Shakespeare has it that among the many wiles Cleopatra cast in her seduction of Marc Anthony were “melons lush in flavor, firm and sweet, newly-plucked from the narrows of the Nile.” Cleo’s melons changed the course of history, but melons had enraptured mankind far before the last Ptolemy wrought havoc among the Romans. Melons, along with other indispensable things such as coffee, algebra, tulips and zero, came to us through the Middle East, whose cultures, at peace or at war, have always served as a disseminating platform for goods and ideas between East and West. Here in the South, two melons – watermelon and cantaloupe – are queens; both have ripened on the banks of the Nile for over five thousand years, and they thrive on the banks of the Mississippi as well.
Buy a watermelon that is proportionate; do not get one that is narrow at one end, because the smaller end will be unripe; the stem and flower scab should both be in the very center of their respective ends of the fruit. Another good sign of a ripe watermelon is a yellow bottom, sure evidence that it has ripened on the ground. When it comes to thumping a watermelon, don’t thump it: knock on it; take your knuckles and rap on it like you would a door. Listen for a hollow sound, not a tight sound. It should also be quite firm and heavy for its size. Cantaloupes, like all smaller melons, should be on the soft side of firm and aromatic. The blossom end of a ripe cantaloupe should give slightly and the fruit itself should be yellowish between the mesh and — since they are a type of muskmelon — have a fairly strong odor. Watermelon should be served chilled, but cantaloupe (along with all muskmelons such as honeydew, Santa Claus, casaba and the rest) should be served at room temperature. Both types benefit from a salty accent, but instead of salting, try this:
Melon with Bacon
Fry or broil lean bacon until crisp. Season with freshly-ground black pepper, crumble and sprinkle over sliced or cubed melon.
Vardaman is enthroned in southeast Calhoun County, Mississippi, some four miles northwest of Atlanta near the east end of the Yalobusha River. Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a lumber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the Continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great barrels that held the finest wines of the 1925 Exposition of Paris.
But after the timber was gone, Vardaman found itself in need of an agricultural product that would thrive and was easily harvested. Almost instinctively, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. In 1981, after years of research, the Mississippi Agricultural Extension Service paraded out a bush variety named “Vardaman” almost as if in acknowledgement that the town had already become the Sweet Potato Capital of the World.
Being a native of the area, for some time I considered Jackson’s glittering purloinment of Vardaman’s signature crop as somewhat of a slight to the men and women in Calhoun County who worked without a single sequin to perpetuate a successful local agronomy. After all, I remember the days when being a Sweet Potato Queen required you to be a local girl, well under thirty and assumedly virgo intacta. But Jill Conner Browne and her campy court help promote sweet potatoes with a blithe vigor that the good people of Vardaman should learn to appreciate as much as I do now. Thanks to them, even you can be a Sweet Potato Queen. Or at least a Wannabe.
Now, you can use sweet potatoes in almost any dessert recipe calling for carrots or pumpkins, but because of its higher sugar content the spud is superior to both. If you don’t believe me, try them raw as a substitute for carrot sticks on your next vegetable tray. A traditional accompaniment to the holiday dinners in my family’s home has always been “candied” sweet potatoes (a sobriquet which is downright redundant and rarely used where I come from), but they’re also a great side with any sort of pork or game.
Peel and cut your sweet potatoes into rather large chunks. Put them in a pot and cover with a thin syrup of water, brown sugar or molasses, a little butter and just a pinch of salt. Cook the potatoes on a medium heat until the liquid has cooked down and the chunks are tender but firm. Then ladle them and the juice into a lightly buttered baking dish and place them in a low oven with a drizzle of brown sugar to finish. You can add some raisins (or any other sort of dried fruit, for that matter; I’ve always wanted to try mango) to the syrup if you wish or sprinkle with chopped pecans when done, but do not put those silly little baby marshmallows on this mixture to toast unless you’re just total trash.
To roast sweet potatoes, scrub them well, pat dry, cut the ends off (especially tapered ones that would scorch and shrivel otherwise) and rub well with a bit of salt and vegetable oil. Place them in a very hot oven. I bake mine in a cast-iron skillet. When they are quite done through, eat them with a pat of butter and thank God for Vardaman and all who sail in her.
Before my ancestors were shipped off to Virginia for lampooning the local gentry and skipping out on enormous bar tabs, they lived in a beautiful old country on the west coast of Britain known as Wales. Wales has long since been assimilated (though not without prolonged contention) into the United Kingdom, but like other countries in the UK, Wales still observes its own saint’s day, the Feast of St. David, which falls on March 1.
It’s a crying shame that the beloved David’s feast has been eclipsed by that humbug Patrick’s on the 17th; after all, compared to David, Patrick was second-rate. David was able to make the earth beneath him shift and rise, an impressive feat, whereas Patrick’s most notable claim to fame is the single-handed extinction of Ireland’s indigenous serpents, something sin-ridden whalers did with the great auk. Not only that, but David was a true Welshman, a native of Cardigan, while Patrick himself was actually from Wales (some say Scotland, but he certainly wasn’t Irish).
The Irish praise the potato (another import), but the Welsh glory in the leek, which has been cultivated in Eurasia for millennia. Welsh soldiers wore leeks into battle to distinguish themselves as early as the days of King Arthur, himself a Welshman. If the Irish ever wore potatoes into battle, it would have been after spuds came to the Old World, sometime during the 17th century, when the Irish suffered their most decimating defeats at the hands of the English. As a parting shot, let me add that daffodils, the national flower of Wales, strike a much livelier note in a vase than a bunch of sissy shamrocks ever will.
Leeks are basically big-ass green onions, which place them in the culinarily important botanical family of Alliaceae; all onions, as well as garlic, chives, shallots and their ilk, belong to this group of herbs. An American member of this tribe is the wild leek of our Southern highlands (Allium tricoccum), commonly referred to as the ramp. The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery cites the plant as the source of an important spring tonic to relieve a host of real or imagined winter illnesses and states that “people either love or hate the strong-scented plant”. One woman is quoted as saying, “you can smell anybody that’s took (sic) a bite of one a half a mile away”.
Leeks were domesticated in Ur. They’re a cool-season crop, which goes a long way to explain why they’re not a familiar item on the Southern sideboard. I can usually grab a bunch (three stalks) of leeks for about that many dollars any time of the year at my local supermarket. Jimmy the produce guy says they ship twenty bunches to a crate, and it’s a rare week that he has to order them more than once. “You can’t do much with them except put them in soups,” he said, and leeks are great in soups; my Scots ancestors used chicken and leeks (with barley) in their jauntily-named cock-a-leekie soup, and leeks can be substituted for onions in almost any potage for a milder flavor. But they’re also a beautiful addition to any stir-fry (working well with peppers), and thin slices of leek in a quiche look nice and taste great.
Leeks also take exceptionally well to braising and are great in a gratin, which is what I recommend. Use half a leek per person. Cut away the roots and the last inch or so of the green away and wash very well. Slice and layer the rounds in a gratin or baking dish. Cover with a cream sauce, a béchamel or a Mornay, which is what I use. You can add cooked, sliced red potatoes to this for something a little more substantial, but keep the seasonings simple, just a bit of salt and pepper, nothing more. A liberal sprinkling of good hard cheese on top is a great idea, but for Pete’s sake get a piece of cheese and grate it; don’t use that substance that’s sold in a green plastic shaker. Place in a hot oven (375) until bubbling; fifteen minutes tops should do it. Serve hot.
M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) was of Julia Child’s generation and like Child spent a considerable amount of time in France during a period when that country reigned supreme as the culinary center of the western hemisphere. For those of a later generation, she’s perhaps remembered most as the author of the preface for The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), which caused quite a stir because of Alice’s inclusion of a wonderful (albeit expensive not to mention illegal) recipe for “haschich fudge” that became quite popular among the beatniks and hippies, especially those who eschewed smoking. Long before that spate of notoriety, however, Fisher had long established herself as one of the finest culinary essayists in the English language.
The Art of Eating collects her five books – (Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942), The Gastronomical Me (1943) and An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949) – into a single volume. In her Alphabet, under “G for Gluttony”, she writes, “I cannot believe there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to the bursting point on anything from quail fianciére to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beastlike satisfaction of his belly.” (Admittedly, this is an altogether too familiar sensation.)
Fisher’s Art is a picnic, not just for food lovers, but for all who enjoy good, convivial writing. While some of her essays seem a bit labored from our perspective, immersed as we are in Twitter, Fisher established a literary bridge between the wordy, aphoristic Brillat-Savarin and the leaner, more objective prose of the New World. She’s not as dictatory as Brillat-Savarin, but I find her every bit as intimidating. Her writing is measured, lucid, and suffused with a wry wit that often carries the weight of the occasionally ponderous paragraph. If you love food and love reading, find The Art of Eating and stuff yourself to the bursting point. Then cleanse your palate with Proust. Cities of the Plain is fun.
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.