Classic Scalloped Potatoes

Most people add cheese to scalloped potatoes as a matter of course, though purists will claim that real scalloped potatoes are baked in a white sauce. It should go without saying that I belong to the purist school. I make a blond roux with butter, add enough whole milk or a mixture of whole milk and heavy cream to make a somewhat thin sauce, which I season with salt and white pepper. I then parboil red (waxy) potatoes, peel and slice thinly, layer them in a glass or porcelain baking dish, spooning the sauce between the layers. This is baked in a medium-high oven (350 or so) until the potatoes are tender through and the top somewhat browned.

Hummingbird Cake

The story of the hummingbird cake begins on the island of Jamaica, on the northern shore in an estate called “Goldeneye” on a cliff overlooking Oracabessa Bay where in 1960 former British naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming began a story (For Your Eyes Only) about a British Secret Service agent that began, “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.”

Fleming purloined the name for his dashing, daredevil secret agent, code name “007”, from that of the American ornithologist James Bond, a Caribbean bird expert and author of the definitive field guide Birds of the West Indies (1936). Fleming, a keen birdwatcher himself, had a copy of Bond’s guide and he later explained to the ornithologist’s wife that “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born”. He further explained, “When I wrote the first one in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument … when I was casting around for a name for my protagonist I thought by God, (James Bond) is the dullest name I ever heard.” (Ian Fleming, The New Yorker, 21 April 1962).

The doctor bird or red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus), also known as the scissor-tail hummingbird, is indigenous to Jamaica where it is the most abundant and widespread member of the hummingbird family (Apodiformes, “without feet”; they’re grouped with the swifts). While it might be somewhat of a stretch that the doctor bird was chosen as the national avian symbol of Jamaica owing to the notoriety of the bird in a James Bond story, it’s a certainty that after Air Jamaica was established in October 1968, the new company chose the doctor bird as its logo. Shortly thereafter the Jamaica Tourism Board distributed recipes to the foreign media showcasing various ‘local’ dishes aimed for American consumers and intended to attract American visitors to the island, as reported in the March 29, 1969 issue of the Kingston Daily Gleaner (Jamaica): “Press kits presented included a Jamaican menu modified for American kitchens and featured the doctor bird cake made from bananas.”

Food historians generally cite Mrs. L.H. Wiggins’ recipe published in the February, 1978 issue of Southern Living magazine (p. 206) as the first widely-distributed recipe for “Hummingbird Cake.” The recipe features ripe bananas and canned crushed pineapple lightly accented with cinnamon. It is made with oil, and as such is akin to carrot, zucchini, and applesauce cakes that utilize chemical leavening and eggs without the creaming of butter to create an intensely moist, rich cake. It is typically paired with cream cheese frosting and baked in two or three round layers or a Bundt pan. Here is the original 1978 recipe from Southern Living:

Hummingbird Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups salad oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, undrained
2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts, divided
2 cups chopped bananas
Cream cheese frosting (recipe follows)

Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl; add eggs and salad oil, stirring until dry ingredients are moistened. Do not beat. Stir in vanilla, pineapple, 1 cup chopped pecans, and bananas; spoon batter into 3 well-greased and floured 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees F. For 25 to 30 minutes; remove from pans, and cool immediately. Spread frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake. Sprinkle with 1 cup chopped pecans.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 (16 ounce) packages powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine cream cheese and butter; cream until smooth. Add powdered sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla. Yield: enough for a 3 layer cake.

Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Cake

This recipe is the only one I’ve ever used, and the only one you’ll ever need. Many recipes label alcoholic ingredients—in this case the dark rum—optional, but I consider the flavor essential to the recipe; even if you’re a teetotaler, the alcohol burns off in the cooking and good heavens you’re bound to know someone with a bottle around the house. I like a mix of gold and dark raisins and prefer salted pecans to walnuts. Like so many great cakes, this one is best made the day before.

Mix thoroughly ¾ cup vegetable oil and ¾ cup warm buttermilk with ¾ cup white and ¾ cup light brown sugar (you don’t have to pack it). Set aside. Sift together 2 ½ cups plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons each ground cinnamon and ground ginger, a teaspoon salt and a couple dashes of nutmeg. Add half the dry ingredients to the oil/buttermilk mixture, and the rest alternately with 4 well-beaten eggs at room temperature. Add two cups grated carrots, about ¾ cup raisins, ¾ cup chopped nuts and a cup of drained crushed pineapple. Finish off with a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a generous slug of dark rum (okay, three ounces). Pour batter into a Bundt or two 9 in. layer pans and bake at 375 until fragrant and springy. For the frosting, mix a pound of cream cheese and ½ stick butter at room temperature with powdered sugar to texture, a teaspoon almond extract and grated orange zests. Dust with nuts.

The Guerilla Gallimaufrian

I call him Sir Yancy; he comes back, in a lighthearted reference to his North Mississippi upbringing, with “Earl of Calhoun, Knight of the Linoleum Table.”  But we both agree, for how he has transformed an empty urban abandonment into a both beloved and maligned oasis, that Jesse Lee Yancy III is Guerilla Gardener Extraordinaire.

In 2007, Jesse started a corner flower and vegetable garden, cautiously low-key, on neglected property near his small apartment building. On land that he didn’t own. It’s called guerilla gardening – gardening on someone else’s property. Nothing can stop the owners of the space from taking a mower to it, any time. But for years, nothing had been done in the weedy, 5- or 6-foot wide space baking between the street curb and an unused, shaded parking lot. With a “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” shrug, he stood up a chipped old birdbath and dug a few flowers, vegetables, and culinary herbs into the hard clay.

We crossed paths soon afterwards, following several of his somewhat pointed emails about my thoughts on the legality of what he was doing (including planting cotton other than on a real farm, forbidden by state law).

Turns out, Jesse, whose conversational face belies a fierce advocacy spirit (social issues, saving trees at a local park), is not your run-of-the-mill dabbler. He puts physical, mental, and spiritual effort into his insecure garden, just as he brings his university literature background to virtual pen in his prolific blog about…well, everything Southern, including beloved writers, classic Southern cuisine, heirloom plants, social relations, and local history and lore. What he quickly developed became as good an example of garden gallimaufry as you will find, a mulched horticopia of Southern heirloom plants and cast-off broken objets trouvé.

From the street, as with most maverick gardens, it appears a chaotic tumble of flowers, vegetables, herbs, and tropical plants, patches of seedlings tucked between withered wildflowers whose seed are drying for next year, vine-covered arches and trellises, assorted containers including inverted tires, unkempt piles of soil, compost, and mulch, and rough little walkways winding through it all. However, after just a short chat with its creator, its long-view sensibilities are revealed.

“My little corner of the world is, as one person put it, a ‘garden of the moment’ as if there were such a thing. And while I’ve learned a lot from other gardeners, most of the best lessons I’ve discovered the hard way, by screwing up and having to correct them.”

“I started the garden after the death of my last remaining sibling left me at loose s, as a form of therapy more than anything. Over time it has helped me regain focus – gardening is a patient art, and it makes you slow down and look at things. It also helps you learn how to care, to think outside yourself. The garden grew slowly, and it’s probably better that I don’t have a truck or equipment because that has taught me to use what I can find: fallen leaves, sticks, pieces of broken concrete, discarded lumber and wire. I work with what the world provides.”

When it came to choices of where to grow plants, Jesse had three choices: Containers, dense Yazoo clay, or raised beds atop hard concrete paving.

His pots are filled with whatever potting soil he can get help hauling. The hard clay is hand-dug as deep as practical, the hard clods broken up and mixed with leaves, bark, and compost, with each digging and planting getting easier.  Atop the concrete of the parking lot, he shaped beds with logs and tree limbs, and filled in with more limbs, branches, leaves, and whatever else he could glean, topped with compost. It’s an ancient practice called hügelkultur – mound culture, which is ideal for difficult or dry sites; as these materials break down in his moist, humid climate they become decent soil. Takes time but works like a cheap charm.

As he puts it, “It’s a lot like cooking, starting with the most basic potato and gravy ingredients and building on that. I’m not a GREAT cook; worked as a journeyman chef for 14 years but I’m not one of these geniuses you read about being in the foodie press. I do, however, know what will work and won’t work in most any given situation. Same with my garden, unsophisticated with its pell-mell plants of anything hither and thither that will grow. Having said that, I am proud of its success in having even become a garden in the first place. And though my resources are quite limited, I’m very proud of my little pied a terre.”

From midwinter antique daffodils to late Autumn asters, Jesse grows an astounding menagerie of unusual plants, both tall and short. Black castor bean and brown cotton lock in a season-long pas de deux amidst the swirling ballroom of burgundy okra, bright red roselle, edible greens – mustards, turnips, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards, and colorful lettuces – and all-season wildflowers. He also provides a safe refuge for faded poinsettias, Easter lilies, and other cast-off holiday plants, often creating seasonal hedges with them. It’s partly possible because, tiny as the garden is, Jesse knows exactly where the sunny areas stay moist longer than others, how much shade is acceptable for sun plants and how much sun shade plants can tolerate.

“I’ve discovered to start big annuals like cosmos, peppers, and sunflowers in small containers and transplant rather than scatter-sowing and thinning. It gives the spring flowers time to bloom out and give up some room. And when the cold comes I cover cardoon and fledgling hollyhocks, since they’re in the path of the rolling frost that flows down Peachtree street and leaps over the hill into my garden.    I’ve come to the belated conclusion there THERE’S NO HURRY. I mean, good grief, we have 9 month growing season here, and I’ve finally stocked the space with enough pretty perennials (however run-of-the-mill they might be) not to have to worry about getting the annuals in when the daffodils bloom. It’s a constant struggle, finding room for everything and making room for new. Not to put too fine a point on it, anything that’s in my bed for six months and doesn’t put out simply has to go!”

The plants in Jesse’s garden are curious phenomenon in the bigger picture as well. It’s an informal corner-of-the-world test plot for what the international Slow Food Foundation calls the Ark of Taste which collects and celebrates the sometimes-obscure food plants that help define cultures. Southerners, think “moon and Stars” watermelon and its pickles, white-fleshed Nancy Hall sweet potato, and white velvet okra. Jesse showcases and shares some of these prized culinary rarities as a way of helping stem the ebbing away of the extraordinary traditions of which they are part.

To highlight just one, there’s his unknown garlic he calls Pocahontas. “When a friend from Pocahontas dropped off his garlic for my garden all these many years ago, he piled the dried knobby stems in a haybale near the parking lot wall, and ever since then I’ve had Pocahontas garlic coming up there. In the late winter the leaves, all lovely to behold, nod like old men in a spring sun. It’s a tough plant, always late no matter where you plant it (at least it is for me) but keeps going and is prolific.”

“My corner garden is very much a passalong garden, not only because I don’t have a lot of money but also because the garden was designed from the beginning to be a “mother ship” for neighboring gardens. People can pass by and browse, and they share plants and seeds. Most times this simple act of sharing is the beginning of a friendship, and more often than not the friendships last longer than the plants.”

Jesse shares much of his largesse with neighbors, helping newbies get started, and donating extra plants to local plant sales. But in a determined nod to keeping on the good side of everyone, he takes it a step farther. Jesse’s community has informal libraries – colorful weatherproof stands where neighbors freely drop off and borrow books from one another. But for years Jesse has pioneered the “little corner herbary” concept in which he carefully places culinary herbs where neighbors can snip a little rosemary, oregano, or whatever they need.

“Height and color are primary visual objectives when it comes to street traffic, but scents, and something good to eat, can quickly pull pedestrians in and get hooked. Especially children.”

“It’s not entirely altruistic, just to keep these plants and practices alive with new people; if I don’t make the corner a neighborhood resource then there’s every chance of losing it to someone’s vapid idea of a ‘neighborhood improvement’ project. The more people touch and eat from my garden, the more learn to love it.”

“I come from a small town in north Mississippi where people are habitually friendly and cordial. But here in the city, people walking their dogs or strolling their kids don’t greet me while I’m puttering in the garden. A few passersby will stop and chat a bit, but many just nod or wave, maybe tarry a bit to watch me digging, weeding or pruning, without saying a damn thing, just stand there and stare at me. Some discuss what I’m doing between themselves as if I were some sort of deaf automaton. I find this very strange; am I crazy?”

“Also, a lot of earnest folks who come by give advice, want to micro-manage the garden for me, and I’m grateful for sure. Luckily it’s easy for me to feign that I had no idea that “four-o’-clocks or goldenrod can get away from you in a heartbeat.” I have to smile and agree, then go on with what I was doing. They also give me art to put in place, gnomes and pretty rocks and old trellises and all sorts of sundry things. I’ve had to find a place for everything, because they’re going to come looking for whatever they gave you one day.”

“Roger Swain, the Boston native and host of the Victory Garden, once said, ‘Mississippi IS a garden.’ And he was right. The problem is, it’s not being cared for. I simply found a piece and started caring for it. It wasn’t my piece of Mississippi, but that’s what guerilla gardening is all about: Gardening on someone else’s property. If the city ever decides to rework the neighborhood street, my garden might be paved. It’s been fun, but sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world). Meanwhile, things grow apace. You know of my vast plans, conquering what I can one foot at a time. It’s been a lot of effort; my old body is displaying aches unknown for many years, but frankly I feel the better for it, as evidence of physical competency if nothing else.”

“I’m determined to let things run their course, grow and flourish as they will and should, and I’ve already concocted new projects that will make the most use of it.”

(from the book, Maverick Gardeners, by Felder Rushing (UPressMS: March 2021)

Ruby’s Roadhouse Omelette

While I worked in west Florida during the 1980s, I came to know people from all over the world. Then there was Ruby Ruth Reese, a down-home girl who grew up in what she called “the woargrass (wiregrass)” region of south Alabama.

Ruby Ruth (“Call me ‘Roo’”) had a heart of gold, but she was just as mean as she could be to all those displaced Yankees we worked with in Florida. She liked me because, as she once put it, “You’re just tryin’ to rise above your raisin’, like me.” She even claimed to have relatives in Tupelo, but I think she just said that because she knew I was homesick all the time. Hell, the only reason she knew about Tupelo was because of Elvis.

Roo told me she worked in a truck stop in Geneva County, Alabama during the Sixties, and if they knew you well enough, and you ordered something “to go”, you’d pay five dollars more, and they’d slip you a bottle of whiskey under the counter before you left. They also made what they called ham and egg pie that most of their customers would order to eat by themselves. Roo often made these for us to share on our lunch, which we took around two in the afternoon when we’d had a busy day. I’ve fancied it up a little bit with the cheddar cheese (she used American slices), parsley, and green onions. She’d fuss at me for that.

8 large eggs
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup diced white onion
1/2 cup diced cooked potatoes
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup diced ham
chopped parsley/green onion
salt and black pepper

Beat eggs and cream very well with salt and black pepper. Hint: add a splash of water, no more than a couple of tablespoons while beating; this helps the rise and keeps it moist. Heat an 8-in. skillet, add a half stick of butter. Once butter is sizzling, sauté onions and ham, then add half the egg mixture, shaking the pan as you do. Mix cheese and potatoes with remaining eggs. Once eggs begin to set, add the rest of the egg mixture, then pop into a very hot (450) oven until firm and lightly brown.

 

Roasted New Potatoes

Parboil new potatoes  until just done, pat dry, and toss in oil with black pepper, minced garlic and salt. Bake in a medium hot oven (350) in a heavy iron container (I use a wok) tossing occasionally until tender through. These spuds don’t keep well, but they’re hard to beat for serving with grilled meats. Keep your sides simple so your main dish will shine.

A Mother and Child Reunion

I once heard that Paul Simon got the title “Mother and Child Reunion” from a chicken and egg sandwich—which in diner lingo is known as a mother and child reunion. But I discovered recently that the title came from the Say Eng Look Restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown district.

In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview Simon said, “Know where the words came from on that? I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs.” Known as “mother/child” or “mother/daughter reunion” these are common menu items at Chinese restaurants, and another version—oyakodon: mother/daughter bowl—is Japanese “soul food.” As with basic dishes, oyakodon is made in many ways as there are cooks to make it. Here’s my version, which varies with available ingredients. I’ll often add chopped mild thin-walled peppers (not a fan of bell peppers at all; more about that later), sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and bacon.

Cube a boneless breast of chicken, dust with fresh pepper, and fry in vegetable oil until browned. Then poach these chicken pieces in a good chicken broth until tender. Doesn’t take long. Drain the chicken, reserving the broth, and stir-fry/saute  with sliced onions and whatever else you’re adding (green onions are a must). Then pour in enough broth to cover the chicken pieces by half, add a couple of dashes of good soy and rice wine, bring to a hard boil, and dribble in two or three lightly beaten eggs in sort of a figure 8. Cover and steam until the egg is just cooked through. Top with chopped green onions. Slide into a bowl of rice.

Garlic Chicken Rolls

Fillet boneless chicken breasts, pound thinly, and spread with softened butter seasoned with finely-minced garlic. Sprinkle with diced peppers and grated Swiss or Jack cheese, roll and secure with toothpicks. Refrigerate for about an hour. Beat 1 whole egg with 1 cup water, brush chicken rolls, then coat with seasoned bread crumbs. Roast in a medium (350) oven until lightly browned. Remove secures, slice and serve with a mustard chutney.

Spring Chicken

Those big hens in the freezer bin don’t take that long to cook, and will give you a lot of meat and some good drippings. Once you get one thawed, preheat your oven to 300. Pat the bird dry and season the cavity generously with salt and pepper. Rub the skin well with vegetable oil seasoned with salt, pepper, and a commercial herbal blend. Go a little heavy on the salt. Place chicken breast up on an oiled rack above a pan with enough water to cover the first knuckle of your index finger. Roast for about two hours. Go from there.

 

Cable Fare

At the local grocery the other day I was on the dollar aisle (where I spend a lot of time), and the store manager, a great guy, walked up, grabbed a box of Larry the Cable Guy’s Lasagna Dinner, wagged it in front of me and said, “This stuff really is good!” A lady on the  other side of the aisle just snickered, but I took him at his word.

Some people treat Larry’s products as a joke, but they decidedly are not. “Larry” was born Daniel Lawrence Whitney in Pawnee City, Nebraska on February 17, 1963, where he was raised on a pig farm. He graduated from Berean Christian School in West Palm Beach in 1982, went to college at Baptist University of America, and the University of Nebraska, crediting his roommates from Texas and Georgia for inspiring his imitation Southern accent. He dropped out after his junior year after trying his hand at comedy. Whitney started his career in radio in the early 1990s and became famous after developing his “Larry” character, a personality he employs in his stage act. Larry the Cable Guy has a stereotypical blue-collar appearance and a thick Southern accent, recounts stories about his “family,” and uses, among other common expressions, his own catchphrase “Git-R-Done!”.

Some time ago, Whitney partnered with Bektrom Foods, a manufacturer based in Monroe, Michigan and Colgate, North Dakota, to manufacture and market the licensed brand “Larry the Cable Guy”. The brand includes almost 30 products including breads, batters, gravies, seasonings and “one-dish” dinners. Whitney’s line of food products supports his non-profit, The Git-R-Done Foundation, which was set up by Whitney and his wife to help others in need. “The foundation’s mission is to provide assistance to charitable organizations for people who have experienced hardships beyond their means, with an emphasis on children and veterans.” The Git-R-Done Foundation and Whitney have given countless hours and donations to places like the Arnold Palmer Foundation, Madonna (not THAT Madonna, children) Rehabilitation Hospital, Operation Homefront and the International Hip Dysplasia Institute.

Sure, you’re not going to find Larry the Cable Guy’s products at a Whole Foods location, and if you’re on a low-carb diet, most of his products aren’t going to be on your table very often. But these products are every bit as good as Betty Crocker’s Hamburger Helper, and you can bet Betty ain’t giving any money to children and veterans. She’s probably Sony’s bitch by now.