Cheese Böreks

This recipe is another from novelist Ellen Douglas, a.k.a. Josephine Ayers Haxton. Böreks are very similar to spanakopita, and spinach is an oft-used filling, as are other vegetables (particularly eggplant), cheeses, and meats. This recipe will make many dozens, depending on the size, is easily doubled, and frozen either before or after cooking.

Take a half pound each grated mozzarella and feta cheese, mix well with a pint of cottage cheese, two large well-beaten eggs, and a tablespoon or so of chopped parsley. Brush each of a dozen sheets of phyllo pastry with melted butter, cut into strips an inch or so wide, and three or four inches long. Place a spoonful of the cheese filling at the top edge of the strip and fold “like you fold a flag” into triangles, or fold into squares and pinch the edges. Brush with an egg white beaten in a half cup of water, sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds and bake twenty minutes or so at 375.

Egg in a Basket

Use sturdy bread and a metal cutter. Eat the hole; there’s nothing else you can do with it. Lightly toast bread on both sides in a hot buttered pan, add a pat of butter in the center, and crack an egg into it. Cover to cook through. If you’re feeding several people, you can make these on a cookie sheet in a hot oven. Keep the seasonings simple: salt and black pepper with a dash of smoky paprika.

When Rankin County Rocked

During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance, and drink (as well as a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans. In Jackson, it was the Gold Coast.

When the National Prohibition Act passed in 1919, Will Rogers said, “Mississippians will vote for Prohibition as long as they can stagger to the polls, “which if you ask me takes a lot of balls for an Okie. Mississippi made liquor illegal in 1907, and even though the state eventually put a “black market tax” in place on illegal liquor (the potential for revenue simply could not be ignored) Mississippi did not officially repeal the ban on alcoholic beverages until 1966.

Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast was in and around that area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Even though it covered barely two square miles, it was infamous. In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins. “There is no coast except the hog-wallows of the river banks,” Goins wrote, “but plenty of gold courses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”

Goins cites Pat Hudson as the first to see the possibilities of lucrative gambling near the junction of the two federal highways (Hwys. 80 and 49) across the river from Jackson where before then there were only gas stations, hot dog stands and liquor peddlers. Then San Seaney began selling branded liquor at his place, The Jeep, which soon became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze. Others sprang up like mushrooms. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of law, but as soon as he cleaned out one den of iniquity another opened. Not only that, he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, and he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.

This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. Governor Hugh White, who in December of 1936 ordered National Guard troops into a business on the Pearl owned by one Guysell McPhail. Liquor was seized as evidence that the place should be shut down, but a Rankin County chancellor later dismissed the case, ruling that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate the local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision, but by that time liquor was flowing and dice were rolling. The governor bided his time.

In the late 40s, a thriving black nightclub culture was in place. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (the only hotel in the South that catered to Negros) with its famous Off-Beat Room, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others, where national jazz and blues acts performed. These establishments ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate (including one that offered a “special bus” to the Gold Coast from Farish and Hamilton Streets).

By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state, but these “golden years” of the Gold Coast came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met each other at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—more often than not, a big-ass catfish turned out to be a body—but this double homicide so inflamed public opinion that illegal operations never dared be so blatant.

In the 50s, black businesses withered in the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education, and the area became dominated by a colorful character named G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought the Gold Coast as securely under his suzerainty as any corrupt satrap might. Red’s reign ended with urban sprawl and development.

Beale Street is back, sort of, and the French Quarter will (thank God) always be the French Quarter, but the Gold Coast is gone, lost in a maze of gravel and mud, weeds, and asphalt.

Marbled Sweet Potato Cheesecake

Sweet potatoes blended with a fool-proof New York-style cheesecake; fun to make, sumptuous results. The cheesecake filling is 16 oz. cream cheese, 2/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and two large eggs. The sweet potato filling is two cups of “candied” sweet potatoes pureed and mixed with 1/2 cup whole cream, 1/2 cup sugar, two eggs and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. The crust is a box of graham cracker crumbs–adding crushed pecans is a nice touch–mixed with a stick and a half of melted butter, a cup of brown sugar, packed into an 8″ spring-form pan and refrigerated until firm. Drop both filling mixtures alternately around the crust, then take a spoon and swirl it around a little bit. Be artistic; think about finger-painting a wet mud pie. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, lower heat and cool for an hour. Refrigerate before slicing.

Classic Southern Giblet Gravy

You must use a quart of the clearest, richest broth thickened while hot with a thin paste of corn starch and water. To this add the yolks of at least two eggs which have been creamed with a pat of butter. Then add four more chopped hard boiled eggs (yolks and whites), the cooked and chopped livers and gizzards of the turkey as well as the hen you used for your stock (about two cups), but not the meat from the necks, which are superfluous and troublesome. I often add a half cup of chopped, sauteed celery for texture. Salt to taste and season with white pepper. Parsley is pretty, and a smidgen of thyme is a nice accent.

The Green Bean Queen

Most Southern holiday dishes are home-grown recipes of family favorites, but it’s a sure bet that many tables will have one dish that was developed in a commercial kitchen in New Jersey. Unlike Grandma’s sweet potato pie or Aunt Sally’s ambrosia, the ubiquitous green bean casserole was developed in 1955 in the Camden, NJ test kitchens of the Campbell Soup Company by home-town girl Dorcas Reilly.

A 1947 graduate in home economics from Drexel University, Reilly began working at Campbell’s in 1949 as one of two full-time staff members in the company’s home economics department. Reilly became something of a prototype for today’s culinary celebrities in the sense that she was among the first to use multiple media outlets for marketing.  Not only did her job with Campbell’s involve creating recipes from the company’s products, but she also sent press releases to print media, prepared food for photo shoots and cooked live on television. The difference lies in that Dorcas was not promoting herself; she was promoting Campbell’s, which was a good way to make a living.

“It was really a lot of fun,” Reilly later recalled. “Each Thursday, I would travel to New York to meet with the ad agency. They would tell me what I was to prepare for the live commercial breaks during The Henry Aldrich Show in Studio 3B on NBC. I did everything from shopping for what I needed to preparing the food on the set. Campbell’s sponsored the show from 1951 until it ended in May 1953.”

Since the show was live, Reilly prepared the dishes in a makeshift studio kitchen on two heating elements near a utility sink. When time came for the commercial to air, she would bring the hot dish to a table in front of the camera. “Most times there wasn’t time for me to get out of the shot, so I would hide under the table until the commercial was over,” Reilly said. Reilly led the team that created the green bean casserole in 1955. She says the casserole was invented as a recipe involving two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: canned green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Like all recipes typical of the period, the casserole requires minimal number of ingredients, takes little time and can be customized to fit a wide range of tastes. An estimated 15 million households will serve Dorcas’ green bean casserole this holiday season. The Campbell’s Soup Company estimates that $20 million worth of cream of mushroom soup are sold each year for use in this recipe alone.

In 2002, Reilly, then living in Haddonfield, NJ, appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. In 2008, Alpha Sigma Alpha, Reilly’s sorority at Drexel, honored her with the Recognition of Eminence Award. And in January of 2013 Drexel established an annual $1,000 scholarship in her honor and bestowed her with its inaugural Cultural Contribution Award. Dorcas died on Oct. 15, 2018 in Haddonfield at the age of 92.

Chicken and Dressing

Regional favorites always have local trends in their preparation. Barbecue springs to mind, but more subtle examples are available. Chicken and dressing is a staple in the South all year long, but the farther south you get, you’ll find more people using wheat bread rather than corn bread. In southern Louisiana, you’ll likely find an oyster dressing using a dried French loaf, but in Mississippi north of the Florida Parishes, chicken and cornbread are the rule.

Make two skillets of cornbread the night before, stick in a paper sack and put it on a table somewhere it won’t get knocked off. Then crumble the bread and add enough strong chicken stock to make thick slurry. To two quarts of this mixture, add no more than 4 eggs well-beaten and at least two cups shredded chicken. Sauté a half cup (more if you like) each of finely-diced white onion and celery in a half a stick of butter and add to the mix. Some people like diced pepper in their dressing, but I find it overpowers the stock. Season liberally with salt, pepper, thyme, and sage; I like plenty of sage in mine, about a teaspoon per cup of bread crumbs. Pour into a greased pan and bake at (350) until the top is browned and the center firm.

This goes with anything, anytime.

Pineapple Coconut Sheet Cake

Way back when, die-hard home cooks would sniff and curl a lip if someone—invariably a newlywed or (worse) single parent—brought a sheet pan cake to a bake sale (THEY, of course, brought heirloom 8-layer caramel/German chocolate in handmade paper mache decoupage boxes). Even worse, those die-hards naturally felt compelled to extract a timorous confession from the donor that a boxed cake mix was involved. (In those days, canned frosting had limited distribution, otherwise that would have been the coup de grace; admission to the bridge club would be ever afterwards inconceivable.) Granted, homemade cakes are a certified source of pride and satisfaction; given the time, they’re worth the effort. If you’ve got other things on your hands, make a sheet cake from a boxed mix. But don’t use canned frosting; that’s just SO tacky.

Combine 1 box Pillsbury White Supreme cake mix, 8 oz. sour cream, ¼ cup melted butter, 3 large eggs at room temperature, half of an 8-oz. can of crushed pineapple (drained and squeezed), and a can of cream of coconut (Coco Lopez). Mix on medium speed until smooth. Pour batter into a 9×13-inch pan greased with butter and lined with parchment paper. Place in a preheated 350 oven until toothpick-clean and firm in the middle, about 30 mins. Cool on a rack. Blend 8 oz. softened cream cheese with two cups confectioner’s sugar, (the other 4 ounces of crushed, drained, and squeezed pineapple, and a tablespoon coconut extract. If needed, thin to spreading consistency with milk, top cake, and sprinkle with 2 cups toasted shredded coconut or coconut chips.

The Sartoris Thanksgiving

In a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), Adam Gopnik points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “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.”

Faulkner falls solidly into the second category, a writer who uses food to show who his characters are, as does (unsurprisingly) a French writer who influenced the Mississippian very much, Marcel Proust.  “Proust seems so full of food—crushed strawberries and madeleines, tisanes and champagne—that entire recipe books have been extracted from his texts,” Gopnik says. “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.”

This is precisely what Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel was rejected by his publisher, but it was released in a drastically edited version as Sartoris in 1929. The full manuscript was finally restored and published under the editorial direction of Douglas Day in 1973. The novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, aristocratic Sartoris in decline, clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here Faulkner describes their Thanksgiving table:

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries. Then they ceased talking for a while and really ate, glancing now and then across the table at one another in a rosy glow of amicability and steamy odors. From time to time Isom entered with hot bread . . . and then Simon brought in pies of three kinds, and a small, deadly plum pudding, and a cake baked cunningly with whiskey and nuts and fruit and treacherous and fatal as sin; and at last, with an air sibylline and gravely profound, a bottle of port.” (Flags in the Dust, Random House, 1973, p. 281)

The meal is lorded over by the family patriarch, Bayard Sartoris II, who is soon to die as well as his son, Bayard III, leaving the few remaining members of the once proud and powerful Sartoris family destitute. Old Bayard’s attempts to maintain the family’s traditional high standards are exemplified by this meal, which is indeed a groaning board with plentiful meats and game, vegetables and breads, sweets and condiments. The inclusion of stewed cranberries, somewhat of a luxury item at the time, stands out. Towards the end, adjectives begin to cluster as they tend to do in Faulkner, and the final, “sibylline and gravely profound” presentation of port lends a dark, ceremonial  coda.

Cooking with Booze

Bourbon plays a key role in Southern holiday cooking; both Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Capote’s A Christmas Memory tell of Prohibition-era ladies sending someone to the local bootlegger to get a bottle for their fruitcakes and eggnog as well as for that indispensable Southern holiday dessert, pecan pie.

But it’s not about the booze; it’s about flavor. Alcohol boils at a much lower temperature than water, so even a simmer will cause the alcohol in any dish—even eggnog, if it’s served hot—to evaporate. Not completely, of course, but you can usually reduce the amount of alcohol in any dish to an insignificant amount by heating. Then, of course, if you use only a few tablespoons in a cake or pie, it’s diluted in the mix. Even if you’re just dousing a cake with bourbon over a period of time, most of that alcohol will evaporate. Alcohol also brings out flavor compounds not soluble by water or heat. That’s exactly what happens in this recipe; the sweet, mellow bourbon just snuggles up to the bar with the brown sugar and pecans.

Beat together ¾ cup Karo Light, ¾ cup packed light brown sugar, 3 large eggs (at room temperature), a tablespoon of corn starch or arrowroot mixed with a tablespoon of water, 2 tablespoons melted butter, a teaspoon salt, a tablespoon vanilla extract, and 2 shots (1/4 cup) good bourbon. I use Southern Comfort because it’s sweet. Add a cup of chopped pecans and mix very well. This is your filling Melt a quarter cup butter, add a half cup brown sugar, stir in a cup and a half pecan halves, cook for a few minutes, drain and cool Pour filling into a 9-inch pie crust. Topping with pecan halves, and place on the center rack of 350 oven. After 30 minutes, cover loosely with foil and cook until set, about 15 minutes or so. Cool and refrigerate before serving.