Nan is one of those people who’ll make you beg for a recipe just because they like the attention of being begged for it. We all know these pests. When I asked her for this recipe, she kept putting me off, saying she did not know where she had it written down when I knew very well she had it in that little Colonel Rebel recipe box she keeps on top of her refrigerator next to the paper towels. But I was patient and persistent, called her up one night and found her in the right mood–likely well into a bottle of that cheap rosé she gets Ricky to buy for her because she thinks people would talk, like anyone cares at all–so she read it to me over the phone, and I could just see her wagging her finger at me after every other sentence. It took her fifteen minutes, swear to God.
“Dissolve one package yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. When yeast begins to work, add 1/2 cup sugar, another 1 1/2 cup water, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons salt. Blend until sugar is dissolved, add 3 large eggs and beat well. To this mixture, add 2 cups plain flour and blend until smooth. Gradually add enough flour (up to 4 or more cups) and mix well to make soft dough. Cover dough and refrigerate for at least eight hours. When ready to bake, form dough into balls, place in a jelly roll pan or pie plate and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, bake for 15-20 minutes until brown. The dough will keep for up to four days covered in the refrigerator.”
All of my life, I’ve heard sorghum syrup called molasses, so it came as something of a shock when I read recently that sorghum molasses is not considered a “true” molasses by certain authorities. These same people will tell you that the only real molasses comes from sugar cane and beets, though in the same breath they will also say it can be made from grapes, dates, pomegranates, mulberries, and carob, which certainly muddles the definition. Thoreau, in one of his more superfluous tangents, claims he made “excellent molasses from pumpkins”, exhibiting an appealing disregard for the fine line between molasses and syrup.
The process for making what passes as true molasses seems complicated, since once the canes (or beets) are crushed (or mashed), the juice is boiled to concentrate and crystallize the sugar. This stage produces the “first molasses” which has the highest sugar content. Boiling the cane/beet juice again produces “second molasses” (!), and the third boiling produces blackstrap. This is a simple process of reduction identical to the one used to make sorghum molasses which even Harold McGee, the genius who wrote the authoritative On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, claims is a syrup. What it boils down to (sorry) is a matter of terms; if I want to call sorghum syrup a molasses, then I will and do.
Like any sugar in solution (i.e. a syrup), sorghum molasses differs in taste and texture depending on the length of time it’s reduced, resulting in varying degrees of caramelization. I’ve seen blackstrap-style sorghum as well as sorghum pale as honey. Me, I prefer it light, retaining just a shadow of the golden-green color I remember from my childhood having from a dipper over a simmering pan of syrup, in Ellard, Mississippi, a memory I’m more likely to realize now since rural family-run sorghum cane mills are making a comeback.
Be advised that the production of sorghum molasses remains a largely commercial enterprise, and there are dozens of brands on the shelves throughout the region, but most of these are not pure sorghum molasses; if you read the ingredients, corn syrup will likely be the first ingredient listed. Unadulterated sorghum can always be found in autumn at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. Go there and find it.
Dice a pound of sweet banana peppers (throw a hot one in if you like), a bell pepper, a large white onion and a finely shred quarter head of cabbage. Add a grated carrot and two finely-minced cloves of garlic. Dust with salt and sugar (about 3:1), pack into jars, and cover with hot vinegar. Seal and store for a week. This is great with grilled meats of any kind, particularly sausages, and a good side with spicy beans.
My grandmother Emma would sit me on a kitchen stool and tell me stories while she cooked. I can hear her voice, low and level, moving with her work, smell the cornbread in the oven, and see the softly plopping pot of beans on the back of the stove. She told me how she jumped rope with her sisters, about the tomatoes her grandfather grew, and she’d rap her spoon on the side of the sink to make a sound like sudden rains on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.”
She told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all.
“Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”
Emma would smile and tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see ‘em in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see ‘em in the store. The only place blue roses grow is Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”
She told me that ocean air keeps the mountains cloaked from the sun, but at night, when the north wind comes down from desert sands, the skies clear, the moon shines on the grey-green slopes, and roses with blossoms as blue as a gas flame climb toward the pale stars.
When Emma died my heart broke into a million pieces, but in remembering, my heart becomes whole. If I find blue roses in a catalog, I smile because I know blue roses only grow in Africa, on the misty slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.
In 1981, Forrest L. Cooper and Donald F. Garrett published a selection of old postcards of Jackson from about 1902 until the mid-1950s, with more than 90% prior to 1920. The text was written by Carl McIntire, a self-professed “reporter, not a historian,” who nonetheless spent an enormous amount of time on the project, doing extensive research and interviewing more than 300 people. McIntire admitted to a margin of error, but states that “for the most part, all the dates and places are correct.” The book had a very limited printing and has hitherto never been republished. The link below will take you to a digital version of this exquisitely nuanced, intricately informative, and infinitely beautiful labor of love.
Brown a quarter pound of pork sausage in a quarter cup oil. Sprinkle in two heaping tablespoons plain flour, mix well, and cook until it quits bubbling. Stir in a cup each of water and milk. Reduce heat and cook down on the thin side; it will thicken when served.
My father was a GI in the Pacific, so I grew up with Spam. We’d have it fried with eggs for breakfast, slathered with mayo on Wonder bread for lunch, and with potatoes for dinner.
The bone of contention with scalloped potatoes is whether to add cheese or not. Purists (I’m one) opt for a rich white sauce over thinly sliced potatoes (I like to use reds) baked in medium heat until potatoes are tender.
By official records, navy bean soup has been on the menu of the U.S. Senate dining room every day since the early 20th century, but John Egerton claims that “it was a fixture on the menu in the Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s,” and suggests that Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho was the moving force behind a resolution requiring that the soup be served every day to members of that august body, though he also mentions Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota as the author in 1903. Egerton writes that the official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California” (WHAT a queen).
Edgerton also argues that the soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina or Alabama or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition. “Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South. “There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims, with justice.
Fortunately for us sans sans-culottes, you don’t have to lie, buy or steal your way into the U.S. Senate to enjoy navy bean soup. Here’s my recipe; it’s not official by any stretch, but it’s wonderful, all the same. Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water by half, and place in a low oven for about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool; throw away the rind, de-bone, chop the meat and add back to the beans along with one finely-chopped large onion sauteed in oil with two minced cloves of garlic. You can throw in a stalk or two of chopped cooked celery if you like. Add water if needed, simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste.
Almost twenty years after Allison’s Wells burned in 1963, O.C. McDavid, former managing editor of the Jackson Daily News and a noted sculpture artist, was approached by Hosford Fontaine to assist in a book with recipes. In turn, McDavid enlisted Marilyn Bonney, who owned Press & Palette in Canton Mart, to print the 68-page book. According to Marilyn, “I printed it using paper plates which were a one-time use. I don’t remember the exact number printed, but it was probably1,000. The plan was not to sell it, but O.C. and Hosford gave it to people they knew, and I did the same.” In a similar spirit, with hopes of perpetuating Hosford’s wonderful work, here’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa by Hosford Latimer Fontaine.
You can make a basic olive relish on the fly with chopped green olives (I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t have one of those little upright jars of green pimento olives biding time somewhere in their refrigerator) and olive oil. Vegetable oil will do in a pinch. Up the game with a variety of olives, onion, artichoke hearts, pickled tomatoes, mild peppers, and okra. Salt lightly. A roasted garlic clove mashed with ground peppercorns is a nice touch.