Collards at Tara

Fiction writers  concern themselves more  with the turmoil of the human condition (usually theirs) than soups and sandwiches (like the rest of us), but you’re going to find food mentioned in many novels. It is, after all, an essential element of existence itself.

Margaret Mitchell was born to an upper-class home in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, and her family roots sank deep into antebellum Georgia. Given the social dynamics of her upbringing, she was certainly well-informed when it came to that period’s Southern table, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find a notable description of an antebellum spread in Gone with the Wind.

When Ashley came home from the war for Christmas, the table was still graced with Aunt Pittypat’s Sèvres, but the only things to eat were sweet potatoes–a perennial staple of hardship from any quarter–and a skinny rooster Uncle Peter had put out of its misery, Scarlett remembered Tara’s groaning boards:

There were apples, Yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare. A the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air. How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

While most of these dishes seem apt for a wealthy, socially prominent Georgia plantation meal in the 1830’s, some people (admittedly me among them) might find the presence of collards in a porcelain tureen jarring because I’m such a stuck-up redneck, but stewed collards fit on the table in any damn thing that will hold them. I’ll be the first one to say turnips are good, too, but not raw with red mud on them, for chrissakes.

No-Fail French Toast

This simple recipe is very old and is known by many names, most famously French toast, which likely comes from pain perdu, “lost bread”. Usually served as a sweet dish, I prefer it simply seasoned with salt and pepper. It’s best to use a thick cut wheat. Sourdough gives it an off flavor.

Beat three eggs in a cup of milk or half-and-half. Season with salt and pepper; add a little vanilla if you plan to serve it sweet. Sop dried bread slices in egg/milk mixture and pan-fry in butter until nicely browned.

Lemon Ice

For each cup of finely crushed ice, add 1/4 cup granulated sugar and the juice of a lemon.  A drop of vanilla is a nice touch. Mix very well and serve with ginger snaps.

 

Poke Salad

Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that the Indian tribes eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.”

“They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”

Much like ramps, poke salad was eaten as a spring green because it was one of the first edible herbs to appear, giving a much-needed break from the beans, cornbread and salt pork diet of winter. In April 2000, Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas canned its last batch of “poke sallet” greens. As late as 1990 at least two processing plants continued the tradition, Bush Brothers of Tennessee and Allen of Siloam Springs. Surprisingly, one of the best markets for canned poke was southern  California due to the many “Oakies” who settled there in the ‘30s. John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen Canning, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bring it to our buying locations.” Also, poke processing was never a significant item in their mult-imillion-dollar enterprise, so it just became more bother than it was worth.

The only drawback to poke salad is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is not only safe but delicious. Here’s how you do it: harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke. Wash, stem and trim. Boil them for about ten minutes in plenty of salt water. Then drain, rinse and simmer for a while with just a bit more lightly salted water and a bit of oil of some kind. A slit hot pepper pod of the slender sort is a nice touch, and adding big pinch of sugar is something you just ought to do. Trust me.

Use prepared poke much as you would spinach; Euell has a poke salad dip in his book. I like it with scrambled eggs and onion, and it’s wonderful in an omelette.

Asparagus Florentine

Perhaps the most charming aspect of language is folk etymology in which an unfamiliar word from another language is replaced by one more recognizable to native speakers. The most outstanding example of this process in English is sparrow grass, the old name for asparagus, which took root in the language in Shakespeare’s day and flourished until the reign of Queen Victoria. During that time, calling this vegetable asparagus carried “an air of stiffness and pedantry”, as the vegetable itself still does to this day.

Oh, yes; asparagus has undeniable snob appeal. A certain sign of this is that in the spring, when asparagus spears begin to storm the produce markets, food columnists wax rapturous over ways to ruin the flavor of this delicate vegetable by stir-frying it with peppers in vile olive oil (with garlic, no less), dusting it with every manner of herbs and spices (even curry, for Pete’s sake) or covering it with a sauce that overpowers the vegetable (Salsa? You’ve GOT to be kidding …). Like many spring vegetables including green or “English” peas, few people know what fresh asparagus tastes like, since the spears you get in the markets are invariably days old, and by then the flavor has been lost. People who grew up on a farm will remember how essential it was to pick sweet corn in a short time before cooking because the sugars in the kernels begin to revert to starch immediately after the ears are taken from the stalks. While asparagus has a lower sugar or starch content than both corn and peas, the same process is at work, and nothing can compare to freshly-harvested asparagus prepared for the table.

Alas and alack, asparagus is not widely grown in the South; it is a cool weather vegetable, which means that in the South, particularly the lower South, we do not have the requisite long periods of cold weather needed for the plant. It’s also somewhat fussy, requiring more care than most people are willing to devote to a perennial vegetable that takes up a lot of room and has a very short season. If you’re lucky enough to know someone diligent enough to grow asparagus, more power to you, but most of us have to settle with the stalks in the market. Buy bunches as soon as you see them in the produce section, and you’re lucky if you’ll find them upright in a container with water.

Freshly-picked asparagus is best served simply, with butter or a simple cream sauce. This Florentine is admittedly a stretch, but given that the spears I’m using and likely those you will are well past their salad days–in the most literal sense–I feel justified. A Florentine of any designation includes spinach, but a Florentine sauce can be any number of sauces, usually a simple sauce, but here a Mornay. Trim spears tough ends, boil in lightly-salted water until just tender, drain and cool immediately. Make your sauce with a butter roux, whole cream and a good grated hard, dry cheese, adding a cup of fresh stemmed and chopped spinach lightly cooked in butter. In for a penny, in for a pound, I recommend a thick sauce.  Spoon cooled sauce over steamed spears in a lightly buttered oven-proof dish, topping with a bit more grated cheese and broiling until lightly browned and bubbly.

How to Fry Baloney

Though we must stop short of calling it a ritual, frying baloney does take some presence of mind. First, the baloney must be thinly sliced, and the peel around the rim must be removed and chewed. (Swallowing is not recommended.) You must also cut slits in the slice, no less than four radiating from the middle, or else your baloney is going to buckle, and you don’t want that to happen. Deep-fried baloney is the food of the gods, but if you’re just frying slices, you don’t want a lot of grease in the skillet. Finally, baloney must be blistered, some say even to the point of being singed (high five) before putting it between two mayonnaise-laden slices of Sunshine soft white sandwich bread.

Egg Salad Angst

Egg salad simply screams of ladies’ luncheons and soda fountain sandwiches. Pimento and cheese once simpered under a similar association, but now, thanks to the same Southern machismo ethic that has established eating a white bread Vidalia onion sandwich dribbling Duke’s mayo over the kitchen sink virtually a rite of passage, P&C has transcended effete associations and is even found served in micro-breweries with an unassuming yet authoritative amber larger and parsnip chips. Still and all, the South is nothing if not traditional, and while egg salad might certainly be served on pumpernickel at some happy hour buffet in a west Florida leather bar, by far for the most part it endures as a staple at occasions with a heavy distaff attendance such as christenings, weddings and of course those endless, inevitable funerals.

Basic egg salad is just chopped, cooked—usually boiled—eggs blended with a sauce or emulsion to make a spread, but as with most simple recipes, variations abound and additions are discussed, debated and occasionally disputed. For instance, olives seem to be a traditional addition throughout the nation, but most recipes from the South tend to include black olives whereas above the Mason-Dixon Line green olives with pim(i)ento stuffing is the general rule. Woody Allen trivialized egg salad in his 1966 feature film debut as the object of Phil Moskowitz’s search for the stolen recipe of the Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, giving heft to my argument that when it comes to egg salad people can work themselves into a steaming froth over seemingly the most insignificant details, which puts egg salad right up there with art, law and religion, right where it should be.

Though I’m certain some misguided, unbalanced individuals actually do make egg salad with scrambled eggs, or horror of horrors compounded mangled omelets, or even worse God help us please not mashed quiche, use whole boiled eggs. Peeled. I mash then with a wide-tined fork (swear to God I knew a gal who used a baby food jar) and add mayonnaise to bind. Adjust the amount to your own tastes; me, I like it a little on the dry/chunky side as opposed to the creamy/smooth. I use canned, pitted jumbo black olives, and a little olive oil is a nice touch. Finely-chopped celery and green onion give egg salad a better texture, a dash of vinegar gives it a little bite. I like mine peppery, served on rye toast with a light Pilsner, not larger, you knuckle-dragging Philistines.

 

Buildings of Mississippi: A Review

Books about Mississippi architecture tend to focus on poverty-stricken African-American communities or the antebellum and Victorian-era mansions of the state’s white elite. Buildings of Mississippi finally puts them side-by-side, as they actually have been for centuries.

“Our goal from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes,” said co-author Jennifer Baughn. “This book helps illustrate how the two races did interact in some ways, and in other ways were separated.”

Nine years in the making, Buildings of Mississippi is the 26th volume of the Buildings of the United States (BUS) series commissioned by the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). This series documents state-by-state the full range of structures that are deemed of historical or architectural interest by experts in the field. Jennifer V. O. Baughn is Chief Architectural Historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the author of numerous articles on the state’s historic buildings. The late Michael W. Fazio was Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Mississippi State University and coauthor of Buildings across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture. Mary Warren Miller is Executive Director Emeritus of the Historic Natchez Foundation and coauthor of The Great Houses of Natchez.

Illustrated with photographs and maps, and newly redesigned in a more user-friendly format, readers of Buildings of Mississippi will come to know the history of 557 sites, illustrated by 249 photographs (all but 33 taken by Baughn and Fazio) and 29 maps. Along with stately plantation houses (and their housings for slaves), the volume surveys a range of other locations such as Native American mounds and villages, 20th-century enclaves built for sawmill workers, neighborhoods that bolstered black Mississippians during segregation, and the vernacular streetscapes of small towns as well as modern architecture in Greenville, Meridian, Jackson, and Biloxi.

The buildings are grouped into twelve regions that move roughly from the southwest corner of the state to the north, the east, the center, and then south to the Gulf Coast. Buildings of Mississippi includes such wide-ranging places as Longwood and Wister Gardens, Poor Monkeys, Club Ebony, and Dockery Farms in the Delta, the Coca Cola Company in McComb, Ginntown Rosenwald School near Tylertown, Holy Child Jesus Catholic Church in Canton, Shiloh Methodist Campground and Piney Woods School in Rankin County, the fabulous St. Michaels Catholic Church (round with a clam shell roof) in Biloxi, and the oldest house in the Mississippi Valley, “Old Spanish Fort”/de la Pointe-Krebs House in Pascagoula.

Baughn said that the books in the series used to be hardback, and were more like reference works. That seemed puzzling to her, since reference books on such a specialized subject have primarily professional appeal. The new field guide format is a recent innovation, and Baughn considers it a more natural option, more appealing to a wider readership, people who might put the book in a car or backpack for a trip. Buildings of Mississippi is also the first book in the series to be all color.

“The criteria for inclusion were determined both by the SAH and our own knowledge and research,” Baughn said. “We generally focused on buildings that were on the National Register, or in the case of buildings from the 1960s through the present, we tried to identify those that were important for historical events or had won architectural awards. And once we started writing, as Michael Fazio said, the building had to have ‘a hook, a story’ that would make it an interesting entry for the reader.”

The buildings must still be standing, so there are no non-existent buildings included. They also must be accessible from a public right-of way or open to the public. “Unfortunately,” Baughn said, “that criteria excluded many rural houses that can’t be seen from a public right-of-way and aren’t public houses.”

“The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), considers this to have an international audience. Well, I don’t know international audiences,” Baughn said. “My audience is the average Mississippian who enjoys history and historic buildings, and who likes going out in the state, driving around their town, small or large. I thought if these people were happy with the work, then international visitors would be happy, too.”

Buildings of Mississippi is an important work that brings the research on our state’s historic architecture up-to-date. The scholarship supporting the text is impeccable. The format is accessible to armchair historians and weekend travelers as well as tourists, and the illustrations—particularly the photographs—are lavish and outstanding. This book belongs in the hands of all Mississippians intrigued with our past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hollandaise Sauce

The sauce is called hollandaise (“Dutch sauce”) because of the amount of butter used. At least, that’s one theory; like most old recipes, nobody really knows. This is my method for hollandaise, and while it’s the reverse of most methods, which add the eggs to the butter, it works quite well. Simply whip three large egg yolks at room temperature–be careful not to get any whites in the mix–and a teaspoon warm water until light and fluffy. Then, whisking continually, slowly dribble in a half cup (1 stick) warm (melted) butter (unsalted). Add a squeeze of lemon juice, a dash of cayenne, and salt to taste. It shouldn’t break, but if it starts to separate, whisk in another teaspoon warm water.