Sleepy Corner

Sam, the Garbager, had carpet,
And some scraps of office jot,
Optomacy stooped to throw him,
As he passed from lot to lot,

And with these he decked his cabin
In a rather modern style;
But himself remained old-fashioned
Like–simple and true the while.

And the milk of human kindness
Seemed to bubble from his heart,
As he rolled about the city
In his two-wheeled garbage cart.

S.A. Beadle,
Lyrics of the Under-World (1912),
photo by R. H. Beadle

The Right Red and White

Some people will tell you that I’m an old ass who’s quick to fuss about any damned thing, but allow me to point out that when it comes to red beans people insist on using the wrong beans. Yes, that’s right. Instead of honest-to-goodness red beans, most people—even most vendors—use kidney beans, which are yes red, but they aren’t the right red. You’ll see small kidney beans marketed as red beans all the time; even the Camilla brand red beans are kidneys, as are those used by the Blue Runner people, but most markets in the mid-South will have honest-to-goodness red beans sold simply as red beans, and if you look under the ingredients, you’ll find “small red beans”, not kidneys as you’ll find on the Camilla package or on the Blue Runner can. Sure there’s only a whisker’s difference between the two, but it’s crucial and critical, a matter of veracity and refinement if not to say taste.

Any dried beans should be picked through and washed (you really don’t want to know why), then boil the hell out of them in plenty of water because if you serve up crunchy beans, you’re never going to hear the end of it, and you can always get rid of excess liquid after the beans are cooked through. For a pound of dry beans add a half large white onion and whatever old bone you have around for the pot. Do not add salt until later, since cooking beans with salt makes the skins tough. Once the beans are quite cooked, adjust the amount of liquid, depending on how soupy or solid you like them; I like mine syrupy. I also like a good herbal stamp; for a pound of cooked beans I add a tablespoon each of dried basil and thyme. Trust me, use granulated garlic instead of fresh (it’ll get bitter), and for God’s sake don’t add Tabasco or cayenne; with red beans, don’t worry about adding heat—people will do that at the table before they even taste it—but heft, meaning the beans should star in full drag throwing beads and kisses.

Oysters Roffignac

Many of you might know the Roffignac cocktail, a fruity drink that the effete among us pretend to enjoy when they’re seriously jonesing for a beer, but for those of us with a realistic bent we have oysters Roffignac, a roguish and astoundingly good dish. This recipe comes by way of Howard Mitcham, who says the Roffignac, once on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, was the most popular restaurant in antebellum New Orleans, founded by the family of the French nobleman who became the city’s tenth mayor in 1820. Howard claims that oysters Roffignac was the first “baked” oyster dish in New Orleans, and if we can’t believe Howard Mitcham in that regard, then we can’t believe anybody. (Trust me.) You’ll not find many oyster recipes that use red wine, and even fewer using paprika as a principal flavoring, but you’re going to be immeasurably surprised at how wonderful this combination can be. Add this dish to your repertoire as a hearty alternative to a sissy Bienville or Rockefeller.

For four servings:
2 dozen fresh oysters in their shells
1/2 lb. peeled boiled shrimp (about a pound raw in the shell)
A half dozen scallions, finely chopped
About a dozen small button mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon paprika
A dash of cayenne
About a half cup of dry red wine

Clean oysters of mud and hangers-on, shuck and reserve liquid. Heat butter, add scallions, garlic, shrimp, mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are done through. Dissolve cornstarch in about ¼ cup water, add to pan, quickly add wine and oyster liquor as mixture thickens. Top oysters and broil until cooked through. Serve with lemon and parsley.

Heart of Cream

This dish has like so many others—gingerbread, for example, or roast turkey—become needlessly consigned to a specific winter holiday, but the dessert could easily fit on any table. Most recipes have no more than four ingredients—crème fraiche, cream cheese, egg whites and sugar—though the misguided might add vanilla or lemon. Recipes will ofen stipulate crème fraiche or sour cream, and for years I’ve been making a coeur a la crème using sour cream for convenience. This year, I’ve upped my game and made crème fraiche, which is not difficult; a little goes a long way and  keeps well.

You can make a simple crème fraiche using cultured buttermilk and whole cream from the supermarket, but if you’re going to bother to make it at all, do the best you can. I did not want to buy a packet of the crème fraiche culture, which seemed to me like a slacker’s option, so I trotted down to the Mississippi Farmer’s Market and bought fresh whole milk and buttermilk from T&R Dairy. Their lightly pasteurized products contain lactic bacteria needed for a good crème fraiche. I made a culture using a cup of whole milk, a quarter cup of buttermilk and a spoonful of store-bought sour cream, which does have a tiny bit of its characteristic bacteria. I kept the starter out overnight, and by morning it had thickened to a dense slurry. I added a half cup or so of that to a quart of whole cream from the supermarket, and it worked like a charm. I ended up with a thick, tart crème fraiche, which I’ll tend to as I would a sourdough. In time, with added culture from T&D, I’m hoping it will mellow and enrich.

Now, if you happen to frequent the kinds of stores that sell such things as stainless steel strawberry stem removers,  chromium banana slicers and cast-iron hot dog toasters, then you’re likely to run into these cute little ceramic heart molds with holes that are made specifically for a coeur le crème. Since I am just not a Williams-Sonoma-type person, I went to the Dollar Store on Fortification and found a plastic, heart-shaped container with Ninja Turtles embossed on the front (“Be My Bodacious Valentine!”) that was just the right size and grabbing a packet of cheesecloth from McDade’s—yes, can buy cheesecloth at McDade’s (!)—I was ready to make my heart of cream. I burned holes in the plastic with a hot nail, lined the mold—for that’s what it had become—with damp cheesecloth, mixed one cup of my crème fraiche with six ounces of cream cheese, blended in two (organic) stiffly-beaten egg whites and a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar. I placed the coeur on a plate in the coldest part of the refrigerator for several hours, inverted it onto a server, removed the cloth and garnished with raspberries, though any kind of berry would have been good this time of the year, even bananas.

Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy owns a place in the tiny hamlet of Pocahontas, Mississippi, which is distinguished by archaeological sites of the Plaquemine Mississippian culture dating from 800 to 1300 CE as well as a more recent tee-pee that someone erected in a somewhat misguided–albeit somehow charming–homage to the community’s Powhatan namesake.

Buddy is a handyman, one of the hardest-working people I know, a man who does what he has to do–put up drywall, repair roofs, paint apartments–to keep his land safe, his home in shape and his family fed, the kind of guy who works all day, comes home, has a couple of beers most likely gets laid more often than not and gets up to do the same thing again the next day. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and he’s always bringing me stuff from his garden, tons of tomatoes, okra and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax at other times. Some years ago, in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic that I dried. The bulbs and cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.

A friend who is better-versed in such matters than me said it’s actually a kind of leek, adding that I was lucky to get a pass-along of it from someone who lives in the country nearby. Buddy tells me that he has to thin his out twice a year, that it spreads all over the place and he swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. Buddy’s pushing 70 now, shows no signs of letting up, and I’ve got the prettiest patch of Pocahontas you’d ever hope to see coming up this year.

Engel on Welty

Jackson native Lehman Engel (1910-82) was a composer and conductor of Broadway musicals, television and film. Engel worked as musical director for the St. Louis Municipal Opera for a number of years before moving to New York to conduct on Broadway. He won 6 Tony Awards, and was nominated for 4 more. Among other works, Engel wrote The American Musical Theatre: A Consideration, the first book to discuss in detail the writing of a Broadway musical, the elements that went into it, and the art of adapting plays into musicals. In his autobiography, This Bright Day, Engel provides an endearing profile of his friendship with Eudora Welty.

It’s strange how people in a small town know each other, speak in passing and not really know one another at all. Although I had met Eudora Welty in Jackson before either of us went away to school, it was not until several years later in New York, when a group of Jacksonians were there each simultaneously pursuing various schoolings, that we had first real contacts. Eudora was at Columbia along with Dolly Wells and Frank Lyell, who had first introduced me to Eudora in the Livingstone Park Lake. I was at Julliard. We changed to meet here and there. I think it was at Norma and Herschell Brickell’s (also from Jackson) where all of us, including Nash Burger, whose father used to play cards with my father, often went.

Each summer all of us went home to swelter, and there the threads grew stronger. There were about five such summers before I began staying on in New York, with work to occupy and to pay me. But at home, Frank, Eudora, Hubert Creekmore, and I used to meet at Eudora’s, and we formed the Night-Blooming Cereus Club, the total membership of which sat up to see the glorious white flower with the yellow feathery center bloom. The morning after, it looked like a swan with a broken neck. Those summers are jumbled together in my memory. During on of them Eudora did some letter-writing for me. Perhaps it was at another time that she took many snapshots. Several of them are among the best any photographer ever took of me. I have one of Eudora, we really invented “camp”, sitting in a tree, a Spanish shawl around her shoulders and on her face an uncharacteristic expression of world-be disdain.

With the passing of time, many things happened to us separately, and we seized every opportunity to communicate and to be together. On my visits to see my family perhaps twice a year—and more often in my parents’ failing days—Eudora was, as she is today, always available whenever it is possible for me to get away from family and family friends. To insure our being together to talk without interruption, she usually picks me up in her car—never a fancy one—and takes me for a ride just anywhere away from everybody else. At her house or mine while my mother was still alive, or at any of my cousins’, Eudora always enjoyed her bourbon and I my scotch.

She has endured a great deal. Her father died many years ago, but her mother lingered in poor health for some years. When finally it became necessary for Eudora to put her in a nursing home in Yazoo City, more than an hour’s drive from Jackson, Eudora drove to see her nearly every day. During those days she developed the habit of starting her work at 5 a.m. so tht she could spend several hours of writing without interruption. She still retains that habit. Very shortly before her mother died, Eudora’s two brothers—both married and each living in his own house—died within days of each other. I have seldom heard her refer to any of this, and what suffering she experienced she kept as her very own.

She is selfless, simple, timid, unworldly, and dedicated to her work. She has had every possible honor and success heaped on her, but nothing has ever changed her lifestyle or her nature. She lives in Jackson—the only place where she feels comfortable—travels when it is necessary only on trains (if possible), and speaks so quietly as to be often in audible. She lives in her parents’ house, which is very nice and devoid of any fanciness. It has two stories made of dark-red-to-purple bricks, and Eudora lives as she prefers—alone. The front yard has large pine trees and the house is surrounded by japonicas (camellias) of all kinds and colors. Behind the house there is a lovely garden containing more camellias and gardenias. The garden is no longer as well manicured as it once was, but I imagine Eudora prefers it that way. Now devoid of family responsibilities, she works consistently and hard. As she prefers never to discuss her work-in-progress, I seldom ask her what she is doing.

If I have given any notion that, like Emily Dickinson, Eudora is a recluse, let me assure you that she is not. She has many old friends, all of whom respect her privacy, and everyone in Jackson is deeply proud of her distinguished achievements.

LEFT: I snapped this picture of Eudora Welty with her camera. Frank Lyell was the Señor; Eudora, the unwitting inventor of camp, was herself above it all. RIGHT: Taken on a summer vacation in Jackson by Eudora Welty. I was about twenty.

A Lorax in Jackson

I grew up in a town filled with trees and tell myself that’s why watching this city steadily decimate its urban forest brings me such sadness. Every now and then when I mention old trees being cut from the heart of the city some few might say, “Oh, how awful!” and shake their heads, but do nothing. Some claim there’s no recourse; that the city itself is a lurching juggernaut of maladministration and that any public outcries are simply shrugged off, unheeded, leaving us struggling aimlessly and ineffectively with our objections to arborists with chainsaws. Soon those who remember a city enrobed in green will find shade in the shadows of what passes as progress here casts, and in my adopted city I’ll lose much of what I have come to love.

“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with the one word…
‘UNLESS.’