Fondue for the Masses

Chances are if you’re an average middle-class sort, somewhere tucked away in a cabinet or closet you have a fondue pot. Chances are as well that you’ve never used the damn thing and likely never will because you’re more likely to order out chicken wings or pick up a meat-and-cheese/vegetable tray from the local supermarket than make something as baffling as fondue.

Fondue is (of course) a Swiss dish, likely begun by people of simple means with simple ingredients, cheeses and wine at its most basic. The French word fondue itself simply means ‘melted’. Most Swiss would agree that a proper fondue is made with a blend of cheeses–of gruyere, emmental, and a softer local cheese such as raclette or appenzell–white wine, a little kirsch, a spoonful of flour to prevent curdling, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and nothing else. Fonduta, the Italian version of fondue, is made with fontina cheese…There is also a similar Dutch dish called kaasdoop (cheese dip), which begs the question of why we insist on calling it fondue in the first place.

Trendy American cooks embraced fondue in the middle of the 20th century. The early recipes were startlingly elaborate—as were the fondue sets themselves—and included prescribed serving rituals as well as a warning against drinking cold beverages while consuming cheese fondue because the hot cheese would harden in the stomach and cause constipation. (It won’t.) Fashionable authors recommended using those long two-tined forks with the cute little colored knobs on the end to skewer the bread cubes, which is why colorful glazed fondue pots with matching forks were standard gifts at bridal showers and weddings. Many of you likely remember your mother’s fondue set in harvest gold and avocado green. The “canned heat” was typically Sterno brand. Fondues became quite popular because the ingredients were inexpensive and familiar; the equipment novel and within reach, and while most of us consider a fondue about the gayest thing you can serve at a party, it makes for a novel holiday dish (particularly New Year’s) and is actually quite good.

The following basic recipe is from Betty Crocker’s Dinner Parties: A Contemporary Guide to Easy Entertaining, [Golden Books: New York] 1970, 1974 (p. 55). I recommend you lightly toast the bread cubes.

Cut a French loaf into 1-inch cubes, and a pound of Swiss cheese into 1/4-inch cubes (about 4 cups). Sprinkle about two tablespoons AP flour over cheese and toss until is coated. Rub cut clove of garlic on bottom and side of quart ceramic fondue pot, heavy saucepan or chafing dish. Add 1 cup dry white wine (Rhine, Reisling, Chablis, Neuchatel); heat over medium until bubbles rise to surface (do not allow to boil). Gradually stir in cheese, adding only 1/2 cup at a time and stirring after each addition until cheese is melted and blended. (Do not allow mixture to become too hot.) Stir in 2 tablespoons kirsch or sherry liqueur and seasoning. If fondue has been prepared on range, transfer fondue pot to source of heat at table and adjust heat to keep fondue just bubbling. Guests spear cubes of bread with long-handled forks and dip into cheese mixture. Stir fondue occasionally. (If fondue becomes too thick, mix in more warm white wine.) 4 servings.

Carrot Salad with Raisins and Pineapple

Peel and grate one pound of carrots. Add a cup of raisins, a drained 20 oz. can of pineapple bits, enough mayonnaise to coat (a quarter to a half cup), a slosh of apple cider vinegar, and a dash of salt. Toss vigorously, and store in a covered container in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.

Jackson’s Greek Community: A Profile

Originally published in 2009, this article remains one of the few substantial accounts of our Greek neighbors, who both as individuals and as a community have vastly enriched this city.

With the fascinating exception of Tarpon Springs, Florida, where an old country industry found new life, most Greek immigrants settled in the northeast. But according to Ellen Hontzas, most of the immediate ancestors of Jackson’s families were from the South.

“One person would come over and then they would bring relatives and friends. In different areas, you will find concentrations of people from different areas of Greece. Here, you’ll find many from the island of Patmos as well as from the Peloponnesus. But they may have stayed in, say, New Orleans for a year or two and then drifted up and around. A lot of people came from Houston, Tallahassee and Birmingham. We didn’t have any Yankee Greeks.”

“I was born here, but my daddy Anthony Tattis was from Mobile,” Ellen says. “He was in the Air Force, stationed here, and I was born at the air base (now Hawkins Field). I lived in what was called the ‘GI village’, on Avalon, but most of the other Greeks lived in west and south Jackson. Just about everything we did centered on the church.”

Indeed, the Greek Orthodox Church makes up the heart of the community. Dr. Virginia Cora, a member for over forty years, says, “The church and its calendar provide structure for the changing of seasons; these traditions may be less strictly observed now, but still are important.”

The Rev. Fr. Christopher Harner, presiding priest at Holy Trinity & St. John the Theologian at 1417 West Capitol Street, says, “It’s intriguing to note that this parish, the reason it is double-named is because the members of the original founding group were never able to agree on one common name. Normally, if a parish is double-named, it is because there was a split in the community that was healed and both sides came together. This parish is somewhat unique in that it started with groups of people who were not able to agree on a particular name.”

“This parish has challenges that aren’t present in most Greek Orthodox parishes,” Father Christopher says. “In New England, where you have up to 15 parishes in the Boston suburbs alone, some with 2000 families that live within 15 minutes of the church, when they hear what this parish is like, you can imagine how different it must be from what they expect.”

“I grew up in New York with a father from Greece and an American mother,” says Laura (Stamatakis) Orr. “I got the best of both worlds. They raised me in a large Greek community, but when I was young my family moved to California to an even bigger Greek community. I even had my own big fat Greek wedding in a Greek Orthodox cathedral in Los Angeles.”

“My husband and I decided to move here to Mississippi, where he is from, about 2 years ago, Laura says. “It was a very difficult choice, leaving my parents, my friends and my church, but we now enjoy a special yet different experience, a small community that welcomed us with open arms, one that was built by the first families that arrived in this part of the South.”

“The family includes nuclear and extended family both here and in the old country, as well as church family,” Virginia Cora says. “Any occasion calls for a gathering, especially birth days or name days, Easter and Epiphany.”

Virginia says that she, her friends and family savor life in the moment. “We do love to eat, dance, and celebrate the occasion, any occasion. Feast days usually have favored foods associated with them, certain breads like tsoureki for Easter and Christopomo for Christmas, vasilopita for New Year, and pitas or cookies for other holidays.” Virginia says that meals including appetizers, entrées, and desserts are consumed casually over several hours. The music tends to be traditional folk music with dancing and sing-a-longs like syrtaki, hassapiko and tsimako. Drink includes beers and wines consumed with meals and in moderation, especially retsina (resinated white wine), kokkineli, Metaxa and ouzo.

An argument might be made that the Greeks in Jackson have made their most significant impact in the restaurant business. “In the early 60s before the franchises moved in, the Greeks pretty had control of the restaurants; you had Primos, the Elite, the Mayflower, the Rotisserie, Dennery’s. Now we also have Nick’s, and his father, Mr. Apostle, had Paul’s Lamplighter and Paul’s Northside, and my husband’s daddy had Johnny’s Restaurant down on Highway 80. That’s what they knew; they knew how to cook, but the crazy thing is that they didn’t have Greek menus, they didn’t sell Greek food, they adapted to what they could sell.”

Kanellos Katsaboulas, proprietor of Kat’s Wine Cellar, says, “My father did own a restaurant, Christos’ Deli, but that was more of a side hobby that he had. His primary business was Katsaboulas Tile and Marble, which was in operation for over 35 years.”

“It’s a real close community. My brother (Tasho) and I both grew up in the Greek church, went to Greek school. My father was Greek, my mother was from Mississippi, and we grew up with both influences. Having my Geek grandmother living with us was wonderful. She barely spoke English, but she cooked for us every night and involved us in the culture. We called her ‘Yama’.  She came from the Peloponnese, and she and her husband moved here in the 30s. My father, Carnellas Katsaboulas, was born here, but his two brothers were born in Greece.”

“All these Greek families that I grew up knowing were very close; I called everybody ‘uncle’. That was the biggest difference between me and the other kids I grew up with. My wife is from here, but I don’t see that element in her family; she has her family, and everybody else is friend or acquaintance, but in the Greek community, you grew up not really distinguishing between who is a blood relative and who isn’t. There was really no difference in the level of respect we held for them.”

“The Jackson community is characterized by devotion to family, culture and church,” Virginia says. “The members are concerned about the welfare of their family and the success of their work. Our people are passionate about their politics, participate in elections and work with community leaders.”

“We have a good name,” Ellen says.

Jingle Bells and Shotgun Shells

  When I told my cousin Jackson that I was going to the gun show, he looked at me like I had lost my mind.“ Why?” he asked.
“Well, you know, I’ve never been to one, and I think it would be interesting to write about the experience” I said.
“You’ve never even been to a deer camp,” he countered.
“I have, too,” I said. “Ewell took me to his uncle’s camp in the Delta once.”
“Yeah, now I remember. He told me you spent the whole time bird-watching and going off about affiliated peckerwoods.”
“That’s `pileated woodpeckers,’” I said. “They’re very uncommon,   and I saw three of them in one day.”
“He also said you almost got your ass shot off.”
“I was trying to blend in and not scare the birds. They’re really shy.”
“Speaking of blending in, what are you going to wear to the gun show?”
“Slacks, sweater, shoes. Why?”
Jackson rolled his eyes. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m going with you.”
“I’ll be fine, Jack. It’s not like they’re going to string me up for wearing Hushpuppies.”
“Look, do you want people to talk to you, or what?”
“Sure I do,” I said. “That’s going to be the heart of the story. It’s a human interest piece.”
“Then you don’t need to look like a roving reporter for Martha Stewart. Let me see what I’ve got.” One hour later, we were stepping out the door. I had on jeans, boots, a flannel shirt and his dad’s old flight jacket. Jack was Mossy Oak from head to toe. Just as he was about to close the door, Jack turned to me, wrinkled his nose and said,  “What’s that smell?”
“Gel,” I said.
“Go wash it out. Thank God you need a haircut.”

Five dollars each gained us entry into the floor room, and despite Jackson’s careful preparations, within five minutes I had run afoul of a vendor.
All I did was ask for a catalogue from the proprietor, a black lady in a neon t-shirt that read “Real Hunters Shoot More Than Once.” She asked me, in a very strong voice, “What do you need a catalogue for? I’ve got all my stuff out right here. See where this green tablecloth is spread out? This is my stuff. You don’t need no catalogue.”
She had her hands on her hips and was looking at me like she was daring me to say something, so I just said, “Yes, ma’am,” and backed off, nodding and smiling. The folks at nearby booths glanced over to see what was going on. Paranoia seemed to be the neurosis de jour.
Jack came up from behind me where he had been checking out the VibraShine Vortex, a shell-polishing system that employed crushed corn cobs (“Organic. I grow `em myself.”), aluminum silicate (“Just like you find in toothpaste.”) and motor oil (“Keeps the dust down.”).
“What did you say to her?” he hissed, grabbing my arm and nodding towards More Than Once.
“I just asked for a catalogue,” I said.
“She does not work for L.L. Bean,” he said.
“I just thought she might have a price list or something,” I said.
“Young man!” More Than Once was pointing at me, shouting from ten feet away. Heads turned.
Jackson said, “Oh, shit. We are so busted.”
“Young man!” she said again. “I do not have a catalogue, but I do have a card. Come here and get one,” she said. And she smiled.
I went over and picked up the card and thanked her. By the time I got back to where Jackson was he had disappeared into a wilderness of denim, flannel and camouflage.

Jackson caught up with me about the time I found the camo women’s apparel. “Don’t touch that!”
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” I said.
“Yes, you were,” he said.
“Oh, hell,” I said. “I couldn’t help it.” I couldn’t believe it was real. “Can you imagine there’s a hooker out there wearing this stuff who calls herself Bambi’?”
“Would you please not talk so loud?”
“Jackson, I happen to know that you have an intimate acquaintance with ladies’ apparel.” I picked an item off the rack and held it up for his inspection. “Just what is this?”
“It’s a teddy,” he said, looking away.
“It’s got white lace with a camouflage bra.”
“So?”
“There are drag queens in Oktibbeha County who would sell a family member into slavery for this stuff,” I said.
About that time, a young lady came around the rack. She had what looked like an all-day sucker in her hand and was flipping through the clothing. Before Jackson could stop me, I said, “Excuse me.”
“Yeah?” she said.
“Would you wear this stuff?” I asked, holding up my prize. I heard Jack’s jaw hit the floor behind me.
She looked at me for a second. Then she giggled.
“No!” she said, “but Momma does.”
“Just on special occasions, I bet,” I said with a wink.
She giggled again. “Yeah, mostly during hunting season.”
We giggled together for a little bit, then Jack started dragging me back to the main aisle.

I spent some time wandering around the Winchesters, Colts and Mausers until I came upon the Christmas ornaments.
“These are so unique,” I said to the lady in charge. She was a little grandmotherly type in a maroon pants suit with a champagne bouffant. “Did you make them yourself?”
“Yes,” she said. “But it was my husband Pete’s idea. I’ve always been artsy-craftsy, and had a glue gun and everything, but he was the one who thought of doing the lights like this. And I thought, well, if you’re going to do lights, why don’t we make a couple of little wreathes and maybe even a star for the tree and we just went from there.”
“Are they safe?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I used too big ‘a bulbs the first set, and they all just melted, didn’t set anything on fire, but these are a lot smaller. You should see them when the house lights are off. They just glow.”

I thanked her and wandered off down the aisle, wondering what the Prince of Peace would say about shotgun shell Christmas lights.

Peanut Butter Pecan Blossoms

Beat a half cup each white sugar, packed brown sugar, creamy peanut butter, and unsalted butter with a large egg until well blended. Use a table fork; trust me. Sift a teaspoon baking soda and a half teaspoon baking powder with a cup and a half of AP flour, and stir in a cup of rather finely-chopped pecans. Mix flour and butter mixtures to doughy consistency. Spoon dough into 1-inch balls—it helps to have a cookie scoop—and place on a lightly-oiled baking pan. Bake at 350 until edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven, and immediately press a milk chocolate kiss in each cookie. Cool on a rack.

 

A Mississippi Christmas

In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the southwestern vestiges of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges. Here the sun is strong, and by the time December comes around a weary green still lingers along the roads. Rain arrives after warm days, ushering in longer spells of drier, colder weather.  If snow falls, rarely more than enough to cover the ground, it’s made into muddy, leaf-littered balls and stacked in the yard or gleaned cleanly and mixed with sugar, vanilla and cream.

jess_lee_snowThough winter still comes the same way, much seems to have changed there since I was a child and still looking forward to my birthday on the 12th. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. Those older remembered other hardships at a more distant time, and the young, as all young at all times, had little yet to remember. In our home, Thanksgiving amounted to a modest overture to Christmas; just after the turkey was eaten, Barbara filled the house with glowing towers of glazed glass jars, papier-mâché crèche figurines and ornaments light as air hung with shining ribbons.

Her trees took days to decorate, one a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments.  In the den, smilax, holly and magnolia draped the mantle; bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables and on the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we made popcorn in a long-handled shaker. Barbara provided a groaning board. What she didn’t cook herself, she shared food friends and relatives brought for her table: ambrosia from Aunt Gay, bread-and-butter pickles from Ruby Zane, tea cakes from Aunt Leila, peanut brittle from Betty Edwards, pecan divinity from Ora Crocker, a coconut cake from Zara Arrington. A splendid cook, Barbara spent days on the Christmas feast, making pans of chicken and dressing, baking a turkey, a ham and yeast rolls, candying sweet potatoes and stuffing dozens of eggs. The bounty of our home was there for all who called, and none left hungry.

Above anyone I’ve ever known my father Jess loved Christmas, threw himself completely and unreservedly into the essence of the season and drew everyone he knew along in his wide wake. He was the Spirit of Christmas Present, bigger than life, colorful and jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone, not just family and friends, but with his world.

By the first week of the month, Jess had set his plans in motion, beginning with a party at the community building at the city park on the south side of town where local bands provided music for dancing (an activity widely frowned-upon at the time) and the local blue laws banning liquor were casually set aside while he pumped his friends for contributions to fund  his Christmas expedition. After the party, he would make a trip to Tupelo, to the Lady Lee outlet store, where he would buy boxes of firecrackers and bottle rockets, huge sacks of Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon candies, peppermint sticks and butterscotch rounds; then to Cockrell Banana Company where he’d buy crates of oranges and tangerines. These he brought home where they were put in a spare bedroom, and in the days before Christmas my brother Tom, sister Cindy and I along with a cadre of neighborhood children would sort them out and stuff them into small paper sacks, staple the tops together and pile them into boxes. On Christmas Eve, we’d pile into a car, at best a station wagon commandeered from a neighbor, at worst a ’65 Mustang convertible, and we’d head to the black neighborhoods.

Jess wore a Santa suit, and Barbara would dress us children as elves. He once drafted his brother-in-law Jim to play Santa while he sauntered alongside laughing and greeting. When we rolled across the railroad tracks, we collected a troop of children flanking our route, shouting and jumping, reaching out to catch the sacks of candy and fireworks. Jess would make sure that those children who were too shy to come to the car received their share, and he would often walk into homes where he knew of special need bearing a ham or an envelope with money.

Jess was in his glory then, doing what he felt was the most important thing he did all year. His career in public service gave him an opportunity to help many people, but seeing the eyes of these children for whom his visit was the only Christmas many if not most of them would have gave him a sense of wholeness that few men are afforded. His largess, his sense of noblesse oblige, was untainted by any shadow of arrogance. He remembered the deprivations of his own childhood, and sought to relieve those of others.

Now I am an old man, far from home and missing my people who have passed on before me. I spend my holidays simply and in little company, but the living memories of my childhood are with me, my heart is warm, and I know no want. My father’s gifts live on.

New Stage Baked Eggs

Another recipe from Standing Room Only, the stellar entertainment cookbook extravaganza published by New Stage Theatre in 1983. The original recipe states that this breakfast casserole can be prepared the night before and refrigerated, but just don’t. It also calls for a sprinkling of chopped black olives, which is a nice touch. Beat six eggs in two cups of whole milk, add a teaspoon of dry mustard and two cups grated cheddar. Butter a 9×13 casserole and cover the bottom in a layer of herbed croutons, pour in egg and cheese mixture, and top with crumbled, cooked bacon. Bake at 350 on a middle rack until lightly browned and springy, about 45 minutes.

Citrus Season

In his lyrical work on the Mississippi Delta, The Yazoo River, scholar-politician Frank Smith says of sharecroppers that “Spending habits throughout the fall inevitably reduced all but the most prudent tenants to a penniless state by Christmas,

… and no money for Christmas finery and festivity plus peppermint sticks and oranges for the children, could wreck the morale of any tenant. Oranges were a standard Christmas delicacy for the poorest of family. Santa Claus tried to get one in each child’s stocking. If the mother was a good cook, she ordered the peeling saved for flavoring a Christmas cake or pie.”

Well after Reconstruction, my father, a child of the Depression, made sure of having plenty of oranges for Christmas. In his time oranges had become symbolic of the Christmas season in the way fruitcakes were for others, and we kept wide shallow bowls filled with oranges and nuts in the living and dining rooms throughout the holidays. Daddy gave sacks of Valencias to nearby families during the holiday season. Our mother would have us children pierce oranges all around with toothpicks and insert cloves in the holes. We would hang these on the tree and mantle and their sweet, spicy scent would fill the room.

The sacks of Florida oranges he bought bore the name Indian River, a designated area on the east coast where the oldest orange groves grew. The Spaniards planted oranges St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, and the fruit was planted widely along the Gulf (viz.: Orange, Texas; Orange Beach, Alabama), but none survived the Great Freeze of 1895, which sent freezing temperatures down to the Keys.

According to Felder Rushing, “Cold-tender citrus plants were grafted onto the strong, disease-resistant rootstock of trifoliate orange. When freezing weather killed the grafts, the trifoliate stock grew into a pretty little thorny shrub with sweet flowers and sour, golf ball-size fruits. A lot of the trifoliate rootstock survived along the Gulf Coast, but most of those acres have been reclaimed for other crops. The big citrus crop is the relatively cold-hardy satsuma.”

A mature satsuma tree can survive down to −9 °C (15 °F) or even −11 °C (12 °F) for a few hours. Of the edible citrus varieties, only the kumquat is more cold-hardy. Satsumas rarely have any thorns; the fruit is exceedingly sweet, easy to peel, and many cultivars are seedless. The Louisiana crop ripens from October until late November. The name “satsuma” is credited to the wife of a U.S. Minister to Japan, General Van Valkenburg, who sent trees home in 1878 from Satsuma, the name of a former province, now Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southern tip of Kyushu Island.

Its fruit is “one of the sweetest citrus varieties, with a meltingly tender texture” and usually seedless. The satsuma also has particularly delicate flesh, which cannot withstand the effects of careless handling, which means you’ll usually only find satsumas in local grocers or roadside produce stands. Satsumas are used very much as oranges in desserts, even entrees and salads, but if you’re feeling really froggy, here’s a particularly ambitious recipe from Louisiana Cookin’.

Satsuma Upside-Down Cake

3¾ cups sugar, divided
4 cups water
24 (¼-inch-thick) slices of satsuma*
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon satsuma zest*
½ cup fresh satsuma juice*

Preheat oven to 350°. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper, and spray with baking spray with flour. Sprinkle ¼ cup sugar in bottom of pan. In a large skillet, stir together 1½ cups sugar and 4 cups water. Add satsuma slices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove satsuma slices with a slotted spoon, and place on a wire rack to let drain, reserving satsuma syrup. Let slices stand for 30 minutes. Place slices in prepared pan, overlapping slightly. In a large bowl, beat butter and remaining 2 cups sugar with a mixer at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, zest, and satsuma juice. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Gently spoon batter over satsuma slices, smoothing top with an offset spatula. Bake for 30 minutes. Cover with foil, and bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes more. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Loosen edges with a knife, and remove pan. Invert cake onto a serving plate, and remove parchment paper. Drizzle with ¼ cup satsuma syrup.

Photo courtesy of LSU AgCenter

Amalgamation Cake: Note from a Culinary Gumshoe

Anyone who entrusts you with a family recipe loves you and will give you other instructions like, “Why don’t you get a job?” Such memories bind us all. Heirloom recipes should be treasured as records of home life that reflect the character of a people and a region. I’m always on the lookout for old recipes from family lines, for any dish not mentioned in that harangue of books and magazines devoted to Southern cuisine. Community cookbooks are a fine source of these recipes, but you can bet your bottom dollar that more than a few contributors are simply not going to share essential details because the church secretary was caught sleeping with her brother-in-law.

Some years ago, I found a recipe that stands out: amalgamation cake. Yes, it’s a cake, but amalgamation is a word you usually stumble on in cookery works by dirt road academics purportedly “devoted to” and “enthralled with” Southern foodways. I first heard this cake mentioned by a friend from Tupelo; queries to others brought about a dozen responses, all of them indicating that the amalgamation cake originated from northeast Mississippi and adjacent Alabama. I felt smug about isolating a true north Mississippi heirloom when someone popped up and pointed out that Ferrol Sams mentions amalgamation cake, “And he’s from Georgia.” Recipes also hail from northwest Tennessee, western South Carolina and a bundt from Florida that seems way off all maps, but they are few. No mention is made of amalgamation cake in “Southern Living”, not in any of Quail Ridge Press’ “Best of the Bests” series, nor in any of my Jackson cookbooks. It is in The Mississippi Cookbook, published by the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service in 1972, confirming that amalgamation cake is a rural tradition.

Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi
Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi

Research on the origins of this recipe became a grail quest for me, but as Janet Clarkson (“The Old Foodie”) claims, it’s impossible to cite the first source for any recipe, since none are completely new. “Meringues were made for centuries before somebody called one a pavlova,” and at best we can only give the first known written or published version. When it comes to the amalgamation cake the earliest recipe I have found is handwritten from Itawamba County in 1939, sent to me by Bob Franks in Fulton. Recipes for amalgamation cake are jealously guarded in families, passed down and shared only with close friends and relatives. True to form, every recipe I received came with stringent instructions to follow; those who shared recipes with me said if I didn’t use fresh coconut that I would die and go to a deeper level of hell.

They all told me to get a job, too.

Amalgamation cake is always made for Christmas, and is similar to Alabama’s Lane cake, made famous by its mention in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Lane cake was created by Emma Lane of Clayton, Alabama who published her recipe in 1898. Most recipes for both cakes result in layers of white sponge cake with a filling of raisins, pecans, and coconut. The main difference between a Lane cake, which has it, and and amalgamation cake, which doesn’t, is liquor. The Lane cake, like its cousin the Lady Baltimore, is always infused with bourbon or some such, while the sober amalgamation abstains from spirits. The sole exception to this rule is a recipe from my home county (“Vote dry and drink wet!”) Calhoun, which calls for a sweet wine wrap overnight.

The following recipe was published in The Tuscaloosa News, Nov. 2011, from Billie Ruth Armstrong Moore, a student in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s “Preserving Your Family History” class. Asked to bring in a family recipe and write about it, she wrote:

Granny’s Amalgamation Cake was a favorite dessert at Thanksgiving and Christmas which our extended Armstrong family always celebrated at the home of my grandmother, Georgia Elizabeth Shumpert Armstrong. Her home was located near the Evergreen Community which is in the southwest corner of Itawamba County, Mississippi.

Billie Ruth includes scaly bark hickory nuts, a distinctively native ingredient. White raisins were mentioned as a refinement, and seven minute frosting is standard.

BATTER
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
1⁄2 cup Crisco
3 eggs (or 9 egg whites)
1 cup milk
2 1⁄2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

FILLING

9 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 3⁄4 cups milk
1⁄4 pound butter
1 15-ounce box raisins
1 1⁄2 cups mixed nuts (1 cup pecans and 1⁄2 cup scaly barks)
1 big coconut, grated

Bake batter in 2 or three layers. For filling, beat egg yolks well, and then add sugar, milk and butter. Mix well and cook on medium heat until thickened slightly. Add raisins and nuts, cook until thick, add coconut last. Beat well, cool, spread between layers, then assemble and frost cake. Let rest several hours–overnight if possible–before serving.

amalgamatyion cake 223

Corn Cookies

What you have here is rather much a sugar cookie made with cornmeal and masa. As with flour cookies, they’re often seasoned with various flavorings, herbs, and spices, these more often with savory herbs such as rosemary and verbena. This recipe makes a somewhat soft cookie that can be firmed up with the addition of a bit more masa. Chopped nuts and white chocolate chips add a festive note.

Whisk together a quarter cup of yellow cornmeal and a quarter cup of masa harina with a cup and a half of AP flour, a half teaspoon of baking powder, a half teaspoon of baking soda, and a teaspoon of salt. Beat together two sticks softened butter, a cup and a half of sugar, a quarter cup of honey, a large egg, and a teaspoon of vanilla with an electric mixer at medium speed until fluffy. Gradually add cornmeal mixture until just combined. Form dough into a ball and refrigerate in plastic wrap for about a half an hour.  Roll out to about a quarter inch, cut into rounds and bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet on the middle rack at 350 until lightly browned on the edges.