Chicken Croquettes

This old recipe for left-over chicken should be revived and served more often. Make patties of finely-chopped cooked chicken using 1 egg to 2 cups meat and bread crumbs with a little bouillon to bind. Add chopped green onions and ripe bell peppers, season with salt and pepper, then fry in vegetable oil until browned. Store in a warm oven and serve with a white sauce seasoned with mustard and lemon juice.

A Dip from the Delta

Antipasto is a great buffet item. Use olives, cold Italian sausages, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and onions; leaf vegetables and artichoke hearts are nice, too. I usually do not put cheese on an antipasto, but that’s a personal preference. Arrange all attractively and serve with Elaine’s Antipasto Salad Dressing. Honest to God, I got this recipe from a friend from Sharkey County, which is so deep in the Delta that lint cotton snows the roads in September. She taught me a great many valuable lessons and brought me to a great realization.

When I was a boy, I won an essay content sponsored by the local library committee in my hometown, which is in the hills, and the speaker at the awards presentation was a lady from a little literary society in the Delta (I forget where; in retrospect, probably Greenville). This woman just radiated dignity and graciousness from the top of her pill-box hat cum veil to the bottoms of her sensibly modest heels. She even wore little white cotton gloves with mother-of-pearl buttons. The ladies in our library committee were just undone by this exotic creature (the local women’s’ apparel stores sold out of teeny-tiny white cotton gloves the very next week). Being a brash young male and all of thirteen years old, I was initially unimpressed; I just wanted to grab my $25 check and dash.

But I had to sing for my supper by sitting through the reading, and what did she choose to read from? Why, William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee, of course. Somehow I don’t think our girls were even listening; they probably had only one thing on their mind: “What does she have in that clever little purse?” But I listened, and as I did, it slowly dawned on me that this lady was proselytizing; she had set her beady hat towards bringing the gilded prose of Percy to us heathen hill folk with the most rounded vowels possible.

In the reception that followed, which my aunt Robbie Rae made me stay for (cookies and Kool-Aid with a discreet splash of Evan Williams for everyone but me) this grande dame, to my mind, seemed just a tad bit patronizing to the other ladies. (They didn’t notice, of course; they were too busy pumping the old girl for the best places in Memphis to shop.) When the guest speaker was leaving, she came up to congratulate me and, even though I was as tall as she was, she patted me on the head. To me that pat pretty much summed up her whole attitude. By the time she left I was about ready to lead the next revolt of the rednecks.

I would have been willing enough to dismiss this exhibition of arrogance as an individual aberration until I met others from the Delta, not the least impressive being the friend who gave me this recipe. You see, I was so ignorant: I didn’t know that the Delta was as close to the celestial as geography gets and that its denizens were canonized at birth. I did not know that my forehead automatically slopes when I mention that I am from Calhoun County. But now I know better; I know to speak of the Delta—not just any delta, you understand, but the Delta—with vocal capitalization, and know to acknowledge the exclusivity of its native sons and daughters, many of whom I love with all my heart. Occasionally I do slip up and call them Bourbonists, but most of them think that’s a slur on their drinking habits, which are legendary.

Elaine’s Antipasto Dressing

Cream 10 ounces of a good blue cheese with four crushed and sieved anchovies, 1/4 cup of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar, and a scant teaspoon very, very finely minced garlic. Refrigerate overnight; bring to room temperature before serving.

Audubon Visits Jackson

In this short excerpt from his Journals, artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who knew the older cities of the state on the Mississippi well, describes his only visit to Mississippi’s new capital city on the Pearl. May 1, 1823 – I left the bayou on a visit to Jackson, which I found to be a mean place. The hotel atop the bluff was the lowest sort of dive, a rendezvous for gamblers and vagabonds. Disgusted with the place and the people, I left and returned to my wife in Natchez.

Butter Up

Any kitchen’s larder should include butter: without butter, cakes lose their savor, eggs can’t find their flavor and biscuits just get lost. Butter has no substitute; a chemist is no match for a cow. Butter owes its decline as a kitchen staple to its high saturated fat content. In a sly aside, Julia Child said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream,” which makes you wonder if she was talking about cooking at all. She wasn’t; she was talking about taste, which is an altogether different matter. Julia died in 2004, two days short of her ninety-second birthday, and I’ll bet good money she never nicked a stick of Blue Bonnet in her life. Most butters (there are many types and grades) are yellowish because of beta carotene, the same nutrient that gives most sweet potatoes, winter squash and (of course) carrots, its highest sources, an orange coloration.

My first taste of homemade butter was in the kitchen of a boyhood friend, Dean Wright, whose family owned a farm on the edge of town. The butter was almost chalky-white. The Wright’s cows didn’t eat much carotene, but they lactated nonetheless, and Dean’s family made good use of fresh, whole milk, thick, sweet cream and pale, pure butter. Margarine, the earliest version of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” made its dubious debut during the reign of Napoleon III, arguably the dimmest bulb on his Euro-trash family tree, who remembered (or was probably reminded of) his brilliant uncle’s observation, “Une armée marche à son estomac.” Intending to maintain France’s position as a military power, an ambition that was soon to be quashed by “Blood and Iron” Bismarck, he offered a prize for a butter substitute that would be “suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes”. (To paraphrase an earlier French ruler: “Let them eat ‘Country Crock’”.) In 1896, Napoleon awarded the prize to the spiffily-named Hippolyte Mège-Mourié. The ensuing Franco-Prussian War ended eighteen months later, shortly after the men from Berlin reduced Parisians to paying premium prices for plump vermin.

Margarine probably helped make cats Shanghaied from the Left Bank more palatable, but long after the armistice, this artificial butter, like the Second Empire itself, remains a blot on France’s lilied escutcheon. (It’s worth noting that the first margarine factory opened in Germany in 1871.) Nowadays margarine, once a means for upper-class French to reserve the best for themselves, has taken a demographic volte-face. Thanks to nutrition Nazis and Madison Avenue, butter rates as a heart-stopping Colt .45. As a result, margarine finds its way into the “butter compartments” of affluent refrigerators all over the place. The fact of the matter is, many brands of margarine contain saturated fats due to hydrogenating processes that enable vegetable oils to remain solid. As a final shot in this vein, let’s tote out the infamous French paradox, which casts light on the low incidence of heart disease among the French despite the fact that they eat a lot of saturated fats. The French paradox has oh-so-aptly led to the promotion of wine as a health food, an endorsement that covers a multitude of sins. Margarine as a spread insults any honest piece of bread. Either butter or olive oil makes much more sense. If you cook with margarine, you shouldn’t; given its high water content it’s just a bad idea. Butter, on the other hand, is essential in too many recipes to recount. A final swirl of butter adds gloss and aroma to a sauce, it browns nicely on broiled fish, and potatoes beg for it.

Here’s a very simple recipe that unites butter with its cousin cheese in a great way. Pepper Cheese Biscuits Cut six ounces of butter into four cups self-rising flour. Add one cup grated cheddar cheese, one cup raw chopped mild red pepper and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Roll out, cut into rounds and bake in an oiled skillet in a hot oven until lightly browned. Serve hot or cold. These are great split and filled with shaved ham.