Tamale Pie

Tamale pie is made by all kinds of people for all kinds of occasions. If you want to think outside the hemisphere, it’s an American shepherd’s pie, though you’ll find bread baked with meats the world over. In the Deep South people crumble cornbread into a bowl of chili all the time, and tamale pie is the best way to bring the two together with less effort on both the cook and the diner.

At first glance, tamale pie has nothing in common with a steamed tamal, but on second look is a niece or nephew. Mirabile dictu, there is a Mexican version, the tamal de cazuela (trans: “tamale casserole”), and if you find that a revelation, you need a geography lesson. You might recognize Frito pie as a carnival cousin with the same basic ingredients: a corn meal “bread” served with stew made of beef, tomatoes and peppers. You can’t get much more New World than that unless you use bison.

The bones of controversy in this dish (and I assure you that there will always be a skeleton of contention in any given bowl of anything) are those over cheese in the bread topping and beans in the meat bottom, though we shouldn’t find either of these issues surprising. Me, I make a mild chili with ground meat, corn but no beans, top it with cheese cornbread, and call it tamale pie.

 

The Segregated Landscape

Jennifer Baughn says of her important work, Buildings of Mississippi, that the goal “from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes.” In this splendid essay (presented as a sidebar on p. 313), Baughn explains how the components of Mississippi’s landscape came to reflect the divisions of the state’s closed society.

Before the Civil War, enslaved blacks were discouraged or prohibited from congregating without white oversight, and although blacks and whites interacted on a daily basis, it was in the context of owner and owned, powerful and powerless. For a brief period following emancipation this power relationship eased, but after 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional, all manner of places and spaces began to be segregated.

As blacks began to move to urban centers around 1890, new neighborhoods of narrow streets and alleys lined mostly with shotgun houses were developed, as for example the Henry Addition (see DR54) in Greenwood. Dense populations, limited employment opportunities, and widespread poverty characterized many of Mississippi’s black neighborhoods, even as they gave rise to an African American middle and upper class. Towns with large black populations–notably Jackson, Greenville, Meridian, Hattiesburg, and Clarksdale–often developed a separate, self-contained African American community with its own business district, hotels, churches, cultural center, schools, and funeral homes. Although often located adjacent to industrial or flood-prone areas, these districts gave African Americans relative security to form their own institutions without white interference. Because churches were one of the few institutions owned and run by black leaders, they became the anchors of such neighborhoods, but public and private schools also provided focus and space for community events.

By the early 1950s, a rising African American middle class began to embrace suburban living, moving out of the old mainstays such as Jackson’s Farish and Greenville’s Newtown neighborhoods into new black subdivisions lined with small ranch houses, such as the residence of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. By 1960 many black congregations with modest newfound wealth began replacing their older churches with new buildings. Such projects often allowed black architects (e.g., DeWitt Dykes and Clair M. Jones) to make their mark in such churches as Laurel’s St. Paul Methodist (pictured below). It was in this complex landscape of neighborhoods dotted with bungalows and shotgun houses and modern schools and churches that the civil rights movement formed and activated around the state.

 

(From Buildings of Mississippi, published 2021 by the Society of Architectural Historians and the University of Virginia Press).

Chimichurri

Here in the Deep South, parsley grows best in our mild winters. Throughout the cool season, parsley gives the garden a vibrant green signature and provides color and freshness to winter soups and meats. As the days lengthen and the weather warms, parsley taken on a radiant lushness, but when daytime temperatures climb into the 70s, the plants bolt. I usually let most of my parsley come into bloom, since it’s very pretty, resembling Queen Anne’s lace, which is a cousin in the Umbelliferae family, along with angelica, dill, and carrots, among many others. Parsley is also a favorite food for caterpillars, monarchs foremost.

Parsley rarely constitutes the main ingredient of any dish; it’s most often used as an herb, and as such has the ability to help meld flavors in soups and stews, particularly when dried. Used fresh, parsley brings a citrusy snap to salads, cold soups, and condiments. It’s of course superfluous to mention that parsley makes a perfect garnish for almost any dish because it’s a natural breath freshener.

The two parsley dishes I’m most familiar with are unsurprisingly similar, but have different functions. One is tabbouleh, a distinct and iconic Lebanese salad, the other is chimichurri, a South American sauce—most say Argentinian, but dissenters claim it originated in Uruguay—primarily served cold as an accompaniment for grilled meats, but I find it a wonderful for cooking, good with chicken, better with fish. This recipe is very, very basic; many people use far less (or much more) garlic, some would never add tomatoes, and others think the parsley should be coarsely chopped. Me, I think that the parsley should be very, very well chopped, that finely-diced tomatoes are essential, and that garlic should be pronounced.

Mix 1 bunch (about 2 cups) chopped fresh parsley with a couple of sprigs (@ 2 tablespoons) chopped fresh oregano, 4 large garlic cloves, smashed and minced, with ½ cup olive oil, and 1 small tomato (preferably a ripe Roma) drained and finely diced. Season with salt and red pepper flakes. Refrigerate in a sealed container for at least overnight before using. The flavor improves with time, but doesn’t keep for more than a week.

 

 

Chicken Fried Steak

The dreadful reality behind chicken fried steak is that it’s best deep-fried after soaking in buttermilk, dipped in an egg wash made with the leftover milk, breaded in a seasoned mix of flour and corn starch, then stored in a warm oven before serving. All else is fantasy.

 

Cocktail Sauce

Russell had his dander up. “Yancy, you are an effete snob!”
“Oh, come on, Russ,” I said. “Because I’m making shrimp cocktails?”
“No, you also wear ankle socks and tuck your t-shirts into your boxer shorts. But shrimp cocktails are further evidence of your snootiness.”
“There’s nothing epicene about a shrimp cocktail.”
“See?” he said. “You even know to say ‘sissy’ fifteen different ways.’”
“Russ, it’s your birthday party. What do you want for an appetizer?”
“Oyster shooters,” he said.
“I’m gonna call your momma and tell her you’re still sleeping with your ex.”

To one cup chili sauce, add one tablespoon each of lemon juice and horseradish, and a teaspoon Worcestershire sauce. For heat, I recommend Crystal hot sauce and a healthy dash of freshly-ground black pepper. I don’t recommend garlic. Freshly-chopped parsley gives heft and texture.

Lemon Pecan Baklava

This is a light, flaky sweet for warm afternoons. Spread three cups chopped pecans, melted butter and light brown sugar seasoned with cinnamon onto a half pound sheet of buttered phyllo, cover with another layer of the phyllo, bake until golden, slice and top with a syrup of honey and lemon.

The Masters Pimento Cheese

“The Masters pimento cheese must be the most famous sandwich in all of sport,” wrote journalist Andy Bull, and it was Nick Rango’s recipe for “the pȃte of the South” that made the Masters gallery snack iconic.

The pimento cheese Nick Rango sold from his store, Woodruff Drug in Aiken, South Carolina, was so famous that in the 1960s, Masters organizers dropped the husband-and-wife catering team they’d hired since the 1940s to make way for Rango’s. For 45 years, Rango and his two children, Billy and Stella, whipped up massive quantities of pimento cheese by hand to take to in Augusta every April.

More than 20 years ago, the Masters chose not to renew Rango’s contract; afterward he refused to share the recipe, taking its secret to his grave in 2015. Ted Godfrey, Rango’s replacement, claims that the missing ingredient in Rango’s pimento and cheese came to him in his sleep, as missing things tend to do. By the next year’s tournament, Godfrey had filled Rango’s shoes, and patrons were none the wiser. But Godfrey also withheld his recipe after the Masters replaced him with in-house catering in 2013.

When Rango lost the contract, the change of hands hardly registered with patrons, but when Godfrey lost the contract, patrons noticed—and so did the press. Wright Thompson, a writer for ESPN noticed, and he was directed to Godfrey, who spilled the beans. Thompson’s 2013 exposé—later known as “Pimento-Gate”—revealed a Masters’ operation that tournament organizers would’ve preferred stay shut. The episode, Thompson wrote, “left the Masters concessions staff trying—and failing, in a rare moment of fallibility—to recreate the same recipe that generations of golf fans have enjoyed.”

Admittedly, until the unlikely event that a Rango relative shares the original recipe, the best we have is an imitation of an approximation created by lifelong Masters patron and Augusta food blogger, Gina Dickson. Since her family moved to Augusta in the 1970s, Dickson estimates she’s been to no fewer than 25 Masters tournaments. A deft cook who’d eaten countless pimento cheese sandwiches dating back to the Rango era, Dickson says it took her several hours to reverse-engineer the ingredients and consistency. I recommend you add a grain of salt.

Masters Pimento Cheese Sandwich

2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
4 ounces cream cheese
½ cup mayonnaise (“just don’t use Miracle Whip—that’s a Northern thing”)
4-ounce jar pimento peppers, drained and diced
1 tablespoon onion, very finely minced
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix until smooth and creamy. Refrigerate the mixture for at least an hour to allow it to become firm. Serve on white bread.

Getty via Gastro Obscura

No-Fail French Toast

This simple recipe is very old and is known by many names, most famously French toast, which likely comes from pain perdu, “lost bread”. Usually served as a sweet dish, I prefer it simply seasoned with salt and pepper. It’s best to use a thick cut wheat. Sourdough gives it an off flavor.

Beat three eggs in a cup of milk or half-and-half. Season with salt and pepper; add a little vanilla if you plan to serve it sweet. Sop dried bread slices in egg/milk mixture and pan-fry in butter until nicely browned.

Lemon Ice

For each cup of finely crushed ice, add 1/4 cup granulated sugar and the juice of a lemon.  A drop of vanilla is a nice touch. Mix very well and serve with ginger snaps.