Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy lives in Pocahontas, Mississippi. Buddy is the hardest-working person I know; he does drywall, roofs, painting, whatever work he can find to keep his home safe and his family fed. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and, like the rest of you–without justification, I hasten to add–thinks I’m a lazy bum.

Buddy’s always bringing me stuff from his garden; tomatoes, okra, and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax during the holidays. Some years ago in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic. The bulbs cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic. I’ve since learned, but is actually a wild leek, Allium ampeloprassum. You’ll find this herb growing around old home places all over the South. You can use the bulbs before they divide out for a very strong garlic-y onion flavor, but for the bulbs to clove, you must cut the blossom in summer before it sets seed. Once the foliage has yellowed and the stem stiffened—this is a hardneck garlic—you can dig the buds. They will divide as they dry. Toes/cloves or small buds must be planted after first frost.

This old allium is a wonderful pass-along, and if you give it good loamy soil and full sun, it will thrive. Buddy tells me it spreads all over the place, and he has to thin his out twice a year. He also swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. They’re both pushing 80 now and show no signs of letting up. Me, I’ve got the prettiest little patch of Pocahontas garlic you’d ever hope to see coming up out back.

Rock Cornish Road Kill

Spatchcocking is similar to butterflying, but refers only to whole fowl, whereas butterflying typically applies to any boneless cuts. Spatchcocked birds cook up well with crisp skin and juicy meat, but there’s always some smart ass who’s going to tell you it looks like that chicken didn’t make it across the road from either side.

Rinse hen, pat dry, remove wing tips and backbone with shears or a knife then turn the hen breast side up, open it up like a book and then whack it a time or two with the heel of your hand (you can use your fist if you like) to crack the breastbone and flatten it out. Tuck the wings under the thighs. Oil the hen, season with salt and pepper. Place rosemary, garlic and whatever other herbs you might like in the bottom of a skillet, lay the bird on top, and pop onto the top rack of a hot oven (400) until sizzling.

Of Food and Fellowship

Now when Wyatt Cooper is mentioned at all, it’s invariably in connection with his younger son, Anderson Cooper, but Wyatt himself was a man of many parts, one of those being a damn fine writer. 

Cooper was born in Quitman, Mississippi, September 1, 1927. moved to New Orleans as a young child and in his twenties moved to New York City to pursue acting. In his thirties, Cooper lived in Los Angeles, attended both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and worked as a screenwriter. While residing in West Hollywood, then an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, Cooper lived near Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell. A close friendship developed, and a year after Parker’s death in 1967, Cooper published an incisive and widely read profile in Esquire magazine, titled, “Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn’t”.

Cooper moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s, and worked there as a magazine editor. On December 24, 1963, he married heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, becoming her fourth husband. The photogenic couple frequently appeared on the national “best-dressed” list.[5] They had two sons: Carter Vanderbilt Cooper (1965-1988) and Anderson Cooper (b. 1967), who became a prominent CNN anchor. Wyatt Cooper wrote in his 1975 memoir, “It is in the family that we learn almost all we ever know of loving. In my sons’ youth, their promise, their possibilities, my stake in immortality is invested.” Wyatt Cooper died in Manhattan, New York City on January 5, 1978, at age 50, during open heart surgery, after having a heart attack the previous December.

This essay, “Of Food and Fellowship” appeared in Southern Sideboards, the Junior League of Jackson’s landmark cookbook, which was first published in June, 1978.

 

Speak to me of food and what springs readily to my mind is not so much a recall of particular dishes I’ve relished, but a succession of images, sad and funny, sweet and tender, of people and places and happy occasions from the recent or long-gone past, a procession of dear, lost, familiar faces and voices, with the echo of laughter from other years. One remembers all those tables, some grand and richly laden, some humble and bearing simple fare, over which have flowed the talk, the tales, the exchanges that have made up the histories of our lives; the tables across which loving eyes have looked into loving eyes, and across which we have reached, friend to friend and spirit to spirit, to touch each other in precious communion. I think of vanishes loved ones and of absent friends and simpler times, of youth and joy and wonder, of those early seasons of first discoveries, the seasons in which we were blessed with Heaven’s gift for finding all the world’s delight in one bright Easter egg, all the world’s affection in one home-decorated birthday cake with our own particular name written bright upon it.

At those tables, a child, and later, the child in the adult, could watch and listen and learn. It was and would remain a place of adventure and exploration, a place where the curious eye and ear could partake of the rich store of other people’s experience, their adventures in the vast and mysterious world that waited and waits, beckoning but intimidating, outside the window; adventures, also, in those other, interior worlds of the mind, where thoughts, opinions, ideas were and are the exhilarating substance of the hungry brain.

Since our associations scurry quickly back to our beginnings, I find myself breathing deeply and knowing once again the romance and allure of the smells emanating from the kitchen of my first home, the warm, comforting aroma of biscuits baking or of coffee and bacon on cold mornings, with Mama beside the stove calling out that we must hurry.

I remember the family reunions with the piling on of food, an abundance and variety of offerings that represented God only knows how many accumulated hours of planning and preparing and packing, a feast to which more than twice our number could not have done justice. I remember the buzzing and bustling of the women crowed into Grandma’ kitchen, all full of importance and pride in marvels about to be revealed, each with her own specialty for which she was celebrated within the family—this one’s banana pudding, that one’s pineapple-upside-down cake. I think of Christmas with the smell of apples and oranges and fruit cakes and with turkeys and stuffing that make the mouth water forty years later.

I was born country, so I know all about frying just the right chickens because the preacher was coming to dinner and about all-day-singings-with-dinner-on-the-ground where heavy baskets and cardboard boxes were hauled out of the back end of family cars or even horse drawn wagons or buggies. The contents were spread proudly out, displayed like the golden wedding presents of princesses, set out upon glistening, freshly-starched and sun-dried linen cloths there would be much calling out to each other from families inviting others to try this or that from their bounty, while grabbing loose strays, especially bachelors, and there would be a scampering about of colt-legged boys, impatient and giggly while overly devout deacons went on too long at asking the blessing, when any sort of mumbled “. . . bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies . . .” would have done just as well.

I know about hog-killing time in the first sharp cool of fall, when the children were allowed to help with the scraping if they were careful to stay away from the scalding water I know about the way molasses was made, when you took turns feeding the cane into the grinder and remembered to duck each time the pole, pulled bumpily around and around by dull, plodding mules, made its way overhead again.

These activities were co-operative efforts; we didn’t do them by ourselves. Neighbors came together to help each other. We worked out the dates—Tuesday for the Longs, Thursday was the  Timmses’ turn, and Monday week was for us. The doing of it was all mixed up with community feeling, with jokes and gossip and catching up on news and horseplay and grown-up talk.

What I’ve been talking about, when you come down to it, is friendship, sharing, caring. I’m talking about love. To show our love for one another we devise little rituals. We beg the passing traveler to eat. We toast brides. We drink to each other’s health. We give dinners for those we seek to honor. There is a particular bond between friends who prepare food together, between friends who dine with each other. The breaking of bread together has, for many centuries, held something of a ceremonial significance for us.

It seems as if it were always so. It was in the Bible and in the earliest Greek plays and in the writings of Homer Obviously it goes way back. I should think that it must have been soon after they first came down from the trees and began improving their manners that one of our hairy ancestors must accidentally have dropped into the cave hearth the baby brontosaurus leg on which he’d been gnawing, or stumbled onto a succulent pig just roasted by a recent forest fire, and made the revolutionary discovery that the raw and natural stuff with which he’d been sustaining his life could be improved upon. On that distant red letter day a new art form was born and man took a giant step in the direction of Julia Child.

It seems to me that the invention of cooking must have made a considerable contribution toward the very process of civilization. Surely, Mr. and Mrs. Piltdown Erectus and their children, having found the new way of dining an enrichment of the cultural tone of their own household, must certainly have hastened to call in their neighbors to share the benefits of the revelations so happily and so accidentally bestowed upon them. Thus, on that evening of joyous and primitive grunting that then served as conversation, undoubtedly began the ancient and inseparable association between eating and hospitality, the eternal connection between food and fellowship.

I should mention somewhere along here that I was not invited to set down the few words of this preface because I can claim to be a passable practitioner of that noble science. The truth is I can’t cook. Anything. My instant coffee is barely acceptable even to me, and my peanut and butter sandwiches have repeatedly been rejected by my sons. “No thanks, Daddy,” they say with wistful politeness, “We’ll make our own. Alan Campbell once told me that before his wife, Dorothy Parker, would cook anything she’d go into the kitchen and eat raw bacon. In that category at least, Dotti and I were in the same league.

One of the saddest failures of my life was the time I tried to delight my little family, those underprivileged citizens of the pre-packaged, machine-made, and mass-produced age, with the home-made ice cream that is such a treasured memory from my youth. For years I’d tried to impart to them some idea of the magical creation of that frozen treat by describing how you break up the block of ice by putting it into a croker sack and beating it with the back of an ax, pack the crushed ice tightly around the metal can inside the wooden freezer, argue over who gets to turn the crank first, (several children should be involved; the making of ice cream calls for company; in a one-child family only the presence of grandparents could compensate for the absence of other children) and finally how everybody crowds around for the miraculous moment when the lid is reverently lifted off, and the creamy, vanilla colored, heavenly swirl of pure pleasure is revealed.

My sons were skeptical but willing, and so, one summer in Southampton, having consulted by long distance with my sister in Hartford, Connecticut, I bought a freezer, assembled the ingredients, and, while she instructed over the telephone, began mixing, stirring, and beating. I suspected early on that I was in trouble when it became perfectly clear to me that while Marie makes great ice cream herself, she has no very clear idea of how she does it, “. . . just put in some sugar; you’ll know when it’s enough . . .” –that kind of direction doesn’t help at all. Honest, it doesn’t. Not unless you can already do it. Or have talent. At one point I was cooking the mixture and it started turning into something that looked suspiciously like an omelet. “I hope you didn’t use too many eggs . . .” she said encouragingly. “Does it look too yellow?” Along about then I had more than a premonition of disaster. Also, for some reason, it overflowed while we were turning the crank, the yellow seeping out the sides and mixing with the ice. That wasn’t promising.

There’s no point in pretending there’s any suspense to this story or in prolonging it, so I’ll go strait to the finish. It looked beautiful, actually. The result of all my labor looked very clean and very pretty, but it had no taste at all so far as I could tell and I could not expect those little boys, however polite and loving they are, to pretend that it was worth bothering with. Oddly enough, my wife, who has a very discerning palate, liked my ice cream. She thought it tasted like real yogurt made with goat’s milk. Maybe if my sister has a recipe for yogurt I might end up with ice cream.

Recipes, anyway, have to be fleshed out, I suspect, with the cook’s own taste, personality and inspiration. Ethel Barrymore was once rehearsing a new play with an over-eager young director who kept instructing her with details, “Move to that table. Life the book, pause, and then look at it.” She endured this for a while, then she turned to him and said sweetly, “I know just what you mean. I lift the book, pause, and then look at it, and it is then that I do that special, unexplainable thing that causes audiences to come to see me and enables me to earn a thousand dollars a week.”  She made her point. With great cooks, as with great stars, there is that “special, unexplainable thing” that has to do with taste, authority, and uniqueness of personality, and the beginner, I should think, should be encouraged to trust his or her own particular instincts and exercise his or her own creativity.

In Saki’s short story, “The Blind Spot”, one character says, “the man is a common murderer,” and another replies, “A common murderer, perhaps, but a very uncommon cook.” This book contains the secrets of many very uncommon cooks, great stars, splendid artists of the kitchen; secrets, many of them, that have considerable histories, having been handed down, generation to generation, from one famous cook to another.

I am fascinated by the great variety of cooking styles assembled here, representing many different traditions and widely varying national origins. Some recipes remain pretty much as they were when Great-Grandma was finally persuaded to write them down, or when Cousin Jessica spied on some selfish and secretive cook and wrote down each step se took, each pinch of salt, each wave of the hand in the direction of the pot. Others have evolved through adaptation, experiments, and happy accidents. A few of them doubtless traveled south with the earliest settlers, moving along the Natchez Trace from Virginia, the Carolinas or Kentucky, personally watched over by the woman of the family, along with a treasured set of china, an ancestral portrait, a silver candlestick, or some other heirloom.

Outsiders tend to think of the South as all one thing, when, of course we know that our extraordinary diversity is one of our most attractive features. We have absorbed many things from many sources, and have made them our own. Take grits. Grits has (sic;jly), of late been mentioned in the news somewhat frequently as a native southern specialty, which it is. It is very native, indeed, sine it was given to us by the Indians, along with corn bread and many other things. Blacks have made a contribution that is hard to measure, for many black cooks have been among the nameless geniuses who’ve left the culinary art a better one for their having participated in it. The French and Spanish influence on cooking is very important in the South, and though New Orleans is most famous for it, excellent French and Creole restaurants are strung along The Mississippi Gulf Coast all the way to Mobile.

In the past couple of years I’ve traveled around my native Mississippi a great deal, and I’ve enjoyed everything from baked dove at the governor’s mansion to fried catfish and hush puppies in Vicksburg and stuffed breast of chicken in Natchez, from ham hocks and turnip greens in Meridian to sirloin steak in Columbus, hot tamales in Greenville, and Creole gumbo and soft shelled crabs in Biloxi. In West Point, Mayor Kenny Dill went out and picked blackberries and Mrs. Dill made them into pie for me. Who wouldn’t choose a blackberry pie over a key to the city?

Which brings me full circle and back to hospitality. My children are startled by the extraordinary lengths that Southerners go in order to make the visitor feel at home among them. Very often, when we have been guests in someone’s home, neighbors have rushed in to leave off (or sometimes simply leave out-side the door) a basket of yard eggs or fresh butter or vegetables taken from their gardens that morning.

How many times it has happened that after a speech I’ve found someone thrusting into my hands a container of home-made fudge or a jar of fig preserves, saying “Take these to Carter and Anderson,” or “I beg Gloria’s never had watermelon rind preserves,” and slipping away before I could get the names? I’ve even been presented with chitlin’s (or chitterlings, and the dictionary spells it) and though anybody who knows me can testify that I’ve always been proud of my farm background, in the matter of chitlin’s, born country or not, I didn’t know what they were and wasn’t too curious to find out. I guess somethings are just meant to be forgotten, but Idid appreciate the thought. (Though not enough, you understand, to confront my wife with the chitlin’s.)

Oh, just one more thing. A story about one of my great uncles—one of the Campbells, I think. Having lost his wife (by death, I mean; she wasn’t simply misplaced) he was looking around for a replacement and in mentioning the most desired qualification, he made the following obsertion:

“The huggin’ and kissin’ don’t last forever. The cookin’ do.”

Water Buffalo

We are what we eat: our food is very much an indication of who we are, of our place on the planet in every facet of our existence: our age, our geography, our society, our ethnic background and our own sense of self.

You’ll often hear of fish being talked about as trash fish. Trash fish is a slang term for what U.S. state agencies and anglers call rough fish to describe larger fish species not commonly eaten or fished for sport. A fish considered rough fish in one region may be considered a game or food fish in another, often due to culture or tradition. For example, the common carp is considered an undesirable rough fish in the United States and Australia, but is the premier game fish of Europe and the most valuable food fish across most of Asia. Gar is an undesirable nuisance in most places in the U.S., but in Louisiana it’s mashed, made into balls with seasonings and fried.

Buffalo is a genus (Ictiobus) of freshwater fish common in the United States. It is sometimes mistaken for carp because of its flat face and large, silver scales running along the body, though it lacks the whisker-like mouth appendages common to carp. Buffalo live in most types of freshwater bodies where panfish are found, such as ponds, creeks, rivers and lakes. From a fisherman’s point of view, the buffalo is difficult to catch; the preferred method is with gill nets.

According to Dr. Jim Steeby, former research and extension professor at MSU, “There are three species of buffalo: bigmouth, smallmouth and black. The smallmouth, also called the razorback, is most commonly caught in rivers with hoop nests.

“We can spawn and grow them with catfish in ponds,” Jim said. “They are minnow family fishes so they have bones in their flesh, but it’s a Southern favorite; the ribs are the best part. In the Delta at Stoneville, we did mostly catfish research, but we worked on some other species. Back in the early 60s they started growing buffalo in ponds in Arkansas, then switching to catfish as the market for them was better. Buffalo are not grown much anymore. Most of the harvest comes from commercial fishermen. If the market were bigger we could easily supply it, but buffalo seems likely to remain a regional favorite.”

Jackson chef Nick Wallace said that the unpopularity of buffalo might have something to do with the bones, “But you can go to some of these Southern fish markets and find buffalo. It’s not cooked in the restaurants at all; maybe because the chefs don’t like the quality because of the bones, I’m not sure; maybe it doesn’t fit to their clientele. But fish markets that do six hundred, seven hundred thousand dollars a year, they have it. It is seasonal, mainly winter, but it has a long season. To me, it is a delicate fish. If you eat it, you have to eat it delicately.”

“Last July, I called Mark Beason early one morning, and I said, ‘Mark, I have B.B. King coming in, and B.B. wants some buffalo.’ Mark took his nets to the Big Black River and an hour later I had two big buffalo. I checked it for abrasions and dark marks; you want to watch out for things like that. The whole fish is edible, and the tail is great. B.B. wanted it the next day, too. I had gotten a couple more, and he took two whole buffalo with him. They had a kitchen on his bus, and he had a guy with him who was back in the kitchen when I was cooking it, looking over my shoulder.”

“It has a nice pink flesh,” Nick said. “The fish needs to be eaten piping hot because the taste is more pronounced when you eat it hot. If you let it cool down, it’s almost like a muscle, the fish tightens up. You want to handle this fish hot. When my granny made buffalo cakes, she would get her hands in the hot cooked meat to make them. That’s what I like about cooking this type of fish, it actually takes work, it’s not just a simple meat you slice on the bias and throw in the skillet. You have to really touch this food, feel it, know it and work with it. She’d make the cakes like a croquette. She’d put mustard in the cakes and if you’re making a buffalo sandwich you’re going to want good mustard on it: white bread, mustard and tomatoes. Best sandwiches in the world.”

“Buffalo should stand out a lot more than sea bass, halibut and tilapia,” Wallas adds. “We were raised on Mississippi fish, that’s what we were used to, and that needs to be talked about. I just don’t understand how you can go to a restaurant and find sea bass on the menu, when you have anything you could really want to be sustainable here in Mississippi.”

The Right Reds

Most people claim I’m an old ass who’s quick to fuss about any damned thing. Let me confirm that base accusation by pointing out that when cooking New Orleans-style red beans most people insist on using the wrong beans.

Yes, that’s right. Instead of honest-to-goodness red beans, most people—even most vendors—use kidney beans, which are yes red, but they aren’t the right red. You’ll see small kidney beans marketed as red beans all the time; even the Camilla brand red beans are kidneys, as are those used by the Blue Runner people, but most markets in the mid-South will have honest-to-goodness red beans sold simply as red beans, and if you look under the ingredients, you’ll find “small red beans”, not kidneys as you’ll find on the Camilla package or on the Blue Runner can.

It’s only a whisker’s difference between the two, but it’s crucial, a matter of veracity and refinement if not to say taste.

Daffodil Cake

Whimsey rules with confections. Marzipan is particularly prone to blithe abuse, finding itself fashioned into all sorts of flowers, fruits, animals, even people or parts thereof. Cakes also endure such treatment, particularly occasional cakes, but even “every day cakes” are fun, and daffodil cake is as light-hearted as it is light.

Of course daffodil cake doesn’t have daffodils in it no more than a hummingbird cake has hummingbirds or Girl Scout cookies are made out of girl scouts (daffodils happen to be poisonous) but it’s (partially) yellow and springy. This is an old recipe, appearing in Fannie Farmer and Betty Crocker books during the 1940s, a sure sign that it was probably being made and passed around at church bazaars and served on spring weekends long before then.

Daffodil cake is a combination sponge and angel food cakes, which are both made with a meringue without oil or butter, but the yellow parts of a daffodil cake contain egg yolks—as does a sponge cake—and the white parts do not—as does an angel food. (Chiffon cakes, which appeared on tables at about the same time, are a meringue cake with oil.) You will not find an honest mix for any meringue cake in the grocery store; you’re going to have to make it from scratch, and it’s best to make on a clear, cool day because we all know that you can’t make a good meringue when it’s raining, don’t we?

12 large egg whites
1 cup sifted cake flour or sifted all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar (total)
2 teaspoons vanilla
11/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon lemon or orange extract
Finely grated lemon peel

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and set a rack to the lowest position. In a very large mixing bowl allow egg whites to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Sift together flour and 3/4 cup sugar 3 times and set aside. Add vanilla, cream of tartar and salt to egg whites. Beat with electric mixer on medium to high speed until soft peaks form; gradually add 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Sift one-fourth of the flour mixture over egg white mixture and fold in gently. Repeat with remaining flour mixture, using one-fourth of flour mixture each time. Transfer half of batter to another bowl. In a small mixing bowl beat egg yolks on high speed for 6 minutes or until thick and lemon-colored. Add lemon extract, mix and gently fold yolk mixture into half of egg whites. Alternately spoon yellow batter and white batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan and swirl with a spoon to marble. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Immediately invert cake in pan and cool completely before loosening cake to remove from pan. Flip cake onto a plate and sprinkle top with finely shredded lemon peel and powdered sugar; serve chilled.