Banana Pudding Cookies

For best flavor, you must use bananas that are soft, aromatic, and with a light freckling. The vanilla wafers should just be broken up into small pieces, not reduced to crumbs. Some people top these with whipped cream and a banana slice, but that makes them soggy.

1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup cane sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ripe banana mashed
1 package banana cream instant pudding mix
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup smashed vanilla wafers

Preheat oven to 350, and line baking pans with lightly oiled parchment paper. Combine flour and baking soda, then set aside. Cream butter and sugar thoroughly, add the banana, pudding mix, and eggs. Mix until smooth and slowly stir in the dry ingredients, then blend in the chips and wafers. Use about a tablespoon of dough for each cookie. Bake until lightly browned, about ten minutes.

The Sixth Deadly Sin

In The Taste of America, John and Karen Hess refer to an article by Harriet Van Horne, “Edunt et Vomant” (“They have eaten and let them vomit.”), commenting on a 1975 fluff piece in the New York Times describing a dinner Craig Claiborne and his partner Pierre Franey had in Paris, a $4000 meal for two that featured 31 dishes and 9 wines. As Claiborne and Franey were licking their decadent fingers, the fringes of their world hungered and starved.

Van Horne wrote, “No journalistic caprice has, in my memory, set off such a shudder of distaste. This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong, morally, esthetically and in every other way.” The Hesses included Van Horne’s quote to further elaborate on the gourmet absurdities of the time which elevated overpriced, tasteless food, (canned foie gras, canned truffles, cottony chicken breasts in a floury velouté sauce) that were championed by those like Claiborne who lauded expense as a barometer of taste. The Vatican newspaper echoed, deploring the display while millions were starving. Paul VI “as a humble servant for a suffering humanity” demanded significant changes of the rich in America and Europe in favor of the poor, a plea the affluent either ignored or atoned with in pittances.

In the most general terms gluttony involves an over-indulgence and/or over-consumption of food, drink or intoxicants to the point of waste, particularly in terms of a misplaced desire of food or its withholding from the needy, an excess that’s damned by every spiritual path in the world in every quarter of the globe. European theologists from the Middle Ages took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it also consists of an anticipation of meals, the eating of delicacies and costly foods, seeking after sauces and seasonings, and eating too eagerly. Gregory the Great described five ways by which one can commit the sin of gluttony, and corresponding biblical examples:

  1. Eating before the time of meals in order to satisfy the palate. Example: Jonathan eating a little honey when his father Saul commanded no food to be taken before the evening. [1Sa 14:29]
  2. Seeking delicacies and better quality of food to gratify the “vile sense of taste.” Example: When Israelites escaping from Egypt complained, “Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,” God rained fowls for them to eat but punished them 500 years later. [Num 11:4]
  3. Seeking after sauces and seasonings for the enjoyment of the palate. Example: Two sons of Eli the high priest made the sacrificial meat to be cooked in one manner rather than another. They were met with death. [1Sa 4:11]
  4. Exceeding the necessary amount of food. Example: One of the sins of Sodom was “fullness of bread.” [Eze 16:49]
  5. Taking food with too much eagerness, even when eating the proper amount and even if the food is not luxurious. Example: Esau selling his birthright for ordinary food of bread and pottage of lentils. His punishment was that the “profane person . . . who, for a morsel of meat sold his birthright,” we learn that “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully, with tears.” [Gen 25:30]

In his Summa Theologica (Part 2-2, Question 148, Article 4), Thomas Aquinas revised the list of five ways to commit gluttony:

* Laute – eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly
* Nimis – eating food that is excessive in quantity
* Studiose – eating food that is too daintily or elaborately prepared
* Praepropere – eating too soon, or at an inappropriate time
* Ardenter – eating too eagerly.

Aquinas notes that the first three ways are related to the nature of the food itself, while the last two have to do with the time or manner in which it is consumed.

Even to the exclusion of these examples, which are admittedly rather fastidious themselves, we are all guilty of gluttony in our complacency as citizens of one of the most affluent nations in the history of human civilization.  We quaff fine wines, stuff ourselves with costly foods, watch celebrity chefs preparing dishes in a gladiatorial setting and sinners of an advanced degree sneer at those who eat off-cut chops, misshapen homegrown vegetables or don’t use Zanzibar cinnamon. Hunger itself has come to be seen as a sin, almost as an illness that needs treatment, but perhaps hunger might be more of a cure, a discipline for we who have grown too indulgent with ourselves, yet you’ll never hear a preacher damn Twinkies.

The Cheese Straw Alternative

Admit it; making cheese straws is a pain in the butt. Though they’re a must on your browsing buffets (if not, someone sniffy is bound to say, “Oh, I should have brought you MY WONDERFUL cheese straws!”), they still aren’t something you might feel like throwing together for a more casual gathering like a bowl game, backyard picnic or that special moment when you both decided to get married last night and your mother(s) held you at gunpoint to have a reception.

Fortunately there is an alternative to dragging out the cookie press, stuffing it full of dough, mushing out the sticks and (worst part) cleaning the press.: Brit cheddar biscuits. Now, what the Brits call biscuits are a far cry from our big, fluffy Southern variety; over the Pond, our biscuits would be called scones, while what Brits and their ilk call biscuits are more like what we would call wafers or cookies. So while you might be most familiar with cheese biscuits along the lines of those at Red Lobster, the Brits do a cheese biscuit that’s thin, crisp, and a hell of a lot easier to make than straws.

Simply make a dough with one cup plain flour, one cup grated sharp cheddar and one stick of softened butter, add a little salt, a little white pepper, roll out, shape with a cookie cutter (which is quite easy to clean) and bake at 350 until nice and crisp. Dust with strong paprika and a little cayenne thrown in to piss off the preacher.

The Giant Houseparty Cookbook

This gem was another find among the amazing avalanche of books at Fred Smith’s Choctaw Books when it was on North Street in Jackson. Published in 1981 by the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Chamber of Commerce, the book itself is hefty, a good inch-and-a-half thick, and contains almost 1000 recipes. Most of these recipes are typical of the time: dozens of casseroles, oodles of pies and cakes, and of the sixty-odd salad recipes only two involve no gelatin whatsoever.

The introduction was written by Stanley Dearman, who for 34 years (beginning in 1966) was the editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia. Dearman’s editorials expressing outrage at the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers helped set the stage for the belated conviction of a former Klansman for organizing the killings, The case that became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and was the basis for the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”

Along with the introduction, I’ve included Turner Catledge’s cheese grits, Fannie Smith’s blackberry trifle, and another blackberry recipe, “Blackberry Acid,” a truly antique refreshment.

In this particular region of the South–the east central hill country of Mississippi—the tradition of food and fellowship go back many generations. More specifically, eating and talking are two things that natives in this region value highly and take seriously.

Nowhere do these two activities blend more happily than at the Neshoba County Fair-which in fact started in 1889 with a picnic under the trees and around the wagons by community residents who wanted to get together and talk-while they ate, of course, and to display their agricultural achievements. For many years the Fair has been known as “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty-hence the name of this cookbook.

During one week of the year, usually the first in August, the Fairground is transformed into a bustling city with a festive air. More than 500 cabins circling the racetrack, as well as hundreds of campers and mobile homes from across the South, are temporary homes for thousands who migrate back because of family connections or friendships. There are no strangers here; hospitality abounds and food and drink are shared by all.

The fame of the Fair has spread over the years. Last year it was featured in National Geographic and Southern Living magazines. And during the presidential campaign, Ronald and Nancy Reagan paid a visit and drew a record crowd. State politics and its florid oratory have been a part of the Fair since before the turn of the century.

Fair Week is preceded by several weeks of brisk activity and planning by the womenfolk-casseroles are made and frozen; hams and turkeys are baked or smoked; menus are planned and the shelves are stocked. In this region of abundant agricultural crops, corn, tomatoes, peas, butterbeans, squash and okra are harvested and processed, fitting complements to the succulent fried chicken and magnificent repertoire of dazzling desserts. A section of special Fair recipes is included in this book.

The production of the Giant Houseparty cookbook was the result of a project begun by the Philadelphia Rotary Club. For many years the Rotary Club distributed mimeographed recipe booklets at its annual pancake suppers. These booklets became collector’s items over the years.

The Rotary Club first considered producing a cookbook, but later granted permission to the Chamber of Commerce to assume the project. The committee selected and edited recipes from the existing collection prior to collecting others. A special effort was made to gather recipes which not only had become part of the local culinary lore, but to achieve a balance of “useful” recipes.

Another special effort was made to gather recipes from former residents in various parts of the country. For example, Turner Catledge, retired editor of the New York Times, was kind enough to send us his recipe for cheese grits. Mr. Catledge grew up in Neshoba County and now lives in New Orleans. He and Mrs. Catledge gave a dinner party in their home for Van Cliburn, whose father, the late Harvey Lavan Cliburn, was born and reared in Neshoba County, Catledge and Cliburn had much to talk about at that dinner party, which included that grits casserole.

Also, closer to home, we are delighted to include a recipe for Blackberry Trifle from Mrs. Fannie Johnson Smith, who at the age of 102 vividly recalls the day in 1889 when, at the age of 10, she accompanied her parents across a hill or two to the first Neshoba County Fair.
—Stanley Dearman

Catledge Cheese Grits

1 cup grits
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups grated cheese
Dash of red pepper’1/2 stick butter

Combine grits, salt, and water and bring to a boil, stirring well. Place over bottom of a double boiler and cook for 40 minutes. While this is cooking, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add cheese, eggs, butter and pepper. Place in a Pyrex dish and heat in oven about 30 minutes.

Blackberry Trifle

1 cup blackberry trifle
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup butter
2 tablespoons flour
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 9-in. unbaked pie shell
4 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix well jam, sugar, buttermilk, butter, flour, egg yolks, and vanilla. Pour into pie shell. Bake about 40 minutes. Beat egg whites until stiff, gradually adding 4 tablespoons of sugar. Spread meringue on top of pie and return to oven to brown lightly.

Blackberry Acid

3 gallons blackberries
½ gallon boiling water
4 ounces tartaric acid
1 ½ cups sugar to 1 cup juices

Crush berries, add boiling water, and let stand 24 hours. Strain, add tartaric acid and sugar. Let stand at least 24 hours before bottling.

The Existential Tomato

If you’ve ever gone out to the garden, picked a beautiful, ripe tomato (of whatever variety) and bit into it right there on the spot atop God’s good earth with the cloying tang of that tomato plant in your nose and the warm waves of sunshine on your face, then you can truly say, “I know what a tomato is,” for you have achieved an existential union with tomato-in-the-world as opposed to that picture in a seed catalogue. (Or maybe that’s an essential union; I think I flunked existentialism at Ole Miss, though I’m not really sure I took the class in the first place, meaning I might have passed after all. Being as a concept proved as vexing as its actuality.)

Vegetables prepared for the table straight from the garden are a hallmark of great Southern meals; a luscious home-grown tomato, simply sliced and served on a plate with fragrant cantaloupe and dewy cucumber is a signature centerpiece for many summer meals. While you’re on the road this summer, look for produce stands with signs written on brown cardboard with a magic marker. Do yourself a favor by stopping by and getting to know the people. You’ll hear much you’ll want to remember.

Pudding Bananas

Listen to your Brother Jesse.

Do not make banana pudding with green bananas. Even if the fruit has a tinge of green on the ribs, the banana will be hard and bitter. You must use bananas that are ripe.

Now, you’re not going to find ripe bananas in the grocery store–sometimes I think the public has been conditioned by years of buying green bananas that any banana with a dark spot is spurned–so you’re going to have to buy them a bit green. Fortunately bananas are a climacteric; they ripen for a while after picking. Daddy, who was stationed in the Pacific during WWII, and knew quite well how a ripe banana tasted– put bunches on top of the refrigerator–where we couldn’t reach them–to ripen.

Place grocery bananas in a paper sack–plastic doesn’t let the fruit breathe–and in two or three days, when the fruit is soft and aromatic you’re ready to make banana pudding. Or banana pound cake.

Hell, just to even eat, for that matter.

Paleolithic Pleasures

Ever since the Fall, no food has sparked more controversy than meat: some eschew it and even more restrict it, but meat, for most people, is what’s for dinner. By meat we mean red meat. The USDA considers all meat from livestock red because they contain more myoglobin (aka “red stuff”) than poultry or fish. For most people, this means beef or pork (yes, “the other white meat” is red), though sheep and goat as well game such as venison—and for that matter, whale—fall into the same category. Beef and pork in their various incarnations constitute a significant portion of our diets. An average American consumes 67 lbs. of beef and 51 lbs. of pork annually, most of it at home, meaning that the majority of people buy meat raw and cook it themselves.

Most people do this without a great deal of fuss or bother. A cursory glance at the label is often all that the average shopper needs for a selection. But given the expense and importance of meats, care and discrimination is warranted when it comes to their purchase and preparation. A description of meats demands a language of its own, one based on cuts and quality. While the vocabulary of cuts requires a basic knowledge of quadruped anatomy (leg, back, etc.) in addition to an arcane phraseology stitched largely from antique versions of French and English (brisket and loin, for instance), quality descriptions of meats derive from strict, precise government standards imposed by the United States Department of Agriculture.

steak-classificationUnderstanding this language requires instruction. Paul Koury, owner and operator of Paul Anthony’s Markets, says, “This business has been a huge teaching process from day one. When I first opened up, almost every customer was looking for a solid red piece of meat with no marbling, and that’s probably going to be your lowest grade,” Paul says. When it comes to the quality of meats, marbling is the key factor. Marbling describes those small streaks of white fat within the red lean muscle that are essential towards making any cut of meat tender and juicy. The degree of marbling is the primary determination of quality grade. A prime cut will have abundant marbling and a choice cut moderate, while a select cut (the lowest marketed grade) will have only slight marbling, making the meat tough and dry.

“I have a few pieces of choice rib eye that I’ve prepared in a display tray with a prime rib eye to educate people in the difference between the marbling. Less than 3% of all beef in the United States rates a prime grading.” Paul says that supermarket chains are not an ideal place to shop for the best cuts of meat. “Most supermarkets aren’t even cutting their own products locally. Kroger, for instance, has most of their meats cut in Cincinnati and then shipped out.” Paul explains that their reasoning behind this is the liability factor in using saws and other cutting instruments in their stores.

The practice of aging beef is another factor contributing to flavor and tenderness. “All of my prime beef is wet aged, vacuum-sealed in a package in its natural juices. Wet packaged beef will have a stamp that tells me how many days it has been aging since the slaughter. Dry aging is a whole different process,” Paul says. ”Humidity and temperature are keys. Every product is out of the bag with no liquid around it, and the enzymes are breaking down the meat, making for a really rich flavor.” Paul explains that quality pork is the product of a nationwide program in which farmers are raising heirloom breeds of swine without using hormones or strong antibiotics. Sometimes referred to as heirloom or heritage breeds, examples in the marketplace today include Berkshire (also known as Kurobuta, meaning “black pig”), Duroc, and Tamworth “There’s an amazing difference in the taste and tenderness between this pork and what you’d find in most supermarkets,” Paul says. .

Adelaide_champion_Berkshire_boar_2005Pork has become a “foodie” fad. Dan Blumenthal, chef at Bravo! Restaurant, says, “It’s interesting. I really don’t understand why pork is trendy now. But there’s a lot of pork meat that doesn’t have a lot of fat on it and can be used like veal or chicken; the tenderloin, for example.” Dan points out that some bone-in cuts of meat are also coming back. “They’re introducing cuts with the bone in it, for various reasons. Meat really does taste better if it’s cooked with the bone, and if you cut it right, there’s not that much work to do. I also serve a chicken breast, called the airline breast, with the wing bone still in it,” Dan says. “It’s essentially the drumette once you take the breast off.” When it comes to cooking methods, “You’re going to get the best flavor out of grilling,” Dan says, “but unless your grill is really hot, I’d prefer pan-searing, dry-rubbing the meat and almost “Pittsburgh-ing” it (meat cooked “Pittsburgh style” is charred on the outside and juicy on the inside). I don’t use a dry skillet; you need oil in the skillet to conduct the heat.”

bonesAs to a meat sauce, Dan says, “Here is where it gets a little bit tougher. One of the easiest things to do if you’re cooking meat is to take the pan juices and reduce them with a little red wine if it’s a dark meat or white wine if it’s a light meat, then finish with butter. Short of that, if you’re grilling, for instance, you’re going to need some sort of stock,” Dan says, “and unless you can get veal bones and you know how to make a beef stock, most people can use a lighter or darker chicken stock and get away with it, and chicken bones are pretty easy to come by. Brown the bones in the oven with seasonings and aromatic vegetables, then add liquids to complete the stock. You’re not going to get something that’s as rich and dark (as a veal stock), but it might suffice, especially if you cook it down and add red wine or a little tomato paste.”

Then there are marinades and dry rubs. “Marinades flavor and tenderize meat,” Dan says. “A marinade normally incorporates an acid, which is a natural tenderizer, whether the acid is wine or vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice. For a tougher piece of meat you’d want the marinade to penetrate more. But if you’re cooking a rare piece of meat, and the marinade penetrates too far, the acid will cook the meat, and it will soak up the marinade like a sponge, giving the meat a different texture. Dry rubs are another excellent way to flavor meat,” Dan says. “You always want salt and pepper; something with a little heat, like different types of peppers, then some dried herbs like rosemary, oregano or fennel as well as powdered onion, garlic and paprika.”  Dan recommends that any cut of meat, once cooked, should rest for a few minutes before carving or cutting.

Pork Saltimbocca

12 oz. pork tenderloin, sliced into 6 medallions and pounded thinly
6 thin slices prosciutto
6 large fresh sage leaves

Dredge pork in all-purpose flour seasoned with salt and black pepper. Arrange 1 prosciutto slice over pork. Top with 1 sage leaf and spear with a wooden pick. Heat about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan, add pork and brown lightly. Remove pork; add about a tablespoon of finely chopped shallots and a teaspoon of garlic. Add about 1/4 cup each white wine and chicken stock to pan, cook until reduced by about half, finish with about a tablespoon unsalted butter. Arrange pork on a warm plate and drizzle with pan juices. Serve immediately.

saltimbocca2-1-1

Taking the Heat

For those of us who have worked in those trenches, kitchen work must be among the least glamorous occupations in the world.

Cooks have notoriously foul tempers (“God sends meat, and the Devil sends cooks,” wrote John Taylor (1578 – 1653), “The Water Poet,” who should have known, since as a British publican he no doubt had to deal with cooks), and small wonder; unless you’re a chef/owner who does little of the hands-on work, kitchen work is dirty and demeaning, the hours can be brutal, and the pay is abominable. In addition, the working environment is, literally, infernal. I refer the reader to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London for a literary account of the experience; though Orwell was a dishwasher—the lowest of the low—his account of the kitchen in a Parisian grand hotel is beautifully horrific.

There’s more than a grain of truth to the expression, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” because the pressures are enormous, and if you can’t deal with them, you’ll not be there long at all. You must have everything that can be ready well before hand without knowing how much you’re going to need, because more often than not you just can’t tell how busy it’s going to be. You also have to be able to cook several different things all at the same time and fast. You’re also usually working for someone who wants to make every customer happy, and you’re obliged to respond with something approaching alacrity to the demands of the wait staff, who in turn are at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who has enough money to purchase a meal. The constraints are heavy, and as a result there’s very little feeling of autonomy.

Having said that, cooking in a restaurant does hold some appeal for those with the temperament and constitution. Getting out of bed at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning to cook appeals to very few people, so brunch shifts (which are invariably what weekend morning shifts are terms at most “upscale” restaurants) are not popular among restaurant workers. But once you’re used to being up and going to work at that time of the day—and it does take some getting used to—you might find a certain sort of appeal in it.

I once worked a brunch shift in an Oxford restaurant that required me to be at the restaurant around six every Sunday morning in order to begin serving at nine. Oxford is normally a bustling little city, but very early on Sunday mornings, downtown is usually quiet and sedate (mornings after an Ole Miss homecoming game are an exception; the partying never seems to end on those weekends).

At that time, only a couple of sleepy cops near the ends of their shifts, some few street maintenance workers and maybe a jogger or two are out and about. You notice the bird songs more because there’s no traffic. I always felt as if I’d gotten the jump on everyone, that by being among the first up on that day I’d somehow established some sort of slight moral superiority over other mortals by way of observing—albeit under some degree of duress—the old “early-to-bed-early-to-rise” maxim.

After getting to the restaurant and unlocking the door to the kitchen, on come the lights. You make a pot of coffee and check the notes left by the most conscientious person on the last shift and begin “waking up the kitchen,” bringing it to life, filling it with the sounds and aromas you’re accustomed to working around.

First you turn on the vent hoods (a crucial step), then you might fill the steam table pans with hot water and light the flames beneath them. You set your oven on whatever temperature you need to hold, heat, bake or broil foods. If you have them, you fire up the deep-fat fryers, the salamanders, the grill or the griddle. Then you begin prep, chopping up vegetables, mounds of onions, bell peppers and celery, parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, making batters, cracking eggs, making biscuits, muffins and shortbreads, setting water to boil for any number of things—grits, pasta, beans, peas, potatoes—putting together a soup for the day, warming up the menu standards, checking out leftovers to see what you can use and what should be trashed, deciding on a special and making sure you have enough staples on hand to get you through the day.

You’re cooking. You’re still alone and you have all these things going. You’re in control. It can be a wonderful feeling. Sooner or later you’re joined by your compatriots in the kitchen, and you then find yourself dodging and dipping around them as they work. By the time the first servers get to the restaurant, you’re all in full swing, your steam table’s about half-full, you’re mostly through the prep for your line work and the smell of sautéing onions and baking biscuits fills the restaurant. More often than not, the first servers are going to want to eat—especially those nursing a hangover, who in my experience with waitpersons tend to be in the majority—so you might as well put them a basket of biscuits with gravy out for them. You can yell at them later, but it’s usually a good idea to at least get off on the right foot with them initially. By the time the first customers come stumbling in the door, you’re ready to serve up a beautiful meal, and soon you become lost in the peculiar, compelling rhythm of a working kitchen, which some people have compared to a ballet in its precision of flow and timing.

Granted, a working kitchen certainly doesn’t exhibit the ostensible grace a performance of Swan Lake might—especially since, in a kitchen, a lot of billingsgate gets bandied around in what might seem to the uninitiated as an alarmingly casual manner (“Hey,  you stoner #$@^%&^%#! When am I going to get some %$#@&* fettuccine on the ##$%*%$# line?”)—but in its own cacophonous, high-tension way, a coordinated kitchen in operation is a beautiful thing, especially looking upon it and thinking back to when you walked into that cold, dark kitchen all alone very early that morning. You’re the one who set the whole thing in motion, after all.

Yankee Beans

Syracuse, New York is hometown to Tom Cruise, Grace Jones, and Jake, who says his ancestors were involved in Greek shipping. Every now and then he’ll offhandedly mention “Uncle Ari and Aunt Jackie.”

Jake sniffs at my Southern heritage, informing me that his parents contributed to programs for eradicating hookworm and pellagra in Mississippi. He came to Jackson over two decades ago as the result of a convoluted series of circumstances I’ve long since quit trying to unravel. He says he stayed because he likes the weather, and indeed his recollections of lake-effect snow are unbelievably horrific.  Even after twenty-plus years here, however, people still ask him where he’s from.

It drives him nuts.

With a few notable exceptions—chicken and dumplings foremost—Jake loves Southern food, so in an effort to reciprocate charity, I decided to learn how to make good Yankee baked beans using the sturdy pots he brought back from Maine last year, which of course had been made by the ancestors of exceedingly sweet people in a religious community near Bangor.  (No, I didn’t go; he was meeting his mother to visit an aunt, and I was better off here with weed and cable.)

I used a pound of dried navy beans, a cup of diced ham with rind instead of salt pork, and since I was out of black strap, a half cup of sorghum molasses had to do. The beans, pork, and syrup went into the (2 quart or thereabout) pot with a cup of chopped onions and a bay leaf. I covered them with water to about an inch of the top, seasoned with a teaspoon of black pepper and a heaping tablespoon of dry mustard. Once in the pot and covered, they went into the oven at around 250, and there they stayed for a little over three hours. I added water as needed. The beans were damn good, almost buttery; the mustard cut the syrup just enough to let the beans make a statement.  Of course Jake credited the results to the pots, so I whacked him with a wooden spoon.

Twice.

How to Cook a Possum

People who are paid to postulate upon such matters have theorized that the reason we don’t have herds of brontosauri stomping around in our bayous is due not just to the Alvarez event, but also to egg-eating possums. You’d think we’d be grateful for this service to our fellow mammals, but as in the case of the dove (which brought Noah the most significant tidal measurements in the history of mankind) possum has been served without apology at meals throughout the South since mankind came along.

Southern culinary icons tend to be traditional and domestic, the comforting products of home gardens and kitchens. Those game dishes brought in from the woods and fields have in recent years come to play a strikingly diminished role on our tables because fewer people are hunting these days, particularly for sustenance, and while most if not all of you might consider having possum on the table a revolting prospect at best, the simple fact of the matter remains that possums have long been esteemed for their porcine flavor. One early recommendation comes from John Boynton, a New Englander who came to Mississippi (near Vicksburg) to teach in 1836. Boynton was amazed at the “Old Southwest”, writing to his father, “It would take more than 19 letters to tell you the half of what I’ve seen in one week.” He hunted turkey and deer as well as an exotic animal: “(o)possums by the scores. Had one for dinner today—first rate.”

Faulkner included possum on the Thanksgiving table of the Sartoris family in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, influential and aristocratic Sartoris family contending with decline, but still clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here’s Faulkner’s description of the meal:

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries.

By far, the most solid recommendation for possum comes from Bill Neal, who is widely considered by many to be the dean of Southern cooking, the man who played a key role in raising Southern foods to national prominence and continues to influence new generations of Southern culinarians. In his authoritative Southern Cooking, Neal begins his entry on possum by stating, “All southerners—black, white, or native—who know game relish possum roasted with sweet potatoes. The two components are inseparable; the dish is practically a cultural symbol of regional pride in the piedmont and mountain areas.” He continues with a recipe from Horace Kephart’s Camp Cookery (1910) that beings: “To call our possum an opossum, outside of a scientific treatise, is an affectation. Possum is his name wherever he is known and hunted, this country over. He is not good until you have freezing weather; nor is he to be served without sweet potatoes, except in desperate extremity.” (The possum season in Mississippi is from October to February.)

The recipe reproduced here comes from another authority, Erma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (13th edition, 1975). Note that the recipe recommends “feeding it out” (i.e. capturing the animal before slaughter and feeding it with bland foods not just to provide the meat with a less gamey flavor but purging the possum, which is a notorious scavenger), and while a good Southerner will always serve possum with sweet potatoes, the Rombauers were from St. Louis, which is marginally Southern and urban, so turnip greens were probably suggested since they are, like possum, an iconic Southern dish.