Belles Calas

When it rained, we sat in the kitchen and listened to old Tante Zoe. She talked all the time when she was cooking, about what she was making and how she knew how to do it right from the old days.

If she had a big dinner for special guests, she’d say why this or that was served “To the mayor, not the bishop!” Then she’d sing and talk to herself, look up, smile and coo like the old dove she was. She made us molasses butter for our morning biscuits.

Poppa smoked cigars in the house, but Zoe said she knew better than to smell up the furniture cushions, and took her pipe to the swing on the back porch. Zoe ran that house more than he did. He knew that Zoe was listened to up and down St. Charles, and that was saying a lot.

I don’t think Mama ever knew Zoe the way everyone else did, but Mama was Zoe’s lamb from the manger and that was that.

Sunday mornings she’d fry rice beignets, the calas. She’d tell how they used to sing, the ladies in the Quarter selling their calas, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” Then she’s laugh and say how the fancy girls would run down the stairs with baskets to fill and take them back up to the bedrooms where the men were waiting with strong black coffee.

Calas (Beignets Riz)

Add two packets of yeast mixed with a cup of warm water and a tablespoon of sugar to two cups over-cooked mashed rice. Cover and let it work overnight. In the morning, add four beaten eggs, a half cup sugar, a tablespoon of pure vanilla and pinches of nutmeg and allspice. Blend in enough plain flour to make a thick batter, and drop by spoonful into very hot oil. When browned, drain, dust with powdered sugar, and serve.

Andrew Bucci: Art, Food, and History

As incredulous as it may sound to us now, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the very city itself.

The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Enjoying an After-Dinner Pipe-Bucci

With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded. But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of a few volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts.

On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci
Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists.

At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire, then relocated to Utica, Mississippi.

A Barbarian in the Kitchen

Before the quasi-cosmopolitan citizens of Hamburg, Germany began cooking it and putting it between sliced bread, steak tartar consisted of lean, raw beef minced and mixed with egg and seasonings.

The concoction’s name filtered into Europe from those dreaded Mongol allies, the Tatars, who had a tradition of mincing meat (usually horse or camel, since ravaging hoards have little use for anything slower) and serving it raw with (horse or camel) milk and whatever eggs they might not trample underfoot.

Stories of this dish made by tenderizing meat under a saddle likely rose from using slabs of meat for saddle sores. The stench of an onslaught of Tartar cavalry often provided helpless villagers downwind with an advance warning of rape and pillage.

Similarly, sauce tartare--loosely translated as ‘rough,’ since the Tartars were considered violent, savage, and bad at chess–consists of mayonnaise, mustard, chives, chopped gherkins, and tarragon in various combinations.

But in his Creole Cook Book, the irrepressible Lafcadio Hearn, a devoted journalist with a delightful heart, gives us a recipe for tartar sauce that hearkens back to the days when the Golden Horde still cruised the ewes around the Great Gates of Kiev.

HOW TO MAKE TARTAR SAUCE

There are two good ways in which a Tartar sauce may be made. You can try whichever you please; but if you are in a hurry the second will suit your purpose better than the first.

1st: Catch a young Tartar: for the old ones are very tough and devoid of juice. To catch a Tartar is generally a very unpleasant and at all times a difficult undertaking. A young Tartar will probably cost you at least $10,000—and perhaps your life—before you get through with him: but if you must have Tartar sauce you must be ready to take all risks.

Having procured your Tartar you must kill him privately, taking care that the act shall escape the observation of the police authorities, who would probably in such a case be strongly prejudiced in favor of the Tartar. Having killed, skinned and cleaned the Tartar, cut off the tenderest part of the hams and thighs; boil three hours, and then hash up with Mexican pepper, aloes and spices. Add a quart of mulled wine and slowly boil to the consistency of honey.

You will probably find the Tartar sauce very palatable; and if hermetically sealed in bottles with the addition of a little Santa Cruz rum, will serve for a long time. The rest of the Tartar will not keep, and must be disposed of judiciously.

2nd: Take the yolk of a hard boiled egg, a teaspoonful of mustard, a tablespoonful of olive oil, a little vinegar, a little parsley and pickled cucumber, and hash up very fine.

Fudge for a Rainy Day

This Alice B. Toklas Cookbook recipe was omitted in the first American publication (1954) but was included in the second (1960). Here’s Alice’s recipe from the 1984 edition:

Haschich Fudge (which anyone could whip up on a rainy day)

This is the food of Paradise—of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises; it might provide entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by un évanouissement revelle’.

Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts; chop these and mix them together. A bunch of cannabis sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.

Obtaining the cannabis may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as cannabis sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognized, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called cannabis indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.

Hangtown Fry

You might read that hangtown fry originated during the California Gold Rush when miners who’d struck it rich barged theatrically into saloons demanding the most extravagant dish in the house. The truth is, hangtown fry came about then when condemned criminals requested a lavish repast for their last meal. My version of this dish is unbreaded oysters, onions, and mild peppers in a frittata.

In an oven-proof 8-in. skillet, fry to a crisp three slices thick bacon. Drain and crumble, returning grease to frying pan. Beat four eggs very well, add a half dozen shucked drained oysters, with chopped onions and mild peppers. Reheat skillet, and add another tablespoon or so of oil. When oil is hot, add eggs and oysters, then pop into a hot oven until lightly browned. Top with bacon, and serve with sourdough toast.

Pepper Cheese Biscuits

Cut a stick and a half of butter into four cups self-rising flour. Add one cup grated cheddar cheese, one cup raw chopped mild red pepper, and enough sweet milk for a stiff dough. Roll out, cut into rounds and bake in an oiled skillet in a hot oven until lightly browned. Serve hot or cold filled with shaved ham and herb cream cheese.

Magic Pie

The Southern boomer table—for which, I might add, I barely qualify—is peppered with dishes fabricated in company test kitchens.

Green bean casserole is likely the most conspicuous example, but there are dozens of others. Many commercial dessert  recipes include the word “magic,” as if merely waving your hands over the ingredients would produce a cake, pie, or cookie.

This recipe is from The Country Gourmet, distributed by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in 1983. The book features a short forward by Eudora Welty, who writes, “Guarding and protecting, trying to save, all life on earth is a need we all alike share.”

Beat six ounces of whipped topping with a thawed can of lemonade concentrate and a can of condensed milk. Pour into a graham cracker pie crust and chill (in the freezer, jly) one hour before serving.

Louis LeFleur, Frontiersman

Surprisingly little has been written about Louis LeFleur, who gave his name to Jackson’s Pearl River bluff, and became the father of the last chief of the Choctaw Nation (Greenwood LeFlore). Much of that written is inaccurate, the most glaring error being that he was a French-Canadian when in fact he was born in the tiny French colony of “Mobille” surrounding Fort Condé on the Gulf of Mexico.

Louis LeFleur was born Louis LeFlau; since by custom Louis eventually came to be known as LeFleur, we’ll use that name throughout to refer to him as LeFlore will be used in reference to his son Greenwood. Louis’ father, Jean Baptiste LeFlau came from France in the early 18th century as a soldier in the Fort Condé garrison. In 1735, he married Jeanne Boissinot, a native of Mobile, who bore him three children before her death in 1752. Jean Baptiste then married Jeanne Girard in 1753 and Louis, their third child, was born on June 29, 1762. There are no records of Louis LeFlau after his baptismal entry of 1762 until around 1790, but it’s certain that during this time he began trading with Native Americans, primarily the Choctaws, and likely operated flat-boats on the Amite and Pearl Rivers as well as in the Mississippi Sound.

LeFleur epitomizes those men of the American frontier who plied their trade along the navigable rivers in a wilderness before, during and even after the advent of steamboats and the eventual dominance of rail. In Antebellum Natchez James D. Clayton writes that “L. LeFleur (sic), father of a celebrated Choctaw Chieftain of a later era, operated with handsome profits the main boat shuttle to Pensacola, carrying produce and commodities.” He brought luxury items to the prosperous city of Natchez, including “fine apparel” which “had been ordered from Panton, Leslie, and Company of St. Marks in east Florida.” The boats LeFleur and those like him used were flatboats or keelboats that were manned by a crew of up to twenty-five people. The goods LeFleur routinely carried were much less luxurious used in his trade with the Choctaw, and the pelts he secured were sold in the trading houses at St. Marks and Pensacola. Corn and other farm products were sold in in Florida and Natchez.

Sometime around 1790, LeFleur cheerfully adopted the Choctaw system of polygamy and married both Nancy and Rebecca Cravat, the half-French nieces of the Choctaw Chief Pushmataha. LeFleur moved his growing family—three children were born by 1798—to Pass Christian, but with the establishment of the Choctaw Agency near present-day Jackson, he chose as a location for a new home a high bluff on the west side of the Pearl River, rising some twenty-five feet above the crest of the floods and extending along the river for several hundred feet. With the opening on the Natchez Trace under the treaty of Fort Adams in 1801, LeFleur opened a way station in the same location where traders, travelers and mail carriers could secure fresh horses. This station rapidly became an inn providing bed and board as well as entertainment. The actual site of this trading post is disputed. Greenwood was the first of the “LeFlau” sons to be born at LeFleur’s Bluff on June 2, 1800. He was named for the Greenwood in the firm of Greenwood and Higginson, the London correspondents of Panton and Leslie.

LeFleur still operated his profitable boating trade, securing commissions from General William C.C. Claiborne, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the newly organized (1798) Mississippi Territory to carry “certain goods sent by the United States as presents to the Choctaw Nation of Indians.” He also carried messages to the Governor of the Province of Louisiana. In addition to being entrusted with the delivery of merchandise making up the government annuity payments to the Choctaw Nation, Louis was asked to be present at the occasions when terms of treaties were negotiated. Louis “Leflow” is listed as one of the witnesses to the Treaty of Mount Dexter on November 16, 1805, which conveyed large amounts of land in what is now southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama, including much of the western portion of Clarke County, Alabama, to the United States.

By 1810, operation of the inn and raising cattle had become LeFleur’s main enterprises, and he, along with Louis Durant, was said to have introduced cattle into Mississippi. Travelers from the east and from foreign lands have mentioned the accommodations at the Bluff and at the inn he established in 1812 at the place now known as French Camp. At French Camp, LeFleur had a number of buildings erected and it was here in 1812 that Major John Donly, who held the U.S. Government contract for transporting the mail on the Nashville-Natchez route, suggested to Louis that he be allowed to take young Greenwood home to Nashville with him in order that the boy might receive an “American education”, and LeFleur consented. Louis served with Pushmataha under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was promoted to the rank of major (brevet). He also served three months in 1814 in command of a company on Russell’s expedition to Alabama. He later served in the campaign to Pensacola in 1814-15.

With the introduction of the steamboat on the Mississippi River—the New Orleans was the first steamboat down the Mississippi in 1811—commerce along the Trace fell, but LeFleur expanded his agricultural interests and in a decade tripled their acreage in cultivation and heads of cattle. Greenwood was elected Chief of the Northwestern Division of the Choctaws, but when Jackson was elected president in 1828 he pursued a policy of negating the treaties between the U.S. and the Choctaws, and with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) the Choctaws were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands. In a survey of freeholds within the Choctaw lands is a record for “Louis LeFlau, 300 acres in cultivation in the Yazoo Valley; five in family with four males over 16”. Major LeFlau was to receive two sections of land according to the Supplement to the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was a tragedy for the Choctaws and it caused deep rifts in the LeFlau/LeFleur/LeFlore family. Details are sketchy, but Greenwood is in the fifth and last level of behests in Louis’ will, which was signed April 16, 1833. Louis LeFleur died that same year, and while his gravesite is unknown, family tradition states that he was buried in Hot Springs, Arkansas, not very far from LeFlore County, Oklahoma.

(Note: This article is a brief summation of preliminary research towards a more thorough examination of Louis LeFleur and should not be considered definitive.)

Art by Randy Steele

Singing Turkey

Whoever coined the phrase, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” was more likely referencing Brunnhilda’s final arias in the “Ring” cycle than any specific performer, but at the turn of the last century and no doubt before operatic divas were typically big girls with big voices.

Among them was Luisa Tetrazzini, a robust Florentine soprano whose career peaked in 1905-14.  Tetrazzini dazzled audiences with her chromatic scales, staccato, trills and other such florid effects, and her skill and taste in the delivery of simple melodies was universally admired. The girl had class. Luisa’s great rival was Nellie Melba, an acclaimed Australian soprano with whom she had a bitter feud. (It’s a diva thing.)

Escoffier, “the King of Chefs and the chef of kings” created dishes for them both; for Nellie the peach Melba, and for Luisa a soufflé Tetrazzini. While the peach Melba (peach and raspberry sauce over vanilla ice cream) has become a standard (as has Melba toast, also an Escoffier innovation for her during an illness), the soufflé Tetrazzini has been consigned to obscurity.

The dish Luisa is much more remembered for was according to James Beard (and though Beard had a natural bias towards the West Coast, I’ll trust him in this issue as opposed to the Knickerbocker supporters) made in her honor by Ernest Arbogast, the chef at the legendary Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where Tetrazzini resided for two years. (Her contemporary Caruso was there during the Great Earthquake in 1906; he never returned, and who can blame him?)

Luisa’s enduring dish is turkey tetrazzini, a spaghetti dish usually involving our Foremost Fowl, and though we may never know what the original contained, in addition to string pasta and turkey, a tetrazzini usually has mushrooms and vegetables in a Velouté/Mornay sauce topped with Parmesan cheese and baked en casserole.

Even though it has now become such a pedestrian dish that you see versions of it in the lunch buffet at Kroger, for many such as me tetrazzini has become a default leftover turkey dish. Here’s a basic recipe from Fannie Farmer, but bear in mind the variations are endless. I use vermicelli rather than spaghetti, and instead of baking will often just ladle the turkey/sauce mixture over pasta with a sprinkling of cheese.

Cook 1/4 cup tablespoons flour in 1/2 cup butter until foam subsides. Add 2 cups chicken broth, about 1/2 cup heavy cream, a good slosh of dry sherry, and generous dash of nutmeg. Cook, stirring, on medium heat until thickened. To a half pound cooked spaghetti, add about 3 cups diced turkey (or chicken), 2 cups sliced sautéed mushrooms, and about a half cup each of sautéed celery and frozen green peas. Mix very well with sauce along with about half a cup of grated Parmesan. Press mixture into a casserole, top with more Parmesan and bake at 425 for about 15-39 minutes, until lightly browned. Toasted almonds are a nice touch.

Thanksgiving with Alice

Thanksgiving has a uniquely American song, not the sort that Lincoln might have imagined when he inaugurated the holiday in 1863, but “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is revolutionary, irreverent and earthy; in short, as American as pumpkin pie.

“Now it all started two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the Restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

“I think a lot of people who are interested in food fantasize about having a restaurant,” Alice Brock writes in My Life As a Restaurant (1975). “I never did. I was twenty-five, married and crazy. I was a captive in a situation I had very little control over other than the role of cook and nag—being a hippy housewife was not satisfying. I had a world of fantasies; none included a restaurant, but all were based on the assumption that I would be my own person, on my own trip.”

Alice’s mother, who was a real estate broker in Stockbridge and determined to get her daughter out of her “situation”, called her one day and asked her to go with her and look at a little luncheonette for sale down an alley in the middle of town. “It had a counter down one side and three or four booths on the other side, and a tiny ill-equipped kitchen in the back,” Alice remembers. “It was painted two-tone institutional green, and it was definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own. But it was a chance, a chance to escape. Before we left, I was hooked. I was already creating a menu, I was already free. Those moments, when suddenly an opportunity appears, a door opens—they are what life is all about.”

Alice called her restaurant “The Back Room”. “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing,” she admits. “I can’t believe how innocent I was. But it didn’t matter.” Opening night was a near-disaster, “a nightmare”, but she persevered, and soon she and her sister, who was also in a “situation”, were staying up all night cooking things she later wouldn’t consider for hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners and working five hours making thirty portions of some exotic soup that would vanish in twenty minutes the next day. “I was crazy, she said, “but I know that for all our unprofessionalism, we cooked some pretty wonderful dishes, and I established a reputation as a cook.”

The summer of 1966 was a magical time for Stockbridge; the Berkshire Playhouse had reorganized with an eye to becoming more than just a summer stock theater, attracting stars and would-be stars to the town. “Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman liked hamburgers with onion, green peppers, and an egg in them,” Alice writes. “Frank Langella was called ‘Mr. Mushroom Omelet’. Ann Bancroft was wonderful, and when her whole family came, I cooked giant meals; when they stayed late, she helped me clear the table.”

One spring morning a year after opening, Alice says that she walked through the front door and freaked out. “I felt that instead of owning it, it owned me. The plates were out to get me, the pots were planning an attack, the stove was laughing at me. I had a terrible urge to smash everything.” Instead, she called Eastern Airlines and booked a midnight flight to Puerto Rico, emptied the cash box and gave away all the food. “It was a wonderful restaurant. It was a success. I ran it for one year. It turned me into a madwoman. I made enemies of old friends. I broke up with my husband. I left my home. I had actually broken free and become my own person. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant. Never say never.”

Alice Brock went on to open not one but several more restaurants; she now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she owns an art gallery. After Arlo premiered “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” before a captivated crowd of over ten thousand at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, 1967, he performed it live on non-commercial New York City radio station WBAI one night later that summer. The song became so popular that for months afterward WBAI rebroadcast it only when listeners pledged to donate a large amount of money. The eponymous (less the massacree) album was released that same year, with the song (at 18:20) taking up the entire first side, the other filled with a selection of bluesy folk tunes. The ballad has become a Thanksgiving tradition not only for classic rock stations, but for thousands of households across the nation.