Angelo Mistilis opened his restaurant on College Hill Road in Oxford, Mississippi, in May, 1962, and fed thousands upon thousands before closing in 1988. The menu featured dozens of items, but by any stable reckoning, first and foremost was his hamburger steak.
“The hamburger steak was on the original menu, the hamburger steak with cheese and onions came in a little later, in the mid to late 60s,” Angelo said. “You could have it regular, you could have it with onions, you could have it with cheese, or you could have it all the way,” Angelo said.
“We used about nine tons of fresh ground beef a year. I had a butcher that got my hamburger meat with all the trimmings, and I got some from James’ Food Center.”
“We always served it with hand-cut home fries,” he added. “We’d use around 1200 lbs. of potatoes a week and two fifty-pound sacks of onions. The cheese was always sliced American, and we served it on a paper plate in a wicker basket.”
That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.
The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.
James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original 1955 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable.
“It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.
Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.”
During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.
Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington.
At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”
As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.
“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.
“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky: home.”
“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”
“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, ‘Big Red’ to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”
“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesied, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”
“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”
It was mid-morning, late June, and Harlan’s truck was shaking, rattling, and rolling, kicking up dust on a snake-neck red gravel road two miles northwest of Big Creek, Mississippi, hauling ass over about a hundred square miles of nothing but hills and woods, heartache, hydrocodone, honky-tonks, bait shops and the occasional double-wide Baptist church perched next to a crumbling asphalt parking lot, making our way by fits and starts to the backwaters of Grenada Lake.
I was red-eyed from a blunt, grumpy and road-weary, but Harlan was ebullient behind the wheel, grinning like a Tartar, regaling me with his cynical and irreverent observations on the state of mankind and his critical assessment of my life as a microcosm thereof.
“I told you not to take up with that nigga Ricky, but did you listen? No, hell no, you had to move into that shit-hole duplex he shared with his sister.”
“People do stupid shit when they’re in love,” I said. “Case in point, what about that Miss Lauderdale County who threw the five-carat engagement ring you gave her out the window into Pontchartrain?”
He threw back his head and laughed, said she was worth every damn carat, and if he’d had any sense at all he wouldn’t had fucked her sister. Suddenly it occurred to me how little I knew him.
Harlan is a tall, solidly-built man with a head full of thick, unruly greying red hair, a bright, lazy smile, and the kind of voice given to people who have little to say. He can talk his way between tiger’s teeth and gets his way in places most people won’t even go, like this farm in the middle of nowhere that grows the world’s most sought-after watermelon.
Harlan claims to be the world’s leading expert on watermelons. His qualifications include a stint in the Navy, a PhD from Cornell and 32 years in USDA’s harness.
Along the way he picked up enough knowledge to make him a recognized authority on not just watermelons, but the melon family of plants. Watermelons, however, are his consuming passion and he has traveled across the globe in search of rare ancestral varieties. On his farm in George County, Mississippi he grows a crop of Kalahari tsamma.
Three weeks earlier, some laid-back ass-lick who makes more money in a day than I see in a month working for a slick new regional called me up out of the blue and said he’d give me a dollar a word for an article about the fabled Red Zeppelin, a pearly green oblong averaging some twenty-five pounds. It’s most distinctive characteristics are the pale, subtly shaded zig-zag lateral stripes that gave the melon an illusion of ribbing. The Zeppelin is also distinguished—indeed ennobled—by a dense, velvety flesh of surpassing succulence.
Harlan’s source for these watermelons is on a sloping red sand dune with an ever weeping spring in indenture on the ridge south of the Schoona River in a remote and sparsely-populated county in north central Mississippi.
We’d been on the road a long time, and I was just flat-out tired from the long drive up from Jackson, tired of the road and impatient with Harlan, who seemed alternately fidgety and distant. I just wanted to get there, get the Zepp, and get the hell out.
The sun danced on the rim of the world and shone in random rays over a country sculpted by loggers and downpours. The road looped over hills, plunged down hollows, and turn-rowed bottom-land crops, following the design of some sweaty, half-drunk supervisor to no rational destination whatsoever.
Then suddenly there it was, a gently sloping sandy hill, glowing and imposing, on the red side of gold, a washy bronze in the pale summer sun. as lyrically striated and undulating as a vineyard and punctuated by tiny glowing ovals situated like so many open whole notes up and down a page of symphonic notation.
As we grew closer I made out upon that terraced hillside a lithe figure in loose, faded red overalls with wearing a broad red straw hat with a billowing polka-dot ribbon gently hoeing a row of bouldered vines.
“That’s Royce,” Harlan said. “Let’s go on up to the house.”
The house was a solid dogtrot overlooking the broad Loosa-Schoona bottom with a wrap-around porch sheltering high windows that framed dangling melded Mardi Gras bead disks, swinging strings, mandalas and figurines of colored glass. Each line, angle and corner of every room of the house, glowed in turn with ruby, topaz, purple, aquamarine, and a hundred dozen colors in between, bending light into blades, spears, and arrows.
As we stood in the foyer, Royce came in. “Hey, daddy,” he said.
“Hey, sugar-booger,” Harlan said, giving him a sloppy kiss and a pat on the fanny. “Where’s Owen?
“He’s on his way back from Grenada. He’ll be here around dark. Y’all come get something from the refrigerator and we’ll sit on the porch.”
The winds were warm and shifty, the gloaming sky a bowl of scattered dirty cotton clouds. Around dusk, a light breeze sprang from the bottom. We could see the cloud pushing it sailing north up the river from the backwaters of the reservoir. A little slipper of moon dangled over the fading sun. Soon, we heard a car horn beeping in the distance.
“Here comes Owen,” Royce said, looking in the distance, and said to Harlan, “Where is she?”
Harlan exhaled, stretched, stamped his feet, and said, “In the back floorboard. I had a nice little box made, put a couple of photos in with her. One of us on our honeymoon in Daytona Beach. We both were wearing cut-offs. We were so happy. I put a picture of you in there, the one at the Sugar Bowl after the touchdown. She loved you, Royce. Don’t rob yourself of that.”
Royce smiled at him, and pointed to a faint star at mid-heaven. “There she is, Daddy. That little dot of light nobody can touch caught in the middle of the sky. Momma was a lightenin’ bug in a beer bottle, caught up in her own darkness.”
Royce leaned over and patted Harlan on the knee. “I’m settled with it, daddy. You ought to be, too. She always tried to keep herself pretty for you, even when she saw the end coming. Let’s go get her.”
Owen, dark and quiet, embraced Royce as we walked down the hill, the field around us shadowed under an open sky . We came to the east side of the hill; the crook of Leo embossed the heavens.
There in the shadows Harlan placed the glossy black box on a rough, flat red rock beside the weedy rill leading from the untidy spring. The wind rose.
“Bye, Momma,” Royce said. “Go home now. Don’t hurt anymore.”
Harlan began crying and we helped him back up to the house where we sat on the porch and drank and told stories about days we missed and days we didn’t until the noise of the night blanketed us, muffled our pain, and pushed us inside and abed.
In the morning Harlan and I drove south under a blistering orange-red sun with a clutch of pearly rippled melons nestled in pine straw against in the bed of the truck.
Diana Kennedy was a Brit who married the NY Times correspondent for Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s.
She fell in love with Mexican food, learning the cuisine literally from the ground up, visiting every state in Mexico on buses, donkeys and in her pre-power steering Nissan pickup, carrying a shovel to dig out of mud and sand.
Kennedy’s explorations resulted in an authoritative body of work that provides a thorough, extensive survey of the many cuisines of Mexico from Chiapas to Baja, but her most essential work is The Cuisines of Mexico (Harper & Row, 1972). If you are at all interested in food and cooking, and you have a taste for books that are well-written, well-researched, and ring with authority and conviction, then you must have this within reach.
Kennedy’s introduction, “A Culinary Education” certainly ranks among the most notable essays about coming to know food as more than mere nourishment (see below). The first section, “Ingredients and Procedures” gives the initiate a thorough grounding in such arcana as herbs, kitchen equipment, and chilies. You’ll find no better introduction to the basics of the Mexican kitchen.
As to the recipes, bear in mind that Kennedy was writing for a somewhat less sophisticated audience, and these were selected for simplicity and ease of preparation; still you will find surprises. You might be, as I was those many years ago on first reading, delighted by the seafood recipes (“There is an awful lot of coast to Mexico …”), which includes perhaps one of the first recipes for “cebiche” included in an American cookbook.
The inclusion of many Gulf species among these recipes is poignant indeed in this post-BP Gulf world. My personal favorite among them is the snapper Vera Cruz, which we served at the Warehouse during my tenure.
Kennedy’s writing is strong and serviceable, rarely lyrical but savory when so. Her most powerful gift is an excruciating, attention to detail in every respect, evidence of her intelligence and commitment to authenticity. She wanted you to know what she loved.
Kennedy died on July 24, 2022, at the age of 99.
A Culinary Education
Although I have always loved good food, it was in Wales during the war years, when I was doing my service in the Women’s Timber Corps, that I first savored food I can still remember today.
In the Forest of Dean we would toast our very dull sandwiches over the smoldering wood fires and roast potatoes and onions in the ashes to help eke out our rations on those frosty, raw mornings. Later, in the Usk Valley, as we cycled for pleasure through the country lanes and walked the Brecken Beacons, we would stop for the farmhouse teas: thick cream and fresh scones, wedges of homemade bread spread thickly with freshly churned butter, wild damson jam, buttery cakes that had been beaten with the bare hand. From there I moved to an even more remote village in Carmarthenshire.
After the war there were occasional trips to France, and memories flood back of the first belons, and moules along the Côtes du Nord; rice cooked with minute crabs that had to be sucked noisily to extract their sweet juice; the ratatouille, and refreshing Provençal wines in a Saint-Tropez bistro. I can’t forget the lunchtime smell of olive oil in northern Spain as we walked up through the oleander bushes from the beach, and the never ending meals in the Ramblas restaurants in Barcelona, or beef à la tartare after a day’s skiing in the Austrian Alps. It was then that I really learned to cook, to reproduce what had been eaten with such pleasure.
I met Paul Kennedy in Haiti, where he was covering one of the many revolutions for The New York Times. We fell in love and I joined him in Mexico later that year.
And so life in Mexico began. Everything was new, exciting, and exotic. Luz, our first maid, loved to cook. One day she brought her corn grinder to the house and we made tamales: first soaking the dried corn in a solution of unslaked lime, washing the skin of each kernel, and then grinding it to just the right texture. It seemed to take forever, and our backs ached from the effort. But I shall never forget those tamales. She introduced us both to the markets and told us how to use the fruits and vegetables that were strange to us.
Finally Luz had to go, and Rufina came from Oaxaca; it was her first job. She was young and moody, but she was a really good cook and my apprenticeship continued as she taught me how to make her rather special albóndigas, rabbit in adobo, and how to draw and truss a hen.
But I suppose it is Godileva to whom I am most indebted. I always loved the evenings she would stay to do the ironing; we would chat about her life when she was a young girl on her father’s small ranch in a remote area of Guerrero. They had lived well, and she loved good food. She would pat out our tortillas, and before lunch would make us gorditas with the fat of marrow bones to enrich them, and as we came in the door would hand us, straight from the comal, sopes smothered with green sauce and sour cream. We would take turns grinding the chilies and spices on the metate, and it is her recipe for chiles rellenos that I have included in this book.
I had other influences as well. My friend Chabela, on several trips into the interior, taught me almost all I know about the handicrafts of Mexico; together we visited craftsmen in remote areas and on those journeys we would try all the local fruits and foods. It was she who spent many hours in my kitchen showing me, accompanied by meticulous instructions, the specialties of her mother’s renowned kitchen in Talisco.
At last our stay had to come to an end. Paul had been fighting cancer courageously for two years, and it was time to return to New York. By then we had traveled extensively together, and on my own I had driven practically all over the country, seeing, eating, and asking questions. I started to collect old cookbooks and delve into the gastronomic past to learn more for the cookbook that I hoped some day to write.
Paul died early in 1967, and later that same year Craig Claiborne suggested that I start a Mexican cooking school. I suppose I wasn’t ready to start a new venture; I was too saddened and worn by the previous three years. But the idea had planted itself, and in January 1969, on Sunday afternoons, I did start a series of Mexican cooking classes-the first in New York. A wintry Sunday afternoon is a wonderful time to cook, and the idea caught on.
The classes expanded beyond those Sunday afternoons, and the work for the book went on as well. But while the classes continue to flourish and grow, the research and testing have come at least to a temporary halt-if only to allow the book to be published at last. For I find myself involved in a process of continual refinement, due both to the frequent trips I make to Mexico to discover new dishes and to refine old ones, and to the constant dialogue between myself and my students and friends who try these recipes with me.
Use the Martha White Buttermilk Mix. Add chopped chilies–hot, mild, or mixed, your preference–whole kernel corn–do NOT use creamed corn–a little minced onion, and a hefty sprinkling of diced tomato or pimento, . Season lightly with chili powder, cumin, and black pepper. Pour into a hot, well-oiled corn stick pan and bake in a very hot oven until toasty. Cool before turning out.
Though they’re traditionally made on May 4, Wookies are fun to make any day of the year.
Preheat oven to 350, and line a lightly oiled baking sheet with parchment paper. Flip the paper to oil both sides. Cream together 2 sticks softened unsalted butter with 1 cup sugar. Mix in one 1 large egg, beaten, and add a tablespoon vanilla extract. Set aside.
Mix 2 ½ cups AP flour with 1/2 c. cocoa and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Slowly add the dry mixture to the wet ingredients until just combined. On a clean floured surface, work the dough until smooth and roll out to about ¼ inch. Cut into “wookies” with a gingerbread man cookie cutter, place onto the parchment baking sheet, and use a fork to make fur.
Bake for about 10 minutes, remove from oven and cool thoroughly before decorating with frosting and sprinkles.
Best known for her work The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford was a British aristocrat, writer, and political activist who came to Mississippi in 1951 to publicize the unjust execution of Willie McGee, a black man from Laurel who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins, a white housewife.
McGee’s legal case became a cause célèbre that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later.. William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Mitford sought him out in her effort to rally support against a travesty of justice that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later. This excerpt is from Mitford’s memoir A Fine Old Conflict.
‘We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi’s most (indeed its only) illustrious resident, William Faulkner.
The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house. “Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,” was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its antebellum pillars covered with grayish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary.
We gingerly approached and rang the front doorbell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence. The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories.
Later it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office. He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don’t pay much attention to law and justice, don’t go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee’s safety in jail.
When we left he wished us good luck. William Patterson was jubilant when I telephoned to tell him of our interview with Faulkner. It was a major break- through, he said. The release would certainly be picked up by the wire services and flashed around the world! But he insisted we show it to Faulkner and ask him to initial it, for fear that pressure from his Mississippi compatriots might later induce him to repudiate it.
This time I drove alone past the weepin’ willa tree to find Faulkner in dungarees and hip boots, up to his knees in dank manure, working alongside one of his black farmhands. I showed him the release and explained why I had come: “Mr. Patterson thought I should ask you to sign this, for fear you might later repudiate it.”
He read it through, initialed it, and as he handed it back murmured softly, as though speaking to himself, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.”
“Oh don’t let’s put that in,” said I, and clutching the precious document made a dash for my car.
One can only conclude that Faulkner gave expression, in his own distinctive voice, to the deep-seated schizophrenia then endemic among white liberals and racial moderates of the region.’