Hal & Mal’s Vegetable Soup

In 2010, Molly O’Neill published One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking, 600 Recipes from the Nation’s Best Home cooks, Farmers, Fishermen, Pit-masters and Chefs. Ten years in the making and obviously a labor of love, One Big Table is an astonishing collection of recipes from a diverse variety of peoples and places. O’Neill includes six recipes from Mississippi, including one from a Jackson institution.

“Hal White, half of Hal & Mal’s Restaurant & Brewery, has been making soup ‘forever, or at least longer than I can remember.’ He’s developed close to 200 recipes, and makes at least a gallon and a half of soup every morning. He has the pot on the stove by 9:00 or 9:30 a.m. and it simmers until the lunch crowd comes in. Some days he just knows the restaurant will sell ‘beaucoups’ (pronounced boo-coos) soup. The vegetable soup is famous. Arguments have erupted between the customer who ordered the last bowl and the one who wished he had. The soup is an ode to Mr. White’s forbears: ‘My granddaddy had a big garden,’ he says. It is testimony to being wise with a nickel. The chablis he uses ‘is my favorite wine for this soup. Clean and acidic. I guess I could use sauvignon blanc, but you can’t beat chablis for cheap.’ His vegetable soup also owes a debt to a bartending friend. ‘He made this great Bloody Mary mix. He taught me that nothing beats Coke for balancing the acidity of tomatoes.’”

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 medium tomatoes, cored and chopped
1/2 small head green cabbage, cored and chopped
2 large Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
5 ounces white mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 cups homemade chicken broth or low-sodium store-bought chicken broth
3 cups vegetable juice, such as V8
1/2 cup Coca-Cola
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons seasoned salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the celery and onion and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until they are soft. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 30 to 45 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Pudding Bananas

Listen to your Brother Jesse. Do not make banana pudding with green bananas. Even if the fruit has a tinge of green on the ribs, the banana will be hard and bitter. You must use bananas that are ripe. Now, you’re not going to find ripe bananas in the grocery store–sometimes I think the public has been conditioned by years of buying green bananas that any banana with a dark spot is spurned–so you’re going to have to buy them green.

Fortunately bananas are a climacteric fruit, meaning they will ripen after picking, as will peaches, pears, plums, tomatoes, cantaloupe and honeydew. Place green bananas in a paper sack–a plastic bag won’t allow the fruit to breathe–and in two or three days, when the fruit is mottled and aromatic you’re ready to make pudding.

Claiborne Shows His Slip

One of the most enduring social mechanisms is that by which elitism becomes most ostensibly manifest in people who come from the most humble background. Take for example any given one of those Upper East Side hipsters who infest the trendier corners of New York City and act as if they’re the apex of the social universe when in fact most if not all of them grew up in a fly-over state and moved to the city after securing a degree at Podunk U.

A less current but perhaps more familiar example would be Craig Claiborne, who grew up in a boarding house in Indianola, Mississippi, eventually became the arbiter of culinary taste for the nation and the architype of effete snobbery. Claiborne’s excesses in his disregard for the “little people” were such that he was chastised by Pope Paul VI for a $4000 dinner for two in Paris he enjoyed with his partner Pierre Franey in 1975; the Vatican newspaper deplored the display while millions were starving. The French press noted that the price of the meal represented a year’s wages for most workers, and American columnist Harriet Van Horne wrote, “This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong morally, esthetically and in every other way”. Claiborne was nonplussed, of course, which is the typical reaction of snobs to their extravagant self-indulgences. “Let them eat cake”, indeed.

Given this display of culinary dandyism, it is with some degree of surprise that we find on page 312 of Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook (Harper & Row: 1961), after a whole slew of soufflés and between two egg curries, a recipe for pickled eggs, which are to most people the least sophisticated dish in the world. Good heavens! Is this a chink in Claiborne’s otherwise immaculate armor? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not; one recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Maybe pickled eggs acquired the blue-collar tar brush after they had become a snack staple in Southern pool halls and honkey-tonks; then again, like any given snob, maybe they started out that way.

1 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices
2 pieces ginger root
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic
6 hard-boiled eggs

1. Boil together ten minutes all the ingredients except the eggs.
2. Place the peeled eggs in a jar and cover with the spiced vinegar. Refrigerate twenty-four house before using. If desired, the eggs may be colored with pure vegetable dye added to the liquid; or beets may be pickled along with the eggs.

The Red Knight

The story of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson’s public establishment of the reputedly poisonous tomato as edible might be apocryphal, but it’s still a good yarn.

According to what passes for legend, Col. Johnson mounted the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey on September 30, 1820 (dates vary) with a basket full of tomatoes to eat. Over 2,000 people assembled to watch him drop dead after the first bite and wagered upon the exact moment (it being New Jersey after all, where gambling is a fine art). His own doctor (who happened to be his wife’s brother-in-law) predicted that “the foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis from all the oxalic acid”; if not immediately, then the good doctor said Johnson would die soon afterwards of “brain fever and cancer.” When Johnson took his first bite of a tomato, several onlookers fainted and two were reported to have regurgitated with vigor.

Of course Colonel Johnson lived, and while available records do not entirely support rampant speculation that he collected on more than a few substantial side wagers and retired to Europe, we can say with certainty that he helped to win the tomato a place on our tables.