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.

Sweet Potato Biscuits with Ginger Molasses

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.

The Know Mississippi Better Train

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.

About Persimmons

His name was Clifford. According to my mother, he was the son of my father’s first cousin once removed, but as far as I was concerned, he was a spawn of Satan. Clifford taught me how to roll rabbit tobacco, what a wedgie is, and made me eat my first (and only) Irish plum.

It’s quite possible that the reason most people in my part of the world aren’t accustomed to cooking with persimmons is because they were tricked into eating an unripe persimmon as a child. That’s what Clifford called an Irish plum, and it sure looked like a green plum, which should have clued me in on not eating it in the first place. Anyone who bites into an unripe persimmon will never forget the experience; it’s agonizingly, mouth-puckeringly astringent; the tannins in the green fruit turn spit into chalk.

The fruit Cliff dared me to eat (successfully) was the fruit of the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). American persimmons are astringent. They really don’t need a frost to ripen; that’s more or less a rule of thumb, but a frost will cause ripe fruit to fall. Ripe American persimmons have a wrinkled, waxy, reddish-orange skin, and while they don’t have a lot of pulp, it has a deep, unique, molasses-y taste.

The most common persimmon you’ll find in markets is the non-astringent Oriental, Chinese, or Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki). This non-astringent persimmon—usually referred to as fuyu—isn’t totally free of tannins, but are far less astringent when green and lose their tannins sooner. These persimmons are the national fruit of Japan, a symbol of autumn in much the same way pumpkins are in the United States. In Buddhism, they are symbols of transformation: green persimmons are bitter, representing ignorance; sweet, ripened fruits represent the wisdom that comes with maturity.

If the persimmons you buy in the store have even the faintest tinge of green, let them to sit at room temperature in natural light for a couple of days or put the persimmons in a paper bag along with pieces of apples, bananas, or pears. These fruits give off ethylene gas, which helps the persimmons to ripen more quickly as well. Once ripe, persimmons can be stored in the refrigerator and should be eaten or used within three days. The Persimmon Festival held every September in Mitchell, Indiana, hosts a contest for persimmon pudding, a baked dessert with the consistency of sweet potato pie. To Hoosiers, this dish is sacred, and purists insist on fully-ripened native fruit, but most all the rest of us must make do with fuyu.

Peel and chop five ripe (fuyu) persimmons until smooth and strain. You should get about two cups of pulp; if you don’t, add another persimmon. Blend pulp with two beaten eggs and two cups sugar until smooth. Stir a teaspoon of baking soda into a cup of buttermilk. Add to persimmon mixture along with 1 ½ cups flour sifted with a tablespoon of baking powder. Stir in a quarter stick melted butter, a teaspoon vanilla, and a dash or so of cinnamon. Pour into a buttered dish and bake at 350 until firm and set, about an hour or so.

Ginger-Pecan Sandies

This recipe makes a rich and aromatic, soft and crumbly cookie or small cake that goes perfectly with a hot drink—coffee, tea, cocoa, even sweet mulled wine—and it’s so simple a child can make it, but to make real sandies, you must use sanding sugar, which is slightly coarser than granulated.

Cream 1 stick butter with a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a teaspoon each almond and vanilla extract. Blend in 2 cups plain flour sifted with a teaspoon of baking powder, a  half cup chopped pecans and a tablespoon ground ginger. (I have tried this recipe with freshly-grated ginger, and it simply does not work at all well at all with so much butter.) This mixture makes a soft, elastic dough that you have to work with flour-dusted hands to form into a ball. Refrigerate for a half hour. Pat or roll the dough ball out a half inch thick, sprinkle with sanding sugar, cut into rounds or squares, and bake at 350 middle rack until lightly browned. This recipe is easily doubled or tripled.

Shrimp and Grits

In 1985, Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning. Claiborne published this recipe in the New York Times, and the national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country, this is the original recipe.

6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar)
Tabasco sauce
Freshly grated nutmeg
White pepper
1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
Peanut oil
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 large garlic clove, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.

Red Rose Sausage Sandwich Filling

Red Rose imitation smoked sausage was originally produced by the Jackson Packing Company, which from 1945 to 1990 sold processed meats from their plant on South Gallatin Street. Red Rose was marketed under the company’s flagship Magnolia brand, which was purchased by Polk’s Meat Products in Magee. The sausages are sold in 24-ounce packages, usually three links. Red Rose at home is sliced into sections, split, fried or grilled and served with beans or potatoes. Two Jackson eateries, the Beatty Street Grocery and the Big Apple Inn on Farish, serve Red Rose sandwiches.

This recipe is a riff on the restaurants’ sausage sandwiches, the innovation here combining the slaw with the sausage stuffing, which works beautifully. Peel the casings from the sausages, break the filling into a heavy skillet—chopped onion would be a nice option—and cook until heated through. Continue cooking until most of the grease is cooked out. Drain thoroughly and add about 4 ounces of slaw; that works out to half a large container from KFC. Serve warm on Bunny burger or slider buns with a dusting of black pepper and several shakes of Crystal hot sauce.

Delta Chinese Collards

This recipe comes from an article in The New York Times by Joan Nathan, “East Meets South at a Delta Table” (June, 2003) profiling the Sino-Southern fusion cooking of the Chow family in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Most of China shares the same humid subtropical climate as the South. That’s why kudzu is so happy here. You’ll also find a variety of collards in China, gai lan.

Wash and trim three bunches of collards and cut into more or less bite-size pieces. Heat wok or a very large skillet, brown a teaspoon of salt, and add about a quarter cup of canola or peanut oil. When oil is hot, add 6 sliced cloves of garlic and stir until lightly toasted. Add greens and a dash of pepper, stir constantly until wilted and tender, then blend in 2 tablespoons oyster sauce and a scant teaspoon of sugar. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve immediately.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

The Velvet Wok

Despite shaving beef and marinating chicken for hours, it took me some time to discover how to get meats as tender as those in good Chinese restaurants. Eventually, I discovered velveting, a technique by which you coat thinly-sliced meats with a slurry of cornstarch, egg white and soy or rice vinegar. Not much is needed; 3 tablespoons (1/4 cup) of corn starch to one egg white, and enough vinegar or soy to make a thin paste. A similar approach involves soaking the meat in a baking soda and water solution; use 1 teaspoon of baking soda and ½ cup of water for every 12 oz. meat. Treat meats for about a half-hour, rinse, drain well, and toss into a hot oil with garlic and aromatics.  Stir until the meat has separated and cooked through. This method also works with shrimp and lobster  but in either case I consider it superfluous.