Niko’s Moussaka

“Jesse, my friend, I love you like a brother, you know that, even though we are not even the same species because you belong to a people who seethed in ignorance until my people, MY people, the Greeks, the Hellenes, brought to you, like a torch in the hands of a strong, beautiful god, the gifts of knowledge and culture.

“When my people built the Parthenon, yours were stuffing sheep shit in rock walls to keep out the wind; when Homer first sang of the anger of Achilles, your ancestors were banging on skin drums and shrieking like chimpanzees; when Praxiteles discovered Apollo in living stone, yours were whittling dice from acorns.”

“Hector,” I said, “Your divine radiance blinds me.”

“Do not mock me, you insolent ass. You asked me to teach you how to make moussaka as my great-uncle Nikolaos, so I must make you properly respectful of the gift. Uncle Niko they say he made Greek cooking a Frenchified farce, but he threw away trash Turks and Slaves put on our plates and brought refinement to this beautiful old dish. Here, I’ll show you.”

Trim stalks and bottoms of 2 large eggplants, peel and slice to ½ inch. Soak in salty water for about 20 minutes, and dry on paper towels. Peel 4 potatoes and slice to ¼ inch. Fry potatoes and eggplant in olive oil until just soft. Set both aside on paper towels to drain. Add oil if needed and sauté two diced white onions until translucent. Add about a pound and half of lean ground beef to the onions in the frying pan, mix well to break up the meat, add two cloves minced garlic, and an 8-oz. can of tomato sauce. Mix very well, then lower heat and simmer uncovered, stirring, until liquid is reduced. Set aside.

Melt ½ stick butter, add ¼ cup plain flour, mix well and cook over medium low heat until it stops bubbling. Gradually add four cups whole milk, stirring continually, until quite thick. Cool and incorporate two beaten egg yolks. Set aside.

Grease the sides and bottoms of a large casserole. Cover the bottom with a layer of potato slices, add a layer of eggplant slices, and half of the meat mixture. Cover the meat layer with remaining potato slices, then eggplant slices, and spread remaining meat mixture out evenly to cover the eggplant layer. Top with evenly with white sauce and bake at 350F for 40 minutes or so.

Refrigerator Pickles

Canning season is well underway, and chances are you know someone puts up beans, tomatoes, and corn. The process not only requires some degree of precision and specialized accessories, but is fraught with a procedural mojo that seems to inspire an annoying smidge of smugness in its devotees. These domestic deities take excessive pride in their product—some of them with justification, of course—and in recent years, it seems, home canned goods display an astonishing degree of artisanship you’ll find displayed at summer fairs where the best home canning the area has to offer is enshrined and awarded. Competition is psychotic.

Fortunately for us mere mortals, we have a quick, delicious alternative to the sort of home canning that requires a humongous pot, oversize tongs, and vexatious thermometers. All you need for refrigerator pickles are jars, ingredients, and, well, a refrigerator. Cucumbers, onions, and young squash can be used, but they must be quite fresh, young and firm. Supermarket vegetables are unsuitable. Pack 6 cups sliced cucumbers and 1 cup sliced onion in two clan quart jars. Heat 1 cup vinegar, 1 cups sugar, and 1 tablespoon salt until sugar is dissolved. Pour over cucumber mixture, cool, cover tightly and refrigerate for a day or so hours before serving. These will keep for several weeks, but are usually eaten well before.


Last Train Through Vardaman

This is a recording of Raymond Bailey performing “The Last Train through Vardaman” that Barbara Yancy made sometime in 1975-76. I lost the first part of Raymond’s narrative because the tape was so old and broke at both ends during recording, but I did hear it on the first playback. Raymond begins with saying, “This is ‘The Last Train through Vardaman.’ I remember we were loading the train that day, and my brother said, ‘Pile it high, boys, because this is the last train through Vardaman!’ So, we loaded her up (and away she went!)” I have him doing a couple of other songs, including ‘Nellie Gray’ and a version of ‘Casey Jones’ that I’ve never heard. The locomotive is the OH&CC Number 9 at Okolona. Listen to Raymond here.

Frank Hains

On July 15, 1975, Jackson was stunned by the brutal murder of a man whose cultural contributions to the community still reverberate in the city.

Frank Woodruff Hains, Jr. was born July 7, 1926 in Wood County, West Virginia. After graduating from Marietta College in Ohio and serving two years in the military, Hains began a radio career that took him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he became active in both the Vicksburg Little Theater and the Jackson Little Theater. A few years later he moved to Jackson, beginning his twenty-year career with the Jackson Daily News as literary critic and champion of the arts. He remained active in the Jackson Little Theater and was one of the founders of New Stage Theater in 1966.

In addition to his position at the Jackson Daily News, through his work as actor, director, and set designer for the local theaters as well as his contributions to the New York Times, Hains helped high schools and colleges in the area with their productions. In 1958 he received the National Pop Wagner Award for work with young people, and in 1970 the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television presented him with its Distinguished Public Service Award.

Hains was murdered in his home in Jackson. Two weeks later, this memorial written by his close friend Eudora Welty appeared in the combined Sunday Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News (27 July 1975):

By Eudora Welty

For all his years with us, Frank Hains wrote on the arts with perception and clarity, with wit and force of mind. And that mind was first-rate — informed, uncommonly quick and sensitive, keenly responsive. But Frank did more than write well on the arts. He cared. And he worked, worked, worked for their furtherance in this city and state. He was a doer and a maker and a giver. Talented and versatile to a rare degree, he lived with the arts, in their thick.

So it was by his own nature as a man as well as in the whole intent of his work that he was a positive critic, and never a defeating one. The professional standards he set for art, and kept, himself, as a critic, were impeccable and even austere. At the same time he was the kindest, most chivalrous defender of the amateur. And it was not only the amateurs — it was not artists at all — who knew this well: his busy life, as he went about his work and its throng of attendant interests, was made up of thousands of unrecorded kindnesses.

I speak as one working in the arts — and only one, of a very great number indeed — who came to know at first hand, and well, what ever-present perception and insight, warmth of sympathy, and care for the true meaning, Frank in his own work brought to a work of theirs. The many things he has done in behalf of my own books I wouldn’t be able to even count; his dramatic productions of my stories are among the proudest and happiest events of my working life. He was a dear and admired friend for twenty years.

Frank gave many young talents their first hope, sometimes their first chance, and I am sure he never could have let any talent down. He didn’t let any of us down, but was our constant and benevolent and thoroughgoing supporter, a refresher of our spirits, a celebrator along with us of what we all alike, in the best ways we were able, were devoting our lives to.

What his work contributed — the great sum — had an authority of a kind all its own. I wonder if it might not have had a double source: his lifelong enchantment with the world of art, and an unusual gift for communicating his pleasure in it to the rest of us. Plus the blessed wish to do it.

We are grateful.

(Hains was buried in Big Tygart Cemetery, Rockport, WV)

Red Rice

For four servings, fry three strips of thick bacon until crisp and set aside. Sauté about a cup of chopped white onion and the same amount of chopped bell pepper in the bacon grease, add two cups water, an 8-oz. can of tomato sauce and one cup of rice, season with a little salt and pepper, cover and cook until rice is tender. Stir in the cooked bacon before serving. This is the most basic recipe for red rice imaginable, and it goes with almost anything.

Cobb Salad

Hollywood’s Brown Derby on North Vine, which opened Valentine’s Day 1929, became more known as a schmoozing spot for studio moguls and screen stars than for its food, but one dish is always mentioned. Cobb salad was named after a founder of the Brown Derby chain, and it enjoyed a brief resurgence of popularity in the late 1970s. The “original” recipe–bear in mind this is Hollywood–was published in the first edition of their cookbook (Doubleday; 1952). In one restaurant where I worked, we used a blue cheese dressing similar to Roquefort and not the French at all. Unless you had time on your hands, which was unlikely during a busy hour, it was a real chore to make; the ingredients had to be arranged just so in alternating bands over a bed of lettuce, usually shredded iceberg or chopped romaine. The original recipe used both of these with chicory and watercress topped with tomatoes, roast chicken, crumbled bacon, chopped boiled eggs, chives and crumbled Roquefort, tossed with simple French dressing.

Simple French Dressing

This recipe is easily made with ingredients you likely have on hand. Put a cup of vegetable oil, ½ cup (tomato) ketchup, ¼ cup apple cider vinegar (white will work and pickle juice will do in a pinch) and a teaspoon sugar in a jar and shake until mixed well. Salt to taste before tossing with salad.

Yellow-Meated Watermelons

While working in a Florida restaurant, I kept having trouble ordering a yellow-meated watermelon from my produce guy. He said he could never find one, even though I’d seen them in local markets. Finally it came out that with my heavy hill country Mississippi accent he thought I was ordering a melon from some mythical locale in California: “Jala Meadad”. He even wrote it down that way on his order forms.

While yellow-meated watermelons aren’t widely known, early texts written by European botanists have been uncovered depicting images and descriptions of watermelons of various shapes and sizes as well as varying flesh colors of red, white, yellow and orange. In fact, the original watermelon that grew wild in South Africa was most likely a yellow or white flesh variety, but lacked the high sugar levels of today’s watermelons.

Here in the Deep South the yellow-meat season is very short; you’ll rarely find them marketed before July or after August, and you’ll almost never find them sold in supermarkets, usually only at roadside produce stands. Yellow watermelons can vary greatly in size, shape and color; the most common variety here in Mississippi has broad dark green stripes and narrow light green ones, though over in Clay County, Alabama, where they have the Clay County Yellow Meated Watermelon Festival, the eponymous variety is an almost uniform light green. The flesh can range from pale yellow to deep gold and may contain large brownish black seeds or be completely seedless. While their succulent and crisp texture is comparable to red watermelons, their flavor is usually much sweeter offering notes of honey and apricot.

Bread Salad

Bread salads have been popular for a long time, particularly around the Mediterranean, where they’re known as panzanelea in France, panzanella in Italy, dakos in Greece (Crete, more specifically), and fattoush in Lebanon. Having said that, note that most modern versions use tomatoes, which with the exception of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, have only been around for about 300 years. Greens are rarely used for the simple reason that leaf vegetables tend to be cool-weather crops, and the breads are made into croutons of some sort. It’s best made with tomatoes, cucumbers and young onions at their peak, which makes it a perfect dish for that summer luncheon or porch supper. Most recipes recommend using a baguette, but it’s really good with cornbread croutons, too. Whatever you do, DON’T make that abominable layered apparatus you might find; bread salad should be made on the table.

Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes, enough to make about four cups. Heat a large pan or skillet over medium heat, add about 1/2 cup olive oil and a good dash of salt. Cook, tossing occasionally, until crisp and browned, about 2 minutes. Drizzle with a little more oil before setting aside on a plate to cool. Drain and cube tomatoes; cherry or grape tomatoes can simply be halved. Dice red and/or green onions; some people like a sweet bell pepper, too, but this recipe is not conductive to a lot of heat. Mix vegetables in a large bowl with fresh shredded basil (not too much!). Serve croutons and vegetables separately with a good vinaigrette, and toss at the table before serving. It should go without saying that this salad does not keep.

Menu for a Delta Wedding

Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does, the part has a specific function.

Adam Gopnik lists four kinds of fictional food: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be predominant, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

In both Faulkner and Welty, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement. This Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord.

Though three main meals are described–a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards–people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book. This a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household in the South during the Coolidge administration.

Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.

As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes to Welty, who is not only subtle and understated, but knows food as few writers do, it’s easy to miss things; read Delta Wedding again, if for that reason alone.

Street Corn

Shuck, scrub, and dry ears of fresh sweet corn, trim ends, brush with corn oil and grill or sear in a skillet. (Street stands use a salamander.) Skewer and set aside to cool. Make a paste with ½ cup mayonnaise and ½ cup hard grated cheese; if you don’t have cojita, Parmesan is fine, but a 50/50 mix of Parm and feta is better. Add a tablespoon of chili powder, add another and maybe a little salt. Spread the paste on the corn, and chill before serving.