The Cheese Straw Alternative

Admit it; making cheese straws is a pain in the butt. Though they’re a must on your browsing buffets (if not, someone sniffy is bound to say, “Oh, I should have brought you MY WONDERFUL cheese straws!”), they still aren’t something you might feel like throwing together for a more casual gathering like a bowl game, backyard picnic or that special moment when you both decided to get married last night and your mother(s) held you at gunpoint to have a reception.

Fortunately there is an alternative to dragging out the cookie press, stuffing it full of dough, mushing out the sticks and (worst part) cleaning the press.: Brit cheddar biscuits. Now, what the Brits call biscuits are a far cry from our big, fluffy Southern variety; over the Pond, our biscuits would be called scones, while what Brits and their ilk call biscuits are more like what we would call wafers or cookies. So while you might be most familiar with cheese biscuits as something along the lines of those big, greasy lumps of cheese and dough served at Red Lobster, the Brits do a cheese biscuit that’s thin, crisp and has the same ingredients as cheese straws, but are much easier.

Simply make a dough with one cup plain flour, one cup grated sharp cheddar and one stick of softened butter, add a little salt, a little white pepper, roll out, shape with a cookie cutter (which is quite easy to clean) and bake at 350 until nice and crisp. Dust with strong paprika and a little cayenne thrown in to piss off the preacher.

 

 

Mose Allison, V.P. Ferguson, and the Cool World

Unforgettable to his contemporaries, a will-o’-the-wisp to others, Verell Pennington Ferguson III is often described as Mississippi’s first beatnik, a gleeful and strident nonconformist at Ole Miss and points beyond. V.P. Ferguson has become a legend to many, a status fully justified by his utmost legacy, Days of Yoknapatawpha, a “memoire/timeplay” written at the urging of a friend in the publishing business who told him to “Recall the old days, Faulkner still alive, and you managing the cultural life of Oxford with la main gauche while beating time with the other for your various and assorted bandsmen.”

The section reproduced here, entitled “7th Movement: Mose Allison and the Cool World: Ole Miss—1949-50”, describes V.P.’s first encounter with another legend, Mississippi jazzman Mose Allison, on the campus of the University of Mississippi on a winter’s day in 1949. It is only a fragment of an astounding manuscript, full of humor and insight and populated by some of the most famous people of mid-20th century Mississippi. Deepest and most profound thanks to artist, gentleman and bon vivant Johnny Hayles for his perceptive, indefatigable research, considerate advice and unmitigated generosity.

It was a lovely day in early January—at zero degrees centigrade—where a sun-filtered mist, breaking down at ground level, enshrouded the campus in a crisp, ashen whiteness. Shortly after lunch, about 14 hours, the Ole Miss Grill was overflowing with permanent grill-hounds, many of whom considered class attendance as secondary activity, if not outright torture, and of course the classic défilé of bewitching doe-eyed gazelles—and long-stemmed greyhounds.

The in-house jukebox was playing “Greeneyes” (“those cool and limpid”: Jimmy Dorsey, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell). Nobody could be unhappy around here, I reflected, as I duly parked the nervous little Ford in front, then wandering through the University Post Office for a quick mail check before floundering into some serious grill-hounding myself. Hardly inside and seated before cherished breaded veal cutlets with Roquefort, I was warmly heckled by “Fish” Salmon, the powerhouse quarterback, and Douglas “Little Abner” Hamley, a star linesman from Lake Charles, Louisiana, both inveterate Damon Runyon wits. “Yeah, that’s it, dad. Hang up the gloves, man, hang up the gloves! You’ll never make it, V.P. Ferguson!” (They were both right.)

Both faces gleefully pointed out a large black and white press photograph thumb-tacked onto the adjacent campus bulletin board before I sniffed out the source of my public shame. It was that jinxed photo again! Maybe the Tombigbee Sage was right after all: “People are no damn good!”, which, unfortunately, down in Columbus, hadn’t stopped the Sage, now the Hook, both of whom read the Memphis press, to roundly snigger at my latest public nemesis. The large, inopportune photo in question was untimely taken a short while back during the Golden Gloves Mid-South Tournament of Champions staged at Memphis, where, to say the least, I was engaged in a real “down-home slug-out”. The caption read: “Ole Miss’s V.P. Ferguson heads for a hard seat—before coming off the canvas to take a unanimous decision.” It was, and I did. Salmon and Hamley got all torn up. Mysteriously, someone even paid for my breaded veal cutlets.

However, feeling called upon to explain, I “thrusted home” like the grill-hound Cyrano that I was. “When that George T. Billy from Fort Smith, Arkansas pummeled me around my flat-topped head, I saw a grandiose colored flash, like a purple ball of fire, and ricocheted off the canvas. But without a count, mind you: a crew of cameramen flashed on me like I was the real Richard Widmark in a fast-paced, Grade B thriller: but when, in turn, I fire-stormed good old George T Billy to the canvas, at least twice, not a flash bulb went off. That’s the shabby popular press for you: but it couldn’t happen around here. You all ball-player grill-hounds are coming down with hamburger guilt, a Freudian jock strap transfer blaming the other goof folks whenever you “lose the big game”. In the Ole Miss/Quo Vadis/S.P.Q.R. show, none of you gladiator ball jocks are ever photographed all strung out on the ground, or worse, like poor fighters! Those AA/PR men around here are better paid than foreign agents!”

My lost dog act played out better than expected. Both Manley and Salmon invited to smuggle me into the jock strap steakhouse tonight for still another seared slab of fabulous Texas longhorn. The Richard Widmark act was not without merit, and grill-hounding had become an art. Abandoned at the corner side table for a quarter of an hour or so, I fondly reflected that outside of my romantic, geo-pantheistic idée fixe of canoeing down legendary waters, I entertained the lingering dream of creating another dance band. Not a big orchestra; the on-campus, well-rehearsed “Mississippians” were far beyond me for a class, but a high voltage jazz combo operating with about 6 or 7 Damon Runyon characters like myself—sunbelt hard cats living out the life adventure in rhythm, fervor, and soul. Leaving the table and the pulsating Ole Miss Grill, I had it: “The Let It Roll Band”—it was as sure as death and taxes.

Returning to the ’32 Ford Roadster, I adroitly placed a pair of powerful binoculars, canoe paddle, and a copy of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers up behind the front seat. Having read the innovative intriguer, (The Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball Flap I was relieved to discover that among other bourgeois nightmares, I had happily escaped what Wylie allegedly described as The Dreadnaught Syndrome: there’s no good old Mom, the catalyzer of the All-American Square, in the new family Buick off to the supermarket to load up on more burger meat and tons of ketchup.

That was heady stuff, attacking good old Mom, burger meat and ketchup was tantamount to Jack the Ripper slashing Saturday Evening Post covers. Curiously enough however, seen from another angle, Wylie’s fevered, Freudian, matriarchal fiasco humorously backed into certain of my reflections concerning good old George, and Miss Milly T. Billy, the archetypical bird-brain hicks. But intellectual macho was already démodé, if not effete, and Wylie might be heading for unnerving trouble with the ladies, including a new race known abouts as “Jane the Beards” pulling on line from corporate board rooms to backwater togetherness. As for the common man’s Richard Widmark, I liked Philip Wylie, apple pie and baseball. As for good ole Mom, whom I had nothing against, end even visited on occasion, she dutifully machined through the University of Virginia Law School at Charlottesville, as did my sister Betty, belatedly becoming an excellent professor of commercial law in that elegant state, but my existential good taste remained beyond reproach: I was raised by the Wizard and “belonged to Ole Miss”.

Once the daydream drifted off, I leisurely opened up the small rumble seat on the fast back, fumbling around with some unread novels, river maps and assorted outdoor gear when I saw it: the vast spinach greenness wearing Tallahatchie County license plates—kept coming and coming, finally docking beside my modest little ’32 Ford Roadster, imposing as it were through the sun-filtered, ashen whiteness. I saw that all of that long greenness belonged to the latest model Chrysler New Yorker—a veritable limousine de ville: the driver, flashing a generous smile, sprang out as if he was making a homecoming landfall. (He was.) If the eyes were the windows of the soul, the stranger, looking out on the world in blue electric, extolled instant intelligence.

And there he was, an authentic sunbelt hard cat of medium build, cinnamon hair worn in a brush, a classic, sensitive face, and moreover, decked out in cool, California/Vegas togs: Bordeaux red cardigan, with polished brass buttons, snug-cut butter yellow shirt with oversized buttoned-up collar, worn over full rich lemon trousers, a hand-crafted Aztec beaded belt, and ankle-length high desert boots. While the long spinach greenness had little in common with the California Special, there was, however, an irrefutable linkage to the Damon Runyon world, as I reflected for an instant that we both solicited the same mail-order West Coast tailor. But it was an illusion. Upon second glance I realized that the unknown creature momentarily appreciating my roadster was hardly inspired by hip advertisements in hot rod magazines. While flashing the same “Culver City style”, his “threads” were obviously more refined, and several cuts above mine.

As usual, my Richard Widmark act was spontaneous: “Man, with a cruiser like that, you must need a harbor pilot! But the next time you cool in with all that lovely greenness, please extend me the grace of not docking alongside my little ’32 Ford. You make me insignificant.” The colorful character fleeing across the street toward the Vardaman-Longstreet dormitory complex flung an arm high in the air: “Don’t panic, dad! Energy of that class commands a lot of respect!”

Room address in a suede gloved hand, I, in turn, wandered across Grill Street to the Vardaman-Longstreet in hopes of ferreting out a few high tension elements for the on-coming “Let It Roll Band”. Although someone said “third floor right”, it was irrelevant—I picked up on the solid jazz sounds even before entering the building. Arriving at the moment of truth, I peered through the half-opened doorway into a blue-bulbed inner sanctum at what was surely the cutting edge on the cutting edge, where six or eight sunbelt hard cats, all dressed in California/Vegas togs, were solemnly planted around a scratchy record player listening to hardcore bebop. I rapidly spooked out the pilot of the long spinach greenness, a proselytizer, if not a high priest of la nouvelle vague (New Wave jazz). I hesitated a moment until he recognized me, smiled and waved me into the inner sanctum, where, by happenstance, I entered into a new dimension. That simple gesture, although coming from the same Damon Runyon world, portended a certain esoterical attitude, engendering, as it were, a colorful lifestyle of its own. I was altogether intrigued.

The stranger was called Mose Allison, Junior, from Tippo, Mississippi, a lovely, lost corner in fecund Tallahatchie County, where he was raised in an affluent plantation family. Upon first contact, however, in front of the Old Miss Grill, by the strange mystique of instant enlightenment, I somehow realized that Allison was world class talent, (I was not wrong) and indeed honored to have made a brilliant new friend. The comfortable, blue-bulbed dormitory room, spatially limited, cluttered and strewn out pell-mell with the banalities of quotidian existence, took on the allure of an urban ritual where bohemian characters from the 4th dimension gathered around a record player instead of a fire, listening, as it were, to fascinating far out new sounds.

When the frenetic record, re-played several times, finally ended, Allison, ardently searching for another in the stack, paused, and looking up with a smile, announced my modest entrée to no one in particular: “Ah! It’s the California Special back on the scene: We were listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come”. Did you pick up on it, dad?” I was at ease. My Damon Runyon background was well anchored: “Oh yeah. That’s frantic stuff, man! But outside of my collection of Stan Kenton and Herman’s Jimmy Giuffre thing, “Four Brothers”, sadly enough, I don’t know a lot about New Wave jazz.” Someone on the far side of Allison allowed as to how it was called bebop.

“Sure. Yeah, man, I know, the image is colorful enough, but somehow obscure. At any rate, let’s face it New Wave jazz has outgrown show business. In fact, it’s no longer dancefloor stuff. It’s moved into the concert hall where it really belongs.” Concluding my rather off-hand reflection, the relative silence rippling across the blue-lighted little room of sunbelt hard cats was my no means an admonishment, but rather heralded a warm, on the spot friendship which was to endure for years, or as it were, if Mose Allison was an ace proselytizer and high priest of New Wave jazz, seen from a certain angle, I was a defending knight, or an engagé as the French would have it.

Among the six or eight, there was Bill “Big Jay” Katz (after Big Jay McNeely, “Deacon’s Hop”-1948, etc.), a hard-driving tenor saxophone player from New York City tall, well-groomed with burnt, desert sand hair, matching eyes and a disarming, soft-glowing smile. John Earn MacDade, a hip, bushy-haired ace Mississippi trombone veteran—and blithe spirit, avoiding all physical effort whenever possible, championed the “L.A. hard look” and could have just wandered off Hollywood and Vine in a lime green cardigan, tomato red shirt with oversized, buttoned-up collar, worn over pleated, black velvet slacks and Aztec moccasins. Thomas “Bunky” Lane was a romantic, slender-built mystic with raven-hazel hair worn in a tall bush cut, whose sensitive, near melancholic face and deep chestnut eyes reflected the inner fire of an introverted intellectual. Lane, an ethereal alto saxophone player and biology major, normally dressed in black or blue double-breasted suits and dark Windsor ties, possessed the ultimate, if not indefinable talent: a musician’s musician, playing New Wave jazz with a relaxed, full-blown richness inspired by the beguiling tenor sax, Stan Getz (“Early Autumn” with Woody Herman-1948), Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lane, “The Mystic” readily measured up to any avant-garde, mastering a style which had just begun to be called “Cool Jazz” (1948-55).

As for the creative brilliance of Most Allison, Jr., out in the surrealist world of good ole George T. Billy, amid a myriad of bucolic squares, he was light years ahead of the scene, ,and moreover, he knew it. But for the ongoing moment, however, he allowed as to his recent Tallahatchie county homecoming: “I was discharged from the army a short while back, where I was in training with special ski troops out in Colorado Springs, the fabulous Far West—real Nirvana! But I picked up all those hip threads in Denver, man, a mountain paradise a mile above sea level. Someday I’ll make that scene again!”

Suddenly John MacDade (Hollywood and Vine) and “Big Jay” Katz got all torn up, which apparently had little to do with Allison’s hip Denver togs. By the time Lane “The Mystic” chimed in, I knew in my bones what was coming. (It did.) “Say, Man, aren’t you the fighter cat in that action photo over at the campus grill?”; “Yeah, man, the one where Widmark is going through the ropes, head first!”; “Yeah, man, he’s the cat. The whole campus has spooked that photo. In your case I would either sign it, or take it down! You’re playing out a no win scene, man!” Somehow I was happy, if not mollified. “A good sense of humor was the escape valve of humanity.” Good musicians were my chosen people, an idée fixe—happily following me into old age.

“Okay, you cats! So I suffered an inglorious scuffle—but I don’t plan to make a lifetime of it! In fact, that purple ball of fire convinced me how right I was to take up the slide trombone. It’s easier on the jaw!” The scene shifted into another direction as Mose Allison spooked out an amusing intruder. “It’s Mister Coffee Nerves—the phantom nerve ball of the corridors! Coming to rain on all the hard cats about all this degenerate bebop music!

Allison, possessing a spark-jumping, electric wit, apparently enjoyed riding super-squares like Mister Coffee Nerves, distant outsiders going far beyond mere Squaredom into an anti-bourgeois dimension, which seen from a certain point of view, was a negative form of hip. Mister Coffee Nerves, ostensibly a precursor to Sal Mineo (Plato in Rebel Without a Cause) dressed in impeccable buttoned-up tweeds, gave the impression of tortured precocity: a chubby, cherub-faced little enigma, with the pink, stubby fingers of a child strangler, and who had been thrown out of an impressive number of tony prep schools on strange and obscure charges, including “ghoulism”, whatever that entails. Mister Coffee Nerves professed to being a self-styled nerve grater, sand papering the nerve endings of even the most comatose victims with astonishing success. Flashing his dead fish smile, Mister Coffee Nerves entered the inner sanctum with customary flair: “Gentlemen: or should I more fashionably say “sunbelt hard cats”? I suppose that all of this bebop monkey music has softened your brains: it was inevitable.”

Mister Coffee Nerves, pausing for effect, lit up a super perfumed, long, rainbow-colored cigarette and gleefully moved into action. “Perhaps you should like to receive with me some good old “down home” Dixieland. Why not Louis Armstrong? Yes, that’s it. “When the Saints Go Marching In”! Good for the soul, you know, and a bit of Doris Day. Good, bitter-sweet for broken hearts. And of course Harry James. That “crying trumpet”! Ah! A good ole circus man, Harry! Gentlemen, excuse me, I mean hard cats, this decadent bebop can only lead to catatonic schizophrenia, or worse! You had better repent and go back to ragtime! Rudy Vallée is great!”

The super square had talent. Nobody could be that outrageous by happenstance; one had to work on it, which he did. The triggered ubiquitous reaction readily proved that point, nearly driving MacDade, H&V and Big Jay Katz, among others, up the walls. Coffee Nerves listened on in ecstasy. “Most of those old-style cats were greatmechanics, man, but they played themselves into a dead end!”; “You’re cool, dad. That “crying trumpet” cat plays good B.C. (*Before Christ) horn, but in A.D. (*After Dizzy) he sounds like he’s changing a flat tire!”; “You’re a hard can, man! And that D.D. chick (*Doris Day) sings like a melting river of chocolate at the Lonely Hearts Club!”

Mister Coffee Nerves, fawning over a certain Pavlovian success, fired up another rainbow-colored cigarette, and came up with his best dead fish smile ever, although somewhat askew, on the spot; one wondered how a lone cigarette could be charged with so much perfume. Shortly thereafter, Mister Coffee Nerves, freezing on the dead fish smile, took leave of the bebop inner sanctum, as usual, in super-square flair. “Well, gentlemen, if you’re please excuse me, as those “hipsters” say down in good old rockabilly, ‘See you laters, alligators!’” Pulling hard on the rainbow-colored cigarette, the chubby, cherub wandered off down the corridor to bug a couple of itinerant Jehovah Witnesses passing through to save Ole Miss from abject heresy and assorted Devils. But destiny can be cruel even for fevered missionaries, Mister Coffee Nerves would see to that. In the worst case scenario, the naïve zealots, disillusioned, would certainly be losing face, if not faith.

Back in the inner sanctum, where even the ace proselytizer was a bit slack-jawed, the sunbelt hard cats returned to normal, playing “Night in Tunisia”, “Manteca” (Dizzy G.) and “The Chase” (Wardell Gray/Dexter Gordon) not without a last reflection: “Man, I fell you, that Mister Coffee Nerves is really a twisted little cat!”; “Aw, yeah, dad, he’s warped 360 degrees! And there’s no exit!”; “Yeah, man, coffee nerves is all strung out with an eerie talent for negative genius!”

V.P. Ferugson

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.

Let’s Talk About Gizzards

First off, just what the hell is a gizzard? Since humans have livers, we know what they are and what they do, but gizzards aren’t something a 3rd year medical student has to deal with. Gizzards are part of a bird’s digestive system, sometimes called the second stomach. It’s very muscular and sinewy because this is the component of the bird’s system that breaks down items that are too hard for its stomach to digest. According to Gill’s Ornithology, a turkey gizzard can “pulverize English walnuts, steel needles, and surgical lancets.” Cooking gizzards, you’re dealing with tough sinews and dense muscle; when you buy them in a store, gizzards tend to come in pairs, two lumps of meat connected by a tough membrane.

What a lot of people will say you need to do first is to get a very sharp small knife and cut away the membrane, which is fussy and time-consuming . Here in the South where we tend to be a great deal less fastidious in the kitchen, we simply put them off into a seasoned liquid and poach them until they are tender, drain and set aside until ready for use along with a beautiful broth infused with gel that you can use for any number of sauces, gravies and even those pâtés you’ve always wanted to try. You can also fry the gizzards as you would livers, use them in dirty rice or serve them over noodles with chopped hard-boiled eggs and a generous sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper or marinate n lite soy and sesame oil with garlic, skewer, broil or grill and serve as an appetizer.

Photo by William Eaves
(photo by William Eaves)

 

Cornbread and Buttermilk

It was in the heat of the summer when the air is thick with dust and the sun beats down so hard it feels like a burden that Jess would come home from the store in the mid- afternoons, sit on the front porch, take his hat off and holler at Ethel in the house to bring him buttermilk and cornbread. She would coarsely crumble the cornbread they always had on hand into a tall glass, pour in enough cold buttermilk to cover not all the way but almost, stick a teaspoon in it, bring it out, then go back to the kitchen where she always found something to do. Jess would sit on the porch overlooking his store, his corn field across the highway and his son’s house on the corner tumbling with children, think about this year, think about last year, think about next year and go back to the store, leaving a tall glass with streaks of buttermilk mixed with bits of cornbread making way to the bottom of the glass. No man has ever enjoyed a cocktail with as much contentment.

Artichoke Virgins and Other Annoyances

Impulse buying is an especially bad idea when it comes to produce; let me give you a good example.

In case you haven’t noticed, supermarkets are often laid out in such a way that the produce department is usually the first section of the store you tour. The coolness, the colors and the illusion that you are actually in some sort of open marketplace all combine to lure you into the more industrial parts of the store. Having said that, fruits and vegetables are an important part of anyone’s diet, but raw vegetables (and some fruits) take more preparation than others, and among the most labor-intensive of vegetables is the artichoke. An artichoke is the flower bud of a big-ass thistle; you even see some ornamental varieties used in expensive floral arrangements. Much like the oyster, it took a very desperate person to learn how to eat an artichoke, but once eaten, it became a delicacy.

Recently I found myself guided by corporate intent through the produce section where I came upon a mound of beautiful, beautiful artichokes, and after a truly happy hour at Fenian’s, I just had to get one that was neither too tight nor too loose and had a bit of a purple blush about it, just like Martha (God bless her heart and all her other extremities) told me to select. Then I called to my drinking buddy, who was cruising the watermelons, to grab a bud of garlic and a couple of lemons. After picking up a few more items we headed for the checkout counter where he espied my artichoke.

“And what are you going to do with this?” he asked. I immediately suggested a physical improbability. Unperturbed, he replied, “No, really, what are you going to do with it?” He admitted that he’d never eaten a freshly-prepared artichoke. Inebriation is a great initiator but a poor executor, which is how, about ten minutes later, I found myself alone in the kitchen with a beautiful artichoke, diminished incentive and a hungry guest. With reluctance, I brought a deep saucepan of water to boil. Now, you can plunge whole artichokes into boiling salted water (which takes a big pot, a hell of a lot of water and a long time) but, after trimming the stem and tips, I took the less strenuous route of steaming. Bring a half a quart of water to boil in a saucepan, add dressed artichoke, cover and steam for about 20 minutes.

When you can pull a thick “leaf” from the middle of the bud without a lot of resistance, remove the artichoke, plunge it into cold water until it’s just warm. Then turn it upside-dwon into a colander. Garlic butter takes little effort, but some attention: to a stick (1/4 lb.) of butter, use three crushed, finely minced garlic cloves the juice of half a lemon, and a dusting of white pepper. Heat until the butter is infused with the garlic. Some oddballs will put tarragon in artichoke dipping butter, but unless you’re fit to make a Béarnaise, give it up. Serve the vegetable with warm garlic butter and teach the virgin how to eat it. Then remind yourself never to snag an eggplant without thinking twice about it.

Aunt Jett

When I knew her in my childhood, Jett cooked the same way she had for over sixty years. She learned at her mother’s side, a woman whose people settled a wilderness. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. Food was important to them; it was one of their few sources of satisfaction and pleasure unaffected by morals or religion. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, green beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops or breaded steak, and if it was summer she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob. She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage. No more fundamental meal can be imagined. Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.

Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.

Aunt Jet (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.
Aunt Jett (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.