Rock Cornish Racket

The follies of genius are unavoidable, unpredictable, and if we’re lucky just quirky. I think Victor Borge was a genius. While my standards might be modest (I think Jim Henson was a genius too) enlightenment and entertainment are always qualifications.

During his heyday Borge performed the world over, but maintained a homestead in New England that produced Rock Cornish game hens. I suspect he was probably amused with a business that marketed miniature chickens; imagine him asking why the Rock Cornish game hen crossed the road with a nice little keyboard riff.

At any rate, Nora Ephron remembers that “every Rock Cornish game hen in America used to come with a little tag with Victor Borge’s name on it.” At his insistence, no doubt.

Despite its rugged name a Rock Cornish game hen is nothing more than a little chicken. Poultry is big business, and millions are spent on developing and maintaining the most productive, disease-resistant and appealing varieties. The best industrial chickens are either big and fast-growing or smaller and long-laying. I suspect that at some point avian agronomists were frustrated to discover that pesky genetics prevented chickens from growing only so much so fast and from ovulating only so often; otherwise we’d have Rhode Island Reds the size of collies dropping half-gallon eggs all over Stone County. (The emus didn’t work out.)

With size as a limit, the chicken scientists bent under the thumbscrews of marketing by taking another tack: Tyson Foods developed the Rock Cornish game hen in the mid-60s by cross-breeding big, fast-growing but rather spindly Plymouth Rock cocks with smaller Cornish hens, which have short, thick legs and broad, muscular breasts.

The resulting variety has a briefer growing span–ten days less to the slaughterhouse than the 40-day Rocks (birds grow fast; imagine if you had been chased out of the house when you had just learned how to run). Since they were developed for meat, their marketable egg-laying capabilities are inconsiderable (too bad, right?).

Tyson marketed the game hen as an upscale product targeting people willing to pay more for something different. And it worked. Calling it a “game hen” added to its cachet, since it suggests a mix with a pheasant, a quail, a partridge or some bird with similar snob appeal. Borge, who himself had a high-brow profile, was probably enrolled as a celebrity sponsor, though I still maintain that the eccentricity of the product itself was a great draw for him personally.

Despite my affection for the Great Dane who bridged the gap between Oliver Hardy and Stravinsky, to me the most effective marketing strategy for game hens is that they’re sealed in plastic wrap just like teeny-tiny turkeys.

Having said all that, let me add that game hens should not be shunned on account of their corporate hatching; they’re good birds, if you know how to cook them. Buy one to a person, thaw thoroughly, trim and clean. Rub inside and out with oil, a little salt and pepper and whatever other seasonings you like (garlic and sage are always good), then roast in a slow oven until the legs are loose. Increase heat at finish to brown.

I like to serve Cornish hens with wild rice, baby limas, wilted greens, and sour cream.

Peanut Hummus

Billy Dale was holding court.

“Yancy, this is very simple. If you grind dry roasted peanuts with grease and salt, you get peanut butter; if you puree boiled peanuts with oil, you get redneck hummus. Imagine me, a shit-kicker from Opelousas, having to teach Mississippi’s go-to bubba on white trash food the difference.”

“Billy Dale, I have never as long as I’ve drawn breath ever claimed to be an authority on anything, I’m just trying to find out as much as I can by cautious questioning.”

“You’re a pompous asshole, too,” Dale said. “My wife said you remind her of an alcoholic Sunday school teacher she had in Iuka. Used to make them draw pictures of him holding up a Bible.”

“B.D., let me off the hook, okay?”

“Fine,” Dale said. “Go turn the chicken and get me another beer.”

Poke Salad

In April, 2000, the Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas processed its last batch of “poke sallet” greens.

John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bringing it to our buying locations.”

Poke processing was never a significant item in their mult-imillion-dollar enterprise, but Williams mentioned that one of the best markets for canned poke was southern  California due to the Oakies.

Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that the Indian tribes eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.”

“They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”

Much like ramps, poke salad was one of the first edible wild herbs to appear, giving a much-needed alternative to the sustenance beans, cornbread, and salt pork diet of winter.

The only drawback to poke salad is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic, phytolaccatoxin. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is not only safe but delicious.

Here’s how you do it: harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke. Wash, stem, and trim. Bring to a boil in salt water. Drain, rinse, and bring back to simmer in water with oil, a slit hot pepper pod, and a big pinch of sugar.

Drain and use much as you would spinach. Euell has a poke salad dip in his book. I like it with scrambled eggs and onion, and it’s wonderful in an omelette. Or a quiche.

Letter from Jackson

Darling Julia,

I should soon come home to Carolina, to the house you love, to the deep old woods I love, and to loving you, forever.

When I get back, I know you’ll ask me about Jackson, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is. I’m going to tell you now to clear my mind of it, leave it forever. Once home I do not want to think of it.

It’s an ugly place; there are few beautiful buildings, no streets of stately homes one expects to see in an old Southern city, just blocks upon blocks, mile upon mile, of broken asphalt and decaying buildings.

Its main street is blemished by vacant shops and offices with dusty, empty, shattered windows like broken, rotten teeth. Even it’s recent upgrade with roundabouts and verges doesn’t disguise the squalor. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.

Poverty and racial tension propel Jackson, a volatile combination that pulls back more than it pushes the social, economic, physical nature of the city. The political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office. The city is very poor, but  federal funding finds its way to empower political ends.

Jackson is a fractured collection of people in a city 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 fellowship of stewards.

Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, and every night here, I dreamed of you in that old house in the mountains under a million stars.

All my love, my being.

Tim

Mississippi’s Ark of Taste

The Ark of Taste is an online catalogue developed and maintained by the Slow Food Foundation.

The catalogue records small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of our world, an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats. The Ark is growing day by day, gathering alerts from people who see the flavors of their childhood disappear, taking with them a piece of their culture and history.

Here are a selection of foods in the catalogue that most Mississippians will find familiar and some surprising. As a Calhoun County native, I’m of course including the two heirloom sweet potato varieties listed.

American Native Pecan
American Paddlefish
American Persimmon
Bradford Watermelon
Cotton Patch Goose
Hayman Sweet Potato
Louisiana Mirlitron
Mississippi Silver Hull Bean
Moon and Stars Watermelon
Nancy Hall Sweet Potato
New Orleans French Bread
Pawpaw
Piney Woods Cattle
Shagbark Hickory
Southern Field Peas
Traditional Sorghum Syrup
Tupelo Honey
Watermelon Pickles
White African Sorghum
White Velvet Okra
Wild Gulf Coast Shrimp
Yellow-Meated Watermelon

The Smug Alternative

Deena Boydd sipped a triple-cream latte and began her editorial for the next edition of The Jacktown Liberator.

“The worst problem in the world today is a false sense of self-importance,” she typed, considering it a brilliant beginning for a piece designed to skewer her detractors, a legion of local journalists, politicians and businessmen, not to mention creditors. While the journalists and politicians had other ridiculous axes to grind, her creditors, she reasoned, simply did not understand that she was a woman on a mission and that their concerns over money betrayed their petty sense of the world while confirming her broader and certainly more legitimate world-view.

A knock on the door of her tastefully neutral and largely barren office interrupted her reverie. Before she could say “come in” the door was opened by a short, very stout young black woman with a scowl on her face.

“Hello, Arusha, how are you this morning?” Deena asked, beaming with false goodwill.

“I been trying to get that man on the phone you told me about, but he ain’t takin’ any calls now,” Arusha said. “They said he got your message and he workin’ on a response.”

Deena frowned. Not only did she hope that the man Arusha was referring to, who happened to be the chairman of the city council, would respond to her questions by 5 p.m., her deadline to the printer, but she was also frustrated at trying to encourage Arusha to adopt a more sophisticated approach when it came to contacting people. Deena needed to speak with others simply in order to give the patina of reliability to her otherwise fabricated news stories about the inner workings of the city’s administration, but she felt that at the very least she should put a good face on her trumpery.

Deena clinched her teeth, which Arusha interpreted as a smile. Smiling in turn, Arusha asked, “Do you still want to go to lunch with me and Syllis at that foreign restaurant? She said it’s expensive. You know it’s my birthday that day, don’t you?”

“I thought you were a Virgo,” Deena said.

“Oh, I ain’t a Virgo. I got two kids. Anyway, I gotta go. It’s my turn to clean the bathroom, and Mr. Tadd’s picky about that. I thought he was going to have to be put in the hospital that time he found that cricket on the window. He sure is jumpy.”

Arusha left, slamming the door. Deena gritted her teeth hard even harder. Her gaze wandered from the door to the mirror on the wall opposite her desk.

‘I still look good,’ she said to herself. Deena was 53, a bottle blond with rapidly graying roots. She had begrudgingly decided to approve of her expanding bulk, which she reassuringly found in keeping for a mature woman of what she considered significant social stature. For a decade, her publication had ridden the modest wave of a small southern city’s liberal sentiments. Deena knew that her vision of the city’s future was the only one with any reason or design; she alone had her finger on the true pulse of the city. She felt that she’d established herself as a distinctive voice in local politics, when in actuality most people only picked up her publication in order to find out what bands were playing in the local nightspots.

Another knock at the door signaled the arrival of her partner, Tadd Stuffer, a pale, untidy man who stooped, snuffled and continually dusted his shoulders with dandruff. “We have to talk,” he said, glancing nervously down the hall before he closed the door.

“What is it this time?” Deena asked.

“Payday is this week,” he said. “And we don’t have enough money to pay everybody.”

“How much do we have?” Deena asked. Tadd quoted a figure. “Well, that’s enough for you and me, and enough to put out two more issues before another payday. We’ll issue everyone else vouchers.”

“We did that last time,” Tadd pointed out.

“In that case, you know what you have to do,” Deena said. “Call your mother and tell her we simply need a few thousand to see us through this rough spot.”

“Deena, I’m beginning to think Mommie’s patience is wearing thin with our continual need for money,” Tadd said. “She’s well-off, sure, but she’s already spent over a half a million dollars keeping us afloat for the past eight years. I don’t think she’s willing to do it for too much longer. Of course, it might help if you were a bit nicer to her.”

“Why should I be?” Deena thundered, her normally pallid, flaccid features mottled with fury. “She’s the one who made life miserable for you all those years, putting you in that clinic with all those other pathetic losers when all that was wrong with you was the need for the love of a strong woman. Look at all the good I’ve done for you. She should be grateful for that alone!”

“Deena, listen to me . . . “

“No, you listen to me! You get on the phone to that gold-plated bitch of a mother of yours and tell her that if she doesn’t send us twenty thousand bucks today, I’m going to tell her exactly what went on with her husband and your step-brother when he stayed in the pool house last summer.

“Deena, you promised!”

“I’m sorry, Tadd, but this newspaper is more important than your ugly family history. We are here in this city to help bring about a change, to bring a people out of bondage, to make good the wrongs of a century, and you’re worried about a measly case of incest?”

Deena was red in the face, her disproportionate Rubenesque body heaving with emotion. “Call her. Now!”

Tadd stared dumbly at her tits, which she had begun to knead provocatively. She started to unbutton her blouse. “Close the door,” she said.

“Here?” Tadd asked nervously.

“Yes.”

Tadd closed the door and whimpered while Deena drew a big black latex phallus from a bottom drawer.

***

In an office down the hall, Parsley Horton-Hoopey was giving her husband a lesson in political correctness.

“Zeus, I thought we’d agreed to call it ganja,” she said. “Marijuana is just a vulgarity invented by drug lords who only sell this sacred herb for money. And while we’re at it, it’s ‘maize’, not ‘corn’, for Demeter’s sake.”

Parsley had only recently moved to Jacktown from the West Coast, where she had lived in the commune near San Francisco her mother had founded in the mid-Sixties. She had moved to Jacktown to live with her grandmother after a series of arrests for larceny, fraud and drug charges had made it clear that the State of California teetered on the state of barbarism. Parsley had charmed Deena with her tale of persecution and woe. Deena, always the champion of those she perceived as underdogs, took her to her breast (quite literally and quite often, usually when Tadd was bound in handcuffs) and made her a managing editor, which meant that Parsley was in charge of the contributing writers, who were one by one becoming more and more frustrated and alienated because of her incompetence when faced with a paragraph and her indifference in dealing with deadlines.

In addition to her job at The Jacktown Liberator, Parsley also worked for a successful online marketing firm from which she had been pilfering funds in steadily increasing amounts for over six months. She reassured herself that if she got caught, she’d just get Zeus, who owned a small restaurant in the city’s trendy Fondue district, to pay them off and everything would be fine, and of course Deena would fight tooth and nail to keep her managing editor out of prison and avoid a scandal, wouldn’t she?

“And Zeus, don’t forget we have to go to Amelia’s house blessing Saturday afternoon.” Parsley listened on the phone then exploded. “I don’t care if you have to open the restaurant at 5! We’re going to Amelia’s! I’m supposed to hold the Holy Laurel Wreath! Besides . . . (she cooed) I have a surprise for you . . . Remember that black teddy you liked? . . . I bought it, and I’m wearing it to the ceremony.”

She hung up the phone with a sigh. God, she got tired of pushing sex, especially her own.

Egg Salad Angst

Egg salad screams of ladies’ luncheons and soda fountain sandwiches.

Pimento and cheese once simpered in such situations, but thanks to a Southern machismo ethic that makes eating a white bread Vidalia onion sandwich dribbling Duke’s mayo over the kitchen sink a valid display of white collar masculinity, P&C is even found served at golf tournaments and in micro-breweries paired with an unassuming yet authoritative amber larger and baked parsnip chips.

Still and all, the South is nothing if not traditional, and while egg salad might certainly be served on pumpernickel at some happy hour buffet in a Pensacola leather bar, for the most part it endures as a staple on occasions with a heavy distaff attendance such as christenings, weddings, and those endless, inevitable funerals.

Though I’m certain some misguided, unbalanced, and potentially violent individuals make egg salad with scrambled eggs, the rest of us use whole boiled eggs peeled and mashed (swear to God I knew a gal who used a baby food jar) with mayonnaise to bind.

I like it on the chunky side. Add chopped black olives, finely-chopped celery, and green onion. A dash of vinegar gives it bite, and a little olive oil is a nice touch.

Top with ground black pepper, and serve on rye toast with Pilsner, not lager, you knuckle-dragging Philistines.

Stuffed Pork Loin

Remove sinews and fat from a whole loin of pork, butterfly, and brush with corn oil seasoned with black pepper, salt, and freshly-minced garlic.

For the stuffing, use day-old cornbread moistened with butter and chicken stock seasoned with fresh rosemary (not too much!), thyme, basil, salt and pepper, along with finely-minced onions.

Stuff loin, roll, truss, brush again with seasoned oil, and roast on medium heat (300) about an hour for a ten pound loin.

Serve with Jezebel sauce.

Shrimp and Grits

In 1985, Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning.

Claiborne soon published the recipe in the New York Times, and the national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country, this is Neale’s original:

6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar)
Tabasco sauce
Freshly grated nutmeg
White pepper
1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
Peanut oil
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 large garlic clove, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.

The Buttermilk Bunny

Stir 2 packages unflavored gelatin with 2 tablespoons cornstarch and dissolve in 1/4 cup or so of warm water. Add this mixture to 3 cups warm buttermilk. Stir in a tablespoon or two of raspberry or strawberry jam, a little lemon zest, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a half cup sugar. Whisk to a smooth consistency; it should thicken slightly. Cool and refrigerate. When semi-firm, spoon into a lightly oiled bunny mold and refrigerate for at least three hours. Garnish with chopped lime jello.