In just a few short weeks, the Great State of Mississippi will inaugurate its 65th chief executive, Governor-elect Tate Reeves. In honor of this auspicious occasion, I’ve created a cake especially with a mind to Mr. Reeves and all the qualities he will bring to the office to commemorate the event.
Take a pound of frozen tater tots (the brand doesn’t matter; a frozen grated potato is a frozen grated potato) and cook according to package directions. It’s best to use the “fry” option, since the more grease the better. Fry a half-pound of bacon or cube a half-pound of ham, or do both. This recipe should include LOTS and LOTS of pork. Stir the tater tots and pork together with a half cup mayonnaise and two cups grated American cheese or Velveeta. Spray a Bundt pan with the nonstick cooking spray or grease with lard. Pack the tots, pork and cheese into the pan and bake for about forty-five minutes. Invert cake onto foil-covered surface and serve.
There you have it: greasy, ugly and no damn good for you at all. Not one bit. It’s even shaped like a big asshole.
Cornbread is the South’s oldest icon. My Choctaw ancestors were making bread from maize long before the rest of my DNA was run out of the British Isles. The Choctaws made what is called shuck bread, or “bunaha”, by mixing water and cornmeal into a stiff paste, forming the paste into balls, wrapping them in cooked corn shucks and boiling them for about an hour. They stored well and were reheated by boiling before serving. The early settlers made a simple type of cornbread by mixing meal, water, salt and lard into a batter and cooking it on a flat metal surface like a pancake. These are called hoecakes or dogbread. Much later came what we know as cornbread. Or at least what I know it as.
When it comes to cornbread, I labored long under the impression that I was a confirmed orthodox. Yellow corn meal? A quarter cup of sugar? Nuh-uh, no way. That’s not cornbread, that’s corncake. A recipe using yellow meal, sugar and even (horror of horrors) butter just has Yankee written all over it. A Michigan-born hostess once served me such bread, and I’m sorry to say I was so rude as to point out what a culinary abomination it was. She set me in my place by being quite gracious about my gaffe, which made her a lady, and after dinner her husband offered to punch me in the nose, which made him a gentleman. (We still exchange Christmas cards.) I once ran up on a California recipe for cornbread using vanilla flavoring that confirmed a whole slew of suspicions I’d long harbored about the frivolity if not to say instability of the West Coast mentality. I’ve also come across recipes with dill, cheddar cheese, yogurt, skim milk, blue corn meal, creamed corn, and even (I swear to God) tofu. What passes under the name of Mexican cornbread is subject to all manner of atrocities, the most bizarre of which I’ve found includes beef jerky and cactus flowers.
As a confirmed orthodox, I thought I was sitting on the front pew with my recipe, which has only white meal, just a little flour, eggs, buttermilk, salt and baking powders. But I found out that there are those who would cry, “Backslider!” at the thought of using bleached meal or even eggs. I just had never considered making cornbread without eggs, then I found that among the recipes you see printed on most meal packages you see this is called “egg bread,” and my faith began to falter. These no-egg purists, I began to believe, were true cornbread devotees who enjoyed a more chaste form of elemental Southern sustenance. I felt horribly decadent, which was not such a new sensation for me, but a cornbread recipe certainly was a novel indicator of my moral turpitude (more official records exist). I got over it. After all, I had learned how to make cornbread at my mother’s knee, and she was a queen among cooks: “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, you heathen peasants.
To make cornbread, put about an eighth of an inch of oil, corn or vegetable, in the bottom of a proper skillet, and stick it in the oven at about 450. Then take one and a half cups of white self-rising corn meal and about half a cup self-rising flour, mix in a bowl with a scant teaspoon baking soda and a dash or so of salt. Add about 1/3 cup of corn or vegetable oil and mix with dry ingredients until about the consistency of rice. Add one large beaten egg, mix well, and then add enough buttermilk to make a thick batter. Add just a couple of tablespoons of water to this to thin slightly; this enables the meal to swell and makes for lighter bread. Take your skillet out of the oven, tilt to coat the sides with oil, and test the oil with a drop of batter. It should sizzle a bit; if not, heat some more. When oil is sufficiently hot, pour in the batter and put back in oven. Bake until golden brown. Remove by inverting skillet. If your skillet is properly seasoned and your oil was hot enough, the cornbread should just pop out of the skillet with a fine brown crust. Eat with butter immediately and enjoy being alive.
When I told my cousin Jackson that I was going to the gun show, he looked at me like I had lost my mind.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, you know, I’ve never been to one, and I think it would be interesting to write about the experience” I said.
“You’ve never even been to a deer camp,” he countered.
“I have, too,” I said. “Ewell took me to his uncle’s camp in the Delta once.”
“Yeah, now I remember. He told me you spent the whole time bird-watching and going off about affiliated peckerwoods.”
“That’s `pileated woodpeckers,’” I said. “They’re very uncommon, and I saw three of them in one day.”
“He also said you almost got your ass shot off.”
“I was trying to blend in and not scare the birds. They’re really shy.”
“Speaking of blending in, what are you going to wear to the gun show?”
“Slacks, sweater, shoes. Why?”
Jackson rolled his eyes. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m going with you.”
“I’ll be fine, Jack. It’s not like they’re going to string me up for wearing Hushpuppies.”
“Look, do you want people to talk to you, or what?”
“Sure I do,” I said. “That’s going to be the heart of the story. It’s a human interest piece.”
“Then you don’t need to look like a roving reporter for Martha Stewart. Let me see what I’ve got.” One hour later, we were stepping out the door. I had on jeans, boots, a flannel shirt and his dad’s old flight jacket. Jack was Mossy Oak from head to toe. Just as he was about to close the door, Jack turned to me, wrinkled his nose and said, “What’s that smell?”
“Gel,” I said.
“Go wash it out. Thank God you need a haircut.”
Five dollars each gained us entry into the floor room, and despite Jackson’s careful preparations, within five minutes I had run afoul of a vendor.
All I did was ask for a catalogue from the proprietor, a black lady in a neon t-shirt that read “Real Hunters Shoot More Than Once.” She asked me, in a very strong voice, “What do you need a catalogue for? I’ve got all my stuff out right here. See where this green tablecloth is spread out? This is my stuff. You don’t need no catalogue.”
She had her hands on her hips and was looking at me like she was daring me to say something, so I just said, “Yes, ma’am,” and backed off, nodding and smiling. The folks at nearby booths glanced over to see what was going on. Paranoia seemed to be the neurosis de jour.
Jack came up from behind me where he had been checking out the VibraShine Vortex, a shell-polishing system that employed crushed corn cobs (“Organic. I grow `em myself.”), aluminum silicate (“Just like you find in toothpaste.”) and motor oil (“Keeps the dust down.”).
“What did you say to her?” he hissed, grabbing my arm and nodding towards More Than Once.
“I just asked for a catalogue,” I said.
“She does not work for L.L. Bean,” he said.
“I just thought she might have a price list or something,” I said.
“Young man!” More Than Once was pointing at me, shouting from ten feet away. Heads turned.
Jackson said, “Oh, shit. We are so busted.”
“Young man!” she said again. “I do not have a catalogue, but I do have a card. Come here and get one,” she said. And she smiled.
I went over and picked up the card and thanked her. By the time I got back to where Jackson was he had disappeared into a wilderness of denim, flannel and camouflage.
Jackson caught up with me about the time I found the camo women’s apparel. “Don’t touch that!”
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” I said.
“Yes, you were,” he said.
“Oh, hell,” I said. “I couldn’t help it.” I couldn’t believe it was real. “Can you imagine there’s a hooker out there wearing this stuff who calls herself Bambi’?”
“Would you please not talk so loud?”
“Jackson, I happen to know that you have an intimate acquaintance with ladies’ apparel.” I picked an item off the rack and held it up for his inspection. “Just what is this?”
“It’s a teddy,” he said, looking away.
“It’s got white lace with a camouflage bra.”
“There are drag queens in Oktibbeha County who would sell a family member into slavery for this stuff,” I said.
About that time, a young lady came around the rack. She had what looked like an all-day sucker in her hand and was flipping through the clothing. Before Jackson could stop me, I said, “Excuse me.”
“Yeah?” she said.
“Would you wear this stuff?” I asked, holding up my prize. I heard Jack’s jaw hit the floor behind me.
She looked at me for a second. Then she giggled.
“No!” she said, “but Momma does.”
“Just on special occasions, I bet,” I said with a wink.
She giggled again. “Yeah, mostly during hunting season.”
We giggled together for a little bit, then Jack started dragging me back to the main aisle.
I spent some time wandering around the Winchesters, Colts and Mausers until I came upon the Christmas ornaments.
“These are so unique,” I said to the lady in charge. She was a little grandmotherly type in a maroon pants suit with a champagne bouffant. “Did you make them yourself?”
“Yes,” she said. “But it was my husband Pete’s idea. I’ve always been artsy-craftsy, and had a glue gun and everything, but he was the one who thought of doing the lights like this. And I thought, well, if you’re going to do lights, why don’t we make a couple of little wreathes and maybe even a star for the tree and we just went from there.”
“Are they safe?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I used too big ‘a bulbs the first set, and they all just melted, didn’t set anything on fire, but these are a lot smaller. You should see them when the house lights are off. They just glow.”
I thanked her and wandered off down the aisle, wondering what the Prince of Peace would say about shotgun shell Christmas lights.
Most Southern holiday dishes are home-grown recipes of family favorites, but it’s a sure bet that many tables will have one dish that was developed in a commercial kitchen in New Jersey. Unlike Grandma’s sweet potato pie or Aunt Sally’s ambrosia, the ubiquitous green bean casserole was developed in 1955 in the Camden, NJ test kitchens of the Campbell Soup Company by home-town girl Dorcas Reilly.
A 1947 graduate in home economics from Drexel University, Reilly began working at Campbell’s in 1949 as one of two full-time staff members in the company’s home economics department. Reilly became something of a prototype for today’s culinary celebrities in the sense that she was among the first to use multiple media outlets for marketing. Not only did her job with Campbell’s involve creating recipes from the company’s products, but she also sent press releases to print media, prepared food for photo shoots and cooked live on television. The difference lies in that Dorcas was not promoting herself; she was promoting Campbell’s, which was a good way to make a living.
“It was really a lot of fun,” Reilly later recalled. “Each Thursday, I would travel to New York to meet with the ad agency. They would tell me what I was to prepare for the live commercial breaks during The Henry Aldrich Show in Studio 3B on NBC. I did everything from shopping for what I needed to preparing the food on the set. Campbell’s sponsored the show from 1951 until it ended in May 1953.”
Since the show was live, Reilly prepared the dishes in a makeshift studio kitchen on two heating elements near a utility sink. When time came for the commercial to air, she would bring the hot dish to a table in front of the camera. “Most times there wasn’t time for me to get out of the shot, so I would hide under the table until the commercial was over,” Reilly said. Reilly led the team that created the green bean casserole in 1955. She says the casserole was invented as a recipe involving two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: canned green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Like all recipes typical of the period, the casserole requires minimal number of ingredients, takes little time and can be customized to fit a wide range of tastes. An estimated 15 million households will serve Dorcas’ green bean casserole this holiday season. The Campbell’s Soup Company estimates that $20 million worth of cream of mushroom soup are sold each year for use in this recipe alone.
In 2002, Reilly, then living in Haddonfield, NJ, appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. In 2008, Alpha Sigma Alpha, Reilly’s sorority at Drexel, honored her with the Recognition of Eminence Award. And in January of 2013 Drexel established an annual $1,000 scholarship in her honor and bestowed her with its inaugural Cultural Contribution Award. Dorcas died on Oct. 15, 2018 in Haddonfield at the age of 92.
Regional favorites always have local trends in their preparation. Barbecue springs to mind, but more subtle examples are available. Chicken and dressing is a staple in the South all year long, but the farther south you get, you’ll find more people using wheat bread rather than corn bread. In southern Louisiana, you’ll likely find an oyster dressing using a dried French loaf, but in Mississippi north of the Florida Parishes, chicken and cornbread are the rule.
Make two skillets of cornbread the night before, stick in a paper sack and put it on a table somewhere it won’t get knocked off. Then crumble the bread and add enough strong chicken stock to make thick slurry. To two quarts of this mixture, add no more than 4 eggs well-beaten and at least two cups shredded chicken. Sauté a half cup (more if you like) each of finely-diced white onion and celery in a half a stick of butter and add to the mix. Some people like diced pepper in their dressing, but I find it overpowers the stock. Season liberally with salt, pepper, thyme and sage; I like plenty of sage in mine. Pour into a greased casserole and bake at a medium high heat (350) until the top is browned and the center firm.
God bless Uncle Daniel! If anyone can be generous to a fault it’s him, though Grandpa called it an open disposition and claimed that within the realm of reason there were people who would take advantage of such, which is how Uncle Daniel, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world, ended up with Grandpa in his new Studebaker sitting with old Judge Tip Calahan driving through the country on his way to the asylum in Jackson. From the word go Uncle Daniel got more vacations than anyone because they couldn’t find a thing in the world wrong with him, and he was so precious all he had to do was ask and he’d be on the branch-line train headed back to Clay County. Everybody missed Uncle Daniel so bad when he was gone that they spent all their time at the post office sending him things to eat. Divinity travels perfectly, if you ever need to know.
Three cups of sugar, one-half cup of Karo corn syrup, three-fourths cup of water, 2 eggs (whites), 1 cup of nuts, one-half teaspoon of salt, vanilla. Boil the sugar, syrup and water until it becomes hard in cold water; beat the whites of eggs until stiff, with the salt. Pour the syrup over the eggs and beat in the nuts and vanilla. When it begins to harden drop by spoonfuls onto wax paper or pour into a pan to cut into squares.
If your ham comes with one of those foil packets of glaze, grab it with a pair of tongs and drop it in the nearest hazardous waste receptacle. Not even Divine would use that gunk (she’d probably use edible glitter). Instead, make your own in a matter of minutes with just a few ingredients you can pick up at the store. This recipe is not only simple, you can modify it to your taste, use as much as you need and refrigerate the rest. It’s good on pork and game roasts, too, but I think it’s a bit heavy for fowl.
For a 15-20 lb. ham, use 1 jar (12 oz.) of apricot, pineapple, peach or cherry preserves, a half cup brown sugar, a mixture of two tablespoons Coleman’s dry mustard and a quarter cup honey, dark corn syrup or molasses and a half stick butter. Mix the mustard and honey/syrup/molasses before adding to other ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk continually until thoroughly mixed. Let ham sit covered at room temperature at least two hours before removing from packaging. Heat oven to 325˚F with the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Brush half of the glaze on ham, cover with foil and bake at 325 for 10-11 minutes per pound. Increase oven to 425˚, brush ham with remaining glaze and roast uncovered until a brown crust has formed. Remove the ham from the oven and let it rest uncovered for no more than an hour before basting with pan drippings and plating.
This recipe is from my grandmother Nyma McCraine Lewis, so it either came from Woodville MS or Valdosta, GA. Take 3/4 cup softened unsalted butter 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg yolk 1 1/2 cup cake flour. Cream butter well, add sugar and blend thoroughly. Add egg yolk, fold in flour, knead a little bit, wrap in wax paper and chill for several hours. Roll into 1/2 inch balls, and make a small depression in the middle. Fill with red currant jelly. Bake at 325 until golden.
I use powdered sugar on my hands and on the wax paper instead of flour; these cookies are floury enough. Make sure it is unsalted butter, and don’t think any red jelly will do; almost anything other than the red currant jelly is too sweet. Use a baby spoon or even better a grapefruit spoon to put the jelly in the depression. If you break it up some, it will be less likely to bubble up and spill over the cookie. Chill the dough overnight or all day. It will hold its shape better, and use parchment paper. Naomi Gardner Freeman
Vardaman, Mississippi is in southeast Calhoun County, near the source of the Yalobusha River, the largest tributary of the Yazoo. Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a lumber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the Continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great wine barrels for the 1925 Paris Exposition. When the great forests of the southeast were depleted, Vardaman, like so many towns in the rolling hills, needed a sustainable crop. Farmers turned to the sweet potato and their efforts found success. Vardaman, Mississippi IS the Sweet Potato Capital of the World; all others claimants are pretenders.
Vardaman holds an annual Sweet Potato Festival in October—this year the 46th—that includes music, arts and crafts, exhibitions, cook-offs and lots and lots of food. Sweet Potato Kings and Queens are selected in no less than four events with contestants from infancy to high school. Many people consider the recipe contest the main event, and people go all out for the coveted prizes, including the Mayor’s Cup, which this year was won by Lyndsey Wade for her Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars. I’m also giving you the winner in the cake category, Melissa Edmondson’s spectacular Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting. Either or both of these desserts would be a splendid addition to your holiday table.
¾ Cup Butter, melted
1 ½ Cups Graham Cracker Crumbs
1 (14 oz.) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
3 Cups Sweet Potato puree
2 Cups White Chocolate Morsels
11/3 Cups Flaked Coconut
1 Cup Chopped Nuts
Heat oven to 350 degrees and coat 9×13 baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumb mixture. Scoop sweet potato from the peeling and mix until smooth. Using a piping bag (or plastic freezer bag with hole cut in one corner), layer the graham cracker crust with sweet potatoes. Layer white chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Press firmly.Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool and cut into bars. Store covered at room temperature.
Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
1 ½ Cups butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large eggs, separated
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups finely grated sweet potato
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 3 (8in) cake pans with nonstick baking spray with flour. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla at medium speed with a mixer until fluffy. Add egg yolks, beating until combined. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites at high speed with a mixture until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into batter. Gently stir in sweet potatoes and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 23 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, cool completely on wire racks. Spread White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting evenly between layers and on top and sides of cake.
White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting
1 (4oz) white chocolate baking bar, chopped
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup butter, softened
16 oz. cream cheese softened
2lbs. powdered sugar
In a small sauce pan, combine chopped white chocolate and cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat, and cool for 1 hour. In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with a mixer until creamy. Add white chocolate mixture, beating until combined. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until smooth. Note: Cake layers can be made up to 1 month ahead; wrap cooled layers tightly in plastic wrap and Freeze. To serve, spread frosting on frozen cake layers (frozen layers are easier to frost), and thaw. Store thawed cake, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.
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.
Jezebel’s association with sexual promiscuity has even more recent vintage (e.g. Frankie Laine’s 1951 hit “Jezebel”), and this cloying reputation doubtless led to the naming of this blend of sweet condiments mixed with pungent horseradish. Jezebel sauce is most often served with ham or other smoked meats, but is often poured over cream cheese for use as a cocktail dip with crackers. This Jackson recipe is from the splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook by Winifred Greene Cheney, who claims, “Some of this sauce would have made Ahab’s wife a better woman,” but I doubt it. Jezebel was a real bitch.
Fidelia’s Jezebel Sauce
1 (16-ounce) jar of pineapple preserves, 1 (12-ounce) jar apple jelly, 6 ounces prepared mustard (I use a Creole brown), 1 (5-ounce) jar horseradish, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. You can add Coleman’s Mustard for added kick. Blend all ingredients well with a fork or whip. This sauce keeps well for weeks refrigerated in a sealed container.