Willie Wallace has been around Oxford for a long, long time. He has owned and operated Local Color all that while, and Willie’s endurance should make him a model for anyone else opening an alternative-style business. Willie is a jovial man with the attributes of Jove himself: strength, intelligence, and an overwhelmingly benign presence.
It was Willie who started me out on the gumbo thing. Willie is from somewhere down on the Coast, where of course he grew up eating gumbo, whereas in north Mississippi the only gumbo I’d had was out of a red-and-white can and was about as exotic as escargot. Willie was a big supporter of the Bean Blossom Bistro and he spent a lot of time there helping out. I remember vividly the day when Willie was hunkered down in a corner peeling potatoes, and Carol and I were talking about soups. Well, I think I was the one to mention a gumbo, and I started talking about how I’d make it and Willie looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “So how did you say you did your roux?” Well, I think I tried to bluff my way through not knowing what a roux was for all of ten seconds before Carol and Willie both just started laughing, and I finally just had to admit I didn’t know what the hell a roux was, so they told me, and out of this embarrassing incident came a determination to learn how to make a distinguished gumbo. I think I’ve succeeded, too. Thanks, Willie.
Like a lot of other folks, I’m really serious about my gumbo. A good gumbo takes time to prepare, and it also takes some presence of mind. The roux itself takes a considerable amount of attention and some practice despite aversions you may have heard to the contrary. A roux is a mixture of butter or some other fatty substance and flour cooked together for varying amounts of time, depending upon its final use. There are three types of roux: a brown roux, a blond roux, and a white roux. Each is used as a thickening ingredient in sauces, brown roux in brown sauces, blond roux for a host of other uses, and white roux for white sauce such as Béchamel or a Velouté.
Now, these are the classical precepts for a roux, and when the French settled Louisiana in the early 18th century, the cooks they brought with them followed these rules in their kitchens. But somewhere along the way the rouxs used in Louisiana came to be cooked far longer than the Continental kinds. Some authorities believe this came about because of the dalliances of Creole apprentices in the early restaurants of New Orleans, but however it came about, the brown roux of classical French cuisine, described as being a “good light brown color,” ended up being nearly black in the Louisiana version. This deep, rich roux gave whatever it was added to a depth and resonance hitherto unknown in French cookery, and indeed a good dark roux is today the basis for many of the most robust recipes in the formidable New Orleans arsenal of cookery.
This good dark roux is the same sort I use in my gumbo. I call it a beer-bottle roux because it is about the same color as a brown beer bottle. To make a roux for gumbo, I take a quarter cup of olive oil and a quarter cup of vegetable oil (bacon drippings are even better) and bring to a moderate heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet with high sides (a Dutch oven is perfect). Stir in about a 1/2 cup of plain flour. With a wooden spoon or a wire whisk, stir the flour briskly as it browns. Add a little more flour to the mixture—say a tablespoon—as it cooks until all the oil is absorbed. Stir continually, scraping the bottom frequently, until the roux is a rich, dark, almost mahogany color. If you scorch the roux, start over again. You can make this roux ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for use in soups and stews and sauces for beef or game and for étouffés.
To begin the gumbo, while the roux is hot, toss in about three chopped white onions, two chopped bell peppers, and a half a bunch of celery chopped, leaves and all. Stir until the mixture has cooled slightly and the vegetables are coated. Then add a quart of warm stock. Chicken stock in various strengths–full for chicken and sausage, weak for seafood–works just fine, though some purists will disagree. Stir this mixture vigorously until the roux has been assimilated and the mixture begins to thicken. Transfer to a heavy six to eight quart pot, add another quart of the stock and put the pot over a low flame with a buster and stir frequently. After this mixture has begun to thicken, add another quart of stock, three tablespoons of minced garlic, and another chopped onion. Let this mixture cook until the onions begin falling apart. Then add one pound canned diced tomatoes and two pounds of frozen sliced okra which has been rinsed under running water to reduce the mucilage, else the gumbo may become ropy.
At this point, add about four heaping tablespoons of basil and fresh chopped parsley, a bunch of chopped green onions, three tablespoons of leaf thyme, a tablespoon of oregano (more if you want, but be quite careful because it will make your gumbo bitter), a tablespoon of black pepper, a tablespoon of white pepper, and a teaspoon of cayenne. Blend this very well and begin tasting. You may very well want to add more garlic, and you certainly will want to add some salt. Some people like to put a few dashes of Tabasco sauce and a little lemon juice in at this point, but I add this at the end. Also adjust your liquid, adding more if needed. Cook this mixture on low heat for an hour or so, then turn off the heat and let the flavors set.
Now you’re ready to add your seafood. Take about two pounds of small shrimp, and sauté with olive oil and garlic (I tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic, so you might want to taste your gumbo and use your own discretion). Add the shrimp to the gumbo mixture. Take also about a dozen small (3-5 oz.) catfish fillets (you can use any non-oily fish, but where I come from catfish is good and plentiful). Cut them into one inch chunks and poach them in a little of your stock water until just done. Add to the gumbo mixture. Then poach two dozen oysters in their liquor until their edges just curl and add them to the mixture.
Bring the gumbo back up to heat, being extremely careful not to scorch the bottom of the pot as at this point you have a huge investment of time, care and money on your hands. If the gumbo seems too thick, add a little more liquid. Adjust your salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice with a bare sprinkling of filé powder, good hot crusty bread and melon. To make a chicken gumbo, use a full-flavored chicken stock, omit the tomatoes and add a tablespoon of sage to the spice mixture. You can also make a good vegetarian black-eyed pea gumbo by using a vegetable stock and adding a quart or so of cooked dried or fresh black-eyed peas using the basic seafood spice mixture You can add sausage to either the seafood or the chicken gumbo, but I prefer it in the chicken, just be sure to blanch the sausage first to leech the fat out before you add it to the gumbo mixture, else the sausage fat will overpower the other tastes.
Be creative; do whatever you want. You might want it hotter, thicker, thinner or whatever. You might not like so much celery or onion or bell pepper. You might not like tomatoes. Please yourself. But be aware that gumbo takes a certain presence of mind to make correctly. A good gumbo demands devotion.
We need no further proof that to the staff of The New York Times the state of Mississippi is an anomalous, backward enclave than the January 26, 2016 article in the newspaper’s food section about the “improbable rise” of a slow cooker pot roast recipe credited to a Ripley woman named Robin Chapman that has become a web phenomenon, “a favorite of the mom-blog set”.
Now dubbed “Mississippi Roast”, Chapman, who was interviewed by Times writer Sam Sifton for the article, simply called it “roast” (and still does). The recipe involves beef chuck topped with a packet of dry ranch dressing mix, a packet of dry “au jus” gravy, a stick of butter and a few pepperoncini. Chapman claims it’s riff off a recipe she received from an aunt, who used packaged Italian dressing, but she wanted something “milder” (the word is in quotes in the Times article), so she used ranch instead of Italian. “Over time,” Sifton writes, “the recipe has slowly taken on a life of its own,” which is of course news not only to “food writers and scholars”, but to those of us who actually cook in order to feed ourselves and our families.
To his credit, Sifton has done a considerable amount of footwork delineating the “rise” of this recipe from Chapman’s kitchen to a cookbook put out by the good people at the Beech Hill Church of Christ in Ripley, through nearby Hickory Flat where it was sampled by visiting food blogger Laurie Ormond or Bentonville, AK, who published the recipe on her blog. The recipe was picked up by Candis Berge on her blog in 2011. Berge claimed it passed what she called “the hubby test” (in quoting her claim, the Times italicizes this, finding it a key factor in the recipe’s “mom-blog set” popularity), and very soon “Mississippi Roast” became popular on such platforms as Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest.
Again to his credit, Sifton actually goes to the trouble to make “Mississippi Roast”, though predictably he is not faithful to the original recipe. He uses less butter (not saying how much less), reasoning that “there is plenty of fat in chuck roast”, uses five times as many pepperoncini, sears the roast before placing it in the cooker, “browning it aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper” (do I hear a faint echo of Craig Claiborne in that sentence?) and coating it with flour to create a “base of flavor” to replace the gravy mix and actually makes ranch dressing instead of using a packet (let’s give the devil his due and assume packets of dried au jus and ranch dressing mix are unavailable in Food World) and “dumped that” over the top of the meat. “Eight hours later,” Sifton writes, “My family dived into their meal with glee. It was exactly the same as the original effort (my italics, indicating incredulity), and took about the same amount of time to make.”
Sifton’s article ends with wine pairings compiled by one Eric Asimov (nephew of Isaac), who states, “This soft, beefy roast calls for a robust, structured red that will both complement the flavor of the meat and accommodate the bite of the peppers,” and recommends among others “a Brunello di Montalcino or its more modest sibling, Rosso di Montalcino” from Italy, “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant or its grander neighbor, Priorat” from Spain, a “southern Rhône, like a Gigondas or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape” or “if you are a fan of Argentine malbec, try one”. On second thought, anyone who can write such frivolous drivel about what wine to serve with a “Mississippi Roast” must know science fiction.
We can safely assume that everyone at the Beech Hill Church of Christ will assiduously ignore Asimov’s alcoholic urgings, and we can be damn sure that most people who want to make a pot roast with pre-packaged mixes will continue to do so however the hell they want using whatever the hell they have on hand, as cooks have been doing since the dawn of recorded history. The compelling theme behind this prolonged sneer against Mississippi, indeed against the “mom-blog set” across the nation, seems to be the sheer incredulity that such an atrocious recipe could actually find any sort of popular appeal in a country that is deluged by a media that promotes upscale food and ignores the needs and lives of people who work hard and have little time or money to indulge in such frivolities as Kobe beef or “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant”. Perhaps New York City itself is an anomalous enclave, but certainly anomaly resides in the editorial offices of The New York Times.
Here’s a pretty quick bread that will shine split and served with sweetened, softened cream cheese any time. Preheat oven to 425. Toss six to eight cut strawberries with a tablespoon of sugar and set aside. Mix 2 cups flour with a tablespoon of baking powder and a pinch of salt, add about a half cup of cold butter and working quickly with your hands break the butter into the flour until it has a coarse granular texture. Add the strawberries, mix well and refrigerate for 5 minutes, remove and add enough milk to make a sticky dough. Turn the dough onto a floured surface, roll out to about three quarters of an inch thick and cut into biscuits. Brush with melted butter, place on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake on an upper rack for about 15-20 minutes until lightly browned.
On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.
“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”
Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.
At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.
“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.
When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.
Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.
Mississippi legitimized legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out or rebuilt after the soaking by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. City fathers allow that the Dixie Mafia may still be operating on the Gulf Coast, but as a mere shadow of its former might and ruthlessness.
Every culture has dishes prepared for special occasions , but over time many recipes that our ancestors prepared on a regular basis have been needlessly consigned to specific holidays. How often do you roast a turkey or make a fruitcake? What’s particularly sad as well as paradoxical about this occasional consignment is that many dishes we prepare only for the holidays are those that bring us the most comfort, that make us feel most at home and closest to the heart of our lives and those we love.
Gingerbread is an extreme example of this culinary exile, particularly because when gingerbread is prepared even for the holidays it’s most often make into cookies or constructed into houses, the latter a bizarre case of misguided nostalgia, since a gingerbread house was where a cannibalistic witch lured the outcast Hansel and Gretel. Unlike most recipes, gingerbread has a very specific culinary history, having been brought to Europe by an Armenian monk—Europe was swarming with monks back then—first to France (of course) and from there the bread spread throughout the western hemisphere (the French consider this a natural progression). Ginger has always been thought of as an aid to digestion, and Beard maintains that in this country gingerbread was eaten on a regular basis much like savory bread up until the first decades of the 20th century, when it became a food for children or the holiday table, specifically for the Christmas table as anthropomorphic cookies.
Let’s bring gingerbread back into our homes on a regular basis if for no other reason than that it is a most aromatic dish with an infusion of cinnamon, clove, allspice and ginger in an exotic melange rising above the mellow scents of vanilla, molasses and brown sugar. This is another recipe you should have in your repertoire for any day of the year, any time of the day, particularly for us Southerners, since we have access to the finest molasses in the world, namely sorghum molasses, the nectar of any god. This recipe is not complicated at all and by far surpasses those awful mixes you’ll find that the supermarket that have doubtless been on the shelf nearby the birthday candles for months.
First, this is a buttermilk recipe, so instead of baking powder, bicarbonate of soda provides the leavening; second, know that you need to use a strong blackstrap molasses, not Karo Dark, and certainly not honey; finally, use more ginger than you might feel comfortable about. You’re going to find a lot of recipes that employ a teaspoon of ground ginger with equal amounts of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, but this is gingerbread, not spice bread. The ginger needs to shine in the taste of the bread itself.
Cream a stick of softened unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar, beat until fluffy and mix well with two eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Mix one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a quarter teaspoon each of ground cloves and allspice. Add two teaspoons pure vanilla extract and a half cup buttermilk. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 350 for about an hour. If you have the willpower, cool before slicing.
“Mosquito”, by Flo Field Hampton, arranged by Harry L. Alford. Crystal Springs, Mississippi: Flo Field Hampton Publishing Co., c. 1926. Eudora Welty illustrated the cover for this musical piece written by Flo Field Hampton, her English teacher at Jackson Junior-Senior High School: “O Mos-qui-ta, Mos-qui-ta, you bi-ta my feet-a!” (Special Collections, University of Mississippi)
It was a beautiful little bird, a brilliant green for the most part, with a yellow head and a line of red bordering the bill and extending under the eye. The forewings were edged with orange. In flight, it must have resembled a jewel; in clusters, a mandala of color. The Carolina parakeet, the only parrot native to North America, ranged across the eastern half of the continent north to Michigan, west to Texas, but nowhere more numerous than in the South, where raucous flocks darted through the virgin forests feeding on mostly on acorns and grains, but their fondness for early fruit proved their doom. They were easily kept from ravaging settlers’ orchards because when one bird fell to the gun, others would cluster around it crying before the gunfire resumed, and they were slaughtered.
Audubon kept one as a pet; Wilson found them in Natchez in 1811, but records are spotty. Chances are they were never that numerous, just fleeting, noisy accents among the trees along rivers in the virgin forests such as you might expect of parrots in any jungle. The Carolina parakeets died out in the early 20th century; the last flock was recorded in Florida. The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. This was a male, Incas, who died within a year of his mate, Lady Jane. In a case of tragic irony, Incas died in the same aviary cage in which the last passenger pigeon, Martha, had died nearly four years earlier. In 1939 the Carolina parakeet was declared extinct. Some believed a few may have been smuggled out of the country and repopulated elsewhere, but that’s no more than wishful thinking.
When I was a little girl my grandmother Emma would sit me on a bench in the kitchen while she cooked, and she would tell me stories. Even now I can hear the sound of her voice, low and level. I can smell the cornbread in the oven and the big pot of beans simmering on the back of the stove. She told me how she played hoops with her sisters, how her grandmother would teach her Bible verses as she cooked. She told me how the rain sounds at nights on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.”
She also told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all.
“Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”
Emma would smile to herself, tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart little girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see them in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see them in the store, either. Blue roses only grow in Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”
She told me that the Mountains of the Moon are draped in cloud and mist during the day. At night when the wind blows up from the desert sands, the skies clear, the moon beams upon the green slopes, and roses wind around the palms and climb towards the stars, their blossoms bluer than the open sea.
When Emma died my heart broke into a million pieces, but when I remember her my heart is whole again. If someone tells me I can buy blue roses from a catalog and grow them in my yard in Mississippi, I smile to myself and know that blue roses only grow in Africa, on the misty slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.