Dumpling Drama

Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply “said” anything) that Rose Budd Stevens is a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my pea-pickin’ heart.

If you are interested in the way most Mississippians cooked and prepared foodstuffs in the first half of the 20th century, then you should get From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (University Press of Mississippi: 1988). For those Mississippi foodies who love the literature of the table, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful work written by a remarkable woman. Mrs. Willoughby and I grew up in the same environment, rural Mississippi, but at different times. Reading her reminds me of the phrases and cadences I heard from my grandmothers and great aunts, so much so that I hear in her their voices fused altogether. Mamie, much like those women, is not averse to a lecture either, as she makes obvious in this passage:

Let’s get this chicken stew, dumplings and chicken pie business straight right now. Chicken Stew: Roll thick dough, cut into strips, drop into boiling chicken broth, and cook uncovered. Chicken Dumplings: Drop spoonfuls of dough on top of boiling chicken and broth, cook with tight-fitting lid on, and don’t peek. Chicken Pie: Put layer of chicken and broth in large pan. Dot with butter and black pepper, then layer of rich dough. Bake until light brown; add another layer of chicken, broth, and dough, bake. Do this until pan is nearly full. Some hold with a cup of sweet milk added, then back 30 minutes. I like hard-boiled eggs and sweet cream in my pie. Last would be cups of cooked-down broth, tasty with floating eyes of chicken fat, all melded together, food fit for the gods, company or family. Remember this was before it was known you could eat yourself to death!

Here Mamie and I part ways. Her recipe for stew resembles my family’s recipe for chicken and dumplings. What we’d call “drop dumplings”, are what we make with sugar for cobblers. Here’s my recipe.

Poach a roasting hen with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper, a fresh bay leaf if you have one in water to cover by about an inch. Skin and debone chicken. Set meat aside, return bones to the pot, and reduce by about a third. Strain liquid and return to pot with about a tablespoon of bouillon paste. You want a gallon of good, rich broth. Make a stiff dough with 2 cups self-rising flour, butter, and sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into boiling broth. Jiggle them around a bit to break them up and keep from sticking. As the broth begins to thicken, add the chicken, cover, and let boil for maybe another minute. Then reduce heat and let the pot sit for about another five minutes. You’ll have to adjust the salt, since dumplings, like any boiled starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.) will absorb salt in cooking. I like my chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.

 

Jake’s Baked Chicken

Jake claims that I’m a terrible cook. If anyone else were to make such a statement, I’d have to take umbrage and pick up a two-tined fork, but Jake enjoys a considerable degree of latitude when it comes to reducing my self-esteem to dust, ashes, and other such lifeless substances. After all, he has known me for a very long time, has seen me in various degrees of dishevelment and has I must admit choked down more than a few of my less-successful efforts at the stove. Though to avoid argument I acquiesce to his damnation of my kitchen skills, I’m here to tell you the statement is just not true.

Admittedly, Jake’s a good cook (see? I can be charitable!), and at any given time he’s in the kitchen, I’m comfortable with banging away at the keyboard and watching what he calls “black-and-white snoozers” on TCM. And I’m happy as a clam there; but once Jake begins cooking, I have to drop everything about every five minutes for consultations. Unless it’s something he’s cooked for a long time (a limited number of dishes, granted), he trots back and forth to where I’m sitting with a steady stream of questions. “How much of (insert name of a spice or seasoning) should I use?” “Is it okay if I just use water to poach these meatballs?” “Do I have to use this ground beef? It smells weird” (everything smalls weird to Jake; he’s also colorblind.) “How thick should I slice these mushrooms?” “Where in the hell did you put the (insert name of kitchen commodity)?” Such intense grilling inevitably ends with, “Would you come look at this? I want to see if I did it right.” The results are always beautiful. Of course.

For baked chicken breasts, wash and pat dry split whole breasts of chicken. Brush with light vegetable oil infused with granulated garlic, dried minced onions, rubbed sage, black pepper and salt in a roughly 2:2:1:1:1 ratio. Arrange loosely on a baking sheet or in a large skillet and bake in a medium oven (@350) at 350) until the skin is crisp and juices run clear.

Hash Tag Cookies

People had been making a criss-cross impression on balls of cookie dough with a fork long before 1925, when George Washington Carver issued an agricultural bulletin with 105 recipes using peanuts, including three for cookies. Some people might tell you the imprint helps cookies bake evenly, but more likely a fork is nine times out of ten more at hand than a cookie press. How the criss-cross became a traditional hash tag for peanut butter cookies is material for a Beard Award. Here’s a good one-bowl recipe for this all-time American favorite.

Combine 1 cup packed light brown sugar with a half cup each of softened butter and peanut butter. Mix until smooth; add a beaten egg and a teaspoon of vanilla. Mix very well. Sift in a half teaspoon each baking soda and baking powder into a cup and a half of AP flour, add to peanut butter mix, and stir thoroughly until it forms a smooth dough. Shape into balls a little smaller than a ping-pong, roll in sugar (optional), and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten the balls with a fork that has been dipped in sugar so it won’t stick. Make a criss-cross pattern, and bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes.

Notes on Sawmill Gravy

The Harrars’ Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) lyrically declares that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees.” When the nation began to recover from its bloody Civil War, and on into the early 20th century, timber became the South’s biggest cash commodity. Logging camps and sawmills sprang up like mangling mushrooms in the great forests stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to Galveston. The deforestation of the southeast was an ecological calamity of continental proportions, but it provided a defeated, dispirited people with the elements of existence and, perhaps, hope itself.

In my homeland of the middle South sawmill gravy is a staple for breakfast. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many folks I knew as a boy would keep a covered container of left-over gravy with whatever meats and biscuits weren’t eaten that morning. More often than not someone would spoon it over a piece of cornbread or a scoop of rice sometime during the day, and many nights found another batch being made on the stove.

North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy

This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly.

Brown about a half-pound pork sausage in a little oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like). Break it up very well. When quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour, and blend until smooth. When flour begins to brown, stir in about a cup of water. Mix well. To this add enough milk to make a thin gravy. Reduce heat and cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little lighter than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed. I like it with a heft of black pepper.

 

Belles Calas

When it rained, we sat in Mama’s kitchen and listened to old Tante Zoe. She talked all the time when she was cooking, about what she was making and how she knew how to do it right from the old days. If she was making a big dinner for special guests, she’d say why she was serving this because it was something you’d serve, “To the mayor, not the bishop!” Then she’d sing and talk to herself, look up, smile and coo like the soft old dove she was and make us molasses butter to put on the morning biscuits.

Poppa smoked his pipe in the house, but Zoe said she had better manners than to smell up the furniture cushions and puffed on hers in the swing on the back porch. Zoe ran that house more than he did. Mama was Zoe’s lamb from the manger, to her an icon of love itself, and that was that. He knew that Zoe was listened to outside our house, had the respect of everyone up and down St. Charles. And in those days, that was saying a lot. I don’t think Mama ever knew Zoe the way everyone else did.

Sunday mornings she’d fry rice beignets, the calas. She’d put a little water and a yeast cake in some old rice she had on the back of the stove, cover it and in the morning mix in eggs, flour and sugar into a loose dough and drop by spoonfuls into hot oil. And she’d tell us how they used to sing, the ladies in the Quarter selling their calas, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” and the girls would bring baskets to fill and take them back to the bedrooms where the men were waiting.

Calas (Beignets Riz)

Add two packets of yeast mixed with a cup of warm water and a tablespoon of sugar to two cups well-cooked rice mashed to pulp. Cover and let it work overnight. In the morning, add four beaten eggs, a half cup sugar, a teaspoon pure vanilla and hefty pinches of nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. Mix in enough plain flour to make a thick batter and drop by spoonful into very hot oil. Dust with powdered sugar while hot, and serve at once. Calas don’t keep.

Winifred’s Cookbook

The culinary history of Jackson, Mississippi is filled with colorful characters, including one who exemplifies the genteel aspects of the city in the early decades of this past century.

Winifred Green Cheney was born into a very old Jackson family; originally from Maryland, the Greens moved to Jackson in the early 19th century. Winifred was born in the second family home at 647 North State Street in 1913. She graduated magna cum laude from Millsaps with a bachelor of arts in Latin in 1933, and on October 25, 1934, after a 7-year engagement, she married Reynolds Cheney, who became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The couple had three children: Reverend Reynolds S. Cheney II, W. Garner Cheney and Mrs. Patrick (Winifred C.?) Barron.

While Winifred, in almost every respect, was a model for a well-to-do woman of social standing in the mid-century South (active in her church and in social charities, etc.), in another she was not: Winifred was a writer. In the course of her life, she wrote (about cooking, mainly) for such well-known publications as The National Observer, The Rotarian, Southern World and, of course, Southern Living. She published two cookbooks (both by Oxmoor House), Cooking for Company (1985), and the truly wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976).

Winifred’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a treasure-trove of splendid recipes, but as a whole is a tutorial of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied; the ingredients are often expensive, and the times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, one of the most frequent critiques of the book is how complicated, indeed “fussy” the recipes are, many often calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients.

Many of the recipes are heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as many from “my great-grandmother … from Lone Star Plantation in the Mississippi Delta, written in her fine Spencerian hand.” (“But there were no directions,” Winifred adds. “I found this to be true with most of the old ‘receipts’ in her walnut escritoire papeterie.”) She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors: Odel Herbert’s Carrot Casserole, Vivienne Wilson’s Asparagus and Carrot Escallop, Claudia Whitney’s Meat Spaghetti, Zollie Kimbrough’s Shrimp Casserole, Linda Lacefield’s Apricot Stuffing for Duck, Becky Voght’s Caramel Icing; and many, many more.

Winifred’s cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson as well as the Middle South, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”), and a preface by Eudora herself, “A Note on the Cook” in which she writes:

“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707. Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality.In good weather, but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.

When Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, attending Mr. Weston’s ball, is seated at the supper, she surveys the table with a cry, ‘How shall we ever recollect half these dishes?’ When I sit down to Sunday dinner at Winifred’s, I feel just like Miss Bates. What guest could not? But it now becomes possible for us to recollect the dishes we’ve dined on there. The cook herself has recollected the recipes for them in her own cookbook. It’s like another extension of Winifred Cheney’s gracious hospitality; she has added another leaf to her table.”

The Great American Writers’ Cookbook

“In recent months I have looked forward to the mail with an anticipation and excitement I’ve not felt since, in the summer of 1946 as a ten-year old, I sent off penny postcards from Oxford, Mississippi, to Hollywood, California, and waited anxiously for autographed, black and white glossies of Alan Ladd and Jeanne Crain, Clark Gable and Betty Grable, Cornell Wilde and Yvonne de Carlo, Flicka, and Lassie to be delivered at my front door. The letters I’ve received in the past six months are even better.”

So writes Dean Faulkner Wells in her forward to The Great American Writer’s Cookbook (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1981. Dean Faulkner Wells and her husband Larry collected over 200 recipes sent by 175 writers of novels, short stories, history, commentary, plays, poetry, reportage, columns, and criticism, all among the finest of their generation. Most are predictably far better at writing than cooking, as hinted at in the introductory quote by John Cheever: “The only time I ever go into a kitchen is when I’m being chased out the back door.” The majority of the recipes are serious; exceptions include John McPhee’s “Count Zeppelin Pancakes,” Larry L. King’s “Party Boy’s Midnight Snack Puree,” David Halberstam’s “Cracked Crab à la McNamara,” and Irwin Shaw’s Italian Delight.”

“Many of the writers who sent recipes questioned the title,” Dean wrote, “advising me to change it to The American Writers’ Great Cookbook, or The Minor Regional American Writers’ Cookbook, or even concluding, ‘I heard that there once was a Great American Writer, but he died.’ She adds that the book is “in a small way a tribute to the men and women who have given me, in their distinguished work over the years, so many hours of pleasure and edification.”

In his introduction, Craig Claiborne writes that when attending a party of glittering literati in the Hamptons, he was astounded to find William Styron staring at him and pouting.

“You,” he said accusingly, “are the one critic who hurt me most.” I frowned. Me? A literary critic. He must be thinking of another man with my name. “You,” he continued, “criticized my recipe for fried chicken.” I laughed when he recounted the basis for my alleged attack.

 It seems that some years ago there was published a book called The Artists and Writers Cook Book, and in it was his recipe for southern fried chicken. I should have learned long ago that there is nothing that can come nearer to creating lifelong enmity, if not to say bloodshed and worse violence, than one Southerner criticizing another Southerner’s fried chicken. Bill, of course, is from Virginia and I from Mississippi. It seems that the crux for my attack was that he had recommended cooking that chicken in bacon fat in lieu of lard blended with butter which my mother used and a technique which I in my turn borrowed. He also said, as I recall, that frozen chicken might be used. And that, I found unpardonable. In any event, before the evening which included a pitcher of martinis, we had a fine old time swapping recipes for grits and corn pones and hushpuppies.

 This is not the first and perhaps not the last time that I have mentioned my favorite tribute to a well-known writer whose name was associated with the preparation of a cookbook. In the early 1970’s a cookbook was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson, Mississippi, the sale of which would benefit the Jackson Symphony. Eudora Welty was prevailed upon to write a charming dissertation on Southern Cooking and in reciprocation, the league was called upon to dedicate the first recipe to the author. It was called “Squash Eudora.”

[Note: “Squash Eudora” was originally published in Winifred Green Cheeny’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976), which also includes an introduction by Welty. It does not appear in the Symphony League’s 1971 cookbook.]

The Oyster and I

Unlike some, I don’t remember my first oyster as epiphanic. That’s no reflection on the oyster, which I’m certain was good, plump and fresh from the Gulf, arguably among the best in the world, but I ate it on my first trip to Jackson, which was a dizzying affair for a 7-year-old boy from a sawmill village in north Mississippi.

After the thrill of seeing the frothy Rez from the Trace, riding in a highway patrol cruiser (my last time in the front seat of one) and ogling at the Capitol dome, eating oysters at the Mayflower seemed pedestrian. The bouffants of the waitresses made far more of an impression than the shellfish, and when ours yelled at some idiot from Atlanta who ordered a poached egg, I tried to die three times. Out of sheer terror, I left her all the money I had–two quarters–because she glared at me when I asked for an extra straw.

Oysters enjoy a sex life that makes human sexuality totally lame, switching sexes according to a variety of environmental factors. If you’re a young oyster (a spat), one season ‘s Uncle Louie might be the next’s Aunt Louise. Not only that, but oysters reproduce by spewing their sperm and eggs into the water around them in an impregnating haze, the human equivalent of desperate yet sincere sex with someone on the other side of the Jacuzzi.

Any encouraging words of prolific reproduction and growth among oysters strike a chord of extreme indifference among those people who rate the oyster as a food on par with nasal mucus, but those of us who hold the mollusk in the highest esteem find it heartening. Oysters were once so plentiful in American coastal waters that no meal that aspired to distinction was complete without them, but since the first decades of the last century the mollusk has been in catastrophic decline and the prices have escalated accordingly. Oysters at the Mayflower in 1967 cost a dime apiece, a dollar a dozen.

Eating a raw oyster is like stealing a kiss from the ocean: a wet, slightly salty, totally sensuous experience unbridled by any sort of fussy preparation. I’m firmly convinced that anyone who doesn’t enjoy oysters is a bad kisser, and I have centuries of documentation to back me up in this opinion. Oysters have enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac for millennia. Now that I am well past the salad stage of life and forging steadily past dessert, I firmly intend to keep oysters a mainstay between courses. If God is willing, I shall have them with my cordial.

I still like oysters with a dab of tart, horseradish-y cocktail sauce, but I also enjoy a lighter sauce that’s a bit more in tune with the sublime texture of the animal as it comes–quivering in its nakedness–to my lips.

Mignonette Sauce

Combine 2/3 cup wine vinegar, a small, finely-minced shallot, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and a tablespoon each freshly-ground black pepper and minced parsley.  Bottle, refrigerate, and shake well before dribbling over freshly-shucked oysters.

Oven-Fried Oysters

Oven-fried anything will always be far inferior to something flat-out fried, but these are awfully good on the fly when you don’t want to deal with a lot of hot oil. Mix a cup of corn meal with a half cup of flour along with about a tablespoon of salt, black, and red pepper. Dip drained oysters in a wash made with one large egg whipped with a cup of water—you want it a little frothy. Dredge in meal/flour mixture, and bake in a very hot oven (400, at least) in a very well-oiled pan on an upper rack Flip five minutes after they begin sizzling. These are actually pretty good cold.

Queen Cakes

As denizens of the Lower South, we’re all familiar with king cakes (gâteau des Rois). These big, sweet rings of braided yeast dough appear in bakeries soon after Epiphany (Kings’ Day; in reference to the “Three Kings of Orient”) and proliferate up until Ash Wednesday.

Less familiar to us are queen cakes, which are English in origin and not specific to any season. Queen cakes are basically small pound cakes; the only essential ingredient aside from the requisite eggs, flour, butter and sugar is currents. Currants (black and red; white currants are a relatively new cultivar) have been used in European cooking for centuries, and were popular in this country up until the early 20th century when currants, as vectors for white blister pine rust (WBPR), were banned under federal law in 1911 (a ban later relegated to state jurisdiction) as a threat to the logging industry (the same industry largely responsible for the illegalization of hemp because Cannabis sativa is a cheap, renewable source for the production of paper). In 1999 horticultural activist Greg Quinn of Staatsburg, New York, was instrumental in proving that currants, though a proven vector, were not the actual agent in the spread of the pine rust (turns out imported white pine seedlings were the culprits), and in 2003, the State of New York legalized growing currants. (A decade later, the state legalized growing marijuana.)

Because the currant production and shipment is still prohibited in many other states as well as in some specific local jurisdictions, and despite the development of WBPR-resistant varieties, you’re likely not going to find real currants (dried or otherwise) in stores; what you most often will find are Zante currants, dried berries of the small, sweet, seedless grape ‘Black Corinth’ (Vitis vinifera), named after the island of Zakynthos (Zante) which was once a major producer and exporter. In other words, Zante currants are raisins, but given they’re the best alternative you can usually get, use them without guilt, or for that matter any raisin you like.

Make queen cakes with your favorite pound cake recipe. Add currants (such as they are) liberally, but toss them with a bit of corn starch first, since they tend to clump. You can flavor the batter if you like; vanilla or almond flavoring, for instance, but I wouldn’t range as far afield as citrus or cocoa, as some of less restraint do.