The Culinary Welty

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction includes the green-tomato pickle in Why I Live at the P.O., the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, and–most notably–the groaning boards in Delta Wedding

But Welty  wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was likely written in the mid-1930s.

Welty’s introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, is arguably the best offering of Southern culinary exposition, a finely-seasoned piece with a flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking; restaurants were novel until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. 

The Flavor of Jackson

Most Jacksonians would agree, I think, that Jackson has always characteristically dined at home and entertained at home, and does so still by first preference. It’s been out natural form of hospitality as of course its been the most logical and economical way to live.

There was indeed and for many years, the elegant dining room of the Edwards House ready for the important or large occasion. But we were too small a place and too far inland from the Gulf or New Orleans to have been heir to restaurants of another kind: one Mexican at his hot tamale stand, on the corner of North West and Hamilton during the cold months, couldn’t make us cosmopolitan. Rather than anything else, I think—and I like to think—the word for the Jackson flavor is “home”.

It was mostly the young who went forth with any regularity for outside refreshment. After the movies, the ice cream parlor. After “The Thief of Bagdad” at the Majestic, the other dime went for the strawberry ice cream soda at McIntyre’s. And wasn’t it Mr. Key’s Drug Store that seemed a functionable part of the Century Theatre? It had purple paper grapes on a cardboard trellis overhead—almost like a part of the stage scenery to come. Just before curtain time, my father took me in there and presented me with the box of Jordan’s Almonds—“bird eggs”—that was part of the theatre rite. Some tired road company would go through its Victor Herbert for us, but it was magic, all the same, and holding a “bird egg” in the mouth (impossible to swallow, in the excitement) was part of the magic.

When the whole family sallied forth for refreshment, it was very likely after supper on hot nights just before bedtime. They’d get in the car and drive to Seal Lily’s and have ice cream cones all around; it was best to hold them outside the car and eat them through the windows, and finish fast before the last bit melted.

But parties were given at home, and they started—I believe it was true for old and young—plenty early in the afternoon. You began eating around 3:30 and kept it up until you had entirely spoiled your supper. Party food drew its praises for how pretty it was (example, Bridemaids’ Salad, all white down to the white grapes) or for how much trouble the hostess went to make it (Pressed Chicken), but it’s a safe bet that all the refreshments were the successes they were because they were rich—thunderously rich.

Sometimes we branched out from home as far as Shadow Lawn. When parties were given there it wasn’t in order to save the trouble at home but to offer the guests a change—an al fresco in the quiet country air of the Terry Road. Some of our high school graduation “teas” took place at Shadow Lawn. The receiving line stood there on Miss Anita Perkins’s lawn, in the very early shadows, and the punch bowl waited on her porch, and there were her own delicious things to eat—frozen fruit salad was her specialty—and all was elegant. It was the era of the Madeira tea napkin. I believe I could say that more tea napkins were handed round at that high-minded time than I ever saw in my life, before or since. (And at least half of them must have been embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson. She too was very much a part of the flavor of Jackson.)

As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph.

Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch. There was a barrel of flour standing in the kitchen! Perhaps a sugar barrel too. The household may have provided (ours did) its own good butter (which implies a churn, and, of course, a cow), and its own eggs, and most likely it grew its own tomatoes, beans, strawberries, even asparagus. There’d be the seasonal rounds of the blackberry lady, appearing with her buckets at your door, and the watermelon man with his load, who’d plug you one to your taste, and the regulars sending their cries through the summer streets—“Butterbeans, snapbeans and okra!”—followed by the ice cream man, of course. Meat? Why your mother called up the butcher, talked to him, asked what was especially nice today, and let him send it. There was communication with butchers. And my father sometimes saw them, for he’d stop by on his way from the office and come bringing home by hand the little squared-off, roofed over, white cardboard bucket with the wire handles, fragrant and leaking a little—and produced oysters for supper, just ladled out of the oyster barrel that the butcher got in from New Orleans.

And of course they grated from whole nutmegs, they ground coffee from the beans, went to work on whole coconuts with the hatchet. Some people knew how to inveigle for the real vanilla bean. (Vanilla must have had a central importance in those days—think of all the cakes. Wasn’t there a local lady who made her living, and her entertainment, just selling vanilla extract over the telephone?)

Our mothers were sans mixes, sans foil, sans freezer, sans blender, sans monosodium glutamate, but their ingredients were as fresh as the day; and they knew how to make bread.

Jackson believed in and knew how to achieve the home flavor. And if ever there was a solid symbol of that spirit, one that radiates its pride and joy, it is the hand-cranked ice cream freezer. I see it established in a shady spot on a back porch, in the stage of having been turned till it won’t go around another time; its cylinder is full of its frozen custard that’s bright with peaches, or figs, or strawberries, its dasher lifted out and the plug in tight, the whole packed with ice and salt and covered with a sack to wait for dinner—and right now, who bids to lick the dasher?

I daresay any fine recipe used in Jackson could be attributed to a local lady, or her mother—Mrs. Cabell’s Pecans, Mrs. Wright’s Cocoons, Mrs. Lyell’s Lemon Dessert. Recipes, in the first place, had to be imparted—there was something oracular in the transaction—and however often they were made after that by others, they kept their right names. I Make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more, and in that cheeriest, most aromatic of places to celebrate in the home kitchen.

Jackson had its full plenty of recipes, but I hardly remember a cookbook. My mother had the only one I ever saw as a child, “The White House Cookbook”. I don’t recall which president’s wife was in headquarters at the time of our edition, but the book opened to a full-length drawing of a deer, complete with antlers, marked off with dotted lines to show how to cut it up for venison, which suggests poor Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt. The most useful thing about “The White House Cookbook” was its roomy size, for in between its pages could be stored the recipes jotted down on scraps of paper and old envelopes, that my mother really used. They accumulated themselves over the years from friends and relations and from her own invention and a time or two from the Mystery Chef who came in over the radio. She had a cookbook within a cookbook. She had some of the making, in fact, of the very sort of cookbook that this one (i.e. The Jackson Cookbook) is certain to be. Today there’s a cookbook available for every conceivable purpose and occasion, but in this one we come a full circle: we’re back again to the local using these cherished recipes we can make and delight in the fruits of Jackson itself.

I’d like to express the pious hope that we’re to find these recipes given in full. My mother’s don’t do me as much good as they might because she never included directions. Her reasoning, often expressed, was that any cook worth her salt would know, given a list of ingredients, what to do with them, and if she did come to a momentary loss while stirring up a dish—taste it! Cooking was a matter of born sense, ordinary good judgment, enough experience, materials worth the bothering about, and tasting. I had to sit on a stool while she made spoonbread and take down what I saw like a reporter, to get her recipe.

I can’t resist adding this, for I think it applies. John Woodburn was a New York editor who’d com through Jackson on a scouting trip for young unknown writers and spent a night at our house. He carried my first collection of stories back with him and worked very hard trying to persuade his editor to take them. Several years later, when he succeeded, he sent me a telegram to say, “I knew as soon as I tasted your mother’s waffles it would turn out all right.”

Image via Janine’s World

Letter from Jackson

Darling Julia,

The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good, back to the mountains, to the house you love, to the deep old woods I love, and to holding you, forever.

When I get home, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it, but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.

It’s been three months since I got here–I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel! This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of engagement, not just of being but of living, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it, developing a feel for it. Surveying the streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights. Yet most of the work has been downtown, the strangest part of the city, yet its most characteristic.

Jackson doesn’t feel old, it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Modernist towers, none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings. The face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with empty or shattered windows like broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with roundabouts and narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.

Poverty is one of two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, closely intertwined, is racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here; though a great show of progress is made in the local media, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office. These people funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed not to improve the city, but to affect their political ends. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself, a shattered glass best melt and recast.

I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well, darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the mountainside under a starry sky.

All my love,

Timothy

Mrs. Faulkner’s Wedding

In this foreword to her son Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, Estelle Oldham Faulkner recounts her life before and wedding to her husband, written at least five years before the publication of the book in 1977, the year of Franklin’s death.

For those who may be interested in Malcolm’s story of his close association of William Faulkner, I, his mother, feel compelled to write an unsolicited, explanatory forward. My son has written his own preface, as well as the text with follows—I use the word “text” advisedly, because fiction—imagination and literary embellishments—is completely foreign to his factual way of thinking.

Malcolm was born in Shanghai, the son of my first husband, Judge Cornell Franklin. We also had a daughter, Victoria (called Cho-Cho by her Japanese nurse-maid, and eventually by everyone but her father), a few years older than Malcolm. We were living in Hawaii when she was born, and she was still quite a mall child when Judge Franklin decided to move to China and go into the private practice of law in this flourishing international city of the Orient. A few years later Cornell and I agreed on an amicable divorce, and I brought the two children back to Mississippi.

It is not my intention to write a biography, but I feel the necessity of establishing the fact that our divorce did in no way alienate the deep affection of my former husband’s family in Columbus bestowed upon me. Visits by both families between Columbus and Oxford became frequent, mainly, perhaps, on account of the children. The train trip from Oxford to Columbus was particularly irksome—a change, and a long wait in a town called Winona. This is how Judge Franklin’s family met, and got to know, William Faulkner so well, for Bill would often drive us over, and he was very reluctant to forgo their hospitality. Their welcome was all too sincere. “Gran” (Victoria’s and Malcolm’s Franklin-side grandmother) was a charming and admittedly romantic woman, and it was she who approved and applauded my marriage to Bill. She also unhesitatingly upbraided my father for coldly insisting that I’d married a wastrel.

All this brings me to what I’ll wager was the strangest of honeymoons—one even a novelist would hesitate to invent: the groom a bachelor, the bride a divorcee with two children, and all of us having a gay, carefree time in a tumble-down old house on the Gulf of Mexico, with a colored cook loaned to us by my first husband’s mother.

It was late afternoon, the twentieth of June, 1929. My sister, Dorothy, had gone with us to College Hill, a village several miles from Oxford where there was a beautiful old Presbyterian church and an elderly minister whom we all knew, and who gladly performed the simple ceremony. At times I’ve wondered if Dr. Hedleston welcomed us to the church and married us out of pure Godly love and understanding, or was he thumbing his nose at the Pharisaical laws imposed upon divorce by the Episcopal Church? I’ll never know the answer.

Bill and I had talked over our plans for the honey-moon at some length. A friend of his had turned over a big old beach house for our use—unrentable, because at that time Pascagoula wasn’t a fashionable Gulf resort. Victoria was in Columbus with Gan, so Bill insisted that Malcolm be picked up with all our luggage, and dropped in Columbus till we’d gotten settle in our borrowed summer home. How simple it all sounded! I had left a note with Mama about taking Malcolm with us, so I thought that all we had to do was to take Dot home, gather Mac (Malcolm, jly) and the luggage, and take off for Gran’s. She was expecting us.

Mac was still such a baby that I had a nurse for him. Ethel Ruth was a fine playmate, but couldn’t read or write, or even tell the time by a clock with Roman numerals. So when Bill steered the car into our drive way, we found the child dirty, grass-stained and generally unkempt. Bill laughed, thrust Malcolm in the car, stowed our many bags, said good-bye to Dot and headed east toward Columbus.

By then it was late afternoon. We drove as far as Tupelo, and got rooms in the only hotel. I bathed Mac and gave him supper while Bill telephoned Gan that it would be impossible to travel further that night—to expect us for dinner the next day.

Brain Food

Poverty is endemic among students; tuitions are ridiculous, and booze ain’t cheap, either. Fortunately for scholars, ramen provides a warm meal that sates and doesn’t drink too deeply of the beer budget. A nice hot bowl of chicken ramen will knock out a Heineken hangover in less than an hour (trust me) and you need nothing more than a sack of ramen, a bowl and hot water. Cheap, fast and simple, ramen is the ultimate convenience food.

Ramen — along with microwave popcorn and breakfast cereal — remains the food item most likely to be found in American dormitory rooms. Ironically or not, it’s also one of the most popular items in prison commissaries. Despite its ease of preparation, rumor has it that stoners skip the cooking, shake the seasoning packet on the dried noodles and gnaw them with dazed gusto. Ramen has of late been held up as an example of impoverishment in an insurance commercial citing the example of a “ramen every night” diet for not buying their coverage. Frankly, when it comes down to not having auto insurance or eating ramen every night, I’m going to sell the damn car. I don’t care if Elvis did drive it once.

Ramen is a good item to have on hand; noodles in an instant. I keep several packets in a kitchen cabinet alongside my Zatarain’s rice, Sunflower quick grits and Ore-Ida flake potatoes. Purists might deride this cache of processed starches, but it’s a sure bet that those who do will have a stock of Bertolli on their shelves. Just use the noodles when you have a need for them, and forget about that little packet of salt, food coloring and powdered animals you’ll find packaged with them. Hydrate the noodles, rinse, toss with oil (NOT olive oil, mind you) and set aside in a covered container before use. This preparation might sound unnecessary, but unless you’ve been hitting a bong, you’ll thank me for this advice when using ramen in anything other than hot soup.

Also be advised that you’re going to find that ramen, like so many basic foodstuffs, has not escaped the foodie tendency to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. Ramen has found its way into hundreds of inappropriate recipes; while I have yet to try ramen pizza or ramen mac and cheese (with ham, no less), the very idea of them makes me wonder about the aberrations of the human mind. Let’s not try to reinvent the wheel; the best way to use ramen is in a dish that echoes its origins and ease of preparation: in a stir-fry.

Take one prepared packet of ramen noodles, 2 cups diced raw chicken (substitute cooked kidney beans if you like) and 2 cups sliced vegetables (peppers, onions, celery, etc.) per person. Heat vegetable oil, add a bit of garlic, cook chicken until firm (or heat beans), seasoning with black pepper and lite soy, add vegetables and cook until just done. Toss in your ramen, another dash of soy, and mix well. Then read a good book, for chrissakes.

Ella’s Chicken Sausage

Take 5 pounds of chicken meat with skin. You can bone a whole chicken, but a lot of times you can find thighs with only the leg bones, and I’ll use those and throw in a couple of skinless breast halves. Grind through a ¼” plate into a large bowl. Add two tablespoons salt, a tablespoon ground black pepper (more if you want), a quarter cup each of fresh chopped sage, thyme, and parsley, a half cup fresh chopped green onion, and a half cup cold chicken broth. Some people add cayenne, but I don’t. I think it tastes better if you let the herbs stand out. Don’t use fresh pepper of any kind, because that will kill the herbs. Mix VERY well! Stuff loosely into casings (pork or beef). You’ll need about 12 feet casing. Twist sausages into about 6-inch links. Refrigerate for a few days to let the seasoning work through the meat. You can pan-fry or broil these, but they’re best grilled. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of stuffing casings, you can make the mix into patties. Don’t let raw sausages sit in the fridge. If you’re not going to use them in three or four days, freeze them.

Ya Mama’s Mynezz

In July, 2018, Epicurious, “the ultimate food resource for the home cook,” tasted 16 brands of mayonnaise to determine the very best one. The testers selected top-selling brands widely available across the country, and included a few regional cult favorites (e.g. Duke’s and Blue Plate) easily available online. They also included Miracle Whip, which isn’t technically mayonnaise, but is a popular as a mayo substitute in the Midwest and elsewhere. In a blind tasting, their panel of editors found Blue Plate Mayonnaise “The Best Mayonnaise You Can Buy at the Grocery Store.”

The panel described its flavor as “bright, lemony even, and though it looked a bit gloppy upon opening, a quick stir revealed that it had the perfect creamy texture.” Blue Plate was one of the few brands in the taste test made exclusively with egg yolks as opposed to whole eggs, which testers claimed gave it “a more satisfying, homemade flavor.” Editor Emily Johnson detected the “sharp bite” Blue Plate has at the back of the tongue, which is ideal for a sauce, and when eaten with cherry tomatoes, the acidity softens, enhancing the fruit, and making the whole bite taste more tomatoey. “This is 100% the mayo you want on your next BLT,” she added. And on your favorite Po-Boy; Blue Plate Mayonnaise guarantees an authentic New Orleans flavor.

Gretna, LA, late ’30s/early ’40s.

Before the early 1900’s, mayonnaise was considered a gourmet condiment that could only be acquired from what today we would call “artisan” sources. Blue Plate was one of the first commercially prepared mayonnaise producers and distributors in the United States, beginning in 1929 when Wesson-Snowdrift Company, an offshoot of The Southern Oil Company, began to produce mayonnaise in a warehouse in Gretna, Louisiana. The company chose “Blue Plate” for its product from the popular term “blue plate special,” meaning a full meal at a modest price. The commercial production of mayonnaise in a city renowned for its food was considered a revolutionary culinary modernization.

Original Blue Plate Factory c. 1978

In 1941, construction began on a sleek, white concrete factory with rounded glass-brick corners across the river in Mid-City, at what is now 1315 S. Jefferson Davis Parkway. Designed by New Orleans architect, August Perez Junior, the Blue Plate building was completed and opened for business in November 1943. The Streamline Moderne structure, with its terra-cotta tile and dazzling art deco sign, soon became known to many New Orleanians as the place where “ya mama’s mynezz” was made. Over time, the Blue Plate brand also included margarine, jelly, salad dressing, and barbecue sauce.

Locally delivered daily in small trucks to each store, Blue Plate Mayonnaise was marketed throughout the Southeast. In 1960, Hunt Foods of California bought Wesson Oil and Blue Plate Foods, Inc., but in 1974, William B. Reily III, whose grandfather founded the popular Luzianne brand, acquired Blue Plate Foods from Hunt-Wesson, and the mayonnaise ownership returned to its Louisiana homeland and became part of the Wm. B. Reily and Company family. Over the next 30 years, Reily acquired several brands from both regional and national companies. They include Swans Down Cake Flour, Try Me Sauces & Seasonings (namely Tiger Sauce), French Market Coffees, New England Tea & Coffee.

While the Reily Foods Company is still headquartered in New Orleans, the company made the decision to shut down operations there in 2000, moving production to the company factory in Knoxville. The factory closure, coupled with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, seemed to ensure the factory’s destruction, but developers turned the iconic building into loft apartments in 2011. While you’ll certainly find Blue Plate on location, it will likely be in someone’s refrigerator.

A Preacher’s Kid from Alligator

Jack’s Skillet: Plain Talk and Some Recipes from a Guy in the Kitchen (Algonquin, 1997), is by Jack Butler, who isn’t just some guy, but a poet and novelist. He was born in Alligator, Mississippi, to a son of Delta gentry who sought the cloth. He attended high school in Clinton, Mississippi, was ordained in Missouri, and earned an MFA from UA (Fayetteville)  in 1979.

Butler’s first novel, Jujitsu for Christ (August House, 1986), told the story of a young man who opens a martial arts school in Jackson, Mississippi. His third book, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock (Knopf, 1993), employs collage, newspaper excerpts, cartoon reprints, and an omniscient narrator who claims to be either the Holy Ghost or a deceased dog. The novel received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote a food column for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (His 1993 short story collection, Hawk Gumbo, is not a cookbook, but it’s good stuff!).

In Jack’s Skillet, Butler writes about food as pleasure, as ritual, as communication, “satisfaction, the giving and receiving of sustenance and delight.”

“I’m a cook, and I can’t help thinking about food. I’m a novelist, and I can’t help telling stories, I’m a poet, and I can’t help singing out from time to time, As a result, you should think of this book as a story, a story with occasional bursts of paean and dithyramb. The story is the story of our lives with food. I say our.”

“Stories have characters, and this one is no exception. I can’t write about food without writing about people. Stories also have settings and backgrounds. I spent roughly the first twenty years of my life in Mississippi, mostly in the cotton-growing Delta. Then I spent twenty-five or so in Arkansas. You are what you eat, and all my life I’ve eaten Southern. But sort of nouvelle Southern, with pluralistic influences. Semi-enlightened good old boy, you might say.”

“I can’t imagine writing about food and not at some point talking about the absolute best breakfast on earth, which is not, I’m sorry to say, garlic-and-cheese grits, or even pork chops, scrambled eggs, and hot biscuits with strawberry preserves, but novy mit a schmeer-a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese and layered with capers, thin slices of smoked Nova Scotia salmon, tomato, and onion.”

Jack’s Skillet includes such pearls as “Tomato Gravy and Biscuits,” “Mosey Froghead’s Barbecue Sauce,” “A Southerner’s First Meal in Heaven,” “A Grace for the Old Man,” and this nugget:

How to Get Rid of Beer

I’m not a heavy-duty beer drinker. I like stout, and I like Alaskan amber. Which, incidentally, as I found out on my last trip to Alaska, is what they now call the beer formerly known as Chinook. I spent half a week in Fairbanks asking after Chinook and not finding it before anybody bothered to straighten me out. Seems somebody decided that reminding the thirsty customer of the smell of dead fish just at the point of purchase wasn’t all that grand a marketing strategy. Maybe not. The beer’s just as good, either way.

I do like a snappingly cold brewski or two after a long hike or a hot game in the summertime, but I will never park in front of the tube and start in on a sixpack.

Nevertheless, we always seem to have extra beer around the house, lots of extra beer. Usually several different brands. Lately it’s been Pearl Light and Miller Ice Draft. I can, by the way, recommend Pearl Light as an excellent swimming-pool beer for those 100° Arkansas or Carolina or even Connecticut July days. Only seventy calories a can, and it tastes pretty good. I mean really, I’m not kidding, it tastes pretty good. For American beer.

Anyway, what happens is that we have a party or have some people over, so we go out and buy some beer, and then the people bring their own beer, and then everybody winds up drinking white wine or gets into my Wild Turkey while I’m not looking.

So then we have a refrigerator full of beer. It stays full for months and months while I try to figure out ways to get rid of it. And that’s our situation right now.

I can manage a can or two a month myself, if I decide to have boilermakers for a change, but that’s about all, especially during the winter. Clearly, then, I am in need of alternatives. Lately I’ve been experimenting with beer batter. I like batter-fried things. The greasier the better. Grease is good for you, after all. _ And it’s fun to play around with different sorts of batter. I grew up on cornmeal batter and egg batter, though mostly when I do steak fingers or catfish or fried chicken nowadays, as I’ve told you, I just salt, pepper, flour, and fry.

Beer batter is completely different.

The recipe I use is simplicity itself. (I want to caution you that there’s nothing official about this recipe. This is not, repeat not, authentic beer batter.) I put white flour in a bowl, the amount depending on how much batter I think I’m going to need. I sprinkle in some salt according to how salty I think I’m going to want the batter to taste. I cut in some butter or margarine in the ratio of roughly a tablespoon to a cup of flour. I add cold beer, stirring until I have a nice thick batter-liquid, but dense and clinging. I drink the rest of the beer.

Beer batter comes out a lot like tempura, which means it isn’t suitable for just anything. I’ve tried it out on all sorts of things recently, even catfish and chicken livers. On the whole, I don’t think I’d recommend it for most meats, though the chicken livers were just fine hot from the skillet. Jayme liked the catfish, but I had some reservations. My thought is that it would work better for extremely firm-fleshed seafoods, like shrimp and, hm, ah, shrimp.

And vegetables. Beer batter is really great for those deep-fried happy-hour veggie-type gnoshes. It works great for mushrooms, which are almost impossible to get any other sort of batter to stick to. It would, I am sure, if you can bear the concept, work great for nuggets of cauliflower or broccoli, or for dill pickles. It is supreme for onion rings, which I dearly love, and of which good ones are mighty hard to get.

What I do is flour my fryees- the rings, the mushrooms, whatever. Just shake them in a bag with flour, dip them in the batter, drop them in hot oil in a deep fryer, get them golden brown all over, and drain them (beer batter holds a lot of oil).

Then you can sit down with your crunchy munchies and tune in to see what the score of the game is, and whether Mike Piazza has hit any more home runs.

And what the hey, maybe even have a cold beer with your meal. It would be appropriate, and you’d be getting rid of two of the cotton-picking things in one evening.

Beer-Batter Onion Rings

1 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, cut into 14″-thick rings
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
6 to 8 ounces beer
Cooking oil for deep-frying

Mix flour and salt. Put flour mixture into a paper bag. Throw in onion rings and shake, then set aside. They should be only lightly coated. Transfer flour to a mixing bowl and cut in butter. Add beer gradually, stirring until batter thickens. Heat cooking oil in a deep fryer (a high-walled skillet will do). The oil is hot enough for frying when water dripped onto the oil pops and sizzles. Coat onion rings thoroughly with batter and drop into oil. Fry until golden brown all over, then remove to paper and drain. This batter will also serve as a fine tempura-style batter for a wide range of vegetables.

State Cake

It should come as no surprise to any of you that most states in our Union actually have official state foods, and it should be equally unsurprising that most are desserts.

Official state foods include Lane Cake, the State Dessert of Alabama, as well as the comparably famous Smith Island Cake, which is that of Maryland. Utah has a State Snack Food (Jell-O!?), and it’s quite telling that the State Snack of Texas is tortilla chips and salsa while that of New York is yogurt. California has all of four State Nuts (almond, pecan, walnut, and pistachio). By my reckoning, Oklahoma has won the state food contest hands down by officiating a State Meal: Chicken-fried steak, barbecued pork, fried okra, squash, cornbread, grits, corn, sausage with biscuits and gravy, black-eyed peas, strawberries, and pecan pie.

Unofficial state foods are often the subject articles assigned to some junior editor for filler/fodder in any given dozens of click-bait slide shows. On any given one of these fluff pieces, you’ll inevitably find a Mississippi mud cake, which is not our official state cake. In fact, unless you count large mouth bass, Mississippi doesn’t have a state food.

Mississippi mud cake is more fudge or a brownie than a cake, and that’s likely how it began, but around fifty years ago in the 70s when all sorts of craziness was going on (yes, I was there), marshmallows—inexplicably and unnecessarily—were introduced, likely because the resulting swirls are reminiscent of currents and eddies. Me, I think marshmallows are a vile alteration, and Australians seem to agree, since the Aussie mud cake—no, they do not call it Murrumbidgee mud cake—is marshmallow-free and smooth as silt.

One icon deserves another, so here’s Tammy Wynette’s recipe for Mississippi mud cake, which she says was taught to her by her mother, Mildred Lee.

2 sticks melted butter
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups plain flour
1 ½ cups pecans, chopped
½ cup cocoa
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
Mix together sugar, cocoa, and butter and eggs. Add flour, pecans, vanilla and salt to above. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees in a greased 9×13 oblong pan.
Topping:
Cover with miniature marshmallows and return to oven to melt.
Cream:
½ cup milk
1/3 cup cocoa
1 stick melted butter
1 box powdered sugar
Sift cocoa and powdered sugar, add milk and butter. Mix until smooth, then put on top of cake.

Stoner Dan’s Summer Sausage

People don’t make their own sausage for many reasons. Top of the list is because they don’t have the equipment or patience. But summer sausage requires no special equipment and little patience.

Prior to hitting the kitchen, sodium nitrate, summer sausage seasoning, and casings need to be acquired. These items are not hard to find over the net, and can usually be found locally. You’ll spend about $8 for enough products to make 100 pounds of summer sausage. Sodium nitrate is controversial in online fora where everything is controversial, but it’s as likely to make you sick as the 4 cigars smoked over a lifetime of weddings/birth announcements are to give you lung cancer. If sodium nitrate is not used—in addition to a botulism concern—the finished product will look like over-cooked hamburger, slightly grey, with tones of brown. Sausage should be pink, and a sodium nitrate cure imparts this hue. Many online recipes eschew casings and nitrate, that’s fine, just call it dried meatloaf instead of sausage and don’t post pictures. I admit the seasoning is a compromise to someone who likes to source and mix, but if traditional summer sausage is desired, you’ll spin a lot of wheels and money to put together the seasoning. Just buy it.

This method uses a 1:1 ratio of beef (or venison) to pork butt. Check with the processor about this ratio; most will use 2:3 pork to beef if not instructed otherwise. This will work, but may want to increase the beef later if this is the case. If using venison, mix 4 lbs. of the venison/pork with 2 lbs. of 73% ground beef. Dissolve slightly less than a teaspoon of sodium nitrate and a tablespoon of salt (I use kosher salt that has been smoked) in a few tablespoons of water. Mix well with the meat, and pack tightly in a gallon zip top bag. I never would have thought to dissolve the cure in water, but it is the only way to distribute it thoroughly into the meat.

The mixture needs to sit up (cure) in the fridge for at least 3 days. I have been told by everyone I know that cures meat not to second guess the amount of cure—one grain too much and the batch is ruined—and this I believe. I’m also told by seasoned veterans that 5 days is optimal on the wait; but that wears on the patience (maybe this should be discussed during the safety meeting). At the end of the cure, put the meat in a cold bowl, and mix in the summer sausage seasoning. How much will depend on the way the seasoning is bought. I kept it simple as it was so cheap, and bought enough to do 100 lbs. so the math was easy.

The casings are synthetic, so do not soak or salt them as you would with natural casings. Prick the casings with a needle; pricking allows moisture to escape as well as a little of that fat you don’t want causing a ring around the sausage. This method makes 3 sausages, in 3″ diameter casings; not much is lost so I guess they are close to 2 pounds apiece. Just ball the meat up and drop it in the casing. Scour the pantry and find a hot sauce, vinegar, or other similarly shaped bottle, that perfectly slides into the casing, and use it as a plunger to eradicate any gaps in the meat stuffing. It’s self-explanatory once the process is begun how to not let this happen, but if you had a proper safety meeting prior to beginning this process, it will be understood that it can’t be put into print without eliciting distracting juvenile laughter, so let’s move on to cooking.

I add a little smoked salt to mine, and a lot of others use liquid smoke, but I can’t recommend smoking this sausage in the traditional sense–too many competing flavors. Place the links on a cooling rack, over a baking sheet at 200F for about 4 hours. I turn the sausage (to prevent flat spots) at the half way point, and also mop off the liquid that sweats out. Set the timer on the oven, and let it cool before taking out the sausage. Refrigerate for a few days before slicing.

Love,

Dan

(Dan Vimes is a 1989 graduate of the Mississippi School of Math and Science. Vimes entered Rensselaer Polytechic Institute in Troy, New York on a full academic scholarship, but was asked to leave after the first semester after an on-campus incident involving a crossbow. Currently residing in a 35′ Airstream, in Pelahatchie, Dan raises guinea pigs for reptile breeders and grows hemp for religious ceremonies. You can contribute to Dan’s legal fund by emailing the administrator of this site.)