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.

Cavegirl Lollipops

Toss chicken drums in vegetable oil lightly seasoned with black pepper, paprika, sage and salt. Grill or arrange alternately on a skillet and place on the top rack in a medium (300) oven for about an hour, turning once to brown evenly.

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.

Egg in a Basket

 Use sturdy bread and a metal cutter. Eat the hole; there’s nothing else you can do with it. Lightly toast bread on both sides in a hot buttered pan, add a pat of butter in the center, and crack an egg into it. Cover to cook through. If you’re feeding several people, you can make these on a cookie sheet in a hot oven. Keep the seasonings simple: salt and black pepper with a dash of red.

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.

Salmon Patties

In the end, no matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s our childhood foods we cherish most. Some nights the winds from the hills reach me in this mean, dirty old city, and I find that can of salmon back up in the cabinet, heat up a skillet and make the what sings most to me of home.

My father liked to cook a big breakfast on Sunday mornings, and he always made salmon patties. He said that his mother used to make them with jack mackerel, always adding that we should be grateful he went to law school so that he could afford to feed us salmon; for him, a child of the Depression, that was a step up in the world. Mackerel patties are almost every bit as filling and nutritious as salmon, but take it from me; they’ll make your house smell like a hot wharf for a week or so depending on your upholstery. I’ll not lie to you; these cakes taste best when fried in lard, or, even better, bacon grease. If that makes you clutch your chest, use Crisco. Trust me, olive oil just isn’t right, and butter won’t take the heat. Most people I know make salmon patties with flour, but cornmeal gives a crispier crust and a better inside texture (flour tends to make it a bit gummy).

One 16 oz. can of salmon makes 4 to 6 cakes. Drain fish, reserving two tablespoons of the liquid. If you’re squeamish, remove the skin and bones, but I leave them in. Mix with one beaten egg, the liquid from the can, and about a half cup chopped green onion. Add enough white corn meal or mesa to make a thick batter. You should need very little salt; I like plenty of black pepper in mine. Form into patties, and fry in at least a quarter inch of oil. Brown, drain, place in oven at 200 for about ten minutes to crisp.

 

New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp

You’ll find no simpler recipe for shrimp from the Crescent City and few with less 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.

 

The Man Who Loved Christmas

First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr., as he was called, was a remarkable man, well-loved, and still missed by many, none more so than me, his last surviving child. 

If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.

And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.

Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.

The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.

He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.

The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t.  It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.

Jesse Yancy, Jr. (left) with his brother-in-law, Jim Young, as Santa.