In February, 1944, Laura Z. Hobson, a 43-year-old, divorced Jewish mother in Manhattan, read an article in Time magazine that reported Mississippi Rep. John Rankin had called Walter Winchell a “kike.”
Hobson was outraged, even more so to read that nobody in Congress protested, particularly during the height of the Holocaust. She wrote about the Rankin incident in her first draft of Gentleman’s Agreement, the story of a Gentile reporter who pretends to be Jewish to investigate anti-Semitism.
That someone as all-American as the reporter, played by Gregory Peck, succeeded with such a masquerade was a twist on the traditional black “passing” story. The novel was serialized by Cosmopolitan in 1946 and published by Simon & Schuster in 1947.
In 1948, the movie, produced by Darryl Zanuck, a Gentile, received the Oscar for best picture.
For four cups of fruit make two cups of simple syrup with a teaspoon of vanilla; a dust of nutmeg is a nice touch. Stew fruit in syrup just enough to color and flavor. Pour into a deep baking dish.
Make biscuit dough using sweet milk and sugar, knead lightly, and roll out to about a quarter inch. Cut into strips and drop by pieces into the hot fruit/syrup mixture. Spoon some syrup over dough. Bake in hot (350-400) oven until browned and bubbling.
If don’t serve this with a scoop of vanilla ice cream the devil will drag you to hell by your short hairs.
This surprisingly poetic account of an all-day singing was submitted sometime in 1941 to the Works Project Administration by a Mississippi writer working on the “America Eats!” project .
There is an old axiom that fighting and feuding are easily plowed under with food and song. Certainly, a man can stand up by his neighbor and sing “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound!” and then turn around and feud with him about a hog, a dog, or a fence line.
Not a Mississippi man, anyway. For, although a Mississippian gets tempered up in a hurry, he is also believed to be form with a prayer in his heart, a song on his lips, and an unwavering appetite for picnic food. All day singing with dinner on the ground has come to serve him as “hatchet-burying” time as well as a singing and easing session.
In one section of the state there is a tri-county singing association that meets twice a year, and when that group of voices bears down the mules hitched below the hill start in to bray. From the first notes that are sung until the last leader calls for “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” singing sometimes throughout the day.
In the church the women sit on one side of the house, the men on the other. Those who read shaped notes take their seats on the front rows. The first leader calls out a number from his Sacred Harp song books and sets the pitch. He asks for the tune and the church house rings with the “fa, sold, la” of the Mississippian scale. The words come next and each leader tries to extract from the willing class its best.
As the morning wears on the women present who say they don’t “sing a stitch” prepare the table for dinner. Near noontime, the smell of food begins to compete with the swell of rhythm. And when a tune as familiar as “On Jordan’s Story Banks” falls off, even the leader knows that it’s time for the Sacred Harp to be laid aside. He solemnly closes the book and announces that dinner will be served outside.
On the improvised tables the women have spread food for the hungry and weary vocalists. Chicken seems to be the songbirds’ meat for it is evident in great quantity and variety. There is chicken pie, crisp fried chicken, country fried chicken with gravy, broiled chicken, baked chicken, chicken giblets, and hard-boiled eggs. There are baked hams and country sausage, and no all-day singing dinner is just right without potato salad. Homemade summer pickle, peach pickle, and pickle relish eat mighty well with all this, and there’s plenty of cold biscuit and homemade light bread.
The best cooks of the community bring their cakes and pies and a man was hard put to choose between apple pie and devil’s food cake with coconut icing. It may be that he will pass them both up for jelly cake, especially if it is a ten-stacker.
Singing is resumed after dinner, but it takes a potent leader to get much spirit into the mind right after such a meal. But song finally takes hold again, and the singing of “Sweet Morning” takes on added meaning. The final number is heard at sundown, and the courting couples wander up from the spring to join their folks for the trek home.
It is a quiet leave-taking, without many spoken good-byes. Those had already been said when the last leader asked for the words” “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.”
Great cakes don’t come out of a box. No, they come from handwork, sacks and shells, from old tried-and-true recipes and those who have made them. Such cakes are not only worthy of serving to family and guests, but they’re also fun to make. Most of the best of them involve complicated procedures that aren’t that time-consuming at all if you’re a dedicated home cook in the first place, and pulling a perfectly-cooked cake out of the oven is an unmatchable experience. After beaming at your creation for a few minutes, you get to decorate; the cake is your canvas, and you are the artist of this most temporary of masterpieces.
Legend has it that the original recipe for the red velvet cake is from the kitchens of the Waldorf-Astoria, but there’s no solid opinion on that. The cake became popular here sometime after World War II, when the South began to become much more a part of the nation as a whole. Me, I think that the red velvet cake is a variation of the old devil’s food cake and that the name changed because many good religious women were just not going to bring Satan’s bounty to their tables. It has the same texture, and while no cocoa is used in the icing, the cake’s primary flavoring is cocoa.
This is a family recipe, one of the dozen or so I still have from my mother’s hand. I’m almost sure she got it from her grandmother Eula, who came from a line of exceptional cooks. Her sister, my Aunt Leila, became legendary for her cakes, pickles and preserves. They were all very strict Baptists, and I suspect they were among the ones who would simply not feed their folks devil’s food; doubtless they didn’t want to nurture what they knew was a genetic predisposition for devilment. (It didn’t work.)
Two elements of this recipe betray its age. First is that it employs a “boiled icing”, meaning an icing that is produced pretty much in the way you would make a sauce or a gravy, by heating starch in a liquid. In some cookbooks, this is referred to as a “roux icing”, but it’s a very raw roux indeed. The advantage to this type of icing is that you don’t have to warm it to ice your cake (in fact it needs cooling), and it tastes so much better than that lard and confectioner’s sugar gloop you get at the supermarket.
Second is the leavening, which involves that chemistry set action of putting baking soda in a bit of vinegar and watching it foam. The acidic buttermilk in the batter provides additional frothing and the end result is, well, velvety. Many of you will probably take issue with the amount of food coloring involved, but try to relax; besides, it’s so much fun dribbling that red food coloring into your white batter and swirling it in. The absolute best part of course is eating it. If you really want it good, wrap layers in wax paper individually overnight before frosting.
Batter: 1 cup vegetable shortening, 1 ¼ cup sugar, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring, 2 ¼ cups plain flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon cocoa, 1 cup buttermilk, 2 ounces red food coloring, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Cream shortening and sugar, and add well-beaten eggs and vanilla. Sift flour, salt and cocoa three times. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk. Blend in food coloring. Dissolve soda in vinegar, and fold into batter. Bake in 3 layers at 350 degrees.
Frosting: 1 ½ cups milk, 4 ½ tablespoons flour, 1 ½ cups butter (3 sticks), 1 ½ cups sugar, 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla flavoring. Gradually add milk to flour in double boiler, stirring constantly until it is thicker than pudding. Remove from heat and stir until cooled. Cream butter and sugar for at least ten minutes, then add vanilla and continue creaming until fluffy. Add flour and milk mixture to creamed butter and sugar and beat at least ten minutes or until no grains of sugar can be detected. Frost and sprinkle with crushed walnuts or pecans.
Robert Moss, who’s from Charleston, is a culinary historian, a geeky gaggle of food writers in which I am gosling if not egg.
In Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining, Moss delves into stories of Low Country dishes such as shrimp and grits and she-crab soup as well as elements of our broader Southern cuisine like bourbon, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese.
Here he becomes troublesome, claiming rum is more Southern than bourbon, that fried green tomatoes are a Yankee invention, and that pimento cheese originated in upstate New York.
It’s this pimento and cheese issue I’m all over like a duck on a June bug, but before going any further, let’s turn to this matter of spelling, since I’m acutely aware that any article in Mississippi is going to be scratched over and henpecked by a pompous flock of literati. God help me if my semicolons lack weight.
Yes, I am quite aware that the it’s the pimiento pepper, but in his article “Creating a New Southern Icon: The Curious History of Pimento Cheese”, Moss notes that “In the late 1890s, imported Spanish sweet peppers started being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento.
Soon the ‘i’ was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them ‘pimentos’.” I’ll remind you that Moss has a PhD. (in English, no less) from Furman, and though I’m not known for my slavish allegiance to academics, like the rest of you, I always concur with eggheads when they’re in my corner. It looks good on paper.
Moss does not create another idol in this article; instead he reveals himself as an iconoclast of the first order by exposing the Yankee roots of a Southern dish Boston-based food writer Judy Gelman claims is “held sacred by Southerners”, and his research seems brutally thorough. Evangelism is clearly in play.
What made pimento and cheese characteristically Southern is the use of cheddar. In memory lives the vivid image of a red hoop of cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this was the cheese most often grated and used with homemade mayonnaise for pimento and cheese in rural kitchens throughout the South.
Still and all, Moss makes a valid point; if foods we consider Southern are anathematized by Yankee roots, then our idolized pimento cheese has feet of clay. We just found out how to do it right and made it ours. But how is it that we’ve come to make a cult of cornbread, a fetish of fried chicken and an idol of black-eyed peas, all adorned with the trappings of media devotion and academic Sunday schools?
Let’s please move beyond the iconography of food (barbecue is just short of having a clergy) and come to realize that any significant foodstuff is nothing more than a pleasing combination of tastes and textures. And sure, let’s have food festivals; of course you wouldn’t expect to find a shrimp festival in Omaha or one for mountain oysters in Key West (I could be wrong about that) but let’s come to know them for what they are: celebrations of people and place.
As to pimento and cheese itself, I’m not going to be so crass as to give you a recipe. You do it the way you like it; God knows you’re going to anyway. Pimento cheese should be devoid of controversy. It’s not; everyone thinks their version is the best. But you’re the one making it, so to hell with them.
Though Moss claims that recipes with cream cheese are “definitely in the minority”, I always add it to mine, mixing it with the mayo 1:3. I also belong to a schismatic if not to say heretical sect who find a fresh sweet peppers from the garden as acceptable as canned pimientos, and have no problem adding chopped green onions, though I get a lot of finger-wagging over that.
While researching the history of Mexican cornbread (the U.S. version,), I discovered our “Southern” cornbread in several Mexican cookbooks. Called–somewhat unsurprisingly–pan de maiz, this recipe seems to have found a place on tables in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
One recipe I found on a Mexican website claims to have come by way of Maine and even employs buttermilk. While such things aren’t inconceivable, I suddenly felt as if the Culinary Improbability Drive had been activated, and I’d turned into an enormous zucchini hush puppy and about to plunge into a roiling intergalactic catfish fryer.
I felt much the same way about Malaysian grits.
The origins of what passes as Mexican cornbread in the U.S. are obscured in a cloud of “women’s magazine” articles and speculation. The dish has all sorts of atrocious variations; extreme examples include any number of beans and meats, cacti, seeds, flowers, and a California aberration with blue tofu that also ranks high on my Improbability Algorithm.
For my part, I’ve devised a recipe very close to Ur-meal bread. Add whole kernel corn, peppers and queso in equal proportions to a good stiff cornbread batter. I use thin-walled mild peppers 1:1 with thinly-sliced jalapeno. Drop by spoonfuls into a well-oiled skillet, brown on both sides, and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a low oven to crisp. Top with salsa, sour cream, and/or guacamole.
Grabbling is the most unsophisticated form of angling. Fly fishing seems downright effete in comparison; forget fussing with those artsy little hand-tied flies, forget about the L.L. Bean creel, forget about the custom-made rod, just stick your hand down in a hole under the water and pull out a fish. No other form of fishing is so breathtakingly fundamental.
When grabbling, it goes unsaid that you’re fishing for catfish, which tend to hole up in hollow logs or under stumps in the spring. Unlike suicidal salmon that exhaust themselves in long-distance spawning, the sensible Southern catfish conducts a more sedate courtship by finding a steady bed and putting out a red light, so to speak.
In the old days, grabblers used to sink hollow logs in selected places before the fish begin spawning in April in order to lure the catfish into them, but nowadays most folks use man-made beds. I talked to one guy who said you can use big tires, too, but the disadvantage to that is that the fish can scoot around inside the tire, making them devilishly hard to catch. The location of these beds is a guarded secret among serious grabblers who sink them in the fall and come back when the water has warmed up in the spring to collect the booty.
Grabbling might well be the ultimate expression of angler machismo as well. It takes true grit to stick your bare hand in a hole under water. After all, there’s no guarantee that what you’re going to grab is a catfish. We grow some mighty big snapping turtles in Mississippi that can easily nip off a finger or two if tempted to do so, and it takes little to tempt a snapper, especially when he’s holed up in a sunken hollow log or a catfish box with minnows on his mind.
We also have a nasty variety of pit viper here called a cottonmouth moccasin. I’ve heard it rumored all my life that grabblers aren’t afraid of cottonmouths because these snakes aren’t supposed to be able to open their mouths under water, but that never has made any sense to me because their scientific name, piscivorus, means “fish-eating.”
Fortunately for those of us who simply lack the opportunities to haul protesting fish out of the water with our bare hands, there are easier ways to get catfish. Mississippi is, after all, the buckle of the Catfish Belt. We can get fresh or “fresh frozen” (love that term) catfish in your local grocery any time.
Elitists deride catfish but, to quote Twain, “The catfish is a good enough fish for anybody,” and I fall back on that high word. In the South, catfish, like almost any other sort of meat, is most often fried, and there’s nothing better than a platter of fried catfish and a litter of hush puppies. But however rewarding, frying catfish is just as messy and time-consuming as frying chicken. And while simply baking or broiling fish is easy and healthy, it’s also boring.
So what I’m going to give you here is a simple sauce recipe for baked or broiled catfish that takes it to another level. Beurre blanc is a classic emulsion, as are mayonnaise and Hollandaise, but “white butter” is far less tricky and far more stable. It’s a cold emulsion, like mayo, but it doesn’t involve an agglutination of proteins. Buerre blanc is simply butter whipped with wine, shallots and herbs.
Catfish with beurre blanc
One 8-oz. fillet of catfish per person. Score the fillets lightly, brush with a bit of (unsalted) butter; bake in a hot oven until done through. Beforehand, reduce 1/2 cup good white wine and two tablespoons lemon juice by about half. Add three tablespoons of very,very finely minced shallots, a dash of white pepper and a pinch of salt. Then gradually whip in 1/4 pound of unsalted butter over very low heat until thoroughly incorporated. Tarragon and dill (though I don’t recommend using them together) are most often used for flavor, and parsley is always appropriate. Slather sauce on fish and serve.