Best Oven Ribs

Unless you have a pit handy, can afford one of those expensive outdoor cookers capable of maintaining a low even temperature for a very long time, or–like me–just don’t like tending to an open fire in the summer, oven ribs are your option. A crock pot just don’t cut it. A container of water placed on a rack below the meat ensures a moist, even heat. You only have to open the oven once to turn the ribs. Try the following rub mix, then modify it as you might see fit. I tend to be heavy on the garlic and cumin, light on the salt and pepper. I do two full racks when I cook ribs; baby backs are expensive for the amount of meat you get. For two full racks or four of baby backs make a rub of:

1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup paprika
1/2 cup each of cumin, granulated garlic, and black pepper
3 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon cayenne

Cut ribs to fit roasting pan, pat dry, oil and coat with rub. Place ribs in middle level of oven and container of water on the bottom; I use a 2-quart sauce pot.  350 for first hour, reduce heat to 225. Turn the ribs at the half-way point, and cook until meat is tender and pulls away from bones, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, a little more than half that for baby backs.. The ribs will keep covered at room temperature for several hours, so start them in the morning to free up the oven for later.

B-Flat Beer Bread

The recipe is breathtakingly fundamental, and the results are consistently satisfying. The bread is light, even-textured, slightly sour, fragrant, and a bit crumbly with a nice crust. Lightly mix three cups of self-rising flour, a tablespoon of sugar, and a 12-ounce can of beer. I used Miller Lite (I think). The dough should be a little lumpy and sticky. Pour into a well-greased loaf pan lined with parchment paper and bake at 350 in a pre-heated oven for 90 minutes. It should thump hollow.  Brush with melted butter while warm.

Andrew Bucci: Art, Food, and History

As incredulous as it may sound to us now, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the very city itself.

The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Enjoying an After-Dinner Pipe-Bucci

With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded. But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of a few volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts.

On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci
Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists.

At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire, then relocated to Utica, Mississippi.

We Made a Rainbow Cake!

Jake saw an image of a rainbow cake somewhere and just had to make one. It wasn’t even called a rainbow cake in any sort of caption; it was just a random image on a blog somewhere, but he found it beautiful, and I did, too. But when he said he wanted to make one, well, I kind of tingled in my toes. You’d never know it, but Jake is color-blind. I’m not sure how extensive it is, and he’s not either, but when he pointed to that gorgeous slice of multi-colored cake on the monitor and said he wanted to make it, I offered to help. It was, after all, the least I could do.

Since this was such an experimental venture, we used a commercial white cake mix and a canned icing; after all, our objective was drag queen appearance over substance. The most indispensable element of the project was two (count ‘em, two!) boxes of McCormick’s assorted food coloring and egg dye. Each box has formulas for achieving eight colors (red, yellow, green and blue as well as pretty purple, orange sunset, teal, mint green and dusty rose).

Jake used two boxes of cake mix, split the batter into six equal amounts and then colored each bowl of batter. Because there was less batter per baking pan, oven time was reduced by at least five minutes. Jake wanted to arrange the layers to his own satisfaction, but I told him that while that might be interesting, it might be better on this effort for us to stick to Roy G. Biv (less the “i” I think). After a brief discussion, the pans were numbered and labeled. Once cooled, we assembled the cake. It sat overnight in a white icing, and when the first slice was taken the next day everyone went, “Ooo . . . “.

We both just grinned.

Spanish Eggplant

Peel two large eggplants and cut into thick dice. Brush these liberally with olive oil and grill or broil until slightly blistered and soft. Sauté a small yellow onion with a mild thin-walled pepper such as a sweet banana or poblano—you want about a cup of each, coarsely chopped—with chopped garlic, two cloves, and diced zucchini or yellow squash. Add eggplant, two cups diced tomatoes, and a large, chopped roasted red pepper. Salt to taste then season with freshly-dried basil, dried thyme, and crushed red pepper. Bake at about 300 until bubbling. Cool and serve with flat bread.

Gator on the Grill

Over 35 years ago no less an authority than Howard Mitcham predicted that “the day will come when fillet of alligator will be served with pride in first-class gourmet restaurants, and frozen alligator meat will be available in the supermarket.” Well, if not in your supermarket then certainly online, where you can find gator meat from a number of sources in our Great Sister State of Louisiana. Here’s Howard’s marinade recipe for barbecued alligator steak. Marinate steaks for at least four hours, turning the pieces occasionally. Grill on a low heat for about an hour or until tender.

1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 1/3 cups salad oil
8 drops Tabasco
1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
1 tbsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Hold the “L”

In one of her wonderful Arly Hanks novels Joan Hesse has the police chief of Maggody, Arkansas declare that, “Only a Yankee would desecrate a bacon and tomato sandwich with lettuce”. Well, if not a Yankee then anyone with no reverence for the blessed combination of tomato and fried pork with a slathering of mayonnaise. What infidel would put watery lettuce in such a perfect culinary union of flora and fauna? Let the words go forth: “BLT, hold the ‘L’”.

Spuds 101

Consider the potato. Opposition preceded the acceptance of the potato into nearly every country of Europe. At first it was arraigned on the grounds that it encouraged flatulence and lust, which in itself is not surprising in an age (late 16th, early 17th centuries) when salamanders were believed to live in hot coals and harmless little old ladies were burnt as witches. The resistance of European populations to both the tomato and the potato can probably best be explained by a state of mind then prevalent in the intellectual milieu, that being the Doctrine of Signatures.

The Doctrine of Signatures can trace its roots back to a brilliant quack named Paracelsus. Paracelsus (1493?—1541) was a Swiss physician and alchemist. His original name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, so of course he changed it to Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus as soon as he could (wouldn’t you?). He was both popular and controversial. On the plus side, he rejected Galen’s humeral theory of disease, which had dominated and stultified medicinal science for the past thirteen hundred years; he advocated the use of specific remedies for specific diseases; he introduced the use of such chemicals as laudanum, mercury, sulfur, iron and arsenic into the medical battery; and he noted the hereditary patterns of certain diseases (e.g. cretinism).

On the negative side, he promulgated the Doctrine of Signatures. Basic to this doctrine is the notion that “like cures or affects like,” which is the underlying principle of sympathetic magic. This ancient principle enjoyed such a grip on the medieval mind that even someone as astute as Plutarch might say, “Such is the nature and such the temperament (of any given creature) that it draws out and receives the malady which issues, like a stream, through the eyesight.” Thus, they held that if someone with jaundice looked at a stone-curlew, and the bird looked back, he or she would be cured of the disease. Taking this into consideration, the virtue of the curlew lay not in its color—which is a rather drab mottled brown—but in the iris of its eye, which is large and golden, lending it a natural ability to draw out `yellow’ jaundice. Likewise, if you wanted a good ruddy complexion, you’d eat beets. If you wanted a pale complexion, you’d eat mushrooms. If you wanted bigger breasts or a larger penis, you’d eat . . . well, you get the drift.

Unfortunately for the potato, the early varieties cultivated in Europe produced irregularly shaped tubers, often with white nodules and knobby finger-like growths, which to the superstitious minds then rampant recalled the swollen, deformed feet and hands of lepers. Followers of Paracelsus made much of the supposed likeness between a particular plant and the outward manifestations of a disease, but, far from becoming celebrated as a cure for leprosy, the potato became to be condemned as a cause of the disease. Granted, this is something of a reversal of the first principal, but the potato, unfortunately, appeared on the scene when the main proponents of the Doctrine of Signatures had passed away and the potato’s condemnation was the outcome of popular inversion of the principle.

How ironic that the potato, a plentiful source of starch and rich in ascorbic acid, should find itself spurned by a population that constantly lived on the brink of starvation and suffered from epidemic scurvy. In France, the Parliament of Besançon banned the cultivation of the potato out of fear of leprosy in 1630. The potato had a particularly hard time in France, where it was still suspect as late as 1771, and it was not until 1787 that the potato became acceptable, and even then mostly by virtue of its flowers. Both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette wore the blue blossoms as ornaments in an ill-fated attempt to influence public opinion towards a more favorable attitude of the vegetable, but given the couple’s incredibly poor record in public relations, it probably did more harm than good. Catherine the Great shocked the Russian court by eating a dish of the tubers in public around the same time, and pronounced them “tres bien”. Catherine was an enlightened monarch, respected in many courts, and due to her blessings upon the potato, it was soon being used as a fermenting base for the making of vodka all over the Russian Empire. Potatoes became a staple in France (and Russia) by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and quickly became accepted throughout Europe.

On a more favorable note, perhaps at least from the vantage of this time of license, potatoes also enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac. This attribute largely came about due to its association with the sweet potato (all potatoes derive their English name from the sweet potato’s name among the Taino, batatas), which played a role in every dish intended to “incite Venus.”  Shakespeare made use of this aspect of potato lore when he wrote of the tuber in two plays, the first written in 1597, the next in 1602:

FALSTAFF:
My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of “Greensleeves,” hail kissing-comfits, and snow eryngoes*. Let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here…
The Merry Wives of Windsor, V, v., 18-22

*sea-holly, Eryngium maritium, enjoyed primarily for its roots, candied with sugar and orange-flower water which, as Evelyn noted in his diary, were a specialty of Colchester, and esteemed an aphrodisiac.

THERSITES:
How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger, tickles these together. Fry, lechery, fry!
Troilus and Cressida, V, ii., 54-56
Shakespeare here is referring to the sweet potato (Ipomea batatas) rather than the common potato (Solanum tuberosum) in these plays (written in 1599 and 1602, respectively), since the potato did not put in an appearance in England until 1597 and was still scarce, but the sweet potato was already well-known and being sold in the streets in 1617 when John Fletcher penned this bit:

I have fine potatoes,
Ripe potatoes!
Will your Lordship please to taste a fine potato?
`Twill advance your wither’d state,
Fill your Honour full of noble itches.
The Loyal Subject III, v.

In the early days of the South, the sweet potato dominated the table. It is easy to grow, even in poor soil, and is baked, fried, boiled and even made into home brew. After the War, sweet potatoes were dried, roasted and ground to provide a sort of ersatz coffee. Vardaman, Mississippi, in my home county of Calhoun, bills itself as the “Sweet Potato Capital of the World,” and every year the town plays host to the Sweet Potato Festival the first week in Novembers, featuring arts, crafts, and contests of all sorts, culminating in the Sweet Potato Bowl Game on Saturday Night, when our Sweet Potato Queen is crowned.

Pearl potatoes

Wolf Songs

“Cantaloupe” in the Deep South mostly sounds something like “canna-lope,” without a hint of ‘t’, but Bill Neale saw it spelt “CAN’T ELOPE” on a roadside sign in North Carolina, and a buddy of mine calls them “Romeos and Juliets”.

The name comes from an Italian communi near Rome, one of several Italian towns called “Cantaloupo,” (“song of the wolf” or literally “sings wolf”) where this variety of melon arrived in Europe from (of all places) Armenia in the early 18th century. The cantaloupe didn’t become a commercial crop in the US until the early 20th century. An early popular variety, ‘Rocky Ford’ was developed in Colorado, but ‘Ambrosia’ and ‘El Gordo’ have largely come to dominate the markets.

Incidentally, the European cantaloupe, Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis, is lightly ribbed with a gray-green skin; the American cantaloupe, C. melo var. reticulatus, is a round melon with firm, orange, moderately sweet flesh. It’s also worth noting that the name “musk melon” comes from the pronounced aroma of the uncut fruit; a related group of melons that includes honeydews, Canary, and Santa Claus melons, are termed inodorata.

Front Porches, Field Peas, and Soap Operas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns. Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies or L’Amours, not to mention the latest John Grisham. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read in the first place.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels of unshelled peas. Being a reformed kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders and retreated—talking up a storm—back into the TV room. I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.” Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”