I once worked in a restaurant on the coast that regularly sold four roast rib loins in a day. During the tourist season, we would keep eight loins cooking literally around the clock. We’d take the loins to rare, and since the carving station was set up under a heat lamp next to the grill, where the meat would continue to cook in service, so we rotated sections of meat on and off the carving board.
If someone ordered prime rib well done—and, yes, such people do exist in this world—we’d drop a cut into the well of warm au jus we kept at the grill station until meat was grey and the tip and cap had peeled away from the eye. Smart customers who wanted a slice on the done side ordered an end piece.
Our menu called this beef dish prime rib, but we rarely used USDA Prime beef. We most often used a Choice rather than the much more expensive Prime grade, but rib roast is usually called prime on menus because it is, after all, from one of the eight prime cuts in a whole beef (brisket, shank, rib, loin, round, chuck, flank, and plate). Most of the beef you find in supermarkets is Choice or Prime; check the label.
You can bet a rib roast can be expensive, usually from $12 to as much as $27+ per pound; the average is around $15-20. The price can be much cheaper during the major holidays, around $10 to $15 a pound. Bone-in roasts usually have three to seven ribs and are slightly more expensive. A three-rib roast can feed about seven people; figure 16 ounces of uncooked boneless roast per person.
For an evenly-cooked, rib roast, pat the roast dry, brush with oil, coat with sea salt and minced garlic, and place on a on a rack in a heavy pan. Cover lightly with foil and bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 500. Remove cloth, place the roast in the oven, wait a half hour, then turn the heat down to 250. In an hour, begin checking with a thermometer. When you get a reading of 130 in the thickest part of the roast, immediately remove the meat from the oven, and let rest about five minutes a pound before carving and serving. Serve with a ramekin of skimmed pan drippings.
Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, either as main dish, or providing support in dozens of sides across the board.
But as a great many of those smart-ass hillbillies from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky–the absolute worst–will tell you (in annoyingly nasal, condescendingly reverential tones), there are hams, and then there are hams.
The best hams are dry cured, usually with a mix of salt and sugar. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced without cooking, but they need to be soaked in water for at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by brine injection. Smoked hams are usually a variant of both, with smoke and brine both providing preservation and flavor.
Then you have the green ham, which is what your old granny called a leg of pork. You’ll find it sold as a “fresh” ham. You may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs of meat you’ve been serving all these years.
A green ham will have a rind over a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife (honest to God, I use a box cutter), and coat with garlic, sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper, and sea salt. Put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions in the bottom of your roaster with enough water to cover. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack.
Place in a hot oven, 450. After thirty minutes, lower to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Let sit for at least an hour before carving.
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.
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.
In our neck of the South, stuffed peppers mean mild, fleshy bells filled with a mixture of rice and meat or seafood, usually ground beef or shrimp. A vegetarian version with beans and rice is also wonderful. A lot of people will parboil the peppers beforehand, but don’t. Select peppers that are globular rather than oblong, slice off the top, remove whites and seeds, and fill with your stuffing mixture. I recommend a 50/50 blend in a light tomato sauce seasoned with black pepper, sage, and basil. Crowd into a casserole, baste with more sauce and place in a medium (300) oven until peppers are cooked through. Baste again with sauce, top with dry white cheese, and toast.
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.
When Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” topped the charts in 1971, many people (me among them) assumed that he got the title from a chicken and egg sandwich—which in diner lingo is known as a Mother and Child reunion.
But in fact the title came from a meal he had at the Say Eng Look Restaurant in New York City. In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, Simon said, “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs.”
Known as “mother/child/daughter,” variations of this combination are common menu items at Asian restaurants. Another version—oyakodon: mother/daughter bowl—has been described as Japanese “soul food.” As with any basic dish, the reunion is made in as many ways as there are cooks to make it. Here’s my version, which varies with available ingredients.
Cube a boneless breast of chicken, dust with fresh pepper, and fry in vegetable oil with a a clove of garlic until browned. Poach in chicken broth until tender; doesn’t take long. Drain chicken, reserving the broth, and stir-fry/saute with sliced onions, and whatever else you’re adding. I’ll throw in things like thinly sliced mushrooms, celery, carrots, and cabbage or kale of some kind cut in some form or fashion.
Add enough broth to cover the chicken by half, bring to a simmer, and dribble in two or three beaten eggs in sort of a figure 8. Stir gently, cover, and steam until the eggs have firmed and blossomed. Thicken slightly with a thin slurry of water and corn starch. Ladle into a bowl of rice, and top with chopped green onions..
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.
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.
“Le bon ton” references that flaky crust of society assumed to have cutting-edge style and better manners than those of us wallowing among The Great Unwashed. As such, the phrase “bon ton” has been used by a variety of businesses–particularly restaurants, of course–hoping to attract such a clientele.
One such establishment, the Bon Ton Café at 211 West Capitol Street in Jackson, opened in the early 1900s. The Bon Ton was one of the city’s finest dining establishments, and had the first electric sign on Capitol Street to better attract customers from Union Station.
Another more famous Bon Ton was established in New Orleans in the Natchez Building at 401 Magazine Street. Originally opened in the early 1900s as well, the business was revived in the early 1950s by Al and Alzina Pierce, who came to the Crescent City from south Louisiana, bringing with them their recipes from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, becoming the first dining establishment in the city to stake a claim for Cajun cuisine in a city already famous for its Creole culinary tradition.
The Bon Ton’s best-known dish is its bread pudding. When I worked in the Florida panhandle, we made a similar pudding with stale croissants, but the texture was dense owing to the abundance of air pockets in the bread; a good, foamy French loaf is much better the recipe.
Here is Alzina Pierce’s original recipe, which comes via Jackson native Winnifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (Oxmoor, 1976).
Soak one loaf of French bread in a quart of whole milk and crush with hands until well mixed. Add 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons vanilla extract, 1 cup seedless raisins (optional), and place in a buttered “thick, oblong baking pan”. Bake until very firm, then cool. Make a whiskey sauce; cream a half cup of butter with a cup of sugar, and cook in a double boiler until thoroughly dissolved. Add a well-beaten egg, whipping rapidly to prevent curdling. Let cool and add whiskey of your choice to taste. Pour over pudding, heat under broiler and serve.