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.

Let’s Change Our Tune

When the legislature made “Go, Mississippi” the state song, Governor Barnett embodied a state defying federal oppression. Barnett became an icon for all the wrong reasons, and making his campaign ditty the state song of home state of Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis Presley is just short of criminal. Mississippi is music. Let’s tune up.

Bailey’s Cheesecake

Mix 32 oz. of softened cream cheese with 1 1/2 cups sugar and two heaping tablespoons of cornstarch. Get it fluffy, then blend in 4 eggs beaten very well until you have a smooth batter. Pound 4 Oreos to teeny-tiny little pieces and add them to the batter along with a cup of Bailey’s Irish Cream. I always throw in a teaspoon of almond extract. Pour the batter into a 10 in. spring pan lined with a Graham cracker crust with chocolate chips and chopped nuts. Bake at 350 for an hour or so. Dust with cocoa. Indulge yourself; it’s been a tough year.

Pat Lamar’s Lasagna

When I was working at Audie Michael’s, a restaurant on the Square in Oxford (current site of the City Grocery), we became well-known for two items outside our regular menu. One was gumbo, and the other was lasagna. We ran both regularly as luncheon specials. Since we were basically an upscale burger joint, we didn’t do a lot of catering, usually only large take-out orders for regular customers. But one day Pat Lamar, a wealthy, socially prominent patron and later mayor of Oxford, sent in a messenger carrying a beautiful, knee-high (swear to God) McCarty bowl with a tapered bottom. My boss came waltzing into the kitchen with this huge piece of pottery and said, “Mrs. Lamar wants you to make lasagna in this for her party tonight.”

“Sure,” I said. “Is this oven-proof?” He looked at me like I’d hit him with a hammer. “What do you mean, oven-proof?” he asked. (He was a nice guy, just lacked focus.)

“Look,” I said. “I’m not about to take an expensive piece of pottery, fill it full of lasagna and bake it in an oven without knowing that it’s not going to shatter into seven hundred pieces.” Suddenly realizing the situation, he asked, “What are we gonna do?” (In my experience, this has been management’s basic reaction to anything that’s not in the manual.) “First thing, call her up and see if she’s baked in it before,” I said. A few minutes later he came back and said, “She’s never put it in the oven, but she thinks it will be fine.” I was skeptical. Even if the piece was insured, I didn’t want to have to clean up an oven full of lasagna and broken crockery. So I got on the phone and called Ron Dale, the top ceramics professor at Ole Miss.

“Jesse Lee,” he said, “To be honest with you, I do not know if it will withstand the heat or not. But the one thing not to do is to put a cool piece into a hot oven.”

So I took a deep breath and made lasagna. I filled the bowl with warm water to heat the ceramic up a bit, poured that out and filled it with swirled layers of meat, cheese, sauce and noodles, all still very warm. The entire ordeal (which took two people to lift) went into a cold oven. I started turning up the thermostat 25° every fifteen minutes or so. I was on pins and needles. My boss Don positioned himself in front of the oven on a stool staring at the oven door until I ran him out with a mop. After three hours, the lasagna was bubbling beautifully and the bowl was fine. I found a box big enough to hold the damn thing and was just closing the lid when Mrs. Lamar’s people came to pick it up for the party, which had already started. Once it was out of my hands, I went up to the bar and got good and snockered. I deserved it.

Roast Wild Boar

If you live in Mississippi, you’re likely to know a hunter, and sooner or later you’re likely to find yourself with game in your kitchen. Deer, duck, and dove are among the most typical, but the possibilities are only limited by the state legislature, and even that august body is subject to circumvention. Because feral hogs have become very much a nuisance in Mississippi, I’m given to understand that hunting them is encouraged; the only red tape involved is permit fees. (“Cross my palm with silver.”) In any given year, pig season officially stretches from October to May, but that, too, is (again, from what I understand) loosely enforced. It’s a good bet that if you show the slightest interest, you’re liable to end up with a haunch of wild hog even if you don’t remember saying you wanted one at a kegger in Pelahatchie.

Yes, I have a copy of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on DVD, and yes, I know all the words to every song Donna Summer ever recorded, and I even once had a pair of Daisy Dukes (don’t say it). But unless you wear gear to bed, I am not what you would call delicate, much less fastidious. When my buddy Raymond showed up at my door with this huge bloody haunch of meat in his hands, I gratefully accepted it and sent him on his way with a jar of pear preserves and his promise that he’d be back the next day after work to take some of the cooked meat home.

Back in my college days I studied medieval literature, and the accounts of their gargantuan feasts, where great gobbets of meats were served and consumed with vast goblets of wine made a great impression, so the sight of this shoulder of boar sent a vicarious thrill through my little want-a-Garter mind. I longed to have an open hearth with a blazing fire and a turnspit dog to cook the meat evenly. Alas and alack, I had no such fire, not even a place to build one in the yard (my snooty neighbors would look askance on me roasting meat on anything less than a designer grill anyway), so I was left with my trusty little oven (c. 1964).

First I washed the shoulder, which thankfully had been skinned but still had a generous sprinkling of stiff, short black hairs. I knew this wild meat had to be marinated, and for a long time, so I dragged a cooler out and there I placed the leg, which I’d salted ever-so-lightly, while I made the marinade. Not being one to waste wine, I chose to use a big can of pineapple juice and apple vinegar (4:1) with about a half-dozen freshly-squeezed oranges, two tablespoons pickling spices, several branches of fresh rosemary and threw in a Zatarain’s sack out of sheer habit. I let this simmer for a while on the stove, then poured it on the meat, added enough water to cover, closed the lid and sat the cooler in a corner.

After the leg had marinated for almost precisely 12 hours, I drained it, stabbed it in the meaty parts with a short, sharp knife and stuffed sliced cloves of garlic into the cuts. I then brushed it with a light oil (NOT olive oil), and dusted it with a mixture of salt and pepper (50/50). It went into the oven about 8 a.m. on a rack at 375 for about an hour, then I reduced the heat to about 225, and there it cooked for the rest of the day. I took it out around 4 to cool, and when Raymond came by around 5:30, we carved it up, Raymond taking most of it as well as the bones for his dog Terry, who is a friend of mine as well. The meat was quite good, not gamey at all, and just as tender as it could be.


Dixie Belle

Way down in the Southland
Lives the girl I love so well!
She’s got ruby lips and satin hair-
She’s my Dixie Belle!

When we’re dancin’ in the moonlight
My heart just wants to yell!
She’s got smooth moves and starry eyes-
She’s my Dixie Belle!

I want to feel her sweet, sweet kisses all night long,
And in the morning hear her sing her sweet, sweet song!

I’m on the corner in a hat and tie,
Waitin’ on that chapel bell.
I’m so happy! I’m getting married-
To my Dixie Belle!

Ethel’s Pot Roast

Take a  3 lb. blade-in beef shoulder, brown in oil with onion and crushed garlic, and cover with water or stock by half in a Dutch oven. Add about a pound peeled red potatoes (small whole or large in quarters), and two cups each  chopped celery and carrots. Salt lightly, and season with black pepper, thyme and bay. Cook in a slow oven (300) until meat is tender, about two hours. Use some broth for gravy, the rest as stock.

The Cinnamon Curtain

When it comes to Southern foods you’ll find me a hide-bound traditionalist. Never can I envision myself breading fried chicken with whole wheat flour, using yellow corn meal for bread or making banana pudding without vanilla wafers. Some might find my inflexibility evidence of xenophobia, but I’ll squelch that rumor right now; my kitchen is a global nexus when it comes to ingredients as well as recipes. As a matter of fact, I do have yellow corn meal on hand for polenta as well as garbanzo beans and tahini for hummus, three types of tortillas and four types of olives, not to mention dozens of other foods you won’t find in most Southern kitchens (anchovies spring to mind). I even own a wok, and not one of those little sissy Teflon jobs you plug into the wall; mine is big and butch, seasoned well from over a decade of use.

Most people feel the same way about their culinary heritage as I do. The foods we eat as children are those that comfort us, dishes that ease our minds and appease our tongues. When we’re grown-ups, these are the recipes we try to recreate, be it grandmother’s pozole, the bread-and-butter pickles someone once brought over for Thanksgiving or the adobo your Filipino neighbors shared with you after school. These dishes take care in their preparation, and people who want to share that memory with you offer with them a parcel of their past in a spirit of bonding. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and at one time or the other, you’re going to find yourself faced with a host’s cherished memory that makes you wish you’d brought more wine; the house is beautiful, the children are sweet, you love them both, but that jalapeno tuna casserole just ain’t a’workin’.

It’s all a matter of geography. I understand that. While my accommodation with exotic recipes goes a long way, I’ll never feel entirely right using cinnamon in a savory dish. I’ve been told time and time again that cinnamon makes a good match with meat is because it enhances the odor either cooking or cooked. Well, of course it does; cinnamon is distinctly aromatic as is clove, which I’ll stud a ham with before baking as much for the tangy smell as the punctuation on the seared scored fat. But adding clove to a meat dish is just as inconceivable to me as adding cinnamon because clove is also associated with sweets on my palate. Since the vast majority of spices come from South-East Asia, they’re widely used in savory dishes throughout the region, and well into India, the Middle East and North Africa. But on the northern shores of the Mediterranean and beyond, using spices with meats and vegetables drops off considerably. You’ll find notable examples of such recipes from Spain, Italy and Greece, but in northwestern Europe and beyond the practice diminishes even further. As a man of western European ancestry, moreover a Southern American, I’m simply unaccustomed to using spices (with the notable exception of peppers of every type) with meats.

Yet God in His Wisdom has chosen me to share my life with people whose roots are from Asia Minor and the Levant, or near enough to hop, skip or jump on it in the case of Jake, whose ancestors are from Crete. I’ve heard these people argue over food (there’s never a mere discussion), indisputable evidence of their passion for eating. Most times, I’ll sit back and bite a knuckle, but I’ll go to the Welty Library every now and then a look up an ashta recipe to throw in the ring just to liven things up, which it invariably does. Mind you, I’m grateful for the connection. The eastern Mediterranean is a crossroads of the world, and to know people who love those cuisines is a gift, but their inclusion of cinnamon in savory dishes is a cultural barrier that I have trouble with.

Still, I’ve persisted in experimenting with the savory side of cinnamon, and I’ve discovered it goes well with pork, which is certainly neither kosher nor halal when it comes to most Middle Eastern recipes. I probably find it agreeable with pork because pig is often seasoned with sugar in this part of the world (brown sugar finds its way into almost every aspect of barbecue), and my mind finds seasoning pork with cinnamon appropriate. Call it an outworking of culinary free association or flat-out call me crazy (I’m used to it), but cinnamon with pork works for me.

Pork Meatballs with Cinnamon

To one pound lean ground pork, add a tablespoon cinnamon, a teaspoon of cayenne, and a tablespoon each of salt and black pepper. Mix in one beaten egg, a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste, a half cup of bread crumbs and a half cup of very finely chopped white onion. Form into balls (I like big ones; be hush) and cook in a light oil (you can use olive oil, but it’s not necessary) until firm. Serve over rice (couscous is nice if you happen to have any) sprinkled with chopped parsley or chives (sesame seed is a nice touch). These keep beautifully.

Lucretia’s Beans

“I grew up poor! We were so poor! Rupert, tell them!”

“They were very poor!” Rupert said from the back porch, where he was working on the lawn mower. “They were so poor they had to piss in a bucket a block away!”

“But we were proud!” Lucretia said. “My mother, she was the old Creole blood. She sold the calas on Dauphine, her apron white as an old nun, stiff as a young priest, and she’d go, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” And all the girls who worked up in their rooms, they’d come down to get Mama Diart’s cakes for their gentlemen who were sleeping it off in the beds like they’d get the strong coffee from Monsoir’s. The bottle they had already.”

“They were so poor, they had to eat cereal with a fork to share the milk!” Rupert banged on the mower and yelled at it.

“And yes,” Lucretia said, “We would have the rouge ser riz, all the time! If we were lucky, Mama would get the ham joint that Hector Monsoir had saved for her because you see he was secretly in love with Mama from a long time ago when she was so beautiful and slender like a dancer with her laughing eyes.”

“They were so poor, she had to share her brassiere with her sisters!” Rupert tried to crank the lawnmower, but failed and he cussed.

“But not like those beans they make now!” Lucretia shouted. “Pah! Those beans they make now they taste like those little wads of dough the Italians boil to put in that red gravy they make. Beans that have no bones, no flesh, no . . . spirit. They use those big long-nosed beans, those . . . what do they call them, yes, them kidney beans, the light-colored ones like a bean the white people in the country use to put on their meal bread.” She made a face like spitting. “And they should be pissed on! No, she used the little red beans she bought from old Helene on Magazine.”

“They were so poor, if her brothers didn’t wake up with bones, they didn’t have anything to play with!” Rupert pulled the cord and the mower cranked, coughing and spitting. He led it into the yard and began mowing.

“She would bring the beans home when she sold her cakes, put them in the big pot on the back of the stove with water enough over the joint and start the laundry for the ladies on Bourbon. All afternoon they’d soak, and she’d start the fire. She had the herbs, too, from the market on Decatur, and pepper. When we all got home at night she made the rice, and we would eat while all around us we could hear the music play and imagine people dancing in those pretty rooms where the ladies would spray their perfumes on the pink lampshades.”