Roadkill Caviar

This is not an affluent neighborhood—I don’t think Jackson, Mississippi has neighborhoods that qualify as such any longer—and sure, this is lump fish caviar, not sturgeon, but still finding a jar of caviar in the middle of the street, even during the holiday season when people tend to splurge, is not the sort of thing one expects on a morning walk. Did I open the jar? Oh, yes, of course I did, and the contents had been partially eaten but didn’t smell rancid, though of course I wasn’t about to stick a cracker in it and find out if it was still edible. Even with the heavy traffic on this street, the jar is still there, smack dab in the middle of the road, reminding me of the pound of butter Gertrude Stein said a German soldier tasted like an ice cream cone then threw down in the street during the Occupation, and even given the expense and scarcity of butter nobody would touch it, leaving it for the dogs and rats.

A Victorian Russian Tea

The Oaks, one of Jackson’s few surviving antebellum homes, recently celebrated the 207th birthday of its builder, Mr. James Boyd, and during the observance the Colonial Dames, who care for the house and grounds, served an outstanding antique hot tea. I was lucky enough to get the recipe from an officer of the organization, who provided this wonderful memory.

My grandmother’s Russian tea was a treat for the Christmas season. My sister and I were her only grandchildren, and she was our lone living grandparent so she was extra special. In December, we would go to her house and help her make her Christmas delicacies. Unlike my mother, she was a very good cook, and this was a learning event that started when we were preschoolers. We were like little elves in a very primitive kitchen as most kitchens were in the 1950’s; we would juice the oranges and lemons in an old metal device when making her Russian tea, which always made her house smell so warm and inviting when it was heating on the stove. The Russian tea was always served in china cups from her tea service, which was round white porcelain and not glamorous at all; it looked like something from a Walt Disney cartoon. We also roasted pecans and stuffed them in dates rolled in powdered sugar and made salted pecans, custard, meringues and oatmeal cookies.

The Russian tea is a Victorian beverage. My grandmother would make it with her mother, who was born in 1860, when she was a child. I think back then it was more of an event as fresh oranges and lemons were not as plentiful as they are nowadays. Grandmother always said we had too much in our modern world and Christmas at her house was centered more on food, sharing little things, good times with family and friends, and less on material items.

4 big tea bags (I use Luzianne decaf)
12 cups of water
2 cups pineapple juice
1 cup orange juice (cheap canned OJ is best as it is not as strong as Tropicana in a carton)
Juice of two lemons
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons whole cloves

Boil 12 cups water in a large soup pan, remove from heat and immediately add the tea bags. Remove bags in EXACTLY five minutes or the tea will have a ‘bite’ (this is very important) then add everything else. Keep on low heat for a while before serving; it makes your house smell wonderful. I freeze it in qt. Mason jars so I will have it ready at a moment’s notice.

Ginger Pecan Shortbread

This is a rich, aromatic, soft and crumbly cookie or small cake that goes perfectly with a hot drink—coffee, tea, even mulled wine—particularly in winter weather, and it’s so simple a child can make it. Cream 1 stick softened butter (no substitutes!) with a half cup of confectioner’s sugar, blend in 1 cup plain flour sifted with a quarter teaspoon of baking powder, 1 cup chopped pecans and 2 teaspoons ground ginger. (I have tried this recipe with freshly-grated ginger, and it simply does not work well at all with so much butter.) This mixture makes a soft, elastic dough that you have to work with flour-dusted hands to form into a ball. Pat or roll the dough ball out into an 8” round, score into six wedges and crimp the edges with a fork. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 until the edges are just brown. Cut and serve. This recipe can be doubled or tripled and cut into cookies as well.

Laurie’s Kitchen

We speak of cult musicians or novelists, and while it might seem odd to speak of a food writer that has such a following, Laurie Colwin does, primarily I think because Colwin has one thing that other food writers in this age of kitchen glamour don’t, which is a total lack of pretension.

Colwin, who died in 1992, the year before the Food Network was founded, wrote in an era when food and cooking were still relatively pedestrian topics. Sure, Martha had already spread her elegant wings, Prudhomme was burning up the scene and of course Claiborne, Childe and Beard had lit the way, but Colwin wasn’t a media personality. Far from it; she was a working writer and mother. In addition to her two collections of culinary essays, Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking (1993), which were inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame in 2012, Colwin published eight novels and her work appeared in The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Allure and Playboy.

Colwin doesn’t have a style so much as she does a voice, which some might say is much the same thing, but no: she writes as if she were talking to you across a picnic table or at a bus stop, intimate but breezy, alternately tongue-in-cheek, insistent and certainly droll at times, always warm; somehow when reading her my mind hears her as what the Brits would call “fruity”, though not strained or shrill. “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” is usually cited as a signature piece, but “Kitchen Horrors” is essential, as is “How to Avoid Grilling” and my favorite, “How to Cook Like an American”. Colwin writes a great deal about how to (and not to) cook for children and the infirm, how to feed a multitude with grace under pressure but above all how much of our lives revolve around the things we see, touch, hear and eat every day.

Colwin’s fans constitute a cult in that they are devoted to her writing as a source of discovery as well as comfort, and acknowledge self-effacement as a virtue in those who know their craft and practice it with modest aplomb.

Colwin by Crampton

Colwin by Crampton

Frank N. Meyer’s Lemon

In August, 1905 a Dutch immigrant, horticulturalist and fitness buff became the first plant explorer hired by the USDA’s newly-created Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction to travel the globe in search of plants useful for American agriculture. The first expedition (he undertook three others through 1918) through China, Manchuria and Korea in 1905 was daunting, to say the least, but Meyer was an enthusiast if not to say fanatic, and the constant travel on foot, the weather, the tumultuous politics and the Spartan living conditions were simply taken in stride.

In the Far East Meyer discovered the eponymous plant now most widely recognized by the general public (horticulturalists are also familiar with Meyer zoysia grass). Though Meyer failed to take note of its origin, he probably purchased the ornamental lemon plant from a nursery in Fentai near Peking. Meyer lemon (Citrus x limona ‘Meyer’ or citrus x meyeri) is most likely a hybrid between Citrus limon, the true lemon, and C. reticulate, the mandarin orange. While the Meyer lemon is larger, juicier and more cold tolerant than true lemons, it doesn’t ship well and has never been widely adopted by the citrus industry. In time, it has become successful in limited local marketing and has become a gourmet selection for any number of culinary uses.

“It Just Stuck”

The Atkinson Candy Company was founded in the east Texas town of Lufkin by B.E. Atkinson, Sr., and his wife, Mabel in the desperate days of 1932, when it was getting hard for anybody to make a living. The company currently operates out of a 100,000 square feet facility and is led by siblings Eric and Amy Atkinson, grandchildren of the founders. The Atkinson Candy Company specializes in peanut butter and peppermint-flavored candies; the current product line includes Coconut Long Boys, Gemstone Candies, Black Cow, Slo Poke and Chick-O-Stick.

Chick-O-Stick is a round bar dusted with ground coconut, the interior honeycombed with peanut butter and the orange hardened syrup/sugar mixture that also forms the shell. When eaten fresh, the candy is dry and brittle, but it has a tendency to draw moisture and become hard and chewy on the shelf. Chick-O-Stick is available in 0.36-ounce (10 g), 0.70-ounce (20 g), 1.0-ounce (28 g), and 2.0-ounce (57 g) sizes, as well as bags of individually wrapped bite-sized pieces.

The original wrapper featured a stylized cartoon of a chicken wearing a cowboy hat and a badge in the shape of the Atkinson logo. The chicken is absent from the more recent wrapper, since it understandably created some confusion over whether Chick-O-Stick was candy or a chicken-flavored cracker. The Atkinson Candy Company’s website states that one of their sales guys just “came up with the name one day, and well, it just stuck.”

Oysters D’Iberville

D’Iberville, Mississippi bears the name of an explorer, adventurer and soldier who had his portrait painted with a periwig of the Third Order, which was like huge back then. These oysters are topped with garlic and scallions browned in butter and a smidgen of grated Parmesan or Romano. You have to put these in the hottest oven you can conjure, on a flaming grill or if you’re lucky under your salamander. And here’s a tip for oysters in the home kitchen. I have a sack full of oyster shells that I keep clean and use to broil shucked oysters I buy in containers. You’ll not find a more perfect surface for cooking oysters than nacre; not only that, but mother-of-pearl is dishwasher-safe. Trust me.

Native American Place Names in Calhoun County, Mississippi

These place names were collected from the Mississippi Atlas &Gazetteer (DeLorme: 2004), pages 25 and 31; the text is from Keith Baca’s Native American Place Names in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi: 2007). Note that the gazetteer was my only source for the place names, and that I only referenced those in Calhoun County, Mississippi. If you want to know the interpretations of other Native American place names in other areas of the state, then you can probably find Baca’s book at your local library. The only place name I did not find is Oloucalofa Creek, which is crossed by County Roads 284 and 283 in the northwestern corner of the county. The references in the text refer to works that provided the translations/interpretations for specific words. Some of you might find this tedious and pedantic in addition to being predictably pretentious, but trust me I do know people who would jump on me like a duck on a June bug if I didn’t mind my scholastic Ps and Qs.

Kittahutty Creek

SW Pontotoc/NE Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 32 nine mi. NE of Bruce. Halbert (1899, p. 73), using Choctaw vocabulary, derives this name from kitti, “mortar” (a bowl-sha0ped container for pounding or grinding corn into meal), and hutta, “white”. Halbert offers no explanation for the adjective, but Seale (1939, pp. 109-10) speculates that it refers to a mortar made of white stone (white or bleached wood, more likely). It should benoted that this creek is located at least partially within historically Chickasaw territory, and while Chickasaw kitti’, “mortar” is very similar to the Choctaw word, the only recorded Chickasaw term for “white” is tobbi’. Also, the first two syllables of the name resemble not lonely kitti/kitti’, but Chickasaw/Choctaw kinta, “beaver” as well.

Lucknuck Creek

N Calhoun County. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 32 five mi. NE of Bruce, and by Miss. Hwy 9 one mi. NE of Sarepta. Perhaps a corruption of Chickasaw/Choctaw lackna, “yellow”.

Potlockney Creek

SE Lafayette/ NE Calhoun counties. Local pronunciation unrecorded. Potlockney is a relatively recent corruption;this stream was formerly known as Pollocona, the derivation of which is uncertain. W.A. Read, using Choctaw vocabulary, suggested several possible sources of this name to Seale (1939, p. 153), but all are conjectural: poli, “flying squirrel” and yakni “country”; or poli, “flying squirrel” and okhina, “river; water course; stream”. (It should be noted that this stream is in historically Chickasaw territory; cf. Chickasaw lakna, “yellow”; yaakni, “country”; and pali, “flying squirrel”.

Sabougla Community and Creek

SW Calhoun/NW Webster counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 9 two mi. N of Bellefontaine, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven miles E of Gore Springs. Cushman (1999, p. 491) claims that this name is a shortened form of (Chickasaw) “Siboglahatcha… [o]riginal, Is-su-ba-ok-la-hu-cha, Horse River People, i.e. [p]eople living on horse river.” (Cf. Choctaw isuba, “horse”, okla, “people” and hocha, “river”.) However, Halbert (1899, p. 75) states that the name is from shohboli’, “smoke” (cf. Choctaw shoblhi, “smoke;smoky; smoking”.

Shuttispear Creek (SHOOT-uh-speer)

N Webster/S Calhoun Counties. Crossed by Miss Hwy. 9 fie mi. S of Calhoun City, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven mi. SW of Calhoun City. From Choctaw shuti, “earthen pot” and probably ista pika, “a scoop” i.e. “pot scoop” or “ladle” (Seale, 1939, p. 167). There is an erroneous local tradition regarding this stream resulting from folk etymology; I have been told that long ago, the creek was the scene of warfare between two tribes. According to this tale, the warriors occupied opposite sides of the stream, “shooting spears across the creek at each other”, hence the name.

Skuna Community and River

S Pontotoc (q.v.)/NW Chickasaw (q.v.)/Calhoun/Yalobusha (q.v.)/Grenada counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 9 on s. side of Bruce. Skuna is apparently from Choctaw iskuna, “entrails; guts” (cf. Halbert 1899, pp. 73-74).

Topashaw Creek (TOP-uh-shaw)

NE Webster/SW Chickasaw (q.v.)/S Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 8/9 two mi. S of Calhoun City,and by Miss. Hwy. 341 six mi. W of Woodland. Possibly a variant of Topisaw (cf.), although Seale (1939, p. 198) speculates that “it is highly probably that there is a connection between Sopashaw and Taposa, the latter being the name of a tribe which formerly lived on the Yazoo River.” The meaning of the tribal name Taposa is unknown (Swanson 1969, p. 192).