Sweet potato puree blended with a fool-proof New York-style cheesecake; fun to make, sumptuous results. The cheesecake filling is 16 oz. cream cheese, 2/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and two large eggs. The sweet potato filling is two cups of “candied” sweet potatoes pureed and mixed with 1/2 cup whole cream, 1/2 cup sugar, two eggs and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. The crust is a box of graham cracker crumbs–adding crushed pecans is a nice touch–mixed with a stick and a half of melted butter, a cup of brown sugar, packed into an 8″ spring-form pan and refrigerated until firm. Drop both filling mixtures alternately around the crust, then take a spoon and swirl it around a little bit. Be artistic; contemplate the Pre-Raphaelites. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, lower heat and cool for an hour. Refrigerate before slicing.
This silky and salty recipe with a hint of sweetness is a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton. Containers as well as ingredients should be at room temperature, and add the three main ingredients (eggs, oil and vinegar) one at a time in alphabetical order: EOV.
2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
6-8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
Whisk spices and seasonings into the vinegar. Whip the eggs in a blender for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a little at a time, drops to drizzle, until it comes together. Add the vinegar mix and blend until creamy. Remove from blender, add blue cheese, stir and refrigerate before serving.
Here in the deep Mid-South, our cooking is heavily influenced by the distinctive Creole and Cajun cooking of Louisiana. One of the basic building blocks of these cuisines is the roux, a blend of starch, usually flour, and a liquid fat that’s cooked to varying degrees and used to thicken stews and soups, sauces and gravies. Roux are used in most “Continental” (i.e. European) cuisines as well, and the word itself comes from the French for “red” (rouge).
Starch has been used in kitchens to thicken liquids even before kitchens existed, but anyone who has tried to mix raw flour into a soup to thicken it knows it will just bubble and clump into a wet paste that takes forever to blend. When you combine flour with oil, the starch granules become coated with the fat and blend into stock or milk. Heating the flour in the oil cooks out the raw, pasty flour flavor, and though roux means “red”, roux are cooked for varying lengths of time to different colors for different uses.
Plain flour is most often used for a roux, and it’s the best for general use; save that corn starch for Asian dishes (more about that later). The best rule of thumb is one-part flour to one-part oil in a paste. As to what kind of oil, that depends on what you’re cooking. Generally speaking, if you’re making a white roux, use butter (not margarine, dear hearts). Since butter will burn at higher temperatures, use vegetable oil for darker roux as in most meat dishes and seafood, adding a little olive oil (particularly in a gumbo roux) for added flavor. Use lard or bacon drippings for that authentic down-home flavor you need in biscuit gravy.
Most roux are made in a sauce pan on the stove top. Yes, I know you can make a roux in the oven, or even in the microwave, but the stove top gives you much more control over the product. Cooking a roux on the stove top requires constant care and concentration. A lot of people call roux “Cajun napalm” for good reason; it will stick to your skin and burn, so when you’re cooking roux, avoid any distractions, use long-handled utensils, and for heaven’s sake, keep your children under control or out of the kitchen. Use a skillet with flared sides; cast iron is perfect. Never use a non-stick surface. Some people heat the oil first, some mix the oil and flour together before adding it to the pan, and some keep a mixture of oil/butter and flour in the refrigerator to make a roux on the fly.
Do it your way, but unless you’ve had a lot of practice, don’t use a high heat to make a roux. Cook the roux slowly, and scrape the bottom of the pan to achieve an even color throughout the mixture. If black specks appear, you’ve burned the roux, and you have to throw it away and start over. Never, never, never use a scorched roux; your gumbo, etouffee, or what have you will smell (and taste) like an ashtray.
Just like a slice of bread, a roux will toast; the longer you cook the flour, the darker the “toast”. It smells like popcorn cooking; at least, it does to me. Those of you who grill a lot may be familiar with the Maillard reaction, the reactions of proteins and sugars under heat that give meats and vegetables that roasted flavor. The same process is at work here. Cooking roux to different degrees of browning render different flavor and colors. They also thicken to a greater or lesser degree; the longer you cook a roux, the less it will thicken. You’ll find you will need to add more roux to thicken a dark dish such as a gumbo or an etouffee.
For white sauces—béchamel and other dairy sauce variations—cook the roux only long enough for it to stop bubbling, not long enough for it to brown at all. When making a white roux for soups and gravies it’s better to use slightly more butter, but for a thicker, stiffer sauce such as one you might use to hold a casserole together, use more flour. As a general rule, you’ll use lighter roux for dishes involving poultry or fish, darker roux for beef or game as well as most gumbos with the exception of a file gumbo, which traditionally doesn’t involve a roux at all. With experience, you’ll learn to customize your roux to your cooking.
Dirty rice, as is the case with any dish involving what were once called variety meats but are now more often referred to as offal (it’s a hipster retro thing), is one you either love or hate, and I’ve loved it since I first had it when I was a boy. Like any staple recipe and I assure you it is a Cajun standard, dirty rice has as many variations as there are cooks, but the basic combination invariably calls for rice with chicken livers and gizzards. Some people add onions, peppers, even celery, while some others add other meats such as ground pork or chopped cooked game. The one big bone of contention when it comes to dirty rice is between those who cook the rice with the meats and vegetables and those who cook them separately and mix them with seasonings before serving. I belong to the cook-separately-and-mix faction; I do the same with jambalayas, and I’ve been called to the carpet for that more than once, but I like the texture better, and cooking the livers with the rice tends to make them rubbery.
For dirty rice, first cook your gizzards. You can go to the trouble of trimming the membranes if you want, but I’ve found that if you stew gizzards for a very long time they’re going to end up as tender as can be and the resulting broth is a thing of beauty, rich and gelatinous. You will have to trim the livers, since those membranes will not break down. Sauté the livers with a little garlic and minced white onion until just done through; don’t overcook, or they’ll be tough and tasteless. Chop and add the meats to cooked rice with whatever sautéed vegetables you like and a little oil to moisten. Season, keep warm in a covered container and add chopped green onion before plating.
Jacksonians have produced an extraordinary selection of superb cookbooks because its citizens have a long history of commitment to the commonweal, and among those citizens have been not only talented cooks, but writers of surpassing ability. The culinary literature of any given city (or region) reflects the character of its peoples, and taken altogether, this selection, which I submit as the “best of the best”, shows Jackson as a richly cultured city with an exceptional standard of Southern cuisine. And yes, let’s go ahead and admit that (with one notable exception) most of them are rather stuffy, as cookbooks issued by civic organizations tend to be, but still, they include an extraordinary amount of cultural history as well as superb writing.
Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa
(Muscadine Press: 1981)
In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urgings of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa. The book is a treasure-trove of history, with profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations, which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. Best of all, The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens. The book includes a warm and heartfelt Forward by Charlotte Capers and a brief introduction by Eudora Welty.
The Jackson Cookbook
(Hederman Brothers: 1971)
This cookbook could well be held up as an archetype of a Southern ladies’ cookbook; it’s stiff with tradition and understated elegance. Indeed, in a note “About the Cover,” the editors explain that Artist Carl Davis translated Welty’s comments about “the era of the Madeira tea napkin,” into a work of art using an heirloom tea napkin “hand embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson,” with Jackson’s monogram “J”. This note follows a short essay by the Women’s Editor of The Clarion-Ledger, Mary Alice Bookheart, “The Aesthetics of Eating,” which states in part, “This is not necessarily a cookbook of old Jackson recipes. … What (the cookbook committee) has attempted to do in compiling this book is to achieve a happy blend of old and new …” This book also includes some restaurant favorites, such as the “Edwards House (King Edward Hotel) Chicken”. The recipes are simple and use familiar ingredients as well as commercial items, and provide items for any occasion, ranging across the menu. The Jackson Cookbook is a wonderful addition to any kitchen library, but what sets it apart, raising it to a level no other cookbook in Mississippi can hope to achieve, is the Forward, “The Flavor of Jackson,” a jewel of exposition by Welty.
The Southern Hospitality Cookbook
Oxmoor House: 1976
Simply put, Winifred’s The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a groaning board of splendid recipes, but as a whole nothing less than an illuminating documentation of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied, the ingredients often expensive and times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, the most frequent critiques of the book involve how “fussy” the recipes are, many 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 class and 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 true heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard. She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors. The Southern Hospitality Cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson, 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”).
Standing Room Only
Hederman Brothers: 1983
“With Narratives by Eudora Welty and Beth Henley,” announces the marquee on New Stage’s truly superb “Cookbook for Entertaining”. Henley’s short essay on theatre parties is quite fun, and Welty’s “A Note about New Stage” is the definitive article on this beloved Jackson institution. The posters and playbills, along with the accompanying texts, that separate the divisions are also marvelous diversions, but the true stars here are the recipes. This is hands-down my favorite Jackson cookbook because the recipes are sumptuous, clearly presented, and a lot of them are just damned fun. Most of them are written for more than four servings and are captioned with “can double”. Also included are the invaluable sections, “Buying Guide for 50 Guests” and “Setting a Bar for 50 for One Hour”. SRO throws in an herb and wine guide as curtain calls.
The most distinguished cookbook in this selection, and winner of the prestigious Southern Living Hall of Fame Award, Southern Sideboards is THE right cookbook for traditional Southern recipes before the “foodie revolution” of the 1980s. These recipes aren’t designed for health or with an eye to fussy ingredients, so if you’re the type of person who wouldn’t be caught dead in a checkout with a can of Cream of Celery soup, then it’s certainly not for you. But if you’re one of those hide-bound traditionalists who want to know EXACTLY how Granny made that Southern Cornbread DRESSING, then this is your book. Sure, the recipes are often complex and some do take a little time, but you know what? Time and preparation are keys to good cooking and good eating. The game recipes are truly superb, as are the desserts, particularly the cakes. Southern Sideboards is distinguished by a splendid, heartfelt essay by Mississippi native Wyatt Cooper, an author, screenwriter, and actor who is better known as the fourth husband of Vanderbilt heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and the father of journalist Anderson Cooper.
The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Funeral Planner
Three Rivers Press: 2003
Despite what you may think, I am not including Jill Connor Browne’s cookbook in this list because I’m afraid that if I didn’t, I’d in the very near future have a magenta sequined bootie up my patootie. No, I honestly think the Big-Ass Cookbook is absolutely fabulous. Not only does it have lots and lots of great—albeit indulgent—recipes, it also has reams of practical advice: “Hormones are serious juju, and if you don’t get them sorted out, you might find that you need money for things like lawyers and bail.” I think it’s Jill’s best book, though I must profess a weakness for cookbooks. Here you’ll find satire without (much) malice or rancor, some of the best writing—flat-out writing—to come out of Mississippi, and humor that’s deliberately earthy without being crass or (too) coarse. Of course, I’ll never be fit to sew a single sequin on an SPQ outfit, but I adore them from afar.
Here’s a great idea for a cool-weather get-together, and once you get the drill down pat, you can improvise. The variations are endless. Some people use canned biscuit dough (most often the flaky variety) and some people use canned pizza dough. I prefer the biscuits because you don’t have to roll them into balls like the pizza dough, you just cut each biscuit into quarters. You can make this in a casserole, but a tube pan makes for a better presentation. Preheat your oven as directed (usually 350), separate and cut (or roll) your dough, toss with melted butter and seasonings (granulated garlic, “Italian seasonings”, salt and pepper), then roll the pieces of dough in grated cheese (Parmesan, cheddar, mozzarella, what have you) and sesame or poppy seeds, finely diced ham, pepperoni or bacon bits, and pack them into a well-greased tube pan. Bake until the “loaf” is golden and sounds hollow when you thump it. Turn out on a pretty plate, and serve with a marinara sauce for dipping.
After noting (somewhat suggestively, I thought) that Mexico is shaped like an on-end cornucopia, one authority I consulted for a reasonable analysis of cultural diffusion with the U.S. degenerated into a diatribe against the North American Free Trade Agreement, but even without his analysis, perhaps even despite of, it’s safe even for a rube like me to say that the influences are profound, that of Mexico on the U.S. embracing such diverse areas as art and architecture, music and literature, not to mention food, a far more significant contribution than that our northern neighbor Canada, which as far as I can tell seems to be restricted to ice hockey and fried potatoes with gravy.
Tomes have been written about Mexican food in the U.S., but with the obvious exception of Texas the discussion of Mexican foods in the American South has just begun. In Mississippi, Delta tamales are certainly the most notable culinary import from south of the border, Mexican cornbread is one you’ll find throughout the state if not most parts of the South. This bread, while Mexican in name, does not like the tamal have its origins in Old Mexico; instead, what we know as Mexican cornbread is almost certainly though not verifiably a Tex-Mex recipe that has been around long enough to become a standard not only in our homes but also in supermarket delis, a certain sign of culinary degeneration.
Though Southerners claim cornbread as our definitive staff of life, Mexico is the home of this ancient staple, though certainly not as we know it now. While researching the history of Mexican cornbread (the U.S. version,), it was somewhat of a discovery to stumble upon our “Southern” cornbread in Mexican cookbooks, unsurprisingly called pan de maiz, which seems to be a recent addition to Central American tables, largely at home in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. One recipe I found on a Mexican website claims to have come by way of Maine and even employs buttermilk. While such things aren’t inconceivable, I suddenly felt as if the Culinary Improbability Drive had been activated, and I was on the verge of turning into an enormous jalapeno hushpuppy and plunging into a roiling intergalactic catfish pond. I felt much the same way about Malaysian grits.
The origins of what passes as Mexican cornbread in the U.S. are obscured in a cloud of “women’s magazine” articles and speculation. While the dish has all sorts of atrocious variations, the most rudimentary type employs corn, peppers and some sort of cheese. Extreme examples include any number of beans and meats, cacti, seeds and flowers, not to mention that California aberration with blue tofu. For my part, I’ve devised a recipe that is a departure from the customary pan of bread, one that is lighter and at least in spirit closer to the flatbreads more often served on Mexican tables. It reminds me of an early Southern cornmeal staple many consider the ancestor of the cornbread most often made for our tables.
Make cornbread batter, add whole kernel corn, peppers and your choice of cheese in equal proportions. I prefer to use thin-walled mild peppers for the most part with a thinly-sliced jalapeno for kick. Drop batter by spoonfuls into a well-oiled skillet, brown on both sides and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a medium oven until done through. You want them crusty, top with salsa, sour cream, guacamole, refried beans, etc. as you would a sope.
As the year cools down, hunters up and down the Mississippi flyway flock to the wilds with guns and dogs for game. In the Mississippi Delta, arguably the heart of the flyway itself, men of a certain feather abandon the usual trappings of domesticity for camp, in Irwin Hester’s case his duck camp on Concordia Island in Bolivar County.
“It’s not really an island,” Irwin said. “If anything, it’s a peninsula, since the river makes a tight loop around it.” He looked out the window at the sunset spread out over Arkansas. “You’d think they’d have a special name for a riparian peninsula, but they don’t.”
Irwin retired from what he calls “the oil business” almost a decade ago. He received his degree in geology from Mississippi State in the early 70s and began working with Gulf Oil, stayed with them through the merger, and remained, working his way up the ladder, eventually landing in Pittsburgh at U-PARK. An only child, Irwin never married (“Just too damned busy,” he explained). When he retired in 2012, he came back home to Mississippi, made a home, renewed old friendships, and moved his folks’ old home to the end of a dirt road on Concordia Island. Twice a year, the beginning of duck season and the end, late November and late January, he holds a duck camp and makes chili.
“I make real, Texas-style chili,” Irwin said. “It’s the best, and once you’ve had it, you’ll never call anything else chili. I learned to make it when I lived in Austin. I knew a guy who cooked it at his hunt camp up on the Pedernales River. He said he got his recipe from Lady Bird Johnson herself, and over the years made it his own.”
Irwin’s chili has no beans, no tomatoes, and no onions. He uses a lean cut of beef, usually a top round, cut into large chunks, coats these in a mixture of smoked paprika, crushed leaf oregano, cayenne, and ground cumin, and browns them in a cast iron Dutch oven. For each pound of beef, he soaks, peels and seeds four anchos (dried poblanos). He uses the water from the peppers in the beef, adding more to cover about an inch. He places the heavily-lidded oven in the oven at a low temperature (“Just enough to make it simmer”) in the morning, and by the time the sun begins to go down, the chili must be stirred (“Once is enough”) and returned to the oven until the men return from the field, the fire is blazing, and a bottle and a guitar are being passed around. Salt to taste. He keeps a bottle of Crystal hot sauce available.
“It’s as good a bowl of red as you’re going to get on this side of the Mississippi,” Irwin claims. Believe him.
1 (16-ounce) jar of pineapple preserves, 1 (12-ounce) jar apple jelly, 6 ounces Creole brown mustard, 1 (5-ounce) jar horseradish, 1 teaspoon Coleman’s Mustard, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Blend all ingredients well with a fork or whip. This sauce keeps well for weeks refrigerated in a sealed container.
Let’s make a good onion soup. First, the onions: In stores you’re going to find four main varieties: red, yellow, white and green. I almost never cook red onions, reserving them for salads and toppings, but you’ll find me using all others liberally. A word about yellow onions, however; nowadays they are almost always sweet. Not all of them are as cloyingly sweet as the Vidalia, which has been beatified by zealous regional journalists who equate eating a Vidalia onion sandwich at the office for lunch with that of hunkering down around the `fahr’ with a mason ‘jahr’ of `shahn’ listening to the dawgs tree a coon, an experience just rife with Southern machismo, derring-do and chauvinism, but yellow onions smother the flavor of an honest onion soup.
So mince six medium-size white onions. In a large skillet, melt 1/2 cup of butter. Heat to medium and add two cloves minced garlic to brown. Then add your onions, cook down, then add about six cups of beef stock and a cup of dried onions. Reduce heat to simmer and cook uncovered (what a wonderful smell this makes, too) until the onions are soft and clear. Add salt, pepper and thyme to taste; some like rosemary. A slash of sherry at the last minute is a nice touch. Serve piping hot with good crusty bread.