Easy Cranberry Brisket

An easy holiday recipe from my friend Ellen, who helps me keep up with my fines at the Welty Library. It’s beautifully succulent, with a sweet/savory tang, rather colorful—as roast meats go—and has a wonderful aroma. Ellen uses a 14-oz. can jellied cranberry sauce to a packet of Lipton Onion Soup Mix for each two pounds of untrimmed brisket. That’s it. She places the brisket in a lightly oiled baking pan, puts slices of cranberry jelly on the meat, shakes the soup mix on top, covers and cooks in a 300 oven until meat is tender. Doubtless more elaborate, “foodie-friendly” versions of this recipe exist, but—speaking strictly for myself—I stand with mouth agape in admiration for the sheer 60s simplicity of this version. Serve with onion rolls and red cabbage slaw.

Easy-to-Peel Eggs

Honestly, this is fool-proof; it doesn’t matter if the eggs are white or brown, cold or room temperature. Simply use a lidded saucepan, place eggs in a single layer, and add enough water to cover them by about a third. I use a steamer rack so I can just lift the eggs in and out. Cover the pan, and bring the water to a vigorous boil. I’ve found that for six eggs in a 2-quart pot,  for 5 minutes will give you firm whites and a warm runny yolk, 8 mins. a soft, firm yolk. I usually put the pot  with the eggs and water on the stove, turn the heat on high, and set the timer for 10 minutes; perfect results, every time. You can drain the eggs, cool in tap water, and  peel. You can keep them in a covered container for a couple of days before using.

Egg in a Basket

Use sturdy bread and a metal cutter. Eat the hole; there’s nothing else you can do with it. Lightly toast bread on both sides in a hot buttered pan, add a pat of butter in the center, and crack an egg into it. Cover to cook through. If you’re feeding several people, you can make these on a cookie sheet in a hot oven. Keep the seasonings simple: salt and black pepper with a dash of smoky paprika.

When Rankin County Rocked

During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance, and drink (as well as a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans. In Jackson, it was the Gold Coast.

When the National Prohibition Act passed in 1919, Will Rogers said, “Mississippians will vote for Prohibition as long as they can stagger to the polls, “which if you ask me takes a lot of balls for an Okie. Mississippi made liquor illegal in 1907, and even though the state eventually put a “black market tax” in place on illegal liquor (the potential for revenue simply could not be ignored) Mississippi did not officially repeal the ban on alcoholic beverages until 1966.

Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast was in and around that area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Even though it covered barely two square miles, it was infamous. In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins. “There is no coast except the hog-wallows of the river banks,” Goins wrote, “but plenty of gold corsses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”

Goins cites Pat Hudson as the first to see the possibilities of lucrative gambling near the junction of the two federal highways (Hwys. 80 and 49) across the river from Jackson where before then there were only gas stations, hot dog stands and liquor peddlers. Then San Seaney began selling branded liquor at his place, The Jeep, which soon became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze. Others sprang up like mushrooms. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of law, but as soon as he cleaned out one den of iniquity another opened. Not only that, he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, and he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.

This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. Governor Hugh White, who in December of 1936 ordered National Guard troops into a business on the Pearl owned by one Guysell McPhail. Liquor was seized as evidence that the place should be shut down, but a Rankin County chancellor later dismissed the case, ruling that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate the local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision, but by that time liquor was flowing and dice were rolling. The governor bided his time.

In the late 40s, a thriving black nightclub culture was in place. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (the only hotel in the South that catered to Negros) with its famous Off-Beat Room, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others, where national jazz and blues acts performed. These establishments ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate (including one that offered a “special bus” to the Gold Coast from Farish and Hamilton Streets).

By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state, but these “golden years” of the Gold Coast came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met each other at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—more often than not, a big-ass catfish turned out to be a body—but this double homicide so inflamed public opinion that illegal operations never dared be so blatant.

In the 50s, black businesses withered in the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education, and the area became dominated by a colorful character named G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought the Gold Coast as securely under his suzerainty as any corrupt satrap might. Red’s reign ended with urban sprawl and development.

Beale Street is back, sort of, and the French Quarter will (thank God) always be the French Quarter, but the Gold Coast is gone, lost in a maze of gravel and mud, weeds, and asphalt.

Singing Turkey

Whoever coined the phrase, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” was more likely referencing Brunnhilda’s final arias in the “Ring” cycle than any specific performer, but at the turn of the last century and no doubt before operatic divas were typically big girls with big voices.

Among them was Luisa Tetrazzini, a robust Florentine soprano whose career peaked in 1905-14.  Tetrazzini dazzled audiences with her chromatic scales, staccato, trills and other such florid effects, and her skill and taste in the delivery of simple melodies was universally admired. The girl had class. Luisa’s great rival was Nellie Melba, an acclaimed Australian soprano with whom she had a bitter feud. (It’s a diva thing.) Escoffier, “the King of Chefs and the chef of kings” created dishes for them both; for Nellie the peach Melba, and for Luisa a soufflé Tetrazzini. While the peach Melba (peach and raspberry sauce over vanilla ice cream) has become a standard (as has Melba toast, also an Escoffier innovation for her during an illness), the soufflé Tetrazzini has been consigned to obscurity.

The dish Luisa is much more remembered for was according to James Beard (and though Beard had a natural bias towards the West Coast, I’ll trust him in this issue as opposed to the Knickerbocker supporters) made in her honor by Ernest Arbogast, the chef at the legendary Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where Tetrazzini resided for two years. Her contemporary Caruso was there during the Great Earthquake in 1906; he never returned, and who can blame him? Luisa’s enduring dish is turkey tetrazzini, a spaghetti dish usually involving our Foremost Fowl, and though we may never know what the original contained, in addition to string pasta and turkey, the tetrazzini usually has mushrooms and vegetables in a Velouté/Mornay sauce topped with Parmesan cheese and baked en casserole.

Even though it has now become such a pedestrian dish that you see versions of it in the lunch buffet at Kroger, for many such as me tetrazzini has become a default leftover turkey dish. Here’s a basic recipe from Fannie Farmer, but bear in mind the variations are endless. I use vermicelli rather than spaghetti, and instead of baking will often just ladle the turkey/sauce mixture over pasta with a sprinkling of cheese.

Cook 1/4 cup tablespoons flour in 1/2 cup butter until foam subsides. Add 2 cups chicken broth, about 1/2 cup heavy cream, a good slosh of dry sherry, and generous dash of nutmeg. Cook, stirring, on medium heat until thickened. To a half pound cooked spaghetti, add about 3 cups diced turkey (or chicken), 2 cups sliced sautéed mushrooms, and about a half cup each of sautéed celery and frozen green peas. Mix very well with sauce along with about half a cup of grated Parmesan. Press mixture into a casserole, top with more Parmesan and bake at 425 for about 15-39 minutes, until lightly browned. Toasted almonds are a nice touch.

The Free State of Calhoun

The following article, written by Col. M.D.L. Stephens, appeared in Calhoun Monitor in 1900, was reprinted June 18, 1931 in The Monitor-Herald and again in July 6, 1972. It later appeared in the newsletter of the Calhoun County Historical Society MS, First Quarter, 2000.

In 1856, Old Dan Rice, the celebrated clown and circus showman, made a venture through Calhoun County, striking Benela first, next day at Pittsboro and thence over to Coffeeville. Being a man of extraordinary abilities and sagacious comprehension by nature as well as the experience of extensive travel, it took him no time to discover the prominent characteristics of the denizens of that inland county.

Really he did not expect to find so far out in the interior a class of people so intelligent and independent. Calhoun’s citizenship made no pretensions in those days at style rather on the
grotesque order. Such a combination, Old Dan, in all of his travels, had never struck before. Evidently their mark made its impression upon his mind as the independent sovereignty he had ever come across in all of his travels, so much so that at his next performance in Coffeeville the next day, he got off some laughable jokes at their expense, which were heartily enjoyed and applauded by her sister county-men attending the circus that day.

The first one the writer remembers was by Old Dan on his little trick mule in the grand entry, which always captivates the audience into an enchanted trance. I may say as they emerge from the dressing tent, indeed there is a charm about the “Grand Entry” of a circus; irresistible, even with the most stable-minded—the beautiful horses of varied colors, the riders in their dazzling costumes, will surely product the same effect that it did upon St. Peter, when that panorama of four-footed beasts descended to earth from the heavens.

After this parade, leaving the ring-master with his four-in-hand whip in hand, Dan Rice and his mule made possession of the ring to round up this initial act with something ludicrous. He made many circuits around the ring, imitating each round some laughable incident real or imaginary. Finally to close the scene, he humped himself as awkwardly as he could, at the same time remarking, “This is the way the Schoonerites rode into Pittsboro yesterday, coming to see Old Dan.”

Of course this brought forth a yelling applause from the Yalobusians. About the same time, however, the little mule was nearing the exit gap in the ring, apparently tired of the game all at once as if imitating his rider, got a vigorous hump in his own back, and just at the gateway, made a sudden stop, sending the clown forward like a flying squirrel, spreading him out in good shape in the dirt, instantly darting in to the dressing tent.

After a few seconds of suspense, Dan rose, hobbling about as though he was disjointed and a fit subject for the hospital for several weeks at least. At this juncture, the ringmaster in way of reproof said, “Oh, yes, my laddie, see what you get by making invidious comparisons?” To which the clown said pathetically, “Master, do you reckon that dang little mule was taking up for them hossiers in Calhoun County?”

“Why, sir, of course he is; he knew every word you said, besides he has relatives over there,
didn’t you see them?”
“Dad drat it, them was the fellows I saw riding that way?”
“Yes, sir,” said the ringmaster.
Cogitating a moment, Old Dan came back to his master, “Say, Mr. Ringmaster, if you wanted to get out of this world without dying, where would you go to?”
“That, sir, is an impossibility; no man can get out of this world unless he dies.”
“No! I know where to get out of this world without dying,” said Dan.
“And where would you go, sir?”
“Why, just over the Schooner, into the Free State of Calhoun!”

The rebel yell followed this enunciation. Many Schoonerites present and their generous natures added in the eclat of that day. In this tour of Dan Rice of Mississippi, The Memphis Appeal had accompanied the show, and reporter and solicitor, and this joke upon Calhoun County seemed to be enjoyed and relished with such tenacity that this reporter sent it to the office and a few days after I read in the humorous column of that paper a verbatim account of Dan’s act in Coffeeville. Afterwards, I heard Old Dan kept the joke all through North Mississippi, which gave the county that notoriety as “The Free State of Calhoun”, and will no doubt follow her through the decades to come. Thus Calhoun County bears that name and is amply able to take care of herself amid exigencies of any sort.

Thanksgiving with Alice

Thanksgiving has a uniquely American song, not the sort that Lincoln might have imagined when he inaugurated the holiday in 1863, but “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is revolutionary, irreverent and earthy; in short, as American as pumpkin pie.

“Now it all started two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the Restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

“I think a lot of people who are interested in food fantasize about having a restaurant,” Alice Brock writes in My Life As a Restaurant (1975). “I never did. I was twenty-five, married and crazy. I was a captive in a situation I had very little control over other than the role of cook and nag—being a hippy housewife was not satisfying. I had a world of fantasies; none included a restaurant, but all were based on the assumption that I would be my own person, on my own trip.”

Alice’s mother, who was a real estate broker in Stockbridge and determined to get her daughter out of her “situation”, called her one day and asked her to go with her and look at a little luncheonette for sale down an alley in the middle of town. “It had a counter down one side and three or four booths on the other side, and a tiny ill-equipped kitchen in the back,” Alice remembers. “It was painted two-tone institutional green, and it was definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own. But it was a chance, a chance to escape. Before we left, I was hooked. I was already creating a menu, I was already free. Those moments, when suddenly an opportunity appears, a door opens—they are what life is all about.”

Alice called her restaurant “The Back Room”. “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing,” she admits. “I can’t believe how innocent I was. But it didn’t matter.” Opening night was a near-disaster, “a nightmare”, but she persevered, and soon she and her sister, who was also in a “situation”, were staying up all night cooking things she later wouldn’t consider for hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners and working five hours making thirty portions of some exotic soup that would vanish in twenty minutes the next day. “I was crazy, she said, “but I know that for all our unprofessionalism, we cooked some pretty wonderful dishes, and I established a reputation as a cook.”

The summer of 1966 was a magical time for Stockbridge; the Berkshire Playhouse had reorganized with an eye to becoming more than just a summer stock theater, attracting stars and would-be stars to the town. “Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman liked hamburgers with onion, green peppers, and an egg in them,” Alice writes. “Frank Langella was called ‘Mr. Mushroom Omelet’. Ann Bancroft was wonderful, and when her whole family came, I cooked giant meals; when they stayed late, she helped me clear the table.”

One spring morning a year after opening, Alice says that she walked through the front door and freaked out. “I felt that instead of owning it, it owned me. The plates were out to get me, the pots were planning an attack, the stove was laughing at me. I had a terrible urge to smash everything.” Instead, she called Eastern Airlines and booked a midnight flight to Puerto Rico, emptied the cash box and gave away all the food. “It was a wonderful restaurant. It was a success. I ran it for one year. It turned me into a madwoman. I made enemies of old friends. I broke up with my husband. I left my home. I had actually broken free and become my own person. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant. Never say never.”

Alice Brock went on to open not one but several more restaurants; she now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she owns an art gallery. After Arlo premiered “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” before a captivated crowd of over ten thousand at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, 1967, he performed it live on non-commercial New York City radio station WBAI one night later that summer. The song became so popular that for months afterward WBAI rebroadcast it only when listeners pledged to donate a large amount of money. The eponymous (less the massacree) album was released that same year, with the song (at 18:20) taking up the entire first side, the other filled with a selection of bluesy folk tunes. The ballad has become a Thanksgiving tradition not only for classic rock stations, but for thousands of households across the nation.

Marbled Sweet Potato Cheesecake

Sweet potatoes blended with a fool-proof New York-style cheesecake; fun to make, sumptuous results. The cheesecake filling is 16 oz. cream cheese, 2/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and two large eggs. The sweet potato filling is two cups of “candied” sweet potatoes pureed and mixed with 1/2 cup whole cream, 1/2 cup sugar, two eggs and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. The crust is a box of graham cracker crumbs–adding crushed pecans is a nice touch–mixed with a stick and a half of melted butter, a cup of brown sugar, packed into an 8″ spring-form pan and refrigerated until firm. Drop both filling mixtures alternately around the crust, then take a spoon and swirl it around a little bit. Be artistic; think about finger-painting a wet mud pie. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, lower heat and cool for an hour. Refrigerate before slicing.

Classic Southern Giblet Gravy

You must use a quart of the clearest, richest broth thickened while hot with a thin paste of corn starch and water. To this add the yolks of at least two eggs which have been creamed with a pat of butter. Then add four more chopped hard boiled eggs (yolks and whites), the cooked and chopped livers and gizzards of the turkey as well as the hen you used for your stock (about two cups), but not the meat from the necks, which are superfluous and troublesome. I often add a half cup of chopped, sauteed celery for texture. Salt to taste and season with white pepper. Parsley is pretty, and a smidgen of thyme is a nice accent.

The Cheese Straw Alternative

Admit it; making cheese straws is a pain in the butt. Though they’re a must on your browsing buffets (if not, someone sniffy is bound to say, “Oh, I should have brought you MY WONDERFUL cheese straws!”), they still aren’t something you might feel like throwing together for a more casual gathering like a bowl game, backyard picnic or that special moment when you both decided to get married last night and your mother(s) held you at gunpoint to have a reception.

Fortunately there is an alternative to dragging out the cookie press, stuffing it full of dough, mushing out the sticks and (worst part) cleaning the press.: Brit cheddar biscuits. Now, what the Brits call biscuits are a far cry from our big, fluffy Southern variety; over the Pond, our biscuits would be called scones, while what Brits and their ilk call biscuits are more like what we would call wafers or cookies. So while you might be most familiar with cheese biscuits along the lines of those at Red Lobster, the Brits do a cheese biscuit that’s thin, crisp, and a hell of a lot easier to make than straws.

Simply make a dough with one cup plain flour, one cup grated sharp cheddar and one stick of softened butter, add a little salt, a little white pepper, roll out, shape with a cookie cutter (which is quite easy to clean) and bake at 350 until nice and crisp. Dust with strong paprika and a little cayenne thrown in to piss off the preacher.