Mother Claiborne’s Chicken Spaghetti

Craig Claiborne wrote his tell-all autobiography A Feast Made for Laughter (Doubleday, 1982) when he was undergoing intense psychotherapy (ostensibly for alcoholism; “self-destruction” triggered by “self-detestation”) that given a convoluted assessment of his mother’s smothering influence was no doubt intensely Freudian. In the end, he concludes that he didn’t hate his mother, that she was “a victim of culture, of her time and place” like Amanda Wingfield you might say or Claiborne himself mayhap.

By all accounts Mary Kathleen Craig Claiborne was a formidable woman who supported her family after Mr. Claiborne lost a fabled family fortune by taking in boarders, including psychologist and sociologist John Dollard who stayed in Indianola while conducting research for his Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937). During his stay, Dollard committed what might well be the most grievous social error possible in the South, showing great disrespect to his hostess by disrespecting her cooking. According to Claiborne, “In the beginning he criticized the cooking of the greens, complaining that there was not a vitamin left in the lot. And as a result of his well-intentioned explanations and the base encouragement of the other boarders, my mother willingly committed one of the most wicked acts of her life. Dr. Dollard was placed at a bridge table, covered, of course, with linen, and set with sterling, and he was served a mess of raw greens that he ate with considerable and admirable composure and lack of resentment.” Years later, in the early 1970s, Claiborne recounts wandering into the photographic studio at the New York Times, glanced at the assignment sheet and saw the name “John Dollard, Yale”. As he walked in, Dollard walked out, and Claiborne introduced himself. “How’s your mother,” Dollard asked. “She’s a great woman.”

The best evidence we have of Claiborne’s filial love is his recipe for her chicken spaghetti, “printed on many occasions, for it, more than any other, was my favorite dish as a child, and I still prepare it.” Claiborne finds it, with characteristic affectation, “notably akin to certain authentic Italian sauces, notably a ragù Bolognese made with ground meat in a tomato and cream sauce.” Then he goes so far as to say that it was strictly his mother’s creation, and “she was famous for it up and down the Mississippi Delta.” Well, certainly her version is her own; it includes ground beef and pork as well as chicken and is undoubtedly one of the most complicated recipes Claiborne, whose recitation is his most meticulous if not to say fastidious, ever published.

Chicken spaghetti simply can’t be credited to the creativity of any one individual cook; people have been combining chicken and noodles of some kind since the dawn of history, and chicken spaghetti in some form or another has been around in Mississippi ever since pasta began being marketed here. You’re going to find two in the Mississippi Home Extension Service’s The Mississippi Cookbook, one from Ovett, the other from Hickory, both about as far away from the Delta as you can get without getting wet.

In its most basic incarnation, chicken spaghetti is nothing more than cooked spaghetti or vermicelli noodles mixed with a can of cream of chicken soup, topped with Kraft Parmesan and stuffed in a hot oven. In more labor-intensive versions, mushrooms (Green Giant or such) are usually involved, as are onions and bell pepper and a white sauce, but diced tomatoes are a hit-or-miss option. And even though Mrs. Claiborne topped her chicken spaghetti with cheddar, if you ask me, that’s just trashy; use Parmesan and mozzarella.

 

Karen’s Congealed Salad

Jell-O salads were created by Mrs. John E. Cook of New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1904. By the 1950s, they had become so popular that Jell-O responded with savory and vegetable flavors such as celery, Italian, and seasoned tomato. Sadly, these flavors were dropped, but the trend continued. The 1964 Joy of Cooking has forty-three recipes for congealed salads, one with shredded cabbage, clam juice, and olives that Escoffier would applaud.

Though these salads are still popular in the upper Midwest and Utah (where Jello-O is the official State Dessert) they’ve disappeared from most American tables (or any other tables, for that matter). The 2006 75th anniversary edition of Joy lists four congealed salads alongside two savory aspics (a basic recipe as well as the ever-popular tomato) and two mousses (lobster and cucumber). Still, many people I know have something like a molded asparagus/cream cheese salad or a congealed cranberry relish on a holiday table.

This recipe is easy, delicious and oh-so pretty for summer lunch. Add one and a half cups boiling white grape juice to two (3-ounce) packages lemon Jell-O. Mix until gelatin is dissolved, and chill until thickened but not firm. Stir in sliced strawberries, fresh blueberries, raspberries and sliced seedless grapes. Pour into a 6-cup ring mold coated with cooking spray and refrigerate until quite firm, about 4 hours. Unmold onto a platter and serve immediately.

Pinky’s Barbecue Baste

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).

Eudora Welty (who threw in a julep recipe, bless her soul) and Ralph Ellison (who recorded the chant of the Harlem “sweet pertater man”) were among the contributors to this chronicle of America’s regional cuisine, which focused on gatherings such as church suppers, harvest festivals, state fairs, political rallies, lodge suppers and any other gathering where food was a primary element. Recipes for such staples as root beer, pickled watermelon and chess pie abound, as do those for barbecue. This baste is from Pinky Langley, a white man from Jackson. He instructs readers to mix the ingredients, cook for 30 minutes, then baste, turning 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

Green Tomato Relish

Green tomatoes, even tomatoes that are half-ripe, make wonderful pickles in any degree of sweet and sour. This is a nice little recipe to prepare in advance of any summer gathering, and you can have fun varying the basic ingredients as well as the spices and flavorings. Make it your own. You can call this a chow-chow if you like, you can call it a piccalilli, too, even a chutney if you really want to be stuffy about it, but let’s simply say it’s a relish and be done with it.

Finely dice 6-8 green tomatoes (enough to make a quart), one very firm cucumber, a red bell pepper—you can chop up one or two cayennes or a jalapeno if you want—and a large sweet (yellow) onion into a large bowl, add a tablespoon salt and a half cup brown sugar, stir and let sit for an hour or two (overnight is better). Drain the juices from the vegetables into a large saucepan, add 2 cups white vinegar, another half cup of sugar, and two tablespoons pickling spices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer for about ten minutes, then strain, add vegetables and cook over medium for another ten minutes or so. Drain excess liquid, transfer to jars to cool, top with a screw-on lid and chill. You can use this as soon as it’s cold, but it’s much, much better the next day. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week.

 

Putting on the Dog

I’m not about to tell you how to cook a hot dog, and I’m not going to tell you what kind of bun to stick it in, either; those are purely personal considerations. You heat up a wiener any way you find best, and stick it into whatever bun you like.

As to toppings, mustard is the premiere condiment when it comes to sausages of any ilk. Eschew French mustards; while France has been an ally since the dawn of our nation, putting Dijon mustard on a hot dog seems vaguely unpatriotic and approaches the epitome of pretension. Creole mustard is a laudable and appropriate compromise. Ketchup is acceptable in some circles (yes, mine) but if you slather mayonnaise on a weenie, you need therapy.

A relish is wonderful, and your favorite chili should always be an option. Chopped fresh onion is a must; use a white with bite instead of a sweet yellow or red. For cheese use mild cheddar. It’s a hot dog.

And a hot dog deserves a warm bun; just sayin’.

 

Valley of Dry Bones: A Meditation on Change by Howard Bahr

In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.

Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.

Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.

But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.

In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.

Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.

Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.

Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.

When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.

With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.

And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.

Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.

And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.

Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”

Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.

Simple Refrigerator Pickles

Do not–I repeat NOT–attempt this with vegetables you’ll find in a supermarket. The vegetables should be young and very firm, at the peak of the season. Slice or cube cucumbers, green tomatoes or squash, salt very well, and let sit for a few minutes. Pack in a jar and fill with hot vinegar seasoned as you like to cover; I prefer just the salt, vinegar and sliced garlic, but you can include pickling spices, sugar or whatever else you find appealing. Cool and seal before refrigerating. These are best after a week and will keep for a month.

pickles grape leaf

Pepper Vinegar

Most other Americans seem to think that the quintessential Southern hot sauce is a Tabasco-type mash, but restaurants across the South usually offer pepper vinegar as well. Many people find pepper vinegar essential for flavoring greens, and some—like me—like it on peas and beans. Any hot pepper can be used, but long cayennes and sports are most common. While any glass container can be used, one with a shaker spout is best. Prick the peppers with a knife tip; you don’t have to stem them. Pack the containers until filled such that the lid mushes the peppers down when closed. Use white vinegar, full strength, salted, something like a tablespoon of salt per quart of liquid. Heat the vinegar until just simmering. Put a few drops of vegetable oil in with the peppers before adding the hot vinegar. This adds a little kick. Some people will add sugar, but I think this is superfluous. Pepper vinegar ages beautifully, and you can infuse the peppers with more vinegar (no heating required) once you’ve used the first to stretch the batch one more time.

Flip the Bird

The bill to designate the mockingbird the official state bird of Mississippi was approved unanimously by both houses of the Mississippi Legislature in 1944, which is probably the only time those assemblies totally agreed on anything. Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida followed suit, establishing the Northern mockingbird (fifteen species of the genus live outside Dixie) as the most popular state bird in the Union.

Mockingbirds are sleek and noisy, accustomed to human company, and an iconic bird for zones 6 and below, but speaking as a seventh-generation native, I’d like to have an avian symbol for Mississippi that sets us apart from our four Great Sister States. Let’s keep the mockingbird–which, I might add, is arguably the meanest bird for its size on the face of the planet–but adopt another winged denizen of our borders to represent us. My nominee is the Mississippi kite, a bird so at home in the air it’s said that “Only two powers of nature can defeat the wings of a Mississippi kite. One is rain, the other darkness.” These graceful birds can be seen sailing above our woods in summer, tumbling in the air as they catch prey on the wing. A pair will usually nest in the same location for years.

Another unanimous vote on a new state bird is absurd; some fool’s going to suggest a cardinal, another a blue jay, and you can be damn sure some legislator from the Delta will throw a duck in just for the hell of it. The ultra-conservative Democrats who represent me in the Mississippi legislature–for whom I voted, mind you–would never endanger their lucrative political careers by proposing a new state symbol—they’re even complacent with the racist flag and song—but I’d like to think we could have a bird of our own.

God help us, and give us that, at least.

Easy Tomato Canapes

For thirty or forty, fry to a crisp and crumble 1 pound bacon, add a cup of mayo, and two cups finely-chopped green onion. Season with Tony Cachere’s Seasoning, spread on rounds of bread (I use Wonder), and top with drained tomato slices dusted with dill.