Ellen Gilchrist’s body was found spread-eagled, her blouse torn open, and her hair spread out around her head on a grassy hillside. Her neck was discolored by strangulation, and the shoulder-bag she carried was open with the contents spilled on the grass: open lipstick, a purse, compact, nail-file, chewing gum, perfume, keys, address book, earrings and a hair brush.
Ellen’s murder was virtually identical to that of Deborah Harrison, another schoolgirl who had met her death at the hands of the perpetrator in Peter Robinson’s 1996 mystery Innocent Graves, the eighth in a series of novels about Yorkshire police Inspector Banks. Robinson was born in England, and after getting his BA in English Literature, he moved to Canada, where he got his master’s degree in English and creative writing. He started writing his Banks books series in 1987, and so far he has currently 24 books written, with a latest one published in 2016 with the title When The Music’s Over.
Whether Robinson is at all familiar with Mississippi writer Ellen Gilchrist (who I’m happy to say is still very much alive), while certainly a possibility, is a matter of debate, though if he does know of Gilchrist, that raises the question of why he would have a character with her very same name as the victim of a homicidal pedophile. When we run up on such coincidences (if indeed that’s what this is, a coincidence) what are we left to do but wonder, or perhaps speculate for a moment before dismissing it as another one of life’s mysteries.
In the life of any given classic recipe, you will find instances where it becomes caught in a backwater eddy and becomes a poor, grotesque thing far removed from its heyday, rather much like a fading star of stage and screen who can only find an audience where their celebrity is no more than their name (think Citizen Kane). Many recipes fall subject to this farce simply because their name on a menu is a draw: a pasta prima vera with frozen vegetables, for instance or a steak Diane with cream of mushroom soup. In capable hands classic incarnations can be very good indeed, but more often they’re simply just wretched.
Such was the case for scampi, a commercial standard (with variations) in the U.S. and Europe, but the house recipe we employed at the Warehouse in Oxford was wretched. James Ruffin made the sauce, which consisted of garlic powder, a commercial oil product (Whirl) and the remnants of whatever open bottle of white wine the bartender on duty had available. He’d shake this up and pour it over a dozen medium-sized shrimp arranged in a small circular metal dish, which was cooked by placing in our very hottest broiler. On a busy night, more often than not a scampi order burned because we had so much else to do, but if it was just dried out we’d put more sauce on it and send it out the window. Shrimp are expensive, after all.
To make proper scampi, sauté or broil shrimp in butter with plenty of garlic, add dry white wine, salt and white pepper. Add a jolt of lemon juice, a sprinkling of parsley and serve immediately. Some thicken the sauce with starch, or add scallions, and some people include chopped drained tomatoes. In the end, scampi should be a very simple dish made with good, fresh good, but I’m here to tell you somebody’s bound to fuck up just about anything.
Once watering some tomato transplants two men–one young, one old–paused while driving by and said that an injured puppy was in the street three blocks east. After assuring him the puppy would be taken care of, they thanked me and zoomed off leaving me stunned and puzzled; after all, why hadn’t they picked up the animal? I never looked real hard for the puppy, but took care of my tomatoes and hoped for the best, as I always do. My tomatoes failed (I never have been good with them), but I heard the puppy found a home. I took that as a lesson in priorities and sallied forth with my life; I really had no other option.
The garden I tend—I can’t call it my garden, since it doesn’t grow on my property—is on the corner of a busy intersection in an old neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. The traffic is comprised of people in automobiles, on bikes and on foot, though on the rare occasion a couple of kids on skateboards will rattle by. Though nobody on foot, running or walking has ever asked me for directions (nothing would astound me more) many people drive by seeking directions, the intended destination usually a nearby restaurant, a street in the neighborhood or (most often) “How in the hell do I get on I-55?”, in which case I point them down to Greymont and spare them most of the hilly East Fortification roller-coaster.
I often see the same people pass by in the garden, and we most usually greet, more because it’s more awkward not to say something than for any other reason, but I don’t know them; they don’t stop and say, “Hi, I’m So-and-so who lives on Such-and-Such”, and all they know about me is that I grow flowers. Some few greet me by name, which puts me at a great disadvantage which I mask with brave cordiality. “Hello!” I’ll say. “How are you?” The most common response is a vague wave, though I might get an over-the-shoulder “Great!” It boils down to is a question of identity, of barriers. Who are we to one another, and why?
I tend a garden on a city corner, and the world passes by, leaving me deep in marigolds and hoping the streetlights don’t fail.
Poverty is endemic among students; tuitions are ridiculous, and booze ain’t cheap, either. Fortunately for scholars, ramen provides a warm meal that sates and doesn’t drink too deeply of the beer budget. A nice hot bowl of chicken ramen will knock out a Heineken hangover in less than an hour (trust me) and you need nothing more than a sack of ramen, a bowl and hot water. Cheap, fast and simple, ramen is the ultimate convenience food.
Ramen — along with microwave popcorn and breakfast cereal — remains the food item most likely to be found in American dormitory rooms. Ironically or not, it’s also one of the most popular items in prison commissaries. Despite its ease of preparation, rumor has it that stoners skip the cooking, shake the seasoning packet on the dried noodles and gnaw them with dazed gusto. Ramen has of late been held up as an example of impoverishment in an insurance commercial citing the example of a “ramen every night” diet for not buying their coverage. Frankly, when it comes down to not having auto insurance or eating ramen every night, I’m going to sell the damn car. I don’t care if Elvis did drive it once.
Having said that, I’ll admit that ramen is a good item to have on hand; noodles in an instant. I keep several packets in a kitchen cabinet alongside my Zatarain’s rice, Sunflower quick grits and Ore-Ida flake potatoes. Purists might deride this cache of processed starches, but it’s a sure bet that those who do will have a stock of Bertolli on their shelves. Just use the noodles when you have a need for them, and forget about that little packet of salt, food coloring and powdered animals you’ll find packaged with them. Hydrate the noodles, rinse, toss with oil (NOT olive oil, mind you) and set aside in a covered container before use. This preparation might sound unnecessary for instant noodles, but unless you’ve been hitting a bong, you’ll thank me for this advice when using ramen in anything other than hot soup.
Also be advised that you’re going to find that ramen, like so many basic foodstuffs, has not escaped the foodie tendency to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. Ramen has found its way into hundreds of inappropriate recipes; while I have yet to try ramen pizza or ramen mac and cheese (with ham, no less), the very idea of them makes me wonder about the aberrations of the human mind. Let’s not try to reinvent the wheel; the best way to use ramen is in a dish that echoes its origins and ease of preparation: in a stir-fry.
Take one prepared packet of ramen noodles, 2 cups diced raw chicken (substitute cooked kidney beans if you like) and 2 cups sliced vegetables (peppers, onions, celery, etc.) per person. Heat vegetable oil, add a bit of garlic, cook chicken until firm (or heat beans), seasoning with black pepper and lite soy, add vegetables and cook until just done. Toss in your ramen, another dash of soy, and mix well. Then read a good book, for chrissakes.
In 1936 with the world on the brink of war, the summer games were held in Berlin, where Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler was to stage a celebration of his rise to power and a confirmation of the Nazi ideal of Aryan racial supremacy, an ideal that was shattered by African-American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the track and field events. Among Owens’ teammates that year was another gold medalist, a native of Calhoun County, Mississippi, who rose to a commanding position in track competitions at Louisiana State University, dominating the 400 meter hurdles around the world throughout the 1930s and offering equal competition in the 400 meter flat race.
Glenn “Slats” Hardin, was born July 1, 1910 near Derma, Mississippi, a small town in the southern half of Calhoun County, Mississippi. The family moved to Greenwood when Glenn was in the 2nd grade, and there Hardin became one of the most outstanding athletes of his generation, earning his nickname “Slats” because of his long legs. He began competing in state track and field competitions during his junior year. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported in May, 1930 that “the tall blond boy ran the 220-yard hurdles in 25 flat. The old record was 25.6. He stepped the quarter-mile in 50 and the half-mile in 1:59, slipping 5 seconds off the latter record.” According to observer Fletcher Oaks, “He was a tall, lanky, long-legged boy. There was a guy I went to school with in south Mississippi, Jack Burnett. Jack had won the 100-yard and the 220. Hardin had won the hurdles and the half-mile. They both competed in the quarter on the second day, and while Jack ran a good race, he was no match for Glenn. Burnett had to run hard, but Hardin was just loping out there, with the easiest–looking stride, just like a deer running.”
Hardin, to the chagrin of athletics at both Ole Miss and MSU, attended Louisiana State University, which dominated the old Southern Conference in track during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. While at LSU, he won four NCAA individual titles, the 440 in 1933 and 1934 and the 22-yards low hurdles in the same two years. Hardin was a member of the LSU Tigers outdoor track and field team that won the school’s first ever NCAA Championship in 1933. In 1935, his senior year, he finished second in the hurdles at the NCAA championships to an Ohio State runner with whom he would compete in Berlin. That runner was Jesse Owens. Hardin qualified for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where he finished second in the 400 m. hurdles in 52.0 but was given credit for a world record when the winner, Bob Tisdall from Ireland, knocked down a hurdle, an error that in those days disqualified a performance for world record consideration. Hardin lowered the record to 51.8 in the 1934 AAU championships and then bettered it to 50.6 during a meet in Stockholm later that year. That record would stand for the next nineteen years.
Hardin along with Owens qualified for the Olympic team at the trials in Randall’s Island, N.Y. in 1936. Owens was certainly a good bet to win his three individual events—the 100, 200 and long jump—in Berlin, and Hardin was close to a sure thing for a gold medal in the 400 hurdles where in the final of six runners, Hardin drew the outside lane. U.S. Teammate Joe Patterson, running from the inside, went out so fast that he was actually ahead of Hardin at the half-way point despite the difference in the staggered start, but in the third 100 meters, Hardin surged past Patterson and entered the final straight one meter ahead of John Loaring of Canada. He held the lead to win the gold at 52.4.
Hardin retired from athletics after a failed effort to organize a professional track circuit, married in 1937 and settled in Baton Rouge, never finishing his degree at LSU. He worked for the Ethel Corporation and his wife taught high school history. In the late 1960s he began to travel for the state overseeing voting machines. His second oldest son, Billy, was also an NCAA champion hurdler for LSU in the 1960s and made the Olympic team in 1964 for his dad’s event, the 400 m. hurdles. Glenn Hardin died in Baton Rouge 1975.
T.J. Ray’s story of the hanging of Mathis and Lester is one of those books you read and come away thinking, “Wow, that would make a damn good movie.” And it would. Death as the circumscription of all human activity is also the Great Equalizer, uniting men of all stripes, but the hanging of Will and Orlando brought fate and justice together in a jagged gray crescendo. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Dr. Ray’s meticulous research, his informative narration that moves us through the court speeches with appropriate dispatch, his accounts of media coverage that enhance the drama now as it did then and his descriptions of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphan stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.
At the turn of the last century, north Mississippi was still for the most part a wilderness, little more than a network of villages and towns strung together along dirt and gravel roads, traveled by or with a horse, united only in proximity. The scars of the Civil War ran deep, and the adjusted system of laws in the newly-Reconstructed state were little more than the legal ramifications of military defeat. Yet the state was growing, law had to be enforced and the cases of Will Mathis and Orlando Lester, grisly in detail, profound in ramifications, proved in to be a public circus ending in a lethal trapeze. Side by Side is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.
Where has it gone, that brash, unapologetic feeling we once had of “Yes, we are Americans, deal with us”, the singular aspect of Ugly Americanism that seemed in any way justifiable? Have we as a nation lost our innocence? Can we ever again conceive of presenting such a tray of confections as depicted in this 1950 cookbook, replete with such charming details as delicate, braided handles, tiny maple leaf pastry motifs, a miniature marzipan pumpkin and excruciatingly exact lattice-work crusts, not to mention that bravura draping of crowning fruit as if to say, “Oh, I just had them on hand and thought they’d look nice.” Who among us now would be so brave (if not to say industrious) to fashion and display such unadulterated whimsy at a gathering and not expect some jaded guest—well-dressed, imbued with cynicism and no small degree of ill-will towards if not you then the world in general—to snicker behind a manicured hand at your utter lack of sophistication? I would, my people, and I would smile in the face of that sneer and say, “Try the glazed grapes.”
This recipe for “Gingerbread Without Butter or Eggs” was first published in The Picayune Creole Cookbook, c. 1901.
1 cup molasses, 1 cup sour milk, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 8 tablespoons shortening, 3 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda.
Melt the molasses, shortening and ginger together and blend well. When thoroughly melted and warmed, beat for 10 minutes. (While the original recipe as printed omits the use of the sour milk, let’s assume it’s added before the flour.) Dissolve the soda in 1 tablespoon boiling water and add to the molasses mix. Then add just enough of the sifted flour to make a stiff batter, beating thoroughly and vigorously. Pour into several greased shallow pans and bake for ten minutes in a quick oven.
This bread makes the famous “Stage Planks”, or ginger cakes, sold by the old darkies around New Orleans in old Creole days, to those of their own race and to little white children. The ancient Creoles, fond of giving nick-names, gave to this stiff ginger cake the name of “Estomac Mulâtre”, or “The Mulatto’s Stomach”, meaning that it was only fit for the stomach of a mulatto to digest.
The cookbook does not include an icing recipe, but I’d suggest a royal icing. Pink, of course.
Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply “said” anything) that Rose Budd Stevens (aka Mamie Willoughby) was a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my pea-pickin’ heart. If you are interested in the way most Mississippians cooked and prepared foodstuffs in the first half of the 20th century, then you should get From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (University Press of Mississippi: 1988). The book contains a cautionary editor’s note advising readers that most of the recipes contain “a higher fat, sugar and salt content than generally recommended by physicians and nutritionists today”. Well of course they do because those people didn’t sit around on their butts all day like most of us do; they worked hard, ate well and deservedly so. For those Mississippi foodies who love the literature of the table too, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful work written by a remarkable woman. Mrs. Willoughby and I grew up in the same environment, rural Mississippi, but at different times. Reading her reminds me of the phrases and cadences I heard from my grandmothers and great aunts, so much so that I hear in her their voices fused altogether. Mamie, much like those women, is not averse to a lecture either, as she makes obvious in this passage:
Let’s get this chicken stew, dumplings and chicken pie business straight right now. Chicken Stew: Roll thick dough, cut into strips, drop into boiling chicken broth, and cook uncovered. Chicken Dumplings: Drop spoonfuls of dough on top of boiling chicken and broth, cook with tight-fitting lid on, and don’t peek. Chicken Pie: Put layer of chicken and broth in large pan. Dot with butter and black pepper, then layer of rich dough. Bake until light brown; add another layer of chicken, broth, and dough, bake. Do this until pan is nearly full. Some hold with a cup of sweet milk added, then back 30 minutes. I like hard-boiled eggs and sweet cream in my pie. Last would be cups of cooked-down broth, tasty with floating eyes of chicken fat, all melded together, food fit for the gods, company or family. Remember this was before it was known you could eat yourself to death!
This is one instance when Mamie and I part ways. Her recipe for stew resembles my family’s recipe for chicken and dumplings. What we’d call “drop dumplings”, which she uses in her C&Ds, were what we usually made with sweet dough for cobblers. It might be worth noting that Mamie is from south Mississippi, while I’m from the north part of the state, but I’m not sure if that’s a significant geographical culinary distinction.
Here’s my recipe, which was used by my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Typically, my ancestresses would use a cut-up whole chicken and cook it with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper, nothing more, probably a quarter of a chicken and a quart of stock per person.
Debone your chicken, return the bones to the pot and reduce by about a third, then strain and return to pot. You want a good, rich broth, about a quart for each boned chicken quarter. For your dough, make a stiff biscuit dough with sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into the broth while it’s at a rolling boil. Once it starts to thicken, add the chicken, cover and let boil for maybe another minute and then turn off the heat and let the pot sit for about another five minutes to cook the dumplings. You’ll have to adjust the salt, since dumplings, like any boiled starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.) will absorb salt in cooking. I like my chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.