Good Luck Gumbo

Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country, and among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endured, one of the more evident examples of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes makes a comforting New Year dish.

Make a dark roux (the color of a beer bottle) with 3 tablespoons flour and 3 tablespoons vegetable oil. While the roux is still hot, add one large chopped onion, a chopped bell pepper, and about three stalks (with leaves) chopped celery stalks. Stir well, add 3 cloves minced garlic. Slowly add about a quart and a half of chicken broth. To this, add about six cups pre-cooked black-eyed peas (you can use dried, but I prefer the “fresh frozen” because, well, they’re just prettier; sue me), a 12-ounce sack of frozen sliced okra that has been rinsed in a strainer so it’s not so ropy, and a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes, with juice. Stir in about a pound of cubed or sliced andouille or smoked sausage, or you can use ham if you like. Add a bay leaf, about 2 tablespoons of an Italian herbal mix, and let cook on low heat for about an hour. Adjust seasonings for the table, adding salt if necessary and pepper to taste. Serve over rice.

The Ham of Dreams

In the 1930s, Harry J. Hoenselaar worked at a honey-baked ham store in Detroit, handing out samples and teaching drugstore clerks how to slice hams for sandwiches. He had long since mastered knifing ham from the bone, but he knew there had to be a better way. Then Harry had a dream, and with a tire jack, a pie tin, a washing machine motor and a knife, he fashioned and patented the world’s first ham spiralizer.

He later bought the Detroit honey-baked ham store where he once worked from the owner’s widow in 1957. Later, he divided its national territory into four parts and gave each one to a daughter. The original Honey Baked Ham store on Eight Mile Road in Detroit eventually spawned a company with 417 stores, from Southern California to New Hampshire. The busiest is in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. After decades of familial wrangling and consolidation, the entire operation has landed in the lap of Linda van Rees, a granddaughter, who moved the company headquarters to Alpharetta, Georgia, in 2015.

Spiral-cut hams comprise about 34 percent of all the ham sold in the United States. Most of the company’s hams come from pigs grown in the Ohio Valley, bred to have a specific amount of marbling. The hams are smoked over hardwood chips for 24 hours, then shipped whole to each store.  Spiral cutting a whole ham takes just a few minutes; at the flagship Honey Baked Ham Company store in Alpharetta, Ga., cutters can process as many as 450 hams during the busy holiday seasons. Each sliced ham is then loaded onto a small metal stand, sprinkled with layers of sugar laced with a clove-scented spice mix, and then fired with a blow-torch, melting it into what becomes a crunch crust once cooled. The hams are loosely wrapped in a heavy foil that a clerk can easily pull back to allow a customer to inspect a ham before buying it.

Many people warm spiral-sliced hams, but that can lead to dryness. The best way to serve it is to let the ham come to room temperature, then use a butter knife to slice around the small center bone, and use the knife to follow the natural lines of the muscle for more manageable slices.

 

 

Russian Tea

This remainder of Victorian Americana was a favorite of boomer moms. It’s a great, heady beverage for a  cold afternoon or a rainy night, also good over ice.

4 big tea bags
3 quarts water
2 cups pineapple juice
1 cup orange juice
Juice of two lemons
3 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons whole cloves

Boil water, remove from heat, and immediately add the tea bags. Remove bags in EXACTLY five minutes or the tea will have a ‘bite’. Add other ingredients, and keep on a low heat for at least an hour before serving. This freezes easily.

Chicken Livers Bourguignon

This is a wonderful buffet item, particularly for an after-event gathering. While you could serve this with potatoes of some sort, a buttery linguini or fettuccine would be (I think) more appropriate, as would a nutty wild rice blend.

Drain, trim and cut one pound chicken livers into bite-size pieces. Sauté in butter with a sprinkling of black pepper until just done through; you want them pink, not overcooked. Set aside with liquid. In another pan, sauté in 3 tablespoons butter one clove of garlic, finely minced, two large minced shallots, and three ounces of mushrooms, thickly sliced. Sprinkle with two tablespoons of flour and mix well. Add one and a half to two cups of rich, flavorful beef stock to make a sauce, add about a half-cup or so good, full-bodied dry red wine, such as a Burgundy or Beaujolais, season with thyme and rosemary then reduce by a third or until thick and smooth. Add livers, mix well, salt to taste and finish with another jolt of wine and a pat of butter for gloss.

The Christmas War in Calhoun County

While no battles of importance took place in Calhoun County, Mississippi, Leon Burgess, in his M.D.L. Stevens and Calhoun County, Mississippi offers Stevens’ account of a December skirmish in the northwest. The original story appeared in The Calhoun County Monitor on June 4, 1903.

In December, 1862, Gen. Grant’s army pressed back the Confederate army from Holly Springs to Coffeeville where after a sharp engagement Grant fell back to Water Valley, threw out a strong cordon of cavalry and encamped for the winter.

About Christmas a strong company of Kansas Jayhawkers invaded Calhoun County north of Schoona River, spending their fury in and about the village of Banner. They captured the few horses and mules remaining in the county, robbed every chicken roost and hen nest, stole turkeys, geese and ducks, and now and then they took a fat hog. In their rounds they confiscated a barrel of moonshine whiskey near the big rock at the head of Cowpen Creek. They drank freely, filled their canteens and came to Banner, where they took and destroyed everything in sight. In the afternoon they set out for Water Valley. Each marauder had his canteen full of “wild cat” and, tied in front and behind his saddle, a good lot of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens, and a haversack full of eggs. They left Banner yelling like a mob of Hottentots, all full of wild cat whiskey; more than a hundred strong, the Federals insulted every old man they met and drove women and children from their homes.

A small squad of Willis’ Texas Cavalry was hanging around Grant’s army, watching every movement. They learned of the contemplated raid on Banner, followed in the of the Federal cavalry and kept a close eye on their movements. The Texans received into their ranks a few of the Calhoun boys at home on furloughs, armed with double-barreled shot guns and mounted on mules and horses. The company numbered about 20 of the battalion and 12 or 15 of the local boys. They saw from a distance the devastation of Banner and the surrounding country and saw that the Jayhawkers were tanking up on the “bust skull” whiskey and were preparing to leave for Water Valley. Willis, under the guidance of a friend, hosted his small band of braves in a narrow valley were the horses were tied and the boys were concealed on the crest of a narrow ridge about 60 yards from the road that ran up a narrow hollow west of Gore’s Branch 5 or 6 miles from Banner.

On came the drunken Federal mob, more than a hundred strong, singing, cursing and looting, all bent on reaching Water Valley with their booty. They crossed Gore’s Branch, the headwaters of Long Persimmon Creek, and moved up the road running parallel with the long ridge. When the Federal cavalry had filled the road at the foot of the ridge, Willis gave the command to fire. Sheet of flames leapt from 30 guns; volley after volley was poured into the panic-stricken Federal ranks. Horses and riders were piled promiscuously on the road.

The Rebel boys rushed down the hill and captured men, horses, turkeys, ducks, chickens and canteens half full of mountain dew. They mounted and followed in hot pursuit of the fleeing Federals. Down by Trusty’s and Tatum’s they charged the retreating Jayhawkers, killing and capturing men and horses; their charge to Tuckalofa Creek was a race for life. The next day a regiment of Federal cavalry came out and buried the dead and cared for the wounded. No estimate on killed or wounded.

New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp

You’ll find no simpler recipe for shrimp from the Crescent City and few with more pungency. Shrimp, butter and pepper—black pepper; lots of it, and fresh-ground—are the only ingredients; any additions will ruin it. Use a 16-20 count; I’m not saying you can’t make this dish with peeled shrimp of a smaller count, but I’d die first and go to hell shortly thereafter if I did. This should be obvious to most people.

Pat shrimp dry and place in the bottom of a buttered baking dish, skillet or casserole. Drizzle with melted butter—one stick to one pound of shrimp—and top with generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Place on the highest rack in your hottest oven for about 10 minutes.

 

Pop Tart Houses

Go ahead, call me white trash (I know you already do) but I happen to think Pop Tarts make pretty houses for holiday decorating. They’re a lot easier to get than gingerbread, they’re sturdier than Graham crackers, and you can even buy them frosted! You can make a mobile home if you want (send me a photo) but with Pop Tarts as your platform, the stars are the limit. The towers might be tricky, but you could even make a model of Neuschwanstein Castle. For your first effort, however, I’d stick to a basic Jim Walter design.

I turn a baking sheet over and use the bottom for a base, make piping bags out of heavy duty ziplocks, and glue the tarts together with an icing made by whipping four egg whites until foamy then gradually whipping in four cups confectioner’s sugar until stiff. This, my friends, dries to a confectionery concrete. Once your house is made, decorate it as you like with more icing of different colors, M&Ms, Fruit Loops, teeny-tiny candy canes, marshmallows, or whatever you can think to make it pretty. And have fun!

Charley Pride’s Baked Beans

My father Jess Jr. was one of the first politicians in north Mississippi who took an active and positive role in civil rights. As district attorney he refused County to sign a subpoena issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace”  on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith  at Ole Miss October 1962. He took everyone, irregardless of race or religion, into his care, and that memory still echoes among many across Mississippi.

He also loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.

Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something. Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma  turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Soon after that, Charley made headline by being the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.

Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley. It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.

Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained

Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.

Sandwich Cake

While browsing through my old Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks, I ran up on a sandwich cake, or smörgåstårta, a Swedish buffet standard made by layering bread with savory fillings. It seemed just the kind of thing to serve for a little holiday get-together. So I called my Swedish friend, Sven Larsson, for advice on how to make a smörgåstårta.

I met Sven when he worked at the Swedish consulate in New Orleans, “Issuing passports to stupid Americans,” as he put it. We met at a wedding party in the French Quarter well over a decade ago, and found common ground as mutual devotees of A Confederacy of Dunces. The consulate is on Prytania, and Sven would often make the long walk to the theatre where Ignatius railed against Doris Day movies. He had since married a girl from Texas, divorced, and moved back to Stockholm, but we’d kept in touch.

When I got him on the phone, the first thing he said was, “You can’t make a smörgåstårta. You don’t have the right bread. All you have is that stuff, what do you call it? Ja! ‘Wonderful Bread!’ Like little Styrofoam.”

“But we have much better bread here now,” I said. “I can even get locally-baked loaves of rye and wheat.”

Ach! And your beer!” he said. “Your beer is like a cat’s piss. UschI! How can you eat a smörgåstårta and drink that?” This is the way Sven and I always begin any conversation, but we always end up laughing.

Sven said a smörgåstårta can be as simple as three layers of rye with sliced cucumbers and smoked salmon as a filling, or it can be as elaborate as a wedding cake. Use a sturdy bread. Wonder Bread might be great for a finger sandwich, but it will turn into doughy mush in a smörgåstårta. The better the quality of your bread, the better your cake will hold up, and the better it will take. A sturdy rye, wheat, or sourdough is best. Remove the crust, then cut and slice your bread to the shape and size you like, round, square, or rectangle.

Use a seasoned whipped cream cheese spread for both filling and for a “frosting”; you can buy the Philadelphia blends, or make your own by thinning room-temperature cream cheese with sour cream. Do not use mayonnaise. Spread each side of your bread layers with a thin coating of the cream cheese spread. Be creative with your fillings: thinly-sliced vegetables, hummus, cold cuts, sliced cheeses, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, smoked fish, pâtés, guacamole, sliced pickles, whatever you like, but vary your textures. Mix vegetables with your egg salad, add water chestnuts to your salmon; try to have a bit of crunch in each layer. Finally, coat with cream cheese, garnish lavishly, and refrigerate before serving.

About Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that draws water and nutrients from its host plant, but has chlorophyll and produces its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe rarely affects trees that are healthy, but can harm those already weakened by root damage (as from construction), drought, or pests. The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning “dung, filth.” This makes sense when you consider that the plant’s seeds are spread by bird droppings, but perhaps it’s best not to bear in mind that you’re kissing under a “shit stick.”

In a famous Norse myth, mistletoe caused the death of the god Balder, the best loved of all immortals, by the jealous Loki. When Balder dreamed that he was about to die, he told his mother, Freya, who went to all things and made them swear that they would never harm her son. But she thought the mistletoe too weak to hurt anyone, and Loki found this out, he fashioned a dart from the plant and put it in the hand of the blind god Hodur, who stood aside while others threw things at Balder for the fun of seeing them drop to the ground before they reached him. “Here is something for you to throw,” Loki said, “and I will direct your aim.”

No one seems to know where the kissing comes from, though some claim that after Balder’s death, Freya commanded that the plant must never again bring destruction, and that those who pass under it must exchange a kiss of love and peace. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. The English hang kissing balls made with cedar and mistletoe in their doorways.