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.

Drama Peas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns. Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies or L’Amours, not to mention the latest John Grisham. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read in the first place.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels of unshelled peas. Being a reformed kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders and retreated—talking up a storm—back into the TV room. I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.” Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

The Geography of Beef

Many years ago at a conference for Southern fiction at Ole Miss, I took umbrage at the inclusion of Bobbie Ann Mason’s splendid novel In Country because the author is from Kentucky, which I do not consider a Southern state. Kentucky was in the middle border during the Civil War, not a member of the Confederacy, and though it is a beautiful old state, in my book it is not Southern. If it’s any consolation to my Kentucky friends, I feel the same way about Missouri, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

When a family from Kentucky moved to my very small rural Mississippi town in the early 60s they were of course welcomed and quietly became members of the community, though with them they did bring new recipes, among them Swiss steak, which my adolescent mind tagged as a Yankee recipe. For some reason the Swiss designation slipped right over my little provincial Southern brain, probably more because for obvious reasons Switzerland held far less significance than the North. Anything Yankee was automatically suspect, and as such Swiss steak entered the nether category Reserved for Further Observation. Little did I know that Swiss steak was very much in vogue during the 1950s and 60s and that people have been cooking it all over the world since tomatoes went global.

“To swiss” is actually an English verb that has little to do with cooking, meaning “a calendering process for cotton fabrics that produces a smooth compact texture”. Some food writers have taken a leap of faith and declared that because the cooking process renders a tough cut of meat “smooth”, this why beef cooked this way is “Swiss”. This claim is a stretch, but then I’ve always wondered why “cubed” beef isn’t cubular. (My world is circumscribed by seas where there be such dragons.) Swiss steak is a thinly-cut piece of tough beef pounded and stewed in tomato gravy. I say gravy because this cut should not be cooked in a tomato sauce, but beef gravy with tomatoes.

There’s certain to be an authentic Swiss version, perhaps several, but the ease and appeal of stewed beef with tomatoes is world-wide. Make a basic brown sauce, about a cup, add a can of diced tomatoes, a half cup each of tomato juice and water, a half cup chopped white onion, Season with basil, oregano, salt and pepper and simmer for one hour. Bread and fry thin trimmed pounded cuts of top round until browned, drain and place in a casserole. Top with sauce and bake until tender, at least an hour. For authenticity, top with Swiss cheese and serve with buttered potatoes.

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.

Caring for Garden Gnomes

To properly care for garden gnomes, you must have a passing familiarity with the gnomish race, which is of ancient and noble origin. While some gnomes do have an urban nature, inhabiting environments of asphalt and concrete (“homie gnomies”), all gnomes are secretive creatures, preferring to live on the verge of human ken, and the placing of a garden gnome (or any other gnome, for that matter) should reflect that character. This is customary for any sort of statuary, of course; putting St. Francis of Assisi poolside just isn’t appropriate, particularly next to the wet bar. No, gnomes should be unobtrusive, almost furtive in their placement, smiling wisely at our foolishness from some shaded corner of your garden.