Admit it; making cheese straws is a pain in the butt. Though they’re a must on your browsing buffets (if not, someone sniffy is bound to say, “Oh, I should have brought you MY WONDERFUL cheese straws!”), they still aren’t something you might feel like throwing together for a more casual gathering like a bowl game, backyard picnic or that special moment when you both decided to get married last night and your mother(s) held you at gunpoint to have a reception.
Fortunately there is an alternative to dragging out the cookie press, stuffing it full of dough, mushing out the sticks and (worst part) cleaning the press.: Brit cheddar biscuits. Now, what the Brits call biscuits are a far cry from our big, fluffy Southern variety; over the Pond, our biscuits would be called scones, while what Brits and their ilk call biscuits are more like what we would call wafers or cookies. So while you might be most familiar with cheese biscuits along the lines of those at Red Lobster, the Brits do a cheese biscuit that’s thin, crisp, and a hell of a lot easier to make than straws.
Simply make a dough with one cup plain flour, one cup grated sharp cheddar and one stick of softened butter, add a little salt, a little white pepper, roll out, shape with a cookie cutter (which is quite easy to clean) and bake at 350 until nice and crisp. Dust with strong paprika and a little cayenne thrown in to piss off the preacher.
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.
Kitchen innovation emphasizing technique rather than ingredients can have impressive results, especially when you’re dealing with what’s familiar, and this one is simple: bake dressing in a muffin pan. It’s easy to do, and the result is a morsel that’s eaten handily, stored easily and kids love them. I like to top some of them with a bit of whole-berry cranberry sauce. They also look good piled on a pretty plate alongside your other buffet items. They take a little more care than simply pouring your dressing into a casserole dish as is usually done, but they more than make up for the initial effort by freeing up space in the refrigerator and freezer, space you’ll no doubt need for other holiday leftovers. You can make these days before, freeze, and heat when needed.
Spoon dressing batter into oiled paper liners in a muffin tin and fill to the top, since these do not rise as much as a bread muffin would. Place your pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake at 350 until the tops are firm and the edges have just begun to brown, about 25 minutes. Top with whole berry cranberries when they’re about half-way done. Brush with melted butter and let them cool before taking them from the pan (use a fork) and removing the paper. Store for later and reheat on a cookie sheet.
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.
Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, featured in or supporting dozens and dozens of dishes across our sideboard. But there are hams and then there are hams.
The finest hams are dry cured. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced, but they need to be soaked in pure water at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by injection of brine. Smoked hams are a variant of both, with smoke preserving and providing flavor.
Then you have the green ham, which is what your grandmother called a leg of pork that hasn’t been cured. You’ll find it sold as a fresh ham; you may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs you’ve been serving all these years.
A green ham should be covered in a rind and a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife and coat with garlic and sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper and sea salt; put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions with water to cover in the pan. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack in a heavy pan with enough water to just cover the bottom. Place in a high oven, right at 450. After thirty minutes, decrease the temperature to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Turn the oven off and let the ham sit for at least another hour before carving.
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.
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.
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.
My recipe is a riff on that of April McGregor’s, a fellow Calhoun Countian and author of the Sweet Potatoes cookbook in the University of North Carolina’s excellent Savor the South series, a work that enthroned her as the Empress of Sweet Potatoes, in whose cavernous kitchens I am but a scullion. Her Imperial Majesty writes that while many recipes will advise you to knead biscuit dough, this is a mistake; kneading works up gluten in the dough, making your biscuits heavy. The ingredients must also be kept chilled and the oven preheated and very hot (450).
To 3 cups soft flour (Martha White or Dixie Lily) sifted with two teaspoons baking powder, cut in a cup of cold cooked sweet potatoes (you can use canned drained) and one stick cold butter sliced into pats. You can add chopped pecans if you like. Combine and quickly hand mix to a rice-like consistency. Add enough cold buttermilk to make a sticky dough. Pat this out in a floured surface, cut with a sharp edge, and place into a lightly oiled skillet. Don’t put them in a cake tin, or you’ll burn the bottoms. Place on an upper rack and bake for about 15 minutes. Mix a cup of molasses with a quarter cup water in a small saucepan; add a few slices of ginger and simmer until thickened.
Governor Dennis Murphree of Mississippi occupies a unique place in Mississippi history by virtue of having served as governor of the state twice without ever being elected to office. He also served three terms as lieutenant governor. His record of public service is also distinguished by perhaps the most unusual public relations operations of any state in the Union, the famous Know Mississippi Better Train, a project developed from his own ideas and experiences.
In 1925, Governor Henry L. Whitfield called a meeting in Jackson with the object of adopting “some plan whereby the opportunities, possibilities and resources of Mississippi might be effectively presented to the outside world.” Mississippians from twenty-six counties attended, including Lieutenant Governor Dennis Murphree of Calhoun County, who proposed a plan of a “Know Mississippi Better Train,” a special train to carry representatives of Mississippi, exhibits of Mississippi resources, literature, and public speakers to visit across the country. The plan was adopted, and the first KMB train pulled out of Jackson in August, 1925.
The Know Mississippi Better Train was the longest Pullman Special Train in the world. In its 20 years of operation, the KMB Train traveled the North American continent once each year from Savannah to Alaska and from Mexico City to Prince Edward, visiting more than 500 towns and cities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The train’s operation was suspended during WWII, but resumed immediately after.
The 1948 KMB train was the last. Fifteen cars made up the train. The first was an exhibit car carrying huge signs on its sides: “This is the Know Mississippi Better Train.” This car contained a comprehensive exhibit of the resources and products of Mississippi. A small observation platform on the end of this car bore an electric sign which read: “Know Mississippi Better Train”. The lounge car—with a soda fountain and small piano on loan from the Brown Music Company of Jackson—was furnished by the Illinois Central Railroad and made the entire trip. The train also contained an office dispensing information about the trip as well as stationery, telegraph blanks, pens and paper. Postage needs were handled in a post office, while the Pullman Conductor handled telegraph messages. The train also had its own free daily newspaper/bulletin, “Mississippi A’Roll,” containing Mississippi news briefs supplied daily by the managing editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
In February, 1949, the Know Mississippi Better Train lost its great conductor when Dennis Herron Murphree died at his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi. Alumni of the KMB train circulated newsletters and held reunions for years afterwards, and it’s worth speculating that relationships forged during the journeys endured long afterwards.