During the Great Depression, the Federal Writer’s Project assigned many unemployed writers (unemployment being a chronic condition among writers no matter the economic climate is, trust me) to collect information for a work that was to be called “America Eats”.
Pearl Harbor halted work on the project, but Pat Willard found the materials and fashioned them into America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA – the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin’ Feasts That Define Real American Food (2008).
This chronicle of America’s regional cuisine focused on events–church suppers, harvest festivals, state fairs, political rallies, lodge suppers–where food was a primary element.
Eudora Welty threw in a julep recipe, and Ralph Ellison chronicled the chant of the Harlem “sweet pertater man.” Recipes for such staples as pickles, breads, stews, and barbecue abound.
This baste is from Pinky Langley, a white man from Jackson. He instructs readers to mix the ingredients, cook for 30 minutes, and to turn and baste the meat frequently.
3 lemons sliced
1 pint vinegar
3 heaping tablespoons sugar
1 heaping tablespoon prepared mustard
3/4 pound melted oleo (margarine)
1 small bottle tomato catsup
1 small bottle Lea & Perrins Sauce
3 chopped onions
enough water to make 3/4 gallons
salt, black and red pepper to taste
“Cantaloupe” in the Deep South mostly sounds something like “canna-lope,” without a hint of ‘t’, but Bill Neale saw it spelt “CAN’T ELOPE” on a roadside sign in North Carolina, and a buddy of mine calls them “Romeos and Juliets”.
The name comes from an Italian communi near Rome, one of several Italian towns called “Cantaloupo,” (“song of the wolf” or literally “sings wolf”) where this variety of melon arrived in Europe from (of all places) Armenia in the early 18th century. The cantaloupe didn’t become a commercial crop in the US until the early 20th century. An early popular variety, ‘Rocky Ford’ was developed in Colorado, but ‘Ambrosia’ and ‘El Gordo’ have largely come to dominate the markets.
Incidentally, the European cantaloupe, Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis, is lightly ribbed with a gray-green skin; the American cantaloupe, C. melo var. reticulatus, has a webbed skin. It’s worth noting that the name “musk melon” comes from the pronounced aroma of the uncut fruit; a related group of scentless melons including honeydews, Canary, and Santa Claus are termed inodorata.
Make a syrup by combining 1 ½ cups prickly pear fruit (tunas), 3 cups water, and a half cup sugar in a saucepan, bringing it to a simmer, and cooking for about 30 minutes, until thickened. Add juice from half a lime. Strain and chill for an hour. Drizzle over crushed ice with a shot of dark rum or bourbon. Or okay, yeah, tequila.
At the height of our summer, the winter constellations begin to be seen in the eastern dusk. Among the brightest of these is Orion, and close on the heels of this great hunter is his big dog, Canis Major, with brilliant Sirius, the Dog Star.
When we can find Sirius in the darkening east, which at this latitude (Jackson is 32.2988° N) is between July 21 and August 3, our dog days begin, and for the next forty days or so, it’s hot as hell all the damn time.
Chances are you know a master canner who owes their vast and celebrated successes to a procedural mojo that carries with it an annoying smidge of smugness.
These domestic deities take justifiable pride in their product. At any county fair, you’ll find home canned goods with an astonishing range and degree of artisanship. Competition is psychotic.
Fortunately for us mere mortals, there’s a quick, delicious alternative to the sort of home canning that requires humongous pots and hubris. All you need for refrigerator pickles are a jar or two, running water, and a refrigerator.
Supermarket vegetables are unsuitable. Pack 6 cups sliced cucumbers and 1 cup sliced onion into quart jars. Heat a cup of vinegar with a cup of sugar, and a tablespoon of salt. I like a little black pepper. Pour over cucumber mix. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for a couple of days before serving. These will keep for a week or so.
Russell had his dander up. “Yancy, you are an effete snob!”
“Because I’m making shrimp cocktails?”
“No, you also wear ankle socks and tuck your t-shirts into your boxer shorts,” he pointed out. “But shrimp cocktails augment such established evidence of your snootiness.”
“There’s nothing epicene about a shrimp cocktail.”
“You even know to say ‘sissy’ six ways from Sunday.’”
“Russ, it’s your birthday party. What do you want for an appetizer?”
“Oyster shooters,” he said.
“I’m gonna tell your momma you’re sleeping with your ex.”
To one cup chili sauce, add one tablespoon each of lemon juice and horseradish, and a teaspoon Worcestershire. For heat, I recommend Crystal hot sauce and freshly-ground black pepper. I don’t recommend garlic. Freshly-chopped parsley gives heft and texture.
This gem was another find among the amazing avalanche of books at Fred Smith’s Choctaw Books when it was on North Street in Jackson.
Published in 1981 by the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Chamber of Commerce, the book itself is hefty, a good inch-and-a-half thick, and contains almost 1000 recipes. Most of these recipes are typical of the time: dozens of casseroles, oodles of pies and cakes, and of the sixty-odd salad recipes only two involve no gelatin whatsoever.
The introduction was written by Stanley Dearman, who for 34 years (beginning in 1966) was the editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia. Dearman’s editorials expressing outrage at the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers helped set the stage for the belated conviction of a former Klansman for organizing the killings, The case that became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and was the basis for the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”
Along with the introduction, I’ve included Turner Catledge’s cheese grits, Fannie Smith’s blackberry trifle, and another blackberry recipe, “Blackberry Acid,” a truly antique refreshment.
In this particular region of the South–the east central hill country of Mississippi—the tradition of food and fellowship go back many generations. More specifically, eating and talking are two things that natives in this region value highly and take seriously.
Nowhere do these two activities blend more happily than at the Neshoba County Fair-which in fact started in 1889 with a picnic under the trees and around the wagons by community residents who wanted to get together and talk-while they ate, of course, and to display their agricultural achievements. For many years the Fair has been known as “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty-hence the name of this cookbook.
During one week of the year, usually the first in August, the Fairground is transformed into a bustling city with a festive air. More than 500 cabins circling the racetrack, as well as hundreds of campers and mobile homes from across the South, are temporary homes for thousands who migrate back because of family connections or friendships. There are no strangers here; hospitality abounds and food and drink are shared by all.
The fame of the Fair has spread over the years. Last year it was featured in National Geographic and Southern Living magazines. And during the presidential campaign, Ronald and Nancy Reagan paid a visit and drew a record crowd. State politics and its florid oratory have been a part of the Fair since before the turn of the century.
Fair Week is preceded by several weeks of brisk activity and planning by the womenfolk-casseroles are made and frozen; hams and turkeys are baked or smoked; menus are planned and the shelves are stocked. In this region of abundant agricultural crops, corn, tomatoes, peas, butterbeans, squash and okra are harvested and processed, fitting complements to the succulent fried chicken and magnificent repertoire of dazzling desserts. A section of special Fair recipes is included in this book.
The production of the Giant Houseparty cookbook was the result of a project begun by the Philadelphia Rotary Club. For many years the Rotary Club distributed mimeographed recipe booklets at its annual pancake suppers. These booklets became collector’s items over the years.
The Rotary Club first considered producing a cookbook, but later granted permission to the Chamber of Commerce to assume the project. The committee selected and edited recipes from the existing collection prior to collecting others. A special effort was made to gather recipes which not only had become part of the local culinary lore, but to achieve a balance of “useful” recipes.
Another special effort was made to gather recipes from former residents in various parts of the country. For example, Turner Catledge, retired editor of the New York Times, was kind enough to send us his recipe for cheese grits. Mr. Catledge grew up in Neshoba County and now lives in New Orleans. He and Mrs. Catledge gave a dinner party in their home for Van Cliburn, whose father, the late Harvey Lavan Cliburn, was born and reared in Neshoba County, Catledge and Cliburn had much to talk about at that dinner party, which included that grits casserole.
Also, closer to home, we are delighted to include a recipe for Blackberry Trifle from Mrs. Fannie Johnson Smith, who at the age of 102 vividly recalls the day in 1889 when, at the age of 10, she accompanied her parents across a hill or two to the first Neshoba County Fair. —Stanley Dearman
Catledge Cheese Grits
1 cup grits
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups grated cheese
Dash of red pepper’1/2 stick butter
Combine grits, salt, and water and bring to a boil, stirring well. Place over bottom of a double boiler and cook for 40 minutes. While this is cooking, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add cheese, eggs, butter and pepper. Place in a Pyrex dish and heat in oven about 30 minutes.
1 cup blackberry trifle
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup butter
2 tablespoons flour
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 9-in. unbaked pie shell
4 tablespoons sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix well jam, sugar, buttermilk, butter, flour, egg yolks, and vanilla. Pour into pie shell. Bake about 40 minutes. Beat egg whites until stiff, gradually adding 4 tablespoons of sugar. Spread meringue on top of pie and return to oven to brown lightly.
3 gallons blackberries
½ gallon boiling water
4 ounces tartaric acid
1 ½ cups sugar to 1 cup juices
Crush berries, add boiling water, and let stand 24 hours. Strain, add tartaric acid and sugar. Let stand at least 24 hours before bottling.
Shortcake, like all quick breads, is more American than apple pie, since chemical leavening was developed in the U.S. in the late18th century, and people began making apple pies in central Asia shortly after wheat was domesticated.
The shortcake you’re likely to find sold in supermarkets strategically placed near a display of strawberries is actually a concave sponge cake, which is far different from the big, sweet biscuit that a real shortcake actually is. While shortcake is most often served with macerated strawberries, any fruit or berry in season works just as well.
Any good cookbook will give you a simple recipe for shortcake with flour, leavening, butter, sugar, and whole milk or cream. But if you google shortcake, you’re going to find a recipe involving sieved boiled egg yolks that purportedly came from James Beard’s mother. Now, I ask you: can there be a more authoritative source for a recipe than one from the mother of the “Dean of American Cookery?”
No, but I’m calling bullshit on this one, because eggs in any form are superfluous in a shortbread recipe, and sieved yolks are an even more suspicious inclusion. This recipe, used by a St. Louis restaurant, states that it was never printed in one of Beard’s cookbooks (he wrote dozens), and for good reason; because it SUCKS! Here is Beard’s recipe for shortcake from his enduring 1972 classic, American Cooking.
Sift a tablespoon of baking powder and a half teaspoon salt into two cups all-purpose flour, cut in a half stick cold butter, add about three-quarters cup of (cold!) milk, a quarter cup of sugar, and a teaspoon of vanilla. Work quickly into a sticky dough.
Spoon or spread the dough on a well-buttered cookie sheet. I always use buttered parchment paper as well. Place in an oven preheated to 400. Bake for about fifteen-twenty minutes until golden. Cool before serving.
Meringues have a reputation for being tricky, and if you’re clumsy they are. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. A squirt of lemon juice or a few drops of vinegar helps stabilize the froth.
Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft, then whip in about a cup of cup confectioner’s sugar in a drizzle. When the whites are glossy, gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract, lemon juice, along with two teaspoons cornstarch.
Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top or layer with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios and/or almonds are a nice touch.
Way back when, die-hard home cooks would sniff and curl a lip at a newlywed or (worse) single parent who brought a sheet cake to a bake sale (THEY, of course, brought heirloom 8-layer caramel/German chocolate in handmade paper mache decoupage boxes).
Even worse, those die-hards naturally felt compelled to extract a timorous confession from the donor that a boxed cake mix was involved. Canned frosting was the coup de grace; admission to the bridge club would be ever afterwards inconceivable.
Granted, homemade cakes are a certified source of pride and satisfaction; given the time, they’re worth the effort. But if you’re losing you mind over at least a half dozen over things like the rest of us, use a boxed mix with homemade frosting.
Combine 1 box Pillsbury White Supreme cake mix, 8 oz. sour cream, ¼ cup melted butter, 3 large eggs at room temperature, half of an 8-oz. can of crushed pineapple (drained and squeezed), and a can of cream of coconut (Coco Lopez).
Mix on medium speed until smooth. Pour batter into a 9×13-inch pan greased with butter and lined with parchment paper. Place in a preheated 350 oven until toothpick-clean and firm in the middle, about 30 mins. Cool on a rack.
Blend 8 oz. softened cream cheese with two cups confectioner’s sugar, (the other 4 ounces of crushed, drained, and squeezed pineapple, and a tablespoon coconut extract. If needed, thin to spreading consistency with milk, top cake, and sprinkle with 2 cups toasted shredded coconut or coconut chips.