A Love for the Printed Page

In January, 2010, a book written and illustrated by a man who lived and worked in Mississippi sold for a record-setting $11.4 million in a Sotheby auction; another copy of the same work sold for $9.7 million this year. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, says he wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t still a folio of Birds of America in Natchez, where Audubon lived in 1832.

“He would have known people down there,” Fred says, “And Natchez had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country before the war, so they certainly could have afforded to subscribe to the book.” Smith knows, since he has spent over a quarter of a century dealing with collectors, estates and institutions as a buyer, seller and appraiser of books, manuscripts and documents of every description, but primarily works about or related to Mississippi, the South and the Civil War; in short, every aspect of our multi-faceted regional history. As a result, he has become a one-man institution in and of himself, the go-to man for anyone in (or out) of the state wanting a set, subset or full collection of volumes of pages you’re unlikely to find at Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble.

John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, has known Smith for over thirty years; he calls Fred a compadre, and after reflecting back to the times when they’d alert one another to a shifty customer, says, “A great used book seller is there to provide information you can’t find anywhere else. Oh, you can google a book on some obscure moonshiner in the Delta, but Fred’s going to tell you if you really need that book at all, and if you’re lucky, he’ll know of a book you ought to have instead of that one. Fred’s father Frank knew the past seventy-five years of the culture of Mississippi, and he handed that down to his son Fred.”

Frank E. Smith was a managing editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, served as an aide to Senator John Stennis, as a member of the Mississippi state senate, in the U.S. Congress, and as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He and Fred began thinking about opening a business in the 1970s. “We figured the state needed a used bookstore. Our literary culture was so important that someone needed to make them available for people here to own and to treasure,” Smith says. “The goal was that we’d pull together an inventory and open up a store in 1983. Then my aunt, who had an antique store in Vicksburg where we’d place books to see how they’d sell, had an accident and had to close her store. All of a sudden, we had a lot of nice furniture. When we opened up, we were half antiques and half books.”

“That first year, Eudora Welty bought a piece of furniture for $700,” Fred remembers. “Now, selling a few books here and there is one thing, but that was by far my biggest sale. I wanted to keep the check, but the furniture was not mine, so I had to go ahead and cash it. Years later, I did two appraisals for Miss Welty, one on the letter that Faulkner had written to her and another on some other correspondence. I called up her lawyer, Carl Black, and asked him if it would be alright to keep one of the checks (for $250) and he said that she’d never know. I kept the check.”

“I don’t always make people happy,” Fred says, though it’s hard to imagine, since Fred has a jovial, Dickensian presence, the proprietor of a modern-day curiosity shop, an unpretentious clapboard building at 926 North Street in Jackson’s Belhaven Heights neighborhood that’s chock-a-block with books, maps and manuscripts. But Fred, because of his unique knowledge and sincere appreciation of Mississippi’s history, literature and bibliographic legacy, is also the premier appraiser of the state’s books, manuscripts, maps and other assorted documents, making him a unique denizen of Mississippi’s bibliophilic Parnassus.

“My job as an independent appraiser is to put a value that I consider to be valid on materials I’m asked to consider. Most of what I do is for tax purposes because people are donating materials for tax breaks. But a lot of folks think their stuff is worth a lot of money just because it’s theirs, and that’s not necessarily the case. I have done many appraisals over the years, and have not been called into question on any of them; people know to call me.”

Hugh McCormick, who started McCormick’s Book Inn in Greenville in 1965 and closed the business last year, says, “I admire Fred a lot. As far as I know, he’s the only person who occupies the sort of role he does in the Tri-state area. People who come to Fred are looking for something very specific and generally very hard to find, and he knows what they’re talking about.”

Cham Trotter says that when he first began collecting Old Miss yearbooks, Fred was the first person he thought of going to for help. “I’m a Civil War buff, so I had been in Fred’s store before. Ole Miss started publishing yearbooks in 1897; what I had in mind to do was to have a yearbook from each decade. I had several yearbooks from when I was in school from the Sixties and Seventies, from my parents who went to school there in the Forties, from my grandfather, who was business manager at Ole Miss in the Thirties and a few from when he had been a student there around 1909.”

“But I walked in Choctaw Books one day and Fred had boxes and boxes of Ole Miss annuals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, even up into the Seventies and Eighties. The family of Dean Frank Moak had given these yearbooks to Fred on consignment. So I decided to try and get one from every year. I got even more from Fred over the years, and now I have a full set.”

John Evans, who has every reason to know, says that the preponderance of the internet spells the end of the used book business as we know it. “The used book seller could come back, but I think we’re going to go through a void before that happens. When Fred’s business goes away, you’re not going to have someone to rush in and start another store like Choctaw Books the next day.”

Bon Ton Bread Pudding

Le bon ton” references that flaky crust of society assumed to have cutting-edge style and better manners than those of us wallowing among The Great Unwashed. As such, the phrase “bon ton” has been used by a variety of businesses–particularly restaurants, of course–hoping to attract such a clientele, in particular restaurants. One such establishment, the Bon Ton Café at 211 West Capitol Street in Jackson, opened in the early 1900s. The Bon Ton was one of the city’s finest dining establishments, and had the first electric sign on Capitol Street to better attract diners from Union Station.

Another more famous Bon Ton was established in New Orleans in the Natchez Building at 401 Magazine Street. Originally opened in the early 1900s as well, the business was revived in the early 1950s by Al and Alzina Pierce, who came to the Crescent City from south Louisiana, bringing with them their recipes from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, becoming the first dining establishment in the city to stake a claim for Cajun cuisine in a city already famous for its Creole culinary tradition.

The Bon Ton’s best-known dish is its bread pudding, which is ethereal. When I worked in the Florida panhandle, we made a similar pudding with stale croissants, but the texture was dense owing to the abundance of air pockets in the bread, which simply could not absorb the custard adequately; a good French loaf is required. Here is Alzina Pierce’s original recipe, which comes via Jackson native Winnifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (Oxmoor, 1976).

Soak one loaf of French bread in a quart of whole milk and crush with hands until well mixed. Add 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons vanilla extract, 1 cup seedless raisins (optional), and place in a buttered “thick, oblong baking pan”. Bake until very firm, then cool. Make a whiskey sauce; cream a half cup of butter with a cup of sugar, and cook in a double boiler until thoroughly dissolved. Add a well-beaten egg, whipping rapidly to prevent curdling. Let cool and add whiskey of your choice to taste. Pour over pudding, heat under broiler and serve.

Egg Noodles

Long before Americans began buying semolina and pasta machines, we made egg noodles for soups, stews, and sides. You need to know how to make them. It’s important to dry the rolled-out dough before cutting and again before cooking.

Stir a scant teaspoon of salt into two and a half cups of plain flour. Add two beaten eggs, and enough milk—a half cup or so—to make a stiff dough. Knead until smooth; some people work in a pat or two of butter. Let the dough rest for a while in a covered bowl, then roll out on the thin side, and let it dry until the surface is crusty. I usually cut mine into strips about a half an inch wide, but you can make them as thick or thin as you like, or cut it into different shapes; rounds are fun. Let rest and dry until stiff (not brittle). Use plenty of salt in the cooking water. These cook quickly.

Mississippi Roast

We need no further proof that to the food columnists of The New York Times Mississippi is an ignorant backwater  than the January 26, 2016 article about the “improbable rise” of a slow cooker recipe dubbed “Mississippi Roast.” Credited to Robin Chapman from Ripley, Mississippi, this ranch-riddled beef became a web phenomenon, “a favorite of the mom-blog set”.

Chapman–who was interviewed by Times writer Sam Sifton for the article,–simply called it “roast” (and still does). The recipe involves beef chuck topped with a packet of dry ranch dressing mix, a packet of dry “au jus” gravy, a stick of butter, and a few pepperoncini. Chapman claims it’s riff off a recipe she received from an aunt who used packaged Italian dressing. But Robin wanted something “milder” (the word is in quotes in the Times article), so she used ranch instead. “Over time,” Sifton writes, “the recipe has slowly taken on a life of its own.” This is of course disturbing news to “food writers and scholars”, but not to those of us who actually cook.

To his credit, Sifton has done a considerable amount of footwork delineating the “rise” of this recipe, moving from Chapman’s kitchen to a cookbook put out by the Beech Hill Church of Christ in Ripley, then over to nearby Hickory Flat, where it was sampled by visiting food blogger Laurie Ormond, of Bentonville, Arkansas. Ormond  published the recipe, which was picked up by Candis Berge on her blog in 2011. Berge claimed it passed what she called “the hubby test;” the Times italicizes this phrase to emphasize its importance as a key factor in the recipe’s “mom-blog set” popularity. Soon afterwards, “Mississippi Roast” became popular on such platforms as Twitter, Reddit, and Pinterest.

Sifton actually goes to the trouble to make “Mississippi Roast”, though predictably he is not faithful to the original recipe. He uses less butter (not saying how much less), reasoning that “there is plenty of fat in chuck roast”, uses five times as many pepperoncini, sears the roast before placing it in the cooker, “browning it aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper” (do I hear a faint echo of Craig Claiborne in that sentence?) and coating it with flour to create a “base of flavor” to replace the gravy mix. He even makes ranch dressing seasoning and “dumped that” into the pot.

“Eight hours later,” Sifton writes, “My family dived into their meal with glee. It was exactly the same as the original effort (my italics), and took about the same amount of time to make.”

Sifton’s slick little article ends with wine pairings compiled by one Eric Asimov (nephew of Isaac), who states, “This soft, beefy roast calls for a robust, structured red that will both complement the flavor of the meat and accommodate the bite of the peppers,” and recommends among others “a Brunello di Montalcino or its more modest sibling, Rosso di Montalcino” from Italy, “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant or its grander neighbor, Priorat” from Spain, a “southern Rhône, like a Gigondas or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape” or “if you are a fan of Argentine malbec, try one”. Anyone who can write such frivolous drivel about what wine to serve with a “Mississippi Roast” must have a background in science fiction. We can safely assume that (most) everyone at the Beech Hill Church of Christ will assiduously ignore Asimov’s alcoholic promptings.

The compelling theme behind this prolonged sneer against Mississippi–indeed against the “mom-blog set” across the nation–is a sort of exasperated incredulity that such an atrocious recipe could actually find any sort of popular appeal.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Historic Dishes of Oxford, Mississippi Restaurants

 Oxford is distinguished among Mississippi cities as a center of government and education. Long before Oxford became a locus of Southern foodie hype, the busy little city fostered a vibrant variety of restaurants. This list was hammered out by a squadron of Oxford residents both current and former. The dishes, the places, the times themselves are loved by thousands of people from Oxford, Lafayette County, and Mississippi, as well as millions of Ole Miss alumni and drop-outs from around the globe.

The Beacon: Big Bubba burger, “meat and three”
Busy Bee Cafe: oven-fried pork chop
Café Olé: cheese dip, chimichanga
Dino’s: salad dressing, pizza
Downtown Grill: Eli’s praline pecan ice cream pie
The Gin: fried mushrooms, Bernice burger
The Harvest: black bean chili, vegetable lasagna
The Hoka: hot fudge pie and cheesecake, Love at First Bite
Holiday Inn: grasshopper pie, hot fudge pie
Hurricane Landing: fried catfish, hushpuppies and fries
Jitney Jungle/James’ Food: chicken salad
Kream Kup: grilled chili cheeseburger
Marie’s Lebanese: Marie Husni’s Lebanese casserole, baklava
Mistilis: hamburger steak smothered in cheese and onions
Ruby Chinese: hot and sour soup, twice cooked pork
Sizzler Steak House: steaks
Smitty’s: tuna melt, breakfasts
Starnes Catfish: fried catfish, hushpuppies and fries
Ruth & Jimmies: Southern “meat and three”
Pizza Den: muffuletta, sub sandwich, stromboli
Warehouse: snapper en Mornay, salad bar
Winter’s Store: hamburgers
Yerk’s: Philly cheese steak

Painting by Glennray Tudor

Crawfish Fritters with Red Remoulade Galatoire

Crawfish boulettes are often swapped for stuffed heads in bisque. These fritters are light and crisp,  a nice nosh any time of the year. Note the inclusion of corn starch in the batter, which gives the finished fritters more crunch. Some people add a teaspoon of vodka for even more crispness, but, dear hearts, this is a waste of vodka. The remoulade comes via Howard Mitcham, who claims he received it from Justin Galatoire, the nephew of Jean Galatoire, in the 1950s. We have no reason whatsoever to doubt he did just that.

For the batter:
1 cup self-rising flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1 tablespoon melted butter or oil
1 egg beaten with 1/2 cup water
Salt and pepper
Minced scallions and red bell pepper (optional)

Mix dry ingredients, including scallions and pepper, add the egg/water mixture and mix with a fork until blended but not smooth. You want it a little lumpy. Add six ounces of cooked crawfish tails and drop by spoonfuls into hot oil. Move to a metal pan with paper towels and place in a warm oven for up to an hour until serving.

Red Remoulade:
1/2 cup Creole mustard
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons finely minced scallion or parsley
Hot sauce to taste (optional)
Horseradish (optional)
Black pepper and salt to taste

Mix well and refrigerate before serving.

Elitist Eggs

One of the most enduring social mechanisms is that by which elitism becomes far more ostensibly manifest in people who come from the most humble backgrounds. Take for example any given one of those Upper East Side hipsters who infest the trendier corners of New York City and act as if they’re the apex of the social universe when in fact most if not all of them grew up in a fly-over state and moved to the city after securing a degree at Podunk U. in hopes of sharing a line of coke with Ivanka Trump.

A less current but perhaps more familiar example would be Craig Claiborne, who grew up in a boarding house in Indianola, Mississippi, and eventually became the arbiter of culinary taste for the nation. Claiborne is the archetype of effete snobbery. Claiborne’s excesses in his disregard for the “little people” were such that he was chastised by Pope Paul VI for a $4000 dinner for two in Paris he enjoyed with his partner Pierre Franey in 1975; the Vatican newspaper deplored the display while millions were starving. The French press noted that the price of the meal represented a year’s wages for most workers, and American columnist Harriet Van Horne wrote, “This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong morally, aesthetically and in every other way”.

Claiborne was nonplussed, of course, which is the typical reaction of snobs to their extravagant self-indulgences.;“Let them eat cake,” indeed.

Given this display of culinary snootery, it’s somewhat of a surprise that we find on page 312 of Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook–after a whole slew of soufflés and between two egg curries–a recipe for pickled eggs, which are to most people the least sophisticated dish in the world. Good heavens! Is this a chink in Claiborne’s otherwise immaculate armor? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not; one recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Maybe pickled eggs acquired the blue-collar brush after they became a snack staple in Southern pool halls and honky-tonks; then again, like a lot of snobs, maybe that’s where they got their start.

For every half dozen boiled eggs, bring to a boil 1 cup white vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 1 tablespoon mixed pickling spices, 2 slices ginger root, a crushed clove of garlic, and a teaspoon salt. Cover eggs with spiced vinegar. Set aside for at least a day.

 

Albondigas in Salsa Verde

You’ll most often find albondingas as tapas, but I like to make them much larger for an entree. It’s certain that a Spanish name exists for this recipe, but I’ll just have to wait until someone admonishes me to learn it; that’s usually the way things work in my world.

Mix pork and beef 1:1; ground pork can be hard to find, so I usually substitute a mild pork sausage. If you’re using plain pork, add salt, pepper, smoky paprika, and a hefty dose of granulated garlic. Moisten a cup of breadcrumbs with milk, and mix in a beaten egg; add this slurry to the meat mixture, and work with your fingers until thoroughly blended. Form into snooker balls, and poach in lightly salted water until firm. Place in a hot oven to brown. Remove, coat lightly with salsa, top with queso, and return to oven until cheese is lightly browned. Serve hot with more salsa and fresh corn tortillas.

Red Snapper en Mornay

Snapper en Mornay was one of the most popular dishes at the Warehouse in Oxford because it was distinguished by a great in-house sauce. Jean Tatum Thomas once told me that she’s eat a Turkish towel with our  Mornay on it, and don’t put it past me to try her. Our beautiful filets came from Tarpon Springs, Florida

Make a thick Béchamel; add grated Swiss or Provolone cheese, chopped green onions, picked lump crab meat, and a splash of sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”). Season with Lowrey’s, mix well and chill. You’ll need about a cup of sauce for eight ounces of fish; if not snapper, use flounder, or another lean white fish. Skin filets if needed, score lightly on both sides, and place on a shallow lightly buttered oven dish. Spoon the cooled sauce over the fillets and bake at a very high heat until sauce is bubbling. Serve with a dusting of paprika, a sprinkling of sliced almonds, a lemon garnish, fresh bread, and a wine of your choosing.

Dumpling Drama

Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply “said” anything) that Rose Budd Stevens is a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my pea-pickin’ heart.

If you are interested in the way most Mississippians cooked and prepared foodstuffs in the first half of the 20th century, then you should get From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (University Press of Mississippi: 1988). For those Mississippi foodies who love the literature of the table, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful work written by a remarkable woman. Mrs. Willoughby and I grew up in the same environment, rural Mississippi, but at different times. Reading her reminds me of the phrases and cadences I heard from my grandmothers and great aunts, so much so that I hear in her their voices fused altogether. Mamie, much like those women, is not averse to a lecture either, as she makes obvious in this passage:

Let’s get this chicken stew, dumplings and chicken pie business straight right now. Chicken Stew: Roll thick dough, cut into strips, drop into boiling chicken broth, and cook uncovered. Chicken Dumplings: Drop spoonfuls of dough on top of boiling chicken and broth, cook with tight-fitting lid on, and don’t peek. Chicken Pie: Put layer of chicken and broth in large pan. Dot with butter and black pepper, then layer of rich dough. Bake until light brown; add another layer of chicken, broth, and dough, bake. Do this until pan is nearly full. Some hold with a cup of sweet milk added, then back 30 minutes. I like hard-boiled eggs and sweet cream in my pie. Last would be cups of cooked-down broth, tasty with floating eyes of chicken fat, all melded together, food fit for the gods, company or family. Remember this was before it was known you could eat yourself to death!

Here Mamie and I part ways. Her recipe for stew resembles my family’s recipe for chicken and dumplings. What we’d call “drop dumplings”, are what we make with sugar for cobblers. Here’s my recipe.

Poach a roasting hen with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper, a fresh bay leaf if you have one in water to cover by about an inch. Skin and debone chicken. Set meat aside, return bones to the pot, and reduce by about a third. Strain liquid and return to pot with about a tablespoon of bouillon paste. You want a gallon of good, rich broth. Make a stiff dough with 2 cups self-rising flour, butter, and sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into boiling broth. Jiggle them around a bit to break them up and keep from sticking. As the broth begins to thicken, add the chicken, cover, and let boil for maybe another minute. Then reduce heat and let the pot sit for about another five minutes. You’ll have to adjust the salt, since dumplings, like any boiled starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.) will absorb salt in cooking. I like my chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.