The Battle of the Po-Boy

It’s a jolt to find a recipe for what amounts to an oyster po-boy in Jane Grigons’s English Food, but even if we concede that anywhere there are oysters and mankind the oysters are bound to end up on someone’s table between two pieces of bread, Griegson’s foray into New Orleans cuisine is still nothing less than another British sally on the Crescent City.

Grigson’s recipe–“Oyster Loaf”–begins: “This is one of the best of eighteenth-century dishes,” she begins, adding, “It was taken to America, and became popular in New Orleans in the eighteenth century, where it acquired the endearing name médiatrice.” In this simple statement Grigson covers a lot of ground with a host of erroneous assumptions, not the least of which is the po-boy’s English origins. To begin with, though the British made a heroic effort to capture New Orleans in the winter of 1814-15, the city was never under British rule. Granted, in the late 1800s oyster sandwiches on French loaves were known in New Orleans as well as San Francisco as “oyster loaves”, a term still used in San Francisco, but Grigson’s recipe calls for the oysters to be placed on a bun after being sautéed in butter and poached in sour cream as well as “double” cream, a uniquely British ingredient. It’s more stew in a bread bowl than a sandwich.

The earliest known account of what eventually came to be called a po-boy was published in The Daily Picayune on Dec. 7, 1851: “A big loaf of bread is ‘dug out’ – reserving a crust end as a stop – any quantity of delicious fried or broiled oysters is piled in; the top is neatly put on; and a gentleman can carry home his loaf and his ‘dozen’ – all hot – or have them brought home, for a lunch or a relish to dinner.” The legend of what Grigson calls the médiatrice is fraught with confusion, involving even James Beard in the likely fanciful legend of a sandwich involving various ingredients brought home by a carousing husband to his irate wife—no doubt waiting up with a rolling pin—as a “peacemaker”. Such is the case with the name po-boy (and its various spellings) as well, with diverging claims of authenticity.

Though Grigson’s sumptuous English Food certainly deserves every bit of praise it has received since its publication in 1974, her claim that the English oyster loaf is the predecessor of NOLA’s po-boy is as useless as Pakenham’s final assault on Old Hickory.

Ham Salad

People just don’t make ham salad like they used to. At one time, you’d see it on just about any occasional buffet table, be it wedding, anniversary, or funeral, but nowadays it’s all pimento cheese and hummus. Maybe it’s because of that same room-temperature mayonnaise phobia that keeps tuna or chicken salad at bay, or simply a drift away from meats in general.

Still and all, ham salad is a beautiful option for holiday left-overs, and it’s a good nosh (sorry) whenever. Three ingredients are essential: a binding agent—it doesn’t have to be mayo; cream cheese or yogurt will do, too—finely diced or pureed lean ham—and a pickle or relish, or both. Me, I like a fine consistency with horseradish, mustard and a little grated onion, but, as Rombauer and Co. say, ham salad, “should be a matter of inspiration”.

Here’s an easy one. For a pound of finely-chopped ham, add about a quarter  cup mayo, two tablespoons each of sweet relish and minced onions. Mix well with a tablespoon each of black pepper and dry mustard. Chill for at least an hour.

Dumpling Drama

Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply “said” anything) that Rose Budd Stevens is a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my heart.

If you are interested in the way Mississippians cooked and prepared foodstuffs in the first half of the 20th century, then you should get From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (University Press of Mississippi: 1988). For those Mississippi foodies who love the literature of the table, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful work written by a remarkable woman.

Mrs. Willoughby and I grew up in rural Mississippi at different times. Reading her reminds me of the words, phrases, and cadences I heard from my grandmothers and great aunts, a noisy, lively chatter from a kitchen long ago. Mamie resembles them when it comes to a lesson, too, as she sets forth–fists on hips–in this passage:

Let’s get this chicken stew, dumplings and chicken pie business straight right now. Chicken Stew: Roll thick dough, cut into strips, drop into boiling chicken broth, and cook uncovered. Chicken Dumplings: Drop spoonfuls of dough on top of boiling chicken and broth, cook with tight-fitting lid on, and don’t peek. Chicken Pie: Put layer of chicken and broth in large pan. Dot with butter and black pepper, then layer of rich dough. Bake until light brown; add another layer of chicken, broth, and dough, bake. Do this until pan is nearly full. Some hold with a cup of sweet milk added, then back 30 minutes. I like hard-boiled eggs and sweet cream in my pie. Last would be cups of cooked-down broth, tasty with floating eyes of chicken fat, all melded together, food fit for the gods, company or family. Remember this was before it was known you could eat yourself to death!

Here’s my recipe.

Poach a roasting hen with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper, a fresh bay leaf if you have one in water to cover by about an inch. Skin and debone chicken. Set meat aside, return bones to the pot, and reduce by about a third. Strain liquid and return to pot with about a tablespoon of bouillon paste. You want a gallon of good, rich broth. Make a stiff dough with 2 cups self-rising flour, butter, and sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into boiling broth. Jiggle them around a bit to break them up and keep from sticking. As the broth begins to thicken, add the chicken, cover, and let boil for maybe another minute. Then reduce heat and let the pot sit for about another five minutes. You’ll have to adjust the salt, since dumplings, like any boiled starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.) will absorb salt in cooking. I like my chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.

Ellen’s Cranberry Brisket

A recipe from my friend Ellen, who helps me keep up with my fines with the Jackson/Hinds Library System (no simple task, that). It’s beautifully succulent, with a sweet/savory tang, rather colorful—as roast meats go—and has a wonderful aroma. Doubtless more elaborate, “foodie-friendly” versions of this recipe exist, but—speaking strictly for myself—I stand with mouth agape in admiration for the sheer 60s-era simplicity of this version.

Ellen uses a 14-oz. can jellied cranberry sauce to a packet of Lipton Onion Soup Mix for each two pounds of untrimmed brisket. That’s it. She places the brisket in a lightly oiled baking pan, spreads the soup mix onto it, tops with slices of cranberry jelly, covers it, and cooks in a 275 oven an hour or so for each pound until meat is tender. Serve with onion rolls and red cabbage slaw.


This Mittel-european spread is rich, smoky, and piquant. Cream a stick of softened butter with 1 cup of drained cottage cheese. Blend until very smooth. Mix with a half cup sour cream, then add a tablespoon of sweet paprika, a tablespoon of drained, chopped capers, a tablespoon ground caraway seeds, 2 very finely minced green onions, and a teaspoon of dry mustard. Mix very well, mold, and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving with crudites—radishes are traditional—and/or rye toast.

Sherried Mushrooms

Use button or baby bellas, slice thickly or not, as you like. Heat good sweet butter in a sauté skillet with a hefty smidgeon of thyme. I don’t recommend garlic, but if you feel so compelled, I urge you not to overdo it. When butter is bubbling, add mushrooms, toss, and stir until just cooked through. Add a slosh or so of dry sherry. Reduce, salt to taste, and serve. This is a great side for roast meats.

Kids in the Kitchen

Teaching kids how to cook is a multi-faceted experience; simply doing something together gives everyone a chance to talk about what’s going on.

Learning how to cook also helps make kids curious about foods in general, bearing potential to expand the palate of a picky child. It’s also a confidence-booster, as anyone who has pulled a beautifully-baked cake out of the oven can attest.  Reading and interpreting a recipe trains reading comprehension and math skills, and it’s also the best introduction to chemistry and botany in the home.

Here’s how to make oven fries. Take a large baking potato and cut it into thick wedges or strips. Brush with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, place on an oiled pan, and bake in a very hot oven. Stir once or twice to brown evenly.

There you go. So simple even a kid can do it.

Ginger Pecan Shortbread

Cream 1 stick butter with a cup of confectioner’s sugar and a teaspoon each almond and vanilla extract. Blend in 2 cups plain flour sifted with a teaspoon of baking powder with a  half cup chopped pecans and a tablespoon dried ground ginger. (I have tried this recipe with freshly-grated ginger, and it simply does not work at all well at all with so much butter.) This mixture makes a soft, elastic dough that you must work with flour-dusted hands. Form dough into a ball, and pat or roll into an 8” round, score into six wedges, and crimp the edges with a fork. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 until the edges are just brown. Cut and serve. This recipe makes great cookies, too.