Dear Kevin Sessums,

Hardly a day goes by, Mec, that you don’t take a swipe at Mississippi on social media citing how “backward” your home state is. When you are brought to task for it, you say we need to quit electing jerkwads to public office and that, in essence, we all deserve the black eye and boycott.

Well, perhaps; but how does that help support those of us who are out to change that? More importantly, how does that bring to attention those we have elected who don’t buy into that bigotry and hatred, such as the mayor and elected city officials of my little town who spot on and quick came out welcoming LGBTs and making sure we, and anyone else paying attention, knew everyone is welcome here? It is easy to criticize from the outside, and words are cheap. Now, you remember Canton, right? Take 43 west out of Pelahatchie. You may know what Canton is to the film industry in that lieu de naissance stamped on your papers. You may not know just how outspoken our film folks have been against this HB1523, but they have been among our best friends here.

Okay, you tell us that there are plans afoot to make your Mississippi memoirs into a film. Some of us are glad to hear that. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it from you as time wears on. You’ve done moderately well and do seem to hob nob with some of the names in lights. Good for you. They seem like decent people. It is kind of nice to see a local boy living his dream. Now, why don’t you encourage them to come to Canton and Mississippi to do your film? I mean, isn’t this the setting? Why don’t you use your name and fame to support those of your people back home who are doing everything within their power to make this a better place, as we MOTs say, “tikkun olam”.

Put your money where your mouth is, as the old folks here would say. Make Mississippi proud of you.

Love,
Josef

 

Halcyon Soup

Homemade soups should grace our tables more often; they’ve fed body and soul long before canning came along, and a good soup made with stout stock and proper care is the measure of a good cook. One soup you’ll never find in a can is gazpacho, which rated an entire chapter (“Beautiful Soup”) in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, and became a culinary craze sometime in the late 1970s. Gazpacho is a king of cold soups, an easily-made, refreshing and somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Historical recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture (I simply don’t like the texture), take it from someone who crumbles cold cornbread over a table bowl, bread is a great addition, and any well-textured bread will do.

This recipe is from my halcyon days in Oxford, where I was desultorily studying for a degree, diligently exploring my capacities for vice and desolately working in a string of eateries, among them The Bean Blossom Bistro, the first health-food restaurant in Oxford. It was located on Jackson Avenue across from the old telephone exchange. The Good Food Store, Oxford’s first health-food store—then in its second incarnation—was on the corner next door. Carol Davis opened the Bean Blossom in 1978. We had worked together at the old Moonlight Café, which Betty Blair had opened up in the Hoka a couple of years earlier. Carol and I became fast friends during that time, and when she opened up her own place, she brought me with her. We were very young, and though I like to think that Oxford in those days was an intoxicating environment, perhaps youth itself was our wine.

The Bean Blossom, like so many small restaurants, was founded more on good intentions than experience. I don’t think we ever seated more than fifty people at one time, and usually far, far less. The kitchen could barely hold more than three people. Our menu changed daily, though we could always whip up a tofu burger, or a veggie stir-fry or a great salad any time you wanted it. Carol introduced me to a lot of new foods, including adzuki beans, which I cook like cowpeas, and tofu, which I of course deep-fry. She also brought gazpacho into my world, and for that I am evermore grateful. I remember dipping the soup from a bucket in the bottom of our double-door refrigerator, a sheen of oil glistening atop the mixture. We served it with a variety of breads, and each bowl I eat now is a serving of nostalgia. Like memories themselves, this soup improves with age, but sours if mishandled.

Bean Blossom Gazpacho

Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though be careful, since the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet yellow banana pepper works well. If you want to add a hot pepper such as a jalapeno, fine, but I don’t recommend heat; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing rather than pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well, though there are countless variations. Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. You might want to add some liquid, in which case I recommend a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Let this mixture sit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator in a sealed non-metallic container overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a little fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper and return to the refrigerator. Serve in chilled bowls (freshly chopped chives are a nice touch) with good crusty bread.

Derby Day!

The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow! Looking over the sports section of The New York Times today and photos of the muddy track at Churchill Downs reminded me to get cracking and write up my own Derby recipes and traditions for my friends in other parts of the country.

How to Dress for the Derby

Derby is the time for considered bets or wild hunches, frosty mint juleps and dressing to the nines: elaborate hats or fascinators, colorful silk dresses or suits, finished off with heels and gloves. Men wear bright trousers, poplin or linen suits in ice cream colors, bright socks and fancy ties or bow ties, with seersucker and classic navy always in form. Hats are for the men, too, from bowlers to boaters (but no cowboy hats, please). Gentleman, please praise each woman’s hat: it’s expected!

Churchill Downs

I haven’t been to the actual race in years — when I was often included with my family in former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler’s box at Churchill Downs. That was always a treat: no one could sing “My Old Kentucky Home” better than Happy, usually wearing a white linen three piece suit accompanied by movie stars like Natalie Wood, baseball players like Bob Feller or politicians such as the elegant Sen. Thurston B. Morton and his wife made sure to stop by to greet the Chandlers.

My good friend Amy Zemo Broadhurst has been at Churchill Downs all week, from Millionaire’s Row to the Winner’s Circle Suites to the Turf Club. The Turf Club, by the way, is where you will find the owners and trainers. No messy infield for Amy, who is immaculately dressed and entertains business clients during Derby. Should you fail in your quest for the good seats, there’s always the Infield, where the grass should be blue – but is too crowded to see. Tickets for the Infield used to be $20 when I was young, but are now $60. You are allowed to bring in food but not liquor though somehow liquor WILL make it through.

Derby Parties at Home

Alas, Happy is long dead and the real Kentucky Derby scene for me now is in the private parties held by Kentuckians in their homes. Even NON-Kentuckians like to celebrate the festive day and while your party may be as humble as a bucket of KFC and beer, here are some traditional ingredients for a successful party:

Country Ham

I used to buy my country ham and beaten biscuits from Taylor Farms in Cynthiana, Kentucky.  Farmer Taylor’s celebrated method of curing has been adapted by others but I now favor the country ham served by the fabled Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.  These hams have been cured by Meacham Hams in Sturgis, Kentucky for more than eighty years. Cooked or uncooked ham is available along with other delicious smoked meats; and they will also provide nicely trimmed biscuit cut slices. Rather than host a party, you may want to consider a traditional Derby breakfast to start the day off right. Happy and Mildred Chandler started this tradition during his first term as Governor in 1936. They served an excellent spread of country ham, grits, red eye gravy, scrambled eggs, biscuits, jam and plenty of hot coffee. This meal is no longer served at the Governor’s Mansion, but it’s still a wonderful menu.

Beaten Biscuits

While I prefer smallish buttermilk biscuits with my ham, beaten biscuits are an old Kentucky tradition.  On the crisp side, the biscuits are made by beating dough with a wooden mallet for half an hour, no more, no less.  Luckily for all hostesses who don’t employ a cook or have the patience to make them, Meacham Hams sells them by the dozen.  Even stores like Liquor Barn sell them,  NOBODY wants to make beaten biscuits any more.   Halfway between a cracker and a biscuit, just add a little butter and a slice of ham. They are so good. However, if you want to be old-fashioned, here is an excellent old recipe.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
1/4 cup lard, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup light cream
2 tablespoons cold water (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Sift flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar together. Use a fork to “cut” the lard into the flour until it looks like coarse meal. Using a standing mixer, or a wooden spoon, mix the dough as you slowly add the cream. Mix well to form the dough into a ball, adding water if needed. Place the dough onto a tabletop, and knead slightly. With a mallet or a rolling pin, beat the dough a few times to form it into a rough rectangle. Fold the dough over, and then beat it out again. Repeat this process until the dough becomes white and blisters form on the surface, about 30 minutes. Roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into 2 inch rounds, and prick the top with the tines of a fork: nine holes are traditional. Place on greased baking sheets. Bake until golden, about fifteen minutes.

Miss Jennie Benedict, a Louisville caterer, created Benedictine spread at the turn of the last century.  Years ago, certain bakeries in Louisville used to bake pink and green loaves of bread just for these popular finger sandwiches, a staple at Derby parties, weddings and showers.  I have even served these at a funeral where they were much enjoyed.  My recipe, taken from “Kentucky’s Best, Fifty Years of Great Recipes” by Linda Allison Lewis, was amended and given to me by Tish Clark of Prestonsburg, Kentucky:

Tish’s Benedictine

1 8 oz Philadelphia cheese, softened
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
3 tablespoons of grated cucumber, drained well with a paper towel
1 teaspoon finely chopped green onions with tops
1 teeny tiny drop of green food coloring (the color should be delicate)
a dash of two of Tabasco
Blend all ingredients together and mix well. Yield: 10-12 servings (I multiply by eight.) You may serve this on trimmed bread as finger sandwiches or as a dip. Please note there is not a single drop of Benedictine liqueur used in this recipe! I like to make a nice pile of these sandwiches on a silver tray lined with a paper doily and garnished with a few cucumber slices and parsley. (Cover with a damp paper towel so your sandwiches don’t dry out and curl before serving. Refresh as necessary.) I also put out big crystal bowl of pimento cheese with Carr’s crackers, celery stalks, salty peanuts to encourage drinking and deviled eggs to prevent or at least stall off utter drunkenness.

Last week, Amy attended the Taste of Derby Festival and was served the most amazing new dish: Hot Brown Grits. This is an adaptation of the original hot brown recipe, originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 – long before people knew about pesky cholesterol. A hot brown is made from fresh roast turkey, tomatoes, cheddar and Mornay sauce, served atop thickly sliced toast, garnished with strips of bacon, served “piping hot and bubbly brown.” The Brown Hotel serves 800 hot browns a week but during Derby Week, they sell 1200 a day.

Hot Browns with Fried Cheese Grits

1 cup regular grits
1 cup (4 ounces) extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 large sweet onions
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound roasted turkey slices
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
8 bacon slices
Prepare 1 cup regular grits according to package directions. Stir in 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese until melted. Pour hot cooked grits into a greased 9-inch square pan. Cover and chill 8 hours or until firm. Invert onto a cutting board, and cut into 4 squares. Cut each square into 4 triangles. Fry grits, in batches, in 2 tablespoons hot vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Remove from pan, and set aside. Cook 2 large diced sweet onions and 1 tablespoon sugar in 2 tablespoons oil in skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes or until deep golden brown. Arrange 4 grits triangles in a single layer in a lightly greased individual baking dish or large baking dish; top with turkey, sautéed onion, and cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining grits triangles, turkey, onion, and sauce:
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup shredded Swiss or Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in flour, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil, and cook, whisking constantly, 1 to 2 minutes or until thickened. Whisk in cheese, salt, and pepper. Pour over grits, onions and meat, broil 6 inches from heat 4 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned; remove from oven. Top evenly with cooked bacon and sliced tomato. Serve immediately.

I serve mint juleps in individual silver or pewter cups as well as a treasured set of Louisville Stoneware cups bearing the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home.”  My ex-husband is an Englishman, so I adopted the habit of serving a pitcher or two of Pimm’s Cup, made with Pimm’s No. 1 herbal liqueur and gin, fresh unsweetened lemonade and garnished with cucumber spears, a slice of apple and a sprig of mint. Last year I served bourbon sours instead of mint juleps and those retro drinks went over in a big way!

As for bourbon, educate yourself on the different kinds of bourbon.  Favorite brands include Four Roses Single Barrel (which has a high rye content), Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden, Old Grand Dad, Buffalo Trace (a high corn blend) then wheated bourbons like the very famous Maker’s Mark, Rebel Yell and any of the Van Winkle bourbons. Small batch artisanal bourbons like Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve have risen in popularity over the past ten years.

Lay a table with your very best linens, platters and crystal. Don’t forget to arrange flowers from your own garden, or red roses from a florist are always appropriate. Be ready to get the party started at least an hour before the actual race starts. And have hankies ready for the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” there shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house! And you made need those hankies later anyway for tears of jubilation or losing bets. When the day is over, the owners, breeders and trainers start planning for the next Derby, as does a good hostess. Names are crossed off or added to lists, paper goods or swizzle sticks are bought on sale for next year.

(Lynn Weddington Tucker is a Kentuckian living in New York City since 1976. She has been a fashion designer, publicist and best of all, mother. Lynn is a sustaining member of the Junior League (like any good Southern girl) and as a Methodist, has all the ingredients on hand in her pantry for a casserole for a potluck. Lynn is a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel and loves a good party.)

Lynn Weddington Tucker (Churchill Downs photo by Dave Black)

The Essential Mexican Cookbook

The best way to learn Mexican cooking is from someone who was taught the cuisine at their mother’s table or someone who has lived in Mexico for many years. It also helps to a considerable degree if that person is indeed a good cook, someone who is interested in techniques and ingredients and can steer you in the proper direction for suitable pots and pans and such. Barring such a muse, we are left with books.

One of Craig Claiborne’s most significant legacies is his diverse contributions to the American table via his support of cooks and writers. Claiborne encouraged us to sample Vietnamese, Chinese, Moroccan and (perhaps most enduring) Mexican cuisine, in that case the writer is Diana Kennedy, a British subject who married The New York Times correspondent for Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s. She became enamored of the food, which she discovered was better in rural and local settings, and began to learn the cuisine literally from the ground up, visiting every state in Mexico on all kinds of transportation, from buses to donkeys to her Nissan pickup truck with no power steering (and a shovel to dig it out of the mud). Such dedication is rare if not unique; Kennedy’s efforts were crowned with an authoritative body of work that provides a thorough, extensive survey of the many cuisines of Mexico from Chiapas to Baja as well as dozens of honors and awards, including membership in the Order of the British Empire.

Her essential work is The Cuisines of Mexico (Harper & Row, 1972). If you are at all interested in food and cooking, and you have a taste for books that are well-written, well-researched and ring with conviction, then you must have this one on your shelves. A revision was published in 1986, but I’d recommend the original edition with Claiborne’s introduction stating, “If this book is a measure of Diana’s talent, it will probably rank as the definitive book in English on (Mexican cooking).” Kennedy’s introduction, “A Culinary Education” certainly ranks among the most notable essays about coming to know food as more than mere nourishment. The first section, “Ingredients and Procedures” gives the initiate a thorough grounding in such arcana as herbs, kitchen equipment and chilies. You’ll find no better introduction to the basics of the Mexican kitchen. As to the recipes, bear in mind that Kennedy was writing for a somewhat less sophisticated audience, and these were selected for simplicity and ease of preparation; still you will find surprises. You might be, as I was those many years ago on first reading, delighted by the seafood recipes (“There is an awful lot of coast to Mexico …”), which includes perhaps one of the first recipes for “cebiche” included in an American cookbook. The inclusion of many Gulf species among these recipes is poignant indeed in this post-BP Gulf world. My personal favorite among them is the snapper Vera Cruz, which we served at the Warehouse during my tenure.

Kennedy’s writing is strong and serviceable, rarely lyrical but revealing when so; her most powerful gift is an excruciating attention to detail which can be daunting, but remember again her audience, who needed such specifics. You will enjoy the Mesoamerican art she includes as well as the history. After you read this book, you will come to know Rick Bayless for the shallow fraud that he is. Comer bien.

The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened - by Frida Kahlo
The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life OpenedFrida Kahlo