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 came to be involved is a matter of speculation.) In Afrikaans rooinek is a disparaging term the Boers applied to the British in the 1890s and later became associated with any unwelcome European immigrants to South Africa. ‘Redneck’ is also documented as a reference to striking coal miners in West Virginia who wore red bandannas as a means of group identification in the 1920s.

Its current usage in this country is regarded as a matter of course and without censure for its application to rural white Southern Americans. 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.

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 trial 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 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 such brightly-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.

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.