Indianola Egg Nog

Claiborne’s recipe has been printed in almost everything he did, but this version comes from Christmas Memories with Recipes (1988) along with his endearing “Distant Christmases”. In this essay, he recalls, “On Christmas afternoon there was also, to my mind, a surprising annual ritual, surprising because both my parents were teetotalers, and alcohol, other than the pharmaceutical sort, was absolutely forbidden in my home. Each Christmas, however, my mother would ask a neighbor to buy her a pint of bootleg bourbon (it was during Prohibition and my home state was dry). She would then assemble her rich-as-Croesus eggnog, made with an abundance of eggs and heavy cream, and temper it with a bit of bourbon. She would also pour a generous quantity out of the bourbon bottle over the homemade fruitcakes, which would be sliced and served with the eggnog.” You must use fresh organic eggs for a this recipe.

8 eggs separated
3/4 c. sugar
1 c. bourbon
1/2 c. heavy cream
Nutmeg
Put the egg yolks and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until light and lemon-colored. Gradually add the bourbon, beating on low speed. In a separate bowl whip the cream until stiff. Fold it into the egg-yolk mixture. In a clean bowl whip the egg whites until stiff and fold them into the eggnog. Serve with a generous grating of nutmeg.

 

Reviving Salmagundi

Salmagundi—like pettifoggery, kittywampus or hullabaloo—is one of those words you want to just pick off the page, cuddle and tease with a string, and the dish is just as playful since salmagundi isn’t so much a dish as it is a presentation along the lines of an antipasto or a smorgasbord. Salmagundi is also quite English, having blipped onto the OED radar sometime around 1400, making it an appropriate addition to your holiday table if you’re the sort that puts out wassail and burns a yule log. Claiborne—and All Who Sailed in Him—declared (Craig had a way of being pontifical) “There is something about the word ‘salmagundi’ that has an unmistakable appeal for savants with a leaning toward gourmandism.”

Well, I’m not some maverick etymologist who strays into the kitchen to make corn sticks; no matter the origin of the word, salmagundi is simply a way to serve a selection of cold vegetables, pickles, meats and citrus mounded on a tray and served with tongs and forks as you would any large salad. By precedent, you want your meat (classic poached chicken or upscale to smoked salmon, mayhap) in the middle atop greens with rings of pickles, cooked eggs, raw or blanched vegetables, citrus, nuts, sausages, cold fish—anchovies are a classic addition—pretty much anything goes with the exception of cheese, which isn’t included in any reliable (meaning historic) recipe; the emphasis should be on piquancy set off by elements that are crisp and bland. An herby oil and vinegar/lemon juice is the appropriate dressing.

The Cereus Society

Eloquence and concision are scarce in academic writers, but Suzanne Marrs achieves it with aplomb in this passage about Eudora’s gay circle of the ‘30s.

“Though she would join the Junior League in deference to her friends who were already members, Eudora’s interests were rather different and her circle of friends more wide-ranging. Four young men were particularly important to her, and all were iconoclastic sorts. Nash Burger had returned to Jackson from the University of the South and had become a teacher at Central High School, Lehman Engel summered in Jackson while he was studying at Juilliard, Hubert Creekmore was back in residence after attending the Yale School of Drama, and Frank Lyell visited during his summer vacations from Princeton.

During summers of the early thirties, the group gathered frequently at the Welty house to drink and talk and laugh and listen to music—literature and the theater and the New York scene filled their conversations, and they loved hearing both classical music and jazz. They also engaged in activities that Lehman eventually labeled “camp.” When Jackson ladies, for instance, advertised that their night-blooming cereuses would be in flower on a given night and invited one and all to witness the annual bloomings, Eudora and her friends attended.

They went on to name themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club and took as their motto a slightly altered line from a Rudy Vallee song: “Don’t take it cereus (sic), Life’s too mysterious.” Years later, in The Golden Apples, Eudora would use the “naked, luminous, complicated flower” as an emblem of life’s beauty and its fragility, and she would have a character repeat what one Jackson lady had said about the cereus bloom, “Tomorrow it’ll look like a wrung chicken’s neck.”

But at the time, none of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club members anticipated such symbolic implications of their activities. For them the cereus was and remained an emblem of good fellowship, of the pleasure imaginative individuals could share if they embraced the world around them.”

Harboring Mrs. Byrne

Having a collector’s edition set of Jane Austen displayed with discreet prominence tags one as a certain sort of person just as soundly as a shelf of brittle paperback Louis L’Amours. If you pardon as understandable the inordinate number of books devoted to cooking, my bookshelves are certainly eclectic enough to deflect instantaneous psychoanalysis with the exception of this copy of Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, which labels me as a pseudo-intellectual of the vilest sort; how pretentious it is to have a dictionary of words that are so obscure and out-of-use that it’s worthless as a reference, and if that’s your idea of bathroom reading, then you really need a therapist. I met a fellow in Belhaven the other day who told me that he had snagged a first edition of the OED for twenty bucks from a library that was cleaning its shelves, and I felt cheap and disgusted with myself for being jealous.

 

Mrs. Claiborne’s Spaghetti

Craig Claiborne wrote his tell-all autobiography A Feast Made for Laughter (Doubleday, 1982) when he was undergoing intense psychotherapy (ostensibly for alcoholism; “self-destruction” triggered by “self-detestation”), which judging from his convoluted assessment of his mother’s “smothering” influence, was doubtless intensely Freudian. In the end, he concludes that he didn’t hate his mother, that she was “a victim of culture, of her time and place” like Amanda Wingfield you might say or Claiborne himself mayhap.

By all accounts Mary Kathleen Craig Claiborne was a formidable woman who supported her family after Mr. Claiborne lost a fabled family fortune by taking in boarders, including psychologist and sociologist John Dollard who stayed in Indianola while conducting research for his Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937). During his stay, Dollard committed what might well be the most grievous social error possible in the South, showing great disrespect to his hostess by disrespecting her cooking. According to Claiborne, “In the beginning he criticized the cooking of the greens, complaining that there was not a vitamin left in the lot. And as a result of his well-intentioned explanations and the base encouragement of the other boarders, my mother willingly committed one of the most wicked acts of her life. Dr. Dollard was placed at a bridge table, covered, of course, with linen, and set with sterling, and he was served a mess of raw greens that he ate with considerable and admirable composure and lack of resentment.” Years later, in the early 1970s, Claiborne recounts wandering into the photographic studio at the New York Times, glanced at the assignment sheet and saw the name “John Dollard, Yale”. As he walked in, Dollard walked out, and Claiborne introduced himself. “How’s your mother,” Dollard asked. “She’s a great woman.”

The best evidence we have of Claiborne’s filial love is his recipe for her chicken spaghetti, “printed on many occasions, for it, more than any other, was my favorite dish as a child, and I still prepare it.” Claiborne finds it, with characteristic affectation, “notably akin to certain authentic Italian sauces, notably a ragù Bolognese made with ground meat in a tomato and cream sauce.” Then he goes so far as to say that it was strictly his mother’s creation, and “she was famous for it up and down the Mississippi Delta.” Well, certainly her version is her own; it includes ground beef and pork as well as chicken and is undoubtedly one of the most complicated recipes Claiborne, whose recitation is meticulous if not fastidious, ever published. But chicken spaghetti is one of those recipes that simply can’t be credited to the creativity of any one individual cook. People have been combining chicken and noodles of some kind since the dawn of history, and chicken spaghetti in some form or another has been around in Mississippi ever since pasta began being marketed here. You’re going to find two in the Mississippi Home Extension Service’s The Mississippi Cookbook, one from Ovett, the other from Hickory, both about as far away from the Delta as you can get without getting wet.

In its most basic incarnation, chicken spaghetti is nothing more than cooked spaghetti or vermicelli noodles mixed with a can of cream of chicken soup, topped with Kraft Parmesan and stuffed in a hot oven. In more labor-intensive versions, mushrooms (Green Giant or such) are usually involved, as are onions and bell pepper and a white sauce, but diced tomatoes are a hit-or-miss option. And even though Mrs. Claiborne topped her chicken spaghetti with cheddar, if you ask me, that’s just trashy; use Parmesan and mozzarella.

The Great Bulgarian Tobacco Conspiracy

I have this friend; let’s call him Joe. Now, Joe is one of those guys who have a real flair for languages. He’s conversant in probably a half dozen, and even if he doesn’t know the language inside out, if you give him a dictionary, he can noodle out the basic morphology, syntax and semantics well enough to translate pretty much any Indo-European document.

Of course this talent led to work as an interpreter, and there came a day when he was tapped for a job translating a document from Bulgarian to English because he once worked with the Mississippi Ballet Guild doing translations when they began trying to get the International ballet Competitions brought from Varna, Bulgaria, to Jackson Mississippi. It also didn’t hurt that Joe’s ancestors grew burley (cigarette) tobacco during the Depression, and he learned something about it from his Uncle Ralph. As it turns out, Joe was tapped to translate a highly sensitive report on Bulgarian burley tobacco production that had been smuggled out of the then-Iron Curtain country. It so happened that in the mid-1980s Bulgaria was leaving the U.S. in the dust with the production and marketing of burley tobacco, and if Joe happened to get caught by some chain-smoking Bulgarian with a big-caliber pistol in a dark alley, he’d be deader than hell. In the end, he got away with enough dough to take a two-week vacation in Costa Rica, which if you ask me is a splendid profit from such petty espionage.

Bulgarians like their eastern European neighbors in Hungary are pepper aficionados, and while you’re not going to find Bulgarian peppers fresh in Mississippi unless you raise your own–that carrot variety is popular among Capsicums aficionados–Hungarian wax peppers do come to market here on occasion. Joe (not quite his real name) now lives—inexplicably—in Canton, and he and his partner dropped off a sack of Hungarian wax peppers last week while they were swinging through the city.

I stuffed them with cheese for a great vegetarian nosh. For six peppers, mix one cup semi-soft farmer’s cheese broken into small pieces or grated large, one cup of a whey cheese such as ricotta or cottage (large curd) with a cup of dry hard cheese such as Romano or Parmesan and one beaten egg. You do not need to add salt to this, trust me, but it helps to add a tablespoon of cornstarch for binding. I threw some smoked red peppers in the mix simply because I had them, but any mild chili wouldn’t be out of place. Bake in a moderate oven, 350 or so, for twenty minutes. These are best served warm, not hot as you would a rellenos.

 

Smith Park: A Mississippi Landmark

Smith Park is the oldest city park in the nation, and for that reason alone should be declared a Mississippi Landmark. In addition, although there has never been a formal archaeological study of the park, it represents the only undisturbed square in downtown Jackson and may hold as much archaeological value as a site as it does historical value as a park. Another compelling reason is that Smith Park is home to monuments of the state’s history and the capital city, monuments that deserve protection from the caprice and greed of municipal developers.

President Thomas Jefferson conceived of a basic municipal plan for Mississippi’s capital city in 1821, and Smith Park is the only remnant of his “checkerboard plan” that had a green space on every other square. The park was officially established on February 16, 1838, when the Mississippi Legislature voted to dispose of all unsold land given by the federal government “… except such blank squares as deemed necessary to be reserved as commons, for the health, ornament, and convenience of the city of Jackson.”

Smith Park is named for James Smith, Jr., son of James and Ann Preston Smith of Edinburgh, Scotland, who was born in 1816. Smith immigrated to the United States in 1832, and opened a hardware store on State Street in Jackson. Smith moved back to Scotland In the 1850s, due to his wife’s ill health. Smith became a millionaire from the sale of iron stoves acquired under the name of Smith’s Jackson hardware store and marketed in Great Britain and elsewhere by the firm Smith and Wellstood, Ltd. Smith died on April 11, 1886.

In May 1883, Jackson’s mayor and board of aldermen adopted an ordinance authorizing the mayor “…to solicit subscriptions of cash or donations of material for the purpose of putting a suitable fence around the square owned by the city in the rear of the Executive Mansion, and that he purchase a deficit of material needed, and at such time during the summer as he may select, that he enclose said square and put such gates as may be deemed necessary.” On January 1, 1884, Mayor John McGill wrote, “I mentioned the matter to a number of parties, and had promises of assistance, but received nothing from anyone except Mr. James Smith, a former resident of Glasgow, Scotland, who was here on a visit to his old home and friends. He gave me $100, $95 of which I paid on account of lumber purchased, and $5 to Mr. Phil Hammond on his account for building the fence.”

In the April 4, 1888, minutes of the Jackson city aldermen, a Mr. C.L. Gaston wrote: “Mrs. Gaston received a letter from Mr. James B. Smith, of Sterling, Scotland, informing her that he and his two brothers Messrs. Robert and William Smith had on hearing of the city’s improvement of the Public Park named in honor of their father, the late Mr. James Smith, of Glasgow, determined on contributing twelve cast-iron benches or settees.”

A bandstand was built in 1890, and Smith Park was open to black citizens as early as 1897. In the early 1900s, the bandstand was ordered repaired and the Jackson light and power company was asked to install lighting in the structure. Smith Park has always had a water feature, including at one time a goldfish pond and a fountain at the Amite-West Street entrance. On New Year’s Day, 1918, a pergola and fountain were erected on the southwestern edge of the park across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church as a memorial to one of Jackson’s most beloved citizens, W.J. Davis, “The man who led/Where others groped.” Davis founded the LaVernet Stock Farm near the outskirts of the city, “the means of which the advantages and availability of Jackson, Hinds County and Mississippi as a stock raising section was abundantly and decisively advertised to the world.” (Jackson Daily News, Thursday, Jan. 3, 1918, p. 6) This memorial, the oldest landmark in Smith Park, is still standing, but is not included in the proposed “renaissance” by the so-called “Friends of Smith Park” and Downtown Jackson Partners.

In April, 1934 the Order of the Eastern Star dedicated a memorial on the northeastern edge of the park to Robert Morris, whose home once stood across the park on Congress. Morris founded the Order of the Eastern Star at the Little Red Schoolhouse (Eureka Masonic College) in Holmes County. This monument to the founder of the Order is a shrine to its members, but it is not included in the “renaissance” proposal put forth by the so-called “Friends of Smith Park” and Downtown Jackson Partners, who clearly plan to destroy this vital piece of Mississippi history. Another significant landmark, the pavilion in the east central portion of the park, was constructed during the Depression, perhaps at the same time (late 1930s) as similar stone structures at the Jackson Zoo, including the former rhinoceros house, old concession stand, and old restrooms. This is the only landmark retained under the “renaissance” proposal.

On February 10, 1950, the Jackson Daily News declared, “Smith Park was donated to the city for park purposes and should be used only for park purposes,” purposes which surely include repose in the shade, leisurely walks and a soothing flow of water. In 1973, the park was redesigned, with wide walkways, an amphitheater featuring an A-frame band shell, a wooden stage with sunken seating area, and, the most beautiful and prominent feature, an artificial river designed by award-winning landscape artist and then city landscape architect Rick Griffin. This water feature includes a dramatic fountain on the northeast whose waters feed into a stream bed that encircles the park beneath walkways, in a flowing pool before the A-frame stage, ending on the southeast in a pool with a drain and pump that recirculates the water back to the fountain. The project was completed in 1975, the park re-dedicated that September. The “renaissance” proposal does not include a water feature and would also cut the oldest trees in the park, it’s only shade from the strong Mississippi sun.

In 1976, Smith Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but this is insufficient protection for the oldest park in the state. Unless Smith Park is afforded protected status as a Mississippi Historical Landmark, the site will be subject to the whims of irresponsible municipal developers. It’s time to preserve the park as a shaded jewel in the state’s epicenter.