A Rose So Blue

My grandmother Emma would sit me on a kitchen stool and tell me stories while she cooked. I can hear her voice, low and level, moving with her work, smell the cornbread in the oven, and see the softly plopping pot of beans on the back of the stove. She told me how she jumped rope with her sisters, about the tomatoes her grandfather grew, and she’d rap her spoon on the side of the sink to make a sound like sudden rains on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.”

She told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all.

“Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”

Emma would smile and tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see ‘em in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see ‘em in the store. The only place blue roses grow is Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”

She told me that ocean air keeps the mountains cloaked from the sun, but at night, when the north wind comes down from desert sands, the skies clear, the moon shines on the grey-green slopes, and roses with blossoms as blue as a gas flame climb toward the pale stars.

When Emma died my heart broke into a million pieces, but in remembering, my heart becomes whole. If I find blue roses in a catalog, I smile because I know blue roses only grow in Africa, on the misty slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.

 

Jackson: The Way We Were . . .

In 1981, Forrest L. Cooper and Donald F. Garrett published a selection of old postcards of Jackson from about 1902 until the mid-1950s, with more than 90% prior to 1920. The text was written by Carl McIntire, a self-professed “reporter, not a historian,” who nonetheless spent an enormous amount of time on the project, doing extensive research and interviewing more than 300 people. McIntire admitted to a margin of error, but states that “for the most part, all the dates and places are correct.” The book had a very limited printing and has hitherto never been republished. The link below will take you to a digital version of this exquisitely nuanced, intricately informative, and infinitely beautiful labor of love.

Jackson: The Way We Were . . .

 

Sawmill Gravy

Brown a quarter pound of pork sausage in a quarter cup oil. Sprinkle in two heaping tablespoons plain flour, mix well, and cook until it quits bubbling. Stir in a cup each of water and milk. Reduce heat and cook down on the thin side; it will thicken when served.

Spam Potatoes

My father was a GI in the Pacific, so I grew up with Spam. We’d have it fried with eggs for breakfast, slathered with mayo on Wonder bread for lunch, and with potatoes for dinner.

The bone of contention with scalloped potatoes is whether to add cheese or not. Purists (I’m one) opt for a rich white sauce over thinly sliced potatoes (I like to use reds) baked in medium heat until potatoes are tender.

Senate Bean Soup

By official records, navy bean soup has been on the menu of the U.S. Senate dining room every day since the early 20th century, but John Egerton claims that “it was a fixture on the menu in the Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s,” and suggests that Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho was the moving force behind a resolution requiring that the soup be served every day to members of that august body, though he also mentions Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota as the author in 1903. Egerton writes that the official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California” (WHAT a queen).

Edgerton also argues that the soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina or Alabama or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition. “Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South. “There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims, with justice.

Fortunately for us sans sans-culottes, you don’t have to lie, buy or steal your way into the U.S. Senate to enjoy navy bean soup. Here’s my recipe; it’s not official by any stretch, but it’s wonderful, all the same. Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water by half, and place in a low oven for about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool; throw away the rind, de-bone, chop the meat and add back to the beans along with one finely-chopped large onion sauteed in oil with two minced cloves of garlic. You can throw in a stalk or two of chopped cooked celery if you like. Add water if needed, simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste.

 

The Last Mississippi Spa

Almost twenty years after Allison’s Wells burned in 1963, O.C. McDavid, former managing editor of the Jackson Daily News and a noted sculpture artist, was approached by Hosford Fontaine to assist in a book with recipes. In turn, McDavid enlisted Marilyn Bonney, who owned Press & Palette in Canton Mart, to print the 68-page book. According to Marilyn, “I printed it using paper plates which were a one-time use. I don’t remember the exact number printed, but it was probably1,000. The plan was not to sell it, but O.C. and Hosford gave it to people they knew, and I did the same.” In a similar spirit, with hopes of perpetuating Hosford’s wonderful work, here’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa by Hosford Latimer Fontaine.

The Last Mississippi Spa

Olive Relish

You can make a basic olive relish on the fly with chopped green olives (I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t have one of those little upright jars of green pimento olives biding time somewhere in their refrigerator) and olive oil. Vegetable oil will do in a pinch. Up the game with a variety of olives, onion, artichoke hearts, pickled tomatoes, mild peppers, and okra. Salt lightly. A roasted garlic clove mashed with ground peppercorns is a nice touch.

 

A Savory Dutch Baby

More often served as a sweet breakfast dish, a Dutch baby/German pancake can easily provide a savory platform for any number of toppings any time of the day. This version is seasoned with salt and pepper mixed with a scattering of onion, topped with more onion, peppered ham and served with a grated hard cheese. Whip two large eggs and a half cup each flour and whole milk into a froth. Pour into a heated, well-buttered skillet and cook in a very hot oven until puffed and browned. Serve with grated hard cheese and sour cream.

 

Spanakopita

This wonderful recipe works well for many occasions. Yes, it is labor-intensive, but that’s all the more reason to make for a large gathering, when you can commandeer others to help.

For the filling use about a pound of frozen, thawed spinach, squeezed to remove liquid. You can use fresh if you like, in which case use two pounds washed, trimmed, blanched and drained. Sauté in olive oil with one large finely chopped white onion, a cup of chopped scallions and a half-cup chopped parsley. Season with dill, nutmeg and lemon juice. Add a cup of crumbled feta and a half cup of a hard grated cheese such as Parmesan. Salt to taste. Mix thoroughly with four well-beaten eggs, and set aside.

This is enough filling for about 8 sheets phyllo. Place sheets between slightly damp paper towels before use. Lay phyllo across a large oiled baking pan, brush with oil, fold in half, oil and fold again. Have you ever folded a flag? The procedure here is the same. Fold a corner over about 1/4 cup of filling, flip, brush with oil, and repeat.  Refrigerate pastries before cooking or freeze for another day. Bake in a medium oven (350) until nicely browned.

Poppy Seed Pound Cake

If I speak of chicken and dumplings as a Southern dish, soon enough some foodways pundit—you can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and if you ask me, the bigger the rock the better—will declare it’s served as dim sum by expatriated Alabamans living in Hong Kong. Even on a national scale (not that nationalism exists, of course) it’s no longer safe for me to assume that pound cake is a New England recipe. A friend from Texas—east Texas, mind you—now living in Maine said that their neighbors considered pound cake Southern because it’s so simple and practical. Well, dear hearts, those are the very reasons Americans have baked this cake well before Burr shot Hamilton, so quit sequesterizing recipes that have been on the tables of our country even before it became a country. Read Beard. This recipe is a felony with fruit, a mortal sin with ice cream.

Preheat oven to 350 (a crucial step). Grease, line and set aside a 10-inch loaf pan or Bundt. Combine 2 cups sugar with a cup of softened butter and beat until creamy. Stir in two tablespoons of poppy seeds, a cup of buttermilk, 4 beaten eggs, and at least a tablespoon of vanilla extract. Gradually mix in 3 cups of plain flour sifted with a teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. Blend until smooth. Bake for an hour, then turn the oven off and leave the cake in until the oven has cooled. Rest on a rack an hour before slicing.