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).


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.



Pearl Potatoes

Wash and pick through two pounds very small potatoes. Toss with olive oil, season with three cloves minced garlic, onion powder, salt and pepper. Spread in a skillet and roast, stirring every five minutes or so, until the larger ones can be pierced easily with a toothpick. Toss with a very light vinaigrette before serving.


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.


Stuffed Bell Peppers

In our neck of the South, stuffed peppers mean mild, fleshy bells filled with a mixture of rice, meat or seafood, usually ground beef or shrimp. A vegetarian version with beans and rice is also wonderful. A lot of people will parboil the peppers beforehand, but this is quite unnecessary. Select peppers that are globular rather than oblong, slice off the top, remove whites and seeds, and fill with your stuffing mixture. I recommend a 50/50 blend in a light tomato sauce seasoned with black pepper, sage and basil. Crowd into a casserole, baste with more sauce and place in a medium (300) oven until peppers are cooked through. Baste again with sauce, top with dry white cheese and bake until toasted.

Atomic Brownies

For some years after the detonations of the first nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the word “atomic” was used as a synonym for “great” or “super.” Even strippers billed themselves as “Atomic Bombs.” Recipes for atomic brownies started appearing in cookbooks at the same time.

Brownie Base

1 cup unsalted butter
14 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ cup milk
1½ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted

Chocolate Drizzle

1/3 cup heavy (whipping) cream
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the butter and chocolates in a large saucepan over low heat, stirring until mixture is melted and smooth. Whisk in sugars, eggs, vanilla extract and milk, blending until smooth. Add flour and salt just until mixture is combined, stir in nuts and spread into 13 x 9-inch baking pan lined with greased parchment paper. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or so. Cool pan completely on a wire rack. For the drizzle, bring cream to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Remove pan from heat and add chocolates, whisk until smooth and cool until thickened. Pour over brownies, and cool in the refrigerator until firm before cutting into bars.

Kool-Aid Pickles

So I’m checking out at the store, and I hold up a jar of pickles and two packs of cherry Kool-Aid to my girls Meshaun and Lorita who are sitting in the motorized shopping carts up next to the front door with their phones and say, “Guess what I’m making?”

They look at one another like, “This fool don’t know what he’s doing,” and tell me first that I don’t have the right kind of Kool-Aid “You gotta use Tropical Punch” that no, you do not use the pickle juice in the jar, that you dump that out and make a quart of Kool-Aid with two packs of mix and one cup of sugar, that you shouldna’ bought whole pickles cause now you gotta slice them in half and that no, you do not need to heat it up, just pour the tropical punch in there and put it in the refrigerator for a day and that’s all you do you big dummy.


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.

Granny Potatoes

A lady friend once asked me why she couldn’t make potatoes “like granny used to make”. I knew what she was talking about since people have been making these potatoes this way since they’ve had potatoes on hand. Many people in the American South remember this from their childhoods as one of those dishes that always appeared on the table. It’s true comfort food, and bespeaks of the poverty in our region. Simply peel and cut those lumpy red potatoes you see in the store into more or less bite-size pieces, boil them with water to cover by an inch until they’re just done. Add a smooth flour and water mixture (1:2T) and cook on a very low heat until quite thick. You can add bacon drippings or butter; not olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper.