a solid blue-collar slant, you’ll find the well-heeled legislator or Junior Leaguer there getting a serving of grits right after someone in a pair of boots taking a morning break snagging a sausage and biscuit (or three). Simply being in line for a serving of peach cobbler is a lesson in social niceties, and those rules are rarely broken. Oh, you’ll occasionally follow someone on a cell phone ordering lunch for three people in her office (excluding them), so she has to go through the menu a couple of times and deal with sorting out the portions and options, but welcome to the digital age. The prices are just as democratic: fifty cents for a biscuit, six ninety-nine for a hearty plate lunch, with endless options in between.

The lunches are lucullian, and any restaurateur would envy their traffic. Lunch officially opens at eleven, but even before ten-thirty when the steam tables are being loaded, the line has begun to form. Fried and baked chicken, meat loaf with red gravy, pork chops breaded and smothered, chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie, chili mac and cheese, spaghetti with meatballs, barbecued ribs and chicken, beef stew and fried fish make their appearance in the line on a rotating basis every week, often twice in any given week. Two types of variety meats are on the menu: stewed chicken gizzards, which are outstanding, and braised liver with onions, equally as good. The roast turkey with vegetables served in brown gravy is practically indistinguishable from beef. The various vegetables ( including peas and snaps, a definitive Deep South dish, butter beans and limas, green beans, creamed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes) are cooked and held on the line for a very long time, and the longer in the heat, the better they become. Dressing (without chicken), mac and cheese and rice with broccoli and cheese are “vegetable” choices as well. Rolls, Mexican and regular corn muffins, sometimes corn sticks come with the plate, and baked cobblers are the usual dessert fare.

No, you cannot order a sandwich, and if you order sliced meat or cheese during the lunch rush, you’re going to get dirty looks from the other customers, since it takes the entire staff to keep the line going, and one leaving the line slows it down. If you want a sandwich or a salad, you’ll find them pre-made in the refrigerated case between the deli and the main aisles of the store. There you’ll find containers (3 sizes) of their pimento and cheese, which is justly renowned throughout the neighborhood, though it is rather pricey ($6.99 lb.), as valued commodities tend to be the world over. This case also holds what you might consider “true” deli offerings, such as hummus, salsas, pickled vegetables and small portions of cheeses.

You’ll not find what are these days called artisan foods in the market deli; the foods are decidedly pedestrian (in the most literal sense of the word). No doubt there are many food faddists and culinary snobs in the city who will deride such fare, and they do so not because the deli’s food isn’t good, but because they feel it’s beneath their dignity not only to eat such common fare but to engage in social commerce with the people who do. These are the same people mind you who will watch Food Network gurus such as Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmerman and others seek out people who routinely cook and eat the foods that feed the people of the streets and urban neighborhoods of other cities across the globe. On top of that odious variety of elitism, you have professionals in the restaurant industry itself who seek out such foods in order to upgrade them into a dish that people will pay top dollar for in their own ritzy establishments. As proof of this, I submit to you the recent craze over pork belly, which is about as far from eating high on the hog as you can get, that has become a staple in upscale restaurants across the country in the past decade or so. While pork bellies might be on their way out as a culinary trend, who can say that the next hot item might not be the smoked imitation sausage you find frozen in brilliant scarlet ropes in the market’s frozen meat section, sausages that occasionally find their way into a steam pan with kidney beans on the deli line?

While the deli staff usually doesn’t give away trade secrets (after three years of asking, they still won’t tell me what they put on their baked chicken and you can forget about getting their pimento and cheese recipe), one cook did tell me how to make peas and snaps as they do. But I’m not telling either.

Caring for Garden Gnomes

To properly care for garden gnomes, you must have a passing familiarity with the gnomish race, which is of ancient and noble origin. While some gnomes do have an urban nature, inhabiting environments of asphalt and concrete (“homie gnomies”), all gnomes are secretive creatures, preferring to live on the verge of human ken, and the placing of a garden gnome (or any other gnome, for that matter) should reflect that character. This is customary for any sort of statuary, of course; putting St. Francis of Assisi poolside just isn’t appropriate, particularly next to the wet bar. No, gnomes should be unobtrusive, almost furtive in their placement, smiling wisely at our foolishness from some shaded corner of your garden.

The Cheese Straw Alternative

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”—Wilde

Admit it; making cheese straws is a pain in the butt. While they’re probably a must on the holiday table (if you don’t have them, some sniffy relative is bound to say, “Oh, I should have brought you cheese straws!”), they still aren’t something you might feel like throwing together for a more casual gathering like a bowl game or a backyard picnic. Fortunately there is an alternative to dragging out the cookie press, stuffing it full of dough, pressing out the sticks and (the worst part) cleaning the press. What the Brits call biscuits are a far cry from our big, fluffy Southern variety. In Britain, our biscuits would be called scones, while what Brits call biscuits are more like what we would call wafers or cookies. So while you might be most familiar with cheese biscuits as something along the lines of those big, greasy lumps of cheese and dough served at Red Lobster, the Brits do a cheese biscuit that’s thin, crisp and have the same simple ingredients as cheese straws, but are much easier to make. Simply make a dough with one cup plain flour with one cup grated cheddar and eight ounces of softened butter, add a little salt, a little cayenne, roll out, cut with a cookie cutter (which is quite easy to clean) and bake at 350 until nice and crisp. Dusting with paprika is a nice touch.

The Litigated Tomato

If you didn’t know it already, the very fact that the tomato came under the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court underscores its vital importance not only as a culinary staple and a cultural icon, but also as a commodity. Though the court’s ruling on the legal status of the tomato did not make such headlines as Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade, the decision defines the status of the tomato in the American legal system, a ruling that brings the court at odds with science, but in concord with commerce.

Botanically, a tomato is a fruit: the ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant, but the tomato has a low sugar content compared to other edible fruits, so we routinely serve it as a component of the main meal. In 1887, tariff laws imposed a duty on vegetables, but not on fruits, so some smart lawyer (we do find occasional evidence of these fabled creatures) who was probably forced to take biology heroically filed a case for the tomato as a fruit.

On May 10, 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the tariff laws (of course), finding that the tomato should be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable based on the ways in which it is used and its popular perception as a vegetable (Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304)). The holding of the case applies only to the legal interpretation; the justices did not purport to reclassify the tomato for botanical or other purposes, but the decision stands as an excellent example of a legal fiction.