Some years ago an obscure editor at a very well-respected and well-known fashion magazine prevailed upon his famous food writer to come up with a piece on sardines. Now, an editor is nothing more than an ego who can spell, so to say that coercion was involved over this story is an understatement of near biblical proportions; the poor writer’s foot soles were probably held to some hellish, check-denying fire until he came up with a printable essay on a subject he obviously considered far beneath his dignity. The end product, a minor etude of culinary literature memorable primarily by its invective, was infused with caustic bemusement and only a very, very small degree of begrudging admiration for the fish itself. The subject took second place to the condescension that infected every sentence. I wish I had the essay at hand in order for me to illustrate this scathing hauteur by example, but trust me, us pissed off writers recognize each other.
What the writer was trying to do (with limited success, I might add) was to raise the sardine to such a degree of sophistication that it fit seamlessly in between the inexplicably anorexic-ly oriented fashions, the absolutely incomprehensible art and the unabashedly homoerotic ads. He began with an “imagine this” sort of scenario in which a thin, impeccably dressed Parisienne strolls into a bistro on the Champs E’lysee, orders a beer with sardines au plat, and then squats and gobbles without getting so much as a spot on her designer duds. Well, it could happen, I suppose; sardines au plat are little more than broiled herrings, but the idea of a chic young Frenchwoman sitting down to beer and sardines in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower just boggles the mind, which of course is the point he was trying to make.
Now, sardines aren’t a specific kind of fish as much as they are a type of fish; many species of small herrings are caught, canned and marketed as sardines. Ounce for ounce, sardines rank among the most nutritious foodstuffs in the world: they’re chock-full of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and all the “good fats”; 1 can, about three and a half ounces drained, has less than 200 calories. They’re also (like most canned fish) ridiculously cheap, less than $2 a serving. Yet most people turn their noses up at sardines. Why? Well, they smell bad, for one thing, but that’s not the main reason; lots of people eat stuff that smells bad, especially when nutrition isn’t particularly a key consideration. No, the reason people don’t eat sardines is because in this neck of the woods they’re considered trashy, so trashy that you’ll not find a single sardine recipe in any of Jill Connor Browne’s otherwise excellent culinary compilations .
I once shared a similar attitude, but one gentle September night while wandering around the neighborhoods of Oxford south of University Avenue, I dropped in on a celebrated artist and his wife who happened to be entertaining a world-renowned scholar and his spouse. The boys were enjoying a light repast of sardines served with good bread, cold vegetables, a variety of pickles, and rich, frothy beer. The girls did not eat the sardines but partook liberally of the beer, bread and pickles, augmented by good shaved ham. That was the very first time I had ever seen sardines in such an environment before, and although I had been enjoying them (furtively and surreptitiously) for years, this experience revolutionized my attitude. If sardines are good enough for an artist of immeasurable talent and for a scholar of the first water, both of them indisputable gentleman to the core, then they’re good enough for anybody. Sardines, as Lena Grove would say in someone else’s book, ” . . . had come a fur piece.”
If you want to try sardines for the first time, then get a can of Port Clydes (in oil) and drain them; use a colander if you feel the need, but do not rinse them with water. Instead, sprinkle them with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice and just a bit of kosher salt, set them in a sealed container in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled and eat them with sour gherkins, raw celery and onions, and have your favorite beer with them. Dill toast is wonderful alongside, but rye Melba will suffice and saltines of any sort will do any time at all.
One of the most cherished and versatile elements of my batterie de cuisine is a well-seasoned 6” cast iron skillet. My sister Cindy, who I got it from, said it was her “baby skillet”. Cindy called anything of a diminutive nature a “baby”; to her, a hand spade was a “baby shovel”, and I swear I once heard her call Massachusetts a “baby state”. “Cindy, it’s the Bay State.” I observed. “That’s not what I said,” she replied. I let the subject drop; I’d learned a long time ago that you can’t win an argument with a big sister.
This little skillet is just the thing you need to use for baking short breads in small amounts. Suppose you’re having just a few people over for breakfast, and you want to make biscuits. This little honey is perfect baking for good half-dozen (or four catheads). It’s also ideal for a pan of cornbread that will feed at least four and a meat loaf that will feed three. When it comes to baked pasta, I would dearly love to have more of these for a manicotti party, one pan of four for every two people. They’re inexpensive compared to a cast-iron Dutch oven, but if you’re lucky like me you get one from someone you love.
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 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 appearance rather than 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.
It’s difficult for us now to imagine mayonnaise as exotic, but Welty remembers its advent in Jackson as an event.
Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding. But she also wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in his The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the 1930s.
More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor in Jackson, she was unfamiliar with Welty’s work. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. I’m including a part of the introduction here, specifically that section dealing with mayonnaise because it explains to a “t” just how exotic this now-prosaic kitchen item was then.
“As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph. Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch.”
Welty goes on to describe a typical Jackson kitchen in the twenties and thirties, and mentions a great many women who made significant contributions to the local cuisine. If you can find a copy of The Jackson Cookbook, buy it, read about Jackson’s culinary history from a master of her craft and cook the superlative recipes. No wrong could come from it at all.