Stuffed Poblanos

The peppers are stemmed, slit length ways, cleaned and stuffed with beans and cheese mixed with a salsa, seasonings (garlic, cumin and pepper) and a little meal to bind, placed on a bed of ripe tomatoes and baked at 400 for about twenty minutes or until bubbling. These are great over rice as a side to grilled meats.

 

In Praise of Folly

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.”

The Original, Definitive and Incontestable Stage Planks Recipe

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.

Food at Welty’s Wedding

Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik, in a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be its predominant use in fiction, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Eudora Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord. Though three main meals are described, a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards, people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book, and a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household during the Coolidge administration. In both instances, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement.

Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.

As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes Welty, who is subtle and understated, it’s easy to miss things; read it again.

 

Dumpling Wars

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.