Pimento Cheese Pizza

You can use a prepared pizza crust, but I implore you to learn how to make a simple pizza crust; it’s not hard at all, nothing more than flour, yeast, water and olive oil.

With a homemade crust, you can adjust the thickness to your tastes and add whatever herbs and cheeses you like to it instead of what some dingbat in a test kitchen thinks you like. Roll out your dough—I like mine on the thin side—and crimp the edges. Cover the crust with thin, drained tomato slices. Dust the tomato layer with grated Parmesan cheese and a bit of that ubiquitous Italian seasoning blend.

As to the pimento and cheese, friends and neighbors, I wish I could tell you that you can use store-bought or even your homemade recipe, but if you do, you’re going to end up with a greasy, runny mess because the mayonnaise will separate.

Instead, toss mild grated cheddar with drained diced pimentos—I dice the roasted red peppers you can buy in a jar—diced white onions and shaved ham. Yes, you can use bacon but make sure it’s lean. I wouldn’t range too far afield in toppings—no anchovies!—but it’s your pizza, and you can put any damn thing you want on it. Spread pimento cheese mixture over the tomatoes, dust with Parmesan and bake on the middle rack at 450 for about 15 minutes.

Valley of Dry Bones: A Meditation on Change by Howard Bahr

In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.

Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.

Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.

But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.

In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.

Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.

Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.

Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.

When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.

With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.

And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.

Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.

And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.

Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”

Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.

My Scalloped Potatoes

I make a blond roux with butter, add enough whole milk to make a thin sauce, which I season with salt and white pepper. I then parboil waxy potatoes, peel and slice thinly, layer them in a glass or porcelain baking dish, spooning the sauce between the layers. This is baked in a medium-high oven (350 or so) until the potatoes are tender through and the top somewhat browned.

All-Day Singing in Mississippi

This surprisingly poetic account of an all-day singing was submitted sometime in 1941 to the Works Project Administration by a Mississippi writer working on the “America Eats!” project .

There is an old axiom that fighting and feuding are easily plowed under with food and song. Certainly, a man can stand up by his neighbor and sing “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound!” and then turn around and feud with him about a hog, a dog, or a fence line.

Not a Mississippi man, anyway. For, although a Mississippian gets tempered up in a hurry, he is also believed to be form with a prayer in his heart, a song on his lips, and an unwavering appetite for picnic food. All day singing with dinner on the ground has come to serve him as “hatchet-burying” time as well as a singing and easing session.

In one section of the state there is a tri-county singing association that meets twice a year, and when that group of voices bears down the mules hitched below the hill start in to bray. From the first notes that are sung until the last leader calls for “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” singing sometimes throughout the day.

In the church the women sit on one side of the house, the men on the other. Those who read shaped notes take their seats on the front rows. The first leader calls out a number from his Sacred Harp song books and sets the pitch. He asks for the tune and the church house rings with the “fa, sold, la” of the Mississippian scale. The words come next and each leader tries to extract from the willing class its best.

As the morning wears on the women present who say they don’t “sing a stitch” prepare the table for dinner. Near noontime, the smell of food begins to compete with the swell of rhythm. And when a tune as familiar as “On Jordan’s Story Banks” falls off, even the leader knows that it’s time for the Sacred Harp to be laid aside. He solemnly closes the book and announces that dinner will be served outside.

On the improvised tables the women have spread food for the hungry and weary vocalists. Chicken seems to be the songbirds’ meat for it is evident in great quantity and variety. There is chicken pie, crisp fried chicken, country fried chicken with gravy, broiled chicken, baked chicken, chicken giblets, and hard-boiled eggs. There are baked hams and country sausage, and no all-day singing dinner is just right without potato salad. Homemade summer pickle, peach pickle, and pickle relish eat mighty well with all this, and there’s plenty of cold biscuit and homemade light bread.

The best cooks of the community bring their cakes and pies and a man was hard put to choose between apple pie and devil’s food cake with coconut icing. It may be that he will pass them both up for jelly cake, especially if it is a ten-stacker.

Singing is resumed after dinner, but it takes a potent leader to get much spirit into the mind right after such a meal. But song finally takes hold again, and the singing of “Sweet Morning” takes on added meaning. The final number is heard at sundown, and the courting couples wander up from the spring to join their folks for the trek home.

It is a quiet leave-taking, without many spoken good-byes. Those had already been said when the last leader asked for the words” “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.”

Pimento Cheese

Robert Moss, who’s from Charleston, is a culinary historian, a geeky gaggle of food writers in which I am gosling if not egg.

In Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining, Moss delves into stories of Low Country dishes such as shrimp and grits and she-crab soup as well as elements of our broader Southern cuisine like bourbon, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese.

Here he becomes troublesome, claiming rum is more Southern than bourbon, that fried green tomatoes are a Yankee invention, and that pimento cheese originated in upstate New York.

It’s this pimento and cheese issue I’m all over like a duck on a June bug, but before going any further, let’s turn to this matter of spelling, since I’m acutely aware that any article in Mississippi is going to be scratched over and henpecked by a pompous flock of literati. God help me if my semicolons lack weight.

Yes, I am quite aware that the it’s the pimiento pepper, but in his article “Creating a New Southern Icon: The Curious History of Pimento Cheese”, Moss notes that “In the late 1890s, imported Spanish sweet peppers started being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento.

Soon the ‘i’ was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them ‘pimentos’.” I’ll remind you that Moss has a PhD. (in English, no less) from Furman, and though I’m not known for my slavish allegiance to academics, like the rest of you, I always concur with eggheads when they’re in my corner. It looks good on paper.

Moss does not create another idol in this article; instead he reveals himself as an iconoclast of the first order by exposing the Yankee roots of a Southern dish Boston-based food writer Judy Gelman claims is “held sacred by Southerners”, and his research seems brutally thorough. Evangelism is clearly in play.

What made pimento and cheese characteristically Southern is the use of cheddar. In memory lives the vivid image of a red hoop of cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this was the cheese most often grated and used with homemade mayonnaise for pimento and cheese in rural kitchens throughout the South.

Still and all, Moss makes a valid point; if foods we consider Southern are anathematized by Yankee roots, then our idolized pimento cheese has feet of clay. We just found out how to do it right and made it ours. But how is it that we’ve come to make a cult of cornbread, a fetish of fried chicken and an idol of black-eyed peas, all adorned with the trappings of media devotion and academic Sunday schools?

Let’s please move beyond the iconography of food (barbecue is just short of having a clergy) and come to realize that any significant foodstuff is nothing more than a pleasing combination of tastes and textures. And sure, let’s have food festivals; of course you wouldn’t expect to find a shrimp festival in Omaha or one for mountain oysters in Key West (I could be wrong about that) but let’s come to know them for what they are: celebrations of people and place.

As to pimento and cheese itself, I’m not going to be so crass as to give you a recipe. You do it the way you like it; God knows you’re going to anyway. Pimento cheese should be devoid of controversy. It’s not; everyone thinks their version is the best. But you’re the one making it, so to hell with them.

Though Moss claims that recipes with cream cheese are “definitely in the minority”, I always add it to mine, mixing it with the mayo 1:3. I also belong to a schismatic if not to say heretical sect who find a fresh sweet peppers from the garden as acceptable as canned pimientos, and have no problem adding chopped green onions, though I get a lot of finger-wagging over that.

All I can do is wince.

Honduran Hoe Cakes

While researching the history of Mexican cornbread (the U.S. version,), I discovered our “Southern” cornbread in several Mexican cookbooks. Called–somewhat unsurprisingly–pan de maiz, this recipe seems to have found a place on tables in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

One recipe I found on a Mexican website claims to have come by way of Maine and even employs buttermilk. While such things aren’t inconceivable, I suddenly felt as if the Culinary Improbability Drive had been activated, and I’d turned into an enormous zucchini hush puppy and about to plunge into a roiling intergalactic catfish fryer.

I felt much the same way about Malaysian grits.

The origins of what passes as Mexican cornbread in the U.S. are obscured in a cloud of “women’s magazine” articles and speculation. The dish has all sorts of atrocious variations; extreme examples include any number of beans and meats, cacti, seeds, flowers, and a California aberration with blue tofu that also ranks high on my Improbability Algorithm.

For my part, I’ve devised a recipe very close to Ur-meal bread. Add whole kernel corn, peppers and queso in equal proportions to a good stiff cornbread batter. I use thin-walled mild peppers 1:1 with thinly-sliced jalapeno. Drop by spoonfuls into a well-oiled skillet, brown on both sides, and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a low oven to crisp. Top with salsa, sour cream, and/or guacamole.

Do tomatoes ripen off the vine?

 Yes, they do. Tomatoes are a climacteric fruit (tomatoes are berries, stupid).

Climacteric fruit produce ethylene, which triggers and promotes ripening, a complex process that softens and–more importantly—sweetens.

Others are apples, bananas, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, avocados, nectarines, and blueberries.

Citruses, raspberries, strawberries, and cherries, grapes, pineapples, melons, and pomegranates are non-climacteric.

Fry green tomatoes, but you can ripen half-green tomatoes in a sunny window with the stem end down.

Hot Dog Season

I’m not about to tell you how to cook a hot dog, and I’m not going to tell you what kind of bun to stick it in, either; those are purely personal considerations. You heat up a wiener any way you find best, and stick it into whatever bun you like, but any weenie needs a warm bun. Just sayin’.

As to toppings, eschew French mustards; while France has been an ally since the dawn of our nation, putting Dijon mustard on a hot dog seems vaguely unpatriotic and approaches the epitome of pretension. Creole mustard is a laudable and appropriate compromise. Ketchup is acceptable in some circles (yes, mine) but if you slather mayonnaise on a weenie, you need therapy.

A relish is wonderful, and your favorite chili should always be an option. Chopped fresh onion is a must; use a white with bite. For cheese use mild cheddar, for chrissakes.

An Epicure at Piney Woods

By the middle of the last century, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known to the world of letters as M.F.K. Fisher, had established herself as the preeminent culinary essayist in the English language.

Her visits to Dijon, Vevey and Provence resulted in works such as Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942) and The Gastronomical Me (1941). Those and her translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin (1949) had garnered her praises from around the globe. W.H. Auden said of her, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose,” no small acclaim in the age of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.

In 1964, Fisher had just finished the stunning Map of Another Town, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker in January. Subtitled “A Memoir of Provence”, the work marks a departure from her gastronomical memoir-cum-recipe format since the book is built not around food but around places: the cours Mirabear, the Deaux Garcons, La Toronde and other sites associated with Aix-en-Provence.

She had established herself as a writer, but she had already told friends she wanted to do something different: she wanted to teach. Other than a writing workshop in Utah in 1954 and various public speaking engagements, she had no teaching experience.

She also lacked sufficient academic credits to qualify for certification at public schools, but private schools like Piney Woods offered leeway in the matter of credentials and she entertained the idea of teaching English literature, basic composition, home economics (try to imagine taking home economics from M.F.K. Fisher) and tutoring students in French, Spanish and Italian.

“I’ll be working with students in advanced high school and junior college who are preparing for the ministry, the law, teaching and medicine. I’ll also be working with students who have come from the most God-forsaken rural areas in the state. The main thing is that they will be there because they WILL it, and not because it is the easiest, coziest and most indicated way to social and economic success.”

Fisher first heard about Piney Woods in the early 1920s when their gospel choir performed at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where the teen-aged Mary Frances and her younger sister were enrolled. For some time afterwards, her mother Edith subscribed to the Piney Woods bulletin and regularly sent donations of money and books, which her daughter continued to do for decades.

In her letters to family and friends in the early months of 1964, M.F. wrote of her preliminary discussion with Dr. Laurence Jones, the founder of Piney Woods, about her plans to volunteer her services at the school and her reasons for doing so, saying that she had “almost finished the active mother-role and that I am destined to go to waste unless I make some strong move.”

The year 1964 was a sadly historic one for Mississippi; the state had become a battleground in the American struggle for civil rights. Fisher confessed that she was no martyr to the cause of racial equality, and “as for accepting and being accepted, I honestly think that would soon take care of itself, easily and thoroughly . . . there would be suspicion of my motives at first, as is very understandable . . . so many white people want to ‘help’ but, are conditioned too far back to be anything but self-conscious about it, and I seem to be born without a racial conscience or whatever it is.”

She was not being altruistic at all, she was doing this for herself because after so many comfortable years in St. Helena and so many years of raising her daughters to be citizens of the world, she now had her back to the wall and needed Piney Woods as much as or more than the school needed her.

After sharing her plans with family (to mixed responses), Fisher boarded the California Zephyr in San Francisco on June 22. Once in Chicago, she boarded a train bound for Jackson, some twenty miles from Piney Woods.

During that time radio broadcasts and news coverage focused on the disappearance of two white civil rights workers from New York, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and their black activist host, James Chaney, who were the first casualties of what was to become known as the “Freedom Summer”. On August 4, the FBI would discover the inhumed bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and the South would explode in acts of violence and bigotry

But at Piney Woods, the focus was on work and education. Fisher said that the students were “too busy for trouble.” She eased into teaching with noncredit courses on fables (“from Aesop to Thurber”) and also tutored a handful of students. She lived in the comparative luxury of an air-conditioned mobile home of a faculty member who was away on vacation and ate most of her meals in the dining hall, which she considered disastrous because of the emphasis on starchy foods.

It should be noted that Fisher dined at the famous Revolving Tables in the Mendenhall Hotel, but records of the meal and her impressions of it are if in existence unavailable.

Fisher was at Piney Woods for a very short time, less than six months all told: two school terms, a summer and a fall. Despite the miserable Mississippi summer heat, her first term was the happiest. She wrote, “For the first time in many years what creative energy I have is being directed toward other things than my professional and emotional self.” She spoke of “wooing the students” to make herself acceptable, and her non-credit courses were popular.

She talked of her time with Dr. Jones, who was away from campus most of the time on fund-raising junkets. During his absence, the dean of the school Dr. Chandler was in charge, and Fisher described her as a “somewhat ridiculous little figure”. Fisher was soon to tangle with the steely Chandler and became outraged at a librarian who would not check out books “to NEGRO students!”

During the October break between the summer and fall semesters, things began to go awry. Even as she boarded the plane in Jackson, “I was surrounded by men and women and their frightened children speaking Mississippi dialects, several civil rights workers were flying out, the plane was stiff with heavily armed police, and I became more convinced that I could never come back.”

She spent her break at a beach house in Bridgehampton, N.Y., attending Broadway musicals and dining with Truman Capote, but that autumn her daughter Anna lost her job and became pregnant, her friend and editor Pat Convici became gravely ill, and her sister Anne was also in poor health.

When she returned to Piney Woods, she threw herself back into teaching, but the daily grind soon began to wear. After a difficult Thanksgiving with her family in California, when she returned to Piney Woods in December she asked to be relieved of her teaching duties for the remainder of the fall semester.

Her plans were to return to California to her daughters Norah and Anna, but, incensed that she seemed to have abandoned them in their time of need (Norah was by now caring for the pregnant and unstable Anna) for a group of Negro students in the middle of nowhere, they both insisted that she shouldn’t come.

Fisher left Piney Woods for Chicago in January 1965 and never returned. She had lost 20 pounds and was absorbed in self-reflection. Looking back on that time she wrote, “I began to come to life again.” She later described her time in Mississippi as “a pit of non-existence” she subjected herself to.

Once back in Chicago, she began writing again and sold some articles she had written long ago. “I thought a great deal about Piney Woods – the iron hand of Dr. Chandler, the librarian who didn’t want books taken out of the library, the conformity. People want me to write controversial stuff about it, but I am still too close, and I do not want to hurt the old man who founded the school.”

“He is a rascal, but he is also something of a real saint, in my eyes. I am making many notes, of course, and may some day be able to tell what I think is the truth about the basically noble but infamous place.”

These notes were never assembled, much less expounded upon. In Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher, edited by David Lazar (University Press of Mississippi: 1992), Ruth Riechl in 1990 describes this exchange:

“Mississippi?” I ask. Fisher sighs. “In 1964 the kids were all gone and I thought I’d find out if the South was as bad as I thought. So I went to teach at the Piney Woods School.” Piney Woods was a school for black students; the faculty, says Fisher, was half black and half white. She taught English. “The South was worse than I expected. I didn’t go to town at all while I was there.” But why did she go in the first place? Did she plan to write a book, to fight a fight? She looks slightly horrified. “God, no, I wasn’t planning on writing anything about it. And I didn’t go there to fight anything. I just went.” Fisher smiles a little, remembering. “I found it took six months before the kids would eyeball me. But after six months I was without color, and so were they.”

She smiles. “I was not invited back,” she adds with a certain amount of pride, “because I was a trouble maker.” She seems pleased by this, and then abruptly stops talking.

My Gazpacho

Older recipes for this king of summer soups include bread melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into sort of a cold roux for body. This recipe doesn’t include bread at that juncture, but I like crumbling dry cornbread over the bowl at table.

Mince two or three cloves of garlic very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet banana pepper.

I don’t recommend hot peppers; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing, not pungent nor heavy; starchy vegetables such as corn or peas seem out of place as well.

Add a teaspoon of powdered cumin, a quarter cup each of chopped fresh basil and parsley, and a teaspoon of ground black pepper. Mix with two cups V8. Refrigerate overnight. An hour before serving, add more V8 to consistency, adjust the salt and pepper, and top with a slosh of olive oil.

Serve in chilled bowls with crusty bread.