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

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.

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.

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.

A Rose So Blue

My grandmother Emma would sit me on a kitchen stool and tell me stories while she cooked. I can hear her voice, low and level, moving with her work, smell the cornbread in the oven, and see the softly plopping pot of beans on the back of the stove. She told me how she jumped rope with her sisters, about the tomatoes her grandfather grew, and she’d rap her spoon on the side of the sink to make a sound like sudden rains on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.”

She told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all.

“Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”

Emma would smile and tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see ‘em in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see ‘em in the store. The only place blue roses grow is Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”

She told me that ocean air keeps the mountains cloaked from the sun, but at night, when the north wind comes down from desert sands, the skies clear, the moon shines on the grey-green slopes, and roses with blossoms as blue as a gas flame climb toward the pale stars.

When Emma died my heart broke into a million pieces, but in remembering, my heart becomes whole. If I find blue roses in a catalog, I smile because I know blue roses only grow in Africa, on the misty slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.

Jackson: The Way We Were . . .

In 1981, Forrest L. Cooper and Donald F. Garrett published a selection of old postcards of Jackson from about 1902 until the mid-1950s, with more than 90% prior to 1920. The text was written by Carl McIntire, a self-professed “reporter, not a historian,” who nonetheless spent an enormous amount of time on the project, doing extensive research and interviewing more than 300 people. McIntire admitted to a margin of error, but states that “for the most part, all the dates and places are correct.” The book had a very limited printing and has hitherto never been republished. The link below will take you to a digital version of this exquisitely nuanced, intricately informative, and infinitely beautiful labor of love.

Jackson: The Way We Were . . .

Sawmill Gravy

Brown a quarter pound of pork sausage in a quarter cup oil. Sprinkle in two heaping tablespoons plain flour, mix well, and cook until it quits bubbling. Stir in a cup each of water and milk. Reduce heat and cook down on the thin side; it will thicken when served.

Spam Potatoes

My father was a GI in the Pacific, so I grew up with Spam. We’d have it fried with eggs for breakfast, slathered with mayo on Wonder bread for lunch, and with potatoes for dinner.

The bone of contention with scalloped potatoes is whether to add cheese or not. Purists (I’m one) opt for a rich white sauce over thinly sliced potatoes (I like to use reds) baked in medium heat until potatoes are tender.