The Warehouse in Oxford offered frog legs and the kitchen made damn sure we had them prepped, because if someone came in for frog legs, by God, they wanted frog legs, they’d drove all the way from Pontotoc, and raised Cain if we didn’t have any.
The legs came to us individually wrapped and block frozen from—of all places—Pakistan (actually, East Pakistan, aka Bangladesh). This might seem puzzling because we do have a frog season in Mississippi, but the Warehouse operated in the 1980s, a considerable about of time before all this half-harted emphasis on local sourcing.
Though the frogs were from Asia, they were undoubtedly American bullfrogs, the frog of choice for their large, meaty hind legs. If you’re going to fry them–you’re on your own any other way–soak overnight in buttermilk.
Epynomic recipes tend to have documented pedigrees; we can trace bananas Foster, melba toast, and chicken tetrazzini to a particular person, chef, and ofttimes a restaurant as well, but Jezebel sauce is an orphan. We just don’t know where it came from.
Jezebel herself was a 9th century BCE Phoenician princess known best as the wife of Ahab, King of Israel, who she converted to the worship of the Lord of the Flies. She is remembered as a voluptuous temptress who led the righteous Ahab astray.
Jezebel sauce is most often served with ham or other smoked meats or poured over cream cheese for a cocktail dip with crackers. This Jackson, Mississippi recipe is from the splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook by Winifred Greene Cheney, who claims, “Some of this sauce would have made Ahab’s wife a better woman.”
I doubt it.
Fidelia’s Jezebel Sauce
1 (16-ounce) jar of pineapple preserves, 1 (12-ounce) jar apple jelly, 6 ounces prepared mustard (I use a Creole brown), 1 (5-ounce) jar horseradish, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. You can add Coleman’s Mustard for added kick. Blend all ingredients well with a fork or whip. This sauce keeps weeks refrigerated.
For a deeply-scented, well-textured loaf, cream a stick of softened unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar. Beat until fluffy. Mix well with two beaten eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Sift one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, and a teaspoon of each of cinnamon and ground cloves. Blend into butter with a teaspoon vanilla extract and a half cup buttermilk. Mix wery well and pour into a buttered loaf pan. Bake at 350 for about an hour, until the loaf pulls from the edges. This is so very good with cider.
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) wears the crown in the laurel family’s royal culinary heritage, but two of its close American cousins can claim coronets at the very least. The first of these is the red or swamp bay (Persea borbonia) that grows all along the Gulf Coast. Before the advent of imported laurel, swamp bay brought flavor to our regional cuisine, but is largely neglected now. The far more familiar native laurel is sassafras.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is the most widely-known laurel my part of the world, that being the American South. Both older and younger trees have the aromatic oils that are associated with this family, which you can generate by either scratching the bark on the younger trees or cutting the bark of the older trees. When the tree is in leaf, sassafras is one of the easiest trees to identify, as it usually has three different leaf shapes: a mitten, a glove and a solid leaf, which are spicy and aromatic when crushed.
Filé–powdered sassafras leaves–was used as a thickening/seasoning agent in potages long before gumbo came along. In Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, the authors cite an article in the 1929 edition of The Picayune Carole Cookbook explaining that filé was first manufactured by the Choctaws in Louisiana. “The Indians used sassafras for many medicinal purposes, and the Creoles, quite quick to discover and apply, found the possibilities of the powdered sassafras, or filé, and originated the well-known dish, Gumbo Filé.”
Even after the rest of us got here and cultivated okra, filé remained an essential element of what came to be known as gumbos. Both filé and okra render a liquid thicker by means of strands of gelatinous (if not to say mucilaginous) substances I can’t even begin to describe, and for this very reason, they should be used sparingly together. Okra takes to stewing, but filé does not. If you’re using filé as a primary thickening agent, use a little in the last few minutes, and then offer a small bowl around the table for dusting.
Filé is available in most supermarkets, but look at the label. If it doesn’t say “sassafras”, don’t buy it. A far better option is to make your own, which is easily done by finding a tree and gathering young leaves, preferably under a full moon and in the nude, of course. Dry, crush, and mill through a fine sieve. Store as you would any powdery substance. You know the drill.
Ramen — along with microwave popcorn and breakfast cereal — remains the food item most likely to be found in American dormitory rooms. Ironically or not, it’s also the most popular item in prison commissaries.
Despite its ease of preparation, rumor has it that stoners skip the cooking, shake the seasoning packet on the dried noodles and gnaw them with dazed gusto. Ramen has of late been held up as an example of impoverishment in an insurance commercial citing the example of a “ramen every night” diet for not buying their coverage. Frankly, when it comes down to not having auto insurance or eating ramen every night, I’m going to sell the damn car.
I don’t care if Elvis did drive it once.
Ramen is a good item to have on hand; noodles in an instant. I keep several packets in a kitchen cabinet alongside my Zatarain’s rice, Sunflower quick grits and Ore-Ida flake potatoes. Purists might deride this cache of processed starches, but it’s a sure bet that those who do will have a stock of Bertolli on their shelves. Just use the noodles when you have a need for them, and forget about that little packet of salt, food coloring and powdered animals you’ll find packaged with them.
Hydrate the noodles, rinse, toss with oil (NOT olive oil, mind you) and set aside in a covered container before use. This preparation might sound unnecessary, but unless you’ve been hitting a bong, you’ll thank me for this advice when using ramen in anything other than hot soup.
Also be advised that you’re going to find that ramen, like so many basic foodstuffs, has not escaped the foodie tendency to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. Ramen has found its way into hundreds of inappropriate recipes; while I have yet to try ramen pizza or ramen mac and cheese (with ham, no less), the very idea of them makes me wonder about the aberrations of the human mind. Let’s not try to reinvent the wheel; the best way to use ramen is in a dish that echoes its origins and ease of preparation: in a stir-fry.
Take one prepared packet of ramen noodles, 2 cups diced raw chicken (substitute cooked kidney beans if you like) and 2 cups sliced vegetables (peppers, onions, celery, etc.) per person. Heat vegetable oil, add a bit of garlic, cook chicken until firm (or heat beans), seasoning with black pepper and lite soy, add vegetables and cook until just done. Toss in your ramen, another dash of soy, and mix well. Then read a good book, for chrissakes.
Chef and author Dixie Grimes lives in Water Valley, Mississippi.
This sinfully delicious and beautifully iconic blue cheese dressing will make your mouth water and your taste buds sing: silky and salty with a hint of sweetness, a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton. It is a beautiful thing; that is, until you have had to make it for a fine dining restaurant on the fly.
This recipe is by far one of the most temperamental that I have ever used. Everything has to be just right, including proper alignment of the stars and planets, and even then it might not work. However, I highly recommend giving it a whirl. The depth and flavor of this dressing is not like anything I have had before or since I worked at the Downtown Grill. We eventually retired it, and I came up with an easier alternative for the prep cooks to make; it would do, but it’s nowhere near as good as this one.
I started my professional culinary career at the Downtown Bar and Grill. I was a prep cook which meant I was the low man on the totem pole, the grunt; it was my job to do whatever the chefs needed me to do and get yelled at constantly for either not doing it properly or quick enough or both. That being said, I could hold my own and for the most part the guys gave me as much respect as a chef will give a prep cook (which ain’t much). I was allowed and expected to make everything and anything the guys needed for service, except of course the blue cheese dressing. Why would they not let me make it? And why did I never see it being made and why was only one person allowed to handle this recipe?
I would soon find out when I saw my name on the prep sheet aside the blue cheese dressing on a football Friday of an Ole Miss home game, in other words no room for error. Had I finally moved up to the upper echelon and was so bad ass that I was going to be allowed to make the sacred and secret blue cheese recipe that only Alison Wilkes was allowed to make? Alison was the Queen of the Downtown Grill and the most difficult recipes were given to her and her alone. It was at that moment I realized that for the first time during my shift Alison was off that night; she had worked earlier in the day and during the chaos the blue cheese was overlooked. The chef forgot to put it on the prep sheet! It was not the call to greatness I thought I had earned, it was out of pure necessity that I was allowed to make this recipe for the first time, much to the trepidation of the chefs as well as me.
There was really no room for failure now, all eyes were on me. I had no idea of the tediousness of executing this recipe, how everything has to be perfect: the measurements, the order of the ingredients as you add them, the temperature of the kitchen and the weather (not even kidding). I had no idea that this recipe had a 99% failure rate for anyone who tried to make it besides Alison. As I was reading through the recipe I remembered two things that Alison had told me prior to my employment at the Downtown Grill when we were just lifetime buddies. I remembered Alison talking about this recipe and that it gave her great pleasure basking in the joy of being only 1 of 20 people in a professional kitchen who could make this dressing that the Grill was so famous for; I also remembered her telling two key pieces of information as to why her always turns out, two things that were NOT written in the recipe. One, that there are three separate ingredients which are incorporated in one at a time, and they have to be added in alphabetical order: EOV; eggs, oil and vinegar. Two, everything has to be basically the same temperature, the bowls for the mixtures, the ingredients, air temp, all the same. Again, these instructions were not included in the recipe, so who knew? Well, Alison, of course.
So armed with this key information, I started the process, praying the whole time; please God let the dressing turn out. As I added the final mixture of vinegar the angels started to sing. ‘Holy crap!’ it’s working, I thought. I could see it coming together. To my surprise, I had done it, but instead of jumping up and down and screaming, which is what I wanted to do, I quietly tucked into my corner, not saying a peep, just getting the sacred dressing ready for service and storage. Then I casually walked up to the chef, container in hand. “Here you go chef. Do you need any on the line?”
Y’all, his jaw literally dropped. “What the hell!” he said. “You actually got it to turn out! We were planning on cussing at you for your futile attempt to make something that couldn’t be made.”
“Guess I just got lucky chef!” I said, remembering something else I learned from Alison: “Never tell the bastards anything.”
Downtown Grill Blue Cheese Dressing
2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
a generous slash of Tabasco
6-8 ounces blue cheese
Using a blender, whip eggs for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a teaspoon at a time, until it starts to come together, then trickle in to consistency. Add a vinaigrette made with all the other ingredients. Mix for a minute. Pour dressing in a bowl, stir in crumbled blue cheese, and refrigerate.
Spam–like Proust’s madeiline–evoked memories for those soldiers who–like my father and grandfather—served in South Pacific during WWII, and millions of my generation who grew up in small towns across the South–likely across the nation–recognize Spam and potato recipes as a familiar side on the dinner table, at church potlucks, and dinners-on-the-ground.
Many people use cheese in their recipes. I don’t, opting to use a thin, lightly pepped cream sauce ladled between layers of sliced parboiled potatoes (peeled or unpeeled) and diced Spam. Chopped onions are an option. Bake in a medium-high oven (350 or so) until the potatoes are tender through and lightly browned.