Dove as a dish came late to me because my father maintained that the bird that brought Noah the best tidal measurements in the history of the world deserved better than being shot at by a bunch of back-sliders wearing camo. For him, Biblical precedent reserved doves for a far more dignified fate than the inevitable end result of being cleaned, cooked and eaten, not to mention being shot in the first place.

But most of his friends, relatives, and other riff-raff considered this notion nothing more than posturing on his part and saw doves more as manna from heaven, ready to be plucked from the sky with birdshot and readied for the table. As a result, despite a boyhood devotion to avian evangelism, I have eaten dove prepared by the best cooks in Calhoun County, Mississippi, which is no small matter.

A supper of smothered dove came home from hunting camps all over Dixie and–like an amicable hound–settled complacently in the kitchen. Smothered dove takes many forms, usually according to who’s cooking it and when it’s to be served. The more robust methods, involving substantial breading and a very thick gravy, is a country dinner favorite, most often served with rice and biscuits. A lighter version is generally served as a brunch or buffet item with grits if in the morning, with rice later in the day.

For a dinner dish, soak your dove breasts for one hour in buttermilk. Drain, add one egg to a cup of milk, drench breasts in this mixture and toss with flour seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika. Brown in oil, then move the breasts to a baking dish. Add enough flour to the remaining oil to make a light brown roux, and enough stock (or 1:1 with milk) to make a light gravy. Salt to taste and season with a liberal sprinkling of black pepper. Ladle the gravy over the birds and bake in a medium oven (around 350), covered, until the birds are tender and the gravy reduced.

For the lighter version, brown the breasts in butter and set aside. Make a slightly darker roux, and add enough stock for a somewhat thinner gravy. Season lightly; salt and pepper, a little thyme, and a slosh of good sherry. (Not cooking sherry; no.) Spoon the sauce over the birds and bake in a medium oven until tender. Remove with a slotted spoon, arrange on a bed of rice, and coat with the remaining sauce.

Crab Tchoupitoulas

This recipe is a riff on a dish served at Pere Antoine in the Vieux Carré. There, mushroom caps are stuffed with a creamed spinach-mushroom-crab mixture, then breaded and deep-fried. Here the stuffing is served en casserole, a superb addition to any event buffet.

Sauté a half pound of thinly-sliced fresh mushrooms in a stick of butter. Stir in two cups chopped spinach and a half pound lump crab meat (picked through!). Make a quart of cream sauce–use half-and-half–and add to spinach/crab mix along with a cup of freshly grated hard/sharp cheese. Work in a finely julienned sweet red pepper, a few tablespoons of grated onion, and a minced clove of garlic (or two).

Season to your taste; I like a good slash of white pepper and a teaspoon or so of dried thyme. Mix very well, pour into an oiled casserole, and top with a freshly-grated hard cheese. Bake at 350 until browned and bubbling. Serve with dry toast and fresh lemons.

The Know Mississippi Better Train

In 1925, Governor Henry L. Whitfield called a meeting in Jackson with the object of adopting “some plan whereby the opportunities, possibilities and resources of Mississippi might be effectively presented to the outside world.”

Mississippians from twenty-six counties attended, including Lieutenant Governor Dennis Murphree of Calhoun County, who proposed a plan of a “Know Mississippi Better Train,” a special train to carry representatives of Mississippi, exhibits of Mississippi resources, literature, and public speakers to visit across the country. The plan was adopted, and the first KMB train pulled out of Jackson in August, 1925.

The Know Mississippi Better Train was the longest Pullman Special Train in the world. In its 20 years of operation, the KMB Train traveled the North American continent once each year from Savannah to Alaska and from Mexico City to Prince Edward, visiting more than 500 towns and cities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The train’s operation was suspended during WWII, but resumed immediately after.

Fifteen cars made up the train. The first was an exhibit car carrying huge signs on its sides: “This is the Know Mississippi Better Train.” This car contained a comprehensive exhibit of the resources and products of Mississippi. A small observation platform on the end of this car bore an electric sign which read: “Know Mississippi Better Train”. The lounge car—with a soda fountain and small piano on loan from the Brown Music Company of Jackson—was furnished by the Illinois Central Railroad and made the entire trip.

The train also contained an office dispensing information about the trip as well as stationery, telegraph blanks, pens and paper. Postage needs were handled in a post office, while the Pullman Conductor handled telegraph messages. The train also had its own free daily newspaper/bulletin, “Mississippi A’Roll,” containing Mississippi news briefs supplied daily by the managing editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Except for four years during World War II, the Know Mississippi Better Train ran every summer until 1948. In February, 1949, the enterprise  lost its Great Conductor when Dennis Herron Murphree died at his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi. Alumni of the KMB train circulated newsletters and held reunions for years, and it’s worth speculating that relationships forged during the journeys endured as well.

Pulled Pork

You’ll find pulled pork with barbecue sauce as a sandwich filling is just about every roadside eatery across the South. Most people will argue that it’s the sauce that makes these sandwiches sing, and I belong to that school, but the flavor and (above all) texture of the meat are vital components as well.

The secret is the right cut braised slowly in a low heat, and the right cut is a shoulder roast, also known as a Boston butt or “picnic” shoulder. This is an inexpensive cut of well-marbled meat that comes from the top portion of the front leg of the hog (despite the name “butt”). I prefer to use a bone-in shoulder, since I think the bone gives added flavor.

For a 6-8 pound butt (with a fat cap), make a spice blend of 3 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons granulated garlic, 2 tablespoons black pepper, and about 2 tablespoons of salt. You can add a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar to this. You don’t have to score the fat.

Mix with about 1/2 cup vegetable oil and rub over   shoulder roast pork, bone in. Peel and chop 2 small white onions, and place in the bottom of an oven roaster or slow cooker. If using a slow cooker, set it on low, and cook for about an hour a pound. If in the oven, preheat to 400, place roast on a mid/low rack, and after one hour, reduce heat to 250. I place a sauce pan of water in the oven with the roast to help keep it moist. The oven method will take slightly less  time than  the slow cooker and gives better results,  since the hot oven will sear the meat.

When the pork is fork-tender, remove and discard fat and bone, and reserve some of the pot liquid with most of the fat drained off. Shred the meat into a lidded container and add enough of the reserved liquid for even moisture. This freezes beautifully.

Flowers of the Dead

Red spider lilies bloom in the diminishing days of summer, springing up from drying lawns and fields as if from nothing.

A native of China, the lily (Lycoris radiata), is poisonous to most animals. Every part of the plant can induce vomiting, paralysis, even death. They’re planted in rice fields to deter rodents. When they spread to Japan, where the dead were buried without coffins, the lilies were planted to prevent vermin from disturbing grave sites. In time, the brilliant red flower became known as the corpse flower, the ghost flower, and—most poignantly—the lost child flower.

Buddhism also came to Japan from China, and the Lotus Sutra became a fundamental text for many Japanese schools. In the sutra, heavenly flowers descend from the realms of the gods, falling on the Buddha and his audience. Many devotees associate this flower – called Manjushage – with red spider lilies.

The lily blooms around the autumn equinox, Higanbana, the day the dead return to the world, and higanbana is a popular Japanese name for the flower. The flowers are said to bloom on O-higan “the other shore,” of the Sanzu-no-Kawa, a Styx-like river separating the lands of the living from the banks of carmine blossoms beckoning  spirits back to life.

How to Make a Mess

Eton mess is made with meringue chunks, whipped/ice cream, and (usually marinated) fruit, traditionally strawberries. As the name implies, it’s said to have originated at Eton College, UK. The variation with bananas served at Lancing College is a Lancing mess, which sounds a bit bloody but isn’t.

A French meringue isn’t always practical in the humid South, so I often make what is called in culinary spleen Italian meringue. Heat a cup of sugar and a half cup of water to boil and cool to barely steaming. Whip four egg whites with a squirt of lemon juice to soft peaks, then SLOWLY drizzle in the sugar syrup. Keep whipping until quite stiff.

Spoon this meringue on a lightly oiled sheet pan and bake in the oven until dry through, then break into chunks. I splurge and serve it with vanilla Häagen-Dazs when I want to feel like I’m twenty again.

Messes are best made shortly before serving, which should be familiar for you. You can try to pretty up a mess with garnishes, but as you well know, they just don’t work.

Chicken Chili

For six generous servings, sear until soft one large white onion and a big poblano chopped with a couple of cloves of minced garlic. Add about a pound of cubed boneless chicken or turkey breast, cook until done through. Mix with one 15 oz. can of great northern, navy, or cannellini beans, one of pinto,  a cup of chicken broth, and a can of Rotel.

Season with cumin, oregano, and white pepper to taste. Some people add basil, but don’t. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, until you get a heavy consistency. Crema is a nice touch.