Squash Eudora

In the introduction to her splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook, Jackson native Winifred Cheney states that a signature dish is “a tribute in the field of cookery”, intimating such dishes as oyster Rockefeller or Melba toast. Here Winifred misinforms. A signature dish is a recipe that identifies or is directly associated with an individual chef or a particular restaurant. For instance, one could say that blackened redfish is a signature dish of Paul Prudhomme’s, or shrimp and grits of Bill Neale’s, oysters Rockefeller of Antoine’s,  or barbecued shrimp of Pascale’s Manale.

Dishes named for people, either to honor them—as in the Rockefeller, purportedly because the dish is so rich—or because they were first made for them—as is the case with Melba toast, first made by opera aficionado Auguste Escoffier for his favorite diva Nellie Melba—don’t have a specific term of reference. They’re just recipes named for people, which are (predictably) created constantly. Winifred herself created two dishes for her neighbor Eudora Welty, apples Eudora and squash Eudora.

Winifred is notorious for recipes that are rich, with expensive, hard-to-find ingredients and take a long time to make; the most frequent critiques of The Southern Hospitality Cookbook center around how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. Such is the case with her apples Eudora, which she describes as “tart apples cooked in a delicious syrup, drained and baked in a rich custard, then filled with an apricot rum filling and topped with a dollop of whipped cream” and if that doesn’t wear you out just reading it, then preparing it is going to make you bedridden.

Then she gives us squash Eudora, which while lacking in the elegance of her apples Eudora, is certainly less tedious. The principle ingredients are yellow crookneck squash and chicken livers. Now, chicken livers, like any type of liver, aren’t for everyone; they’re one of those things you either hate or love, rather like any incumbent president. Still, you can’t make a foie gras without them, and I’ve found that liver enthusiasts tend to be among the more culinarily sophisticated. I myself like squash Eudora, and it is substantial enough to serve either as an entrée or as a heavy buffet dish. What follows is not Winifred’s recipe to the letter (for instance, she uses “dried green onions” by which she might mean chives, but I substitute with fresh green onions), but it is faithful in spirit.

Wash but do not peel two pounds tender yellow squash. Slice thinly and parboil with a pat of butter until tender. Drain and season with black pepper and salt to taste. Drain and wash a half pound (8 oz.) livers, cut into halves and sauté in butter with Worcestershire. Set aside to cool, then drain and mix with squash, about a cup of chopped green onions a teaspoon curry powder, a teaspoon celery seed, one egg lightly beaten and a half cup grated Parmesan. Put mixture in a shallow casserole and bake at 350 until mixture is firm, dust top with more Parmesan and brown. Serve with fresh summer vegetables such as tomatoes or green beans. Winifred says that you can substitute a pound of lump crab meat for the livers, and indeed you can if your pocketbook allows.

A Snob from North Jackson

In the summer of 1988, V.S. Naipaul visited Jackson during a tour of the American South that resulted in his travelogue A Turn in the South, which was published the following February. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, had by that time achieved international recognition with novels such as The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr. Biswas, and had also become an important observer of post-colonial politics and societies in works such as The Middle Passage, An Area of Darkness and Among the Believers. It was in this vein, that of a writer exploring an exotic culture, that Naipaul visited the South, ostensibly to compare it to his own Trinidadian background. Though the issue of race was an obvious area of interest, the importance of race as a subject seems to move farther to the background as the work progresses, and Naipaul finds himself increasingly preoccupied with describing the culture of the South, including country-western music, strict Christianity, Elvis Presley and rednecks.

This shift of focus seems to take place largely in the section on Mississippi. Entitled “The Frontier, the Heartland”, his visit to the state is for the most part restricted to Jackson, though he does visit a cemetery in Canton, a catfish processing plant in Belzoni, the Presley home in Tupelo and a retired Supreme Court justice in (of all places) Eupora. While in Jackson, he talked with many people—including Eudora Welty and William Winter—yet he seems most captivated with a character he calls Campbell, from whom he received a description of rednecks that fascinated and entranced Naipaul to the extent that he seems to become obsessed (he describes it as “a new craze”) with rednecks not merely as a group or class of people, but as almost a separate species; at one point, when someone tells him that “There are three of your rednecks fishing in the pond,” he “hurried to see them, as I might have hurried to see an unusual bird . . .” Naipaul’s obsession with working-class whites  began with the interview I reproduce here in part because its several pages long for the benefit of those such as myself who are interested in how class distinctions work in our professedly democratic society. Naipaul writes:

I had the vaguest idea of what a redneck was. Someone intolerant and uneducated—that was what the word suggested. And it fitted in with what I had been told in New York: the some motoring organizations gave their members maps of safe routes through the South, to steer them away from areas infested with rednecks. Then I also became aware that the word had been turned by some middle-class people into a romantic word; and that in this extension it stood for the unintellectual, physical, virile man, someone who (for instance) wouldn’t mind saying “shit” in company.

It wasn’t until I met Campbell that I was given a full and beautiful and lyrical account, an account that ran it all together, by a man who half looked down on and half loved the redneck, and who, when he began to speak of redneck pleasures, was moved to confess that he was half a redneck himself. It wasn’t for his redneck side, strictly speaking, that I had been introduced to Campbell. I had been told that he was the new kind of Young conservative, with strong views on race and welfare . . . Campbell was also the man who represented the other side of the religious South: the authoritarian side. And it was of family and values and authority that we spoke, all quite predictably, until it occurred to be to ask, “Campbell, what do you understand by the word ‘redneck’?” And—as though it had been prepared—a great Theophastan “character,” something almost in the style of the seventeenth-century character-writers, poured out of Campbell. It might have been an updated version of something from Elizabethan low-life writing, or John Earle’s Microcosmography (sic), or something from Sir Thomas Overbury . . .

Campbell said, “A redneck is a lower blue-collar construction worker who definitely doesn’t like blacks. He likes to drink beer. He’s going to wear cowboy boots; he is not necessarily going to have a cowboy hat. He is going to live in a trailer someplace out in Rankin County, and he’s going to smoke about two and a half packs of cigarettes a day and drink about ten cans of beer at night, and he’s going to be mad as hell if he doesn’t have some cornbread and peas and fried okra and some fried pork chops to eat—I’ve never seen one of those sons of bitches yet who doesn’t like fried pork chops. And he’ll be late on his trailer payment. He’s been raised that way. His father was just like him. And the son of a bitch loves country music. They love to hunt and fish. They go out all night to the Pearl River. They put out a trotline—a long line running across the river, hooks on it every four or five feet. They bait them with damn old crawfish, and that line’ll sink to the bottom, and they’ll go to the bank and shit and drink all night long, and they’ll get a big fire going. They’ll check it two or three times in the night, to see if they’re getting a catfish. It’ll be good catfish. Those redneck sons of bitches they they’ll rather have one of those river catfish than one of those pond catfish. They’ll say it’s got a better taste.

Religion? They’ll go to church when the wife beats the hell out of him. But he’s not going to put on a coat and tie or anything. He won’t do it. He’ll kick her ass.They’re not too sexual. They’d rather drink a bunch of old beer. And hang around with other males and go hunting, fishing. We’re talking about the good old rednecks now. Not the upscale ones. They’ve got the dick still hard. That’s damn true. If they’re young they got it hard, but the older they get they drink more, and then they don’t care about it any more. And she’s just there, getting some clothes washed down in the Laundromat once a week. Sit down and watch it and smoke some cigarettes—that’s right, that’s what she will do.

I’ll tell you. My son ain’t gonna fool with a redneck girl in Rankin County. Can’t hide it. Everybody knows everybody else. And I’ll tell you something else. They talk different. And I want my children to stay in their social strata, and that’s where they’ll stay. I would say, ‘Keith,, you weren’t brought up like that. You get your ass out of that. You’re way above that, and we’re going to stay way above that.’ But Keith’s all right. He wants to dress nice; he wants to look good; he wants to make money. We run in the Northeast Jackson crowd. That’s supposed to be upscale.”

Scallops Veracruz

Mexico has almost six thousand miles of coastline—about half of the estimated total for the U.S.—but mollusks don’t seem to play a proportionate role in the country’s cuisine. Kennedy includes only one recipe for scallops in her classic Cuisines of Mexico, a cebiche, and not a single one for oysters. This is not to say that oysters and scallops aren’t eaten in the country, simply an observation that no single indigenous recipe for them has become familiar to the world at large. However, recipes for salt-water fish abound, one of the most distinctive being red snapper Veracruz (huachinango a la Veracruzana), a rich, colorful dish with dozens of variants, but all using tomatoes and chilies in various proportions.

This scallop recipe is a riff on that staple, though lighter and more intense. Thaw frozen scallops, squeeze and drain. Even fresh scallops are too watery for this dish, so sauté all lightly until firm. Then drain, toss with pepper, a bit of salt and a light dusting of plain flour. Brown in the least bit of oil possible, then add by spoonfuls this salsa, and reduce. The scallops should be pungent, piquant, and aromatic.