We call counterfeit coins slugs; this sandwich filling is a culinary counterfeit posing as a burger. During the Great Depression, a lot of diners in the American South stretched patties of ground beef or pork with potato flour. These were deep-fried, giving them crispy exteriors and juicy insides, topped with mustard, slid between buns, and sold for a nickel, which back in that day were also called slugs.

John Weeks brought this recipe from Chicago to Corinth, Mississippi, in 1917. Weeks had his hamburger meat ground to specification by local butchers, which included potato flakes and flour. Originally called Weeksburgers, in the Fifties, soy grits replaced the potato and flour. Patties of the mix are fried in canola oil and served with mustard, dill pickles, and onions on a slider  bun.

Slugburgers are very much a thing in Corinth, surrounding north Mississippi, and Alabama. Each year people from across the continent descend on Corinth for the annual Slugburger Festival, which began in 1988. For three weekend evenings in summer–its in July this year–the town celebrates the local culinary icon with music, a carnival, and The World Slugburger Eating Championship

For slugburgers, add two cups potato flakes and a cup of flour to one pound of ground beef, add a tablespoon each salt and pepper. Use your hands and mix very, very well. Form into patties, on the thin side. Some people—me included—dust the patties with flour before deep-frying in canola oil. Serve on a bun with mustard, pickles, onion, and a side of French fries or onion rings. This makes about 8 burgers.

Nannie Faulkner’s Beaten Biscuits

This image from A Cook’s Tour of Mississippi (The Clarion-Ledger: 1980) accompanied an article by Dean Faulkner Wells, “The biscuits Nannie and Callie baked for the boys.” Into 1 qt. sifted flour work well 1 tblespn each lard, butter and teaspn salt. After well worked moisten with 1/2 pt. (sweet) milk and make stiff dough. Beat by hand. Bake quickly.

Summer Squash and Limas in Sour Cream Sauce

Cut enough young squash (about 4-6 depending on size) into roughly 1” cubes to make four cups, boil until just tender, drain, and set aside. Make two cups of white sauce with whole milk and butter, add about a cup of sour cream, a half cup fresh-grated/shaved Parmesan, and a lightly beaten egg. Stir in two cups cooked young limas, a half cup of minced white onion, and mix with squash. Add salt and white pepper to taste, and stir gently. Top with more Parmesan and bake at 350 until lightly browned and bubbling. A lot of people use dill in this recipe, but just don’t.

Peach Melba

For sheer succulence, few fruits on earth can match a ripe-on-point peach fresh off the tree, and Escoffier, “the king of chefs and the chef of kings,” affirmed the fruit’s supremacy when he created an astoundingly superb yet simple dish to celebrate the great operatic coloratura soprano, Nellie Melba.

Dame Nellie Melba, (1861-1931), was a skilled pianist and organist as a youngster, but she did not study singing until in her twenties. She made her operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1887 at Brussels under the name Melba, derived from that of the city of Melbourne. Until 1926 she sang in the principal opera houses of Europe and the United States, particularly Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, excelling in Delibes’s Lakmé, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She returned to Melbourne in 1926. Her image is on the Australian one-hundred-dollar bill.

Melba was not known as a Wagnerian singer, although she occasionally sang Elsa in Lohengrin, which she did to acclaim in 1892, at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan, which is featured in the opera. The swan carried peaches topped with spun sugar which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream. In 1900, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert for the occasion of the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he was head chef. Escoffier topped the peaches with raspberry purée.

Incidentally, in 1897, Nellie, who was “slimming,” complained that her bread was much too thick and sent it to Escoffier in the Savoy kitchen. The chef returned to her table with a thinly sliced piece of toasted bread and promptly named it Melba toast in her honor.

Inferior versions of peach Melba substitute pears, apricots, or strawberries instead of peaches or use raspberry sauce or melted redcurrant jelly instead of raspberry purée. The original dessert used simple ingredients of “tender and very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a purée of sugared raspberry”. Escoffier himself said, “Any variation on this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.”

Momma’s Apple Pie

Over the hill from my boyhood home, in the middle of a long cornfield bordered by a dirt road filled with gripping mud in the winter and white dust in the summer, arched an apple tree of such girth and spread that now fifty years later it remains the largest I’ve ever seen.

I couldn’t begin to guess what sort of apple it was, but the fruit when ripe was small and crisp, faintly streaked, blushing red, and speckled from insects, winds, and sun. When green, the apples were so taut you could barely dent them with the tip of your thumb. Those were the apples my mother used to bake apple pies. I never knew her to use any other; she said “store” apples would “make a mush”. Now that better apples have come on the market, Honey Crisps in season or Granny Smiths will do.

Combine 4 cups apples, cored, peeled, and cut into chunks with a cup of sugar, juice of half a lemon, a half teaspoon each cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into an unbaked shell, top with a few pats of butter, and a (slitted/unbaked) crust. Bake at 350 on a middle rack until brown and bubby-ish.

Claiborne, Catfish, and The Cock of the Walk

In 1981 catfish farming was booming, nowhere more so than right around Craig Claiborne’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. Claiborne was invited home to take a look at the catfish farms by Turner Arant, who built his first catfish pond in 1962. Arant helped organize Delta Pride Catfish Processors, Delta Western, Farmers Grain Terminal, Community Bank, and served on the board of each of these companies.

“(Claiborne) visited here in my home and I got my wife (Sybil) to prepare catfish for him four different ways,” Arant said. Claiborne returned to his home in East Hampton, where in addition to good ol’ fried catfish and hushpuppies, he and Pierre Franey worked up recipes for catfish meunière, catfish au vin blanc, and catfish Grenobloise.

Before he left Mississippi, Claiborne visited the Cock of the Walk in Ridgeland, Mississippi, which had opened the previous year. Claiborne reviewed the restaurant in a November column, declaring, “During my recent visit to Mississippi, I ate in what might be the best catfish restaurant in the state, and therefore the nation.” The Cock of the Walk holds the distinction of being the only Mississippi restaurant ever reviewed by her native son in The New York Times .

INDIANOLA, Miss.—Like most Southerners, I adore catfish. I remember that half a century and more ago my family would drive to the banks of Four Mile Lake near here and unload a picnic hamper. Gliding about on the water were small pleasure boats, many of whose passengers dangled fishing lines from cane poles, hoping a catfish would nibble. In the crystal-clear water, the lines could be seen all the way to the bottom. Many of the men word white linen suits and black string ties, and some wore white straw hats or boaters with wide brims. Some of the women carried parasols to guard their skin against that burning Mississippi sun.

Over the years catfish has remained a Southern regional specialty. But lately, thanks in large part to the abundant supply produced by catfish farms,” it has become more widely available. (Catfish will be available later this work at Shopwell Food Emporiums at 1331 First Avenue (71st Street), 1458 York Avenue (79th Street) and 1052 First Avenue (57th Street) in New York and 261 Ridge Street in Rye.)

I’m not certain that my mother, who was a marvelous cook, ever prepared catfish at home: she was too aristocratic for that. Red snapper, yes, it was basted for an hour or longer with a Creole tomato sauce made with chopped green peppers, chopped onion and celery (a friend of mine once called the combination of chopped peppers, onion and celery the holy trinity of Creole cocking). But catfish was too common, something to be enjoyed outdoors, as at those Sunday outings.

Eating deep-fried catfish was a ritual. The cooking was done in large metal kettles that were heated with long-burning logs. When the fat in the vats was extremely hot, the pieces of catfish were dredged in a blend of com meal (always white, never yellow). salt and pepper. When they were dropped into the fat, the vessel be. came a bubbling caldron until the fish were ready to be removed with perforated spoons and set to drain A catfish menu was and is today always the same: the com-meal coated catfish with its golden-brown crusty exterior and moist white inner flesh; deep-fried hush puppies, deep-fried potatoes and coleslaw. And tomato ketchup. Deep-fried catfish without ketchup is like a hot dog without mustard.

In the course of a recent visit to my hometown here, deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta about 100 miles south of Memphis, I discovered that many of the farmers in the region are moving into the field of pisciculture converting their cotton and soybean acres into ponds that produce some of the sweetest-fleshed catfish in America. I would go so far as to say that it is the finest freshwater fish in America, including pike and carp. It is the equal of most saltwater fish, including lemon or gray sole. Fillets of catfish can be used in almost any recipe calling for a white nonoily fish.

In days gone by, the catfish that was eaten in this country was channel catfish that had spawned and thrived in muddy river waters. It was said that the catfish smacked of the waters in which it had swum, and this was true. The catfish that is raised in freshwater ponds is wholly different, remarkable not only for its flavor and texture but also for its non-fishy characteristics. Even after it is frozen and de frosted it remains snow white and as firm as when taken from the water.

During a visit to a fish-raising enterprise known as Delta Catfish, I was taken to numerous ponds for a look at the product known as Delta Pride. The ponds, which measure 20 acres square and are four or five feet deep, are filled with the fresh water for which the Mississippi Delta is famous.

The fish get a commercially prepared feed that is about 35 percent protein and no longer feed on the bottom. They are taken from the ponds directly to a surgically clean processing plant where they are skinned by machine. They are shipped around the country either fresh or frozen-whole, cut into steaks or as fillets. A Delta Catfish spokesman estimated that his company would produce 100 million pounds this year. Though Mississippi is by far the longest producer for the retail market, there are also farms in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.

When I returned from Mississippi, I brought with me about 30 pounds of frozen catfish filets.  After they were defrosted overnight, Pierre Franey and I experimented over the next few days. converting them into many appetizing creations, from deep-fried catfish with hush puppies to catfish meunière and Grenobloise, and catfish in a white wine sauce. We also duplicated a dish I had dined on in a country home near Sunflower: catfish baked with cheese, the recipe of Sybil Arant.

Catfish Meunière

4 catfish fillets, about 2 pounds
¼ cup milk 4 cup flour
Salt to taste, If desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste y cup peanut, vegetable or com oll
tablespoons butter
Juice of ½ lemon
4 seeded lemon slices
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley.

  1. Dredge the fillets in milk. Lift the fillets one at a time from the milk and immediately dredge on all sides in flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Heat the oil in a skillet until quite hot. Add the fillets in one layer and cook about three minutes on one side or until golden brown. Turn and cook, basting often and liberally with oil, about six minutes.
  3. Transfer the fillets to a warm serving dish. Pour off the oil from the skillet. Wipe out the pan.
  4. Add the butter to the skillet and when it is foaming and starting to brown, swirl it around and pour it over the fish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice. Garnish the fish with lemon slices and sprinkle with parsley. Yield: 4 servings.

Catfish Grenobloise

Follow the recipe for catfish meunière, but add one quarter cup drained capers to the butter as it is being heated to pour over the fish.

Catfish Filets in White Wine Sauce

6 catfish fillets, about 2 pounds
5 tablespoons butter
½ cup dry white wine
½ pound mushrooms, thinly sliced, about 2 cups
Salt to taste, If desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons flour cup milk
Juice of a lemon
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Pat the catfish pieces dry. Rub a baking dish (a dish measuring about 2 by 13 by 8 inches is ideal) with one tablespoon of the butter. Arrange the fillets over the buttered dish in one layer.
  3. Add the wine. Scatter the mushrooms over all and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and add the flour, stirring with a wire whisk. Add the milk, stirring with the whisk. When blended and smooth, remove from the heat.
  5. Pour the liquid from the baked fish into the sauce, stirring. Bring to the boil and cook, stirring often, about five minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Pour the sauce over the fish and bake 10 minutes longer. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and parsley. Serve hot. Yield: 6 servings.

Deep-Fried Catfish

3 catfish fillets, about 1 pound
Fresh corn oil to cover cup white cornmeal
Salt to taste, if desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Lemon halves
Tomato ketchup
Hush Puppies (see recipe).

  1. Heat the oil for deep frying. 2. Cut each fillet in half crosswise.
  2. Combine the cornmeal, salt and pepper.
  3. Dredge the fillets in the cornmeal. Pat to make the cornmeal adhere. Drop the fillets in the oil and cook five to 10 minutes or until crisp and brown. Serve with lemon halves, ketchup and hush puppies. Yield: 2 to 4 servings.

Mustard-Fried Catfish

Follow the recipe for deep-fried catfish, but brush the pieces on all sides with mustard before dredging in cornmeal.

Hush Puppies

1½ cups white cornmeal 4 teaspoons flour 2 teaspoons baking powder
Salt to taste, if desired 1 tablespoon sugar ½ cup grated onion
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup rapidly boiling water
Fresh corn oil to cover.

  1. Combine the cornmeal, flour. baking powder, salt, sugar, grated onion and egg and blend well. Add the water rapidly while stirring. The water must be boiling when added.
  2. Heat the oil to 370 degrees. Drop the mixture by rounded spoonfuls into the oil. Cook until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Yield: About 36.

Sybil Arant’s Catfish Baked with Cheese

6 to 8 cattish fillets, about 2 pounds
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup flour
Salt to taste, if desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk
½ cup melted butter, sliced almonds.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Wipe the catfish dry.
  3. Blend together the cheese, flour, salt, pepper and paprika.
  4. Combine the egg and milk in a flat dish.
  5. Dip the fillets in the egg mixture and then coat with the cheese mixture. Arrange the fillets in one layer in a biking dish and pour the butter over al. Sprinkle with the almonds. Place in the oven and bake 20 minutes. Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Confessions of an Urban Planter

In my hometown of Bruce, Mississippi, Mr. Buddy Massey grew cotton every year in his circular drive at the Shell station on the corner of Hwys. 9 and 32.  So when I hacked out a small garden on what was once a barren, sun-scorched verge in Jackson, Mississippi, I figured if Buddy could grow cotton on the street, I could, too.

This project encountered obstacles right off the bat. First and perhaps foremost I discovered you need permission to grow cotton in Mississippi; the shadow of the boll weevil still looms over the Cotton Kingdom, and the Mississippi Code states specifically that “Every person growing cotton in this state shall furnish to the commissioner and the corporation on forms supplied by the commissioner such information as the commissioner may require concerning the size and location of all commercial cotton fields and of noncommercial plantings of cotton grown as an ornamental plant or for any other purposes.” Having found that out, I knew having the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in a building a mile and a half away magnified my chances of getting busted for cotton, and though the novelty of being hauled to court for growing cotton in Mississippi did have some appeal, I called the Commission out of a hard-learned habit of caution when it came to flirting with the law. The MDA folks directed me to a scholar at Mississippi State University who assured me that such a small “field” as mine wasn’t an agricultural time bomb. Naturally, I considered his opinion testament; if he’d been from Ole Miss, I’d called him a lying son-of-a-bitch.

Second, getting the seed; cotton seed, because of the restrictions, is not something you find in a yard and garden emporium. They seem to be sold not by the bushel, nor even the pound, but by the seed; the individual seed, mind you. At a loss, I issued an appeal on the local social networks for help, which came forthwith, netting me not only enough seeds for my modest enterprise, but enough to plant a city block. For some time, I considered the novelty of becoming a Jesse Cottonseed, spreading the wealth of white gold across Jackson’s cityscape, but in the end, I decided that I would never live down the shame of being the man who reintroduced the boll weevil to Mississippi. I’d probably be pilloried, then burned at the stake, at the very least tarred and feathered and exiled to Arizona.

Third, waiting for it to get warm; we had a typical winter, but a cool spring. The first batch, planted in outside seed flats on April Fool’s Day of course failed, so I decided to sit on my haunches and seed while my part of the earth tilted more towards Sol. The first week of May, I heard that cotton planting had begun in the Delta. With two beds ready, I sowed my cotton by hand, which was a less-than-mystical experience than I had anticipated, but shouldn’t have, since cotton itself is a plant, and what aura it has is what we have given it; besides, it was the seeds themselves which no doubt found an exhilaration in being thrust into warm, moist soil after such a wait.

Of the four beds planned, the ones on the east and west were planted on May 5. Since my appeal for seeds had netted no less than three copious batches (in different colors, I might add, blue, brown and purple due to the fungicides which coated them), they were mixed together in a batch and sown, some in short rows, others in small hills. Predictably, once the seed was planted, the rains ceased, and watering began, not just for the cotton, but for the other seeds and seedlings already in place; their roots, once established, would sustain them in months to come, but the roots themselves had to be encouraged.

For whatever reason, the cotton seeds proved fickle. To make a series of mini-rows, a total of perhaps fifty were planted each round, each planting a mixture of the three seed types, those with a purple coating proving the most viable. Rainy weather in mid-May helped the second set, and before long the rows (as such) began to take shape, not only in lines but in triangles and circles. Only the closest of seedlings needed thinning. In Delta fields, such fussy tending is not necessary, but being fractional this acreage needed more attention to crowding; in this instance, optimal outcome involving big, pretty plants that would bloom and boll. A rainy May helped; the cotyledons and stems grew big and fat.

By the end of the month, some seedlings had preliminary leaves, and I decided to wait on thinning. On the one hand, I wanted the best plants possible, but then I’ve seen cotton growing close together, and in the best situation of open field and plentiful rain, all the plants were tall, leafy and in flower. Somehow back in the back of my mind I kept trying to imagine what kind of machine planted cotton, and I couldn’t envision it being less haphazard than me. I tried to imagine how cotton must have looked in its primeval state in Tehuacán, predictably failed but persisted. While many scoffed at my crop, growing cotton had become more than an endeavor; it had become a responsibility, and my care paid off. By the first week in June, the cotton was about six inches tall and the cotyledons were being replaced by true leaves. Though my beds received only five hours of direct sun a day, the stems were strong and red, so I decided thinning needn’t be that drastic, since cotton in row crops grows much closer together.

In the Deep South, we have nothing resembling the graduated springs and falls of more northerly latitudes, and while our winters are predictably brief and comparatively mild, summer has such a duration that it can be divided into three parts: new summer, high summer, and far summer. The summer solstice marks the beginning of the high summer, when daytime temperatures are in the nineties and seventies at night. By that time, the cotton was a foot high; it was lay-by time. The cotton grew taller, I took no notice of what was happening beneath the canopy of leaves and found myself surprised in early July by the first blossom, a pale crimped envelope of crepe protruding from a frilly green box.

Again, I’d been anticipating a transcendental moment for the occasion, but my reaction was more composed of surprise and curiosity, which for all I know may well be the essential elements of a transcendent experience. I lack a frame of reference. Pale at first, the petals of the blossoms turned a rich purple before dropping. My neighbor John Lewis said that in Leflore County they have a saying: “First day white, second day red, third day from my birth I’m dead!” When the blooms had fallen, they left a tight, blocky wad of green still enclosed in a feathery case. On this bud empires had grown and tumbled, but other work distracted me.

The first boll opened the last week of August. I saw it under the light of a nearly-full moon, a low, white symmetrical glow against shadowed green. Again, no thunder and lightning came, but though a friend in Arcola had sent me photos of a local field crop waist-high and plush with open bolls along with disparaging comments about my “scrappy-ass Jackson ‘plantation wanna-be’ cotton”, I was proud of my little fraction of an acre. Sure, I was a half-assed farmer in the middle of Mississippi’s capital city, but I was making an effort, and I was, after all, making a crop, one that fit well with my modest and unpretentious character as an urban planter. It’d never make anything like a bale, but I’d have cotton to harvest.

To my astonishment, the opening cotton proved unrecognizable to many if not most of my neighbors. On many occasions I found myself faced with the question, “What is that?” as someone pointed to the whitening bolls. “Cotton,” I’d say, and they would either slap their foreheads or form a silent “o” with their lips. These reactions became a general rule of thumb for determining who of my neighbors were from where, and I’d always ask, but then I found that people from North Carolina and Tennessee didn’t recognize the plant, either. Most of them didn’t know an oak from an elm, either, but I’d cherished the notion that most Southerners would recognize the most iconic crop of their homeland out of repetition if nothing else. Perhaps the image of a cotton boll itself has become so divergent from reality that its actuality has become inconceivable to anyone save those who plant the seed.

As the weeks drew on, every surface of the cotton, leaves, stems, even the ripening bolls, became scorched, ruddy and freckled beneath the unrelenting sun. While the cotton was reddening, the trees were yellowing, becoming sallow, assuming that peculiar jaundice I found familiar from past Septembers. The air itself became hazy because what brief winds we had were picking up the dusty earth and passing it around as they do with pine pollen in June. Everything had a sense of resignation about it, even the light, which seemed suspended in ether, hung between a pale blue sky and a dark dun earth. The world was a sepia silhouette, creaking with crickets, and the leaves were falling. Blistered by the sun and exhausted from their efforts to make seed, the cotton plants drooped under the weight of the swelling bolls, which were opening ever-so-slowly.

October became a coda; the heat and the light had waned, and the year itself was coming to a close. I picked my cotton, ending up with no more than a grocery sack, but a better harvest came from the very reality of growing cotton on the side of a street in Jackson, Mississippi.

Let’s Talk About Gizzards

First off, just what the hell is a gizzard? We have livers, we know what they do–and don’t–but gizzards aren’t something an intern has to deal with unless his daddy was a duck.

Gizzards are a bird’s second stomach, the avian organ that breaks down items difficult to digest. It’s all lean muscle and sinew. According to Gill’s Ornithology, a turkey gizzard can “pulverize walnuts, steel needles, and surgical lancets.”

Chicken gizzards are good, cheap, and no trouble to cook. Poach in seasoned water until tender, drain–reserving that beautiful gelatin-laden broth for any number of sauces and gravies, even those pâtés you’ve always wanted to try–and set aside until ready to use . Once tenderized, you can bread and deep-fry gizzards, use them in dirty rice, or put them in a stir-fry. Marinate in lite soy with sesame oil and garlic, skewer, and broil or grill for an appetizer.

Banana Pineapple Pudding

A delicious twist on a traditional favorite. Mix two packages instant vanilla pudding mix with a cup of milk, refrigerate until partly set. Stir in a can of condensed milk, 8 oz. each of sour cream and whipped topping, 3 ripe (freckled) bananas, sliced or diced, a drained 8 oz. can crushed or chunk pineapple. Layer with vanilla wafers—wafers first, pudding last—and crush a few wafers to sprinkle on top. Some people will sprinkle coconut between the layers and add to the topping. Chill before serving.

Sansing’s History of Calhoun County, Mississippi

David Sansing was—and remains—a towering figure among Mississippi historians. A native of Greenville, Sansing received his Bachelor and Masters degrees from Mississippi College and his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi. He began teaching at Ole Miss in 1970. Sansing wrote about various aspects of the state’s history in eleven books. He wrote this history of Calhoun County in 1959 for his master’s thesis at MC.

Why Sansing, a Delta native (and of Greenville at that) chose Calhoun County, which is in the hill country of the state, for his thesis study presents something of a mystery to those of us familiar with Delta/hill contention, but he give us a clue: “Calhoun County has changed very little in the last fifty years.” Perhaps for Sansing, the county provided the opportunity to document a place thus far sheltered from the winds of change he saw coming swept through the state. We natives of Calhoun should take great pride in having our past documented by a giant of Mississippi history.

David Sansing: A History of Calhoun County

Photo by Robert Jordan