Slap-Yo’-Momma Cornbread

One of life’s great lessons you should learn is that people will save all sorts of things and run up on such ephemera later. If you’re lucky enough they’re of the more innocuous sort, such as this recipe that my darling friend Connie ran up on the other day. Inebriation is a great incentive when it comes to bravado, and as a committed, generous ne’er-do-well, I’m in the habit of providing my friends (who are more often than not partners in crime) with the questionable blessings of my culinary genius.  After a bit of mutual deliberation, we’ve concluded that it was scribbled at Ireland’s in Oxford on some sunny fall afternoon when we both should have been at our desks at Ole Miss.

 

Save Room for Pie: A Review

With 47 books under his belt, it’s a wonder Roy Blount, Jr. can dish out another helping, but Blount is always ready with a serving of his special brand of eclectic linguistic hijinks, and Save Room for Pie has plenty and to spare. In this jaunt to the center ring, Blount takes on food, and as a native of Decatur, Georgia, his take has a decidedly Southern perspective.

Blount’s prose is riddled with non-sequiturs, often to the point of distraction; in fact, the entire work is a hodge-podge of anecdotes, stories involving food and the many celebrities with whom he has rubbed elbows (who are legion), light verse and sidebars. We shouldn’t expect a humorist to give us anything resembling a straight-forward narrative, and Blount not only meets but surpasses these expectations, which can be wearying in a work spanning 280 pages.

Not to say that Blount isn’t entertaining; he takes on dietary guidelines and healthy eating with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “Inside every thin Southern person,” he claims, “is a fat person signaling to get out.” He states that Velveeta has “more protein and fewer bad fats than many real cheeses” (being made of whey), and says that he has heard good things “from authorities recognized by my wife” about watermelon, egg yolk, cane syrup, lard, oysters, beef (“if raised right”), whiskey hot peppers, coffee, (dark) chocolate and butter.

His light verse covers such subjects as hamburgers, grease, eggs, gumbo, “love apples” (tomatoes), grits, catsup, “A Dark Sweetness” (cane syrup) and of course peaches. Among the more entertaining essays are on gizzards (“”The gizzard is what a chicken has instead of teeth.”), “Mississippi Music Notes” (“Did I mention that ‘Put Down the Duckie’ is the greatest music video ever made?”) and “Eating Out of House and Home” (“I’ll tell you what’s good though. Baked beans without a fly in them.”), though many of the others are just as rife with Blount’s own brand of lightly sardonic humor.

Admittedly, I am not a great fan of Blount’s writing; I prefer his off-the-cuff performances on NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, but while with Save Room for Pie Blount loads the plate with a lot of superfluous sides (earthworms and professional bass fishing, for instance), the book is a great addition to any fan’s library, a light-hearted jaunt through Southern foodways, a worthy read if only to discover that Mary Hartwell Howorth puts lawn clippings in her pimento cheese.

Charred Sage Chops

Brush chops with oil, season with black pepper and salt, then place on a very hot grill until the fat begins to sizzle and burn. Turn once, set aside and sprinkle on rubbed sage before serving with stewed dried black-eyes or fresh in season.

Jake’s Baked Chicken

Jake claims that I’m a terrible cook. If anyone else were to make such a statement, I’d have to pick up a two-tined fork and take umbrage, but Jake enjoys a considerable degree of license when it comes to reducing my self-esteem to dust and ashes. After all, he has known me for a very long time, has seen me in various degrees of dishevelment and has I must admit choked down more than a few of my less-successful efforts at the stove. Though to avoid argument I acquiesce to his damnation of my kitchen skills, I’m here to tell you the statement is just not true, and I can prove it.

Jake’s a good cook (see, I can be charitable), and at any given time he’s in the kitchen, I make it a point to stay in the back at my computer banging away at the keyboard and watching what he calls “black-and-white snoozers” on TCM. And I’m happy as a clam there, but once Jake begins cooking, I have to drop everything about every five minutes for consultations. Unless it’s something he’s cooked for a long time (a limited number of dishes, granted), he trots back and forth to where I’m sitting with a steady stream of questions. “How much of (insert name of a spice or seasoning) should I use?” “Is it okay if I just use canned broth to poach these meatballs?” “Do I have to use this ground beef? It smells weird” (Everything “smells weird” to Jake.) “How thick should I slice these mushrooms?” “Where in the hell did you put the (insert name of kitchen commodity)?” This grilling inevitably ends with the final question, “Would you come look at this? I want to see if I did it right.” The results are always beautiful; how could they not be?

For baked chicken breasts, wash and pat dry split whole breasts of chicken. Brush with light vegetable oil infused with granulated garlic, dried minced onions, rubbed sage, black pepper and salt in a roughly 2:2:1:1:1 ratio. Arrange loosely on a baking sheet or in a large skillet and bake in a medium oven (@350) at 350) until the skin is crisp and juices run clear.

 

Jess Jr.’s Library

My father had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication like Time/Life or the Reader’s Digest. Our home was full of books full of words and pictures, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.

It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and perhaps beyond me as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place and of my father as well, the contours being set by such things as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”

Jess Jr. had a personal connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was revoked.

He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.

One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime. In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. I like to believe my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but read it in its entirety in what was an ongoing effort to keep abreast of the mindset of the nation.

As to other fiction, he had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. He also had a copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, which is puzzling, since of Welty’s works this is more rooted in classical mythology than any other, and my father was very much a student of reality. Like me, perhaps he was just a redneck who came to read old books, and their poems and legends became a part of who he was.

In retrospect Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man, and as such he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries but perhaps most importantly people from every walk of life. For all that I have his books, I have little of his life, since his papers were destroyed (purportedly unintentionally) by a relative, so he remains and always will remain a puzzle to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with my very being.

 

Stirring the Political Pot

Two acquaintances on radically different ends of the political spectrum submitted lists of ten pro or con topics they consider crucial to today’s political climate. I present them to you blended together, though a careful study will likely reveal which are most relevant to conservative and liberal agendas respectively.

Would you support or oppose a simplified Federal tax code that taxed everyone at the exact same percentage, regardless of income?

Do you support or oppose birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants?

Would you support or oppose a ban on all abortions past 20 weeks, even if it were the result of incest or rape?

Do you support or oppose the criminal prosecution of police officers who knowingly kill an unarmed suspect?

Would you support or oppose eliminating the state income tax, like Tennessee and Florida have?

Do you support or oppose the use of body cameras for police officers?

Would you support or oppose a law requiring a life sentence for all armed robberies?

Do you support or oppose universal healthcare?

Would you support or oppose a law that made criticism of someone’s religion a crime punishable by a fine?

Do you support or oppose EEOC lawsuits based on the disparate impact standard?

Would you support or oppose a law requiring all able-bodied persons to serve two years in the military following high school or college?

Do you support or oppose elective war with Iran?

Would you support or oppose a law that imposed fines on any church that refused to perform a same-sex wedding?

Do you support or oppose elective war with North Korea?

Would you support or oppose a law prohibiting corporate salaries over $1 million per year?

Do you support or oppose preserving FTC net neutrality standards?

Would you support or oppose a law that held firearms manufacturers criminally liable for gun violence perpetrated by criminals?

Do you support or oppose the appointment of Supreme Court justices who believe the U.S. Constitution contains an implicit right to privacy?

Would you support or oppose a law banning the import of all items manufactured by American companies that have moved their operations to Mexico?

Do you support or oppose reinstatement (and/or expansion) of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance process?

 

Tamale Pie

My friend Teresa who checks out at my local grocery always looks at what I’m buying and asks what I’m cooking. This afternoon I checked out with ground beef, a bell pepper, an onion, a can of tomatoes and a sack of corn meal. “Oh!” she said. “I love tamale pie.”

At first glance, tamale pie has nothing in common with a steamed tamal, but on second look is a niece or nephew. Mirabile dictu, there is a Mexican version, the tamal de cazuela (trans: “tamale casserole”), and if you find that a revelation, you need a geography lesson. You might recognize Frito pie as a carnival cousin with the same basic ingredients: a corn meal “bread” served with stew made of beef, tomatoes and peppers. You can’t get much more New World than that unless you use elk or bison.

Tamale pie is made by all kinds of people for all kinds of occasions. If you want to think outside the hemisphere, it’s an American shepherd’s pie, though you’ll find bread baked with meats the world over. In the Deep South people crumble cornbread into a bowl of chili all the time, and tamale pie is the best way to bring the two together with less effort on both the cook and the diner.

The bones of controversy in this dish (and I assure you that there will always be a skeleton of contention in any given bowl of anything) are those over cheese in the bread topping and beans in the meat bottom, though we shouldn’t find either of these issues surprising.

Me, I make a mild chili with ground meat, no beans, top it with cheese cornbread and call it tamale pie.