Penny Eggs

Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew.

Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the hearkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.

Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other.

Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors.

He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common.

Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.

“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”

Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage.

If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from bush hogs that had run over an old fence.

“You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.

“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny.

“You’re eight years old, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”

“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless.

I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, pink salmon, and saltines.

He lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his heart.

4/20 Fudge

This Alice B. Toklas Cookbook recipe was omitted in the first American publication (1954) but was included in the second (1960). Here’s Alice’s recipe from the 1984 edition:

Haschich Fudge (which anyone could whip up on a rainy day)

This is the food of Paradise—of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises; it might provide entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by un évanouissement revelle’.

Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts; chop these and mix them together. A bunch of cannabis sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.

Obtaining the cannabis may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as cannabis sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognized, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called cannabis indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.

Sardine Salad

Take Port Clydes in oil, drain, drizzle with lemon juice and salt, and put them in the refrigerator to chill. Serve with gherkins, celery, onions, and boiled/pickled eggs. Dill toast is wonderful, but rye Melba will suffice, and saltines will do any time at all.

 

Drama Peas

As a librarian 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, and if we didn’t have enough copies of the latest John Grisham potboiler, they’d fight over them.

We once had to disarm a dame wielding a plastic knife. 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.”

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 peas in the pod.

Being a fugitive 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—just yakkin’ up a storm the whole time—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 Sultan of Jazz: A Black Russian from Mississippi

If you were to travel back in time to Constantinople’s Taksim Square in the 1920s, you might hear the lively beat from Club Maxim. Inside, you’d likely find a black man in a top hat, perhaps with a pipe in his hand. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he’d overcome “difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man.”

This would be Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the Mississippi farm boy who became a Moscow impresario and introduced jazz to Asia.

Thomas was born June 12th, 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who owned 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Mississippi. In 1886, a white planter took over their land. Against all odds, the Thomas family sued the planter, and in what must have been one of the few successful cases for black landowners at the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, the planter appealed and, under threat, in 1890 the Thomas family decided to leave Mississippi and settle in Memphis. In late October, 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a jealous husband.

A short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails, first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He went to Europe in 1894, and in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia.

Thomas’s career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. He found no color line in Moscow, where he worked for ten years as a waiter, a butler, and a valet, before becoming assistant to the owner of Yar, the city’s most prominent café-theatre. The Sokolovsky gypsy choir performed there on a regular basis and their songs about their years as slaves likely reminded him of his own people’s story.

Yar was frequented by the bourgeoisie of Moscow and Frederick Thomas became the darling of the wealthy clientele. By 1911 he had earned enough money to open an entertainment garden, “Aquarium,” with the help of two Russian partners. In 1912, he rented a music venue in the city center called “Maxim” which very quickly became popular with wealthy Muscovites.

In Russia, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Ironically, he also had history on his side. The African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century, and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, became an icon of Russian literature.

With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots, Aquarium and Maxim, became the spots in which to be seen (and from which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. Black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”

Frederick Thomas blossomed in Moscow. He obtained Russian citizenship, was married three times and had five children. Around 1914, he bought a dacha near Odessa and he also owned buildings in Moscow. An African-American immigrant from Mississippi, the son of slaves, had made a fortune in Russia.

But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas found himself on the wrong side. His newly acquired wealth trumped his past oppression as a black man in the United States. He went to Odessa, but the city was evacuated in April 1919 by the French and British forces allied to the White Army. He managed to embark with his wife Elvira, his children and other refugees on the Russian ship “Emperor Nicholas” bound for Constantinople.

Arriving in the Ottoman capital, he hastened to the American embassy to seek help, or even repatriation to the United States. Officials at the embassy refused to recognize his American nationality and therefore refused to help him; his skin color undoubtedly played a decisive role.

Having lost all his wealth, Frederick Thomas started to do business again in Constantinople, like many Russian refugees. After three months, he opened his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the “Stella Club”) on August 31, 1919, with acts by “Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom.” Thanks to his new establishment’s success, he rented the basement of the Magic cinema with gardens in Pera in 1921, and transformed it into a jazz and night club. He named it “Maxim” in memory of Maxim in Moscow which had allowed him to start his career in the entertainment world.  Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headlined the first season, 1921-22.

Though opening “Maxim” left Thomas on the verge of bankruptcy, business at last started to pick up. After the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, you probably would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance.

Despite the economic and political upheavals of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Frederick Thomas succeeded in making his establishment the most popular place in the city.  He was the first person to import jazz to Turkey, and its popularity among the city’s natives and swarms of well-heeled tourists consolidated his success and made him rich once again. All those who remained of the Stanbuliot bourgeoisie, along with the English and French soldiers occupying the capital, hurried to listen to jazz at Maxim. Thomas became known as the “Sultan of Jazz.”

It’s astonishing that a black American who’d left the U.S. in 1894 and became a Russian citizen in 1914 was bringing America’s greatest music to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee. Ottoman Turkish had no word for Negro. Thomas told those who visited his clubs “he was ‘conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,’ which would amount to $10 million today.

Then, during the first years of the Turkish Republic, business began to decline. Foreigners and a large part of the bourgeoisie had left the city, while embassies and their staff began to be transferred to the new capital, Ankara. Frederick Thomas plunged into debt. Unable to pay his creditors, they had him put in jail and seized his nightclub, which they renamed “Yeni Maksim”.

Frederick Thomas was never to recover. Although his skin color was of no concern to the Turks, he could not avoid dealing with the diplomats in the American Consulate General in Constantinople, or with their racist superiors in the State Department. When he most needed their help, they refused to recognize him as an American and to give him legal protection.

Abandoned by the United States, and caught between the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic and his own extravagance, Thomas fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in Constantinople on July 12th, 1928 at Pasteur Hospital in Taksim. Forgotten by the Americans, Russians, Stanbuliots and all those he had entertained throughout Europe, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was laid to rest at the Protestant Feriköy Cemetery in Istanbul, far away from the “most Southern place on earth.”

(Thomas’s biography, The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov, was released by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2013.)

A Proper Fool

Some people make a fool with yogurt or (Lord help us) instant pudding, but to make a proper fool, you must make custard.

For six servings, scald two cups milk. Cool and add a blend of two well-beaten eggs with a half cup sugar and a teaspoon vanilla. Pour into a double boiler. As it begins to thicken, add a tablespoon of corn starch blended very well in a tablespoon of milk. Once very thick, refrigerate until firm.

To two cups sliced fruit, add a quarter cup sugar and macerate for at least a half hour. Stir if you can think about doing so. Layer fruit and custard, top with stiff cream. Chill and garnish–a dust of nutmeg is a nice touch–before serving.

Two Potato Bake

If, like me, you find sweet potatoes too sugary for many menus, this combination provides a semi-savory option.

Peel and slice on the thin side waxy white and sweet potatoes, layer in a lightly buttered casserole, gratin, or skillet–be artistic–with sprinklings of salt, pepper,  and thyme.

Brush lavishly with melted butter and bake at 350 until the tops crisp and brown.

 

Desegregation at Millsaps College

Dr. Benjamin Graves inherited the wind when he became the seventh president of Millsaps College in 1965.

Graves, a native of Jones County, graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1942. He received a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard and a PhD. from LSU. He was an associate professor at the University of Virginia, and taught at LSU before coming to Millsaps.

He vacillated over the Board’s offer of the presidency; he was well aware that his predecessor, Homer Ellis Finger Jr., had been subjected to criticism from hard-line segregationists for his moderate views. But once decided, Graves took the helm firmly in hand.

Graves arrived at the College in February. At a meeting of the Millsaps College Board of Trustees that month, it was unanimously decided by the governing body to consider all qualified applicants for enrollment at the College. This news made headlines: Millsaps had become the first institution of higher learning in the Mississippi to voluntarily lower its racial barriers.

According to the statement issued by the Board of Trustees, the College stood to lose approximately $200,000 if it did not comply with the Civil Rights Act. The statementstressed that there would be no relaxation of scholastic qualifications, and said that the college would oppose the efforts of any extremist persons or groups “to use the campus, its facilities, its faculty or its students as vehicles for activities unrelated or detrimental to the educational purpose of the College.”

Though the Board had made its position clear, it was up to Graves to convince supporters and alumni of the College that this transition was implemented to move Millsaps forward as a superior institution of higher learning. Immediately after the Board’s announcement, he mailed the Board’s statement and a personal letter to the alumni:

“Unless we can continue to receive your support as alumni, the support of the Methodist Church and our other friends, this institution could sink into oblivion. On the other hand, if we make a successful adjustment, which we believe is going to be relatively easy, we can make this college one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the United States.”

Although some faculty and Board members felt that the loss of federal funds was the motivating factor in the Board’s decision, the Millsaps Associates, countless alumni, and both conferences of the Methodist Church in Mississippi gave Millsaps their support.

Millsaps enrolled its first black student on June 8, 1965.

R. Crumb’s Five Joint Soup

1⁄4 cup mung peas
1⁄4 cup azuki peas
1⁄4 cup lentils and/or split peas Cranberry beans – enough to
cover bottom of kettle
1⁄2 bunch celery
1 lb. carrots
4 large yellow onions.
1 bunch bok choy
1⁄2 cup chard
1 medium potato
Any vegetable to taste – solid ones first, leafy ones last
1 tomato
4 lb. sliced mushrooms
2 cubes of beef or chicken bouillon
1-2 cups red wine (any cheap, dry red goofy)
Grated Parmesan cheese

Use a large kettle (can be picked up for about a quarter at most thrift shops) of 1 gallon or more capacity. Put enough water in the kettle to reach 2-3 inches up the sides. Pour in cranberry beans and other beans and peas, I sliced onion, and 3 stalks chopped celery, including leafy part.
Season with liberal/radical amounts of salt, black pepper, celery salt, thyme, oregano.
Season conservatively with bay leaves, allspice.
Season fascistically with cayenne or curry powder.
Season piggishly with chili powder.

1. Let this first part cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour. As it comes to boil, stir occasionally.
2. Now during the first hour of cooking, get away from the stove, sit down, roll one, have some tea, look out the window-relax.
3. After one hour begin adding vegetables-hard ones first-celery, carrots, potato, etc.
4. Put in leafy vegetables after the second hour.
5. Add mushrooms and tomato in the last 20 minutes, wine in the last 5 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese before serving.