The Great Bulgarian Tobacco Conspiracy

I have this friend; let’s call him Joe. Now, Joe is one of those guys who have a real flair for languages. He’s conversant in probably a half dozen, and even if he doesn’t know the language inside out, if you give him a dictionary, he can noodle out the basic morphology, syntax and semantics well enough to translate pretty much any Indo-European document.

Of course this talent led to work as an interpreter, and there came a day when he was tapped for a job translating a document from Bulgarian to English because he once worked with the Mississippi Ballet Guild doing translations when they began trying to get the International ballet Competitions brought from Varna, Bulgaria, to Jackson Mississippi. It also didn’t hurt that Joe’s ancestors grew burley (cigarette) tobacco during the Depression, and he learned something about it from his Uncle Ralph. As it turns out, Joe was tapped to translate a highly sensitive report on Bulgarian burley tobacco production that had been smuggled out of the then-Iron Curtain country. It so happened that in the mid-1980s Bulgaria was leaving the U.S. in the dust with the production and marketing of burley tobacco, and if Joe happened to get caught by some chain-smoking Bulgarian with a big-caliber pistol in a dark alley, he’d be deader than hell. In the end, he got away with enough dough to take a two-week vacation in Costa Rica, which if you ask me is a splendid profit from such petty espionage.

Bulgarians like their eastern European neighbors in Hungary are pepper aficionados, and while you’re not going to find Bulgarian peppers fresh in Mississippi unless you raise your own–that carrot variety is popular among Capsicums aficionados–Hungarian wax peppers do come to market here on occasion. Joe (not quite his real name) now lives—inexplicably—in Canton, and he and his partner dropped off a sack of Hungarian wax peppers last week while they were swinging through the city.

I stuffed them with cheese for a great vegetarian nosh. For six peppers, mix one cup semi-soft farmer’s cheese broken into small pieces or grated large, one cup of a whey cheese such as ricotta or cottage (large curd) with a cup of dry hard cheese such as Romano or Parmesan and one beaten egg. You do not need to add salt to this, trust me, but it helps to add a tablespoon of cornstarch for binding. I threw some smoked red peppers in the mix simply because I had them, but any mild chili wouldn’t be out of place. Bake in a moderate oven, 350 or so, for twenty minutes. These are best served warm, not hot as you would a rellenos.

 

Smith Park: A Mississippi Landmark

Smith Park is the oldest city park in the nation, and for that reason alone should be declared a Mississippi Landmark. In addition, although there has never been a formal archaeological study of the park, it represents the only undisturbed square in downtown Jackson and may hold as much archaeological value as a site as it does historical value as a park. Another compelling reason is that Smith Park is home of monuments to the state’s history and the capital city, monuments that deserve protection from the caprice and greed of municipal developers.

President Thomas Jefferson conceived of a basic municipal plan for Mississippi’s capital city in 1821, and Smith Park is the only remnant of his “checkerboard plan” that had a green space on every other square. The park was officially established on February 16, 1838, when the Mississippi Legislature voted to dispose of all unsold land given by the federal government “… except such blank squares as deemed necessary to be reserved as commons, for the health, ornament, and convenience of the city of Jackson.”

Smith Park is named for James Smith, Jr., son of James and Ann Preston Smith of Edinburgh, Scotland, who was born in 1816. Smith immigrated to the United States in 1832, and opened a hardware store on State Street in Jackson. Smith moved back to Scotland In the 1850s, due to his wife’s ill health. Smith became a millionaire from the sale of iron stoves acquired under the name of Smith’s Jackson hardware store and marketed in Great Britain and elsewhere by the firm Smith and Wellstood, Ltd. Smith died on April 11, 1886.

In May 1883, Jackson’s mayor and board of aldermen adopted an ordinance authorizing the mayor “…to solicit subscriptions of cash or donations of material for the purpose of putting a suitable fence around the square owned by the city in the rear of the Executive Mansion, and that he purchase a deficit of material needed, and at such time during the summer as he may select, that he enclose said square and put such gates as may be deemed necessary.” On January 1, 1884, Mayor John McGill wrote, “I mentioned the matter to a number of parties, and had promises of assistance, but received nothing from anyone except Mr. James Smith, a former resident of Glasgow, Scotland, who was here on a visit to his old home and friends. He gave me $100, $95 of which I paid on account of lumber purchased, and $5 to Mr. Phil Hammond on his account for building the fence.”

In the April 4, 1888, minutes of the Jackson city aldermen, a Mr. C.L. Gaston wrote: “Mrs. Gaston received a letter from Mr. James B. Smith, of Sterling, Scotland, informing her that he and his two brothers Messrs. Robert and William Smith had on hearing of the city’s improvement of the Public Park named in honor of their father, the late Mr. James Smith, of Glasgow, determined on contributing twelve cast-iron benches or settees.”

A bandstand was built in 1890, and Smith Park was open to black citizens as early as 1897. In the early 1900s, the bandstand was ordered repaired and the Jackson light and power company was asked to install lighting in the structure. Smith Park has always had a water feature, including at one time a goldfish pond and a fountain at the Amite-West Street entrance. On New Year’s Day, 1918, a pergola and fountain were erected on the southwestern edge of the park across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church as a memorial to one of Jackson’s most beloved citizens, W.J. Davis, “The man who led/Where others groped.” Davis founded the LaVernet Stock Farm near the outskirts of the city, “the means of which the advantages and availability of Jackson, Hinds County and Mississippi as a stock raising section was abundantly and decisively advertised to the world.” (Jackson Daily News, Thursday, Jan. 3, 1918, p. 6) This memorial, the oldest landmark in Smith Park, is still standing, but is not included in the proposed “renaissance” by the so-called “Friends of Smith Park” and Downtown Jackson Partners.

In April, 1934 the Order of the Eastern Star dedicated a memorial on the northeastern edge of the park to Robert Morris, whose home once stood across the park on Congress. Morris founded the Order of the Eastern Star at the Little Red Schoolhouse (Eureka Masonic College) in Holmes County. This monument to the founder of the Order is a shrine to its members, but it is not included in the “renaissance” proposal put forth by the so-called “Friends of Smith Park” and Downtown Jackson Partners, who clearly plan to destroy this vital piece of Mississippi history. Another significant landmark, the pavilion in the east central portion of the park, was constructed during the Depression, perhaps at the same time (late 1930s) as similar stone structures at the Jackson Zoo, including the former rhinoceros house, old concession stand, and old restrooms. This is the only landmark retained under the “renaissance” proposal.

On February 10, 1950, the Jackson Daily News declared, “Smith Park was donated to the city for park purposes and should be used only for park purposes,” purposes which surely include repose in the shade, leisurely walks and a soothing flow of water. In 1973, the park was redesigned, with wide walkways, an amphitheater featuring an A-frame band shell, a wooden stage with sunken seating area, and, the most beautiful and prominent feature, an artificial river designed by award-winning landscape artist and then city landscape architect Rick Griffin. This water feature includes a dramatic fountain on the northeast whose waters feed into a stream bed that encircles the park beneath walkways, in a flowing pool before the A-frame stage, ending on the southeast in a pool with a drain and pump that recirculates the water back to the fountain. The project was completed in 1975, the park re-dedicated that September. The “renaissance” proposal does not include a water feature and would also cut the oldest trees in the park, it’s only shade from the strong Mississippi sun.

In 1976, Smith Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but this is insufficient protection for the oldest park in the state. Unless Smith Park is afforded protected status as a Mississippi Historical Landmark, the site will be subject to the whims of irresponsible municipal developers. It’s time to preserve the park as a shaded jewel in the state’s epicenter.

Roadkill Caviar

This is not an affluent neighborhood—I don’t think Jackson, Mississippi has neighborhoods that qualify as such any longer—and sure, this is lump fish caviar, not sturgeon, but still finding a jar of caviar in the middle of the street, even during the holiday season when people tend to splurge, is not the sort of thing one expects on a morning walk. Did I open the jar? Oh, yes, of course I did, and the contents had been partially eaten but didn’t smell rancid, though of course I wasn’t about to stick a cracker in it and find out if it was still edible. Even with the heavy traffic on this street, the jar is still there, smack dab in the middle of the road, reminding me of the pound of butter Gertrude Stein said a German soldier tasted like an ice cream cone then threw down in the street during the Occupation, and even given the expense and scarcity of butter nobody would touch it, leaving it for the dogs and rats.

A Victorian Russian Tea

The Oaks, one of Jackson’s few surviving antebellum homes, recently celebrated the 207th birthday of its builder, Mr. James Boyd, and during the observance the Colonial Dames, who care for the house and grounds, served an outstanding antique hot tea. I was lucky enough to get the recipe from an officer of the organization, who provided this wonderful memory.

My grandmother’s Russian tea was a treat for the Christmas season. My sister and I were her only grandchildren, and she was our lone living grandparent so she was extra special. In December, we would go to her house and help her make her Christmas delicacies. Unlike my mother, she was a very good cook, and this was a learning event that started when we were preschoolers. We were like little elves in a very primitive kitchen as most kitchens were in the 1950’s; we would juice the oranges and lemons in an old metal device when making her Russian tea, which always made her house smell so warm and inviting when it was heating on the stove. The Russian tea was always served in china cups from her tea service, which was round white porcelain and not glamorous at all; it looked like something from a Walt Disney cartoon. We also roasted pecans and stuffed them in dates rolled in powdered sugar and made salted pecans, custard, meringues and oatmeal cookies.

The Russian tea is a Victorian beverage. My grandmother would make it with her mother, who was born in 1860, when she was a child. I think back then it was more of an event as fresh oranges and lemons were not as plentiful as they are nowadays. Grandmother always said we had too much in our modern world and Christmas at her house was centered more on food, sharing little things, good times with family and friends, and less on material items.

4 big tea bags (I use Luzianne decaf)
12 cups of water
2 cups pineapple juice
1 cup orange juice (cheap canned OJ is best as it is not as strong as Tropicana in a carton)
Juice of two lemons
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons whole cloves

Boil 12 cups water in a large soup pan, remove from heat and immediately add the tea bags. Remove bags in EXACTLY five minutes or the tea will have a ‘bite’ (this is very important) then add everything else. Keep on low heat for a while before serving; it makes your house smell wonderful. I freeze it in qt. Mason jars so I will have it ready at a moment’s notice.

Ginger Pecan Shortbread

This is a rich, aromatic, soft and crumbly cookie or small cake that goes perfectly with a hot drink—coffee, tea, even mulled wine—particularly in winter weather, and it’s so simple a child can make it. Cream 1 stick softened butter (no substitutes!) with a half cup of confectioner’s sugar, blend in 1 cup plain flour sifted with a quarter teaspoon of baking powder, 1 cup chopped pecans and 2 teaspoons ground ginger. (I have tried this recipe with freshly-grated ginger, and it simply does not work well at all with so much butter.) This mixture makes a soft, elastic dough that you have to work with flour-dusted hands to form into a ball. Pat or roll the dough ball out into an 8” round, score into six wedges and crimp the edges with a fork. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 until the edges are just brown. Cut and serve. This recipe can be doubled or tripled and cut into cookies as well.

Laurie’s Kitchen

We speak of cult musicians or novelists, and while it might seem odd to speak of a food writer that has such a following, Laurie Colwin does, primarily I think because Colwin has one thing that other food writers in this age of kitchen glamour don’t, which is a total lack of pretension.

Colwin, who died in 1992, the year before the Food Network was founded, wrote in an era when food and cooking were still relatively pedestrian topics. Sure, Martha had already spread her elegant wings, Prudhomme was burning up the scene and of course Claiborne, Childe and Beard had lit the way, but Colwin wasn’t a media personality. Far from it; she was a working writer and mother. In addition to her two collections of culinary essays, Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking (1993), which were inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame in 2012, Colwin published eight novels and her work appeared in The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Allure and Playboy.

Colwin doesn’t have a style so much as she does a voice, which some might say is much the same thing, but no: she writes as if she were talking to you across a picnic table or at a bus stop, intimate but breezy, alternately tongue-in-cheek, insistent and certainly droll at times, always warm; somehow when reading her my mind hears her as what the Brits would call “fruity”, though not strained or shrill. “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” is usually cited as a signature piece, but “Kitchen Horrors” is essential, as is “How to Avoid Grilling” and my favorite, “How to Cook Like an American”. Colwin writes a great deal about how to (and not to) cook for children and the infirm, how to feed a multitude with grace under pressure but above all how much of our lives revolve around the things we see, touch, hear and eat every day.

Colwin’s fans constitute a cult in that they are devoted to her writing as a source of discovery as well as comfort, and acknowledge self-effacement as a virtue in those who know their craft and practice it with modest aplomb.

Colwin by Crampton

Colwin by Crampton

Frank N. Meyer’s Lemon

In August, 1905 a Dutch immigrant, horticulturalist and fitness buff became the first plant explorer hired by the USDA’s newly-created Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction to travel the globe in search of plants useful for American agriculture. The first expedition (he undertook three others through 1918) through China, Manchuria and Korea in 1905 was daunting, to say the least, but Meyer was an enthusiast if not to say fanatic, and the constant travel on foot, the weather, the tumultuous politics and the Spartan living conditions were simply taken in stride.

In the Far East Meyer discovered the eponymous plant now most widely recognized by the general public (horticulturalists are also familiar with Meyer zoysia grass). Though Meyer failed to take note of its origin, he probably purchased the ornamental lemon plant from a nursery in Fentai near Peking. Meyer lemon (Citrus x limona ‘Meyer’ or citrus x meyeri) is most likely a hybrid between Citrus limon, the true lemon, and C. reticulate, the mandarin orange. While the Meyer lemon is larger, juicier and more cold tolerant than true lemons, it doesn’t ship well and has never been widely adopted by the citrus industry. In time, it has become successful in limited local marketing and has become a gourmet selection for any number of culinary uses.

“It Just Stuck”

The Atkinson Candy Company was founded in the east Texas town of Lufkin by B.E. Atkinson, Sr., and his wife, Mabel in the desperate days of 1932, when it was getting hard for anybody to make a living. The company currently operates out of a 100,000 square feet facility and is led by siblings Eric and Amy Atkinson, grandchildren of the founders. The Atkinson Candy Company specializes in peanut butter and peppermint-flavored candies; the current product line includes Coconut Long Boys, Gemstone Candies, Black Cow, Slo Poke and Chick-O-Stick.

Chick-O-Stick is a round bar dusted with ground coconut, the interior honeycombed with peanut butter and the orange hardened syrup/sugar mixture that also forms the shell. When eaten fresh, the candy is dry and brittle, but it has a tendency to draw moisture and become hard and chewy on the shelf. Chick-O-Stick is available in 0.36-ounce (10 g), 0.70-ounce (20 g), 1.0-ounce (28 g), and 2.0-ounce (57 g) sizes, as well as bags of individually wrapped bite-sized pieces.

The original wrapper featured a stylized cartoon of a chicken wearing a cowboy hat and a badge in the shape of the Atkinson logo. The chicken is absent from the more recent wrapper, since it understandably created some confusion over whether Chick-O-Stick was candy or a chicken-flavored cracker. The Atkinson Candy Company’s website states that one of their sales guys just “came up with the name one day, and well, it just stuck.”