Peel two large eggplants and cut into thick slices. Brush these liberally with olive oil—you don’t have to use EVO, people, any good olive oil will do—and grill or broil until slightly blistered and soft. Dice and reserve. Sauté a small yellow onion with a mild thin-walled pepper such as a sweet banana or poblano—you want about a cup of each, coarsely chopped—with chopped garlic. Add eggplant with a cup of diced tomatoes, a chopped roasted red pepper (about a half cup). Season to taste with salt then flavor with freshly-dried basil, dried thyme, and crushed red peppers, Bake at about 300 until bubbling. Cool and serve with flat bread.
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.
Much is written about foods as panaceas against the stress of everyday existence. A bowl of chicken stew on a crisp November night or banana pudding on a warm May afternoon can be every bit as comforting as a Mose Allison tune or slipping on old shoes.
But dishes that challenge us should have places on our plates as well. At some point in our lives, many of us become complacent; we eat what we prefer to stultification. But listen to your Auntie Mame: “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” I’m not urging you to sample foods contrary to your ethics, but do try dishes you might forego for superficial reasons.
In particular, childhood prejudices should come under review. Unless you were the subject of abuse of the dastardliest kind, the dishes you disliked as a child were most likely fed you by people who loved you and wanted you to do well in the world. Believe that. Believe also that they probably didn’t know how to cook. Perhaps it’s their fault you hate spinach, but the lingering scar of their benign ineptitude should not deny you of present or future pleasure.
My culinary bugbear was eggplant, invariably fried, soggy, greasy, and limp as hell. I hated it. But once I went to a Lebanese event at Ole Miss where a spry little lady served up the most wonderful creamy, and absolutely delicious spread. I asked her what it was, and she turned to her husband, whose English was better, and he said “eggplant.” Had I known what it was in the first place, I probably wouldn’t have tried it at all, but I was pleasantly surprised that my old bête noire could take on such an appealing form. The dish is known by many names, but I know it as baba ghanoush. Here’s a basic recipe:
3 medium eggplants
3 cloves of roast garlic, mashed
1/2 cup of tahini
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon salt
Stem, pierce and roast eggplants in a hot oven until soft. Scoop out the flesh, taking care to get the browned meat, mix with the other ingredients and blend in a food processor until smooth. Adjust salt to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with wedges of your favorite flat bread.
For sheer succulence, few fruits on earth can match a ripe-on-point peach fresh off the tree, and Escoffier, “the king of chefs and the chef of kings,” affirmed the fruit’s supremacy when he created an astoundingly superb yet simple dish to celebrate the great operatic coloratura soprano, Nellie Melba.
Dame Nellie Melba, (1861-1931), was a skilled pianist and organist as a youngster, but she did not study singing until in her twenties. She made her operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1887 at Brussels under the name Melba, derived from that of the city of Melbourne. Until 1926 she sang in the principal opera houses of Europe and the United States, particularly Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, excelling in Delibes’s Lakmé, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She returned to Melbourne in 1926. Her image is on the Australian one-hundred-dollar bill.
Melba was not known as a Wagner singer, although she occasionally sang Elsa in Lohengrin, which she did in 1892, at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan, which is featured in the opera. The swan carried peaches topped with spun sugar which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream. In 1900, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert for the occasion of the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he was head chef. Escoffier omitted the ice swan and topped the peaches with raspberry purée.
Incidentally, in 1897, Nellie, who was “slimming,” complained that her bread was much too thick and sent Escoffier with it back to the Savoy kitchen. The chef returned to her table with a thinly sliced piece of toasted bread and promptly named it Melba toast in her honor.
Inferior versions of peach Melba substitute pears, apricots, or strawberries instead of peaches or use raspberry sauce or melted redcurrant jelly instead of raspberry purée. The original dessert used simple ingredients of “tender and very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a purée of sugared raspberry”. Escoffier himself said, “Any variation on this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.”
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.
If you’ve ever gone out to the garden, picked a beautiful, ripe tomato (of whatever variety) and bit into it right there on the spot atop God’s good earth with the cloying tang of that tomato plant in your nose and the warm waves of sunshine on your face, then you can truly say, “I know what a tomato is,” for you have achieved an existential union with tomato-in-the-world as opposed to that picture in a seed catalogue. (Or maybe that’s an essential union; I think I flunked existentialism at Ole Miss, though I’m not really sure I took the class in the first place, meaning I might have passed after all.)
Vegetables prepared for the table straight from the soil are a hallmark of great Southern dinners; a luscious home-grown tomato, simply sliced and served on a plate, usually with a fragrant cantaloupe and maybe a dewy cucumber are signature elements of any summer meal. While you’re on the road summer and see produce stands with signs written on brown cardboard with a magic marker, do yourself a favor by stopping by and getting to know the people. These are classes you’ll remember.
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.