Wilted Greens

Contrary to popular belief, Southerners don’t always “cook vegetables to death”. Here in the South, we have always enjoyed a wide variety of vegetables either raw or lightly cooked as in this recipe, which has been prepared in Dixie kitchens long before the word “Dixie” came into use, and is a signature dish not only of our region, but in variations across the globe.

Use the freshest mustards, turnips, kale/collards, or spinach. Wash thoroughly, shake well, strip stems, shred, and drain. For a half-gallon of greens, fry six to eight slices of bacon until very crisp. Remove bacon, add another quarter cup of corn oil, reheat the oil, add about a half cup of vinegar, and a tablespoon or so of a thin red pepper sauce. I like Crystal. Add a teaspoon of sugar, and let this cook down by about a third. Place drained greens in a large bowl or pan, pour the hot oil/vinegar mixture over the greens, and toss vigorously with plenty of salt and black pepper. Top with thinly sliced white onions, crumbled bacon, and chopped boiled egg. Sprinkle with more black pepper; serve with a bowl of pintos.

White Fruitcake

Among Mississippi cookbooks, The Jackson Cookbook, first issued by the Symphony League of Jackson in 1971 and followed by a well-deserved 30th anniversary issue, has the singular distinction of being a literary treasure. Eudora Welty’s introduction, “The Flavor of Jackson”, is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but she was, as most local editors seem to be, unfamiliar with Jackson as well as Welty. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a splendid board.

One holiday item she writes about in the introduction is a white fruitcake. “I make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more,” Welty wrote. The recipe in The Jackson Cookbook was submitted by Mrs. Mosal’s daughter, Mrs. D.I. Meredith. In 1980, a limited edition Christmas card was send out from Albondocani Press, Ampersand Books and Welty. For this piece of ephemera, Eudora greatly expanded on the original recipe.

White Fruitcake

1 1/2 cups butter
2 cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
4 cups flour, sifted before measuring
flour for fruit and nuts
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1 pound pecan meats (halves, preferably)
1 pound crystallized cherries, half green, half red
1 pound crystallized pineapple, clear
some citron or lemon peel if desired
1 cup bourbon
1 tsp. vanilla
nutmeg if desired

Make the cake several weeks ahead of Christmas if you can. The recipe makes three-medium-sized cakes or one large and one small. Prepare the pans — the sort with a chimney or tube — by greasing them well with Crisco and then lining them carefully with three layers of waxed paper, all greased as well.

Prepare the fruit and nuts ahead. Cut the pineapple in thin slivers and the cherries in half. Break up the pecan meats, reserving a handful or so shapely halves to decorate the tops of the cakes. Put in separate bowls, dusting the fruit and nuts lightly in a sifting of flour, to keep them from clustering together in the batter.

In a very large wide mixing bowl (a salad bowl or even a dishpan will serve) cream the butter very light, then beat in the sugar until all is smooth and creamy. Sift in the flour, with the baking powder and salt added, a little at a time, alternating with the unbeaten egg yolks added one at a time. When all this is creamy, add the floured fruits and nuts, gradually, scattering the lightly into the batter, stirring all the while, and add the bourbon in alteration little by little. Lastly, whip the egg whites into peaks and fold in.

Start the oven now, about 250. Pour the batter into the cake-pans, remembering that they will rise. Decorate the tops with nuts. Bake for three hours or more, until they spring back to the touch and a straw inserted at the center comes out clean and dry. (If the top browns too soon, lay a sheet of foil lightly over.) When done, the cake should be a warm golden color.

When they’ve cooled enough to handle, run a spatula around the sides of each cake, cover the pan with a big plate, turn the pan over and slip the cake out. Cover the cake with another plate and turn rightside up. When cool, the cake can be wrapped in cloth or foil and stored in a tightly fitted tin box. From time to time before Christmas you may improve it with a little more bourbon, dribbled over the top to be absorbed and so ripen the cake before cutting. This cake will keep for a good while, in or out of the refrigerator.

A Certain Justice: Faulkner, Mitford and McGee

Best known for her work The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford was a British aristocrat, writer and political activist who came to Mississippi in 1951 to publicize the unjust execution of Willie McGee, a black man from Laurel who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. McGee’s legal case became a cause célèbre. William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Mitford sought him out in her effort to rally support against a travesty of justice that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later. This excerpt is from Mitford’s memoir A Fine Old Conflict.

‘We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi’s most (indeed its only) illustrious resident, William Faulkner. The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house. “Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,” was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its antebellum pillars covered with grayish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary. We gingerly approached and rang the front doorbell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence.

The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories. Later it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office. He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don’t pay much attention to law and justice, don’t go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee’s safety in jail. When we left he wished us good luck. William Patterson was jubilant when I telephoned to tell him of our interview with Faulkner. It was a major break- through, he said. The release would certainly be picked up by the wire services and flashed around the world! But he insisted we show it to Faulkner and ask him to initial it, for fear that pressure from his Mississippi compatriots might later induce him to repudiate it. This time I drove alone past the weepin’ willa tree to find Faulkner in dungarees and hip boots, up to his knees in dank manure, working alongside one of his black farmhands. I showed him the release and explained why I had come: “Mr. Patterson thought I should ask you to sign this, for fear you might later repudiate it.” He read it through, initialed it, and as he handed it back murmured softly, as though speaking to himself, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.” “Oh don’t let’s put that in,” said I, and clutching the precious document made a dash for my car. One can only conclude that Faulkner gave expression, in his own distinctive voice, to the deep-seated schizophrenia then endemic among white liberals and racial moderates of the region.’

Mississippi Hill Country Stew

Brown breaded stew meat with chopped onions and a clove or so of minced garlic. Dust with a bit more flour, stir well, add coarsely diced potatoes, carrots, celery–green limas are nice–and water to cover once over. Cook on low heat until liquid is reduced by half, at least an hour. Season with black pepper, bay, and thyme. Continue cooking to consistency. Serve with rice and/ or cornbread.