Pickled Eggs

Any time you enter a beer joint or beer store in the South, you’re likely to find a big jar of pickled eggs on the counter next to the beef jerky, the pieds de porc à l’écarlate and all the other Bubbas that belly up to the Southern sideboard, but in this case, pickled eggs, like Prince Hal, are tainted by their dissolute company. This bar sinister is itself a shame, but pickled eggs—which, if you think about it, are a rather delicate dish in the first place—have also been brutalized by mass marketing. Those over-boiled, nitrate-infused super-ball eggs in roadhouse jars are the ovulaltory equivalent of mealy winter tomatoes, and while witnesses will gleefully attest that I have eaten my share of them, I’ll be the first to admit that they’re just not good food.

On the other hand, properly pickled eggs are a treat; they’re a great side with cold meats, poultry or game, and good in tuna, chicken or over vegetable salads. One recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Craig Claiborne included a pickled egg recipe in his New York Times Cookbook (wouldn’t he just?), and Rita Mae Brown, one of our best Southern writers, employs this dish as a culinary bone of contention between two cantankerous sisters in her riotous novel, Six of One. The white of a pickled egg should be firm, not tough or rubbery, and the yolk should be moist and almost creamy, not crumbly and dry. They should also have a light, balanced tangy/sweet flavor as a platform for other seasonings: I like a couple of slit hot peppers, a slice or two of garlic and a bay leaf to flavor mine, but dill, caraway or even cloves figure among other attractive possibilities.

For pickling, boil a dozen medium eggs until just done; you can easily fit a dozen large in a quart jar. Then stuff the (peeled) eggs into a glass jar along with whatever accompaniments you like (jalapenos, onion, garlic, bay leaf, etc.). In order to find out how much liquid you need to cover the eggs, fill the jar with a mixture of white vinegar and water (4:1) just to the top; make sure to get rid of air bubbles by tapping or tipping the jar. Add a tablespoon of salt, a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of pickling spices to the liquid. If you miss the barroom rose, use beet juice for color. Heat to almost boiling then back over the eggs; if there’s not quite enough liquid to cover them entirely, add a little more warm water. Then tilt again and seal the jar. Store for at least a week before eating.

 

How to Make a Rainbow Cake

Jake saw an image of a rainbow cake somewhere and just had to make one. It wasn’t even called a rainbow cake in any sort of caption; it was just a random image on a blog somewhere, but he found it beautiful, and I did, too. But when he said he wanted to make one, well, I kind of tingled in my toes. You’d never know it, but Jake is color-blind. I’m not sure how extensive it is, and he’s not either, but when he pointed to that gorgeous slice of multi-colored cake on the monitor and said he wanted to make it, I offered to help.

It was the least I could do.

Since this was such an experimental venture, we used a commercial white cake mix and a canned icing; after all, our objective was appearance rather than substance. The most indispensable element of the project was two (count ‘em, two!) boxes of McCormick’s assorted food coloring and egg dye. Each box has formulas for achieving eight colors (red, yellow, green and blue as well as pretty purple, orange sunset, teal, mint green and dusty rose).

Jake used two boxes of cake mix, split the batter into six equal amounts and then colored each bowl of batter. Because there was less batter per baking pan, oven time was reduced by at least five minutes. Jake wanted to arrange the layers to his own satisfaction, but I told him that while that might be interesting, it might be better on this effort for us to stick to Roy G. Biv (less the “i” I think). After a brief discussion, the pans were numbered and labeled. Once cooled, we assembled the cake. It sat overnight in a white icing, and when the first slice was taken the next day everyone went, “Ooo . . . “.

We both just grinned.

 

Cooking Under Pressure

Sooner or later you’re bound to hear someone say they can’t boil water, or even worse (and this is the voice of experience speaking) hear it said about you. Boiling water without a geyser was a mammoth leap for mankind, so much so that nowadays saying somebody can’t bring water to a boil casts a bad light not only on their cooking, but also on their other basic skills, not to mention their family. Even chemists should be able to boil water, and it should be made an exit requirement on the MCAT and LSAT as well. Not even clergy should be exempt, and if you can’t boil water, I don’t want you fiddling with my fuse box, either.

Shortly after we brought water to a boil on our own, we learned how to steam foods in sealed, slightly vented containers. Given that pottery was still in its infancy then, pressure cooking was probably a messy if not painful innovation; but steaming food was the Paleolithic equivalent of the microwave oven, introducing a quicker method of tenderizing dried grains and tough meats, the staffs of life before Stouffer’s. And because starches and tough cuts are not only inexpensive and nutritious but when properly prepared wonderful, anyone who takes an interest in cooking should learn how to use a pressure cooker. This takes time. God knows I’ve burned everything except water at least twice, but when it comes to pressure cooking I’m not taking all the blame. A pressure cooker can be as cantankerous as a maiden aunt and almost as noisy; the cooker’s regulator jiggles and bangs about before releasing a steady hiss that lets you know it’s at full steam. Unlike most other kitchen activities, cooking with pressure involves hearing more than seeing or smelling.

The first step is to get a cooker. I’m not prone to endorsements (meaning I don’t get paid for any), but Presto pretty much put the lid on canning kitchenware in North America, and after over a century their products are still an industry standard. Buy a new 4-quart cooker, which will set you back about $30 retail. Once you tap into your inner earth mother and get into putting up your home-grown beets, you might buy a bigger, second-hand apparatus with dials and other gadgets, but until that happy occasion live with your new gallon of steam and get to know how it works. I recommend practicing with cooking dried beans because they’re cheap and a quart of simply seasoned beans (especially the larger varieties such as kidneys, limas, and garbanzos) goes a long way in dozens and dozens of dishes all across the menu. Kidneys are a fine example of this versatility; these big red beans stand out in soups and salads as well as sides.

Before cooking beans of any kind, scatter them on a flat surface and remove any rocks or clumps of earth you’re likely to find, as you’re likely to find a few. Pressure-cooked beans need two cups water to one cup beans. Beans need a bit of oil prevent frothing, which could clog up the cooker’s vent and put a serious hitch in your get-along. The chemical processes that make dried beans and grains froth under pressure elude me, but I suspect this preventative measure is the culinary equivalent of an oil slick. What you do with your cooked beans is up to you. Be happy.

Jesseburgers

To each pound 90/10 ground beef, add a quarter cup finely diced onion, two minced cloves garlic, a tablespoon of salt, two of coarsely-ground black pepper and three of Worcestershire sauce. Form into patties, brush with light vegetable oil and refrigerate for at least an hour.  Grill until just done; they should be pink in the middle. Top with smoked cheddar before serving.

Tammy Tell Me True

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

According to film scholar Melanie Addington, “Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust. Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says. Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves the American film medium a desirable notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

Pinky was the first big studio picture to troop into race issues. The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas, a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing. The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948), an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America, and its heroine. Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described the film adaptation, Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner’s three “Tammy” novels provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66).

Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song, which Reynolds herself describes as a “sweet, simple ballad”, went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says. “Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters. The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder.

 

Sweet Potatoes with Buttermilk Lime Crema

Mix sour cream and buttermilk 2:1 with the juice of a lime and a teaspoon salt. Refrigerate. Coat sweet potatoes with vegetable oil and generous amounts of salt, and bake until cooked through. Cool thoroughly before slicing and topping with the crema and a dusting of black pepper. These are excellent with grilled meats and vegetables.

Roots Remoulade

Though the Larousse Gastronomique is considered by many the final court of authority on Gallic cuisine, that monumental work is not without an occasional chink in its venerable armor. One small perforation involves its recipe for a remoulade, which calls for a cup of mayonnaise with two tablespoons mixed herbs (parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon), one tablespoon drained capers, two finely diced cornichons and a few drops of anchovy essence (optional). No doubt this mixture is savory, subtle and delicious, but let us note that the Librairie Larousse was a Parisian publishing house specializing in encyclopedias and dictionaries, and as such I find it odd (I can’t quite call it inaccurate) that this recipe ignores the origins of the word “rémoulade” itself, which is derived from the dialectal French, rémola, with origins in the Latin word for horseradish, armoracea.

Given this (impeccable) classical precedent, I find it altogether appropriate that any recipe for a remoulade, be it white, red or green (yes, children, there is a green remoulade, made by adding spinach) should include horseradish. And yes, anchovies are a nice accent.

Dungeon Dip

The first time I had this recipe was at D&D sessions in the late Seventies, which were of course quite avant-garde in those days. Now what’s usually called seven-layer dip is cliché, but it’s still a good, cheap, and easy go-to nosh for a big group. Most versions include refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, grated cheddar cheese, and black olives, but consider it a chaotic good concoction.

In a glass or ceramic baking dish, layer 1 (16-ounce) can refried beans (Blue Runner cream-style red beans are also great to use), 2 cups guacamole with the juice of two limes, 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar or a taco cheese blend, 1 finely-chopped raw red onion, 2 cups of sour cream seasoned with a packet of taco seasoning, 2 cups pico de gallo (recommended) or a very chunky salsa drained, 2 small ripe tomatoes diced, and 1 small can of sliced or diced black olives (optional, at least in my game).

Refrigerate—covered with foil or plastic wrap—for at least an hour.  Top with finely-shredded lettuce, and serve with corn tortilla chips. This is the most basic recipe; feel free to improvise and revise. I like to add a little garlic to the beans, and if I add ground beef—which I rarely do, since the dish is quite substantial as is—it’s layered between the beans and guac. If you use a store-bought salsa, it’s important to drain it in a sieve beforehand, else it will make the mixture quite soupy. I also add diced jalapenos to the beans rather than sliced japs in the tomato/onion layer. Chopped green onions mixed with the lettuce adds more texture and zing.