For four cups of fruit make two cups of simple syrup and flavor with a teaspoon vanilla; nutmeg is also a nice touch. Stew the fruit in the syrup just enough to flavor, and while hot transfer to a deep baking dish. Make biscuit dough using sweet milk and sugar, knead lightly and roll out to about half an inch, cut into strips, drop by pieces into the hot fruit/syrup mixture, and bake in hot (350-400) oven. Spoon syrup over the dough as it cools. If don’t serve this a scoop of vanilla ice cream the devil will drag you to hell by your short hairs.
Bessie Mae Evans kept house for us when I was a kid. She was a fountain of the sort of lore that fascinates young boys, especially when it came to snakes. Bessie knew snakes chapter and verse. She would tell about those snakes that could hoop up and roll downhill, the ones that would sting you with their tails if they couldn’t bite you and snakes that would wrap you to a tree with their coils and beat you to death. She claimed that those snakes would stick the tip-end of their tail in your nose every now and then to see if you were still breathing, and if you were, they’d keep whipping.
Serpents were Satan incarnate to Bessie: I once watched her lob a Molotov cocktail made from a Coke bottle full of gasoline and a dirty sock into a thirty-foot culvert next to her house because a neighbor said she saw a snake crawl into it. The resulting explosion registered on a seismograph at Ole Miss, whose geology staff dutifully sent a team of graduate students to investigate the phenomenon. (I heard they took a wrong turn near Paris and ended up in Pontotoc.)
When we weren’t discussing reptiles, one of our favorite things to do together was to plant ourselves in front of the television on Saturday afternoons and watch old Tarzan movies on Channel 13 out of Memphis. She’d pretend to iron, and I’d pretend to do my homework. One afternoon my mother busted us watching Tarzan Escapes during a scene when a scantily-clad Johnny Weissmuller is being pursued by a hoard of Hollywood extras brandishing spears and slathered in Man Tan. Momma pointed to the screen and said, “Just think, Bessie, you might be kin to those people,” at which point Bessie mustered up all of her considerable dignity and said, “No, ma’am; I am a Christian lady.” And that was that about that, with Bessie leaving Momma’s relation to Cheeta open to question.
Bessie taught me how to take care of “pot plants” (which is what we used to call houseplants), how to grow greens in the winter (usually in a burnt-over spot) and how to cook poke salad. Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that the Indian tribes eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.” They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”
Much like ramps, poke salad was eaten as a spring green because it was one of the first edible herbs to appear, giving a much-needed break from the beans, cornbread and salt pork diet of winter. In April 2000, Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas canned its last batch of “poke sallet” greens. As late as 1990 at least two processing plants continued the tradition, Bush Brothers of Tennessee and Allen of Siloam Springs. Surprisingly, one of the best markets for canned poke was southern California due to the many “Oakies” who settled there in the ‘30s. John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen Canning, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bring it to our buying locations.” Also, poke processing was never a significant item in their multimillion-dollar enterprise, so it just became more bother than it was worth.
The only drawback to poke salad as a food is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is not only safe but delicious. Here’s how you do it: harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke. Wash, stem and trim. Boil them for about ten minutes in plenty of salt water. Then drain, rinse and simmer for a while with just a bit more lightly salted water and a bit of oil of some kind. A slit hot pepper pod of the slender sort is a nice touch, and adding big pinch of sugar is something you just ought to do. Trust me.
Use prepared poke much as you would spinach; Euell has a poke salad dip in his book, and Bessie used to put it in scrambled eggs. She always cooked with bacon drippings, using plenty of salt as somewhat of a talisman against poison of any kind, I suspect, since she used to sprinkle salt around her garden to keep the snakes out, too.
Bessie died Feb.8, 2013 at the age of 81. I cried all day.
At the height of our summer, the winter constellations begin to be seen in the eastern dusk. Among the brightest of these is Orion, and close on the heels of this great hunter is the “Big Dog” constellation, Canis Major, which contains the brilliant star, Sirius, known as the Dog Star. When Sirius becomes visible in the east, which at this latitude (Jackson is 32.2988° N) is between July 21 and August 3, Dog Days begin, and for the next forty days or so, it’s hot as hell all the damn time.
Just the other day, a neighbor told me that his night-blooming cereus—which of course was just weighed down with buds—was given to him by his grandmother, who had lived in Greenville, and she had gotten her “start” from Chestina Welty at a garden club gathering in Jackson. Since moving to Jackson twenty years ago, I’ve heard variations of this story ad nauseum every summer from every Tom, Dick and Harriet I run into. Most people will tell you that Eudora gave a cereus cutting to their mother/aunt/sister/nelly uncle, or will say they got it from someone else who did. Indeed, to admit—as I often do—that your “Queen of the Night” is of dubious lineage is to label oneself an unwashed member of the hoi polloi. You’ll find that the Welty night-blooming cereus mimics the properties of the True Cross, whose fragments once proliferated throughout Christendom in every church, chapel, and monastery. Of course, we can’t fault the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for peddling the Welty cereus rather much like the Borgia papacy did Holy Splinters; they have to get those leaks repaired in the Two Museums somehow. In the end, however, we really must admit that we can’t possibly be certain that any one cereus coming into bloom in Mississippi is really, honestly, a blue-blood Welty or just some pass-along white trash epiphyllum.
Homemade ice cream makes everyone happy, and though we do have an (electric) churn, most of the time we just use this recipe, which is easy, with simple ingredients, and you don’t have to bother with ice. Most recipes for no-churn ice cream recommend a loaf pan lined with parchment paper, so that’s your first step, line a loaf pan with parchment paper. Pour one chilled 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk into a cold bowl, and add two teaspoons vanilla. Whip two cups of heavy cream to stiff peaks. Working quickly, GENTLY fold the whipped cream into the sweetened condensed milk, along with any additions—mashed macerated fruit, chocolate syrup, or crushed cookies or nuts—until thoroughly blended. Pour into the prepared loaf pan and cover with plastic wrap. Freeze for at least four hours. Some recipes will tell you to stir the mixture after about two hours (while you still can) but this is superfluous. I recommend making this in the morning for an afternoon gathering.
Craig Claiborne wrote his tell-all autobiography A Feast Made for Laughter (Doubleday, 1982) when he was undergoing intense psychotherapy (ostensibly for alcoholism; “self-destruction” triggered by “self-detestation”) that given a convoluted assessment of his mother’s smothering influence was no doubt intensely Freudian. In the end, he concludes that he didn’t hate his mother, that she was “a victim of culture, of her time and place” like Amanda Wingfield you might say or Claiborne himself mayhap.
By all accounts Mary Kathleen Craig Claiborne was a formidable woman who supported her family after Mr. Claiborne lost a fabled family fortune by taking in boarders, including psychologist and sociologist John Dollard who stayed in Indianola while conducting research for his Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937). During his stay, Dollard committed what might well be the most grievous social error possible in the South, showing great disrespect to his hostess by disrespecting her cooking. According to Claiborne, “In the beginning he criticized the cooking of the greens, complaining that there was not a vitamin left in the lot. And as a result of his well-intentioned explanations and the base encouragement of the other boarders, my mother willingly committed one of the most wicked acts of her life. Dr. Dollard was placed at a bridge table, covered, of course, with linen, and set with sterling, and he was served a mess of raw greens that he ate with considerable and admirable composure and lack of resentment.” Years later, in the early 1970s, Claiborne recounts wandering into the photographic studio at the New York Times, glanced at the assignment sheet and saw the name “John Dollard, Yale”. As he walked in, Dollard walked out, and Claiborne introduced himself. “How’s your mother,” Dollard asked. “She’s a great woman.”
The best evidence we have of Claiborne’s filial love is his recipe for her chicken spaghetti, “printed on many occasions, for it, more than any other, was my favorite dish as a child, and I still prepare it.” Claiborne finds it, with characteristic affectation, “notably akin to certain authentic Italian sauces, notably a ragù Bolognese made with ground meat in a tomato and cream sauce.” Then he goes so far as to say that it was strictly his mother’s creation, and “she was famous for it up and down the Mississippi Delta.” Well, certainly her version is her own; it includes ground beef and pork as well as chicken and is undoubtedly one of the most complicated recipes Claiborne, whose recitation is his most meticulous if not to say fastidious, ever published.
Chicken spaghetti simply can’t be credited to the creativity of any one individual cook; people have been combining chicken and noodles of some kind since the dawn of history, and chicken spaghetti in some form or another has been around in Mississippi ever since pasta began being marketed here. You’re going to find two in the Mississippi Home Extension Service’s The Mississippi Cookbook, one from Ovett, the other from Hickory, both about as far away from the Delta as you can get without getting wet.
In its most basic incarnation, chicken spaghetti is nothing more than cooked spaghetti or vermicelli noodles mixed with a can of cream of chicken soup, topped with Kraft Parmesan and stuffed in a hot oven. In more labor-intensive versions, mushrooms (Green Giant or such) are usually involved, as are onions and bell pepper and a white sauce, but diced tomatoes are a hit-or-miss option. And even though Mrs. Claiborne topped her chicken spaghetti with cheddar, if you ask me, that’s just trashy; use Parmesan and mozzarella.
Jell-O salads were created by Mrs. John E. Cook of New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1904. By the 1950s, they had become so popular that Jell-O responded with savory and vegetable flavors such as celery, Italian, and seasoned tomato. Sadly, these flavors were dropped, but the trend continued. The 1964 Joy of Cooking has forty-three recipes for congealed salads, one with shredded cabbage, clam juice, and olives that Escoffier would applaud.
Though these salads are still popular in the upper Midwest and Utah (where Jello-O is the official State Dessert) they’ve disappeared from most American tables (or any other tables, for that matter). The 2006 75th anniversary edition of Joy lists four congealed salads alongside two savory aspics (a basic recipe as well as the ever-popular tomato) and two mousses (lobster and cucumber). Still, many people I know have something like a molded asparagus/cream cheese salad or a congealed cranberry relish on a holiday table.
This recipe is easy, delicious and oh-so pretty for summer lunch. Add one and a half cups boiling white grape juice to two (3-ounce) packages lemon Jell-O. Mix until gelatin is dissolved, and chill until thickened but not firm. Stir in sliced strawberries, fresh blueberries, raspberries and sliced seedless grapes. Pour into a 6-cup ring mold coated with cooking spray and refrigerate until quite firm, about 4 hours. Unmold onto a platter and serve immediately.
During the Great Depression, the Federal Writer’s Project assigned many unemployed writers (unemployment being a chronic condition among writers no matter the economic climate is, trust me) to collect information for a work that was to be called “America Eats”. Pearl Harbor halted work on the project, but Pat Willard found the materials and fashioned them into America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA – the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin’ Feasts That Define Real American Food (2008).
Eudora Welty (who threw in a julep recipe, bless her soul) and Ralph Ellison (who recorded the chant of the Harlem “sweet pertater man”) were among the contributors to this chronicle of America’s regional cuisine, which focused on gatherings such as church suppers, harvest festivals, state fairs, political rallies, lodge suppers and any other gathering where food was a primary element. Recipes for such staples as root beer, pickled watermelon and chess pie abound, as do those for barbecue. This baste is from Pinky Langley, a white man from Jackson. He instructs readers to mix the ingredients, cook for 30 minutes, then baste, turning the meat frequently.
3 lemons sliced
1 pint vinegar
3 heaping tablespoons sugar
1 heaping tablespoon prepared mustard
3/4 pound melted oleo (margarine)
1 small bottle tomato catsup
1 small bottle Lea & Perrins Sauce
3 chopped onions
enough water to make 3/4 gallons
salt, black and red pepper to taste
Green tomatoes, even tomatoes that are half-ripe, make wonderful pickles in any degree of sweet and sour. This is a nice little recipe to prepare in advance of any summer gathering, and you can have fun varying the basic ingredients as well as the spices and flavorings. Make it your own. You can call this a chow-chow if you like, you can call it a piccalilli, too, even a chutney if you really want to be stuffy about it, but let’s simply say it’s a relish and be done with it.
Finely dice 6-8 green tomatoes (enough to make a quart), one very firm cucumber, a red bell pepper—you can chop up one or two cayennes or a jalapeno if you want—and a large sweet (yellow) onion into a large bowl, add a tablespoon salt and a half cup brown sugar, stir and let sit for an hour or two (overnight is better). Drain the juices from the vegetables into a large saucepan, add 2 cups white vinegar, another half cup of sugar, and two tablespoons pickling spices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer for about ten minutes, then strain, add vegetables and cook over medium for another ten minutes or so. Drain excess liquid, transfer to jars to cool, top with a screw-on lid and chill. You can use this as soon as it’s cold, but it’s much, much better the next day. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week.