Honduran Hoecakes

After noting (somewhat suggestively, I thought) that Mexico is shaped like an on-end cornucopia, one authority I consulted for a reasonable analysis of cultural diffusion with the U.S. degenerated into a diatribe against the North American Free Trade Agreement, but even without his analysis, perhaps even despite of, it’s safe even for a rube like me to say that the influences are profound, that of Mexico on the U.S. embracing such diverse areas as art and architecture, music and literature, not to mention food, a far more significant contribution than that our northern neighbor Canada, which as far as I can tell seems to be restricted to ice hockey and fried potatoes with gravy.

Tomes have been written about Mexican food in the U.S., but with the obvious exception of Texas the discussion of Mexican foods in the American South has just begun. In Mississippi, Delta tamales are certainly the most notable culinary import from south of the border, but another that you’ll find throughout the state if not most parts of the South while Mexican in name does not like the tamal have its origins in Old Mexico. Instead, what we know as Mexican cornbread is almost certainly though not verifiably a Tex-Mex recipe that has been around long enough to become a standard not only in our homes but also in supermarket delis, a certain sign of its broad appeal.

Though Southerners claim cornbread as our definitive staff of life, Mexico is the home of this staple, though certainly not as we know it now. While researching the history of Mexican cornbread (the U.S. version, whose origins are obscured in a cloud of “women’s magazine” articles and speculation), it was somewhat of a discovery to stumble upon our cornbread in Mexico, unsurprisingly called pan de maiz, which seems to be recent and largely at home in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. One recipe I found on a Mexican website claims to have come by way of Maine and even employs buttermilk. While such things aren’t inconceivable, I suddenly felt as if the Culinary Improbability Drive had been activated, and I was on the verge of turning into an enormous jalapeno hushpuppy and plunging into a roiling intergalactic catfish pond. I felt much the same way about Malaysian grits.

Mexican cornbread has all sorts of atrocious variations, but the most rudimentary type employs corn, peppers and some sort of cheese. Extreme examples include any number of beans and meats, cacti, seeds and flowers, not to mention that California aberration with blue tofu. For my part, I’ve devised a recipe that is a departure from the customary pan of bread, one that is lighter and at least in spirit closer to the flatbreads more often served on Mexican tables. It reminds me of an early Southern cornmeal staple many consider the ancestor of the cornbread most often made for our tables. Make batter as you normally would for cornbread, adding only whole kernel corn, peppers and your choice of cheese in equal proportions. I prefer to use thin-walled mild peppers for the most part with a thinly-sliced jalapeno for kick. Drop batter by spoonfuls into a well-oiled skillet, brown on both sides and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a medium oven until done through. You want them crusty, good for toppings (salsa, guacamole, refried beans, etc.), serving them as you would a sope.

The Ontological Onion

From an undeniable existence, we ascend to the metaphysical ontological, where such things-in-the-world as an onion peel particulate and scatter in those realms of thought where essences rule and recipes are no more than words on paper or ideas to be tossed around, concepts before conception. If as Hesse claims man is an onion, then what is onion to man at any given layer? What is onion-ness without the onion, and who are we without it but bereft?

Tomato Cheese Pie

Brush puff pastry with oil, dust with grated Parmesan, pierce and bake in a hot oven until browned. Cool and coat with grated mozzarella, unripe or winter tomatoes which have been sliced, drained, salted and seasoned with pepper and herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil), top with more of the cheeses and bake in a medium oven until cheese is melted through. Serve hot or cooled.


The Moonshine Connection

Though most decry shine as a purely rural and decidedly unsophisticated addition to an alcohol arsenal, you will often with discreet inquiry find that many living in an urban and arguably more sophisticated world have in a conveniently inaccessible corner of their liquor cabinet a jar of lightening to tempt those not wary and test those who are.

The Egg Theological

Symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, the egg plays a significant role in Christian theology, particularly during Easter, but eggs have other less important religious connotations at other times of the year. Take for instance deviled eggs, which are boiled and stuffed with their yolks mixed with hot seasonings, then you have eggs in hell and eggs in purgatory, both basically picante variations on huevos rancheros, and though those with a passing familiarity with Dante might assume eggs in purgatory to be less pungent than the ones in an inferno, both recipes are hot; so much for penitence.

Then we have eggs in heaven, the inspiration of Carla Hall, who grew up in Nashville, graduated from Howard and spent several years on the fashion runways of Paris, Milan and London before becoming a star on “Top Chef” and co-host of “The Chew”. Carla, bless her soul, provides us with eggs in heaven, which is one of those recipes you read and think, “Now that just makes too much sense”, a wonderful combination of grits and eggs, which we’ve been serving together in the South for dozens of decades, but never like this. I for one am grateful that Carla has redeemed the egg from toil and damnation, consigning it to a more appropriate plane.

For six servings, cook one cup grits in one and a half cups water and one cup whole milk with a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of butter. Once done, add a half cup of shredded cheese (Carla recommends cheddar, but I like Edam or Gouda). Pour into an oiled casserole or skillet to cool until just warm. Make  six depressions in grits about two inches apart with the back of an oiled spoon and break an egg into each hole. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and bake at 350 uncovered until eggs are how you like them (about fifteen minutes for hard-cooked). This is a wonderful breakfast buffet dish that Carla recommends serving with grilled ham.

Sewing a Shroud for the Lord God Bird

In 1943 Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. along with the governors of three other Southern states—Sam Jones of Louisiana, Prentiss Cooper of Tennessee and Homer Adkins of Arkansas—joined in an action that remains unique in the annals of Southern politics: a last-ditch effort to save a species of bird from extinction. Magnificent in flight, majestic in repose, the ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest woodpecker in North America, second in the world only to its closest relative, the imperial ivory-bill of Central America and the Caribbean. The ivory-bill at first sight is said to have caused newcomers to the primeval woodlands of the South where it once lived to exclaim, “Lord God, what is that thing?!” As the deep and beautiful woodlands of the South fell to the axe during the late 19th and early 20th century the ivory-bill, which required vast tracts of timber to survive (an estimated 2.5 square miles of old-growth forest for a mating pair), fell into decline largely due to starvation, though mindless shooting by trigger-happy gunmen was also a significant factor.

By the first decades of the 20th century, only one sizeable portion of virgin Southern woodland remained intact, a vast area of dense mixed long-leaf pine and deciduous trees that stretched from the Brazos River in Texas to the Sabine River on the Texas/Louisiana border between Nacogdoches and Galveston once covering over 2 million acres, but by the 1930s had shrunk to a mere 800,000 that in an odd twist of fate had been purchased by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to secure hardwood for machine cabinets. This, the so-called Singer Tract, was also the last documented home of the ivory-bill, and the fate of this splendid bird indeed hung by a thread, since in 1937 the Singer Company sold logging rights to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and in the next year cutting had already begun. Under the agreement, land logged by Chicago Mill and Lumber became that firm’s property, but until then, the Singer Company still held ownership. The survival of the ivory-bill became a subject of national consideration (a significant gesture since the country was involved in the biggest conflict in history) involving not only the four aforementioned governors, but President Roosevelt, the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the directors of the National Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the War Production Board and the National Audubon Society.

In December of 1943, the chairman of the board of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company met with the brokers of a potential land deal that would have established a national park and refuge for the ivory-bill. The other participants were Louisiana’s conservation commissioner, the refuge director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their attorney John Baker. But despite the offer of $200,000 from the state of Louisiana to purchase the remaining Singer Tract, James F. Griswold, chairman of the Chicago Mill and Lumber board, refused to deal. In what is perhaps the ugliest and most blatant admission of corporate greed and irresponsibility in the history of the United States, Griswold said, “We are just money grubbers. We are not concerned, as are you folks, with ethical considerations.” In a similar vein, Singer Company treasurer and vice president John Morton told Baker that Singer “didn’t care where its money came from”, and refused to intervene. Subsequent offers proved fruitless, and the Singer Tract was clear-cut (by German POWs, no less), creating a wasteland of baked mud studded with stumps and sending the Lord God bird over the abyss into extinction.

Painting by John James Audubon
Painting by John James Audubon

Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Review

During a segment of “Iron Chef”, when one critic told Cat Cora that he didn’t care for her dish, she unhesitatingly asked, “Then why did you eat it all?” This to me sums up Cat Cora; she doesn’t pull any punches. Why Cat invoked Barbara Gordon’s 1979 memoir in this title is perplexing, since Cora has her own story, which she tells simply and honestly in a voice that you listen to and believe, the story of an orphan from Greenville who grew up in a loving, understanding home in Jackson and become a groundbreaking culinary superstar. It’s hard to ask anyone for a more Horatio Algers narrative. While her life provides plenty of excuses for the sort of self-indulgent whining you’re going to find in many celebrity biographies, you’re not going to hear such mewling from Cora; she is a strong, resilient, hard-working woman who takes her setbacks, admits her mistakes, unerringly doing what she needs to do in order to overcome such difficulties and move on to succeed, which indeed she does. The details of her culinary education and career as well as behind-the-scenes at “Iron Chef” provide a lot of interest for foodies as well as fans, who will also enjoy reading her honest account of her own personal journey. In a work of such candor, I expected more details of the sort that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, details that only I might consider sins of omission, such as what the “white table restaurant near the Old Capitol” was, or the name of the dyke bar near the New Capitol, though such sins of omissions are petty. I also wanted to know more about her take on the Greek community here, more specifically the restaurant families, but again that’s a matter of personal interest, and Cat gives me enough to go on. Mississippians, Cat is our daughter, our sister, and we should embrace and celebrate her, but no matter who you are, you’ll find her book great fun and an informative read.