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.

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.

Easy-Peel Boiled Eggs

It doesn’t matter if the eggs are white or brown, cold or warm. Place eggs in a single layer in a pot, add about an inch of water, bring to a vigorous boil, and cover. I’ve found that for six eggs in a 2-quart pot, that steaming for 5 minutes will give you firm whites and a warm runny yolk. Three minutes more will give you a soft, firm yolk. I usually put the covered pot with the eggs and water on the stove, turn the heat on high, and set the timer for 10 minutes. Perfect results, every time.

Taking Stock

Stocks are to cooking what Hank Williams is to country music: a source of basic, soulful satisfaction.

Back when people actually cooked as opposed to simply heating products as they do now, stock played an important role in the kitchen. Stockpots provided a sumptuous basis for an endless variety of dishes; sauces and gravies, soups, stews, and as a cooking medium for beans and grains. A good stock is a pillar upon which great meals are made. Sad to say, nowadays most people use canned broth or bouillon cubes instead, which is like listening to Reba because you have no Patsy.

If you really care about the quality of your cooking, you’ll want to make your own stock instead of having to resort to miserably bland and over-salted alternatives. Chicken stock is perhaps the easiest and cheapest to make and is good for general use. I use leg quarters, which make a very rich stock, and can be found in five-pound bags at a very low price in most supermarkets. If it’s during the holidays with company coming, you can of course use a whole stewing hen, since you can use the meat for any number of holiday dishes.

Put the chicken in your designated stockpot; whatever you use should be non-reactive, preferably stainless steel. Add enough water to cover by half, a couple of stalks of celery, at least six carrots, two onions with skin, all coarsely chopped, two bay leaves, a clove or so of garlic (smashed) and about a handful of roughly chopped parsley, stems and all. Cover, vent, and simmer this mixture until the liquid is reduced by at least a third, skimming the scruff off the top as it cooks.

In the meantime, have a beer or two, listen to some Jimmie Rodgers, and write Reba a fan letter. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.

After about an hour, remove chicken, cool, and debone. Return bones to pot, and save the meat for dressing or salad. Simmer the stock until it’s a rich color, strain, and cool before refrigerating. Once the stock chills, you’ll end up with a bottom layer of sediment and a layer of jellied stock covered by a layer of yellowish fat. Scrape off the fat with a spoon and save it to make matzos. Then carefully spoon out the gel, being careful to avoid as much as the sediment (which should be discarded) as you can, especially if you plan to clarify the stock for consommé or clear soups.

Stock keeps well in the refrigerator for a week or so, but its best just to go ahead and freeze it. Use whatever size container you find appropriate for storing your stock; I’ve heard that some people freeze stock in ice trays and store the cubes in plastic bags, but I suspect people who do this are annoyingly obsessive, since this is a troublesome endeavor, and besides, what if in a moment of absent-mindedness you happen to pop a cube of frozen stock out of the tray and into your scotch and soda? (You might hear the voice of experience speaking here.) Me, I store stock in whatever containers I’ve saved from supermarket products like yogurt and sour cream, pliable ones about pint size with a lid that seals well.

Use stock in soups and sauces, or to flavor beans or rice. You’ll notice a big difference.

To the Ramparts of Infinity: A Review

With “Sartoris” (1929), William Faulkner began “sublimating the actual into apocryphal,” targeting his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, as inspiration for the Yoknapatawpha cosmos and prototype for Colonel John Sartoris.

While it’s the incandescence of William Faulkner that provides the impetus for critics and historians to piece together the life W.C. Falkner, Colonel Falkner was a prominent, if not towering figure in his own right, certainly in terms of the history of north Mississippi, and an archetype of the men who fashioned a nation out of the Southern frontier.

The Yoknapatawpha stories also led Jack Elliott to W.C. Falkner. Elliott first heard about “Old Colonel” Falkner at the initial Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi in 1974, and a field trip to Ripley brought young Elliott to the foot of the nineteen-foot Falkner monument that dominates the cemetery, the actual counterpart to the “apocryphal” monument in the Jefferson cemetery where the marble statue of John Sartoris [gazes] “to the blue, changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.”

In time, Elliott began formulating a work on the life of W.C. Falkner, and found that not only were the stories that circulated about Falkner during his lifetime “fantastic and exaggerated,” these stories themselves were “perpetuated and augmented by short, poorly researched historical pieces.” Elliott sets out to amend these shortcomings, which indeed he does superbly, with a seasoned scholar’s attention to detail and an ear for the written word.

Elliott’s account of Falkner’s early years and the progress of the Falkners and their Word relatives from the eastern seaboard is supported by comprehensive documentation. When the U.S. Congress declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Falkner was elected first lieutenant, which, Elliott confirms, “was certainly due to his popularity among his peers rather than his ability to command.” Elliott provides a thorough account of Falkner’s actions in Mexico, as well as the succeeding Civil War in which he was an officer (“brigadier general, then captain, then colonel and … captain again”) of the Magnolia Rifles, a company from Ripley.

Elliott doesn’t neglect Falkner’s education, stating that he “read law” under his uncles Thomas Jefferson (“Jeff”) Word and J.W. Thompson, and was admitted to the nascent Mississippi bar in 1850. Little else is known of his formal education, though Elliott says that Falkner himself alludes to studying Cicero and Julius Caesar.

Though Elliott’s biography doesn’t stint on a full account of Falkner’s extensive feuds with the Hindmans or with Thurmond, Elliot is determined to discredit earlier portrayals of W.C. Falkner that paint him as a pathological megalomaniac, stating that “The evidence for such a scenario is weak and the conclusion little more than a strained surmise that was bolstered by repetition.” Elliott points out that Falkner was “well-liked by most and even idolized by many,” and that earlier historians (particularly Duclos) “failed to see the feud [with R.J. Thurmond, his assassin] in terms of a conflict over differing visions for the railroad …”

Throughout the work, Elliot provides supporting evidence of Falkner’s character, including this from Thurmond’s great-nephew: “[Falkner] loved power and the trappings of power; he delighted in playing the Grand Seignor (sic), yet was a public-spirited citizen and at heart a kindly if hot-blooded man.”

Another falsehood Elliott seeks to dispel is that Falkner was not the prime architect of the Ripley Railroad, that Falkner managed to inveigle the public into believing that he was the driving force behind the project when in fact he was only one among many who contributed to the scheme. But, though the original charter for the Ripley Railroad Company was issued to W. C. Falkner, R. J. Thurmond, and thirty-five other incorporators in December 1871, the mountain of evidence Elliott presents is far more than enough to convince even a skeptical reader—who are at this late date likely to be few—that it was indeed Falkner “who brought the social, political, and financial elements together and made it happen.”

Elliott examines Falkner’s life in letters with marvelous detail. He gives, for example, an entertaining synopsis of Falkner’s famous melodrama, “The White Rose of Memphis” (1881), complete with contemporary reviews. Digging deeper, he examines Falkner’s less successful second novel, “The Little Brick Church” (1882), and his play, “The Lost Diamond” (1874). Earlier writings—including a sensationalist pamphlet, a narrative poem, and a short novel—also come under review.

Elliott offers insights into Falkner’s writing habits, and documents his familiarity not only with the Bible, but with Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Homer, and Cervantes. In May 1883, Falkner toured Europe and published an account of his travels, “Rapid Ramblings in Europe” the following year.

What Elliott sets out to do is to “to inquire into the image of a man long dead, an image partly frozen into that of a marble statue.” Elliott’s biography of “Old Colonel” Falkner embraces far more than that life, that image. “As in much of local history, the memory of a place draws us to delve into the matrix of interconnected symbols, whether stories or documents or associated places.”

To that end, Elliott’s work on Falkner embraces not just the man, but the milieu, the town of Ripley and the society and culture—such as it was—of north Mississippi in his day. He includes a fascinating “Field Guide to Colonel Falkner’s Ripley,” a block-by-block examination of the town using the grid established by the surveyor “who in 1836 laid out the streets, blocks, and lots, and this geometry still frames the lives of residents and visitors today.” Filled with historic photos of homes, businesses, and downtown traffic (i.e., cotton wagons and railroad cars), this section of the book will undoubtedly find the greatest appeal among casual readers.

Elliott’s writing is lucid, orderly, and compelling. Perhaps Elliott didn’t consciously set out to write the “complete, sensitive, and discerning biography” of W.C. Falkner Thomas McHaney expressed a need for almost sixty years ago, but, in the end, he has.

Scalloped Two Potatoes

If, like me, you find sweet potatoes too sugary for many menus, then this combination of sweet with regular spuds provides a semi-savory option. Use any waxy white potato. Peel and slice potatoes on the thinner side, layer in an oiled casserole, gratin, or skillet with sprinklings of salt, pepper,  and thyme. Add enough whole cream to saturate, but not cover. Brush lavishly with melted butter, and bake at 350 until the top crispens and browns.

Mustard Glaze

This is good on ham, pork, and game. To a stick of melted butter, add two tablespoons of dry mustard and a 12 oz. jar of pineapple preserves. Whisk over medium heat until thoroughly mixed. Brush over meats while roasting and cooling for the table.

Autumn Cider

This recipe fills your home with those aromas many Southerners associate with the coming of cool weather: apples, cloves, cinnamon, and oranges. I recommend tangerines, satsumas, or Valencia oranges, and a mix of tart and sweet apples.

To a gallon of water, quarter about a half dozen apples and three or four oranges, depending on size. Don’t peel the apples, but by all means peel the oranges, saving a strip of peel for zest. Add four sticks of cinnamon, a teaspoon of whole cloves, and a thumb of peeled ginger.

When the apples are soft through, let it cool. Then mash and strain, first through a colander, then a wire strainer. For better clarity, use cheesecloth. Add the juice of a lemon, and brown sugar to taste. A healthy slosh or two of dark rum ensures a warm reception.

Photo by Natalie Maynor

How to Feed a Picky Kid

Every family has a picky eater, and in ours it was my baby brother, Tom. His hamburgers were mayonnaise only, his salads “honeymoon” (lettuce alone), and steaks not medium well, but well. Very well.

These specifications presented a challenge to our mother, whose patience was as limited as Tom’s stubbornness was infinite. Breakfasts were an ordeal; the merest fleck of white in a serving of scrambled eggs would send him into a sour sulk, complete with crossed arms, a lowered head, and a puckered brow.

He was an absolute tyrant. Bacon had to be evenly cooked, but not crisp, and his biscuits had to come from the center of the pan. Now I wish I’d asked him why.

Eventually, mother found a dish that Tom adored so much that it was all he ate for breakfast until he went to Ole Miss. Even after he’d finished graduate school, she’d make it for his breakfast when he came to visit. You’d better believe he ate it.

We called it French toast, but this simple recipe of bread dipped in beaten eggs and milk and fried is very old and known by many names, most notably pain perdu, “lost bread”. French toast is most often served as a sweet dish much like pancakes or waffles with powdered sugar, syrup and fruit, but Tom preferred it simply seasoned with salt and pepper. We usually made it with Wonder bread, but it’s good with pretty much any sliced bread.

Beat three eggs in a cup of milk, season with a little salt and pepper; add vanilla or almond extract if you plan to serve it sweet. Sop dried bread slices in egg/milk mixture and pan-fry in butter until nicely browned.

Pork Meatballs with Cinnamon

To one pound lean ground pork, work in a tablespoon cinnamon, a teaspoon of cayenne, and a teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. Beat an egg with a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste, mix in a half cup of bread crumbs and a half cup of very finely chopped white onion. Mix eggs with meat, and refrigerate for an hour. Grease your hands, form  mix into balls, and cook in a light oil (you can use olive oil, but it’s not necessary) until browned and firm. Serve over rice or couscous sprinkled with chopped parsley and sesame seeds. These are great with Jezebel sauce.