Culinary Jackson

Does Jackson have a distinct culinary reputation? The short answer is “no”; geography plays a key role in the history and culture of any city, and Jackson, Mississippi, situated between the brilliant culinary capitol of New Orleans and a much lesser light, Memphis, whose reputation rests primarily on contentious barbecue, finds itself overshadowed. Jackson’s culinary obscurity is compounded by the Mississippi Delta, whose foodstuffs as those of “the most Southern place on earth”, though most of the dishes are found as routinely in Hinds as they are in Washington County, put Jackson in the shade as well. Even Jackson’s signature recipe, comeback salad dressing, has its roots not so much in the city as it does in Greek immigrant communities that have histories in other Southern capitals, most locally Birmingham.

Yet Jackson does have a distinct culinary identity, one that might best be represented visually by something resembling an Archimboldo portrait composed of such dishes as Winifred Green Cheney’s Squash Eudora, Snapper Lena from Crechale’s, the sausage sandwich at the Big Apple Inn, the Mayflower’s Trout Michael, a Hungry Man Hog from the Beatty Street Grocery, Myrtis’ Gumbo from Hal and Mal’s, a cheeseburger from the Cherokee and of course a comeback salad. This list of components is certainly far too short. What’s more to the point is that a city’s culinary identity is comprised of the foods the city loves, the foods the city remembers, and while there’s certain to be a great deal of discussion (not to say argument) about what images should make up this pastiche of Jackson’s culinary personality, particularly because we have a new generation of restaurateurs, cooks and chefs making an impact not only in the city but across the region, Jackson does have a face when it comes to food, and it’s beautiful.

Quiche Me

Some people who know me well no doubt consider it inevitable that I’d offer a recipe for quiche. Well, fie on them; sure, quiche has a reputation for being the most froo-froo gay food in the world, still reeling from Feirstein, but I happen to like quiche (don’t start), which is nothing more than a savory custard. You can put anything in a quiche: onions, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, asparagus, ham, shrimp, fish (salmon is very good with roasted garlic), spinach, tomatoes, peppers, just make sure that whatever you add is drained thoroughly. For a quiche with the smoothest consistency beat together very well with the whites thoroughly blended four eggs and two cups heavy cream; you can use half-and-half in a pinch, but milk even whole milk won’t give you the best meld. Season with salt and pepper; nutmeg is traditional, but I never seem to have any on hand. Pour half of this mixture into a crust, add your other ingredients, then top with the rest of the egg mixture. Top with a little more cheese for dining room drama if you like and bake at 375 for about 30 minutes or until the top is puffed and slightly browned. Cool on a counter rack and brush with melted butter before slicing and serving. A good butch quiche (one with spinach; the Popeye version) goes well with light Pilsner.

Claiborne Peeled

Craig Claiborne seems overshadowed by James Beard and Julia Child, but Thomas McNamee’s biography The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance might change that.

Then again, it might not; though described by Betty Fussell as more “accessible” than the ostensibly warmer Child, McNamee initially seems to struggle against presenting the enigmatic complex Claiborne as anything less than a remote Olympian figure. When it boils down to it, though, Claiborne might best be described as the right man in the right place at the right time. His hiring as the first male food editor of a major newspaper came about as the result of crass opportunism if not (as is hinted) chicanery, but The New York Times provided Craig Claiborne with the preeminent platform to fulfill his mission, which McNamee describes as nothing less than “advancing the nation’s culinary culture”.

Claiborne’s call for reform (off the bat McNamee cites an April, 1959 column “Elegance of Cuisine is on the Wane in U.S.” as his gauntlet) came at a time when the nation was ripe for unabashedly elitist change; within a year, Jackie Kennedy, designer clothing and a French chef were in the White House. McNamee explains how Claiborne, with lavish finesse and training he received in Switzerland, set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. This biography confirms his pervasive influence on food and dining and easily dismisses his only serious detractors, back-benchers John and Karen Hess, as resentful nit-pickers.

By the mid-Sixties Claiborne had became America’s unquestioned authority (his columns went directly to print; no editor) on the full culinary spectrum of foods and restaurants, chefs and cookbooks. He wrote and co-wrote many best-sellers, first and foremost The New York Times Cookbook. He discovered and promoted chefs as cultural and media personalities – Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme among many others – helped publicize the West Coast/James Beard movement and introduced Americans to nouvelle cuisine. Claiborne also reveled in a “pan-global eclecticism”, promoting the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the war), among others. He also lived to celebrate a resurgence of great American home cooking. His influence extended into the Reagan administration, and his legacy is evident today in the treatment of food as an important media subject. He created food journalism, and his sheer adventurism still informs our attitude towards food and cooking.

Though a bit exaggerated – McDonald’s Ray Kroc and other fast-food titans have influenced America’s diet far more than Claiborne –The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat should assign Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography to a well-deserved obscurity. McNamee’s solidly researched and beautifully presented biography is a richly balanced and long-awaited feast for those wanting to know more (but not too much) about Craig Claiborne, an icon of his day and an avatar of ours, but I wouldn’t expect a biopic any time soon.

 

Chocolate Gravy

Mamaw Onsby lived in a small two-room house set back from ours under a huge white oak with thick knotted roots that gripped the earth like the toes of Antaeus. She had come to live there after her husband of sixty-odd years had died, and she was perfectly content, rarely coming to our house to visit, usually sitting at home listening to the radio and reading her Bible. Daddy tried to put an air conditioner in her window, but she wouldn’t have it. She was a tiny old woman, not much taller than I was at 11 when she died, and like many women of her generation who considered smoking unladylike, Mamaw dipped snuff (Garrett) and would make snuff out of cocoa and sugar for us to dip with her on twigs from the big black gum tree that grew near the road.

Her home was an early destination for me and her other great-grandchildren because she would make biscuits every morning, big, fat cat-head biscuits that she baked in an antediluvian skillet. Mamaw usually made sawmill gravy to go with the biscuits, but my brother Tom always asked her to make chocolate gravy. She’d look at him and say, “Oh, this thickenin’ gravy ain’t good enough for you, is it?” My brotherTom would grin, little devil he was, and say “NO!” as loud as he could, and Mamaw, with a mumble about him being “just like a damned Onsby” would make chocolate gravy. The rest of us to be polite always had a biscuit with regular gravy, but she made us have another with chocolate “so it won’t be wasted”. It never was.

Heat two cups milk with a pat of butter; mix very well three tablespoons cocoa, three tablespoons plain flour, three quarters of a cup of sugar and add to warm milk. Stir vigorously to prevent lumping, increase heat until gravy thickens. Some people add vanilla to this, but for the life of me, I don’t know why.

Hemingway’s Twister: The Candlestick Tornado

On March 3, 1966, a supercell thunderstorm developed over central Mississippi and produced a large tornado around 4:00 pm CST near the old Adams community in Hinds County, several miles south-southwest of Raymond.

Tracking generally to the northeast, the tornado moved through mostly rural areas, though several barns and a few homes were heavily damaged. Around 4:30 pm CST, the storm struck the southern limits of Jackson as an F4 or F5 tornado and leveled the Candlestick Park shopping center, which gave the tornado its name; cinder-blocks from the structure were scattered for long distances, a number of homes and businesses were destroyed, eyewitnesses reported pavement scouring and a few cars were tossed upwards of 0.5 mi (0.80 km). A brick church was destroyed with such force that it seemingly exploded. Once the storm moved through Jackson, it crossed the Pearl River and entered Rankin County, maintaining a nearly straight northeastward track through the county.

The tornado reached its maximum strength of F5 near the Leesburg community; multiple homes were swept away, large swaths of trees were leveled, pavement was scoured, and chicken houses were obliterated. In Neshoba County the storm began to weaken though not considerably as about a dozen more homes were destroyed before the system crossed into Alabama. The tornado finally dissipated near the city of Tuscaloosa around 7:45 p.m. CST. During the storm’s three-hour-and-forty-five-minute existence, it traveled roughly 202.5 mi (325.9 km), one of the longest paths ever recorded. Overall, the tornado ranks as the second-deadliest in the state’s history, killing 57.

The Candlestick tornado touched down in what was in 1966 rural Rankin County, which like the area around Cooper Road is more heavily populated today. The tornado crossed Highway 25 (Lakeland Drive), and homes and businesses in the area around River Oaks, the north side of Jackson International Airport, Laurel Wood and Castlewoods lie in or very near where the tornado passed. The storm was also going through the Jackson metropolitan area between 430 pm and 5 pm, during the afternoon rush hour. In 1966, the interstate system was in the process of being constructed, but today the tornado would have been moving near the Stack just south of downtown Jackson where Interstates 20 and 55 converge. The tornado would have also been passing near or through the heavily trafficked areas along Highway 80, Flowood Drive and Lakeland Drive in Flowood.

The tornado’s story is told by Lorian Hemingway in her book, A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever (Simon & Schuster; July, 2003). Hemingway, the granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway (the daughter of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, who left his wife and eight children when Lorian, the youngest, was 6 years old), moved to Jackson with her mother and stepfather into a house fifty yards north of Candlestick Shopping Center some years before the storm and moved to Nashville a month before the tornado hit, but in an interview after the book’s publication said the tornado, “… wouldn’t let me alone. I was haunted by it. I’ve been haunted by it all my life; I’ve been haunted by it in dreams. Each time I would go back to Mississippi — and I did not go back until I was well into my adult life — just by happenstance, just sitting around and hearing people talk, that tornado would come up. Not through any provocation of mine. I was amazed to see how much it had lived on and how much it had impacted people and become a part of their history.”

Hemingway’s book takes us back to Jackson with interviews of friends and neighbors. Included are the stories of Ronny Hannis, who was severely injured but helped dig survivors from the rubble,  and Donna Durr, who was sitting in her Volkswagen with her child and was carried away in the air, only to be gently set down in a field. As you might expect, there are plenty of people who talk of God and their belief that there was a plan to nature’s savagery. Hemingway, who shares her contrary thoughts with the reader, brings a sophisticated yet sympathetic tone to the conversations, never passing judgment. In fact, she seems desperate to reconnect with the people who made Jackson seem like home for her. Her style is radically different from that of her grandfather’s; the story is told in fully-rounded sentences often brimming with emotion, and the descriptions of the area around Caney Creek along Cooper Road seem pastoral.

She tells the story first in her own words then in the words of the survivors. Weaving nostalgia for the world of her childhood with apocalyptic images of that world “rolled onto a spear, of the sky punctured at its heart,” Hemingway draws the reader into the nightmare, describing the moments preceding the tornado and the instant when everything was turned upside down. Hemingway describes how a familiar setting is suddenly turned into a morass of shattered concrete, twisted metal, splintered glass, mangled cars and broken bodies and how everyone walks and speaks “with reverence because what is heaving and bending at jagged turns all around them is a burial ground they must undo.” Even after Candlestick Shopping Center was rebuilt, the people stayed away because they found they couldn’t bear to remember.

On March 3 of this year, the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, the City of Jackson, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service of Jackson hosted a special commemoration ceremony on the 50th Anniversary of the Candlestick Park Tornado, remembering the victims who lost their lives and honoring first responders, survivors, and family members.

 

On Heirloom Recipes

For a long time I was remiss about not getting recipes from someone when our lives were shared, particularly those relatives we all have who were known for making a dish that everyone remembers, most often for a pie, cake or cookie, but canning recipes ran a close second, particularly pickles, then there were sauces such as barbecue that invariably involved a method followed by casseroles, stews and breads. I felt as if those recipes were riches were swallowed by the maw of time, but that feeling has passed. Now I’ve come to realize that this remarkable world does indeed go around, and those cooks who will be remembered are here with me now. We should all realize that getting recipes from others is important, perhaps even significant in some larger scheme of things, and we need to get them now even if we have to beat the holy hell out of someone to do it. It’s our duty as a member of the human race.