Johnsie Vaught’s Brunswick Stew

When you’re the wife of a football coach, you often have to feed a crowd that includes a lot of big guys, and if you’re the wife of Johnny Vaught, you want a Southern recipe that everybody loves. Such is the case with Brunswick stew, a favorite dish for gatherings in the South since Daniel Boone barged through the Cumberland Gap. Johnsie’s recipe lacks the game meats many consider requisite for a Brunswick, and the inclusion of pasta and rice would likely by that same crowd constitute nothing short of heresy. But her nine yards stew is typical of those often sold for a dollar a bowl for fund-raising at small-town events—such as football games—in the rural South of her day to provide new uniforms or equipment either for the school’s sports teams or marching band. By my reckoning, this hefty, carb-heavy recipe could easily feed either 25 people or the Rebel offensive line at one sitting.

1 large hen
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 lb. lean ground pork
½ lb. butter
1 large bottle catsup
2 cans tomatoes
2 cans peas (green)
2 cans corn (cream style)
1 package spaghetti
1 cup rice
½ bottle tabasco
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook hen until tender, remove from broth, skin and bone, chop the meat. Return chicken to broth, add beef and pork. Cook for about 30 mins. Add butter, catsup, tomatoes, and simmer 1 hr. Then add spaghetti and rice. Cook 1 hr. Add peas and corn, being careful it doesn’t stick. (Note: cans are 15 oz., 16 oz. pkg. spaghetti)

Winifred’s Cookbook

The culinary history of Jackson, Mississippi is filled with colorful characters, including one who exemplifies the genteel aspects of the city in the early decades of this past century.

Winifred Green Cheney was born into a very old Jackson family; originally from Maryland, the Greens moved to Jackson in the early 19th century. Winifred was born in the second family home at 647 North State Street in 1913. She graduated magna cum laude from Millsaps with a bachelor of arts in Latin in 1933, and on October 25, 1934, after a 7-year engagement, she married Reynolds Cheney, who became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The couple had three children: Reverend Reynolds S. Cheney II, W. Garner Cheney and Mrs. Patrick (Winifred C.?) Barron.

While Winifred, in almost every respect, was a model for a well-to-do woman of social standing in the mid-century South (active in her church and in social charities, etc.), in another she was not: Winifred was a writer. In the course of her life, she wrote (about cooking, mainly) for such well-known publications as The National Observer, The Rotarian, Southern World and, of course, Southern Living. She published two cookbooks (both by Oxmoor House), Cooking for Company (1985), and the truly wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976).

Winifred’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a treasure-trove of splendid recipes, but as a whole is a tutorial of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied; the ingredients are often expensive, and the times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, one of the most frequent critiques of the book is how complicated, indeed “fussy” the recipes are, many often calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients.

Many of the recipes are heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as many from “my great-grandmother … from Lone Star Plantation in the Mississippi Delta, written in her fine Spencerian hand.” (“But there were no directions,” Winifred adds. “I found this to be true with most of the old ‘receipts’ in her walnut escritoire papeterie.”) She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors: Odel Herbert’s Carrot Casserole, Vivienne Wilson’s Asparagus and Carrot Escallop, Claudia Whitney’s Meat Spaghetti, Zollie Kimbrough’s Shrimp Casserole, Linda Lacefield’s Apricot Stuffing for Duck, Becky Voght’s Caramel Icing; and many, many more.

Winifred’s cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson as well as the Middle South, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”), and a preface by Eudora herself, “A Note on the Cook” in which she writes:

“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707. Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality.In good weather, but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.

When Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, attending Mr. Weston’s ball, is seated at the supper, she surveys the table with a cry, ‘How shall we ever recollect half these dishes?’ When I sit down to Sunday dinner at Winifred’s, I feel just like Miss Bates. What guest could not? But it now becomes possible for us to recollect the dishes we’ve dined on there. The cook herself has recollected the recipes for them in her own cookbook. It’s like another extension of Winifred Cheney’s gracious hospitality; she has added another leaf to her table.”

Curried Hummus with Feta and Spinach

Mix a garlic-y hummus with chopped spinach, feta, and red curry paste. Spread in a well-oiled oven-proof dish, top with more feta and bake in a moderate oven until lightly crusted. Serve with flat bread and a cucumber vinaigrette.

 

A Visit to the Honky-Tonk

“Jack,” I said, “I’ve been reading this article about honky-tonks . . . “
“You shouldn’t read things like that,” he said, turning his head from a football game to growl at me. “It always gets me in trouble.”
Jack is my first cousin, a really great guy and the only friend I have in the family. We’ve seen one another through thick and thin. I helped him back up on his feet out of a really bad marriage, and he rescued me from a crack house in Atlanta. We take care of each other, Jack and I do, but lately he’s been feeling like he’s doing all the work, which isn’t fair of him at all. For one thing, I’m always the designated driver, and if it weren’t for me, his jeans would look like denim accordions.
“What’s that place you always go to? ‘Hippy Dick’s’?
I could hear Jack groan all the way in the kitchen. “No!” he said.
“You said it had a juke box?”
“It doesn’t have any ABBA on it!”
“Pool tables?”
“You can’t play mahjong on a pool table!”
“Pickled eggs, pigs’ feet and jerky?”
“No! Sushi!”
“Jack,” I said, “Be fair.
I heard a long sigh. “What are you wearing?” he asked.
“I thought khakis and a button-up Oxford, hushpuppies . . .”
Jack held his hand up. “If you go in there looking like a reject from Rush Week at Ole Miss, you’re going to end up in the Yalobusha River with a trot line tied around your feet.”
So I left the house wearing jeans, flannel, a pair of Jack’s old boots and a cap that said “Embry’s Bait Shop” with a Marine insignia. At least he let me pick out which of his flannel shirts to wear.
“Lucky for you pink don’t look good on me,” he said. Jack’s got a weird sense of humor.

Hippy Dick’s was on the side of a long winding road that twisted through the backwaters of a nearby reservoir. It had big a gravel parking lot that Jack said the county kept up because Dick was the supervisor’s second cousin. It had a neon sign on top that said DICKS and a bait shop on the side. The bar had a big mirror behind it, and two television screens; a large one near the back wall, which seemed continually tuned to ESPN, the other, smaller one, set up near one end of the bar tuned to “E!” with a bucket of iced beer on a towel in front of it. The jukebox was blaring out Faith Hill. It was crowded, about forty people. You had the sports guys crowded around a big screen television, about a dozen guys playing pool and a little more than that bellied up to the bar.
Jack ordered our drinks: a Miller Lite for him, an O’Doul’s for me. “He’s driving,” Jack explained to the bartender, a drop-dead gorgeous ginger with a gambler’s spade beard.
“Is this your date?” he asked Jack with a wink.
“Rick, this is my cousin Andy,” Jack said. Rick reached a muscular arm over the bar, smiled and shook my hand. I couldn’t help but giggle. Jack punched me in the arm and dragged me over to a table.
“You’re going to get my ass kicked if you don’t straighten up. Why don’t you sit here and try not to fluff your hair while I play a game of pool?”
“Now I’m going to have to go to the men’s room to look at my hair.”
“Make sure that’s all you look at,” he said.

Having checked in the rear view mirror before I got out of the car, I knew my hair looked fine, so I wandered over to the jukebox. Sure enough, there wasn’t any ABBA, but a couple of tunes did stand out: “YMCA”, “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” and two tunes by Madonna. I saw Jack looking at me from the corner of my eye, played it safe and picked out Reba. I was just straightening up when this woman at the bar said,  “Yeah, he gave me a little rock and a little cock!”
Naturally, I froze, but nobody else seemed to notice. I turned to look at her. She was in her mid-30s, brunette, big tits, freckled cleavage. I turned to Jack, who shrugged and sank the three ball in a side pocket.
“Hey, you at the jukebox!” she said. “Come here!”
Jack miscued and stood up, glaring at me. I just shrugged at him, turned to the lady at the bar, smiled and walked up to her.
“Are you Jack’s cousin?”
“Yes, I am,” I said. “His momma is my daddy’s big sister.”
“Well, y’all sure do look alike,” she said. “Just handsome as you can be!” She laid her hand on my arm. “I just want you to know that song you played is my favorite one in the whole, wide world.”
“’Little Rock’”?
“Yes, honey. And do you know why?”
“No, why?”
“Because my husband had a little cock, and he gave me a little rock.”
“That would piss anybody off,” I said.

I heard someone behind me choke on a beer, but I paid no attention, went to the other end of the bar and asked for a refill. Rick obliged with a stunning smile, but before I could thank him, a guy on a stool next to me poked me in the ribs.
I turned and found myself facing a rakish  blond wearing a Saints jersey. “I like them jeans you got on,” he said. “What size you wear?”
“Uh, on a good day, a 32,” I said.
“I used to be fat, too,” he said, and before I could protest, he said, “But I got on that Atkins diet. You know, the one that Ozzie’s wife is always doin’ ads for.”
“I’m not fat!”
“Oh, I didn’t think I was either, but you got this here,” and he patted my stomach and started rubbing on it. “Nice little beer belly …”
He let his hand linger a little too long. “Yeah, well, that’s mostly pizza,” I said, shifting away.
“Hey, I like pizza, too, but I really like them bratwursts,” he said, with what can only be interpreted as a leer.
“ANDEE!” Jack’s voice thundered across the bar. “You’re UP!”
I certainly was. “Be right there!” I said over my shoulder. “I’ve got to go,” I said to the dirt road d’Artagnan.
“Maybe you can come over for a brat sometime,” he said.
“Sure!” I caught Rick smiling at me in the mirror.

Jack soon decided it was time to go. He’d lost forty bucks at pool and Lady Little Rock had her hand glued to his arm. I was ready to go myself. As we were driving off, Jack asked me if I had a good time.
“I sure did,” I said. “Rick gave me his phone number.”

The Great American Writers’ Cookbook

“In recent months I have looked forward to the mail with an anticipation and excitement I’ve not felt since, in the summer of 1946 as a ten-year old, I sent off penny postcards from Oxford, Mississippi, to Hollywood, California, and waited anxiously for autographed, black and white glossies of Alan Ladd and Jeanne Crain, Clark Gable and Betty Grable, Cornell Wilde and Yvonne de Carlo, Flicka, and Lassie to be delivered at my front door. The letters I’ve received in the past six months are even better.”

So writes Dean Faulkner Wells in her forward to The Great American Writer’s Cookbook (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1981. Dean Faulkner Wells and her husband Larry collected over 200 recipes sent by 175 writers of novels, short stories, history, commentary, plays, poetry, reportage, columns, and criticism, all among the finest of their generation. Most are predictably far better at writing than cooking, as hinted at in the introductory quote by John Cheever: “The only time I ever go into a kitchen is when I’m being chased out the back door.” The majority of the recipes are serious; exceptions include John McPhee’s “Count Zeppelin Pancakes,” Larry L. King’s “Party Boy’s Midnight Snack Puree,” David Halberstam’s “Cracked Crab à la McNamara,” and Irwin Shaw’s Italian Delight.”

“Many of the writers who sent recipes questioned the title,” Dean wrote, “advising me to change it to The American Writers’ Great Cookbook, or The Minor Regional American Writers’ Cookbook, or even concluding, ‘I heard that there once was a Great American Writer, but he died.’ She adds that the book is “in a small way a tribute to the men and women who have given me, in their distinguished work over the years, so many hours of pleasure and edification.”

In his introduction, Craig Claiborne writes that when attending a party of glittering literati in the Hamptons, he was astounded to find William Styron staring at him and pouting.

“You,” he said accusingly, “are the one critic who hurt me most.” I frowned. Me? A literary critic. He must be thinking of another man with my name. “You,” he continued, “criticized my recipe for fried chicken.” I laughed when he recounted the basis for my alleged attack.

 It seems that some years ago there was published a book called The Artists and Writers Cook Book, and in it was his recipe for southern fried chicken. I should have learned long ago that there is nothing that can come nearer to creating lifelong enmity, if not to say bloodshed and worse violence, than one Southerner criticizing another Southerner’s fried chicken. Bill, of course, is from Virginia and I from Mississippi. It seems that the crux for my attack was that he had recommended cooking that chicken in bacon fat in lieu of lard blended with butter which my mother used and a technique which I in my turn borrowed. He also said, as I recall, that frozen chicken might be used. And that, I found unpardonable. In any event, before the evening which included a pitcher of martinis, we had a fine old time swapping recipes for grits and corn pones and hushpuppies.

 This is not the first and perhaps not the last time that I have mentioned my favorite tribute to a well-known writer whose name was associated with the preparation of a cookbook. In the early 1970’s a cookbook was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson, Mississippi, the sale of which would benefit the Jackson Symphony. Eudora Welty was prevailed upon to write a charming dissertation on Southern Cooking and in reciprocation, the league was called upon to dedicate the first recipe to the author. It was called “Squash Eudora.”

[Note: “Squash Eudora” was originally published in Winifred Green Cheeny’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976), which also includes an introduction by Welty. It does not appear in the Symphony League’s 1971 cookbook.]

The Oyster and I

Unlike some, I don’t remember my first oyster as epiphanic. That’s no reflection on the oyster, which I’m certain was good, plump and fresh from the Gulf, arguably among the best in the world, but I ate it on my first trip to Jackson, which was a dizzying affair for a 7-year-old boy from a sawmill village in north Mississippi.

After the thrill of seeing the frothy Rez from the Trace, riding in a highway patrol cruiser (my last time in the front seat of one) and ogling at the Capitol dome, eating oysters at the Mayflower seemed pedestrian. The bouffants of the waitresses made far more of an impression than the shellfish, and when ours yelled at some idiot from Atlanta who ordered a poached egg, I tried to die three times. Out of sheer terror, I left her all the money I had–two quarters–because she glared at me when I asked for an extra straw.

Oysters enjoy a sex life that makes human sexuality totally lame, switching sexes according to a variety of environmental factors. If you’re a young oyster (a spat), one season ‘s Uncle Louie might be the next’s Aunt Louise. Not only that, but oysters reproduce by spewing their sperm and eggs into the water around them in an impregnating haze, the human equivalent of desperate yet sincere sex with someone on the other side of the Jacuzzi.

Any encouraging words of prolific reproduction and growth among oysters strike a chord of extreme indifference among those people who rate the oyster as a food on par with nasal mucus, but those of us who hold the mollusk in the highest esteem find it heartening. Oysters were once so plentiful in American coastal waters that no meal that aspired to distinction was complete without them, but since the first decades of the last century the mollusk has been in catastrophic decline and the prices have escalated accordingly. Oysters at the Mayflower in 1967 cost a dime apiece, a dollar a dozen.

Eating a raw oyster is like stealing a kiss from the ocean: a wet, slightly salty, totally sensuous experience unbridled by any sort of fussy preparation. I’m firmly convinced that anyone who doesn’t enjoy oysters is a bad kisser, and I have centuries of documentation to back me up in this opinion. Oysters have enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac for millennia. Now that I am well past the salad stage of life and forging steadily past dessert, I firmly intend to keep oysters a mainstay between courses. If God is willing, I shall have them with my cordial.

I still like oysters with a dab of tart, horseradish-y cocktail sauce, but I also enjoy a lighter sauce that’s a bit more in tune with the sublime texture of the animal as it comes–quivering in its nakedness–to my lips.

Mignonette Sauce

Combine 2/3 cup wine vinegar, a small, finely-minced shallot, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and a tablespoon each freshly-ground black pepper and minced parsley.  Bottle, refrigerate, and shake well before dribbling over freshly-shucked oysters.

Oven-Fried Oysters

Oven-fried anything will always be far inferior to something flat-out fried, but these are awfully good on the fly when you don’t want to deal with a lot of hot oil. Mix a cup of corn meal with a half cup of flour along with about a tablespoon of salt, black, and red pepper. Dip drained oysters in a wash made with one large egg whipped with a cup of water—you want it a little frothy. Dredge in meal/flour mixture, and bake in a very hot oven (400, at least) in a very well-oiled pan on an upper rack Flip five minutes after they begin sizzling. These are actually pretty good cold.

Queen Cakes

As denizens of the Lower South, we’re all familiar with king cakes (gâteau des Rois). These big, sweet rings of braided yeast dough appear in bakeries soon after Epiphany (Kings’ Day; in reference to the “Three Kings of Orient”) and proliferate up until Ash Wednesday.

Less familiar to us are queen cakes, which are English in origin and not specific to any season. Queen cakes are basically small pound cakes; the only essential ingredient aside from the requisite eggs, flour, butter and sugar is currents. Currants (black and red; white currants are a relatively new cultivar) have been used in European cooking for centuries, and were popular in this country up until the early 20th century when currants, as vectors for white blister pine rust (WBPR), were banned under federal law in 1911 (a ban later relegated to state jurisdiction) as a threat to the logging industry (the same industry largely responsible for the illegalization of hemp because Cannabis sativa is a cheap, renewable source for the production of paper). In 1999 horticultural activist Greg Quinn of Staatsburg, New York, was instrumental in proving that currants, though a proven vector, were not the actual agent in the spread of the pine rust (turns out imported white pine seedlings were the culprits), and in 2003, the State of New York legalized growing currants. (A decade later, the state legalized growing marijuana.)

Because the currant production and shipment is still prohibited in many other states as well as in some specific local jurisdictions, and despite the development of WBPR-resistant varieties, you’re likely not going to find real currants (dried or otherwise) in stores; what you most often will find are Zante currants, dried berries of the small, sweet, seedless grape ‘Black Corinth’ (Vitis vinifera), named after the island of Zakynthos (Zante) which was once a major producer and exporter. In other words, Zante currants are raisins, but given they’re the best alternative you can usually get, use them without guilt, or for that matter any raisin you like.

Make queen cakes with your favorite pound cake recipe. Add currants (such as they are) liberally, but toss them with a bit of corn starch first, since they tend to clump. You can flavor the batter if you like; vanilla or almond flavoring, for instance, but I wouldn’t range as far afield as citrus or cocoa, as some of less restraint do.

Sarepta

Sarepta was originally called Zarephath, meaning “a workshop for the refining and smelting of metals.” It was a small Phoenician town, near present-day Surafend (or Sarafend), about a mile from the Mediterranean coast, almost midway on the road between Tyre and Sidon. It is mentioned for the first time in the voyage of an Egyptian in the fourteenth century B.C. Sennacherib captured it in 701 B.C. (Schrader, “Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament”, 1883, pp. 200 and 288). Sarepta, despite its inconsiderance, has the high distinction of being named in both the Old Testament and the New. We learn from I Kings, 7:8-24, that it was subject to Sidon in the time of Achab and that the Prophet Elias, after having multiplied the meal and oil of a poor woman, raised her son from the dead. The charity of this widow was recalled by Christ (Luke 4:26). It was probably near this place that Christ cured the daughter of the Chanaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman whose faith He praised (Mark 7:24-30).

Sarepta is mentioned also by Josephus (“Ant. jud.”, VIII, xiii, 2); Pliny (Hist. natur., V, 17); the “Itinerarium Burdigalense; the “Onomasticon” of Eusebius and St. Jerome; by Theodosius and Pseudo-Antoninus who, in the sixth century calls it a small town, but very Christian (Geyer, “Intinera hierosolymitana”, Vienna, 1898, 18, 147, 150). It contained at that time a church dedicated to St. Elias. The “Notitia episcopatuum” of Antioch in the sixth century speaks of Sarepta as a suffragan see of Tyre (Echos d’Orient, X, 145); none of its bishops are known. Some Latin bishops, but merely titulars, are mentioned after 1346 (Eubel, “Hierarchia catholica medii aevi”, I, 457; II, 253; III, 310; “Revue benedictine”, XXI, 281, 345-53, 353-65; XXIV, 72). In 1185, the “Green Monk” Phocas (De locis sanctis, 7) found the town almost in its ancient condition; a century later, according to Burchard, it was in ruins and contained only seven or eight houses (Descriptio Terrae sanctae, II, 9). Sarepta was erected into a bishopric by the Crusaders, who raised a chapel over the reputed spot where Elijah restored the widow’s child. In the twelfth century it seems to have been a fortified city with a port and some stately buildings. Today, Sarepta is known as Khirbet Sarfend, between Tyre and Sidon, on the seashore; the ruins show that the town extended 1800 metres north and south, but that it was not very wide.

Giordano, Luca; Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath; Glasgow Museums

Come Home, Little Bob

You asked me about the statue in the cemetery, the one of the dog. The statue is on the Guinn family plot. The Guinns are gone now, but they were well-known. Robert Guinn was an attorney who handled mostly small claims, but made a good enough living to buy a house on President Street. He had a lovely wife named Rose and a little girl, Doris.

All little girls should be pretty, but Doris wasn’t; her face fused improperly in the womb. There’s a name for the condition that I can’t remember, but it’s a cruel assessment of the divine to say that was God’s will, if you ask me. She was never photographed, but there was a portrait painted, and the artist aligned her features. I saw it long ago; she had dark hair and a shy smile.

Doris in all other respects was a normal little girl; she had dolls and dresses and went to school with all the other little girls on the street. She also had a small dog, a spaniel of some kind that she adored. Her father had given her the puppy when she was five years old, so she named it after him. She called it Little Bob. The dog would follow her to school, wait afternoons on the corner for her to come home, and was with her when she died at twelve.

After that, Little Bob would go to the corner every afternoon and wait; at dark he’d go home until one day he couldn’t, and Bob Guinn went and got him. Oh, there was a big stink about putting the statue of a dog in a Christian cemetery, much less physical remains, but Robert Guinn took it to court and won the right, his finest hour before the bench.

So that’s Little Bob, resting at the feet of his mistress. He was a good dog.