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.

The Sultan of Jazz: A Black Russian from Mississippi

If you were to travel back in time to Constantinople’s Taksim Square in the 1920s, you might hear the lively beat from Club Maxim. Inside, you’d likely find a black man in a top hat, perhaps with a pipe in his hand. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he’d overcome “difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man.” This would be Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the Mississippi farm boy who became a Moscow impresario and introduced jazz to Asia.

Thomas was born June 12th, 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who owned 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Mississippi. In 1886, a white planter took over their land. Against all odds, the Thomas family sued the planter, and in what must have been one of the few successful cases for black landowners at the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, the planter appealed and, under threat, in 1890 the Thomas family decided to leave Mississippi and settle in Memphis. In late October, 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a jealous husband. A short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails, first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He went to Europe in 1894, and in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia.

Thomas’s career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. He found no “color line” there. In Moscow, he worked for ten years as a waiter, a butler and a valet, before becoming assistant to the owner of Yar, the city’s most prominent café-theatre. The Sokolovsky gypsy choir performed there on a regular basis and their songs about their years as slaves likely reminded him of his own people’s story. Yar was frequented by the bourgeoisie of Moscow and Frederick Thomas became the darling of the wealthy clientele. By 1911 he had earned enough money to open an entertainment garden, “Aquarium,” with the help of two Russian partners. In 1912, he rented a music venue in the city center called “Maxim” which very quickly became popular with wealthy Muscovites.

In Russia, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Ironically, he also had history on his side. The African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century, and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, became an icon of Russian literature. With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots, Aquarium and Maxim, became the spots in which to be seen (and from which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. Black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”

Frederick Thomas blossomed in Moscow. He obtained Russian citizenship, was married three times and had five children. Around 1914, he bought a dacha near Odessa and he also owned buildings in Moscow. An African-American immigrant from Mississippi, the son of slaves, had made a fortune in Russia.

But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas found himself on the wrong side. His newly acquired wealth trumped his past oppression as a black man in the United States. He went to Odessa, but the city was evacuated in April 1919 by the French and British forces allied to the White Army. He managed to embark with his wife Elvira, his children and other refugees on the Russian ship “Emperor Nicholas” bound for Constantinople. Arriving in the Ottoman capital, he hastened to the American embassy to seek help, or even repatriation to the United States. Officials at the embassy refused to recognize his American nationality and therefore refused to help him; his skin color undoubtedly played a decisive role.

Having lost all his wealth, Frederick Thomas started to do business again in Constantinople, like many Russian refugees. After three months, he opened his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the “Stella Club”) on August 31, 1919, with acts by “Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom.” Thanks to his new establishment’s success, he rented the basement of the Magic cinema with gardens in Pera in 1921, and transformed it into a jazz and night club. He named it “Maxim” in memory of Maxim in Moscow which had allowed him to start his career in the entertainment world.  Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headlined the first season, 1921-22.

Though opening “Maxim” left Thomas on the verge of bankruptcy, business at last started to pick up. After the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, you probably would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance. Despite the economic and political upheavals of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Frederick Thomas succeeded in making his establishment the most popular place in the city.  He was the first person to import jazz to Turkey, and its popularity among the city’s natives and swarms of well-heeled tourists consolidated his success and made him rich once again. All those who remained of the Stanbuliot bourgeoisie, along with the English and French soldiers occupying the capital, hurried to listen to jazz at Maxim. Thomas became known as the “Sultan of Jazz.”

It’s astonishing that a black American who’d left the U.S. in 1894 and became a Russian citizen in 1914 was bringing America’s greatest music to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee, in Turkey, at least in Ottoman, there was no word for “Negro.” Thomas told those who visited his clubs “he was ‘conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,’ which would amount to $10 million today.

Then, during the first years of the Turkish Republic, business began to decline. Foreigners and a large part of the bourgeoisie had left the city, while embassies and their staff began to be transferred to the new capital, Ankara. Frederick Thomas plunged into debt. Unable to pay his creditors, they had him put in jail and seized his nightclub, which they renamed “Yeni Maksim”. Frederick Thomas was never to recover. Although his skin color was of no concern to the Turks, he could not avoid dealing with the diplomats in the American Consulate General in Constantinople, or with their racist superiors in the State Department. When he most needed their help, they refused to recognize him as an American and to give him legal protection.

Abandoned by the United States, and caught between the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic and his own extravagance, Thomas fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in Constantinople on July 12th, 1928 at Pasteur Hospital in Taksim. Forgotten by the Americans, Russians, Stanbuliots and all those he had entertained throughout Europe, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was laid to rest at the Protestant Feriköy Cemetery in Istanbul, far away from the “most Southern place on earth.”

(Thomas’s biography, The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov, was released by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2013)

Practical Primavera

“America’s grandest contribution to the pasta repertoire,” pasta primavera was invented in New York at Le Cirque in 1977. According to the ineffable Craig Claiborne, primavera soon became “by far the most talked-about dish in Manhattan”. The dish is today cliché, but remains a good standard for the home kitchen.

A simple dish, primavera is pasta with early vegetables in a cream reduction; think of it as an alfredo by Monet. Sauté cooked pasta–most people use spaghetti or fettuccine, but I prefer a vermicelli or angel hair–and blanched vegetables along with a bit of minced garlic and scallions in enough butter to coat. Season lightly with salt and pepper, add heavy cream, and simmer until cream begins to thicken. Toss with a grated hard cheese, and plate with a sprightly garnish.

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

Collards at Tara

Fiction writers  concern themselves more  with the turmoil of the human condition (usually theirs) than soups and sandwiches (like the rest of us), but you’re going to find food mentioned in many novels. It is, after all, an essential element of existence itself.

Margaret Mitchell was born to an upper-class home in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, and her family roots sank deep into antebellum Georgia. Given the social dynamics of her upbringing, she was certainly well-informed when it came to that period’s Southern table, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find a notable description of an antebellum spread in Gone with the Wind.

When Ashley came home from the war for Christmas, the table was still graced with Aunt Pittypat’s Sèvres, but the only things to eat were sweet potatoes–a perennial staple of hardship from any quarter–and a skinny rooster Uncle Peter had put out of its misery, Scarlett remembered Tara’s groaning boards:

There were apples, Yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare. A the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air. How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

While most of these dishes seem apt for a wealthy, socially prominent Georgia plantation meal in the 1830’s, some people (admittedly me among them) might find the presence of collards in a porcelain tureen jarring because I’m such a stuck-up redneck, but stewed collards fit on the table in any damn thing that will hold them. I’ll be the first one to say turnips are good, too, but not raw with red mud on them, for chrissakes.

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.

 

Poke Salad

Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that the Indian tribes eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.”

“They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”

Much like ramps, poke salad was eaten as a spring green because it was one of the first edible herbs to appear, giving a much-needed break from the beans, cornbread and salt pork diet of winter. In April 2000, Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas canned its last batch of “poke sallet” greens. As late as 1990 at least two processing plants continued the tradition, Bush Brothers of Tennessee and Allen of Siloam Springs. Surprisingly, one of the best markets for canned poke was southern  California due to the many “Oakies” who settled there in the ‘30s. John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen Canning, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bring it to our buying locations.” Also, poke processing was never a significant item in their mult-imillion-dollar enterprise, so it just became more bother than it was worth.

The only drawback to poke salad is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is not only safe but delicious. Here’s how you do it: harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke. Wash, stem and trim. Boil them for about ten minutes in plenty of salt water. Then drain, rinse and simmer for a while with just a bit more lightly salted water and a bit of oil of some kind. A slit hot pepper pod of the slender sort is a nice touch, and adding big pinch of sugar is something you just ought to do. Trust me.

Use prepared poke much as you would spinach; Euell has a poke salad dip in his book. I like it with scrambled eggs and onion, and it’s wonderful in an omelette.