Yancy’s Potluck Casserole

At some point in your life you’re going to impress the wrong person and find yourself invited to a potluck supper, obliging you not only to be presentable and reasonably polite for up to two hours, but to bear food that everybody likes and won’t put the cheese tray in a bad light. This dish fits the bill, doesn’t take a lot of time or money to make, works just as well for second weddings or canasta nights, and is always a big hit at cemetery homecomings. You’ll bring home an empty Pyrex whatever the occasion; it’s colorful, rich, buttery and, it must be said, “freezes beautifully”. This recipe provides a dozen or so 6 oz. servings.

Cook 1 pound extra-wide egg noodles, drain, and place in a large bowl. To these add 2 cups diced and lightly cooked celery and carrots, 2 cups frozen green peas (you can add these right to the mix), 3 cups shredded chicken (canned white is really good for this) and 2 cups diced ham. Toss with 1 stick melted butter and 2 cups grated Parmesan cheese. Use real cheese, people, not that sawdust in a green can. Bake in a casserole at 350 for about 20 minutes or until top is golden.

 

Rock Cornish Racket

The follies of genius are unavoidable, unpredictable and if we’re lucky just quirky. I think Victor Borge was a genius. While my standards might be modest (I think Jim Henson was a genius too) enlightenment and entertainment are always qualifications, and in those Borge shined. During his heyday he performed the world over, but maintained a homestead in New England that produced Rock Cornish game hens. I suspect he was probably amused with a business that marketed miniature chickens; imagine him asking why the Rock Cornish game hen crossed the road with a nice little keyboard riff. At any rate, Nora Ephron (the Rona Barrett of food writing) remembers that “every Rock Cornish game hen in America used to come with a little tag with Victor Borge’s name on it.” At his insistence, no doubt.

I hate to disillusion you all, but despite its rugged name a Rock Cornish game hen is nothing more than a little chicken. Poultry is big business, and millions are spent on developing and maintaining the most productive, disease-resistant and appealing varieties. The best all-around industrial chickens are either big and fast-growing or smaller and long-laying. I suspect that at some point avian agronomists were frustrated to discover that pesky genetics prevented chickens from growing only so much so fast and from ovulating only so often; otherwise we’d have Rhode Island Reds the size of collies dropping half-gallon eggs all over Stone County. (The emus didn’t work out.)

With size as a limit, the chicken scientists bent under the thumbscrews of marketing by taking another tack: Tyson Foods developed the Rock Cornish game hen in the mid-60s by cross-breeding big, fast-growing but rather spindly Plymouth Rock cocks with smaller Cornish hens, which have short, thick legs and broad, muscular breasts. The resulting variety has a briefer growing span–ten days less to the slaughterhouse than the 40-day Rocks (birds grow fast; imagine if you had been chased out of the house when you had just learned how to run). Since they were developed for meat, their marketable egg-laying capabilities are inconsiderable (too bad, right?).

Tyson marketed the game hen as an upscale product targeting people willing to pay more for something different. And it worked. Calling it a “game hen” added to its cachet, since it suggests a mix with a pheasant, a quail, a partridge or some bird with similar snob appeal. Borge, who himself had a high-brow profile, was probably enrolled as a celebrity sponsor, though I still maintain that the eccentricity of the product itself was a great draw for him personally. Yet despite my affection for the Great Dane who bridged the gap between Oliver Hardy and Stravinsky, to me the most effective marketing strategy for game hens is that they’re sealed in plastic wrap just like teeny-tiny turkeys.

Having said all that, let me add that game hens should not be shunned on account of their corporate hatching; they’re good birds, if you know how to cook them. Buy the smallest ones you can, one to a person, thaw thoroughly, trim and clean. Rub inside and out with oil, a little salt and pepper and whatever other seasonings you like (garlic and sage are always good), then roast in a slow oven until the legs are loose. Increase heat at finish to brown. In the meantime, prepare wild rice and sauté a few trimmed chicken livers per person. Serve a hen on a nest  of wild rice, livers to the side, with baby limas, wilted greens and a bit of sour cream.

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):

IN MEMORIUM
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)

Buttermilk Blancmange

A blancmange is a sweet molded pudding usually made with milk or cream, though you’ll find a savory version with chicken from Turkey. It’s very simple and quite old; Chaucer makes a revolting joke of it in his “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. The thickening is usually achieved with either cornstarch or gelatin. In this version I use both because while buttermilk gives the dessert a nice acidy zing, it tends to separate with heating so just using gelatin will give you a 2-layer dessert of clear yellowish whey and a sort of grainy white cream. The corn starch stabilizes the mix, giving it an even, creamy consistency. For four 6 oz. servings:

3 cups low-fat buttermilk
A half cup of sugar
2 pkgs. unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (check the label)

Mix gelatin and cornstarch and dissolve in 1/4 cup warm water. Add this mixture to warm buttermilk and whisk to a smooth consistency. When it just begins to thicken, add lemon zest and vanilla. Cool and refrigerate. When just firming, spoon into lightly oiled (6 oz.) molds, and refrigerate for at least three hours.

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.

Summer Vegetable Stew

The deli at our local grocery serves such a wonderful vegetable soup that many days I’ll get two large servings—at 12 oz. each, a little less than a quart—and make lunch of those with saltines and tea. Such was my intent yesterday when I strolled in, found the soup bin empty and was told that the vegetable soup was discontinued for the summer, since “nobody eats soup when the weather is hot.”

Well, you know what? Yes, they do, and not just those prissy vichyssoises splashed across the pages of food magazines in June. We’ve enjoyed fresh vegetable soups for centuries here, and rightly so, since the American South produces the finest vegetables on the face of the planet. (There; I’ve said it, the gauntlet is flung. The ball’s in your court.)

Here’s my recipe, which starts with two quarts diced canned tomatoes and juice. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a talented, industrious gardener who cans, and you will have in your larder their red gold. If not, Contadina will suffice. Sauté one large diced white onion with three or four diced ribs of celery and two cloves minced garlic in just enough vegetable oil to coat. To this add two cups water or two cups broth, vegetable broth preferably, but a weak chicken will do—in place of veal, you understand—pour this into your lowly-shimmering, beautiful tomatoes along with a cup or so of frozen diced okra, thawed and drained then find something else industrious or enlightening to do for a half-hour or until the onions and okra have surrendered to the mélange.

This is your base for the dozens of beautiful vegetable soups you will make throughout the growing season with fresh vegetables. Starchy-ish fresh peas and beans, even green beans, should be parboiled until tender before adding, and I wouldn’t add fresh corn at all, but that makes me an exception. Always add water because evaporation happens, and water is the preferred replacement. I like to add a little V-8, and I always seem to have a half an onion in the fridge I can use. Fresh squash can be diced and added raw, as it tends to meld as does—it should go without saying—fresh okra. As to herbs, I’m frugal; a pinch of thyme and a smidgen of oregano do just fine. Add salt with care and heat seasoning at the table. And yes, you can serve this warm or chilled.

Pimento Cheese

Robert Moss, who is from that most eccentric of Southern cities, Charleston, South Carolina, describes himself as a culinary historian, a member of a geeky gaggle of food writers in which I am a mere gosling. In Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining, Moss delves into stories of Low Country dishes such as shrimp and grits and she-crab soup as well as elements of our broader Southern cuisine like bourbon, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. It’s with these subjects that he becomes troublesome, claiming rum is more Southern than bourbon, that fried green tomatoes are a Yankee invention and that pimento cheese originated in upstate New York.

It’s this pimento and cheese issue I’m all over like a duck on a June bug, but before going any further, let’s turn to this matter of spelling, since I’m acutely aware that any article in Mississippi is going to be scratched over and henpecked by a contentious flock of literati. Yes, I am quite aware that the it’s the pimiento pepper, but in his article “Creating a New Southern Icon: The Curious History of Pimento Cheese”, Moss notes that “In the late 1890s, imported Spanish sweet peppers started being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento. Soon the ‘i’ was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them ‘pimentos’.” I’ll remind you that Moss has a PhD. (in English, no less) from Furman, and though I’m not known for my slavish allegiance to academics, like the rest of you I always heartily concur with eggheads when they’re in my corner. It looks so good on paper.

Moss does not create another idol in this article; instead he reveals himself as an iconoclast of the first order by exposing the Yankee roots of a Southern dish Boston-based food writer Judy Gelman claims is “held sacred by Southerners”, and his research seems brutally thorough. However, as a former graduate student of the English department at the University of Mississippi, I’m delighted to say I have discovered a thin spot in Dr. Moss’ exposition. Even more appropriately, this modest and assuredly well-intentioned debunk comes via Martha Foose, the final court of authority on Mississippi food and a resident of Oxford for many years. Whereas Moss maintains that pimento and cheese is unknown outside of Dixie, Martha, in her splendid Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, points out that the pimento cheese capitol of the Midwest is Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Evangelism is clearly in play.

What made pimento and cheese characteristically Southern is the use of cheddar. In the rural South of the early 20th century the most commonly found cheese was mild cheddar called hoop cheese because it was sold commercially in large round wheels, red rind cheese because of the color of the wax coating or even rat cheese because it was often used to bait rodent traps. In memory lives the vivid image of a red hoop of cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas. Without a doubt it was this cheese that was most often grated and used with homemade mayonnaise in making pimento and cheese in country and small-town kitchens throughout the South.

Still and all, Moss makes a valid point; if foods we consider Southern are anathematized by Yankee roots, then our idolized pimento cheese has feet of clay. We just found out how to do it right and made it ours. But how is it that we’ve come to make a cult of cornbread, a fetish of fried chicken and an idol of black-eyed peas, all adorned with the trappings of media devotion and academic Sunday schools? Let’s please move beyond the iconography of food (barbecue is just short of having a clergy) and come to realize that any significant foodstuff is nothing more than a pleasing combination of tastes and textures. And sure, let’s have food festivals; of course you wouldn’t expect to find a shrimp festival in Omaha or one for mountain oysters in Key West (I could be wrong about that) but let’s come to know them for what they are, celebrations of community, people and locale.

As to pimento and cheese itself, I’m not going to be so crass as to give you a recipe. You do it the way you like it; God knows you’re going to anyway. Pimento cheese should be devoid of controversy. It’s not, of course, because everyone thinks their version is the best, but you’re the one making it, so just relax. Though Moss claims that recipes with cream cheese are “definitely in the minority”, I always add it to mine, mixing it with the mayo one to two. I also belong to a schismatic if not to say heretical sect who find a chopped fresh sweet red bell just as acceptable in pimento cheese as canned pimientos, and have no problem adding chopped green onions, though I once had a matron from Tupelo to give me a good finger-wagging over that. All I could do was wince.