A Sticky Subject

All of my life, I’ve heard sorghum syrup called molasses, so it came as something of a shock when I read recently that sorghum molasses is not considered a “true” molasses by certain authorities. These same people will tell you that the only real molasses comes from sugar cane and beets, though in the same breath they will also say it can be made from grapes, dates, pomegranates, mulberries, and carob, which certainly muddles the definition. Thoreau, in one of his more superfluous tangents, claims he made “excellent molasses from pumpkins”, but in saying so displayed an appealing disregard for the distinction between syrup and molasses.

The process for making what passes as true molasses seems complicated, since once the canes (or beets) are crushed (or mashed), the juice is boiled to make a concentrate and crystallize the sugar. This stage produces the “first molasses” which has the highest sugar content. Boiling the cane/beet juice again produces “second molasses” (!), and the third boiling produces blackstrap. This is a simple process of reduction identical to the one used to make sorghum molasses which even Harold McGee, the genius who wrote the authoritative On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, claims is a syrup. What it boils down to (sorry) is a matter of bandying terms; if I want to call sorghum syrup a molasses, then by God I will, and I do.

Like any sugar in solution (i.e. a syrup), sorghum molasses differs in taste and texture depending on the length of time it’s reduced, resulting in varying degrees of caramelization. I’ve seen blackstrap-style sorghum as well as sorghum pale as honey. Me, I prefer it light, retaining just a shadow of the golden-green color I remember it having from a dipperful I tasted as a child in Ellard, Mississippi over a simmering pan of syrup, a memory I’m more likely to realize now since rural family-run sorghum cane mills are making a comeback on the Southern landscape. Be advised that the production of sorghum molasses remains a largely commercial enterprise, and there are dozens of brands on the shelves throughout the region, but most of these are not pure sorghum molasses; if you read the ingredients, corn syrup will likely be the first ingredient listed. Unadulterated sorghum can always be found in autumn at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. Go there and find it.

 

A Calhoun County Slave Narrative

The WPA Slave Narratives consist of 3,500 relatively brief oral histories (most of them two to four pages long), representing about 2 percent of all ex-slaves surviving in the late 1930s. The sample for Mississippi was somewhat smaller: out of perhaps 20,000 living former slaves, 450 were interviewed by the WPA. All states and territories that had slaves in 1865 are represented, except Louisiana which did not participate.

Unfortunately, the quality of the interviews rarely matched the quantity. Few of the WPA interviewers were adequately trained. With the rarest exceptions, the interviews were not tape recorded and the finished transcripts were not so much word-for-word representations of what ex-slaves actually said, but reconstructions based on the interviewers’ memory or field notes. Nearly all of the interviewers were white Southerners and most of them were women. Far too often the tone and even the content of the interviews reflected the white supremacist values of the 1930s. The WPA workers often patronized or insulted the ex-slave interviewees, reconstructing their speech in the crudest “plantation style,” referring to them as “old darkies,” or as “auntie” and “uncle.” Too often interviewers accepted Old South mythology as truth, assuming that all slaves were contented, all masters kind, and all plantations idyllic.

Not surprisingly, during the interview process former slaves often seemed uncomfortable and cautious, eager to please their interviewers by supplying the “right answers” and by wearing the mask of racial submission. Yet some of Mississippi’s former slaves spoke so bluntly about harsh conditions and cruel treatment that state FWP officials, apparently offended by such candor, chose to violate WPA guidelines and not forward their narratives to the Library of Congress in Washington. Thousands of pages of “bad” slave memories were discovered in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the 1970s.

(From “WPA Slave Narratives” by Dr. Neil R. McMillen professor emeritus of history, the University of Southern Mississippi, posted February 2005 in Mississippi History Now, a publication of the Mississippi Historical Society)

Ike Woodward

I was born in Calhoun County at Pittsboro July 4, 1855. My papa was Nelson Woodward who was born in Richmond, Va., an’ my Mama was Dolly Pruitt from Alabama. My brothers was Jeff, Sam, Ben an Jim an my sisters was Tilla, Lena an’ Rosetta. “My job durin’ de war was to lead (blind) Bob Conner all through de war. You know Massa Conner was de papa of Mr. Fox Conner who is now such a big man in de’ army. “We belonged to de Wiley Woodward family but Mr. Wileys brother, Ike, was administrator for de estate after Mr. Wiley’s brother killed him. He lent me out to take de job of leadin’ Mr. Conner in de war. “Course I didn’ make no money workin for Mr. Conner. Money is one thing us niggers didn’t see.

My Missus, Massa Wileys wife had a son John Woodward. Dey was 690 acres on de Woodward plantation. I just don’t know how many of us niggers he owned but he was said to be de biggest slave owner in dis part of de country. De white folks sho’ didn’t ‘low us niggers to see a newspaper or nothin we might learn to read an ‘rite from. We went to de white folks church to worship an’ sometimes us niggers would hold meetings of our own at our quarters. White folks read ‘de Bible to us at Massa Conner’s on Sunday mornin’.

One slave we called Alex Woodward ran away lots o’ times an’ de white folks would have to catch him with bull dogs. Dey always used de “Bull Whip” on him when dey caught him. Major Woodard was good ’nuff to give ‘de slaves truck patches that dey could work Sunday, Sunday nights or any other moonlight nights but dey sho must be ready for their regular work on Monday mornin an’ work through Saturday evenin’.

Lots o’ times dey would scare us chillun with homemade ghosts. When slaves got sick a “Granny” would look after ’em. Us niggers sho’ did get good treatment when we was sick. You know white folks sho didn’t want a nigger o’ theirs to die—they was worth somethin! Back then if de white folks did let us niggers go anywhere they would write us a pass describin’ who we belonged to, our name, description an’ where we was goin’, cause some white folks might take us up thinkin’ we was a run-a-way slave.

When dem Yankees come through from de north travelin’ south dey stole lots of de wealthy peoples good stock an’ left their ole wore out plugs in their places. When de war was over didn’t nobody at Massa Conners tell us niggers we was free. One mornin’ several days after de 8th o’ May de white folks sent me to de well down in de valley below de house to get a bucket o’ water. When I started to draw de water I saw my brother comin through de woods ridin a blazed face mare. He never said a word but galloped to de well, picked me up an put me on de horse with him an’ carried me from Massa Conners to de Woodwards. Massa Woodward had told my papa if he’d stay on with him an’ work when crops was gathered he’d give him half we made, so we did.

I has been married twice. My first wife was July Wade, we married when I was 17 years old and we had 10 chillun. Carrie Bell lives close to Calhoun City, Sammie Lee she lives there close by an de others are scattered about in other states. Most of ’em farms. My next wife was Lizzie Moore an’ we ain’t got no chillun. Young people now have better times.

 

Urban Chickens

Free-range poultry in the heart of Jackson seems unlikely, but then you’ll probably find chickens strolling all over Montgomery. Earlier this year, sometime around Easter, a flock of what I thought was pullets began wandering my neighborhood. Given the abundance of feral cats, their numbers were quickly reduced until only two are left, not hens, but rather two gaudy, glossy roosters who crow early in the day at different locations then join one another later in the morning to strut their stuff together in the yards and gardens along the more well-traveled streets. They have cowed the cats into submission and appear for all the world to be the lords of their turf. Given the surfeit of hens if I were a pigeon I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on the ground here, though for all I know when they’re together they’re clucking over carpets and window dressings.

Stalking Jezebel

Most recipes named for a person tend to have documented pedigrees; we can trace bananas Foster, Melba toast and chicken tetrazzini to a particular person and chef in a particular restaurant. But Jezebel sauce is an orphan. Jezebel herself was a 9th century BCE Phoenician princess known best as the wife of Ahab, King of Israel, who she converted to the worship of the Lord of the Flies. Her foe Elijah, speaking through the prophet Elisha, brought about her downfall, and it’s because of her idolatry and animosity towards Hebrew prophets (she had a number of them killed) that she is remembered as a voluptuous temptress who led the righteous Ahab astray. While Jezebel’s association with sexual promiscuity is of more recent vintage (e.g. Frankie Laine’s 1951 hit “Jezebel”), it’s usually taken for granted that this cloying reputation led to the naming of this blend of sweet condiments mixed with pungent horseradish. Jezebel sauce is most often served with ham, pork or other meats such as roast beef or smoked turkey, but is sometimes poured over cream cheese for use as a cocktail dip with crackers.

Biblical precedent aside, the sauce’s parenthood is shrouded. In response to a query about Jezebel’s culinary origins, Liz Williams, President and Director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, said, “You are asking about one of those mysterious things in food. I think that most people agree that Clementine Paddleford’s is the first written reference to the sauce as Jezebel sauce in the mid-1950s. Other than that, I do not know.  Fruit sauces mixed with horseradish existed before, but were not called Jezebel sauce.” The delightfully-named Clementine was an American food writer active from the 1920s through the 1960s, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Sun, and the New York Telegram, among others. Paddleford’s recipe for Jezebel sauce is in her landmark work, How America Eats (1960), though she may well have written about it elsewhere before then.

Gary Saunders of DixieDining.com (“May the Fork Be with You!”) says, “Jezebel sauce is a spicy sauce (like Jezebel herself) that contains pineapple preserves, apple jelly, horseradish, and mustard. The Jezebel sauce (or glaze) is often served over ham. A Southern origin of this dish seems certain, with Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida all putting in claims.” He then cites recipes from the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, 26 October 1958, “‘Mrs. Kansas’ Is a Cooking Whiz: Treats from the Sunflower State,” This Week magazine; the Pontiac (IL) Daily Leader, 21 November, 1967; and the Elyria (OH) Chronicle-Telegram. This last source states that the recipe is from Sunny Side Up, “the excellent cookbook published by the Junior League of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.”

More confusingly, Andrea Yeager, in an August, 2005 article in the Biloxi Sun Herald, “On the Trail of Jezebel Sauce”, writes, “Is Jezebel sauce a Mississippi creation? Rodney Simmons of Bell Buckle Country Store in Tennessee wants to know. His company recently began producing Jezebel sauce, and he would like to know the origin of the sauce. He has traced the recipe’s history to the Gulf Coast. “I thought it was Creole or Cajun, but after a recent conversation with Paul Prudhomme, we think that it originated on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, around Gulfport.” (Simmons doesn’t fully recount the conversation.) As a native son proud of his state’s culinary heritage, I’d like to think that Jezebel sauce originated in Mississippi, but I suspect it originated in the Midwest. This Jackson recipe is from the splendid The Southern Hospitality Cookbook by Winifred Greene Cheney, who claims, “Some of this sauce would have made Ahab’s wife a better woman.” I doubt it; Jezebel was a real bitch.

Fidelia’s Jezebel Sauce for Pork

1 (16-ounce) jar of pineapple preserves, 1 (12-ounce) jar apple jelly, 1 (6-ounce) can prepared mustard (I use a brown, jly), 1 (5-ounce) jar horseradish, salt and freshly ground pepper. Blend all ingredients with an electric mixer. This sauce keeps well refrigerated in a sealed container. Yield: 3 cups.

 

A Southpaw from Banner

Among the first professional sports players from Calhoun County, Mississippi was a rangy lefty from Banner named James Corbett Edwards, most often called “Jim Joe” or “Little Joe” when he played major league baseball in the 1920s.

Edwards was born Dec. 14, 1894. He enlisted during World War I as a Marine, later joining the Navy, where he became a Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class. On March 25, 1920, Edwards, who was by that time enrolled at Mississippi College in Clinton, was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm by the Third Republic of France, the highest military honor of the French Government. Exceptionally heroic services must be rendered to entitle any person to receive this tribute. The Croix de Guerre with palm was issued to military units whose men performed heroic deeds in combat and were subsequently recognized by headquarters.

In the 1920s, baseball was easily the premiere sports activity in the nation, and while playing ball at Mississippi College Jim Joe caught the eye of professional scouts. According to Mike Christensen, author of the recently-released Of Mudcat, Boo, The Rope and Oil Can: An Informal History of Mississippians in Major League Baseball, “Edwards debuted with the Cleveland Indians on May 14, 1922, going five innings in a loss to the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. I think it’s interesting that other players in that game included Sam Rice, Goose Goslin and Bucky Harris of the Senators and Tris Speaker, Stuffy McInnis and Doc Evans, a Meridian native, for the Indians. Those are some famous names.”

Edwards batted right and threw left. He pitched in 10 games for the Indians, and had a 4-3 record and a 2.84 ERA. After 13 games and an ERA of 8.25 the following season, he was released and picked up by the Chicago White Sox, pitching in nine games towards the end of the season. He spent the 1926 season with the White Sox, and had a 6-9 record and a 4.18 ERA in 32 games, 16 of them starts. In 1927 he had his first taste of minor league baseball and spent the year with the Seattle Indians. In 41 games for them, he had a 20-17 record and a 3.36 ERA. The following season he had a 1-8 record and a 3.14 ERA in ten games. The Cincinnati Reds signed him to a contract during part of the 1928 season, and in his last season in the majors, he had a 2-2 record and a 7.59 ERA in 18 appearances. He then spent four more seasons in the minor leagues to end his professional career. In a six-season career, Jim Joe posted a 26–37 record with 211 strikeouts and a 4.37 ERA in 145 appearances, including 59 starts, 23 complete games, six shutouts, four saves, and 584 ⅓ innings of work.

After his career in baseball, Edwards was postmaster at Banner before moving to Pontotoc. While there he was postmaster for a short while before retiring as a mail carrier. He was also a teacher and football coach. He died in Sarepta, Mississippi on January 19, 1965 at the age of 70 from a car accident.

 

Southern Curry

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up thinking of curry powder as a singular seasoning, not as the blend of herbs and spices it actually is. Even after I discovered that curries are spice blends, I was still unaware of the incredible number of varieties until my cousin Paige, who married into an Indian family, sent me Madhur Jeffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking and Ruta Kahate’s 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. Granted, I knew enough history to know that India is not so much a country as it is a sub-continent with an astounding number of peoples spread over one and a quarter million square miles, but still the intricacies of the cuisines left me reeling. Then there is curry powder itself, about which Jaffrey in her introduction on how to produce “that genuine flavor” says, “Let me start negatively by saying that what you don’t need is curry powder.” Curry, she says, is “a British oversimplification for what is universally regarded as a richly varied cuisine,” as degrading as “chop suey” for Chinese cooking. As no stranger to defeat, I knew that I was in way over my head.

I’ll keep working on the cuisine of Delhi, which is Jeffrey’s specialty, but while I’m still learning, I can always fall back on the one curry dish in the Southern repertoire, Country Captain, which is a chicken curry (there’s really no other way to describe it) from South Carolina. While Jeffery’s recipes will include precise measurements for seasoning mixtures (dare I call them curries?) with as many as eight or more herbs and spices, most recipes you’ll find for Country Captain simply call for “curry powder”, which is available in any supermarket. I used the McCormick blend with coriander, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, celery seed, nutmeg, cloves, onion, red pepper and ginger, which I’m content to consider a reasonably complicated if not authentic amalgamation. The recipe I used is a riff off Winifred Green Cheney’s in her Southern Hospitality Cookbook, which she, being a woman of A Certain Station and Age, assures us is a direct replica of that served by Mrs. W.L. Bullard of Warm Springs, Georgia, who “often served her famous dish to the late Franklin D. Roosevelt”, but you can find a good recipe for Country Captain in any Junior League-style cookbook.

Jackson Launches Equipment Theft Deterrent

JACKSON, MS (YPI)—In an effort to reduce the theft of maintenance equipment, the City of Jackson has initiated a program of placing their more valuable pieces of machinery at “random and undisclosed” areas of the city until needed for upcoming projects.

“We are determined to protect the taxpayers’ property,” a spokesperson said, “and this method of dispersing machinery instead of keeping it in a vulnerable centralized location should greatly reduce the loss of expensive heavy equipment such as backhoes, trenchers and excavators.”

The location of the equipment, while “obvious to local residents” would be unknown to organized criminals who could steal and sell the machinery. “Some of these machines are worth a lot of money,” the spokesperson said, “and we need to protect them while they aren’t in use.” An estimated 75% of the city’s maintenance equipment is currently idle.

While most metro news outlets were quick to point out that this move is nothing more than a “frivolous” and “shamefully useless” effort, designed according to one periodical as “nothing more than a blatant attempt of the administration to draw attention away from its legal entanglements”, a metro alternative weekly applauded what it called “the city’s bold and innovative new initiative”.

One Jackson resident said, “I just wish they’d leave the keys in them and provide me with a pile of asphalt mix.”