On Buying Tomatoes

Once tomatoes shed their reputation for poison, they became the most versatile vegetable in American kitchens. While tomatoes are available year-round any fool knows that they’re best in season and locally grown. Any produce vendor in the American South is going to keep at least one big bin usually right up front and center full of field tomatoes grown by small truck farmers and delivered every morning. When you’re buying from one of these people–and it’s the only place you should buy tomatoes in the summer–it’s hard to go wrong, but there are a few things you should bear in mind.

Use your common sense. Choose uniformly firm fruit, without any squishy spots, bruises or dark spots. The most commonly-grown field tomatoes in central Mississippi and likely throughout the mid-South are Big Boy, Better Boy, Celebrity and (Arkansas) Traveler, all of which are more or less red-ish the Traveler tending to pink. Most of the old-school produce vendors will occasionally have “cherry” tomatoes of some kind or the other in season, but you’ll have to find markets that support specialty growers, such as the Mississippi Farmers’ Market, to get the varieties such as Cherokee, Krim or any of the various yellows. You can of course always get good green tomatoes for pickling or frying.

Remember that the tomato is a climacteric fruit, which means they ripen (i.e. become softer and sweeter) after harvest. The biochemical process involved is that climacteric fruits give off large amounts of ethylene gas whereas non-climacteric fruits give little or no ethylene gas. Non-climacteric fruits, once harvested, never ripen further; you can find an extensive list here.  Tomatoes sold in the winter and for the most part any sold in big chain supermarkets are picked green and “gassed”, sprayed with ethylene during shipping, which forces coloration, but not sugar production. When you buy from the produce stand, however, pick a few to use immediately and a few on not-quite-ripe side to ripen naturally on your kitchen shelf. Turn the tomatoes stem-end down to ripen, since the blossom end will mature first and the firm stem end will better support the fruit.

You shouldn’t have to refrigerate unsliced summer tomatoes at all. If you don’t stack them, they’ll keep for several days, and you should eat them at such a pace that they don’t need refrigeration. Remember with every bite you take that autumn will be here all too soon, and winter right behind.

 

 

A Mississippi Pavlova

This past week the web was hopping with a vid of kangaroos frolicking in the snow—not something you see every day—a reminder that while here in Mississippi we’re sick of the heat, down under in New South Wales it’s the dead of winter. This December, when we’re beginning to have our first heavy frosts, people in Australia and New Zealand will be getting ready to celebrate Christmas in balmy sub-tropical breezes. We’ll be making fruitcakes, but they’ll be making pavlovas.

A pavlova is meringue base or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit, a dessert, light as a ballerina, and this patronym is the only thing about the dish that’s agreed upon. Australians claim that it was invented in a hotel in Perth, and any respectable Kiwi will bristle at the thought. Then there are those who will tell you that a pavlova meringue should have a soft center while others insist it should be dried and crisp throughout. Suit yourself.

Meringues have a reputation for being tricky and if you’re clumsy they are. The egg whites mustn’t contain a bit of fat, so make sure no yolk remains, and don’t whip them in a plastic bowl. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. Vinegar or lemon juice helps stabilize the froth, and don’t add sugar until the soft peak stage. See? What’d I tell you? Not tricky at all.

While the Chinese gooseberry—renamed the kiwi fruit by New Zealanders in a brazen attempt at origin status—and passion fruit are “original”, strawberries and blueberries are traditional, but any fruit can be used. Pavlovas can also be made with chocolate and caramels, candies and nuts. We’re getting in the best peaches of the year now, which make a beautiful pavlova.

Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. parchment paper. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft. Gradually add one cup confectioner’s sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the whites are glossy, then gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract and lemon juice and two teaspoons cornstarch. Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top (or layer) with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios are a nice touch.

 

 

Play It Again, Boys!

Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.

Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.

And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.

What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.

We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.

And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.

But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.

We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)

Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.

And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.

We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said. –Howard Bahr

Magic Pie

My grandmother Monette was a woman of many parts: a wit and a wag, a poet and historian, she raised two children who became remarkable people in their own right. She belonged to a generation of women who entered the workplace in time of war, and unlike her mother or daughter she never became a good cook. She along with millions of other women relied more on any given product’s “recommended recipes” than hand-me-downs or innovation. As a result, my Southern Baby-Boomer cuisine—for which, I might add, I barely qualify—is peppered with dishes fabricated in test kitchens.

Green bean casserole is the most popular of these concoctions, but there are dozens of others, including lemon icebox pie. Many early recipes include the word “magic”, as if cooling ingredients for preparation were more metaphysical than heating. Ingredients usually include canned milk of some sort, sweetened or not, as well as meringue or whipped cream, either in the filling or lightly-baked as topping. This recipe is from The Country Gourmet, distributed by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in 1983, which includes a short forward by Eudora Welty ending with the marvelously ambiguous: “Guarding and protecting, trying to save, all life on earth is a need we all alike share.”

Beat six ounces of whipped topping with a thawed can of lemonade concentrate and a can of condensed milk. Pour into a graham cracker pie crust and chill one hour before serving.

 

The Celluloid Classroom

A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford was a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those years were halcyon years for me, as they were for many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.

The Hoka from the southwest, late 70s. The mural of the dancers was painted by Jere Allen. Photo by Douglass Boyles.

Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theatre was located across a parking lot from the Gin, one of the first restaurant and bar to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted “wet”. The theatre was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess. The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor.  Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.

Ron and me at the drive-in, summer of 1978.

I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projector reels. Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted.

Photo of the Hoka from the southeast, likely early 80s.

Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading form of art in the 20th century.  When we first showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience–and the projectionists, I might add–stared open-mouthed at the screen, and when the audience began throwing rice at the wedding, hollering phrases at the screen and doing the Time Warp, we just eventually joined in the fun. Ron also showed a lot of great movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.

At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain, to name a few, and brought to light (literally) unknown images: Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Lang’s electric automaton in Metropolis, a leather-clad Brando leaning on a jukebox in The Wild One. For me, this is the essence of Ron Shapiro’s legacy: the Hoka brought film as an art form to Mississippi.

Local Lore

Local history is the beggar at Clio’s feast. In the hierarchy of history topmost are works on great wars, empires and cultures; next histories of countries, commerce and important cities; then finally—after a considerable gap—comes state and local history, the latter often denigrated as nothing more than amateur obsessions.

State and local histories command little professional attention because they receive the least academic funding, the fewest and least government loans or grants, and the smallest lectern on official and scholastic stages. In those the folklorist with his dancing palette and anthropological basis commands more respect. Professional historians deride local history as poorly-researched, ill-written and hopelessly insular. This criticism can and is levelled at history written on any level; simply read The American Historical Review for confirmation.

Yet who can scorn research as insufficient when conducted with so little material in place? How often does Gibbon himself sound as if he’s labored far too late and drunk far too much port? Who can say that the storming of the Bastille isn’t local history to Parisians, or an account of the Beer Hall Putsch isn’t to Bavarians? The least parts of history come together to form the whole, and in the smallest arenas of mankind we can discern a microcosm of the whole.

Let us treasure those who, compelled by their love of place, put before us a likeness of how it was before our time, teaching us who we are, revealing how our little part of the world shapes our lives and strengthens our hearts.

A History of Greater Belhaven is available at the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation office for a donation of $20 (or more). Copies may be obtained by contacting Casey Creasey at (601) 352-8850 or email  her at ccreasey@greaterbelhaven.com.

A History of Greater Belhaven by Bill and Nan Harvey

Red Rose Sausage Delivery

When we saw Polk’s driver Michael Newton making a delivery of Red Rose Sausage to Froogel’s Supermarket on Fortification in Jackson, Mississippi, we had to get a photo. Since making the first post on red rose sausage over three years ago, people across the country have been contacting Mississippi Sideboard about this product, which they all say–in one way or another–that they remember with fondness from growing up in Mississippi, and our posts on red rose sausage receive the most consistently heavy traffic year after year. Thank you, Michael!

Michael Newton with a batch of Red Rose Sausage

Pepper Season

Peppers in Mississippi don’t carry the same cachet they do in parts of Louisiana and Carolina where their cultivation and consumption has become a fetish.

That’s not to say that we don’t have our share of connoisseurs here, for indeed we do, even eccentrics who will trot you out to a raised bed in their back yard in order that you might make appropriately appreciative noises over their ghosts. You’ll even find reapers and habaneros at a farmers’ market which I find more evident of their ease of culture than their demand for the table.

The staples prevail. Topmost are the thick-walled bells, best smaller than a fist, dark and tight. Country-style lunches should always include the crunch and zest of fresh sliced onion and sweet banana pepper to cut fat-stewed vegetables. Jalapenos here tend to be woody with more heat than taste, but deseeded and minced they’ll serve in a pico or pureed in a thin salsa. Poblanos should have a larger role in our kitchens, as should all the mild thin-walled capsicums. The thick-walled cherries are regrettably still a novelty.

The Mississippi pepper season begins in earnest when the thin cayennes come to market, as they did today in the form of two mesh baskets filled with spindly green pods marked to sell for a dollar each. At such a price my jaw dropped. The vendor, apologizing (!) said she’d have red ones soon, which she’s sure to mark up, but the greens are just as good if not more so, even dried. We’re finding less and less of the long cayennes now, so if you find a vendor, woo them, fawn and flatter, because cayennes will get you through the winter in the form of sauce or vinegar. Tabascos will too, and they grow well here, in my experience better than cayennes. The meatier tabascos make a better mash for red sauce, but both are equally good simply destemmed, pierced, packed into a jar with salt and filled with hot vinegar.

For two years now I’ve been growing pequinos first sent as a cropped plant from a friend in Austin. In the landscape of my mind where all sorts possibilities entertain themselves, the fiery little pequin is what I remember called a bird’s-eye pepper, not the Asian variety.  Pequinos grow at a glacial rate from seed so must be pruned and overwintered.