Grabbling is the most unsophisticated form of angling. Fly fishing seems downright effete in comparison; forget fussing with those artsy little hand-tied flies, forget about the L.L. Bean creel, forget about the custom-made rod, just stick your hand down in a hole under the water and pull out a fish. No other form of fishing is so breathtakingly fundamental.
When grabbling, it goes unsaid that you’re fishing for catfish, which tend to hole up in hollow logs or under stumps in the spring. Unlike suicidal salmon that exhaust themselves in long-distance spawning, the sensible Southern catfish conducts a more sedate courtship by finding a steady bed and putting out a red light, so to speak. In the old days, grabblers used to sink hollow logs in selected places before the fish begin spawning in April in order to lure the catfish into them, but nowadays most folks use man-made beds. I talked to one guy who said you can use big tires, too, but the disadvantage to that is that the fish can scoot around inside the tire, making them devilishly hard to catch. The location of these beds is a guarded secret among serious grabblers who sink them in the fall and come back when the water has warmed up in the spring to collect the booty.
Grabbling might well be the ultimate expression of angler machismo. It takes a man of true grit—I’ve never heard of a woman who grabbles, though I’m sure some do—who is willing to stick his bare hand and arm into a hole under water. After all, there’s no guarantee that what you’re going to grab is a catfish. We grow some mighty big snapping turtles in Mississippi that can easily nip off a finger or two if tempted to do so, and it takes little to tempt a snapper, especially when he’s holed up in a sunken hollow log or a catfish box with minnows on his mind. We also have a nasty variety of pit viper here called a cottonmouth moccasin. I’ve heard it rumored all my life that grabblers aren’t afraid of cottonmouths because these snakes aren’t supposed to be able to open their mouths under water, but that never has made any sense to me because their scientific name, piscivorus, means “fish-eating.”
Fortunately for those of us who simply lack the opportunities to haul protesting fish out of the water with our bare hands, there are easier ways to get catfish. Mississippi is, after all, the buckle of the Catfish Belt. We can get fresh or “fresh frozen” (love that term) catfish in your local grocery any time.
Elitists deride catfish but, to quote Twain, “The catfish is a good enough fish for anybody,” and I fall back on that high word. In the South, catfish, like almost any other sort of meat, is most often fried, and there’s nothing better than a platter of fried catfish and a litter of hush puppies. But however rewarding, frying catfish is just as messy and time-consuming as frying chicken. And while simply baking or broiling fish is easy and healthy, it’s also boring.
So what I’m going to give you here is a simple sauce recipe for baked or broiled catfish that takes it to another level. Beurre blanc is a classic emulsion, as are mayonnaise and Hollandaise, but “white butter” is far less tricky and far more stable. It’s a cold emulsion, like mayo, but it doesn’t involve an agglutination of proteins. Buerre blanc is simply butter whipped with wine, shallots and herbs.
Catfish with beurre blanc
One 8-oz. fillet of catfish per person. Score the fillets lightly, brush with a bit of (unsalted) butter; bake in a hot oven until done through. Beforehand, reduce 1/2 cup good white wine and two tablespoons lemon juice by about half. Add three tablespoons of very,very finely minced shallots, a dash of white pepper and a pinch of salt. Then gradually whip in 1/4 pound of unsalted butter over very low heat until thoroughly incorporated. Tarragon and dill (though I don’t recommend using them together) are most often used for flavor, and parsley is always appropriate. Slather sauce on fish and serve.
Mix 1 tablespoon each of granulated garlic, ground cayenne pepper, onion powder, dried thyme, sugar, and salt with a teaspoon each of paprika, ground allspice, black pepper, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Blend thoroughly. Pat dry and brush meats with oil before rubbing on the jerk; this step is essential. It’s a good idea to season the meat and set aside an hour or so before grilling or broiling.
Make this recipe your go-to throw-together for an outdoor summer get-together. Whip a 14 oz. can Eagle brand milk with an 8 oz. bar of softened cream cheese. Add a half cup freshly-squeezed lemon/lime juice with a little grated peel or mashed banana along with a jolt of vanilla. Pour into a cooled 8 in. graham cracker crust (just buy one, for Pete’s sake) and freeze. Remove, cut into 8ths, and serve.
Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew. Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the harkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.
Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other. Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors. He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common. Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.
“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”
Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Pudgy little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage. If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from MDOT bush hogs that had run over an old fence. “You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.
“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny. You’re eight, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”
“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless. I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, salmon and saltines. He lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his little heart.
“Yancy, you’re an idiot. This is very simple. If you grind dry roasted peanuts with grease and salt, you get peanut butter; if you puree boiled peanuts with oil, you get redneck hummus. Imagine me, a shit-kicker from Opelousas, having to teach Mississippi’s go-to bubba on white trash food the difference.”
“Billy Dale, I have never as long as I’ve drawn breath ever claimed to be an authority in Southern foodways of any stripe, I’m just trying to find out as much as I can by cautious questioning.”
“You’re a pompous asshole, too,” Dale said. “My wife said you remind her of an alcoholic Sunday school teacher she had in Iuka.”
“B.D., let me off the hook, okay? My sins and errors have never been a good party topic for me.”
“Fine,” Dale said. “Go turn the chicken and get me another beer.”
This delightfully warm and rambunctious account of a political barbecue in Mississippi was submitted to the Federal Writer’s Project in the early 1940s. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that the excoriating political jargon may well have been patterned after one of T.G. Bilbo’s more vituperative speeches. Finding that the cook and I share a surname was a pleasant surprise, but entirely coincidental.
Just as sure as taxes come due before the year is out, politics comes of age in Mississippi ere fall settles down. Our crop has been made and, plow-weary as the soil itself, we take to politics like some folks take to drink. It’s the only sure-fire emotional outlet we know.
An office seeker with his nose to the wind senses that this is the time to ply his trade. Being one of us he knows that the voting fruit is now growing in bunches and ready for the plucking. ware, too, that the common run of old-time picnics is as dead as last year’s boll weevil, he gathers his, cohorts about the conference table, calls for a pooling of resources, and schemes up a barbecue. For, voting year or not, Mississippi politics takes on the nature of an epidemic and we rely on the mass eating of barbecued meat as a counter-irritant.
Even the novice candidates are invited to show what they can do, but the cook and the principal speaker should be old hands, famous for miles around, for we have a long way to come and the fare must be to our liking. Certainly, if the candidate for high office is one of our most famous and able villifiers, and if the pit artist is Bluebill Yancy, we’ll be there.
Bluebill is a black man with a head like a cypress knee. They call him blood brother to the Ugly Man, but if he’s short on looks, he’s long on cooking, and barbecue meat is his specialty. Bluebill and his henchmen are hard at work when we arrive on the grounds so we know that the weather, at least, is favoring the candidates. For Blue bill works according to the stages of the moon and has been known to call the whole thing off at the slightest show of thunder on cooking night. We pass the time of day with Dicey, Bluebill’s wife, who isn’t allowed within smelling distance of the pit until she sees Bluebill sharpen up his knives for the carving; the meat can’t “breathe freely” with a woman cook around.
We pay our respects to Uncle Si Curtis who has already nailed a plank between two trees for his lemonade stand. Uncle Si is one of the best singing school leaders in the county, and when he swings into “Mercy’s Free,” where it says “Swell, oh, swell, the heavenly chorus,” he can be heard as far away as the old burnt schoolhouse. Using the same technique to drum up trade for his spring-water lemonade, he leans against a tree and opens up:
“Ice cold lemonade! Made in the shade, Stirred with a spade, Good enough for any old maid!”
Uncle Si’s crowd thins out as the preliminary speaking begins. We listen to the soaring oratory with one ear and the sizzling of Bluebill’s meat The beef has been cooking all night over the embers of green hickory wood and its peppery odor has had our nose twitching since we first drove up. Bluebill’s pit is a ten-footer with wire mesh stretched over a fire coaxed down to smokeless coals. We pace the pit with him on one of his endless rounds — up one side to turn the meat, down the other to baste it with his mopping sauce. As the moist, brown hunks of beef approach perfection, Bluebill continues his rounds, proud as a monkey with a tin tail.
While the main speaker is warming up, we move from one group of friends to another. The sonorous voice damns the tariff and the Republican party. We nod our head. He touches on the sacredness of the ballot, the virtues of Southern womanhood, and we are in accord. He promised to fight, bleed and die to keep the ship of state a float and we say “amen.”
He pauses for dramatic effect, and after mopping his perspiring brow, starts in to rant, abuse, belittle and attack the opposition. We edge closer because this is what we came to hear. The speaker describes his opponent as a “shallow-brained, slack-jawed liar; a bull ape of Mississippi politics; a grave baboon cavorting like a fat pony in high oats.” We push a bit nearer the speaker’s stand, anxious to hear every word, hoping he’ll let the hide go with the horns and the tallow.
“Like a parasite of the highest rank,” the candidate roars, “he has been feeding from the public trough for twenty years, fattening the bosom of his trousers. It is time that the voters of this commonwealth rise up in indignation and turn him out to pasture and elevate to office men who won’t jump down their throats and gallop their insides out.”
Whether we agree with the speaker or not, we admit it’s pretty pert language, We figure maybe he is right, but for the moment the mention of feeding has suggested something and soon we take ourselves over to the pits to see how Bluebill is getting along with the beef, which has been roasting over the hickory fire for fourteen hours. Taking his cue from the orator, Bluebill dabs on more hot stuff, dressing it down with the same vigor the candidate uses on his opponent.
There is always an outsider who doesn’t know any better than to ask Blue bill for his mopping sauce recipe. His answer is as evasive as it is voluble. He recites it like a grocery list: vinegar, bay leaves, lemon, paprika, pickling spice, onions and garlic. To make it “good and delicious” Bluebill says go heavy on the garlic and paprika. If he is really annoyed by the questioning, he will recommend the generous use of a butter substitute as the base for his concoction. If only mildly so he will suggest cow butter. Catch him off guard when things are going well in the pits, and Bluebill will admit that he, himself, uses nothing but chicken fat.
Bluebill, having made what he calls his “politeness” turns to mopping his beef, and the bewildered recipe-seeker has to listen once more to the politician who, at this time, is working up to the climax punch. In a moment he will let us have it with both fists and leave us groggy and hanging on the ropes. Recoiling from the political punches, a neighbor asks us to have a drink of his best corn liquor, and we don’t care if we do. The candidates, wilted and weary from their efforts on the speakers’ stand, likewise have a good stiff one back in the bushes.
Meanwhile there is a mass movement toward the long table. Dicey paddles over from the edge of the clearing and gets there just as Bluebill draws a blade across the first outside piece. Some of our own women lay off cooing at the babies and line up behind the table to make the same woman-noise over the cakes and potato salad. For our part, we pass up all such trimmings. Armed with a slice of bread and a hand quicker than Bluebill’s knife, we aim for the outside piece, and make it.
The crowd gives way a little for the speakers to be served. After having bethumped each other with hard words, the candidates chat over their food as though it had miraculously brought them to terms. We ourselves share a dipper of spring water with a man we never liked and politics for the moment is forgotten. Even a Mississippi man just can’t keep on devouring barbecued beat and political speeches without gradually losing appetite. But we sorta have to stick around in the afternoon to hear our neighbors who are running for local office. We sit back to watch their antics and stay ready to have a good time if they work up a spat about something. Actually, what’s on our minds is the need for getting along home to see about the stock. It’s a far piece and we want to be there before first dark.
Cream 1 cup softened unsalted butter with 1 cup each white and brown sugar and 1 cup your choice of creamy/crunchy peanut butter. Mix 2 teaspoons baking soda with 2 ½ cups flour and a teaspoon salt, stir in 2 beaten eggs, and gradually blend into the peanut butter mixture. Add a cup or so of chocolate chips and refrigerate for a half hour. Drop by spoonfuls onto a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Bake at 375 for about 10 minutes.
This text is from a pamphlet that Eudora Welty wrote for and was distributed by the Mississippi Advertising Commission in 1936. Bearing that in mind, the simplicity of the recipes and the appeal to “Old South” sensibilities are better understood. This essay was selected by the Federal Writers’ Project only a short time before the publication of A Curtain of Green in 1941, a work that established Welty as a leading light in American letters, a position she still holds.
Stark Young, in his book Feliciana, tells how a proud and lovely Southern lady, famous for her dinner table and for her closely guarded recipes, temporarily forgot how a certain dish was prepared. She asked her Creole cook, whom she herself had taught, for the recipe. The cook wouldn’t give it back. Still highly revered, recipes in the South are no longer quite so literally guarded. Generosity has touched the art of cooking, and now and then, it is said, a Southern lady will give another Southern lady her favorite recipe and even include all the ingredients, down to that magical little touch that makes all the difference. In the following recipes, gleaned from ante-bellum homes in various parts of Mississippi, nothing is held back. That is guaranteed. Yankees are welcome to make these dishes. Follow the directions and success is assured.
Port Gibson, Mississippi, which General Grant on one occasion declared was “too beautiful to burn,” is the source of a group of noble old recipes. “Too beautiful to burn” by far are the jellied apples which Mrs. Herschel D. Brownlee makes and the recipe for which she parts with as follows:
Pare and core one dozen apples of a variety which will jell successfully. Winesap and Jonathan are both good. To each dozen apples moisten well two and one-half cups of sugar. Allow this to boil for about five minutes. Then immerse apples in this syrup, allowing plenty of room about each apple. Add the juice of one-half lemon, cover closely, and allow to cook slowly until apples appear somewhat clear. Close watching and frequent turning is necessary to prevent them from falling apart. Remove from stove and fill centers with a mixture of chopped raisins, pecans, and crystallized ginger, the latter adding very much to the flavor of the finished dish. Sprinkle each apple with granulated sugar and baste several times with the thickening syrup, then place in a 350-degree oven to glaze without cover on vessel. Baste several times during this last process.
Mrs. Brownlee stuffs eggs with spinach and serves with a special sauce, the effect of which is amazingly good. Here is the secret revealed:
1 lb. can of spinach or equal amount of fresh spinach
1 small onion, cut fine
salt and pepper to taste
juice of 1 lemon or ½ cup vinegar
½ cup melted butter or oil
1 large can mushroom soup.
Boil eggs hard, peel, and cut lengthwise. Mash yolks fine. Add butter, seasoning, and spinach. Stuff each half egg, press together, and pour over them mushroom soup thickened with cornstarch, and chopped pimento for color.
Last of all, Mrs. Brownlee gives us this old recipe for lye hominy, which will awaken many a fond memory in the hearts of expatriate Southerners living far, far away.
1 gallon shelled corn
12 quart oak ashes salt to taste
Boil corn about three hours, or until the husk comes off, with oak ashes which must be tied in a bag—a small sugar sack will answer. Then wash in three waters. Cook a second time about four hours, or until tender. -An all day job: adds Mrs. Brownlee.
One of the things Southerners do on plantations is give big barbecues. For miles around, “Alinda Gables,” a plantation in the Delta near Greenwood, is right well spoken of for its barbecued chicken and spare ribs. Mr. and Mrs. Allen Hobbs, of “Alinda Gables,” here tells you what to do with every three-pound chicken you mean to barbecue:
1 pint Wesson oil
2 pounds butter
5 bottles barbecue sauce (12 ounce bottles)
1/2 pint vinegar
1 cup lemon juice
2 bottles tomato catsup (14 ounce bottles)
1 bottle Worcestershire sauce (10 ounce bottles)
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
2 buttons garlic, chopped fine salt and pepper to taste
This will barbecue eight chickens weighing from 242 to 3 pounds. In barbecuing, says Mrs. Hobbs, keep a slow fire and have live coals to add during the process of cooking, which takes about two hours. The secret lies in the slow cooking and the constant mopping of the meat with the sauce. Keep the chickens wet at all times and turn often. If hotter sauce is desired, add red pepper and more Tabasco sauce.
Mrs. James Milton Acker, whose home, “The Magnolias,” in north Mississippi is equally famous for barbecue parties under the magnificent magnolia trees on the lawn, gives a recipe which is simpler and equally delightful: • Heat together: 4 ounces vinegar, 14 ounces catsup, 3 ounces Worcestershire sauce, the juice of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons salt, red and black pepper to taste, and 4 ounces butter. Baste the meat constantly while cooking.
Pass Christian, Mississippi, an ancient resort where the most brilliant society of the eighteenth century used to gather during the season, is awakened each morning by the familiar cry, “Oyster ma-an from Pass Christi-a-an!” It would take everything the oyster man had to prepare this seafood gumbo as the chef at Inn-by-the-Sea, Pass Christian, orders it:
2 quarts okra, sliced
large green peppers
1 large stalk celery
6 medium sized onions
1 bunch parsley
½ quart diced ham
2 cans #2 tomatoes
2 cans tomato paste
3 pounds cleaned shrimp
2 dozen hard crabs, cleaned and broken into bits
100 oysters and juice
½ cup bacon drippings
1 cup flour small bundle of bay leaf and thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon Lea & Perrins Sauce
1 gallon chicken or ham stock
Put ham in pot and smother until done. Then add sliced okra, and also celery, peppers, onions, and parsley all ground together. Cover and cook until well done. Then add tomatoes and tomato paste. Next put in the shrimp, crabs, crab meat and oysters. Make brown roux of bacon dripping and flour and add to the above. Add the soup stock, and throw into pot bay leaves and thyme, salt and pepper, and Lea & Perrins Sauce. This makes three gallons of gumbo. Add one tablespoon of steamed rice to each serving.
The chef at Inn-by-the-Sea fries his chickens deliciously too. He uses pound or pound-and-a-half size fowls. Dressed and drawn, they are cut into halves and dipped into batter made of one egg slightly beaten to which one cup of sweet milk has been added, as well as salt and pepper. The halves of chicken are dipped and thoroughly wetted in the batter and then dredged well in dry, plain flour. The chef fries the chicken in deep hot fat until they are well done and a golden brown. He says be careful not to fry too fast.
Two other seafood recipes from the Mississippi Coast come out of Biloxi, that cosmopolitan city that began back in 1669, and where even today the European custom of blessing the fleet at the opening of the shrimp season is ceremoniously observed. “Fish court bouillon” is a magical name on the Coast, it is spoken in soft voice by the diner, the waiter, and the chef alike; its recipe should be accorded the highest respect; it should be made up to the letter, and without delay:
FISH COURT BOUILLON
5 or 6 onions
1 bunch parsley
2 or 4 pieces celery
4 pieces garlic
6 small cans tomatoes
1 or 2 bay leaves hot peppers to taste
Cut up fine, fry brown, and let simmer for about an hour, slowly. Prepare the fish, and put into the gravy. Do not stir. Cook until fish is done. This will serve 8 to 10 people; for 10 or more double the ingredients. To prepare fish, fry without cornmeal, and put in a plate or pan. Pour a portion of the gravy over it, and let it set for a while. Just before serving, pour the rest of the hot gravy over the fish.
Another valuable Coast recipe which comes from Biloxi is that for Okra Gumbo.
2 or 3 onions
½ bunch parsley
5 or 6 pieces celery
1 small piece garlic
4 cans of okra, or a dozen fresh pieces
1 can tomatoes
1 pound veal stew, or 1 slice raw ham
Cut all ingredients in small pieces and fry brown. Let simmer for a while. If shrimp are desired, pick and par-boil them and add to the ingredients the shrimp and the water in which they were boiled. If oysters or crab meat is desired, add to gumbo about twenty minutes before done. Add as much water as desired.
Aberdeen, Mississippi, is a good Southern town to find recipes. Old plantations along the Tombigbee River centered their social life in Aberdeen as far back as the 1840’s, and some of the recipes that were used in those days are still being made up in this part of the country.
Mrs. C. L. Lubb, of Aberdeen, uses this recipe for beaten biscuit:
4 cups flour, measured before sifting 3/4 cup lard 1 teaspoon salt 4 teaspoons sugar enough ice water and milk to make a stiff dough (about Y2 cup). Break 150 times until the dough pops. Roll out and cut, and prick with a fork. Bake in a 400-degree oven. When biscuits are a light brown, turn off the heat and leave them in the oven with the door open until they sink well, to make them done in the middle.
Mrs. Bicknell T. Eubanks, also of Aberdeen, prepares Spanish rice this way.
4 tablespoons oil
1 cup rice
1 onion, sliced
1 green pepper, chopped
1 quart canned tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt, a little less than ½ teaspoon pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large frying pan and add rice. Cook until brown, stirring constantly. Cook remaining 2 tablespoons oil with onion and green pepper until the onion is yellow and tender. Combine with rice. Add tomatoes and let it simmer until the rice is tender, stirring constantly. Add a little hot tomato juice if the rice seems dry. Add seasonings. Serves 6.
Vicksburg, in the old steamboat days Mississippi’s wicked, wide-open town, lived high with all the trimmings. Perched on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, it is famous still for its excellent catfish. The disarmingly simple recipe for preparing it is here given: Take a catfish weighing 12 pound. Season well with salt and pepper, and roll in cornmeal. Use a pot of deep fat with temperature of 360 degrees. Place the fish in the pot and fry until done. Serve very hot.
To go along with the fish, the Hotel Vicksburg serves a wickedly hot potato salad, prepared as follows:
1 quart sliced potatoes (cooked)
6 pieces chopped crisp bacon
3 chopped hard boiled eggs
1 minced large green pepper
2 minced pimentos
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
salt and pepper to taste
Mix and serve with quartered tomatoes, sliced dill pickles, mixed sweet pickles, and quartered onions.
A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old city of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in “Whitehall,” the home of Mr. and Mrs. T. C. Billups. “The drink is refreshing,” says Mrs. Billups, needlessly enough, “and carries with it all the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments, which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.” The “Whitehall” recipe is as follows:
Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled. Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water. Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping it into dissolved sugar. Strain after stirring. Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity. Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold. Put a sprig of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet. Let goblet stand until FROSTED. Serve rapidly.
Core four pounds small, firm green tomatoes—or not; I don’t—and cut into fleshy wedges. Combine two cups vinegar with a cup of water, add a quarter cup canning salt, two cloves of garlic and a quarter cup of dill seeds. Bring to a boil. Pack tomato wedges into clean jars with 2-piece canning lids. (If you want to be artsy, you can throw some sliced onion, sweet red pepper strips, and a bay leaf, but people, don’t bother; it’s all about the tomatoes, okay?) Ladle hot liquid over tomatoes, shake the jars to burp the bubbles, wipe jar rims, and screw on lids. Cool and refrigerate. This makes two quarts that will keep in the fridge for several weeks.
The Illinois Central’s Green Diamond by Howard Bahr
In the decades following the Great War, American culture shook itself out of the Nineteenth Century and woke to fresh ideas and new possibilities. Youth, having liberated Europe and ended war forever, had a voice for the first time in our history. Cynicism and joi de vivre found ways to cohabit, and under their common roof, Youth created a new way of living. Jazz was the soundtrack. Flappers in short skirts, long beads swinging, danced the Charleston, the Fox Trot, the Shimmy: girls smoked cigarettes and drank gin in public and were picked up from Mama’s house by sheiks in fast cars. The Imagists’ admonition–“Make it new!”–resonated everywhere.
Downtown, the staid dignity of the Chicago School gave way to soaring silver skyscrapers that transformed city skylines. In the suburbs, new houses traded a classical vocabulary for the sleek lines, portholes, and minimalist décor of the Moderne. Aluminum and glass replaced busy fretwork; cluttered, over-stuffed parlors vanished, and porches disappeared; tall Lombardy poplars, nature’s answer to Arts Decoratif, graced the landscaping. Even everyday objects like radios, toasters, pencil sharpeners, vases, clocks, mirrors, and telephones took on new forms in the up-to-date household. The automobile industry, ever alert to the public’s whims, abandoned the boxy bodies and spoked wheels inherited from horse-drawn carriages and began to experiment with streamlining, a movement that culminated in the startling 1936 Chrysler Airflow.
When that car and others like it appeared on showroom floors, they represented not only a revolution in style, but in movement as well. Newly-paved highways beckoned, and the motorcar, liberated from Sunday drives and trips to the park, was recast as a ship of dreams. The world was opened up in an unprecedented way: as Dinah Shore would sing in 1953, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet! America is asking you to call!” Travelers, once bound to the railroads, could now set their own schedules, carry as much baggage as they wanted (no charge!), and rest in the friendly motor hotels springing up in the wilderness.
American railroad companies looked on this newfound Freedom of the Road with misgivings. Railroads had bullied steamboats off the inland rivers, now, in their turn, they were threatened by the automobile. Passenger revenue was still high, but the Detroit competition was available, cheap, and attractive to the public. In 1882, when the railroads were at the height of their tyrannical power, Commodore Vanderbilt of the New York Central could proclaim, in an unguarded moment, “The public be damned!” Needless to say, by the mid-1930s, this sentiment was no longer viable.
To meet this challenge, railroad engineering and PR departments tapped into the Moderne craze and created the Streamliner: a first-class, air-conditioned train with sleek aluminum coaches, specially assigned engines, and a color scheme that ran from the locomotive pilot to the end of the observation car. Design luminaries like Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy brought steam locomotives into the realm of high art: when the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited (Dreyfuss) and the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited (Loewy) raced each other eastbound out of Chicago on parallel tracks, they represented a pinnacle of design unequaled for American industry.
Another innovation was the articulated “trainset,” the railroads’ first great experiment with diesel-electric power. Articulation meant that the power car” (that is, the locomotive) and all the coaches shared wheel trucks and were permanently coupled together, save when they went to the shops for maintenance. Trainsets were short–five or six cars in the consist–ran on tight schedules, and were well-appointed. The CB&Q fielded several silver, shovel-nosed Zephyrs. The UP and C&NW ran a joint City of Denver, the Santa Fe’s Chicagoan/Kansas moderne aesthetic.
The schedule of the Green Diamond was ideally suited for businessmen traveling between the great cities of St. Louis and Chicago, with a stop at Springfield, Illinois’ capitol. Northbound, the train departed St. Louis at 8:55 A.M. and arrived in Chicago five hours later. Southbound departure from Chicago was at the close of the business day, 5:00 P.M., with a St. Louis arrival at 9:55 P.M. Along the way, passengers enjoyed such amenities as air-conditioning, a radio in every car, and excellent dining (see Jesse Yancy’s article below). In addition, the train carried a stewardess trained in dictation, and a registered nurse for the hangovers and heart attacks common among Capitalists in the Great Depression years.
The Green Diamond must have been quite a sight as she glided through the cornfields on a summer’s day, or flashed her green against the snow of winter. People accustomed to a steam engine’s mournful whistle no doubt looked up when #121 blatted her air horn at grade crossings: perhaps they heard in it the sound of the Future, but probably not. Locomotives would always and evermore be driven by steam, just as the Great War had ended all wars, and drugstores would always sell Paregoric.
In the end, the very success of the Green Diamond led to her demise. The St. LouisSpringfield-Chicago schedule proved so popular that passenger traffic began to exceed the limited capacity of the trainset, which could not accommodate the addition of extra cars during a surge of ridership. In 1947, eleven years after her glorious debut, IC #121 and her articulated companions were replaced by conventional, more practical diesel locomotives and coaches. The train’s name and schedule remained, but the moderne novelty was gone forever from the Land of Lincoln.
The final chapter of the trainset’s story began at the Illinois Central’s Paducah shops, where she was given an overhaul. When she emerged, she was freshly-painted in the same two-tone green, but the Green Diamond banner had been erased from her sides. Train crews, doubtless Bemused by the assignment, took her across the various divisions to Cairo, Memphis, and at last to her new home of Jackson, Mississippi. Why she was sent there instead of somewhere else is lost to history, but for the next three years–until she was sold for scrap–she traveled the Louisiana Division between Jackson and New Orleans. Now called the Miss-Lou, her timecard schedule was almost identical to that of the Green Diamond, and she once again provided the reliable, courteous service for which the Main Line of Mid-America was famous. The Miss-Lou moniker derived, of course, from the states through which she traveled, but, as Yancy explains below, it was by another name that she entered the folklore of the Deep South.
We are given some things in life–the Iris, for example, or a young girl’s face–that seem the more beautiful because we know their flowering will not last. We treasure less, perhaps, those things we foolishly believe will last forever. So it was with the great passenger trains that once flowed majestically across the Republic: colorful carriers of Dream and Promise in a time when pride was still part of the national character and anything was possible. They are vanished now, every one scattered across the trash-heaps of memory, and few remain who remember them at all. They will not come again; that they once passed among us is testimony to what we had, and to what we can never have again.
Dining on the Green Diamond
by Jesse Yancy
In 1867, George Pullman introduced his first railroad “hotel car,” the President, a converted sleeper equipped with limited dining facilities. In 1868, Pullman built his next all-dining car, which he named the Delmonico after the famous New York restaurant. The Delmonico was placed in service on the Chicago & Alton Railroad between Chicago and Springfield, Ill. Meals were the lofty price of one dollar.
The 1940s and 1950s were the golden age of train travel and the pinnacle of railroad dining car operations. For many passengers, the ambiance of the dining car was the reason they rode the train. The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its first-rate culinary staff and Creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the Kings Dinner, for about $10; other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4 to $5. The menu the Super Chief, called the “Train for the Stars” because it was the choice transportation from the East Coast and Chicago to Hollywood, rivaled that served in many five-star restaurants. A “Wake-Up Cup” of coffee was brought to one’s private bedroom each morning, on request, a service exclusive to the Super Chief. The elaborate dinner offerings generally included caviar and other delicacies, cold salads, grilled and sauteéd fish, sirloin steaks and filet mignon, lamb chops, and the like. For discerning palates, elegant champagne dinners were an option.
In that golden age of the itinerant epicure, the Illinois Central touted their schedules with its most famous advertisement stating, “Enjoy the fastest service ever offered and the supreme luxury of America’s smoothest riding train. Air-conditioned…radio in every car… Stewardess… Delicious inexpensive meals as low as: breakfast 25 cents, lunch 35 cents, and dinner 40 cents.” The ICRR original Green Diamond dining service carried on the railroad’s tradition of fine dining, with every element of complete passenger train service contained in four cars with 200 square feet. With dining seating for only 24, it would take 5 seatings to serve all 120 passengers in the dining space, and that had to be done in the five hour and 10-minute trip. Six serving tray stands were provided in each chair car for use in serving meals at the seats of the patrons, and this helped case the process.
The 22-square feet kitchen was provided with an oil burning range, broiler, warming ovens, urn and steam table. Polished stainless steel was used for the table tops, sinks, chipped ice wells, facings of refrigerators, range, work tables and lower lockers. The interior linings of cold boxes, refrigerator compartments, racks, etc. were also of stainless steel. Dry ice refrigeration, automatically controlled, was used in the large refrigerator, cold boxes, and ice cream cabinet. The kitchen was provided with a serving bay open on three sided to facilitate serving meals. Ornamental panels of inlaid Formica closed off these openings when the kitchen is not in use. An annunciator for waiter service was provided with push buttons conveniently located in the diner-observation car and at the dining section in the chair car.
The Green Diamond’s menu offered an impressive variety for what amounted to a glorified commuter train. Both the a la carte menu and the table d’hote included broiled codfish with anchovy sauce, lamb chops with spiced crabapple, pork tenderloin with yams, chicken a la king, and New Orleans-style pan-fried oysters served with succotash, French-fried potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Lettuce and fruit salads, cold and hot soups, and freshly baked pie rounded out the menu. The bar offered cocktails, beers, and wines, mixed drinks, sodas (Seven Up and Coca Cola), and a selection of assorted cigars (5, 10, and 15 cents).
When the Green Diamond began her final runs as the Miss-Lou (MISSissippi-LOUisiana) between Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, she left Jackson at 6:20 AM, arriving in New Orleans at 10:20 AM; the return journey left at 6:20 PM and arrived in Jackson at 10:20 PM. This articulated version of the original trainset probably offered little more to eat than cold sandwiches and sodas. Along rails running among the small farms and homesteads of south Mississippi, the farmers along its route noted the green train’s resemblance to an unwelcome denizen of their vegetable gardens, and before long became affectionately known the Tomato Worm. The train was finally retired on August 8, 1950, and sold for scrap.