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.
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.