Collards at Tara

Fiction writers are more concerned with the turmoil of the human condition than soups and sauces, but you’re going to find food mentioned in the fiction of many; Proust particularly, also Dickens, Woolf and many others.

Margaret Mitchell was born in an upper-class home in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, and her family roots were well-established in antebellum Georgia. Given the social dynamics of her upbringing, she was certainly well-informed when it came to the period’s Southern table. We shouldn’t be at all surprised to find a notable description of the antebellum Southern table in Gone with the Wind.

After the war, when Scarlett had come home to Tara’s ruin and desolation, declaring famously (turnip in hand), “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”, hunger still reigned at Tara:

There were apples, Yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare. A the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air.

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

While most of the dishes seem apt for a plantation meal in early 19th century, some people (admittedly me among them) might find the presence of collards in what we might assume is a porcelain tureen a jarring note, but stewed collards are a satisfying and substantial addition to any table.

Pick through greens, discarding the tough stems and ribs, wash very well and place in a deep stewpot with only enough liquid to cover a third of the leaves. Collards, like most greens, cook down considerably and as they do make what is called a “pot likker”, which in itself is a legendary element of Southern cuisine. Most people include a meat to season, usually pork in the form of ham bones or a thick rind bacon, but today’s more health-conscious cooks will use a smoked turkey neck or tail, and some simply cook the greens in a vegetable broth. Use a minimum of salt before cooking, perhaps a teaspoon to help leach out the liquids from the leaves, and adjust before bringing to the table. Pepper vinegar is the traditional seasoning in the mid-South, but a red pepper (e.g. Crystal or Tabasco-type) sauce is more often used nearer to the Gulf.

Andrew Bucci: Art, Food and History

As incredulous as it may sound to us today, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the citizens of the very city who had grown up on and around the bluffs surrounding this iconic Mississippi landmark.

The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Enjoying an After-Dinner Pipe-Bucci

With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded. But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of a few volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts. On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci
Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists. At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire. The colony was later relocated to Utica, Mississippi.

(Many thanks to Joel Brown for his help with this article; you can find Bucci’s art in his gallery.)

Roast Short Ribs

For 3 pounds center-cut short beef ribs, line the bottom of a roasting pan with one large white onion. Coat ribs in a seasoning mixture of pepper, salt, granulated garlic and cumin in equal amounts. Top with another sliced onion, cover and place in a medium oven (300) for three hours. Uncover and bake for another 30 minutes. Serve with a good mustard, slaw and beans.