Mexican Cornsticks

You’ll find Mexican cornbread muffins  offered as an alternative to those sweet yellow ones and white-bread rolls in supermarket deli buffets all over Jackson,Mississippi, and likely in any town across the middle South from Austin to Atlanta. I honestly can’t speak for anything north of Nashville or on the Gulf Coast. This recipe makes light, crisp sticks, particularly good with a tomato-y soup or stew.

Use the Martha White Buttermilk Mix, and add fresh chopped chilies–hot, mild, or mixed, your preference–whole kernel corn–do NOT use creamed corn–a little chopped, very well-drained tomato and minced onion, include chili powder, cumin and black pepper. Pour into a hot, well-oiled corn stick pan and bake in a very hot oven until lightly browned. Allow to cool before turning out of the pan.

A Shroud for the Ivory-Bill

In 1943 Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. along with the governors of three other Southern states—Sam Jones of Louisiana, Prentiss Cooper of Tennessee, and Homer Adkins of Arkansas—joined in an action that remains unique in the annals of Southern politics: a last-ditch effort to save a species from extinction.

Magnificent in flight, majestic in repose, the ivory-bill was the largest woodpecker in North America, second in the world to its closest relative, the imperial ivory-bill of Central America and the Caribbean. The ivory-bill at first sight is said to have caused newcomers to the primeval woodlands of the South where it once lived to exclaim, “Lord God, what is that thing?!” As the vast virgin woodlands of the South fell to the axe during the late 19th and early 20th century the ivory-bills, which required extensive tracts of timber to survive (an estimated 2.5 square miles of old-growth forest for a mating pair), began to starve.

By the first decades of the 20th century, only one sizeable portion of virgin Southern woodland remained intact, an area of dense mixed long-leaf pine and deciduous trees that stretched from the Brazos River in Texas to the Tensas in Louisiana. Once covering over 2 million acres, by the 1930s the “Big Thicket” had shrunk to a mere 800,000. In an an odd twist of fate, an extensive section of this forest had been purchased by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to secure hardwood for machine cabinets. This, the so-called Singer Tract, was the last documented home of the ivory-bill, and the fate of this splendid bird indeed hung by a thread.

In 1937 Singer sold the logging rights to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and in the next year cutting began. Under the agreement, land logged by Chicago Mill and Lumber became that firm’s property, but until then, the Singer Company still held ownership. The survival of the ivory-bill became a subject of national consideration (a significant gesture during the war years) involving not only the four aforementioned governors, but President Roosevelt, the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the directors of the National Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the War Production Board, and the National Audubon Society.

In December of 1943, the chairman of the board of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company met with the brokers of a potential land deal that would have established a national park and refuge for the ivory-bill. The other participants were Louisiana’s conservation commissioner, the refuge director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their attorney John Baker. But despite the offer of $200,000 from the state of Louisiana to purchase the remaining Singer Tract, James F. Griswold, chairman of the Chicago Mill and Lumber board, refused to deal. In what is perhaps the ugliest and most blatant admission of corporate greed and irresponsibility in the history of the United States, Griswold said, “We are just money grubbers. We are not concerned, as are you folks, with ethical considerations.” In a similar vein, Singer Company treasurer and vice president John Morton told Baker that Singer “didn’t care.”

Subsequent offers proved fruitless, and the Singer Tract was clear-cut (by German POWs, no less), creating a wasteland of baked mud studded with stumps, sending the Lord God bird over the abyss into certain extinction.

Painting by John James Audubon

Molasses Popcorn Balls

Mix two cups of white sugar with a cup of molasses and a half cup water. Vanilla is a nice touch. Stir until smooth, add a half stick of butter and a half cup water. Bring to a slow boil, and cook to hard-crack stage. Drizzle this over popped corn while stirring. This recipe will coat a little more than a gallon of popcorn, but don’t try to coat all of it at once, or it’ll cool and get too stiff to work with. Rub a pat of butter between your hands, and form coated popcorn into balls; spear with Popsicle sticks, and dust with salt.

Taking Stock

Stocks are to cooking what Hank Williams is to country music: a source of basic, soulful satisfaction. Back when people actually cooked as opposed to simply heating products as they do now, stock played an important role in the kitchen. Stockpots provided a sumptuous basis for an endless variety of dishes; stock is used to make sauces and gravies, soups, stews and other types of pottage. A good stock is the foundation upon which great meals are made. Sad to say, nowadays most people use canned broth or bouillon cubes instead, which is like listening to Reba because you have no Patsy. If you really care about the quality of your cooking, you’ll want to make your own stock instead of having to resort to miserably bland and over-salted alternatives.

Chicken stock is perhaps the easiest and cheapest to make and is good for general use. I use leg quarters, which make a very rich stock, and can be found in five-pound bags at a very low price in most supermarkets. If it’s during the holidays with company coming, you can of course use a whole stewing hen, since you can use the meat for any number of holiday dishes.

Put the chicken in your designated stockpot; whatever you use should be non-reactive, preferably stainless steel. Add enough water to cover by half, a couple of stalks of celery, at least six carrots, which provide a beautiful color, two onions with skin, again for color (all coarsely chopped) two bay leaves, a clove or so of garlic (smashed) and about a handful of roughly chopped parsley, stems and all. Simmer this mixture until the liquid is reduced by at least a third, skimming the scruff off the top as you go. This takes a while; in the meantime, have a beer or two, listen to some Jimmie Rodgers and write Loretta a fan letter. Then drain off the liquid, debone the chicken and return liquid and bones to the pot, reserving the meat for other uses. Simmer the stock until it’s a rich amber color, remove bones and strain. When the stock has a good flavor, strain it again, cool it on the counter for a while, and then set it in the refrigerator to chill. If it’s still warm when you set it in the refrigerator, set it on a rack or put a spoon under the container so air can circulate underneath to cool it quicker, otherwise it might spoil.

Once the stock chills, you’ll end up with a bottom layer of sediment and a layer of jellied stock covered by a layer of yellowish fat. Scrape off the fat with a spoon and store it separately in the freezer for use later to make matzos or potato pancakes. Then carefully spoon out the gel, being careful to avoid as much as the sediment (which should be discarded) as you can, especially if you plan to clarify the stock for consommé or clear soups.

Stock keeps well in the refrigerator for a week or so, but its best just to go ahead and freeze it. Use whatever size container you find appropriate for storing your stock; I’ve heard that some people freeze stock in ice trays and store the cubes in plastic bags, but I suspect people who do this are annoyingly obsessive, since this is a troublesome endeavor, and besides, what if in a moment of absent-mindedness you happen to pop a cube of frozen stock out of the tray and into your scotch and soda? (You might hear the voice of experience speaking here.) Me, I store stock in whatever containers I’ve saved from supermarket products like yogurt and sour cream, pliable ones about pint size with a lid that seals well. Use it in soups and sauces, or to flavor beans or rice, and you’ll notice a big difference.

Salmon Patties

In the culinary sphere it’s not unusual for chefs of one ilk or another to turn a hayseed staple into a Broadway entrée. Examples abound; swear to God, we’ve seen black-eyed peas made into everything short of cupcakes with sweet potato icing (don’t you dare!), and if I run up on one more gourmet recipe for fried green tomatoes I’m going to take a skillet out and start swinging at anybody with a fork.

Well, so be it. Most basic recipes are open to elaboration, and every cook has a twist; a pinch here, a dash there, a pot for this, a pan for that. The possibilities are endless. If the cook’s intentions are honorable, meaning that his or her primary concern is with how a dish tastes, all the better. But if you’re putting a heap of crab seviche over a batch of cold butter bean fritters just for the novelty or so you can charge six bucks more, that’s just wrong.

Capote once said of writing that you must learn the rules before you can break them, and this is true of cookery as well. Be “original, not outrageous,” Alice B. Toklas cautions. Her advice is especially valuable for those of us who cook at home, because most people prefer the familiar to the exotic, and even slight variations in a favorite dish might give pause to your most appreciative audience. (If you really mess up, you might find yourself on a bus to Batesville.)

Back-to-basics movements happen from time to time because they cleanse the palate of all accumulated froth or frippery and help us remember why we liked something in the first place. The Outlaw country music of the 70s made “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” sound operatic. Now y’all know I love that single, and I love Barbara; she was just overproduced for profit at the time, which is the point I’m trying to make. Southern food staples are falling victim to the same marketing mojo as that banjo-pickin’ little girl from Houston, and it’s just sad.

M.F. K. Fisher has a recipe for salmon pancakes (i.e. patties) in How to Cook a Wolf, which is very much a solid recommendation for their goodness, but you’ll rarely if ever see them on a restaurant menu for the simple reason that with the exception of tuna salad, dishes made with canned fish are not considered marketable commodities.

My father liked to cook a big breakfast on Sunday mornings, and he always made salmon patties. He said that his mother used to make them with jack mackerel, always adding that we should be grateful he went to law school so that he could afford to feed us salmon; for him, a child of the Depression, that was a step up in the world. Mackerel patties are almost every bit as filling and nutritious as salmon, but take it from me; they’ll make your house smell like a hot wharf for a week or so depending on your upholstery.

I’ll not lie to you; these cakes taste best when fried in lard, or, even better, bacon grease. If that makes you clutch your chest, use Crisco. Trust me, though, olive oil just isn’t right, and butter won’t take the heat. Most people I know make salmon patties with flour, but cornmeal gives a crispier crust and a better inside texture (flour tends to make it a bit gummy).

Some nights a wind from the hills reaches me in this mean, dirty old city, and I find that can of salmon back up in the cabinet, heat up a skillet and make what sings to me of home. In the end, no matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s our childhood foods we cherish most.

Salmon Patties

One 16 oz. can of pink salmon makes 4 to 6 cakes. Drain fish, reserving two tablespoons of the liquid. If you’re squeamish, remove the skin and bones, but I leave them because of the added nutritional value. Mix well with one beaten egg, the reserved liquid from the can, and about a half cup chopped green onion. Add enough white corn meal or bread crumbs to make a thick batter. You should need very little salt; I like plenty of black pepper in mine. Form into patties and fry in at least a quarter inch of oil. Brown on both sides, then place in a very warm oven (about 300) for about ten minutes to crisp the crust and ensure a cooked inside.

Apple Pecan Cookies

You don’t see many Southern apple cookie recipes; a quick scan of Southern Sideboards, Bayou Cuisine, River Road Recipes, Vintage Vicksburg, Gourmet of the Delta, The Jackson Cookbook, and The Mississippi Cookbook turned up nary a one, but this recipe comes from Hosford Fontaine’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, and you can’t get any more Southern than that. Though the South has a native crab apple, most of the Old-World apple species that produce what Emerson called “the American fruit” simply don’t do well in our climate, and apples from those that do are most often dried or made into pies or sauce. I use firm, tart apples for this recipe, usually Galas or Grannies.

3 cups of fine unpeeled diced apples; (I use only pieces with skin so that when baked they’ll stay firm)
2 sticks butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A half teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and salt
2 cups rolled oats
¼ cup white raisins
¼ cup chopped pecans

Cream butter and sugars well, add eggs and flour mixed and sifted with spices and baking powder, then stir in apples, oats and nuts. Refrigerate dough for about 30 minutes, stirring once. Form dough into ping pong balls, and bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet with parchment paper at 350 or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack. This recipe makes about three dozen wonderful, chewy, sticky cookies.

 

Flower of the Dead

Red spider lilies bloom in the diminishing days with the first puff winter, and beckon from a distant shore.

A native of China, the red spider lily (Lycoris radiata), is poisonous to most animals. Every part of the plant can induce vomiting, paralysis, even death. They’re planted in rice fields to deter rodents. When they spread to Japan, where the dead were buried without coffins, the lilies were planted to prevent vermin from disturbing the graves. In time, the brilliant red flower became known as the corpse flower, the ghost flower, and—most poignantly—the lost child flower. Buddhism also came to Japan from China, and the Lotus Sutra became a fundamental text for many Japanese schools. In the sutra, heavenly flowers descend from the realms of the gods, falling on the Buddha and his audience. Many devotees associate this flower – called Manjushage – with red spider lilies.

The lily blooms around the autumn equinox, Higanbana, the day the dead return to the world, and higanbana is a popular Japanese name for the flower. The flowers are said to bloom on O-higan “the other shore,” of the Sanzu-no-Kawa, a Styx-like river separates the lands of the living from the realms of the dead. There the bright red blossoms—like Charon—guide souls to their next births.

Adam’s Banana

During his famously quoted expedition in search of Dr. Livingston, Stanley also said, “If we run out of food, we’ll eat bananas.” Sir Henry’s flippant dismissal of this vital foodstuff in lieu of boiled beef sums up the Brit empiricist mind.

Millennia before Stanley’s split second of Victorian condescension, bananas had been a staple in the southeastern quarter of the globe since before the days of Homo erectus. While European versions of the Expulsion have Eve offering up an apple (probably a Winesap; the Granny Smith is theologically impossible) as the principle instrument of temptation, many African, Asian and Oceanic interpretations depict Adam as succumbing to a nice banana instead (Eve had a rough cut, why not Adam?). These accounts also describe our primal DNA donors as masking their shame with banana leaves, which makes far more sense to me than that fig drag, even for Eve.

Bananas (Musa sp.) provide a perfect food for apes, naked or otherwise, and while their priapic fruit (along with cigars) has been subject to of all sorts of Freudian fun, sometimes a banana is just a banana, in which case it takes on more manageable proportions. Their fruit (a type of berry, actually) grow upwards on huge stalks that can contain more than a hundred arrayed in a series of tiers. Before Chiquita and other mega-growers began shipping bananas in chemically sterilized bunches, stores would impale whole untreated stalks on ceiling hooks to ripen. Given the number of nooks and crannies in these masses of vegetation, it’s unsurprising that the occasional tropical creature would piggy-back its way into a local market.

My grandfather Jess kept a small country store that supported an endless series of banana stalks from the Cockrell Banana Company in Tupelo as well as any number of worthless relatives and other such riff-raff. Jess checked out produce before he put it up for sale, and occasionally he’d discover some sort of exotic fauna cowering deep amid the bananas. He’s usually find a spider big enough to scare the bejesus out of any little old lady out to make pudding for the church social. These he fed he to the chickens, but once, to his great delight, he found a small boa and kept it in a glass gallon jar with some hay in the bottom for everyone to ogle before he he sent it to the University of Mississippi, where it enjoyed a long, happy career as a desensitizing agent for people with snake phobias. He told a slacker cousin that he could get a cottonmouth moccasin into Ole Miss, “But I can’t even get you into barber school.”

The fruit of the banana is a sublime canvas of starches, sugars and nutrients, and while potassium makes for a nice touch, from a cooking standpoint the starches and sugars determine its preparation as well as its selection. If you’re simply going to eat a banana, eat a ripe banana, not just some Johnny–come–lately you happen to pick up in the produce section. However tempting you might find those fruit, if you’re going to use them anytime soon they should be avoided: they may be firm, but they’re also bitter. It should go without saying that because bananas are sold in bunches that ripen simultaneously, size shouldn’t really be a key consideration. (You’re just going to have to trust me on this one.)

Good bananas don’t have a tinge of green upon them: they’re usually freckled and aromatic. They’re also less expensive because—sad to say—society’s obsession with youth extends even to bananas, and supermarkets probably throw away as many “over-ripe” bananas (meaning just the sort of quality fruit I’ve described) as they sell green ones. If you have to buy green bananas, keep them on top of the refrigerator until they ripen before using. They’ll do that.

Nan Edwards’ Refrigerator Rolls

Nan is one of those people who’ll make you beg for a recipe just because they like the attention of being begged for it. We all know these pests. When I asked her for this recipe, she kept putting me off, saying she did not know where she had it written down when I knew very well she had it in that little Colonel Rebel recipe box she keeps on top of her refrigerator next to the paper towels. But I was patient and persistent, called her up one night and found her in the right mood–likely well into a bottle of that cheap rosé she gets Ricky to buy for her because she thinks people would talk, like anyone cares at all–so she read it to me over the phone, and I could just see her wagging her finger at me after every other sentence. It took her fifteen minutes, swear to God.

“Dissolve one package yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. When yeast begins to work, add 1/2 cup sugar, another 1 1/2 cup water, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons salt. Blend until sugar is dissolved, add 3 large eggs and beat well. To this mixture, add 2 cups plain flour and blend until smooth. Gradually add enough flour (up to 4 or more cups) and mix well to make soft dough. Cover dough and refrigerate for at least eight hours. When ready to bake, form dough into balls, place in a jelly roll pan or pie plate and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, bake for 15-20 minutes until brown. The dough will keep for up to four days covered in the refrigerator.”

About Molasses

All of my life, I’ve heard sorghum syrup called molasses, so it came as something of a shock when I read recently that sorghum molasses is not considered a “true” molasses by certain authorities. These same people will tell you that the only real molasses comes from sugar cane and beets, though in the same breath they will also say it can be made from grapes, dates, pomegranates, mulberries, and carob, which certainly muddles the definition. Thoreau, in one of his more superfluous tangents, claims he made “excellent molasses from pumpkins”, exhibiting an appealing disregard for the fine line between molasses and syrup.

The process for making what passes as true molasses seems complicated, since once the canes (or beets) are crushed (or mashed), the juice is boiled to concentrate and crystallize the sugar. This stage produces the “first molasses” which has the highest sugar content. Boiling the cane/beet juice again produces “second molasses” (!), and the third boiling produces blackstrap. This is a simple process of reduction identical to the one used to make sorghum molasses which even Harold McGee, the genius who wrote the authoritative On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, claims is a syrup. What it boils down to (sorry) is a matter of terms; if I want to call sorghum syrup a molasses, then I will and do.

Like any sugar in solution (i.e. a syrup), sorghum molasses differs in taste and texture depending on the length of time it’s reduced, resulting in varying degrees of caramelization. I’ve seen blackstrap-style sorghum as well as sorghum pale as honey. Me, I prefer it light, retaining just a shadow of the golden-green color I remember from my childhood having from a dipper over a simmering pan of syrup, in Ellard, Mississippi, a memory I’m more likely to realize now since rural family-run sorghum cane mills are making a comeback.

Be advised that the production of sorghum molasses remains a largely commercial enterprise, and there are dozens of brands on the shelves throughout the region, but most of these are not pure sorghum molasses; if you read the ingredients, corn syrup will likely be the first ingredient listed. Unadulterated sorghum can always be found in autumn at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. Go there and find it.