Love in the Kichen

When it comes to food, love can exert a formidable influence. If you aren’t, like, totally spiritual, sex, the attraction if not the action, is probably the initial ingredient for a romance, but after that, sooner or later you’re going to have to eat together, and dining with one another can be as exhilarating and educational as sex the action.

It’s entirely possible that someone who loves greasy stuffed cabbage can learn from a lover how to adore creamy stuffed pasta, or vice versa. But dealing with extremes can be hazardous: a friend of mine who is a self-professed carnivore from way back once fell for this little slip of a girl who did not eat meat, so he sold off a custom-made barbecue grill and turned down his mother’s meat loaf. Twice. Even now, six years after his slip ran off with a zither player from Utah, his mom still brings it up. (Be advised: unconditional love doesn’t apply when it comes to meat loaf.)

It’s not that the entire process of learning to live together isn’t educational as a whole; it’s just that food has the potential to be a more fundamental source of friction than ugly underwear or nasal hair. For those among us with discriminating dietary habits, it’s a safe bet that if you meet someone special in a natural foods dive, they’ll feel much the same way about pork roast as you do (which is not to say that soy products might not eventually become a bone of contention). But if you meet a mate in a bar that serves hamburgers and patriot fries, well, you’re just wide open for surprises, and if simply adjusting to eating together isn’t enough, learning to cook in the same place can be heartaching as well: formerly favored cookware might be set aside to make room for an exotic batterie. That rooster roaster you were once so proud of might find itself set so far back in a cabinet that you might never lay eyes on it again, and condiments always run the risk of being controversial. You might also, as I did, find your palate challenged in totally unexpected ways, as when a housemate sought to seduce me with something novel and exciting in the form of a carrot omelet.

Discovery can be breathtaking, but it requires an open mind. Fortunately, omelets are quite versatile; you can put damn near anything in them, though I will admit that carrots initially struck me as an unlikely ingredient. After all, most omelets are served as savory rather than as sweet dishes, and carrots are among those vegetables I place on the sweet side. Now, you can make a carrot omelet such as I was served, where the shredded carrots were sautéed in a little butter with green onions and a hint of garlic before being added to the egg mixture, and it would be edible. But if I had been told that carrots were the only ingredient we had for an omelette (as it turned out, they weren’t), I might have suggested another recipe. Dessert omelets are novelties nowadays, but anyone who has poured syrup over scrambled eggs can attest to their appeal. Sugar (a little less than two tablespoons) is added to two large beaten eggs and a teaspoon of water. While a bit of water is standard for most omelets, the added sugar makes for a nice caramel-type crust. Separate one egg white and whip until stiff before folding it into the mix, but before you make your omelet á la Crécy, make candied carrots.

For two people: trim, scrub and peel two carrots, slice on the bias, barely cover in simple syrup made with honey or brown sugar, simmer with three cloves and a pat of butter until the liquid is reduced and the carrots are done through. Remove the cloves and use these carrots as you would any omelet filling; a classicist would puree them, but I don’t. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, serve with a tempest in a teapot.

Penny Eggs

Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew. Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the harkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.

Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other. Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors. He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common. Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.

“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”

Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Pudgy little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage. If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from MDOT bush hogs that had run over an old fence. “You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.

“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny. You’re eight, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”

“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless. I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, salmon and saltines, but he lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his little heart.

Oysters in the Saddle

We all know people who simply will not listen to argument, who will not take “no” for an answer, and my buddy Dale Harper is one of them. I love him dearly, but his opinions are unshakable, particularly when it comes to food. Dale has been cooking all his life, knows food, knows people, and will tell you in a heartbeat what will fly and what won’t. So when I told him a dish with oysters and bacon would go over like a lead zeppelin, he just laughed, patted me on the back and poured me another beer, which of course obliged me to listen.

“Jesse, Jesse, Jesse …” he said, shaking a jaw that boasts a red beard longer than my forearm. “Your problem is you do not think! What you have are two ingredients that are simply made for one another! Consider the oyster, a creature of the seas, and while delicious on its own, is lacking in that one essential ingredient that is dear to the palates of us Homo sapiens.”

“You’re calling me “sapiens” when you just said I can’t think?”

“Be hush,” he said, thrusting his beard forward in a gesture of authority. “Of course you think, but you don’t think enough. You have to consider things in many lights and from many angles, in this case an examination of contrasts. The oyster lacks fat!” With that he plunged his forefinger onto the bar and then pointed it at me in accentuation, a superfluous gesture, since his beard was already putting my eyes out.

That’s how Dale brushed away my conviction that angels on horseback is one of those Wayback recipes like rumaki that’s been consigned to the cholesterol woodshed. Upon some less-than-sober reflection, I thought, “Why not?” Angels on horseback have been around for a very long time, and the recipe is simple: wrap oysters seasoned with black pepper or cayenne in bacon (trim it as you like), skewer and broil (I don’t recommend grilling) until bacon is thoroughly cooked. Bring the bacon to room temperature before wrapping the oysters, which you should pat dry before skewering. Turn once for crisping. Don’t use toothpicks, but if you do soak them in water to minimize scorching.

Bon Ton Bread Pudding

“Le bon ton” can perhaps best be rendered in English as “the upper crust”, meaning that segment of society assumed to have more polished style and manners than The Great Unwashed. As such, the phrase “bon ton” has been used by a variety of businesses hoping to attract such a clientele, in particular restaurants. One such establishment, the Bon Ton Café at 211 West Capitol Street in Jackson, opened in the early 1900s. The Bon Ton was one of the city’s finest dining establishments, and had the first electric sign on Capitol Street to better attract diners from Union Station.

Another more famous Bon Ton was established in New Orleans in the Natchez Building at 401 Magazine Street. Originally opened in the early 1900s as well, the business was revived in the early 1950s by Al and Alzina Pierce, who came to the Crescent City from south Louisiana, bringing with them their recipes from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, becoming the first dining establishment in the city to stake a claim for Cajun cuisine in a city already famous for its Creole culinary tradition.

The Bon Ton’s best-known dish is its bread pudding, which is ethereal. When I worked in the Florida panhandle, we made a similar pudding with stale croissants, but the texture was dense owing to the abundance of air pockets in the bread, which simply could not absorb the custard adequately; a good French loaf is required. Here is Alzina Pierce’s original recipe, which comes via Jackson native Winnifred Green Cheney from her wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (Oxmoor, 1976).

Soak one loaf of French bread in a quart of whole milk and crush with hands until well mixed. Add 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons vanilla extract, 1 cup seedless raisins (optional), and place in a buttered “thick, oblong baking pan”. Bake until very firm and cool. Make a whiskey sauce; cream a half cup of butter with a cup of sugar, and cook in a double boiler until thoroughly dissolved. Add a well-beaten egg, whipping rapidly to prevent curdling. Let cool and add whiskey of your choice to taste. Pour over pudding, heat under broiler and serve.

Oysters LeFleur

This dish is a fusion between a Rockefeller and a Bienville, named for Louis LeFleur, the Father of Jackson, Mississippi, as the Bienville is named for Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the Father of New Orleans as well as Mobile. Oysters LeFleur is a very rich dish, and should be served as an appetizer, though it would also work well as a luncheon entrée.

A lot of people ask me why my recipes are what they call “vague”, meaning that the measurements in the recipes aren’t exact. I have my reasons, first because I rarely cook with measuring cups and spoons, and I make no apology for that because most people I know rarely do either. Secondly, if I say a recipe is for such and such a number of people, I think my readers have enough wherewithal to figure out how to increase or decrease amounts as needed, and this applies to the use of particularly pungent ingredients as well, since any practiced cook will know to use them in sparing amounts. As a rule, people who read recipes know how to cook, and given a list of ingredients and procedure can make sensible decisions on how any given dish is made. Lastly and most importantly, I do not expect anyone to follow a recipe precisely; somebody might not like fennel, or dill or spinach, perhaps a food allergy might be involved, in which case they’ll either leave it out and substitute something they like better (chard or mustard leaves instead of spinach, for example) and achieve good results.

That being said, oysters LeFleur are oysters broiled in a thick velouté with spinach, green onions, minced cooked shrimp and a hard grated cheese. The only seasonings are Tabasco, a slosh of dry white wine, salt and white pepper. Diced mushrooms are a wonderful option, as are mild peppers, but to be LeFleur, the dish must have oysters, spinach or a viable substitute as well as shrimp. Drain the oysters quite well, and add the sauce cooled, thick enough to be spooned. If you’re not cooking the oysters on the half shell, put a layer of sauce in your cooking dish adding the oysters and topping with more sauce and then dusting with grated hard cheese and/or breadcrumbs. A dozen serves two as an appetizer, one as an entrée.

Lazy Potato Pancakes

Take two cups mashed potatoes made from flakes, add two beaten eggs, one cup of freshly grated white onions and enough flour to make a loose dough. Season with salt and pepper, drop by spoonfuls into a hot oiled skillet and cook until browned. Serve with sour cream and fresh peppers.