Our Appalachian Table

Travis Milton, a native of Russell County, Virginia, high in the Alleghenys, became a chef on the East Coast, but his thoughts kept returning to his childhood home. “The more I learned about the restaurant business, the more I appreciated the food culture I’d grown up in,” he says. “I started dreaming of a restaurant that would capture and celebrate that lifestyle, allow me to explore where it came from.”

Milton is profiled in a recent Gastro Obscura article, “The Chef Restoring Appalachia’s World-Class. No matter your definition of “world-class” the term seems incongruous to most when applied to Appalachia, a region of grinding poverty and hard-scrabble existence, so it’s not surprising that his idea was ill-received by his fellow chefs. “When I’d say ‘Appalachian Cuisine,’ they’d hit me with a shit-eating sneer,” says Milton. In 2010, at a New York restaurant, Milton was part of a group planning dishes that would “tell about who we are.” He wondered aloud about sourcing leather britches and greasy-backs, a type of beans common in mountain gardens.

The following afternoon, the head chef slapped a copy of Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking onto Milton’s station. “He got in my face,” says Milton, “and started barking, ‘If this is what you wanna do in my kitchen then you can get the fuck out!’” Having White Trash Cooking slammed in his face was a turning point. To overcome the stereotypes, Milton realized, he’d need to be able to tell the story of Appalachian food, but writing on the region’s cuisine was mostly focused on single mothers dressing up SPAM in a sugary sauce and other relatively recent ways that Appalachian cooks respond to the poverty that is, for most, coal’s legacy in Appalachia.

Then in 2016, Ronni Lundy published Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Her work won the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year and Best Book, American Cooking awards. In Victuals, Lundy claims that European settlers adopted native Cherokee foods almost wholesale. Wild game, wild herbs and greens, nuts, and berries augmented produce from small gardens of beans, corn, and squash using the “Three Sisters” method.

Appalachians let animals range freely, keeping prized breeds adapted to the landscape. Settlers raised pigs on acorns, berries, and chestnuts, which produced the famous hams of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. After the Civil War decimated the region, residents of isolated Appalachia embraced their gardening traditions, developing thousands of hybridized varieties of apples and pears, squash, tomatoes, collard greens, and other foodstuffs.

While Victuals establishes a benchmark, the font and source for Appalachian food writing is The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery: Regional Memorabilia and Recipes. First published in 1984, Appalachian Cookery has little resemblance to any other publication involving Southern foods. The Foxfire Project was the brain-child of Eliot Wigginton, a man from West Virginia who received an advanced education in the north and began teaching at a rural school in northeastern Georgia during the late 1960s. Called “foxfire” after a will-o’-the-wisp in mountain woods, his students collected folklore and customs in a series of oral histories that were first published in a 1972 anthology. Many more editions have followed as well as other volumes documenting Appalachian culture.

According to the text, some of the research and the photographic essays included in Appalachian Cookery were gathered for previous Foxfire books but were not selected for inclusion into an earlier volume. Appalachian Cookery stands out as the most complete and comprehensive record we have of the food, cooking and home life of southern Appalachia in early to mid-20th century. Most of the recipes are very simple; pound cake has four ingredients in equal measure. The book is also a primer on how to use homegrown or wild-gathered foods. Appalachian Cookery opens a door to a world far away from arugula and alien to star anise, a world where cooking was simple but not coarse, having a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the lessons of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us from the upland South, these are our roots.

CRY-BABY COOKIES

Cream 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening with an equal amount of sugar. Add one cup molasses and two beaten eggs. Sift together 4 ¾ cups plain flour with 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 ½ teaspoons soda. Then combine with 2 cups grated coconut, 2 cups chopped walnuts and 1 ½ cups raisins. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup milk to creamed egg mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. YIELD: approx. 7 dozen cookies.

The Year of the Trendy Whatevers–Felder Rushing

Just got another email alert about a plant being promoted alluringly as the 2020 Something of the Year. There’s always something.

I don’t generally fall for hype or jump on costly bandwagons that often fizzle. One I do follow is that of the Pantone Color of the Year. Not trying to be fashionable; I humor myself with it to keep my creativity on its toes by painting something in my garden with it and finding plants, pots, and accessories that coordinate with it. This year it’s Classic Blue. Ought to be fun.

My recent Plant of the Year email was from the Herb Society of America, feting “brambles” as this year’s highlight. Not just black, dew, or raspberries, but all of them. And to think of all the wild ones I pull every year by the Sisyphean gloveful from my garden! Not trying to be testy. I appreciate the sincerity and dedication of people who carefully winnow down the field, carefully examine the best contenders, and adopt a singular frontrunner to cheerily champion.

Usually the plant of honor meets multiple criteria such as proven survivability in a wide range of conditions with insect and disease resistance, exceptional beauty or extra good or long production, and unique growth habit; “pollinator friendly” is a current buzz phrase. And, cynicism aside, it isn’t always just a coordinated marketing ploy to push sales of a pricey new cultivar. Sometimes it’s a genuine effort to reignite a flame of popular interest under a precious heirloom or native plant worth being reintroduced into gardens.

The Mississippi Medallion program brings such plants to our attention but, unlike national promotions, promotes only those that are adapted to our state’s climate and soils and which could be produced and sold by Mississippi growers and retailers. For the most part they are all keepers, though a few are a bit tricky for newbie gardeners or are no longer being widely produced. You can find these outstanding shrubs, flowers, veggies, and others listed, with photos and descriptions, on the website of the Mississippi Nursery and Landscape Association (MSNLA.org; click on “programs” then Medallion Plants). Though over the years my garden has become overstuffed with plants brought to my attention through these kinds of promotions, so I farm new ones out.

My neighbor Jesse Yancy is a “guerilla gardener” who has transformed a neglected slice of dirt across from his urban apartment into a nearly overwhelming gallimaufry of vegetables, herbs, flowers, vines, bulbs, and anything else he can glean cheaply or free. They’re obliged to be robust because, though he’s a nurturing gardener he doesn’t have the resources or time to coddle. So I often hand over to him any newly-heralded plants that have been sent or given to me by promoters, and then watch from his curb. If they thrive in Jesse Lee’s conditions, and wows him with their performance, then I’ll give ‘em a go in my own garden the next year. Some favorites, such as African Blue basil, Tuscan kale, orange Profusion zinnias, Burgundy okra, blackeyed Susan vine, and the antique Mutablis rose, have become mainstays for us both, and are spreading amongst neighbors – a true indicator of long-haul success.

As for the herb society’s latest plant celebrity, I’m gonna pass. I usually wait for my wild dewberries to flower before I pull them, partly for the pretty and partly for pollinators, but leave just enough come back every year to keep this seasonal dance going without becoming too onerous.

Not being untrendy-grouchy, I just don’t want 2020 to become the Year A Trendy Plant Ate My Garden.

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. Claiborne—and All Who Sailed in Him—declared, “There is something about the word ‘salmagundi’ that has an unmistakable appeal for savants with a leaning toward gourmandism.” Craig had a habit of being pontifical. Honestly. I can’t count number of times I’ve wanted to kick that old queen under the table.

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. Mind you, 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—what have you. 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. Serve with an herby oil and vinegar dressing.

Gay Faulkner: A Review

I wrote a high school junior class paper on Absalom, Absalom!, and one day I pointed out to the teacher the passage describing Charles Bon lounging in an effeminate silk robe before the cloddish Henry Sutpen. “Does this mean they were homosexuals?” I asked. She replied that Mr. Faulkner “would never write about something like that.” Years later, as a more literate scholar, I found that William Faulkner did indeed write about “things like that”; he wrote about humanity from every angle, including sexuality and homosexuality. Furthermore, I found my assessment of Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen’s relationship supported by others.

Between 1929 and 1939, Faulkner puslished The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! as well as dozens of short stories. These works have been thoroughly studied and analyzed, and it’s not surprising that scholars and critics have identified homosexual themes in them. Absalom, Absalom! has been the focus of much interest in homosexual matters, and as early as 1955, Ilse Dusoir Lind commented upon the “affection, mildly homosexual in basis” between Shreve and Quentin.

The first essay devoted to the question of homosexuality in Faulkner’s works was published by Don Merrick Liles in 1983. Absalom, Absalom! and “A Rose for Emily” spurred discussion about homosexuality in Faulkner’s works. The 1980s saw Queer Theory evolve from the increasing visibility of sexual minorities. These critical analyses resulted in a multiplicity of approaches that in turn became dialogues about homosexuality in the Faulkner canon.

These exchanges allow us to see Faulkner’s work differently and over time come to new understandings. With Gay Faulkner: Uncovering a Homosexual Presence in Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Phillip Gordon broadens our concepts of Faulkner and his works by examining his immersion in gay subcultures throughout his life, especially during the 1920s, and his strong and meaningful relationships with specific gay men, particularly his lifelong friend and sometime editor Ben Wasson. Gordon’s study focuses on male homosexuality simply because that is the most revealing perspective. He also concentrates his study on As I Lay Dying and the Snopes trilogy—with particular emphasis on Darl Bundren and V.K. Ratliff—rather than the major novels of the 1930s in order “to turn a light on other works to bring into focus themes that have not yet been deeply explored.”

Gordon states flatly that the question at the heart of his study is not if Faulkner was gay, but, “Is there a gay Faulkner?” Gordon seeks to reveal a gay presence not only in Faulkner’s work, but also in his life as well, establishing Faulkner’s awareness of homosexuality and homosexuals, and his acceptance and participation in gay culture. Gay Faulkner is a solid academic work; the notes are as absorbing as the text, and the bibliography constitutes a summation of Queer Faulkner studies. Gordon also offers insight, information, and even entertainment for the general reader.

Gordon’s documentation of Faulkner’s stay in New Orleans explores the bohemian atmosphere as well as the writers’ community of the Vieux Carré. Central to this section of the book is Gordon’s account of Faulkner’s relationship with his longtime friend and roommate, the gay artist William Spratling, including an intriguing account of a trip to Italy with Spratling, a journey that resulted in Faulkner’s most openly gay story, “A Divorce in Naples.” This period of Faulkner’s life, as well as the literary and artistic scene in the city at the time, is the subject of an essay by Gary Richards, “The Artful and Crafty Ones of the French Quarter: Male Homosexuality and Faulkner’s Early Prose Writings.” According to Richards, Spratling, not the literary lion Sherwood Anderson, stood at the center of the New Orleans artists and writers. He also points out that Faulkner’s early sketches for the Times-Picayune and the literary magazine, Double Dealer, as well as some of the characters and scenes in Mosquitoes (1927), are strongly homoerotic. Richards’s paper was presented at the 34th Faulkner Conference in 2007; Annette Trafzer states that conference’s subject, “Faulkner’s Sexualities,” is an “intentionally ambiguous” subject that “blurs the line between the author’s body and the body of his work .…” (Trefzer). This conference as well as “Faulkner and Women” (1985) and “Faulkner and Gender” (1994), featured other studies on Faulkner and homosexuality.

With Ben Wasson and the New Orleans-born gay writer, Lyle Saxon in New York City after the publication of Sanctuary (1931), Faulkner interacted with the Algonquin Round Table and met Alexander Woollcott. Faulkner toured Harlem’s gay clubs and cabarets with Carl Van Vetchen, where he attended a show by the famous drag “king” Gladys Bentley. This encounter was recounted by Wasson in the Blotner Papers at Southeastern Missouri State University, a rich source for scholarship that Gordon calls “fascinating, complex, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful.” Despite his earlier disclaimer concerning Faulkner’s personal proclivities, Gordon also avers that “there is evidence in the Blotner papers that suggest our understanding of Faulkner’s sexuality might not be what we have generally assumed.”

Gordon frames Faulkner within the literary milieu of early 20th century Mississippi–by any standards a cutting edge of the Southern Renaissance in American literature–and includes several prominent gay writers. The queer planter, poet, and memoirist William Alexander Percy of Greenville nurtured a clutch of writers, including Hodding Carter, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, and Wasson. Gordon also illuminates Oxford’s fascinating and cosmopolitan Stark Young as well as the undeservedly obscure poet and scholar Hubert Creekmore of Water Valley.

Gordon and other queer critics focus on the meaning and nuances of a text, and amplify its implications. Some readers may think Gordon is reaching to make a point, but in the end, the words and their meanings are there for any to understand. Gay Faulkner has a great deal to recommend it; it’s interesting, educational, and entertaining. The book is also an excellent introduction to current and ongoing studies that seek to explore new avenues in Faulkner’s work.

Smart Beets

No matter the font and source of given cookbook, if a recipe for beets is given at all, the one you’ll find is for Harvard beets. Oh, you’ll find one for pickled beats every now and then, but that’s a cold dish. Harvard beets are served warm, usually sliced from a can in a thick sweet-and-sour sauce made with sugar and vinegar or lemon juice thickened with cornstarch. Some recipes substitute wine/cider for vinegar/lemon juice. Harvard beets are just called that, by the way; the recipe has no connection with the institution. Nonetheless, some smart-ass Elie came up with a recipe for Yale beets. It has orange juice. God only knows why.

Harvard Beets

In a medium saucepan, combine the juice of one can of beets to about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Mix the cornstarch with a little of the liquid before adding to the pan. Stir until bubbly and thickened, add sugar and vinegar to taste. Add the beets, stir and heat. Add a pat of butter before serving.

Three Poems: Howard Bahr

Novelist, scholar, humanitarian and gentleman, Howard Bahr also has a poet’s hand and ear, eye and heart.

For A Girl I Know, That She Might Not Grieve

When I am dead,
you must not think me dead,
but gone ahead on a two-lane desert blacktop
road, doing eighty with the top down
in a cream-colored ’40 Ford coupe
stroked and bored in Tucumcari.

Route 66 is a blue arrow to the mountains,
and the desert no dead place, but strewn
with flowers only Indians have the names to;
hawks aloft, and lizards legging it
over the hot sand, bellies raised; roadrunners
racing the hopped-up Ford through the Creosote
brush; shrikes perched on the telephone lines; and
an SP freight train running fast westbound–
a flat plume of smoke, all signals green.

Then mountains passed, the western slope kissed
with morning shadow, the fir trees dusted with snow.
The pastel desert towns lay behind me now,
and below a green valley, orange groves,
the distant glittering sea.

Now, after dark, in a bungalow in Elysian Park,
I labor as of old, trying to find the words to tell
of why we do the things we do: why we love;
why we strive in vain; why we let the rain beguile our hearts
with longing and desire.
And here, from time to time, I rise, go to the window,
pull the curtains by and raise the blinds,
and gaze upon the palms and Oleander
and the haze around the moon.
All is well. My heart’s alive.
I watch for your twin headlights in the drive.

 

Flamingo Arms

In apartments stuffed of furniture no one wants,
where children grown and gone
smile down from every horizontal place,
the old ones listen for the mail.

And when at last the postman brings the mail around,
he creaks the boxes open, creaks them shut again.

The old ones peer into the hall, then shuffle in their slippers
to the boxes on the wall: church bulletins, bills,
catalogs from a world no longer theirs.

But how is Judith faring in the city?
And Donny on the oil rig in the Gulf–
is he safe? Did he marry the girl from Lafayette?
What of young Alyssa at her college in the North?

Those lives are silent.

In the catalogs: plush counterpanes, support hose,
baths to sooth the feet, and means
to keep the patio insect-free.

The water bill is high this month.
Behind their curtains, the old ones open checkbooks,
calculate, despair.

Next day, the mail comes round again.

 

A Parable for My Students

Last night, my neighbor Pitts
Set out a Havahart for cats
That fell his birds. No luck.
Instead, today by early light,
I kenned a possum caught.

Unkempt he was, and fat, and pacing
To and fro. He rose to press his paws
Against the wire, then paced again: a turn,
And turn, and rise, and turn, and rise,
And turn, and rise to naught.

A ghostly, wedge-faced possum,
Rat du Bois, no good in stir to anyone
Except himself perhaps, or Johnny Cross
Who fattens one each year to bake
With sweet potatoes–God forbid the thought!

Anon, I rambled out and crossed
The dewy grass, took hold the door
And lifted it, and propped it with a stick.
“Now, scram,” said I. But, no, he hunkered down,
And bared his yellow teeth, and curled his tail
Just as his mama taught.

Thus he remained, like unto Death,
A mockery of Life, when all the while
The door stood open, beckoning him quit
The bars, and flee, and brave the morning
As a creature ought.

In early afternoon, old Pitts came out
And puzzled at his prize, and scratched his head,
And gazed suspicious at the stick. He shrugged at last
And took his snub-nosed .22 in hand:
Pop! Pop! it said, and so the possum bought.

Take heed, my Little Ones: the gate is raised;
Go hence and seek the morning. God be praised!

–Howard Bahr

Divine Dressing

Why don’t today’s chefs create dishes in honor of performing artists like those who gave us Melba toast and turkey Tetrazzini? Where’s the Bowie sundae, the Madonna cupcake or the Star Wars souffle? The need, as I see it, isn’t so much for the dishes, which are admittedly key components, but for the stories they may tell, like this one.

In 1923, George Arliss took the stage as the Rajah of Rukh in The Green Goddess. Arliss was at the height of his career. He went on to repeat his performance in the film version of the play and received an Academy Award nomination for the role, ironically losing to himself that same year (1930) when he played British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli in the eponymous film.

While in San Francisco, Arliss stayed at The Palace Hotel, and for a banquet in Arliss’s honor, the executive chef of the hotel, Philippe Roemer, himself a celebrity, created an original salad dressing with an assortment of finely chopped green herbs to suggest the name of the play. The dressing is a signature recipe in the hotel’s Garden Court Restaurant, most often served with the Dungeness Crab Salad.

The classic Green Goddess recipe usually includes anchovies, mayonnaise, vinegar, green onion, garlic, parsley, tarragon and chives in some form or quantity. Some cooks add sour cream or yogurt, and a popular contemporary version includes avocado (wouldn’t it just?). Served with steamed vegetables or seafood. Combine and mix in processor or blender:

1 cup parsley leaves
1 cup packed spinach leaves, stemmed
½ cup tarragon vinegar
1 cup mayonnaise
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
3 anchovy fillets
¼ cup vegetable oil

 

Recipes for Success

In his introduction Oscar Rogers writes, “The title of this book could well have been My Mother Cooked My Way Through Life with These Creole Recipes. Her skill in cooking fine foods, prepared with loving care, assured her of a living and me of my survival. She places part of herself into each dish she prepares—in fact a part of herself is in everything she does. This is her priceless legacy to me.”

Dr. Oscar Rogers was one of the most distinguished educators in Mississippi. He received his A.B. from Tougaloo in 1948, the B.S. in theology in 1954 and an M.A. in theology in 1954, both from Harvard. He returned to Natchez to accept the position as dean of students and registrar at Natchez Junior College in 1954, and was appointed president of Arkansas Baptist College in 1956, serving until 1959. In 1958, he received a doctoral fellowship to enroll at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and there he completed his doctor of education degree in social science in administration in 1960. Rogers’ wife, Lee, insisted that her children (three sons) live near and learn to know her father, Jefferson O. Lewis, a longtime employee of Tougaloo College, so the family moved to Jackson where she became a teacher in the Jackson Public Schools, and Oscar accepted the position as dean of students at Jackson State College from 1960-68. During 1968-69, the family moved to Seattle, where Lee taught and Oscar engaged in research. They returned to Jackson in later 1969, where Dr. Rogers became dean of students at JSU, a position he held for fifteen years. In 1984, he became the seventh president of Clafin University, a position he held to his retirement in 1994. Dr. Rogers died in July, 2011.

This book was published in December, 1971, when Rogers’ mother, Mrs. Walter Tillman, affectionately known as Pinky, was still alive. She attended the reception and signing, which was held by the University and College Press of Mississippi in the H.T. Sampson Library on the JSU campus. Some may be surprised that Oscar calls the recipes “Creole”, since they originate not in New Orleans, but upriver in Natchez, but in its strictest definition, Creole is defined as “a person descended from the early French and Spanish settlers in the U.S. Gulf States”. Natchez was founded by French colonists in 1716. In the culinary sphere, however, Creole implies the cooking of the well-to-do, more urban inhabitants of the region; one authority, Howard Mitcham, defines it as “city” cooking as opposed to “country (Cajun)”. And many of the 200+ recipes are sophisticated indeed: cauliflower Hollandaise, Doberge cake (a distinctly New Orleans dish, by the way), shrimp remoulade and floating island pudding, but there is also an abundance of good home-style recipes such as Southern-style pork chops, a meat loaf, baked beans and spoon bread. It’s also well worth noting that a recipe for Harvard beets makes an appearance on page 49.

Courtbouillion of Red Fish

1 large red fish, snapper or sheepshead, 5-6 lbs.
1/2 cup salad (vegetable) oil
1 c. flour
2 large onions, chopped
2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
2 bay leaves
4 green bell peppers, chopped
4 shallots or green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 slices lemon
1 cup claret or port wine
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 1/2 cups water (scant)
a few sprigs parsley

Slice fish across back into 2 or 3 in cuts. In a large skillet heat the salad oil, add the flour and stir until very brown. Add onions, stirring until cooked a bit. add chopped tomatoes and remaining ingredients except wine and fish, cook for 1/2 hour or more. Add sliced fish (you may lay fish in roasting pan or large pot if skillet isn’t large enough and pour sauce over fish). Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until fish is cooked. Add wine and let come to a boil again. Serve with rice or creamed potatoes. (Serves 6 to 8).