A Second Battle of New Orleans

It’s a jolt to find a recipe for what amounts to an oyster po-boy in Jane Grigons’s English Food, but even if we concede that anywhere there are oysters and mankind the oysters are bound to end up on someone’s table between two pieces of bread, Griegson’s foray into New Orleans cuisine is still no less than a British assault.

Grigson’s recipe–“Oyster Loaf”–begins: “This is one of the best of eighteenth-century dishes,” she begins, adding, “It was taken to America, and became popular in New Orleans in the eighteenth century, where it acquired the endearing name médiatrice.” In this simple statement Grigson covers a lot of ground with a host of erroneous assumptions, not the least of which is the po-boy’s English origins. To begin with, though the British made a heroic effort to capture New Orleans in the winter of 1814-15, the city was never under British rule. Granted, in the late 1800s oyster sandwiches on French loaves were known in New Orleans as well as San Francisco as “oyster loaves”, a term still used in San Francisco, but Grigson’s recipe calls for the oysters to be placed on a bun after being sautéed in butter and poached in sour cream as well as “double” cream, a uniquely British ingredient. It’s more stew in a bread bowl than a sandwich.

The earliest known account of what eventually came to be called a po-boy was published in The Daily Picayune on Dec. 7, 1851: “A big loaf of bread is ‘dug out’ – reserving a crust end as a stop – any quantity of delicious fried or broiled oysters is piled in; the top is neatly put on; and a gentleman can carry home his loaf and his ‘dozen’ – all hot – or have them brought home, for a lunch or a relish to dinner.” The legend of what Grigson calls the médiatrice is fraught with confusion, involving even James Beard in the likely fanciful legend of a sandwich involving various ingredients brought home by a carousing husband to his irate wife—no doubt waiting up with a rolling pin—as a “peacemaker”. Such is the case with the name po-boy (and its various spellings) as well, with diverging claims of authenticity.

Though Grigson’s sumptuous English Food certainly deserves every bit of praise it has received since its publication in 1974, her claim that the English oyster loaf is the predecessor of NOLA’s po-boy is as useless as Pakenham’s final, fatal assault on Old Hickory.

Cherries Maraschino

Unless you have a home bar and know people who drink Manhattans, Old Fashioneds or the occasional Tom Collins, it’s unlikely that you’re going to have any maraschino cherries. Oh, you’ll buy a jar during the holidays or if you’re having a kid’s birthday party, but otherwise maraschinos aren’t a standard kitchen item at all. On the other hand, bartenders have been stocking maraschino cherries next to the stuffed olives since before Prohibition, and in their heyday soda jerks routinely placed them atop sundaes and in sodas.

The term “maraschino” originates from the Marasca cherry—a sour, dark variety cultivated on the coast of Dalmatia (now part of Croatia) beginning in the mid-19th century. The original version was brined in ocean water, then preserved in a liqueur made from its own juices, and ground-up pits. In the 19th century, these became popular in Europe, but the supply was so small that they became a delicacy for the rich and royalty and other cherries came to be preserved in various ways and sold as “maraschino.”

Fine bars and restaurants in the United States began serving the cherries in the late 19th century. To meet the growing demand, by the turn of the century American producers were experimenting with other processes for preserving cherries, with flavors such as almond extract rather than the original alcohol liqueur and substitute Royal Anne (‘Napoleon,’ or ‘Napoleon Bigarreau’) cherries. In 1912 the USDA defined “maraschino cherries” as “Marasca cherries preserved in maraschino” under the authority of the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The artificially-colored and sweetened Royal Anne variety were required to be called “Imitation Maraschino Cherries” instead. Food Inspection Decision 141, signed on Feb. 17, 1912, defined Marasca cherries and maraschinos.

Ernest H. Wiegand, a professor of horticulture at Oregon State University, developed the modern method of manufacturing maraschino cherries using a brine solution rather than alcohol since alcohol dehydrated the fruit, shrinking them, making them hard and wrinkled. By focusing on preserving the shape and structure of the cherry in its plump, beautiful ripeness, Wiegand discovered that adding calcium salts to the preserving brine firmed up the fruit, a method that with modifications is still used  today.

 

Oven Anchos

Wipe clean, slit lengthways and place on a cookie sheet with lightly oiled parchment paper in the oven at its lowest setting. Bear in mind you do not want the peppers fragile; you’re looking for a leathery texture such that will reconstitute well in a sauce or stew. These peppers took four hours with two turns, a great base in any salsa.

 

The Downside of White Fruitcake

 When I showed Willis this photo of a white fruitcake he sneered in disdain.

“See how they’re pushing that post-menopausal philosophy so innocently,” he said, dangling a beer in his left hand and a cigarette in the right, “even going so far as to bleach such a dark, nutty intensely sensual confection.”

“Willis, It’s a just fruitcake, for Pete’s sake.”

“Oh, yes,” he said with a wink. “It’s also symbolically homophobic, exclusive of anything of a sexual nature. Short of an old white woman, it’s the very physical expression of spinsterhood.”

“You can’t deconstruct a fruitcake, Willis.”

The Orchid in the Kitchen

In November 2015, Hershey’s announced that it would swap out the artificial ingredient “vanillin” for the real deal in its kisses and chocolate bars. Vanilla extract climbed to $150, $200, then $275 a gallon. This March cyclone Enawo devastated Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of vanilla, and given the three-  four-year life cycle of vanilla, extract spiked on March 7 to $700 a gallon.

How is it that vanilla, the most alluring essence in the world, lush and sensual, now is consigned as a byword for the bland and banal? Lagriffe wrote that vanilla “is not, strictly speaking, either a spice or a seasoning; it would seem more exact to call it a perfume,” which might go a long way in explaining its proverbial usage on country siren’s ears or ankles.

Vanilla—like chocolate—comes from Central America and is the only member of the orchid family—which some maintain is the largest plant family in the world—that is widely used as a foodstuff. The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia, a vine that can grow up to thirty feet long. The flowers are naturally pollinated by native bees or by hummingbirds, none of which—unlike the plant itself—have flourished outside of Mesoamerica, but in 1841 a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method using a beveled sliver of bamboo was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion that is still used.

The fruit—a seed capsule—if left on the plant ripens and opens at the end (it’s here that I mention the root of ‘vanilla’ is ‘vagina’); as it dries, the fruits take on a diamond-dusted appearance, which the French—who have all these chic names for everything—call givre (hoarfrost). It then releases the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, and in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, particularly ice cream, these seeds are recognizable as black specks, but both the pod and the seeds are used in cooking.

Mexican vanilla is still the most intense and robust, but closer to home, when buying vanilla extract in the store examine the label and don’t purchase any with ‘vanillin’ on the label. For many cooks—me included—vanilla is an important addition to almost any cake or cookie, and while you might be tempted to serve hot chocolate or cider with a cinnamon stick, try serving cups with a piece of vanilla bean.

Plate from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743).

Noting the Garden

No matter which gutter of the global warming argument you trickle down, barring an asteroid impact—I think we have a 7-year window for those—we’re not likely to see anything drastic in the next century, so don’t let the likelihood that your great-grandchildren can’t grow roses keep you from telling you did. Keep a garden notebook, if only by writing on a funeral home/insurance company/alumni organization wall calendar when you plant a bulb, move a shrub or sow your greens, the date of a late frost and of course the first ripe tomato. Do not neglect to include such enriching details as when Heather drove her three-wheeler all over Sally Jane’s daylily bed as well as accounts or video of the mayhem and its consequences. Start today.

Gertrude Jekyll, the goddess of garden writing.

Kettle-Fried Matzo Balls

The name beneath this recipe from New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote and Hodding Carter and began writing in earnest.

According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time and won the bet. The resulting work, A Family’s Affairs (1962), is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.

Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably obvious non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.

Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)

Jello Spaghetti-Os

Some people take themselves far too seriously. If you look around the internet for postings of this dish—I assure you there are many—you’ll find reactions bespeaking of ponderous gravitas: “disgusting” they exclaim; “incomprehensible” they bemoan.

Others possessing a lighter heart and more expansive philosophy—among whom naturally I number myself—recognize this recipe for what it is, a work of sheer, unadulterated genius. Many err in crediting this dish to Ernest Mickler, specifically citing his enduring epic White Trash Cooking as the source. Not so; Ernie (as well as his correspondents) was a more discerning sort. No, this concoction is the fabrication of some double-wide Warhol who set his hat to come up with an iconic work of art for those of us who think Martha Stewart should still be wearing that ankle bracelet.

Dissolve two envelopes unflavored gelatin in a quarter cup of water. When gelatin has bloomed, add a half can condensed tomato soup, heat and add two cans Spaghetti-Os. Stir until well-blended, cool, pour into a ring mold and chill until firm. Vienna sausages (admittedly Freudian) are sine qua non for the presentation, and those of a particularly refined bent top them with a curl of Cheese Whiz.