Ginger-Pecan Shortbread Cookies

People will tell you that shortbread is just what they call a cookie in the UK, but in my book shortbread is more like pound cake, a simple, versatile sweet you can put together and on the table in a very short time.  This recipe makes a rich and aromatic, soft and crumbly cookie or small cake that goes perfectly with a hot drink—coffee, tea, cocoa, even sweet mulled wine—and it’s so simple a child can make it.

Cream 1 stick butter with a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a teaspoon each almond and vanilla extract. Blend in 2 cups plain flour sifted with a teaspoon of baking powder, a  half cup chopped pecans and a tablespoon ground ginger. (I have tried this recipe with freshly-grated ginger, and it simply does not work at all well at all with so much butter.) This mixture makes a soft, elastic dough that you have to work with flour-dusted hands to form into a ball. Pat or roll the dough ball out into an 8” round, score into six wedges and crimp the edges with a fork. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 until the edges are just brown. Cut and serve. This recipe makes great cookies, too, and is doubled or tripled easily.

The Sardonic Sardine

Some years ago, an obscure editor at a well-known magazine prevailed upon his famous food writer to come up with a piece on sardines. Now, an editor is nothing more than an ego who can spell, so to say that coercion was involved over this story is an understatement of near biblical proportions; the poor writer’s feet were probably held to some hellish, check-denying fire until he came up with a printable essay on a subject he obviously considered far beneath his dignity. The end product, a minor etude of culinary literature memorable primarily by its invective, was infused with caustic bemusement and only a very, very small degree of begrudging admiration for the fish itself. The subject took second place to the condescension that infected every sentence. I wish I had the essay at hand to give an example of scathing hauteur; trust me, us pissed off writers recognize one other.

What the writer was trying to do (with limited success) was to raise the sardine to such a degree of sophistication that it fit seamlessly in between the inexplicably anorexic homoerotic fashions, the absolutely incomprehensible art, and exhausting columns of blithering prose. He began with an “imagine this” sort of scenario in which a thin, impeccably dressed Parisienne strolls into a bistro on the Champs E’lysee, orders a beer with sardines au plat, then squats and gobbles without getting so much as a spot on her designer duds. Well, it could happen, I suppose; sardines au plat are little more than broiled herrings, but the idea of a chic young Frenchwoman sitting down to beer and sardines in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower is discordant, which of course is the point he was trying to make.

Now, sardines aren’t a specific kind of fish as much as they are a type of fish; many species of small herrings are caught, canned and marketed as sardines. Ounce for ounce, sardines rank among the most nutritious foodstuffs in the world: they’re chock-full of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and all the “good fats”; one can, about three and a half ounces drained, has less than 200 calories. They’re also (like most canned fish) ridiculously cheap, less than $2 a serving. Yet most people turn their noses up at sardines. Why? Well, they smell bad, for one thing, but that’s not the main reason; lots of people eat stuff that smells bad, especially when nutrition isn’t particularly a key consideration. No, the reason people don’t eat sardines is because in this neck of the woods they’re considered trashy, so trashy that you’ll not find a single sardine recipe in any of Jill Connor Browne’s otherwise excellent culinary compilations.

If you want to try sardines for the first time, get a can of Port Clydes (in oil) and drain them; use a colander if you feel the need, but do not rinse them with water. Instead, sprinkle them with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice and just a bit of kosher salt, set them in a sealed container in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled and eat them with sour gherkins, raw celery and onions, and have your favorite beer with them. Dill toast is wonderful alongside, but rye Melba will suffice and saltines of any sort will do any time at all.

Bahr on the M&SV

Among the most distinguished and elegant writers in the Mississippi canon, Howard Bahr writes compelling novels of the American Civil War. Bahr is the winner of the 2007 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction for his book The Judas Field. His novel The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction in 1998, and in 2011 Bahr was the winner of the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts. Between 1968 and 1973, Bahr worked in various positions for the Illinois Central Railroad, theAlabama, Tennessee, and Northern Railway, Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Southern Railway, and the CB&Q Railroad. A friend and neighbor, he kindly consented to interpret this old schedule for the Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad.

The Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad was constructed between May 1925, and September 1926. The M&SV came off the Illinois Central main line at Bryant, just south of Coffeeville. The road was twenty-one miles long running slightly northeast; at its terminus, the town of Bruce, Mississippi, was built around the E. L. Bruce Co. lumber mill. Original motive power was one Prairie Class (2-6-2) steam engine. Sometime before 1952, the road obtained at least three seventy-ton GE diesel switch engines. The M&SV also operated a motor rail car (named “Bruce”) for express and passenger service. The car was a coach body set on a Reo truck chassis.

The M&SV timetable is from the August, 1952, edition of The Official Guide of the Railways. Among the common symbols on railroad time tables are found the following:

§ indicates a train that runs only on Sunday
† indicates a train that runs daily except Sunday
∫ when placed beside a station name, indicates a “Flag Stop” (i.e., passenger trains only stop at those stations upon a displayed signal)
■ meaning can vary; on the M&SV timetable, indicates motor rail car service.

Times in the A.M. are printed in light-faced type; times in the P.M. are printed in bold type. The time given for each station is the scheduled time that the train leaves the station. Southbound and westbound trains are given odd numbers. Read down. Northbound and eastbound trains are given even numbers. Read up. On this table, mileage between stations is not given. Mileage from Bruce Junction is indicated in column Mls.

On the M&SV timetable, the motor coaches have regularly scheduled runs. The absence of numbered freight trains indicates that freight trains run “Extra”; i.e., they can be listed at any time. This timetable is for the convenience of passengers and does not show sidings where trains may pass. Most likely, the motor coaches had rights over freight trains. In any event, the M&SV is so short, and traffic so light, that train control was probably informal. By 1952, the Illinois Central ran no passenger trains from Jackson, Tennessee, to Grenada, Mississippi. Thus, one wonders why passengers would want to go from Bruce to Bruce Junction.