It’s late summer; the exhausting heat lingers, and September’s drought is soon to set in, but on a bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets.
North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties are vastly superior. Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet, the sort of thing a little old lady would poison, pour into cut crystal apéritifs, and serve to a middle-aged rogue she’d discovered was cheating on her. With her maid.
The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the Sanskrit muska-s (testicle,) in reference to the musky scent of the fruit. (Never underestimate etymology.) Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black/purple and the white/bronze. The white/bronze type is called a scuppernong because of a natural cultivar so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety of muscadines, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any ”white” muscadine grape.
You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies, but because their fresh taste is so incredibly wonderful, I recommend that you simply keep a bowl on the kitchen table during the season to nibble on. These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy–but when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor, and of course that essential hint of musk. They’re a little bit pricey, but to me, they’re worth it.
For two crepes, sauté 1 cup crawfish meat in butter with 1 tablespoon each finely-chopped shallots and scallions; season with salt, a dash of garlic powder, a dash of cayenne, add about 3 tablespoons béchamel, a splash of dry white wine, and reduce until mixture is bound. Fill crepes and top with béchamel seasoned with cayenne, wine, and lemon juice. Filling can be frozen.
Within living memory was a time when commercial products and establishments went a long way to convince consumers that their products were “Just like!” if not “Better than!” homemade. This marketing was still going on when I was a kid in the Sixties, even though most Baby Boomers were a generation removed from true home cooking with fresh (unprocessed) dairy, meats and produce. Beautiful, honest homemade resurged and thrived because of what I like to call the “Whole Earth” attitude—God bless Stewart Brand and all who sail in him—but there’s a counter-movement of sorts in those who seek to replicate restaurant dishes for their home table.
It’s only logical that recipes for successful restaurants are closely-guarded secrets. As a child, I knew a woman who claimed to know the Sanders’ Original Recipe of “11 herbs and spices”, one of the most famous trade secrets in the industry, by virtue of the fact that she had worked in a franchise outlet in Grenada, Mississippi for three months while her husband was in the Grenada County lock-up for beating up a grease monkey who’d stolen a gun from the glove compartment of his car while it was in for an oil change. I don’t think she really knew the recipe; her fried chicken tasted nothing like the real thing, but then she always did cook 2/3 through her daily bottle of vodka.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the KFC recipe was made public. The Chicago Tribune reported that a nephew by marriage of Colonel Sanders claimed to have found a copy of the original KFC fried chicken recipe on a handwritten piece of paper in an envelope in a scrapbook. The intrepid journalists in Chicago apparently admitted this discovery was within the realm of possibilities, but as journalists of fortitude and integrity, felt compelled to verify the recipe before publication. After “some trial and error” they decided the chicken should be soaked in buttermilk and coated once in the following breading mixture, then fried in oil at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown. With the addition of MSG (in an unspecified amount) they claimed the recipe produced fried chicken “indistinguishable” from fried chicken they had purchased at KFC.
11 Spices – Mix With 2 Cups White Flour
2/3 Ts (tablespoons) Salt
1/2 Ts Thyme
1/2 Ts Basil
1/3 Ts Oregano
1 Ts Celery salt
1 Ts Black pepper
1 Ts Dried mustard
4 Ts Paprika
2 Ts Garlic salt
1 Ts Ground ginger
3 Ts White pepper
While the KFC empire is built upon fried chicken, cole slaw is a signature side.
KFC Copycat Cole Slaw
13 cups chopped cabbage This is about 1 large head of cabbage or 2 medium heads of cabbage
1 green bell pepper (optional, there is no bell pepper in the KFC recipe)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped carrot 1 medium size carrot
2 cups Miracle Whip Light
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
If you are lucky enough to have a food processor, get it out of your cupboard. Start to cut up the cabbage and place it in the processor. While cutting up the cabbage, also cut up small slices of green pepper, onion, and carrot and add to the processor. Mixing up the ingredients this way will help distribute the flavors throughout the slaw. You may want to use a little less of the onion, or green bell pepper, but do use all of the carrot. If you do not have a food processor, no problem, simply chop the cabbage, onions, and carrots into small pieces. Add chopped green bell pepper if desired. Now mix Miracle Whip, vinegar, oil, and sugar until you have a smooth mixture. The taste should be sweet with just a hint of vinegar. The amount of dressing may be increased or decreased according to the amount of slaw you are making. Add to cut up veggies and mix well. Let stand at least one hour to let flavors mix.
When all is said and done, I’m of the studied opinion that foods are a lot more than the sum of their parts. Does KFC copycat cole slaw taste exactly the same if you’re not eating it out of a Styrofoam red-and-white container with the Colonel on it?
Southerners share an acute awareness that most of our fellow countrymen view us with disdain. This knowledge of ill regard is something we learn from an early age, and the message is amplified and compounded by a steady stream of negativity from every imaginable source: books, movies, television and other media, not to mention personal experiences garnered by traveling outside our lands and meeting that contempt face-to-face.
As powerful as this imprint is, still it can come as a shock, particularly for a Mississippian, who even among their fellows from other Southern states are pissed upon as if from a great height, to find that a person you admire for talent, wisdom, and at least an ostensible generosity of mind can be vehemently bigoted towards a region and people never visited. Such was my reaction to Bill Bryson’s account of a visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988.
When I was a graduate student studying English as a language, Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) captivated me. Witty, informative and occasionally dazzlingly well-written,–he hangs 10 all through Middle English–Bryson came across as the bluff, jovial professor of the sort one should hope to have in a subject that can be stupefying.
Many years later, when I came across Bryson’s account of his journey through Mississippi in The Lost Continent, I was stunned to discover him, a native Iowan now living in Britain, as full of bile as most American writers who venture south and dismayed to find his account packed with the usual shopworn stereotypes, clichés, and overt contempt. Here’s some of what he wrote.
Just south of Grand Junction, Tennessee, I passed over the state line into Mississippi. A sign beside the highway said, WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI. WE SHOOT TO KILL. It didn’t really. I just made that up. This was only the second time I had ever been to the Deep South and I entered it with a sense of foreboding. It is surely no coincidence that all those films you have ever seen about the South – Easy Rider, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, Deliverance – depict Southerners as murderous, incestuous, shitty-shoed rednecks. It really is another country. … I followed Highway 7 south towards Oxford. It took me along the western edge of the Holly Springs National Forest which seemed to be mostly swamp and scrub land. I was disappointed. I had half expected that as soon as I crossed into Mississippi there would be Spanish mosses (sic) hanging from the trees and women in billowy dresses twirling parasols and white-haired colonels with handlebar mustaches drinking mint juleps on the lawn while armies of slaves gathered the cotton and sang sweet hymns. But this landscape was just scrubby and hot and nondescript. Occasionally there would be a shack set up on bricks, with an old black man in a rocking chair on the porch, but precious little sign of life or movement elsewhere.
At the town of Holly Springs stood a sign for Senatobia, and I got briefly excited. Senatobia!What a great name for a Mississippi town! All that the old South stood for seemed to be encapsulated in those five golden syllables. Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was sweaty and overweightand sat low in his seat. I assume he was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?” This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?” “I said, how yew doin’?” “I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.” “Y’on vacation?” “Yup” “Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?” I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.” “I say” – and he repeated it more carefully – “how doo yew lack Mississippi?” It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I signed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.” I drove on to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as it’s known. The people named the town after Oxford in England in the hope that this would persuade the state to build the university there, and the state did. This tells you most of what you need to know about the workings of the Southern mind. Oxford appeared to be an agreeable town. It was built around a square, in the middle of which stood the Lafayette County Courthouse, with a tall clock tower and Doric columns, basking grandly in the Indian-summer Around the perimeter of the square were attractive stores and a tourist information office. I went into the tourist information office to get directions to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home. …
Behind the desk sat a large, exceptionally well-dressed black woman. This surprised me a little, this being Mississippi. She wore a dark two-piece suit, which must have been awfully warm in the Mississippi heat. I asked her the way to Rowan Oak. “You parked on the square?” she said. Actually she said, “You pocked on the skwaya?” “Yes.” “Okay, honey, you git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya. You goes out the other end, twoads the university, goes three blocks, turns rat at the traffic lats, goes down the hill and you there, un’stan?” “No.” She sighed and started again. “You git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya–” “What, I drive around the square?” “That’s rat, honey. You makes the skwaya.” She was talking to me the way I would talk to a French person. She gave me the rest of the instructions and I pretended to understand, though they meant nothing to me. All I kept thinking was what funny sounds they were to be emerging from such an elegant-looking woman. As I went out the door she called out, “Hit doan really matter anyhow cust hit be’s closed now.” She really said hit; she really said be’s. I said, “Pardon?” “Hit be’s closed now. You kin look around the grounz if you woan, but you cain’t go insod.” I wint outsod thinking that Miss Hippy was goan be hard work.
There’s more; some worse, some better. Bryson visited Tupelo and Columbus as well, but in the final analysis. he left Mississippi with pronounced relief, and his impressions of the state were, I’m disappointed to say, rather much what we have come to expect of most people who visit with preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well received by the world at large.
For a long time I’ve been remiss about not getting beloved recipes from people who’ve since passed from my life. I came to feel those recipes were irreplaceable riches that had been swallowed by the maw of time, as indeed they are.
Yet this remarkable world goes around, and I’ve come to realize that getting recipes from others is important, perhaps even crucial in some larger scheme of things. So we must wrench the dishes we love from those who create them, even if we have to beat the holy hell out of them to do it. It’s our duty as members of the human race.
The bill to designate the mockingbird the official state bird of Mississippi was approved unanimously by both houses of the Mississippi Legislature in 1944, which is probably the only time those assemblies totally agreed on anything. Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida followed suit, establishing the Northern mockingbird (fifteen species of the genus live outside Dixie) as the most popular state bird in the Union.
The mockingbird is a Southern icon, but I’d like to have an avian symbol for Mississippi that sets us apart from our Great Sister States. Let’s keep the mockingbird, but adopt another winged denizen of our borders to represent us. My nominee is the Mississippi kite, a bird so at home in the air it’s said that “Only two powers of nature can defeat the wings of a Mississippi kite. One is rain, the other darkness.” These graceful birds can be seen sailing above our woods in summer, tumbling in the air as they catch prey on the wing. A pair will usually nest in the same location for years.
Another unanimous vote on a new state bird is absurd; some fool’s going to suggest a cardinal, another a blue jay, and you can be damn sure some legislator from the Delta will throw a duck in just for the hell of it. The Mississippi legislature recently replaced two state symbols; let’s bring them together to give us a bird of our own.
A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford settled into the laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater it will always be, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those were halcyon years for me, as they were for many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.
Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theatre was located across a parking lot from the Gin, the first among many restaurants and bars to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted wet. The theatre was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess, painted by a local academic artist. In time, many local artists would festoon the structure inside and out. The bathroom graffiti at the Hoka was as inspirational as it is legendary.
The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor. Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.
I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projectors.
Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted. Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading art form of the 20th century, as well as a portal to other worlds.
When we first showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience–and the projectionists, I might add–stared open-mouthed at the screen, and when the audience began throwing rice at the wedding, hollering phrases at the screen and doing the Time Warp, we swept up the rice. We also learned to ban potato flakes.
Ron showed a lot of great cult movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers, and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and before long, it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.
At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain, to name a few, and brought to light (literally) unknown images: Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Lang’s electric automaton in Metropolis, a leather-clad Brando leaning on a jukebox in The Wild One. Ron Shapiro brought film as art to Oxford.
The Hoka had two signature desserts: the New York-style cheesecake made by the Freer sisters, and a hot fudge pie made by Jani Mae Locke Collier. Jani Mae is a native of Oxford. She and my sister Cindy lived together at a big house at the end of North 14th in the mid-1970s when the Hoka started. Jani brought this family recipe to the Moonlight when Betty Blair got it going. Jani Mae is married to Emmett Collier, who makes beautiful pottery in Brandon, Mississippi. It’s a very simple recipe, easily made, and best served à la mode.
Jani Mae’s Hot Fudge Pie
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter
½ c. plain flour
5 tablespoons cocoa
2 eggs beaten
Cream butter and sugar, mix well with flour, cocoa and eggs. Spoon into a toasted pie crust. Place in middle rack of oven at 350 until firm in the middle, about 20 minutes or so. We usually sliced these into quarters.
Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in Oxford in 1974. He showed much of what passed as “art cinema”, but included an eclectic blend of old “B” movies, and selections from cutting-edge favorites such as Russ Meyers and John Waters. Sometime around 1978, Ron went into partnership with Betty Blair, a beautiful lady from the Delta, and together they opened up the Moonlight Café in the theater. A dining area was constructed, the plumbing was re-done, kitchen equipment and a storage room were installed. The Moonlight served sandwiches, salads and desserts, and in a short time the Hoka became a popular nightspot in Oxford, a place to see and be seen.
One of the signature desserts was a New York-style cheesecake that came to the Moonlight via two sisters, Marla and Lee Ann Frear, who hailed from Delaware. Both Marla and Lee Ann were big, buxom blondes. I vividly remember seeing them at a Halloween party costumed as Siamese twins, resembling nothing less than a battleship in full steam as their huge boobs plowed a wake through the crowd. They got the recipe from their mother, who was a caterer in Dover, and sold the cakes to the Moonlight to abet their college allowances. After they graduated, they gave the recipe to Gene Duncan, who gave it to me some forty years ago. It’s a simple concoction, but you must take care to pack the crust evenly or it will singe on the outside and be soggy in the middle
Filling: ¾ cup sugar, 3 large eggs, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 24 oz. cream cheese, room temperature, 1 stick melted butter. Beat eggs, add sugar and mix well at medium speed, then add cream cheese and melted butter. Crust: 1 box Nabisco graham cracker crumbs, 1 ½ cup sugar, 1 ½ stick melted butter. Topping: 1 pint sour cream, room temperature, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 4 tablespoons sugar.
Mix crust ingredients, pack in lightly oiled 9”x3” spring form pan. Mix filling ingredients well at medium speed for three minutes. Pour over crust, spread evenly and bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, spoon on topping, return to oven at 475 for 5 min. Chill before slicing and serving.
Cream a stick of butter with a cup of brown sugar. Blend in two beaten eggs, a teaspoon vanilla flavoring, a teaspoon almond extract, and two very ripe mashed bananas. Stir in a mix of 2 cups plain flour sifted with 2 teaspoons baking powder, a teaspoon baking soda, and a teaspoon salt. Mix and add enough almond milk to make a smooth batter, a little on the thin side. Pour the batter into a lined and oiled 9×5 loaf pan, and place in a pre-heated 350 oven until the loaf pulls away from the pan, about an hour.