Note from an Indignant Redneck

Legions of politically correct journalists, not to mention politicians, dance around dozens of terms in the English language whose sole intent is derision, but “redneck” still remains the most acceptable form of ethnic slur in this country.

First documented by the OED in 1830 when it was applied to the Presbyterians of Fayetteville, Arkansas, redneck has a long history of opprobrium. Three explanations for this usage are offered: first, it could be a reference to a ruddy neck caused by anger; second, it could be a reference to sunburned necks caused by working in the fields all day, lastly it could be a reference to pellagra, a vitamin B deficiency that can turn the skin on the back and neck red. How Presbyterianism became involved is obscure. There is a documented referral to striking coal miners in West Virginia who wore red bandannas as a means of group identification, and in Afrikaans rooinek is a disparaging term the Boers applied to the British and later became associated with any unwelcome European immigrants to South Africa.

Its usage in this country is regarded as a matter of course and without censure for its application to rural white Southern Americans in the media. We who are subject to this opprobrium take it in stride, but we should not. As in the case with what is now commonly called “the ‘N’ word”, our voices, too, should be raised in protest. Here’s mine.

Dorthea Lange, 1937
Dorthea Lange, 1937

 

Luncheon Dishing

Women in any given society will assemble to sip, nibble and talk about anything they want and anyone who isn’t there. Speaking as an ardent fan of my opposite sex, I’ll be the first to say that the world is a much better place due to distaff parliaments. Civilization itself depends on feminine attentions if not to say machinations, and it’s usually in these gaggles that the most uninhibited deliberations between our sisters take place. Men should understand and appreciate this phenomenon, since when it comes to gossip, the trickle-down theory actually works; you may not know that your boss is sleeping with your secretary, but it’s a fair bet that you have a better chance of finding out if your wife does. And God help you if you’ve been shtupping her as well.

The food served at more formal klatches of this type is delicate, often to the point of fussy. This is no place for pork chops: small servings of carefully prepared, light offerings are the rule. You’ll find salads with cold seafood or chicken, pasta or seasonal vegetables alongside the obligatory crustless geometric sandwiches. Sweets, with the exception of a killer cake, are dainty and plentiful as are the drinks. I’ll not go so far as to swear that food is primarily intended to buffer the effects of a Bloody Mary luncheon—that would put my life in danger—but the theory has been broached. In the South, pimento and cheese, chicken salad, deviled eggs and pound cake (lemon or poppy seed particularly) at a ladies’ luncheon seem mandatory now, but it wasn’t so long ago that holding one without serving tomato aspic would imperil your membership in the 20th Century Club.

Because of recoil from the foods of the Sixties, congealed salads (like fondue) have become not only passé but proscribed. This reaction is somewhat justified; on any given month between say 1960 and 1975 in any magazine devoted to food, you’ll find tons of recipes for gelatin involving practically every ingredient in the kitchen, more often than not canned fruit, citrus Jell-O and mini marshmallows. But we shouldn’t abandon a good recipe because it’s showing its age, and this is a great dish: light, savory, easily prepared and attractive. Let’s hope tomato aspic is going through a tried and true testing period in popular tastes before it becomes not so much a novel legacy but a standard for our tables.

Tomato Aspic

3 cups tomato juice
2 packets unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons finely minced white onion
2 tablespoons finely minced celery
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce to taste

Warm tomato juice, add gelatin and dissolve. Stir in lemon juice, black pepper, Worcestershire and hot sauce (I like Crystal), add vegetables and chill until partially set, spoon or pour into individual (5 oz.) lightly oiled molds and chill until set. Unmold and serve with cold sides such as boiled eggs and vegetables, particularly pickled green beans or steamed asparagus.

 

A Southern Summer Salad

Tender leaf vegetables are very much a cool season crop in the South, and garden salads as we have come to know them now, largely comprised of lettuces of various and usually exotic natures, were unknown to earlier generations. Instead, fresh vegetables were used, typically those with a low starch content most often grown in a Southern garden, in particular cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. Though the rural people of the South were doubtless unfamiliar with the word “vinaigrette”, these three vegetables were almost always dressed with a simple mix of vinegar and oil, salt and pepper. Depending on the cook and the garden, fresh sweet peppers, young squash or lightly cooked (blanched) green beans might have been added, but the basic vegetable triad was never omitted.

This salad is best made with fresh summer vegetables. While vegetables imported from the West Coast or elsewhere in the winters will do, the tomatoes will not have a full share of that wonderful gelatin surrounding the seeds and the flesh of the cucumbers will be too watery. (Onions, on the other hand, tend to be onions.) Select large, plump ripe tomatoes and cucumbers that are small, firm and green, what many would call gherkins. As to onions, the smaller, white boiler onions, along with some of their stems, which are very firm, are the best. Sweet yellow onions spoil the bite and red onions become discolored and lend what I consider an unattractive hue to the liquid. A clove of crushed and very, very finely minced garlic is also in order, or you can do as I do and simply slice a very large clove to add to the mixture for flavor.

Cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces, place in a glass or ceramic bowl and toss with salt and pepper. Use a little bit more salt than you might feel comfortable with, because one objective is to get the vegetables themselves to leach out their juices. Use enough white vinegar to cover half the vegetables and about half that amount of oil. You can use olive oil, but I prefer polyunsaturated oil such as corn or canola to avoid solidification. A small amount of dried basil, thyme and oregano can be used, but do not use fresh herbs, as their oils will overpower the mixture. Juice leeched from the vegetables by the salt and vinegar produce a mild, very basic, exceedingly flavorful vinaigrette you can use on other salads or cold meats. I love to use it for the old three-bean-salad, and it’s great with cold cooked fish or shellfish. You can keep this basic mixture going in the fridge all summer by simply adding more vegetables, seasonings and liquids as needed; it just keeps getting better.

Pizza Den’s Submarine Sandwich

Frank Bowen sent me this recipe an embarrassingly long time ago, and I lost it amid a sea of email shufflings. Frank, I do apologize, and hope in some way you’ll forgive me. Here I reproduce his original mail with the reminder that Pizza Den is still open, and Bob’s family is carrying on the tradition of great local food in Oxford. Go see them the next time you’re there.

The following is a recipe that was posted on an Ole Miss Spirit message board several years ago. I made it several times and can attest that it is faithful to the original at the Pizza Den. It is not in standard recipe format, but it tells how to make the sandwich very well. I don’t know who made the post. He had a user name of Reblanta. I have found that the instructions of letting it rest on the counter for 15-20 minutes to simulate delivery is an important step.

Pizza Bob’s Famous Submarine Sandwich

In May, 1983, I had just bought a new car and decided that I would take it out on the road and drive up to Oxford for the afternoon, primarily to drop by Pizza Den and pick up some submarines to take back home and share with my Ole Miss friends that night. Things were slow late that afternoon when I got there but Pizza Bob was in good spirits. Since nobody else was there, I decided to broach the sacred subject on just how Bob made his famous submarine sandwich. Whether he was thinking of the good times he’d had in Nam, the money he had made off of me over the years, or perhaps he just felt sorry for me, I couldn’t tell, but this is what he told me. I watched him make the submarines and committed the process to memory.

Take your baguette, split it down the middle. Pour butter over the open slices of bread, sprinkle on a generous portion of both Parmesan and mozzarella cheese and place several thin slices of ham, salami, AND luncheon meat! Bob dusted all slices in between with the same cheese mixture, then in the middle of the meats he ladled in spaghetti sauce. Over the top of the meats he sprinkled more of the cheese mixture and then placed the other half of the bread on top. Finally, just as he was ready to seal up the sandwich in foil, he poured more melted butter over all. I cook mine about 20 minutes total in 350 degrees, turning it over about half way to disperse the butter evenly throughout. Finally, to make it authentic, take it out of the oven, and leave it on the counter top for about 15 to 20 minutes to simulate the delivery to Fraternity Row. Always remember to press the sandwich down as well.

I make it a point to make “Pizza Bobs” for every first televised football game of the year and I suggest that you do as well. I make mine exactly like he told me to except for that luncheon meat stuff. I hope that when you make your “Pizza Bob” sandwiches, you’ll think of Pizza Bob. I once heard this said and believe it now to be true: If food were a religion, Pizza Bob would be the High Priest.

The Bottle Tree

Joyce Sexton was proud of her garden. It occupied the edges of her back yard along the fences; broad beds of perennials punctuated by flowering shrubs whose Latin names she had memorized;  they sounded like an incantation as she recited them in her mind.
In the southwest corner was a short dead spruce stripped of twigs and leaves whose trimmed branches were adorned with brightly-colored glass bottles. Joyce enjoyed the way the glass caught the morning sun and reflected in the lights from the porch during the evenings. It had taken her months to find just the right bottles for the tree, and this
morning she finally found the last one, a bright red bottle on top that seemed to glow from inside. She was admiring its light when she heard the front doorbell. She had invited her friend Sandra over for a drink.
“Well, it is pretty,” Sandra said later as they sat under the porch fans. “At least you’ve got different bottles. I don’t like those with just one kind, especially those Milk of Magnesia models. They just send out the wrong signal, if you ask me.”
“I think it’s the best bottle tree in town,” Joyce said. “I know it sounds silly, but a bottle had to really say something to me before I put it on.”
Sandra just stared at it with her arms crossed.
“You don’t like it?” Joyce said.
“Oh, like I said, it’s pretty, Joyce. And it looks good right next to the Lady Banks. But do you realize what those things are?’
Joyce laughed and said, “You mean that nonsense about trapping evil spirits? Cassandra June, your fanny hits a pew every time First Prez is open. And besides, you’re over-educated to boot. Surely you don’t believe that voodoo junk. ”
Sandra sipped her gin and tonic and smiled at her old friend. “Oh, you wouldn’t care if I were sacrificing stray cats in my basement, you’d still never get along without me.”
“If you were sacrificing stray cats, I’d bring you a few,” Joyce said. “They kill the little birds, they yowl all night long and they beat up on poor Lucky.” A little terrier of dubious parentage under the table between them raised his head and thumped a raggedy tail.
“Okay, if you think its all stuff and nonsense, let me break one,” Sandra said. “Oh, don’t look so shocked. Admit you had fun looking for these bottles, and one of them’s bound to break sooner or later.”
Joyce thought about it. “Okay, you old witch,” she said. “But break one of the bottom
ones. Use Glen’s putter. It’s over there on the corner.”
Sandra retrieved the putter, walked into the back yard and shattered a small green bottle on a lower branch. At the sound, Lucky jumped up and scrambled under the gate towards the street outside. Before Joyce could gather the breath to summon her dog, she heard the screech of brakes and a choked, mournful howl.

“Mother, it was just an accident,” Rachel said. “Sandra shouldn’t blame herself. That’s just silly.”
Joyce looked at her daughter. She and Glen had been surprised when her infant golden hair had not only remained gold, but had also matured into a mane that Rachel merely pretended to complain about. Today she had wrestled it back into a tawny mass that spilled in a shower over the back of her bright blue scrubs.
“I know,” she said. “But you know how Sandra loved Lucky. She brought him liver snaps every time she came over. I think she did it on purpose; they always gave him gas.”
Rachel brought her coffee to the table and sat next to her mother. “Mom, just ride it out. I know you loved Lucky, too. Hell, we all did; except Richard, of course.” They both made a face at each other and laughed. “Cliff Stevens told me he was still wearing an ankle bracelet in Chattanooga,” Rachel said.
Joyce sipped from her cup and wished Richard were much further away. She still ran into his parents at parties, his father formal, his mother always managing to snag Joyce away from the crowd and update his doleful story. (“He didn’t mean anything, Joyce. You know that.”)
Rachel glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to go, Mom. Joe Wright told me I could scrub in on a valve replacement this morning.”
Joyce kissed her daughter and took her coffee to the patio. She called Glen at his office, forgot he was in court that day and ended up talking to his secretary Cathy about the upcoming office party.
“Glen’s just a mess about it,” Cathy said. “And I do mean a mess. He can’t decide on a damn thing, and that puts me in charge of everything from food to felonies. Would you please try to sit him down for five minutes and nail something down for me?”
“Oh, just do what you did last year, Cathy. It’s not like he’s going to notice.”
“I know,” Cathy said. “He’s such an airhead.”
Joyce laughed and said goodbye, went and poured another cup and settled back on the porch to admire her garden. The azaleas had exhausted themselves long ago, and the Shastas were now coming into their own, as were the hostas she’d planted last October. Lucky’s grave by the holly was marked with a shaggy little stone dog and a weathered scattering of liver snaps.
The bottle tree glistened in the morning sun. One bottle caught the light extremely well, a beer bottle Joyce found behind the back fence that had a white and blue label. The light it caught dazzled. Joyce laughed, picked a hand spade from her garden shelf, walked up to the tree and shattered the bottle into hundreds of pieces. She was still smiling when she heard the phone ring.

“Joyce?”
Glen knocked gently at the barely open door. Joyce lay on the bed, the golden afternoon light pouring onto the floor and casting shadows upon morning windows.
“Joyce?”
He moved into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “Honey?”
“How did he get out?”
Glen turned, bowed and rubbed his hands together. “He’s been out.”
Joyce rolled over and looked at her husband’s back.
“It’s been eight years, Joyce. He was convicted as a juvenile. It was not a capital offense. He served five years, and then they put him in a rehabilitation unit. He was clean and sober; he had a job at a Walgreens. He was evaluated twice a month.”
“He just killed our daughter,” Joyce said.
Glen’s shoulders heaved and he began to sob. Joyce reached up and brought him to her and they lay there, crying, while the shadows grew on the wall.

The summer office party was never conducted, but as the holidays approached, Glen suggested that the traditional year’s end celebration be held, and to his relief Joyce agreed. The firm had had a very good year, and Glen, as senior partner, always enjoyed giving out bonuses and promotions.
Predictably, it began on a muted note, but as the night progressed, the mood lifted and Joyce found herself enjoying being around friends. As they were driving home, she and Glen found themselves laughing about Cathy’s QVC jewelry and Jerry Wineman’s new toupee.
It was warm for a winter’s evening; wisps of fog were settling into the low places along the road, and the lights from the house glowed as they pulled into their drive.
Glen grabbed Joyce’s hand and said, “Let’s sit out on the back porch and have another drink.”
“No, Glen,” Joyce said, caressing his hand, “I’d rather not. Let’s just sit in the living room.”
Glen looked at her and said, “You used to love the porch. You used to love looking at the garden. What’s the matter?”
Then Joyce told him about the bottle tree, about Lucky, about Rachel. Glen sighed and said, “Oh, honey, you know that’s just ridiculous. What did they call it in college, synchronicity? Come on, let’s build a little fire in the fireplace and huddle up next to it on a blanket with a couple of beers.”
“I’d rather have a martini,” Joyce said.
After they’d changed, Glen settled Joyce in front of the fire with her drink.
“Glen, I know it’s just a bunch of nonsense, coincidences, like you said.”
“Of course they were, and I know it, but I don’t believe you believe it.”
“I do,” Joyce said, “And I’ll prove it to you. Is your 12-gage in the hall closet?”
“Sure.”
Joyce retrieved the gun from the closet, along with a box of shells. “Show me how to load it again.” Once the gun was loaded, Joyce slung it over her shoulder and headed out the back door.
“If you stand back about ten yards, you ought to be able to get all of ‘em,” Glen shouted. He smiled, took off his shirt and sipped his beer. Then, with a smile, he slicked back his hair and lay down on the couch. A shot echoed from the backyard.
When Joyce came running back in, she said, “Glen, I got them all! And the trunk is in splinters. I’ll have a hell of a time cleaning up all the glass. Glen? GLEN!”

The Oyster and I

Unlike some, I don’t remember my first oyster as epiphanic. That’s no reflection on the oyster, which I’m certain was good, plump and fresh from the Gulf, arguably among the best in the world, but I ate it on my first trip to Jackson, which was a rather heady affair for a 7-year old boy from a sawmill village in north Mississippi. After the rush of seeing the upper Rez from the Trace, riding in a highway patrol cruiser (for the last time as a guest) and ogling at the Capitol dome, eating oysters at the Mayflower seemed a pedestrian experience. The magenta hairdos of the waitresses made far more of an impression at the time than the shellfish. I’d never seen a woman with real dyed hair before, and when one of them took her shoe off to bang on a table to shush some idiot from Atlanta who wanted something unreasonable like a poached egg, I tried to die three times and left her all the change I had in my pockets to keep her from taking a swat at me.

Oysters enjoy a sex life that makes a human bisexual lifestyle seem lame. Oysters actually switch their sex according to a variety of environmental factors, which means that if you’re a young oyster (a spat), one season your Uncle Louie might be your next season’s Aunt Louise. Not only that, but oysters reproduce by spewing their sperm and eggs into the water around them in a ubiquitously impregnating haze, which is the human equivalent of having desperate yet sincere sex with someone at some distance from you in a Jacuzzi. Any encouraging words of prolific reproduction and growth among oysters strike a chord of extreme indifference among those people who rate the oyster as a food on par with nasal mucus, but those of us who hold the mollusk in the highest esteem find it heartening. Oysters were once so plentiful in American coastal waters that no meal that aspired to distinction was complete without them, but since the first decades of the last century the mollusk has been in a rapid decline and the prices have escalated accordingly. If memory serves me right (a haphazard undertaking at best), the first oysters I ate, sometime around 1964, at the Mayflower, were a dime apiece, a dollar a dozen. Nonetheless, it was a pivotal culinary experience, if only because I am not afflicted with the squeamish distaste with which some people regard raw oysters. It comes as no surprise to me that the very reasons most people find oysters objectionable – the taste and the texture – are the very reasons I find them appealing.

Eating a raw oyster is like stealing a kiss from the ocean: a wet, slightly salty, totally sensuous experience unbridled by any sort of fussy preparation. I’m firmly convinced that anyone who doesn’t enjoy oysters is a bad kisser, and I have centuries of documentation to back me up in this opinion. Oysters have enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac for millennia; Casanova was known to consume several dozen at breakfast in order to fortitude himself for his day’s revelries, and their consumption has been condemned at every conservative turn of the human compass as a food likely to “incite Venus”. Now that I am well past the salad stage of life and forging steadily towards dessert, I firmly intend to keep oysters a mainstay between courses, and if the good Lord is willing I shall have them with my cordial.

Having said all this, I must admit that my passion for the oyster in the raw is not unadulterated. I once enjoyed my oysters most with a dab of good homemade cocktail sauce and a saltine cracker, but some years ago, I enjoyed Pacific oysters in Seattle where the tomato-based cocktail sauce as we know it is rarely used. Instead, they offer their oysters with a much lighter sauce more in tune with the sublime tastes and textures of the animal as it comes to the lips, quivering in its nakedness. Here is my recipe for a similar sauce, which I urge you to try.

Mignonette Sauce

Combine 2/3 cup wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns and 3 tablespoons finely minced shallots in a sealable glass container. Shake and refrigerate. Shake very well before dribbling over fresh oysters.

Roasting Garlic

Take whole bulbs, slice across the top fourth, soak in any liquid oil for at least an hour and bake in a hot oven (450) for about fifteen minutes or until browned; what a wonderful taste to have on hand, what a wonderful aroma to know.

Charley Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

My father Jess Jr. loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmy Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff, and he was Hank Williams’ biggest fan. By the time I was ten, I knew every one of Hank’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride”, particularly Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.

Jess Jr. was not a racist; far from it. He was one of the first politicians in north Mississippi who took an active and positive albeit modest role in civil rights by refusing as district attorney for Lafayette County to sign a subpoena issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace” on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith during his admission to the University of Mississippi in October 1962. He also took the black citizens of his home county (Calhoun) into his care, and that memory of his fair and equal treatment of blacks in those times still echoes among the people there.

But country music in the mid-1960s was still very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself. One day, they were driving somewhere or the other and Daddy was singing along with Charley, she turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, he’s black.” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Soon after that Charley was on the Grand Ole Opry and Jess Jr. told everybody he was a lot better than that trashy Buck Owens.

Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley. It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.

Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (use a larger measure if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained

Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.