Grilled Cheese: An International Primer

Let’s start at ground zero, the American grilled cheese.

In 1916, James L. Kraft obtained a patent for processed cheese that was easy to transport without spoiling or perishing. Soon slices of the cheap processed cheese was being heated between slices of mass-produced white bread (Wonder bread was a frequent choice), and the dish became an essential companion to heated canned soups, particularly Campbell’s tomato. Though like any mass-produced/processed product the American grilled cheese has multitudes of detractors, it remains a favorite staple in households across the country.

Across the Pond there’s Welsh rabbit, which is made not with conies but bread, cheese in a sauce and the always-welcome option of beer. The most basic version involves thick slices of bread slathered in a thick cheese sauce made with Cheddar or some other substantial firm, off-white cheese with a slosh of your choice of beer (a good stout is excellent) and broiled. No one really knows any more how cheese on toast came to be called ‘rabbit’ or ‘rarebit’ (the variations in spelling seem to be arbitrary), but both Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin gave a recipe for ‘Lapin Gallois’ and a ‘Wouelsche Rabette’ first appeared in Antoine Beauvilliers’ L’Art du Cuisinier in 1814. Sometimes, my friends, you just have to roll with the punches.

Traveling east across the Channel you find in France the croque monsieur, which is Gruyere cheese melted inside a ham sandwich, topped with a Bechamael sauce, more Gruyere and broiled. A version called croque madame is topped with a fried egg. The dish originated in French cafés and bars during la Belle Époque as a quick snack, the name based on the verb croquer (“to bite, to crunch”) and the word monsieur (“mister”). The sandwich’s first recorded appearance on a Paris café menu was in 1910 and the dish is actually mentioned in volume two (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919) of Proust’s epic À la recherche du temps perdu, which also happens to be a culinary mother lode.

Then you have raclette, a semi-hard cow’s milk French cheese usually fashioned into a wheel of about 3 lb. that’s heated, either in front of a fire or by a special machine—you can buy a Swissmar KF-77045 Classic 8 Person Raclette (with granite stone top: red) for $120 on Amazon—then scraped onto diners’ plated bread. The term raclette itself derives from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape”. Raclette was mentioned in medieval writings in texts from Swiss-German convents dating from as early as 1291. The cheese was originally consumed by peasants in the mountainous Alpine regions of Valais (Switzerland), Savoie and Haute-Savoie (France). It was then known in the German-speaking part of Switzerland as Bratchäs, or “roasted cheese”. Traditionally, herders carried cheese with them when they moved from one pasture to another, and the cheese would be placed next to a campfire for melting.

In Italy you have what is called mozzarella in carozza, which translates as “cheese (okay, mozzarella) in a carriage”. Sliced mozzarella is placed between sliced, crust-less white bread, dredged in a milk with beaten eggs and either pan- or deep-fried.

If you ask me, it’s the mozzarella in carozza—NOT the croque monsieur that’s the undoubted precursor of that classic old diner specialty, the Monte Cristo sandwich, which employs the exact same procedure and ingredients with Swiss cheese and sliced ham or turkey. I substantiate this claim for the simple reason that the Monte Cristo’s origins can be traced to New York City, which has always boasted a great many people of Italian descent and Monte Cristo itself happens to be in Livorno.

A grilled cheese in Sweden (sounds like a Vonnegut title, doesn’t it?) is called a varm macka, which simply means “warm muck”. Some of you might recoil at such nomenclature, but let me be the first to assure you that when it comes to culinary terminology, “muck” is small potatoes indeed. For the most part, Swedish sandwiches—called smörgås—are open-faced, and even most simple cheese sandwiches are made open-faced and eaten cold. But a varm macka is cheese, not Grevé or Herrgårdsost as you might suspect but rather Gouda (Dutch) or Swiss, sliced, placed on buttered bread and heated in the oven.

Back to the New World and across the Rio Grande is the quesadilla, a tortilla, usually a flour tortilla but sometimes corn, filled with cheese and grilled. A full quesadilla involves two tortillas filled with cheese, stacked and heated, halves are a single tortilla filled with cheese and folded into a half-moon shape. Mexican quesadillas are traditionally cooked on a comal, which is also used to prepare tortillas. They are usually cooked without oil, but quesadillas can be fried to make quesadillas fritas, While Oaxaca (or string) cheese is the most common filling, other ingredients are also used in addition to the cheese, including cooked vegetables, such as potatoes with chorizo, squash blossoms, mushrooms, epazote, huitlacoche, and different types of cooked meat, such as chicharron, tinga made of chicken or beef, or cooked pork. Avocado or guacamole, green or red salsas, chopped onion, tomato, chiles, and cilantro are the most common toppings.

Farther south in Venezuela is the arepa de queso, a stuffed corn cake made from masa flour and then cooked on a cast iron skillet. The arepa is filled with local farmer’s cheese (mozzarella is a viable substitute) and then griddled again. Thee word arepa comes from “erepa” which means corn bread in the language of the indigenous people of Venezuela and Colombia. Early arepas were made with cassava (or yucca) flour as well as corn.

Finally, in Brazil you have a fascinating dish called the bauru. The traditional recipe calls for cheese (usually mozzarella) melted in a bain-marie, slices of roast beef, tomato and pickled cucumber in a French bun with the crumb (the soft inner part) removed. The bauru’s origins are actually well documented. In 1934, a student at the Faculdade de Direito do Largo de São Francisco, in São Paulo, Casemiro Pinto Neto[2] (known as Bauru for coming from the city of the same name in São Paulo state), entered Ponto Chic, a traditional eatery and student hangout, and asked the cook to prepare a sandwich from his specifications. “Bauru’s Sandwich” was an immediate hit, and eventually became the best-selling dish at the place. Many other eateries offer sandwiches named bauru with different combinations of ingredients—using sliced ham instead of roast beef or sliced bread instead of French bread. The city of Bauru eventually named the traditional bauru as the city’s official sandwich, codifying the recipe in a municipal law and instituting an official certification program.

L.W. Thomas: A Memoir

Larry Wayne Thomas breezed into my life on a random wind, and we sailed together on the same sea for many years.

We first met in April, 1976. I was a freshman at Ole Miss, where L.W. was teaching English. My roommate, a dissolute mental lightweight who went on to serve two spectacularly disgraceful terms in the Mississippi legislature, was his student. He paid me to write his term paper for L.W.’s class. Not only did I write it, but I was prevailed upon to deliver it to his teacher’s office at the last minute.

L.W., a handsome young man in a tiny office in Bondurant, received the paper and my lame excuse about the roommate being called home due to a family emergency with undisguised ill-humor. The paper got an “A”, the roommate passed the class with a “C” and I walked away with thirty bucks. When I finally got around to telling L.W. this over twenty years later, he said, “I knew that idiot couldn’t have written that paper.”

We came to know each other well during the intervening years, seeing one another around town, mostly at watering holes such as the Rose, the Gin or Ireland’s, among many mutual friends such as George Kehoe, Jere and Joe Allen and his future bride, Jean Tatum.

L.W. began working at the Warehouse about that time while I bounced from one ill-fated restaurant to another. After the failure of Audie Michael’s, I found myself unemployed. Shortly after that, L.W. came to my apartment and offered me a job at the Warehouse. I don’t know whose idea it was, his, Frank Odom’s or Don Carlisle’s, but of course I took the job and for years he and I worked in what at that time was Oxford’s best and best-known restaurant.

L.W. was my immediate boss, the primary liaison between the kitchen and the floor, a job that’s bound to make anyone a nervous wreck, and L.W. was no exception; busy nights reduced him to fussing, fretting, and, inevitably, intoxication. My job, as I saw it, was to keep the kitchen working smoothly, which involved a minimum amount of interference from management.

L.W. and I had our disagreements mostly about how to cook, where in the final court of authority I had more standing, but after the last tables were served, everything was copacetic. Outside the kitchen doors, with his droll wit and unfailing good humor, L.W. was the most congenial, amiable restaurant host possible. He knew everybody and everybody knew him, and (for the most part) their knowledge of one another was infused with warmth.

L.W. traveled in higher social circles, but we often found one another bellied up to a bar, and we’d bend elbows together. L.W. Thomas was smart as a whip, funny, a joy to be around, and I basked in his company, never failing to take away strings of bon mots and slews of piercing observations about the state of mankind in Lafayette County, Mississippi and beyond.

When I began to call him Uncle L., a sobriquet his many friends used, he put up a fuss, but anybody who knew him will tell you L.W.’s standards of behavior transcended the rocky populace he found himself mired among.

The morning after the Warehouse burned, February 16, 1983 we met one another on the northeast corner of the Square and walked east on Jackson Avenue. We barely spoke until we got to the smoking ruins of Country Village. We stood there for a moment, and L.W. gave voice to what was running through both of our minds: “It didn’t start in our kitchen.”

We both moved away after that; me to Florida, L.W. to Colorado. I returned to Oxford after four years and re-entered Ole Miss, but I got L.W.’s address from a mutual friend and wrote to him, saying how much I missed him and half-jokingly urging him to move back.

Well, he did, and though I have a feeling that he was just as miserable in Colorado as I was in Florida and my plea was just added incentive, he later told me on more than one occasion that my letter made him so homesick he just had to return.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I moved from Oxford again. To my everlasting regret, I missed his wedding to Jean, and as fate would have it, I never saw my Uncle L. again.

How I wish I could write him another letter and bring him back

L.W. Thomas with Howard Bahr.

Mississippi Sasquatch

According to my buddy Ernest who (God love him) lives in Yazoo City and keeps up with such things, though UFO activity has been suspiciously quiescent lately, crypto-hominoid sightings are on the rise in Mississippi.

Creatures have been reported as far north as Winona and as far south as Mount Olive, where one was caught on cam trying to make off with a dish antenna and a tackle box. Most sightings are very late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, but Ernest claims he has a video of one raiding a Frito-Lay van in Greenwood in broad daylight. I haven’t seen it, but he says it looks like a bald orangutan in a Saints jersey throwing confetti.

These beings deserve our respect and compassion; let’s not endanger them by alerting law enforcement. We should encourage and support their presence in this world we share.

I keep a six-pack of Miller on the back porch, but I won’t have them in the house.

Deli Breakfast Potatoes

Our deli serves these potatoes—along with two kinds of grits and rice—as sides on its breakfast buffet. Cube red potatoes and parboil before pan-frying with diced onions, celery, and sweet peppers. Season with salt and pepper. In other parts of the country, these are known as diner or O’Brian potatoes, but I don’t live in those parts.

Ars Voces: Jaime Harker-Hidden Treasure

Every day so far in my nascent life as a bookseller, I go through boxes of books. I can hardly keep up with the donations; just when I think I am finally getting caught up, someone comes in with say, seven boxes of books from their home in Iowa, or a box of children’s books culled from their kids’ bookshelves, and I begin again.

I love it. I love digging through books, with no idea what I am going to find next. Going through a box of self-help books and mass market paperbacks, I find a 90s edition of Tales of the City; Somerset Maugham lurks under Nicholas Sparks. In true crime paperbacks from the 2000s, I discover a couple of Fitzgerald’s “Great Brain” books, and three “Black Beauty” volumes. You have to know what you are looking for, to have the eureka moment. I like to leave little surprises scattered through the bookstore for discriminating readers. I know when I have a kindred spirit, because I hear little gasps of delight as they find an unexpected treasure on a lower shelf.

My academic life has always been about hidden treasure. When I first moved to Mississippi, I read John Howard’s Men Like That, and he gave me a vision of a vast queer Mississippi underground, erupting in newspaper stories, highway rest stops, and bookshelves. He introduced me to three gay Mississippi writers, including Hubert Creekmore, Water Valley native, poet, novelist, translator, and editor. I checked Creekmore’s The Welcome out of the UM library; it took me over ten years to locate a copy. I have been asking every editor at the University Press of Mississippi to reprint the novel, with no success. Opening a queer feminist bookstore in Creekmore’s hometown is, I hope, the first step in a campaign to bring him back in print.

I love digging around in archives. I spent two weeks hunting for fan letters in Christopher Isherwood’s papers. I found amazing ones, including a young man from North Carolina who mailed Isherwood photographs of his lovers, with detailed commentary on the back of each; water color portraits in a handwritten tribute; flirty come-ons from English teenagers. He wrote them all back, and often invited them to his house. At Duke University, I found the papers of fantastic Southern lesbian feminists. They kept everything—not just letters with agents and editors, but love letters from exes, flyers for readings, gossip and descriptions of parties and chance encounters. Dorothy Allison’s are my favorite. Most archives organize correspondence by letter writer, and store them alphabetically. Dorothy Allison kept every piece of mail she received in order and has them in her archive by date. One has to really dig to find the gems. But in between, you get a sense of her life as it was lived: Flip; a flyer for a reading; flip, a letter to her friend about her recent breakup; flip, a letter to her agent; flip, an invitation to an S/M sex party; flip, a letter to a manufacturer complaining about a defective whip she received in the mail; flip, a letter from Cris South, a member of the Feminary collective and novelist, about her forthcoming book and her shifting identity from butch to bottom; flip, a contract from her editor. Finding the treasures was a delight, but so was the rich tapestry of a live lived in real time, without a sense of what would be seen as ‘important’ later. That sequence is what makes it important, even as the gems I uncover become part of another narrative forming in my own head.

The treasures are the stories I share when people wonder how I could spend seven years working on a book. But the truth is I love the searching as much as I love the discovery. Doing research has taught me patience, something that my wife Dixie tells me I sorely need. She’s right. Chefs understand this, of course. You can’t rush the rising of the dough, the marinade on the pork, or the brine on the turkey; slow-roasted vegetables in the oven are better than the microwave or boiling water. I have a tendency to want things right away, but Dixie knows that the best things take time. Writing a book teaches you that, too. You can’t dash off a dissertation, or a book, in a series of all-nighters. You have to work a little bit every day, without being able to see the end; you research, and write, and revise, and repeat, endlessly. To sustain this, you must learn to love the process, to learn to love the questions themselves, as Rilke put it: ““Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Violet Valley Bookstore is the same. I have no idea how I am going to keep the bookstore going once the semester starts, with a full-time job, how it will evolve, whether it can become self-sustaining. Dixie tells me I don’t have to. I have an emergency savings account, with enough for hard expenses to last six months. I have a plan, month-to-month, six-months to six-months. I have a vision. But I also love the process—the arrival of books, the evolving categories on the shelves, the unexpected visitors to the store, from San Francisco and Durham and Jackson and Oxford. I love the excited teenagers, taking photos for Snapchat, and the serious bibliophiles, touching the vintage Mississippi textbooks. I would like this little 10×40 foot bookshop to be a hidden treasure in Mississippi for years to come.

Drying Cayennes

Select the ripest peppers without bruising, mold, or tears. Wash, drain, and remove stems and husks. Spread in a single layer on a sheet pan and place in a very low oven, no more than 200 degrees. Vent slightly by propping the door open with a wooden spoon. Toss and turn every half hour or so until crisp. Store in a vented container until ready for use.  This process  works for most thin-skinned peppers, and depending on the size takes three to five hours.

Murders, Mafiosos, and Gay Extortion in Biloxi

On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.

“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”

Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.

At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.

“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.

When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.

Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.

Mississippi legitimized legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out or rebuilt after the soaking by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. City fathers allow that the Dixie Mafia may still be operating on the Gulf Coast, but as a mere shadow of its former might and ruthlessness.

Ars Voces: Thomas Wilson–The Atmosphere of Light

I was always interested in art, but it wasn’t until 2000, when I was in my mid-thirties that I began going to galleries and taking a serious interest in painting. When I was living in Monroe, La., a local college was offering a painting class through their community enrichment program, so I signed up for a course, six hour-long sessions, and I became hooked at that point. I completed one painting in that course, and after that put it down for a while. Not long after that I was driving through my neighborhood there and saw an easel set up in a window. I found out a lady was teaching a class there, so I took that. We painted from photographs of old masters and I didn’t like painting from a photograph even back then. I learned how to mix paints, some composition, and basic things.

Shortly after that, I moved back to Jackson, this was 2007, I was painting on my own, improving basically by trial and error, still painting from images and still life, but I wanted to be legit, I didn’t want to be just basically copying somebody else. My uncle, who had taken art from Bob Tompkins, saw my paintings and said I should go see Tompkins. He was very helpful; he just didn’t go as far as I wanted to go. I wanted to paint the landscape. I asked him about that once, and he said that he was a studio painter.

But I wanted to paint outside; the artists I was drawn to painted on location from life. So I took a workshop from Roger Dale Brown in Nashville, who is a very well-known plein air painter, and I learned a ton from him about painting outside. After that, I struck out on my own and simply painted what I saw. My still lifes were very tight, very realistic; but when you’re painting outside, you don’t have a lot of time to fuss around because you only have like an hour or an hour and a half before the light changes. The painting of Fenian’s was different for me. I wanted to try painting at night, which has never really worked out well, but I was riding around, saw the rain, found a good place to stand, and really the subject isn’t so much Fenian’s as it is the atmosphere, the feel of the street, the clouds, the telephone poles.

The one in Vicksburg is different because it’s earlier in the day than I usually paint; I rarely paint in the middle of the day. It was also cloudy, and I couldn’t find a sunny spot to paint, and I like to paint when there’s a lot of sun. I like light and dark and shadow. I wanted to paint with the sky as the subject, the main part of the painting. The sun had come out a bit, but the light wasn’t as intense as what I normally paint. I visited Wyatt Waters recently, and I asked him about painting things that don’t really inspire me. I asked him if he had a hard time finding something to paint when he’s not inspired, and he said, “Inspiration is for amateurs; you’ve got to get out there and start painting and the inspiration will come.” So I’ve been trying to make myself paint even when I’m really uninspired.

When I moved to Belhaven, I wasn’t impressed and thought about leaving, but I kept putting it off. Then I started painting outside, and I fell in love with it. When I first moved here, I was thinking I simply wanted to paint landscapes. I didn’t want any man-made structures in a painting. I wanted it to look like an old master painting with nothing modern in it at all. There’s a dictum in art about not painting anything that’s beautiful, that you really can’t improve on it, and I think there’s something to that. I like stuff that’s funky and gritty. Now I really don’t want to paint anything unless it has a city street or a sidewalk or a telephone pole in it. It all kind of came together moving here. Being immersed in a locale, you see more.

I’m not much for change, and I’ve stuck with the same basic palette Bob Tompkins taught me; I even still set it up the same way he showed me. But Jarrod Partridge was a big help to me developing my palette because he studied under the colorists, like a of Mississippi painters. Sammy Britt, Richard Kelso, John Pat Marbury all studied under Henry Hensche, whose lineage goes back to William Merritt Chase. Jarrod helped me with my color, and I need good color because I want to make beautiful paintings, but still the most important elements to me are the light and dark, the contrast. I think someone would say I’m a tonalist, working with light and dark. I’ve heard it said that if the light and dark are correct, that the colors will work no matter what they are, but I consider myself just someone who paints what he sees.