This recipe comes from The Jackson Cookbook (1970), a wonderful addition to any kitchen library. The dish is a classic, old-school fricasee–rich, with a sublime aroma–is characteristic of the haute cuisine fashionable in hotels such as the King Edward in the middle of the 20th century.
Bread the chicken lightly, and slice the onions thickly so they won’t singe. Baste at least once, twice is better. I used boneless thighs skewered and lightly floured (no drenching beforehand) with salt and pepper, early yellow onions, and a mixture of fresh and dried thyme. Use a medium heat—don’t let the butter singe—and give the chicken a good browning. Wilted onions in the oil/butter before topping the chicken, drizzled with more of the mix, and baked in a medium (350) oven for about an hour.
Among the first professional sports players from Calhoun County, Mississippi was a rangy lefty from Banner named James Corbett Edwards, most often called “Jim Joe” or “Little Joe” when he played in the major leagues during the 1920s.
Edwards was born Dec. 14, 1894. He enlisted during World War I as a Marine, later joining the Navy, where he became a Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class. On March 25, 1920, Edwards, who was by that time enrolled at Mississippi College in Clinton, was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm by the Third Republic of France, the highest military honor of the French Government, issued to military units for heroism.
In the 1920s, baseball was easily the premiere sports activity in the nation, and while playing ball at Mississippi College Jim Joe caught the eye of professional scouts. According to Mike Christensen, author of the recently-released Of Mudcat, Boo, The Rope and Oil Can: An Informal History of Mississippians in Major League Baseball, “Edwards debuted with the Cleveland Indians on May 14, 1922, going five innings in a loss to the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. I think it’s interesting that other players in that game included Sam Rice, Goose Goslin and Bucky Harris of the Senators and Tris Speaker, Stuffy McInnis and Doc Evans, a Meridian native, for the Indians. Those are some famous names.”
Edwards batted right and threw left. He pitched in 10 games for the Indians, and had a 4-3 record and a 2.84 ERA. After 13 games and an ERA of 8.25 the following season, he was released and picked up by the Chicago White Sox, pitching in nine games towards the end of the season. He spent the 1926 season with the White Sox, and had a 6-9 record and a 4.18 ERA in 32 games, 16 of them starts. In 1927 he had his first taste of minor league baseball and spent the year with the Seattle Indians. In 41 games for them, he had a 20-17 record and a 3.36 ERA. The following season he had a 1-8 record and a 3.14 ERA in ten games. The Cincinnati Reds signed him to a contract during part of the 1928 season, and in his last season in the majors, he had a 2-2 record and a 7.59 ERA in 18 appearances. He then spent four more seasons in the minor leagues to end his professional career. In a six-season career, Jim Joe posted a 26–37 record with 211 strikeouts and a 4.37 ERA in 145 appearances, including 59 starts, 23 complete games, six shutouts, four saves, and 584 ⅓ innings of work.
After his career in baseball, Edwards was postmaster at Banner before moving to Pontotoc where he became postmaster. He was also a teacher and football coach.
Edwards died after a car accident in Sarepta in January, 1965.
Community cookbooks can evoke the past with a particular keenness, and the more I go over this book–and so I have, many times–the more my memory awakens to the idyllic little world that was my childhood in Bruce, Mississippi.
By “we” I mean the people of my generation who grew up in Bruce during the 1960s. These are the people and businesses that made the Square, Newburger, and Center Streets areas of commerce and social activity.
We knew these women and their husbands. Their children were our playmates; many we still know, along with their children and grandchildren. Here is a guide not only to the foods we remember, but also to our living past.
When the courthouse clock struck the first toll of the noon hour, the complexion of the village changed. Shopkeepers and clerks hurried their over-the-counter trade so as not to be late for mealtime; little old ladies in their shawls and bonnets scurried home along side streets to their salads and tea-cakes; doctors and lawyers put aside the healing of the sick and matters at the bar to congregate in the public inn for a plate of the noon-day fare; farmers found a shadier side of the square and rested under tall oak trees while they took their dinner of canned meat and yellow wedges of cheese. It was a time for idle chit-chat, political forum, witty repartee, and peaceful rumination with a temperance and protocol like no other time of day.
–L.W. Thomas Written for the menu of The Warehouse Restaurant, 1984
Hoover Lee was a grocer in Louise, Mississippi who created a marinade to replicate Cantonese duck. His concoction has a heavy soy background accented with garlic and ginger.
These chicken leg quarters were marinated overnight and roasted in a slow oven for two hours. The skin is crisp and the flesh succulent, reminiscent of the character if not the precise flavor of roast duck.
Jon Clifton Hinson was born in Tylertown in Walthall County in southwestern Mississippi, in 1942, and attended public schools. In 1959, he worked as a page for Democratic U. S. representative John Bell Williams, who subsequently became governor of Mississippi in 1968. Hinson graduated from the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 1964, and joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, in which he served until 1970.
Hinson worked on the U.S. House staff as a doorman in 1967, and then served on the staffs of representatives Charles H. Griffin, a Democrat, and Thad Cochran, a Republican. In 1978, Cochran ran successfully for the United States Senate, and Hinson was elected to succeed Cochran in the U.S. House of Representatives for Mississippi’s 4th congressional district. With 51.6 percent of the vote, Hinson defeated the Democrat John H. Stennis, the son of U.S. senator John C. Stennis, who finished with 26.4 percent of the vote. The remaining ballots were cast for independent candidates. Hinson entered the House in 1979.
During his re-election campaign in 1980, Hinson admitted that in 1976, while an aide to Senator Thad Cochran, he had been arrested for committing an obscene act after he exposed himself to an undercover policeman at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Hinson denied that he was homosexual and blamed his problems on alcoholism. He said that he had reformed and refused to resign. He won re-election with a plurality of 38.97 percent of the vote. Independent Leslie B. McLemore polled 29.8 percent, and Democrat Britt Singletary received 29.4 percent.
Hinson was arrested again on February 4, 1981, and charged with attempted sodomy for performing oral sex on an African-American male employee of the Library of Congress in a restroom of the House of Representatives. At that time, homosexual acts were still criminalized even between consenting adults. The charge was a felony that could have resulted in up to ten years in prison, as well as fines of up to $10,000.
Since both parties were consenting adults (and social attitudes were changing), the United States Attorney’s office reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. Facing a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, Hinson pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted sodomy the following day and was released without bail pending a trial scheduled for May 4, 1981. Soon thereafter he checked himself into a Washington, D.C.-area hospital for treatment. Hinson later received a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended, and a year’s probation, on condition that he continued counseling and treatment.
Hinson resigned on April 13, 1981, early in his second term. He said that his resignation had been “the most painful and difficult decision of my life.” He was succeeded in the House by Wayne Dowdy, a Democrat, who won the special election held in the summer of 1981. Soon afterward Hinson acknowledged that he was homosexual and became an activist for gay rights. He later helped to organize the lobbying group “Virginians for Justice” and fought against the ban on gays in the military. He also was a founding member of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens Association in Fairfax County.
He never returned to Mississippi but lived quietly in the Washington area, first in Alexandria, Virginia, and then Silver Spring, Maryland. Hinson also disclosed that he survived a 1977 fire that killed nine people at the Cinema Follies, a Washington theater that catered to gay customers. He was rescued from under a pile of bodies, one of only four survivors.
It’s safe to assume that there are closeted government officials at every level—federal, state and local, doubtless from both parties—who are representing their electorate in good faith to the public trust with which they’re invested. From our perspective Hinson’s crash and fall seems not so much a tragedy as it is a farce, the ridiculous result of a man coerced, perhaps even forced into a role he could not play. It’s impossible for us to imagine the pressures put upon him to become a pillar of the Republican Party in its struggle for a stranglehold on the state of Mississippi, but the weight broke the man, reduced him to disgrace, poverty and exile.
Hinson himself is far from blameless; as an openly gay man he would never have been elected to any office in the state of Mississippi, but there’s no reason to doubt that he could have represented his district capably had he exercised more discretion if not to say caution in his personal affairs. Perhaps that’s what he was trying to do, but it’s more probable that like many gay men of his generation in the South, he only knew clandestine solicitation as a venue for sexual commerce.
Hinson, unremembered for any legislation and with no other legacy than creating an eddy in the incessant tide of Republication domination in Mississippi, died in July, 1995 in Fairfax County, VA.
A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford settled into a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those were halcyon years for me, as they were for many, many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.
Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theater was located across a parking lot from the Gin, the first among many restaurants and bars to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted wet. The theater was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a glass-paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess, painted by a local academic artist. In time, many local artists would festoon the structure inside and out. The bathroom graffiti at the Hoka constituted nothing less than an anthropology seminar on local culture.
The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn, and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor. Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.
I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable.
Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on the antique projectors.
Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted. Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading art form of the 20th century, as well as a portal to other worlds.
Ron showed a lot of great cult movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers, and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and before long, it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.
At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain. Shapiro brought film as art to Oxford.
Now when Wyatt Cooper is mentioned at all, it’s invariably in connection with his younger son, Anderson Cooper, but Wyatt himself was a man of many parts, one of those being a damn fine writer.
Cooper was born in Quitman, Mississippi, September 1, 1927. moved to New Orleans as a young child and in his twenties moved to New York City to pursue acting. In his thirties, Cooper lived in Los Angeles, attended both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and worked as a screenwriter. While residing in West Hollywood, then an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, Cooper lived near Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell. A close friendship developed, and a year after Parker’s death in 1967, Cooper published an incisive and widely read profile in Esquire magazine, titled, “Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn’t”.
Cooper moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s, and worked there as a magazine editor. On December 24, 1963, he married heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, becoming her fourth husband. The photogenic couple frequently appeared on the national “best-dressed” list. They had two sons: Carter Vanderbilt Cooper (1965-1988) and Anderson Cooper (b. 1967), who became a prominent CNN anchor. Wyatt Cooper wrote in his 1975 memoir, “It is in the family that we learn almost all we ever know of loving. In my sons’ youth, their promise, their possibilities, my stake in immortality is invested.” Wyatt Cooper died in Manhattan, New York City on January 5, 1978, at age 50, during open heart surgery, after having a heart attack the previous December.
This essay, “Of Food and Fellowship” appeared in Southern Sideboards, the Junior League of Jackson’s landmark cookbook, which was first published in June, 1978.
Speak to me of food and what springs readily to my mind is not so much a recall of particular dishes I’ve relished, but a succession of images, sad and funny, sweet and tender, of people and places and happy occasions from the recent or long-gone past, a procession of dear, lost, familiar faces and voices, with the echo of laughter from other years. One remembers all those tables, some grand and richly laden, some humble and bearing simple fare, over which have flowed the talk, the tales, the exchanges that have made up the histories of our lives; the tables across which loving eyes have looked into loving eyes, and across which we have reached, friend to friend and spirit to spirit, to touch each other in precious communion. I think of vanishes loved ones and of absent friends and simpler times, of youth and joy and wonder, of those early seasons of first discoveries, the seasons in which we were blessed with Heaven’s gift for finding all the world’s delight in one bright Easter egg, all the world’s affection in one home-decorated birthday cake with our own particular name written bright upon it.
At those tables, a child, and later, the child in the adult, could watch and listen and learn. It was and would remain a place of adventure and exploration, a place where the curious eye and ear could partake of the rich store of other people’s experience, their adventures in the vast and mysterious world that waited and waits, beckoning but intimidating, outside the window; adventures, also, in those other, interior worlds of the mind, where thoughts, opinions, ideas were and are the exhilarating substance of the hungry brain.
Since our associations scurry quickly back to our beginnings, I find myself breathing deeply and knowing once again the romance and allure of the smells emanating from the kitchen of my first home, the warm, comforting aroma of biscuits baking or of coffee and bacon on cold mornings, with Mama beside the stove calling out that we must hurry.
I remember the family reunions with the piling on of food, an abundance and variety of offerings that represented God only knows how many accumulated hours of planning and preparing and packing, a feast to which more than twice our number could not have done justice. I remember the buzzing and bustling of the women crowed into Grandma’ kitchen, all full of importance and pride in marvels about to be revealed, each with her own specialty for which she was celebrated within the family—this one’s banana pudding, that one’s pineapple-upside-down cake. I think of Christmas with the smell of apples and oranges and fruit cakes and with turkeys and stuffing that make the mouth water forty years later.
I was born country, so I know all about frying just the right chickens because the preacher was coming to dinner and about all-day-singings-with-dinner-on-the-ground where heavy baskets and cardboard boxes were hauled out of the back end of family cars or even horse drawn wagons or buggies. The contents were spread proudly out, displayed like the golden wedding presents of princesses, set out upon glistening, freshly-starched and sun-dried linen cloths there would be much calling out to each other from families inviting others to try this or that from their bounty, while grabbing loose strays, especially bachelors, and there would be a scampering about of colt-legged boys, impatient and giggly while overly devout deacons went on too long at asking the blessing, when any sort of mumbled “. . . bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies . . .” would have done just as well.
I know about hog-killing time in the first sharp cool of fall, when the children were allowed to help with the scraping if they were careful to stay away from the scalding water I know about the way molasses was made, when you took turns feeding the cane into the grinder and remembered to duck each time the pole, pulled bumpily around and around by dull, plodding mules, made its way overhead again.
These activities were co-operative efforts; we didn’t do them by ourselves. Neighbors came together to help each other. We worked out the dates—Tuesday for the Longs, Thursday was the Timmses’ turn, and Monday week was for us. The doing of it was all mixed up with community feeling, with jokes and gossip and catching up on news and horseplay and grown-up talk.
What I’ve been talking about, when you come down to it, is friendship, sharing, caring. I’m talking about love. To show our love for one another we devise little rituals. We beg the passing traveler to eat. We toast brides. We drink to each other’s health. We give dinners for those we seek to honor. There is a particular bond between friends who prepare food together, between friends who dine with each other. The breaking of bread together has, for many centuries, held something of a ceremonial significance for us.
It seems as if it were always so. It was in the Bible and in the earliest Greek plays and in the writings of Homer Obviously it goes way back. I should think that it must have been soon after they first came down from the trees and began improving their manners that one of our hairy ancestors must accidentally have dropped into the cave hearth the baby brontosaurus leg on which he’d been gnawing, or stumbled onto a succulent pig just roasted by a recent forest fire, and made the revolutionary discovery that the raw and natural stuff with which he’d been sustaining his life could be improved upon. On that distant red letter day a new art form was born and man took a giant step in the direction of Julia Child.
It seems to me that the invention of cooking must have made a considerable contribution toward the very process of civilization. Surely, Mr. and Mrs. Piltdown Erectus and their children, having found the new way of dining an enrichment of the cultural tone of their own household, must certainly have hastened to call in their neighbors to share the benefits of the revelations so happily and so accidentally bestowed upon them. Thus, on that evening of joyous and primitive grunting that then served as conversation, undoubtedly began the ancient and inseparable association between eating and hospitality, the eternal connection between food and fellowship.
I should mention somewhere along here that I was not invited to set down the few words of this preface because I can claim to be a passable practitioner of that noble science. The truth is I can’t cook. Anything. My instant coffee is barely acceptable even to me, and my peanut and butter sandwiches have repeatedly been rejected by my sons. “No thanks, Daddy,” they say with wistful politeness, “We’ll make our own. Alan Campbell once told me that before his wife, Dorothy Parker, would cook anything she’d go into the kitchen and eat raw bacon. In that category at least, Dotti and I were in the same league.
One of the saddest failures of my life was the time I tried to delight my little family, those underprivileged citizens of the pre-packaged, machine-made, and mass-produced age, with the home-made ice cream that is such a treasured memory from my youth. For years I’d tried to impart to them some idea of the magical creation of that frozen treat by describing how you break up the block of ice by putting it into a croker sack and beating it with the back of an ax, pack the crushed ice tightly around the metal can inside the wooden freezer, argue over who gets to turn the crank first, (several children should be involved; the making of ice cream calls for company; in a one-child family only the presence of grandparents could compensate for the absence of other children) and finally how everybody crowds around for the miraculous moment when the lid is reverently lifted off, and the creamy, vanilla colored, heavenly swirl of pure pleasure is revealed.
My sons were skeptical but willing, and so, one summer in Southampton, having consulted by long distance with my sister in Hartford, Connecticut, I bought a freezer, assembled the ingredients, and, while she instructed over the telephone, began mixing, stirring, and beating. I suspected early on that I was in trouble when it became perfectly clear to me that while Marie makes great ice cream herself, she has no very clear idea of how she does it, “. . . just put in some sugar; you’ll know when it’s enough . . .” –that kind of direction doesn’t help at all. Honest, it doesn’t. Not unless you can already do it. Or have talent. At one point I was cooking the mixture and it started turning into something that looked suspiciously like an omelet. “I hope you didn’t use too many eggs . . .” she said encouragingly. “Does it look too yellow?” Along about then I had more than a premonition of disaster. Also, for some reason, it overflowed while we were turning the crank, the yellow seeping out the sides and mixing with the ice. That wasn’t promising.
There’s no point in pretending there’s any suspense to this story or in prolonging it, so I’ll go strait to the finish. It looked beautiful, actually. The result of all my labor looked very clean and very pretty, but it had no taste at all so far as I could tell and I could not expect those little boys, however polite and loving they are, to pretend that it was worth bothering with. Oddly enough, my wife, who has a very discerning palate, liked my ice cream. She thought it tasted like real yogurt made with goat’s milk. Maybe if my sister has a recipe for yogurt I might end up with ice cream.
Recipes, anyway, have to be fleshed out, I suspect, with the cook’s own taste, personality and inspiration. Ethel Barrymore was once rehearsing a new play with an over-eager young director who kept instructing her with details, “Move to that table. Life the book, pause, and then look at it.” She endured this for a while, then she turned to him and said sweetly, “I know just what you mean. I lift the book, pause, and then look at it, and it is then that I do that special, unexplainable thing that causes audiences to come to see me and enables me to earn a thousand dollars a week.” She made her point. With great cooks, as with great stars, there is that “special, unexplainable thing” that has to do with taste, authority, and uniqueness of personality, and the beginner, I should think, should be encouraged to trust his or her own particular instincts and exercise his or her own creativity.
In Saki’s short story, “The Blind Spot”, one character says, “the man is a common murderer,” and another replies, “A common murderer, perhaps, but a very uncommon cook.” This book contains the secrets of many very uncommon cooks, great stars, splendid artists of the kitchen; secrets, many of them, that have considerable histories, having been handed down, generation to generation, from one famous cook to another.
I am fascinated by the great variety of cooking styles assembled here, representing many different traditions and widely varying national origins. Some recipes remain pretty much as they were when Great-Grandma was finally persuaded to write them down, or when Cousin Jessica spied on some selfish and secretive cook and wrote down each step se took, each pinch of salt, each wave of the hand in the direction of the pot. Others have evolved through adaptation, experiments, and happy accidents. A few of them doubtless traveled south with the earliest settlers, moving along the Natchez Trace from Virginia, the Carolinas or Kentucky, personally watched over by the woman of the family, along with a treasured set of china, an ancestral portrait, a silver candlestick, or some other heirloom.
Outsiders tend to think of the South as all one thing, when, of course we know that our extraordinary diversity is one of our most attractive features. We have absorbed many things from many sources, and have made them our own. Take grits. Grits has (sic;jly), of late been mentioned in the news somewhat frequently as a native southern specialty, which it is. It is very native, indeed, sine it was given to us by the Indians, along with corn bread and many other things. Blacks have made a contribution that is hard to measure, for many black cooks have been among the nameless geniuses who’ve left the culinary art a better one for their having participated in it. The French and Spanish influence on cooking is very important in the South, and though New Orleans is most famous for it, excellent French and Creole restaurants are strung along The Mississippi Gulf Coast all the way to Mobile.
In the past couple of years I’ve traveled around my native Mississippi a great deal, and I’ve enjoyed everything from baked dove at the governor’s mansion to fried catfish and hush puppies in Vicksburg and stuffed breast of chicken in Natchez, from ham hocks and turnip greens in Meridian to sirloin steak in Columbus, hot tamales in Greenville, and Creole gumbo and soft shelled crabs in Biloxi. In West Point, Mayor Kenny Dill went out and picked blackberries and Mrs. Dill made them into pie for me. Who wouldn’t choose a blackberry pie over a key to the city?
Which brings me full circle and back to hospitality. My children are startled by the extraordinary lengths that Southerners go in order to make the visitor feel at home among them. Very often, when we have been guests in someone’s home, neighbors have rushed in to leave off (or sometimes simply leave out-side the door) a basket of yard eggs or fresh butter or vegetables taken from their gardens that morning.
How many times it has happened that after a speech I’ve found someone thrusting into my hands a container of home-made fudge or a jar of fig preserves, saying “Take these to Carter and Anderson,” or “I beg Gloria’s never had watermelon rind preserves,” and slipping away before I could get the names? I’ve even been presented with chitlin’s (or chitterlings, and the dictionary spells it) and though anybody who knows me can testify that I’ve always been proud of my farm background, in the matter of chitlin’s, born country or not, I didn’t know what they were and wasn’t too curious to find out. I guess somethings are just meant to be forgotten, but Idid appreciate the thought. (Though not enough, you understand, to confront my wife with the chitlin’s.)
Oh, just one more thing. A story about one of my great uncles—one of the Campbells, I think. Having lost his wife (by death, I mean; she wasn’t simply misplaced) he was looking around for a replacement and in mentioning the most desired qualification, he made the following obsertion:
“The huggin’ and kissin’ don’t last forever. The cookin’ do.”
I started painting when I was 2 years old; my kindergarten teacher taught me to read and to paint the story. She was really interested in art, and when I started school, she taught me private lessons. She’s probably the reason I started painting.
My dad fought in WWII, so his values reflected that: had to work, had to study. I can’t do just a little bit of something; I have to do a lot of it. I can’t do it for an hour and a half a day. If I don’t have a good immersion in it, it just isn’t going to happen. I went to Mississippi College, and we didn’t have aesthetics, but we had a creative writing class. It was so fun to be in that class: theme variations, tension, restraint; the big things. That was really my only aesthetics class, that and going to the truck stop to drink coffee after we’d dropped our dates off. You had to get your dates in by 10 p.m. back then.
I’m a dinosaur; I paint outside. I usually start to paint things based on what I call The Great Out Here, the reflected and atmospheric lights that are in the world. The more I paint, the more I look at something, the more it gets on my retina and creates an after-image when I look away from it. You know how a flash bulb goes off and you can still “see” this thing floating in your vision? Well, it’s that sort of thing. It’s why I work on location, because it happens when I’m working on location, and it doesn’t happen for me in the studio, at least not in the same way.
I carry a mirror with me. When I don’t know what to do, I look in the mirror, and the mirror tells me what it looks like to other people. It gives me some objectivity on what I’m seeing. And that probably is the trickiest thing that I use. Painting is considered kind of trick, you know, techniques and all that. I used to be pretty technique-y, but that takes the left-hand side of the brain and puts it on the right-hand side. When you’re writing something, and you come back to it the next day, it’s the same effect; you see how other people see it. When you’re close to it, you can’t tell what to do, so I use a mirror progressively as the painting develops. Like penicillin, I use it when I need it.
It’s also tied in to the idea that the real experience is a lost thing. We’re almost a virtual society now, and in a virtual kind of world, it becomes important for me to make a case for the real experience, or at least to be out there saying that here it is. So that’s what I do, paint on location, and let the real experience of being in front of something affect me, to let that to be my influence.
Invariably, though, when you’re working outside, all sorts of things are going to happen and you’re going to get into the zone, that hypnotic place, and you begin painting expressively. I try to let that happen; I don’t know how to make it happen, but when I paint, it seems to happen on its own. I’ve always loved how watercolor doesn’t do what you want it to do. It’s the only medium I can think of that moves while you’re painting; it drips and runs. It’s like dancing; It isn’t what you make it do, it’s taking advantage of what it’s doing in the first place. It’s like riding a horse. The horse knows something about the field; you don’t drive a horse, you listen to the horse.
I went to Paris, and here I was in one of the great centers of the art world, and I got really homesick. I figured out that the things I want to paint are all here. I didn’t think it would be that way, but all the things I want to do are here.
Craig Claiborne, an icon of his day and an avatar of ours, seems overshadowed by James Beard and Julia Child nowadays, and Thomas McNamee’s biography The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance gives us several reasons why. Though described by Betty Fussell as more “accessible” than the ostensibly warmer, certainly more vivacious Child and jolly old Beard, McNamee fails to present the enigmatic, complex Claiborne as anything less than a remote Olympian figure.
When it boils down to it, Claiborne might best be described as the right man in the right place at the right time. His hiring as the first male food editor of a major newspaper came about as the result of crass opportunism if not (as is hinted) chicanery, but The New York Times provided Craig Claiborne with the preeminent platform to fulfill his mission, which McNamee describes as nothing less than “advancing the nation’s culinary culture”.
Claiborne’s call for reform (off the bat McNamee cites an April, 1959 column “Elegance of Cuisine is on the Wane in U.S.” as his gauntlet) came at a time when the nation was ripe for unabashedly elitist change; within a year, Jackie Kennedy, designer clothing and a French chef were in the White House. McNamee explains how Claiborne, with lavish finesse and training he received in Switzerland, set the tone of American culinary culture for two decades and beyond. This biography confirms his pervasive influence on food and dining and easily dismisses his only serious detractors, back-benchers John and Karen Hess, as resentful nit-pickers.
By the mid-Sixties Claiborne had became America’s unquestioned authority (his columns went directly to print; no editor) on the full culinary spectrum of foods and restaurants, chefs and cookbooks. He wrote and co-wrote many best-sellers, first and foremost The New York Times Cookbook. He discovered and promoted chefs as cultural and media personalities – Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme among many others – helped publicize the West Coast/James Beard movement and introduced Americans to nouvelle cuisine. Claiborne also reveled in a “pan-global eclecticism”, promoting the cuisines of China, Mexico and Vietnam (during the war), among others. He also lived to celebrate a resurgence of great American home cooking. His influence extended into the Reagan administration, and his legacy is evident today in the treatment of food as an important media subject. He created food journalism, and his sheer adventurism still informs our attitude towards food and cooking.
Though a bit exaggerated – McDonald’s Ray Kroc and other fast-food titans have influenced America’s diet far more than Claiborne –The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat should assign Claiborne’s ill-advised 1982 autobiography to a well-deserved obscurity. McNamee’s solidly researched biography is a richly balanced (and long-awaited) feast for those wanting to know more (but not too much) about Craig Claiborne, whose life does not bear well under scrutiny.
I wouldn’t expect a biopic or a Netflix series any time soon.