Potatoes Anna

A lighter, simpler version of what most of us know as scalloped potatoes, this recipe is also known as a potato cake for obvious reasons. Most versions involve peeled the potatoes, but I don’t find this necessary, justifying my lassitude by claiming it makes for a prettier presentation. The only trick to preparation is turning the cake to brown both sides. I’m certain that there are people in the world who have the manual dexterity to flip the cake with a flick of the wrist, but a pound of potatoes is a hell of a lot heavier than an omelette, so I’ve yet to master this technique. Instead, I place a lightly oiled plate over the pan, flip it and and slid the potatoes (with exceeding grace and beauty) back into the pan to brown evenly.

Slice small red potatoes very thinly (having a mandolin comes in handy here, and you can find a simple one for a dozen dollars or so) and–working quickly before the potatoes discolor–arrange in layers, sprinkling with salt and pepper, in a small sauté pan with plenty of oil or melted butter. Place in a hot oven—400 or so—until bubbling and lightly browned. Flip (however best you can) to brown evenly. Serve hot with a hard grated cheese and sour cream. Pugnacious, pretentious people would add rosemary, but I find this inclusion annoying.

 

Pork and Beans

You all should have grown sick and tired of those greasy, syrupy, gloppy canned pork and beans years and years ago, but NOOO! Every time you cook out, you go to the supermarket and buy your favorite brand (probably the one with the talking dog, right?), pour it in a casserole, add a chopped onion so you can say you did SOMETHING, and serve it up to people you say you love with that God-awful potato salad you picked up in the deli. Pitiful. Just pitiful. And you call yourself upwardly mobile. Honestly, it’s baked beans, probably one of the most basic foodstuffs in the world, and cooked pork, which is just as easy. Here’s a great recipe that’ll only take a couple of hours, 90% of that totally hands-free, and has at most five ingredients (not counting the seasonings).

First, cook a pork blade roast, maybe two pounds. Pat it dry, coat with oil, salt, black pepper, and granulated garlic. You can rub it with fresh garlic, but the granulated gives it a nice sort of crust. Put the roast in a lightly oiled covered skillet, place it in a low oven (250) for about three hours. Turn it once. Reverse searing improves the flavor. Next, dice two mild peppers (I use poblanos and mild bananas in season), or enough for about 2 cups of diced pepper, and a half a white onion for about a cup, sauté in vegetable/corn oil with a clove of garlic until soft. Reduce heat, and add two #300 cans of Great Northern (white) beans with liquid. Season with salt, black pepper, and about a tablespoon of chili powder. Cook over low heat for about 15 minutes. Set aside.

For this dish I use a 9” cast iron skillet, which, quite frankly, I use for a whole lot of other things as well. Lightly oil the skillet. Debone your pork. Ladle beans into the skillet, add pork, and place in a low oven for 30 minutes. Serve with a good salsa.

Egg Foo Young

In my book—albeit unpublished—Sundays are occasions for substantial egg dishes, quiches, omelets, Benedicts and their ilk, which are on the whole light, versatile and easily prepared. This old Asian fusion dish—Chinese-Indonesian /British/American, what have you—fits the bill. The name derives from Cantonese for “hibiscus egg”, and in Asia is usually served with a sweet-and-sour sauce, in the western hemisphere more often with a simple brown gravy.

For each serving, beat two large eggs, pour into a pool of hot oil and–working quickly with a fork–pull the eggs apart as they cook until the mixture is almost firm. Then add your ingredients. I like shrimp, scallions, and bean sprouts, but ham or chicken, cabbage, and mushrooms are often used. After the additions have cooked into the surface of the eggs, flip and cook to a light browning. Serve with brown gravy made on the thin side.

 

 

Last Train Through Vardaman

This is a recording of Raymond Bailey performing “The Last Train through Vardaman” that Barbara Yancy made sometime in 1975-76. I lost the first part of Raymond’s narrative because the tape was so old and broke at both ends during recording, but I did hear it on the first playback. Raymond begins with saying, “This is ‘The Last Train through Vardaman.’ I remember we were loading the train that day, and my brother said, ‘Pile it high, boys, because this is the last train through Vardaman!’ So, we loaded her up (and away she went!)” I have him doing a couple of other songs, including ‘Nellie Gray’ and a version of ‘Casey Jones’ that I’ve never heard. The locomotive is the OH&CC Number 9 at Okolona. Listen to Raymond here.

Daisy Duke Can’t Cook

Making quick breads is such a basic culinary skill that at one time those persistent legions of people who spend their time minding other people’s business sniffed their disapproval of a newly-wed husband’s wife by saying, “He married a woman who can’t even make biscuits.”

This specific example of cattiness carries with it a tacit understanding that mister didn’t marry his missus because she was a domestic diva, but for prurient reasons which were grounds for disapproval among matrons who could cook up a storm yet were inept or unwilling in arts which keep a man from taking up what was then referred to as “light housekeeping” with another woman. Those were more genteel times. Nowadays, of course, those same people would just say he hooked up with a slut and be done with it, but there’s something to be said for polite prevarication: What it lacks in forthrightness is more than made up for in vicious subtlety. Believe it or not, being able to cook was once a commodity on the marriage market, so much so that disgruntled husbands who settled for less than a buxom bimbo comforted themselves and others like them (honest, hardworking men, every one of them) by claiming that the cooking lasted longer than the loving. And while that might be true, there’s still something to be said for marrying a total tramp-in-training; after all, that’s what mothers-in-law are for.

Like many short bread recipes, the one for biscuits is more technique than ingredients. Getting the biscuits to rise well is key, and if you don’t follow a reasonable procedure, you’re going to end up throwing away a pan of hockey pucks. Biscuits shouldn’t be worked a lot; excess kneading makes the dough so dense that it won’t rise. Biscuits should also be cut out quickly while the dough is cool, and with a clean, sharp edge that will not pinch. Crowding the biscuits a bit also helps them to rise, but if you get them too close together the centers won’t bake through. Also make sure the oven is hot (450/475) before you put them on a rack in the upper third of the oven. So, for all you floozies out there who need a bonus the morning after, here’s how to make biscuits. And if you don’t carry a skillet with you, well, you’re on your own.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Take two cups of self-rising flour and sift in dry a scant teaspoon of baking soda. Work thoroughly into this about 1/3 a cup of cold vegetable shortening. Mix with the fingers until it has an almost granular texture. Working quickly, stir in enough cold buttermilk (about a cup) to make a sticky dough. Throw dough on a generously-floured surface, sprinkle with a scant more flour and roll out very thick, almost half an inch, and cut into biscuits. Again, work quickly so that the dough stays cool(ish). Place biscuits just touching in a lightly greased skillet and pop them on the top rack of a hot oven for about a quarter an hour. You want them golden-brown and fragrant; brush lightly with butter while still hot and serve immediately.

Red Rose Sausage

You’ll find imitation smoked sausages in supermarkets across the Lower South, but in central Mississippi, our signature brand is Red Rose. The sausage was originally produced by the Jackson Packing Company, which sold processed meats from their plant on South Gallatin Street from 1945 to 1990. Red Rose was marketed under the company’s flagship “Magnolia” brand, which was purchased by Polk’s Meat Products (“Picky People Pick Polk’s”) in Magee . Sold in ropes and most often found in the freezer section, Red Rose is usually either grilled or peeled, crumbled, and fried. Two landmark restaurants in Jackson, the Beatty Street Grocery and the Big Apple Inn on Farish, offer both.

You’re certain to find many people who consider imitation smoked sausage a culinary/nutritional atrocity, but the Polk’s company gets mail orders from all over the country sent by people who grew up in Mississippi, and remember (and loved) Red Rose on the table.

Yancy’s Potluck Casserole

At some point in your life you’re going to impress the wrong person and find yourself invited to a potluck supper, obliging you not only to be presentable and reasonably polite for up to two hours, but to bear food that everybody likes and won’t put the cheese tray in a bad light. This dish fits the bill, doesn’t take a lot of time or money to make, works just as well for second weddings or canasta nights, and is always a big hit at cemetery homecomings. You’ll bring home an empty Pyrex whatever the occasion; it’s colorful, rich, buttery and, it must be said, “freezes beautifully”. This recipe provides a dozen or so 6 oz. servings.

Cook 1 pound extra-wide egg noodles, drain, and place in a large bowl. To these add 2 cups diced and lightly cooked celery and carrots, 2 cups frozen green peas (you can add these right to the mix), 3 cups shredded chicken (canned white is really good for this) and 2 cups diced ham. Toss with 1 stick melted butter and 2 cups grated Parmesan cheese. Use real cheese, people, not that sawdust in a green can. Bake in a casserole at 350 for about 20 minutes or until top is golden.

 

Rock Cornish Racket

The follies of genius are unavoidable, unpredictable and if we’re lucky just quirky. I think Victor Borge was a genius. While my standards might be modest (I think Jim Henson was a genius too) enlightenment and entertainment are always qualifications, and in those Borge shined. During his heyday he performed the world over, but maintained a homestead in New England that produced Rock Cornish game hens. I suspect he was probably amused with a business that marketed miniature chickens; imagine him asking why the Rock Cornish game hen crossed the road with a nice little keyboard riff. At any rate, Nora Ephron (the Rona Barrett of food writing) remembers that “every Rock Cornish game hen in America used to come with a little tag with Victor Borge’s name on it.” At his insistence, no doubt.

I hate to disillusion you all, but despite its rugged name a Rock Cornish game hen is nothing more than a little chicken. Poultry is big business, and millions are spent on developing and maintaining the most productive, disease-resistant and appealing varieties. The best all-around industrial chickens are either big and fast-growing or smaller and long-laying. I suspect that at some point avian agronomists were frustrated to discover that pesky genetics prevented chickens from growing only so much so fast and from ovulating only so often; otherwise we’d have Rhode Island Reds the size of collies dropping half-gallon eggs all over Stone County. (The emus didn’t work out.)

With size as a limit, the chicken scientists bent under the thumbscrews of marketing by taking another tack: Tyson Foods developed the Rock Cornish game hen in the mid-60s by cross-breeding big, fast-growing but rather spindly Plymouth Rock cocks with smaller Cornish hens, which have short, thick legs and broad, muscular breasts. The resulting variety has a briefer growing span–ten days less to the slaughterhouse than the 40-day Rocks (birds grow fast; imagine if you had been chased out of the house when you had just learned how to run). Since they were developed for meat, their marketable egg-laying capabilities are inconsiderable (too bad, right?).

Tyson marketed the game hen as an upscale product targeting people willing to pay more for something different. And it worked. Calling it a “game hen” added to its cachet, since it suggests a mix with a pheasant, a quail, a partridge or some bird with similar snob appeal. Borge, who himself had a high-brow profile, was probably enrolled as a celebrity sponsor, though I still maintain that the eccentricity of the product itself was a great draw for him personally. Yet despite my affection for the Great Dane who bridged the gap between Oliver Hardy and Stravinsky, to me the most effective marketing strategy for game hens is that they’re sealed in plastic wrap just like teeny-tiny turkeys.

Having said all that, let me add that game hens should not be shunned on account of their corporate hatching; they’re good birds, if you know how to cook them. Buy the smallest ones you can, one to a person, thaw thoroughly, trim and clean. Rub inside and out with oil, a little salt and pepper and whatever other seasonings you like (garlic and sage are always good), then roast in a slow oven until the legs are loose. Increase heat at finish to brown. In the meantime, prepare wild rice and sauté a few trimmed chicken livers per person. Serve a hen on a nest  of wild rice, livers to the side, with baby limas, wilted greens and a bit of sour cream.

Frank Hains

On July 15, 1975, Jackson was stunned by the brutal murder of a man whose cultural contributions to the community still reverberate in the city.

Frank Woodruff Hains, Jr. was born July 7, 1926 in Wood County, West Virginia. After graduating from Marietta College in Ohio and serving two years in the military, Hains began a radio career that took him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he became active in both the Vicksburg Little Theater and the Jackson Little Theater. A few years later he moved to Jackson, beginning his twenty-year career with the Jackson Daily News as literary critic and champion of the arts. He remained active in the Jackson Little Theater and was one of the founders of New Stage Theater in 1966.

In addition to his position at the Jackson Daily News, through his work as actor, director, and set designer for the local theaters as well as his contributions to the New York Times, Hains helped high schools and colleges in the area with their productions. In 1958 he received the National Pop Wagner Award for work with young people, and in 1970 the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television presented him with its Distinguished Public Service Award.

Hains was murdered in his home in Jackson. Two weeks later, this memorial written by his close friend Eudora Welty appeared in the combined Sunday Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News (27 July 1975):

IN MEMORIUM
By Eudora Welty

For all his years with us, Frank Hains wrote on the arts with perception and clarity, with wit and force of mind. And that mind was first-rate — informed, uncommonly quick and sensitive, keenly responsive. But Frank did more than write well on the arts. He cared. And he worked, worked, worked for their furtherance in this city and state. He was a doer and a maker and a giver. Talented and versatile to a rare degree, he lived with the arts, in their thick.

So it was by his own nature as a man as well as in the whole intent of his work that he was a positive critic, and never a defeating one. The professional standards he set for art, and kept, himself, as a critic, were impeccable and even austere. At the same time he was the kindest, most chivalrous defender of the amateur. And it was not only the amateurs — it was not artists at all — who knew this well: his busy life, as he went about his work and its throng of attendant interests, was made up of thousands of unrecorded kindnesses.

I speak as one working in the arts — and only one, of a very great number indeed — who came to know at first hand, and well, what ever-present perception and insight, warmth of sympathy, and care for the true meaning, Frank in his own work brought to a work of theirs. The many things he has done in behalf of my own books I wouldn’t be able to even count; his dramatic productions of my stories are among the proudest and happiest events of my working life. He was a dear and admired friend for twenty years.

Frank gave many young talents their first hope, sometimes their first chance, and I am sure he never could have let any talent down. He didn’t let any of us down, but was our constant and benevolent and thoroughgoing supporter, a refresher of our spirits, a celebrator along with us of what we all alike, in the best ways we were able, were devoting our lives to.

What his work contributed — the great sum — had an authority of a kind all its own. I wonder if it might not have had a double source: his lifelong enchantment with the world of art, and an unusual gift for communicating his pleasure in it to the rest of us. Plus the blessed wish to do it.

We are grateful.

(Hains was buried in Big Tygart Cemetery, Rockport, WV)

Buttermilk Blancmange

A blancmange is a sweet molded pudding usually made with milk or cream, though you’ll find a savory version with chicken from Turkey. It’s very simple and quite old; Chaucer makes a revolting joke of it in his “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. The thickening is usually achieved with either cornstarch or gelatin. In this version I use both because while buttermilk gives the dessert a nice acidy zing, it tends to separate with heating so just using gelatin will give you a 2-layer dessert of clear yellowish whey and a sort of grainy white cream. The corn starch stabilizes the buttermilk for an even, creamy consistency. This recipe makes four 6 oz. servings.

3 cups low-fat buttermilk
A half cup of sugar
2 pkgs. unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (check the label)

Mix gelatin and cornstarch and dissolve in 1/4 cup warm water. Add this mixture to warm buttermilk and whisk to a smooth consistency. When it just begins to thicken, add lemon zest and vanilla. Cool and refrigerate. When just firming, spoon into lightly oiled (6 oz.) molds, and refrigerate for at least three hours. Serve with a fruit puree and crushed almonds.