While others might have a better idea of their families’ national or ethnic origins, for a long time I was adrift. The astrological DNA tests were no help, and who is to say that great-great grandad wasn’t a foundling or that great-great-grandma wasn’t a woman of less than impeccable virtue–if there is such a thing–who had a torrid affair with a blacksmith in Chattanooga before great-great-grandpappy–an accountant–had her put on a wagon and sent down the Natchez Trace?
For all I know, I have ancestors from Siberia, Senegal, and/or Malta, but if family surnames are any indication, I am a Welshman, and have for a very long time observed in my own way and always on my own the Welsh national holiday, St. David’s Day, March 1. Wales has many traditional dishes involving potatoes, mutton and lamb as well as the inevitable leek, also liver and pork meatballs called faggots, which are quite popular among the Brits, but of course versions of the recipe proliferate the globe.
Then there’s Welsh rabbit, which is made not with conies but that ineffable combination of bread, cheese, and beer. The most basic version involves thick slices of bread slathered in a thick cheese sauce made with Cheddar or some other substantial firm, off-white cheese with a slosh of your choice of beer (a good stout is excellent) and broiled. No one really knows any more how cheese on toast came to be called ‘rabbit’ or ‘rarebit’ (the variations in spelling seem to be arbitrary, and there are Scotch and English versions as well), but both Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin gave a recipe for ‘Lapin Gallois‘ and a ‘Wouelsche Rabette‘, which first appeared in Antoine Beauvilliers’ L’Art du Cuisinier in 1814. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.
Lightly toast thick slices of bread (I recommend a light wheat, though white cornbread works wonderfully ) and place in a very lightly oiled skillet, top with a sauce made with grated sharp cheddar (any hard, sharp and white or yellow cheese will do), a small amount of milk or blonde ale and some good prepared mild mustard (I use Zatarain’s Creole, about a teaspoon to a cup of sauce). Place in a very hot oven until bubbling and lightly browned. This is a great late-night dish, wonderful for cold-weather breakfasts, and kids love it because it’s cheesy and messy and it’s called rabbits.
Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply said anything) that Rose Budd Stevens was a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my pea-pickin’ heart.
Rose Budd Stevens was the pen name for Mamie Davis Willoughby. Stevens was born in Amite County, Mississippi and graduated from Liberty Agricultural High School in 1933. She attended Southwest Junior College at Summit, Mississippi, graduating in 1935. After graduation, she worked in the Amite County Extension office. She also worked as a payroll clerk for the Works Progress Administration in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a short time, afterwards returning to Amite County.
Stevens started writing in 1947 while she was on bed rest during her pregnancy. She wrote newspaper columns at home based on her experiences on Shady Rest Farm near Liberty, Mississippi. Her columns were homey topics about killing hogs, superstitious people, Christmas customs, and the like. One of her columns, “Along the R.F.D.” appeared regularly in local newspapers including Enterprise-Journal, the Carthaginian, and the Clarion-Ledger. Her columns were honored with awards from the National Federation of Press Women, the Mississippi Press Women’s Association, and Progressive Farmer magazine. She stopped writing in 1994 due to ill health. She died in 1996.
Mamie’s columns were collected in three books, all put out by University Press of Mississippi: Sweetly Be! (1990). From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (1988), and Along the RFD with Rose Budd Stevens (1987). For those of you who love the literature of the table, for anyone who enjoys hearing the voices of the past in concert with our own, Willoughby is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful works by a remarkable woman. This collection of folk etymology is from Sweetly Be!, the phrase she used to close her newspaper columns.
acid-Sour clabber that has been churned.
bagasse (baggus)-The part of the sugar cane stalk left after it has been put between heavy rollers to extract the juice.
band comb-Used by girls in the 1920s to keep hair from falling in their faces when they played outdoor games or studied by lamplight, when hair would make a shadow on the book or paper.
batt-A thin layer of cotton or wool fibers placed between pieces of material, as in a quilt. The raw fiber was put on one card (see entry for cards) and the other drawn over it until a thin batt was made, usually about five by eight inches. The cotton was picked in the fields and the seeds removed by children or mothers in spare time. The wool was sheared from sheep and worked in the same way,
bed tick-A sack affair made from ticking bought in stores. A bed-sized tick was stuffed with frazzled shucks, hay, or even dried leaves. Feather beds were made with feathers from chickens, ducks, and geese. My mother had two feather beds made with breast feathers from quail killed by my father on hunting trips. Our pillows were also made with quail breast feathers.
blue hole-Deep holes in Waggoner Creek where fishing and swimming places looked blue when early morning and afternoon sun shown on them. Most blue holes had willow trees growing on both sides of the creek.
branch-A small stream fed by underground springs or run-off from high farm land. Some are streams branched off from creeks or rivers; a wet weather branch is one that runs only after a heavy rain. Small ferns and green moss begin to grow within a matter of a few hours after a rain. This is a perfect place for children to play, as there are wide shallows only about ankle deep.
boley-holey biscuit-Biscuits prized by children anxious to get outside to play. Take one large flour biscuit, turn on edge, take the forefinger and bore a hole almost to the other side of the biscuit, put a dab of butter deep in the hole and finish filling with molasses. Squish gently so the syrup eases through the crumb inside the biscuit.
butter prints-Molded butter with pictures of animals, flowers, or writing on the top of the butter as it rests in the dish. Prints were usually made with a wooden mold in one-half pound and pound prints; my mother had five molds and Grandmother Budd had seven. Butter customers had their favorite pictures or letters, and Mama and Grandmother made sure each customer was happy with her weekly butter prints.
cards-A pair of hardwood brushes with wooden handles and fine metal teeth used to prepare cotton or wool fibers. One card was pulled downward while the other was pulled upward. Store-bought, these cards were almost a must for homemakers in the early 1900s. Dale and I have a pair of cards labeled “The Only Genuine Old Whittemore Patent No. 10 Cotton made by L. S. Watson & Co. Leicester, Mass.” We were told they are over 100 years old.
chinquapins-Nuts from the tree of the same name. Squirrels are especially fond of these nuts, which are slightly bitter in taste and crunchy in texture, Children camping out at night will sometimes roast the nuts over a little fire. Fair-skinned children with deep brown eyes are often said to have “chinquapin eyes.”
cooter shell–Shell of a terrapin, called a “cooter” by old time folks. Cooters were often caught, kept in pens near a stream of water, and fed on grass and kitchen scraps. Making cooter stew involved killing one or more terrapins, a stream, and the steam from the cooker would pass through the worm and condense into drops of moonshine better known as white lightning. Often when the law” came to destroy a still, they would take the copper worm as evidence that the still was out of operation.
conjure (conjer)-People thought a demon or an unjust spirit could be placed upon a person by someone who was born with a caul over his or her head or was a magician or sorcerer. These per sons could conjure another person, causing bad luck or happenings.
devil’s snuff box-A type of mushroom that grows on dead fallen trees or limbs. When ripe and dry, these round growths contain dark brown powder prized by many folks in years past for their healing power. A cut, gash, stab, or any wound where blood was flow ing would soon heal when one of these devil’s snuff boxes was squeezed over the wound and the powder allowed to settle. My grandmother would gather these puffballs and store them in glass jars in case of accidents. I too used these unique healers when our sons were small and were stumping toes, cutting fingers, and snagging themselves on fish hooks.
dog tick-Some types of female ticks that will bite their long teeth, which grow backward, into a person or animal and continue to grow, and becoming engorged with eggs. There may be as many as 5,000 eggs when the tick bursts; these eggs hatch and the cycle starts over again. Before the federal government made farmers and cattle ranchers dip their cattle, cows’ ears often drooped down to the sides of their faces from the weight of so many ticks. Rabbits and squirrels were sometimes so filled with ticks that they were not good for table food.
doughty-Soft, pasty looking, fat. This word was used in the old days by some black people to describe white people who were much overweight and sweated a lot.
dummy line-A high ridge through the forest where a rail line had been laid so that cut timber could be hauled from the woods. Flat cars were used to take the timber to the nearest freight depot. The engine was fueled with wood from the forest. When the rails were removed, the ridge became known as the dummy line.
enameled rug-A forerunner of linoleum rugs. Enameled rugs were printed with bright colors in pretty designs and patterns on heavy pasteboard backing. Mama yearned for a green-and-yellow checked design to match the yellow dyed fertilizer sack kitchen curtains. A five-by-eight-foot enameled rug cost around five dollars at the Liberty Mercantile run by our cousin Kate Terrell.
flying jennie-Country children enjoyed having a flying jennie on the school grounds. The trustee board, composed of male parents, would cut down a tall pine tree, leaving a stump about three feet tall. The stump would be whittled to a round stub about twelve inches high. The trunk of the fallen tree would have all limbs trimmed off and a hole would be bored to fit the projection on the stump, with a bit of room to spare. The stub on the stump and the hole in the tree trunk would be greased with hog fat, and pieces of boards would be nailed across the tree trunk for handholds. A child would get on each end of the tree trunk and hold on for dear life, while other children would begin pushing the tree trunk until it was fly. ing around. If a child happened to fall off, he knew not to stand up but to crawl to safety. Only the brave and hardy enjoyed the flying jennie!
foot log-A substitute for bridges over small streams and narrow places in creeks. A farmer would cut a tree on one bank, allowing it to fall across the stream. Once the limbs were trimmed off the trunk, a nice sturdy way to cross the water was in place for many years. Best of all, cows couldn’t walk across the foot log.
garden sass–In spring time when there were leaf and head lettuce, dill, radishes, tender greens, green onions, English peas, and mustard and turnip greens in the garden, Mama would send us out to gather garden sass for her noon meal. No root vegetables were called garden sass.
ground hog saw mill-A small saw mill used to clear all the timber from land that was to be farmed. A mill owner who went in without permission to clear cut would be called a ground hog
ground spewer-Very cold weather. Wet ground would spew up in ice, banks beside roads would have spewed clumps of ice, and barnyards would have horse and cow tracks filled with spewed ribbons of ice.
high water-A game of jump rope in which the thrown rope would be held high so that the jumper had to exert herself not to touch it. If she tired, she would say “calf rope” and not be called out.
lidered knots-Pieces of fat pine found in woods, mostly in the form of knots where limbs had grown from the trunks. Lidered knots are rich in turpentine and blaze quickly when lit. During possum hunting time, hunters often carried a flaming pine knot to light the way; these knots cost nothing at a time when coal oil for lanterns was fifteen cents per gallon.
mendets — Round pieces of metal with a cork pad between, used to mend articles such as cooking pots and pans made of granite, enamel, and aluminum. Hot water bottles can also be mended with these small interesting helpers. During the depression, housewives kept a card of mendets on hand. Here in my fifty-second year of marriage and housekeeping, I know exactly how many chicken dumplings plus meat from two chickens will fill a mended pan. The tiny mendet in one corner doesn’t spoil the pie.
milch cow-A cow giving milk, one kept for milking. The word was used by many farmers when speaking of their favorite cow with calf by her side; they said the word as it is spelled.
mill tail-On the banks of Waggoner Creek one of my fore parents had a cotton gin and grist mill both run by water power. There were tall heavy gates which, when closed, contained the creek water in what was called a “mill tail.” Water pouring over a dam caused the machinery to run; when water wasn’t needed, the gates were opened.
monument yard -A small park next door to the Presbyterian Church in Liberty. There is a marble monument listing the names of soldiers from Amite County killed in the Civil War. Cedar trees and benches made this a nice place to rest when Auntie and I made trips to the county seat.
mud cats-A slick-skinned fish similar to blue cats. Mud cats, which seldom grow over eight inches long, have a wide mouth with whiskers, are a muddy-blue color, and feed on the bottoms of small creeks and branches. These fish are a delight to children who enjoy bringing home a nice string of fish for their mama’s noon meal. Fried fish, hot biscuits, brown gravy, and rice make a feast, and best of all the children can say, “We furnished the fish for dinner.”
mutch-A cap worn by housekeepers to protect their hair from dust; also worn by those who want to hide kid curlers or unkempt hair. The cap is usually made from white material, and most have a ruffle around the edges for decoration. A drawstring keeps it snug over hair. These caps were worn years ago; it is said that the old women and children wore them in Scotland and France. Evidently the Scotch-Irish in our family brought this morning cap with them when they came to America.
oil sausage-These different and delicious sausages came in finger long sections packed in oil, usually in five-gallon cans. The sausages were made from ground beef and were highly seasoned and colored with red dye. They were a special treat for country people who wanted to buy a little snack in the grocery store: sausage, crackers, a slice of cheese, and a tall ice-cold pop. Dessert would be a ”stage plank,” which was a flat ginger cake with vivid pink icing-two came in a paper envelope. This lunch cost twenty cents. Our uncle Welch threw in the stage planks, saying, “You all brought me your trade, now it is my treat.”
opium gum-Around 1840 to 1870 opium gum could be bought in grocery stores or drug stores; it came in flattened, rather sticky, balls. Our great aunt Sallie often told me how the gum was used: a small piece would be sliced from the ball and placed between the gum and upper cheek, where it melted or dissolved. People often became addicted to this gum, especially women who had used it for pain relief during childbirth.
plunder (noun) — Lots of small things such as household necessities and equipment for animal doctoring. A semi-doctor (self-taught) carried a bag of home-grown medicine, bandages, etc., along with sharp knives, number eight sewing thread, a big-eyed needle, and other odds and ends. When K. Green came to doctor on any animal, he would put down his great big bag, saying, “Now let me get out my plunder and get to doctoring.”
Long ago, folks did not have much in the way of bought things in their homes-it was make do or do without. I recall homemade fly swatters, turkey wing fans, battling sticks used to beat washed and boiled clothes, graters made from tin cans nailed to a board and a dainty one made from a zinc screw top jar lid with the porcelain liner removed. Women carried many things in their purses: sugar biscuits for the baby when it cried in church, a chamois rag to wipe sweat from a brow, a hair net, hairpins, a string of spools for the toddler to play with when the sermon went on and on. Ask any woman back in the long ago what she had in her purse, and nine times out of ten you would hear, “Nothing much-lots of plunder.”
Our sons loved their plunder: homemade spinning tops, slingshots made from forked limbs, inner tube rubber for draw-backs, and an old shoe tongue for the rock holder, marbles made from red clay and vinegar, then baked in Mama’s wood stove, popguns made from elderberry stems and green chinaberries to shoot in the popguns.
plunder (verb)-When homes are broken into with robbery in mind and the thieves find nothing to their taste, they often plunder the home, breaking glass from the windows, spilling drawers on the floor, dragging mattresses outside and turning the hose on them, cutting carpets to shreds, tearing curtains from the windows-even quilts hanging on the walls for decoration are ripped down. All in the name of plunder.
pore folks’ tea– This kind of tea has been around for well over 100 years in our family. Natchez, where coffee and tea were bought on yearly trips, was a long way from Shady Rest, and pore folks’ tea was a hot drink easy to make from ingredients that were always on hand. You take one tablespoon of sugar and one tablespoon of sweet cream, place in a cup and stir well, and add boiling water. Grate a bit of nutmeg or a small piece of cinnamon bark for extra flavor. Take outside, sip, and enjoy country living. Our relatives who came from Ireland had small rocks that were full of holes or pores; one of these little rocks would be dropped in the cup with the cream and sugar and stirred well before the water was added. The rock was saved for another making of pore folks’ tea.
potato bank-A place to store sweet potatoes. You dig a hole about two feet across and one foot deep, pour in several buckets of washed rocks, and add layers of hay or oat straw. After potatoes are dug (do not wash), let them air dry under a shade tree for a day or two, then pile them on top of straw, cover with more hay or straw, and pour dry dirt over them (red clay is best) about six inches deep. Cover with boards and black tarpaper. Potatoes should not freeze in cold weather. When ready to have a mess of baked potatoes make a small opening at the top and remove as needed.
pre-salad days-From nine to teen years when the future seems far away.
raise Cain-A great commotion such as someone fussing at a child, servant, wife, or others when they can’t answer back.
rap-jack-A game children played in years past in which long limber switches were used. A line was drawn in the dirt and the child who had a switch in each hand would give a dare: “Don’t cross that line-if you do, I’m going to rap-jack you.” All raps were below the knees. Other children were standing around, hoping the two playing would tire and let the watchers have a chance. Sometimes one child would rap-jack a half dozen or more children and win the game. When a child wanted to give over and quit, he was supposed to yell “calf rope.” As a rule, when the rap-jacked children arrived at their homes, their parents finished their fussing with a whipping for good measure, even though parents considered it common for children to play rap-jack.
red bellies–Creek perch or sunfish; any fish with a reddish cast to the belly.
rusty (cut a rusty)-Older people as well as children can “cut a rusty.” Grown people become loud, cry, moan, and throw things when they are trying to get their way. Children have fits of temper, falling to the floor sobbing, weeping, and kicking, often taking their rusty cutting to the point of holding their breath until their faces turn blue. Our sister Bess was well known for her rusty cutting and on top of the smokehouse.
shivaree-A serenade to newlyweds. Country folks made a big thing out of the shivarees they gave when a just-married couple went to their new home or to the home of one set of parents; as a rule, there were more people at the shivarees than at the wedding. Noisemakers, singing, and rowdy jokes were part of the festivities. Catcalls were made to the newlyweds urging them to come out and greet the guests–at least to offer a cup of hot cider or a sip of moonshine. After a spell, the groom would have enough of this foolishness; often he would shoot a shotgun toward the sky with a promise that the next shot would be direct from the front porch.
shrub-A beverage made from fruit juices. Our shrubs are non-alcoholic.
skeeter hawks-Local name for dragonflies often seen around creeks, branches, and rivers where the water runs shallow.
skim beer-When sugar cane juice was cooked in open pans at syrup mills, a scum would rise to the top of the boiling juice and have to be removed with tin skimmers. The “skim” was put in wooden barrels and allowed to ferment until those who liked this beer said it was ready for drinking. Often homemade yeast cakes were dropped in the fermenting juice to hasten the working time of the beer. Skim beer would be drawn from the bottom of the barrels through an inserted piece of green hollow reed cane (found growing near the Old Lake) in the bung holes. When the beer was drawn off, workers drank their fill and often had to take naps on the baggus pile. It was said this beer had the kick of a wall-eyed mule.
slide-A wooden box with green oak runners nailed to the bot tom. Slides were used to haul fertilizer, feed, seeds, children, and firewood in small amounts and to gather corn when harvest time came. One man could pull corn and drive the slide from one end of the row to another, thereby making it possible for other family members to do farm chores as needed. Slides were pulled by horse, mule, oxen, goat and, for short distances, men and women. Children especially loved having a slide made for them, getting a billy goat to pull it, and directing him up and down the country roads. Haying their very own farm equipment on a smaller scale made them feel important
stomp-In olden times when horse, ox, or mule power was used to pull wagons, buggies, carriages, carts, and slides, and when people rode horseback, front yards were used for hitching the animals; most families had large yards where the unhitched animals could move about. When company came the host would say, “Unhitch your stock so they can stomp about and rest.” This is how the word stomp came about. On Shady Rest there was an acre front yard or stomp
stork scissors-A small pair of scissors made in the shape of a long-legged stork, used to do dainty cutwork embroidery. The long bill of the stork made the cutting blades. Sewing kits, baskets, and boxes came with these interesting bright gold-colored scissors, along with threads of all colors, needles, tape measure, a needle threader, and a small Bible
sugar teat-Take half of a small flour biscuit, place on a square of clean white cloth, put a lump of butter on the biscuit, cover both with a generous sprinkle of sugar, gather edges of cloth, twist together, and tie with a strip of cloth, making sure the edges stick up enough for the child to hold on to so he or she will not swallow the teat. Using your fingers, mash the whole thing until it starts oozing through the cloth. Give to one fussy crying child to suck on.
thumps-Extra heartbeats, thought by old folks to be caused by too much coffee. The person with thumps had to rest and fan until it passed. Our aunt Eula, a confirmed coffee drinker who kept the coffee pot filled the whole day, was often seen resting with a cold cloth on her forehead, recovering from thumps. Now people speak of heart palpitations.
toady-The look of a warty toad frog, with bumps and freckles.
toll-When farm folks went to the grist mill to have corn ground into meal, hominy, chicken chops, or cow feed, the mill owner would keep a portion of the corn for his pay. This was called toll. It was usually a pound of unground for twenty pounds of ground corn. Syrup makers would take one gallon toll out of each fifteen gallons of molasses made at their mill
tommy walkers-A pair of poles fitted with foot rests about three feet from the ground. These are also called stilts.) As a rule, there would be a leather strap from the foot rest to the pole, leaving space for the foot. At Shady Rest tommy walkers were made from green sweet gum saplings with the limbs trimmed off. We went stalking about the yard and pastures on these poles and often had races. Taking them to school was a no-no!
velvet beans-Beans that were fed in the pods to cattle. Velvet beans were planted in the fields at the same time corn was, and the vines climbed up the corn stalks, blooming and making clusters of fuzzy pods. The velvet beans had to be pulled before the corn could be gathered; workers went through the fields of corn, picking the beans by hand and putting them in long sacks which dragged on the ground. This was an awful task, as the fuzz from the pods stung like ants. Strong men were known to leave the field, run to Waggoner Creek or Agnes Branch, jump into the water, and stay until their bodies were at ease. Milk cows were especially fond of these beans and would often break into a corn field to feast on the beans before they were dry enough to pick.
water glass eggs-Eggs that were put down for winter storage in water glass-a syrupy liquid made from dissolving sodium silicate in water. A five-gallon stone crock would be filled with infertile eggs (fertile ones would not keep) and the water glass poured over the eggs to seal the pores and preserve them.
water house-An area on the front or back porch where people could wash up. A shelf nailed between two posts about three feet from the porch floor would hold water buckets with dippers, wash bowls, or wash pans, along with soap dishes, which were often small cooter shells, one holding sweet soap and the other pine tar soap. Towels would be hung on wooden pegs on the posts, or if a roller towel was used it would be nailed to a nearby wall. Often water houses were latticed in to shade bathers from the morning sun. Elephant ears were usually planted at the edge of the porch by the water house; the soapy water caused the plants to grow so tall they often reached the porch eaves. One neighbor known for his odd ways would be bathing on his front porch, naked as a jay bird; if he heard a buggy or horseback rider coming, he would run over and squat behind a porch rocker, much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife.
Pasta salads seem to come and go, but they’re always here, and the best ones are robust, the pasta providing a springboard for any number of wonders. This recipe has enough and to spare, since the rich and textured binding will embrace many types of additions. Simple elbow macaroni makes a great salad because it’s fluffier than other hollow pasta, and you can’t beat it for economy and availability. The other ingredients are just as familiar, and the combination is exceptional as well as spectacular. The recipe is also easily doubled, tripled or whatnot. For an evening meal make it in the morning, and for lunch the night before, but mind you this dish doesn’t keep well at all, not more than a weekend, less if it’s handled or kept out very much at all.
16 oz. large elbow macaroni, cooked
2 cups ham diced sautéed until lightly caramelized
1 cup each finely diced raw bell pepper, white onion (half green is great, too) and celery
1/2 cup finely-grated carrot
1/2 cup sliced/diced black olives
6 boiled egg yolks mashed
1 cup mayonnaise,
1 cup small raw broccoli florets
2 tbs. yellow and 1 tbs. spicy brown mustard
2 tbs. pickle relish
Scripture cake is a kitchen riddle that compels cooks to consult a work holding far more potential than dessert, but even those with the most in-depth knowledge of the written Word would have to consult chapter and verse before making it for the first time. Scripture cakes are an old pass-along recipe, a premiere example of culinary evangelism.
1 1/2 cups Judges 5:25
2 cups Jeremiah 6:20
2 cups 1 Samuel 30:12
2 cups Nahum 3:12
1 cup Numbers 17:8
2 tsp. 1 Samuel 14:25
4 1/2 cups 1 Kings 4:22
6 of Jeremiah 17:11
1 1/2 cup Judges 4:19
2 tsp. Amos 4:5
a pinch of Leviticus 2:13
season to taste with:
2 Chronicles 9:9
Follow Solomon’s prescription for making a good boy in Proverbs 23:14. Bake at 350 until done.
This sinfully delicious and beautifully iconic blue cheese dressing will make your mouth water and your taste buds sing: silky and salty with a hint of sweetness, a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton. It is a beautiful thing; that is, until you have had to make it for a fine dining restaurant on the fly. This recipe is by far one of the most temperamental that I have ever used. Everything has to be just right, including proper alignment of the stars and planets, and even then it might not work. However, I highly recommend giving it a whirl. The depth and flavor of this dressing is not like anything I have had before or since I worked at the Downtown Grill. We eventually retired it, and I came up with an easier alternative for the prep cooks to make; it would do, but it’s nowhere near as good as this one.
I started my professional culinary career at the Downtown Bar and Grill. I was a prep cook which meant I was the low man on the totem pole, the grunt; it was my job to do whatever the chefs needed me to do and get yelled at constantly for either not doing it properly or quick enough or both. That being said, I could hold my own and for the most part the guys gave me as much respect as a chef will give a prep cook (which ain’t much). I was allowed and expected to make everything and anything the guys needed for service, except of course the blue cheese dressing. Why would they not let me make it? And why did I never see it being made and why was only one person allowed to handle this recipe?
I would soon find out when I saw my name on the prep sheet aside the blue cheese dressing on a football Friday of an Ole Miss home game, in other words no room for error. Had I finally moved up to the upper echelon and was so bad ass that I was going to be allowed to make the sacred and secret blue cheese recipe that only Alison Wilkes was allowed to make? Alison was the Queen of the Downtown Grill and the most difficult recipes were given to her and her alone. It was at that moment I realized that for the first time during my shift Alison was off that night; she had worked earlier in the day and during the chaos the blue cheese was overlooked. The chef forgot to put it on the prep sheet! It was not the call to greatness I thought I had earned, it was out of pure necessity that I was allowed to make this recipe for the first time, much to the trepidation of the chefs as well as me.
There was really no room for failure now, all eyes were on me. I had no idea of the tediousness of executing this recipe, how everything has to be perfect: the measurements, the order of the ingredients as you add them, the temperature of the kitchen and the weather (not even kidding). I had no idea that this recipe had a 99% failure rate for anyone who tried to make it besides Alison. As I was reading through the recipe I remembered two things that Alison had told me prior to my employment at the Downtown Grill when we were just lifetime buddies. I remembered Alison talking about this recipe and that it gave her great pleasure basking in the joy of being only 1 of 20 people in a professional kitchen who could make this dressing that the Grill was so famous for; I also remembered her telling two key pieces of information as to why her always turns out, two things that were NOT written in the recipe. One, that there are three separate ingredients which are incorporated in one at a time, and they have to be added in alphabetical order: EOV; eggs, oil and vinegar. Two, everything has to be basically the same temperature, the bowls for the mixtures, the ingredients, air temp, all the same. Again, these instructions were not included in the recipe, so who knew? Well, Alison, of course.
So armed with this key information, I started the process, praying the whole time; please God let the dressing turn out. As I added the final mixture of vinegar the angels started to sing. ‘Holy crap!’ it’s working, I thought. I could see it coming together. To my surprise, I had done it, but instead of jumping up and down and screaming, which is what I wanted to do, I quietly tucked into my corner, not saying a peep, just getting the sacred dressing ready for service and storage. Then I casually walked up to the chef, container in hand. “Here you go chef. Do you need any on the line?”
Y’all, his jaw literally dropped. “What the hell!” he said. “You actually got it to turn out! We were planning on cussing at you for your futile attempt to make something that couldn’t be made.”
“Guess I just got lucky chef!” I said, remembering something else I learned from Alison: “Never tell the bastards anything.”
Downtown Grill Blue Cheese Dressing
2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
4-8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
In a blender whip the eggs for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a little at a time, until it starts to come together. Then add the vinegar in which the spices and seasonings have been whisked until it’s the right consistency. Remove from blender and crumble blue cheese into mixture.
The importance of “little magazines” to American publishing, to American literature, is vastly underrated. Devoted to serious literature, usually avant-garde, non-commercial, and almost always short-lived, these periodicals showcase voices that otherwise might be ignored. In Bohemian New Orleans, Jeff Weddle tells the story of one such journal and the publishing house that grew around it.
In 1932, a failed jewelry heist in Cleveland, Ohio, sent John Edgar Webb to the penitentiary for three years. While in stir, he edited the prison newspaper and, after his release, wrote a novel about his experience that caught the attention of Norman Mailer and led to a brief flirtation with Hollywood. Jon and his wife Louise traveled around for some years, then settled in New Orleans, in the Vieux Carré, which was a Dixie Bohemia, a haven for free spirits, musicians, artists, and writers. In New Orleans, the Webbs lived and breathed art. Lou made a living selling watercolors in the infamous Pirate’s Alley, across the street from their apartment, and Jon worked as a freelance writer and editor.
But he was passionate about creating the kind of literary magazine that would attract poets, writers, and artists to invest in the publication. After a good deal of preliminary groundwork and networking and a year of production (it was typeset, collated, and bound in the Webbs’ tiny Royal Street apartment), the first issue of The Outsider—three thousand copies—came out in 1960. The four issues of The Outsider appeared between 1961-1968. Each publication was hand-set, hand-cut, hand-sewn, and hand decorated. Distributed globally with the help of the B. Deboer distribution company and a network of contacts around the world, The Outsider gave a resounding voice to Beats, Black Mountain poets, Pacifists, and the Black Radicals. Its long list of contributors included writers such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Langston Hughes, and Kenneth Patchen.
The remaining Loujon catalog consists of Charles Bukowski’s It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Crucifix in a Deathhand (1964) and Henry Miller’s Order and Chaos chez Hans Reichel (1967) and Insomnia, or the Devil at Large (1970). Crucifix in a Deathhand was the last Loujon publication done in New Orleans. The Miller books and a final, double-issue Outsider (1968-69) were published in Tucson, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque, respectively. When Jon Webb died in Nashville in 1971, Lou was incapable of maintaining the intensive production work required for what one reviewer called, “The Rolls-Royce of little magazines.”
“The Webbs did their work with style, and people in the know understood that, while there were other good publishers, there really was no better small press operation in the country than Loujon,” Weddle says. Charles Bukowski said the magazine was “the cave of the gods and the cave of the devils … it was the place, it was in … it was literature jumping and screaming.” Jeff Weddle provides us with a closer look at an extraordinary couple who made a powerful contribution to mid-century American literature. Bohemian New Orleans is a wonderful read, full of triumphs and intriguing possibilities. Those who enjoy this work (as I did) should also get Wayne Ewing’s film The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press.
It’s a shame that I feel compelled to call this recipe “homemade,” but canned tomato soup is such a ubiquitous commodity, even to the point of becoming iconic art. Some might carp because the tomatoes used here are canned, and sure, in the best of all possible worlds, we would waltz out to our gardens, pluck a dozen luscious, slightly over-ripe plum tomatoes from our thriving vines (growing in certified organic compost, etc.), throw them together with twelve other locally-sourced, heirloom herbs and vegetables and make zuppa. I, however, don’t live in a perfect world, not even, I suspect, in the best of all possible worlds, and canned tomatoes, even store-bought, are a good product. If you have home-canned, well, of course, that’s red gold.
This recipe is quite simple, easily built upon for any number of great soups. Finely dice a small white onion; you want about a cup of root. Put a scant tablespoon or so of oil—olive oil is fine, of course, but that puts a stamp on your variants—in 2-quart pan, add the onion, and cook on a very low heat until the onions are soft and translucent. This, children, is called “sweating,” and you do not want the vegetable to brown much, if at all. To this, add two cups of good, flavorful chicken broth. Increase heat and let simmer for about fifteen minutes or so. Add 6 ounces of tomato paste, and a 14-ounce can of stewed tomatoes. I use plain tomato paste and the “classic” stewed tomatoes, which has a minimum of seasonings along with a few dried vegetables (onion, sweet pepper, and celery). You can wiggle a knife around in the can to chop the tomatoes up a bit before adding them to the pot. I do. Let this stew 10 minutes or so before serving.
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) wears the crown in the laurel family’s royal culinary heritage, but two of its close American cousins can claim coronets at the very least. The first of these is the red or swamp bay (Persea borbonia) that grows all along the Gulf Coast. Before the advent of imported bay, swamp bay brought the essence of laurel to our regional cuisine, but is largely neglected now. The American cousin of L.nobilis that deserves senior status is sassafras.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is the most widely-known laurel my part of the world, that being the American South. Heather Sullivan, curator of the herbarium at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, said, “Both older and younger trees have the aromatic oils that are associated with this family, which you can generate by either scratching the bark on the younger trees or cutting the bark of the older trees. In March, sassafras bear tiny yellow flowers grouped in clusters, and appear before the leaves emerge. When the tree is in leaf, sassafras is one of the easiest trees to identify, as it usually has three different leaf shapes: a mitten, a glove and a solid leaf, which are spicy and aromatic when crushed.”
Sullivan said that a large sassafras might reach two feet in diameter and 80 feet in height. “The tree has not had much use in modern landscaping,” she said, “which is unfortunate, because the fall color is a party of reds, oranges, yellows and browns.” She also adds that sassafras “is familiar to many older residents in the state,” (thanks, Heather), but given my hillbilly ancestry, I find it appropriate that sassafras became familiar to me very early in my life as an ingredient for a tea that was used as a spring tonic. According to The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (a must-have for any Southern kitchen library), roots and twigs gathered in the spring are washed, pounded to a pulp and boiled, then strained and sweetened. A little later on, I found out about sassafras beer (call it fate), and even later found out that it’s an ingredient of sarsaparilla, too.
Now, a quick caveat of sorts; sassafras oil, derived from the roots and bark, is a main source of safrole, a phenylpropene also found in cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg and basil, that was banned by the FDA because of its carcinogenicity in lab rats. Safrole is also classified as a List I chemical by the USDEA because of its role in the manufacture of MDMA (ecstasy). But you know what? I wouldn’t worry about it too much; it’s been proven that safrole is about as dangerous as the limonene found in orange juice and the caffeic acid found in tomatoes, and I’m damn sure not going to give up eating tomatoes on account of lab rats. I still don’t drink orange juice, but that’s because of an Anita’s rant. I grew up listening to Hank Williams, and while I knew all about lost highways early on, it took me many years to discover that the filé gumbo he sings about is made with powdered sassafras leaves, which is exactly what filé is. The word “filé” is the past participle of the French filer, meaning “to spin thread”, and that’s precisely what filé does when added to a hot pot of gumbo, binding the liquid, thickening it and adding the essence of bay. Of course you’re also going to have a few L. nobilis leaves in there as well (preferably fresh, of course; it does grow here in central Mississippi with shelter from the very coldest conditions)but sassafras adds a pungency all its own, robust and heady.
Given that sassafras is the definitive American laurel, you should not be surprised to learn that filé was used as a thickening/seasoning agent in potages long before gumbo came along. In Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, the authors cite an article in the 1929 edition of The Picayune Carole Cookbook explaining that filé was first manufactured by the Choctaws in Louisiana. “The Indians used sassafras for many medicinal purposes, and the Creoles, quite quick to discover and apply, found the possibilities of the powdered sassafras, or filé, and originated the well-known dish, Gumbo Filé.” They also add that though the Picayune was on the right track when crediting the Choctaw with filé, “it might have gone a bit further in crediting them with the invention of gumbo and the general use of powdered sassafras in cooking.” After all, “if the Choctaw had not set the precedent, it is doubtful that even the intrepid Creoles would have used a medicine to thicken their stews.”
Even after the rest of us got here and cultivated okra, filé remained an essential element of what came to be known as gumbos. Both filé and okra render a liquid thicker by means of strands of gelatinous (if not to say mucilaginous) substances I can’t even begin to describe, and for this very reason, they should be used sparingly together. Okra takes to stewing, but filé does not. If you’re using filé as a primary thickening agent, use a little in the last few minutes, and then offer a small bowl around the table for dusting. Filé is available in most supermarkets, but look at the label. If it doesn’t say “sassafras”, don’t buy it. A far better option is to make your own, which is easily done by finding a tree and gathering young leaves, preferably under a full moon and in the nude, of course. Dry them, crush them and then put them through a fine sieve. Store as you would any powdery substance. You know the drill.
Treat quiche as a savory custard. You can add anything to it: onions, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, asparagus, ham, shrimp, fish (salmon is very good with roasted garlic), spinach, tomatoes or peppers, just drain any really, really well so you won’t water down the eggs. For a quiche with the smoothest consistency, beat together very well six large eggs and 2 cups of heavy cream; you can use half-and-half in a pinch, but milk, even whole milk, won’t give you the best meld. Season with salt and pepper; nutmeg is traditional, but I never seem to have any on hand. Pour half of this mixture into an 8-in. crust, add whatever other ingredients, then pour on the rest of the egg mixture. Top with a little more cheese for dining room drama and bake at 375 for about 30 minutes or until the top is puffed and slightly browned. Cool on a counter rack and brush with melted butter before slicing and serving. A good butch quiche such as a Psilocybin Popeye (mushrooms with spinach) goes well with Pilsner. And lots of it.
My father Jess Jr. was very much a man of the moment; charismatic, spontaneous and imbued with a zest for living. Naturally, being married to such a man made my mother Barbara very happy, but it also kept her in a state of continual apprehension as to what mischief might spring into his mind at any given time.
She often told us the story of being invited to a party in Oxford at a grand home on South Lamar. Barbara was understandably nervous, not knowing the hosts, but Jess had taken great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the judge and knew him well. Once they had passed under the ancient trees to the spacious porch and rang the doorbell, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.”
“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “I hope you people know that we are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryings-on here are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”
This being during the time before Prohibition was lifted in Mississippi, the assembly of well-heeled Oxonians and distinguished Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said the silence was so vast you could hear traffic on the Square four blocks away, and she was about to faint when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink and Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”