Nan Edwards can cook, yes indeed. She learned how to cook from her mother Betty, who is one of the best cooks in Bruce, Mississippi, if not Calhoun County itself, which is nothing to sneeze at, no it is not. I’ve had my feet under the dinner table at the Edwards’ household many a time; their 9-layer caramel cake is legendary, and what they do with fresh vegetables from their garden constitutes a tutorial in great Southern cooking.
I had to beg Nan for the recipe. She kept putting me off, saying she did not know where she had it written down when I knew very well she had it in that little Colonel Rebel recipe box she keeps on top of her refrigerator next to the paper towels. But I was patient, persistent, called her up one night, found her in the right mood, so she read it to me over the phone. What with her wagging her finger at me every other sentence, it took fifteen minutes, swear to God.
“Dissolve one package yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. When yeast begins to work, add 1/2 cup sugar, another 1 1/2 cup water, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons salt. Blend until sugar is dissolved, add 3 large eggs and beat well. To this mixture, add 2 cups plain flour and blend until smooth. Gradually add enough flour (up to 4 or more cups) and mix well to make soft dough. Cover dough and refrigerate for at least eight hours. When ready to bake, form dough into balls and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, bake for 15-20 minutes until brown. The dough will keep for up to four days covered in the refrigerator.”
Most people consider creativity an essential element in cooking, but I think it should be discouraged in the home kitchen. Remember your audience. You’re cooking for people you know on intimate terms, and a big mistake (like putting sweet pickles in a cheesecake) will mean you’re going to have to hear about it for a very long time, and not in complimentary language. Culinary creativity is best left to those Food Network geniuses who when given turnips as a competitive ingredient are provided with Corsican prawns, Kobe beef and Kurdistani apples to shore up their efforts. Between you and me, I’d like to see what they’d do with a few skinny pork chops, a can of green beans and a jar of crunchy peanut butter. (Okay, I’ll throw in a loaf of bread, too).
But kitchen innovation emphasizing technique rather than ingredients can have impressive results, especially when you’re dealing with what’s familiar. For example, consider Jules Alciatore, who according to Howard Mitcham took a long look at his oysters Florentine, told his chef to put the sauce on top of the oysters (instead of vice-versa, as the French did) then throw them in a salamander. Nowadays, you can’t go into a restaurant along the Gulf without being offered some dim, horrendous version of oysters Rockefeller, usually with enough Pernod to choke a horse . . . but done well, it’s magical.
This innovation is much more domestic and really not that novel, but just as simple: Bake dressing in a muffin pan. It’s easy to do, and the result is a morsel that’s eaten handily and stored easily. These muffins are great for a holiday gathering, and kids love them. I like to top some of them with a bit of whole-berry cranberry sauce. They also look good piled on a pretty plate alongside your other buffet items. They take a little more care than simply pouring your dressing into a casserole dish as is usually done, but they more than make up for the initial effort by freeing up space in the refrigerator and freezer, space you’ll no doubt need for other holiday leftovers. You can make these savory muffins days before your event, freeze them warm when needed.
Use a good dressing recipe; mine involves leftover cornbread, onions, celery, cooked chicken and/or mild sausage, a good stock, a bit of butter and eggs. I do not put bell pepper in my dressing because it overpowers everything else, nor do I use garlic. I go heavy on the sage (less if I use sausage), with enough basil, thyme and rosemary to stand out. Oregano tends to make dressing bitter, so I don’t use it. Do not chop your onions or celery too finely because they provide a good texture, especially the celery. Make sure you have plenty of moisture, a thick, wet batter. It’s a good idea to add an extra whipped egg blended well in your basic recipe, which should have about one egg to two cups of batter. Salt and pepper to taste, add enough sage to stand out. I use neither oregano nor rosemary for an accent, though thyme is acceptable. Use a cooking spray to oil the muffin tin. Spoon the mixture into the cups. Fill to the top, since these do not rise as much as a bread muffin would. Place your pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake at 350 until the tops are firm and the edges have just begun to brown, about 20 minutes. Top with whole berry cranberries when they’re about half-way done. Brush with melted butter and let them cool before taking them from the pan (use a fork) and removing the paper. Store for later and reheat on a cookie sheet in a warm oven before bringing to the table.
Dinners on the grounds were once held on rickety tables between the church and cemetery where words of loss and remonstrance faded and food offered redemption and reward.
Though ostensibly polite pastoral get-togethers, dinners on the grounds were more often platforms for social clambering of the pettiest and most vicious sort. Despite the communal reason for the food, there was always an underlying competitive element to the affair. Food Network competitions pale in comparison to those rural stages of venomous culinary put-downs; knocking a recent wok wonder off prime time seems trivial when you’re dealing with decades of spite. Every square foot of splintered table space was contested and every element of a good “spread” subjected to off-stage critique. Transgressors were damned for such cardinal sins as using Jell-O pudding mix instead of homemade custard, and if you brought fried chicken in that red-and-white cardboard bucket, you would not get any sympathy when your high heels got stuck in an ant bed.
The queens of these community catfights took inordinate pride in lording over the lesser. My distant Cousin Dora’s angel food cake was a marvel to see. She displayed it on her grandmother’s cut-glass (not crystal; her crystal did not travel) cake stand beside a bowl of macerated strawberries and sweetened cream that she had her husband Harvey whip on site after he had driven 50 miles wearing a tie the whole way. The cake, flanked by a vase with a fistful of her show-quality roses and fortified by something along the lines of a fudge divinity she just “threw together at the last minute”, was displayed on a creaseless, delicately-patterned white cloth. Dora sliced it with a wooden-handled sponge cake cutter and served it on Classic White Chinet. Everyone hated her airs, but took malicious comfort in knowing that Harvey had been slipping around with the choir director for at least fifteen years. Rumor had it that her sister-in-law, tired of her high-and-mightiness, snuck into her house one day while the cake was in the oven and slammed the door so it would fall. That, they said with a knowing look, was the year Dora broke a toe before the church homecoming.
Adversity is a dynamic portal for new ideas, especially when it comes to recipes, and if it were a big occasion, the range of variations in a single dish was astounding. Staples such as fried chicken, baked beans and potato salad always proliferated, and those cooks who specialized in these dishes had their adherents and detractors, usually in equal numbers. You had those who preferred double-dipped or battered fried chicken and those who liked a much lighter crust. The dividing line with baked beans involved the use of brown sugar or molasses and with potato salad, creamed or chunky.
I attended these gatherings with my grandmother Monette, who was not a cook herself (history and genealogy were her interests: according to her I was related to everyone between New Albany and Grenada). Monette stayed out of the fray, but she was a discriminating eater who from past experience knew the tables well. “Be sure and get one of Alice Edmond’s fried pies,” she’d say, or, “Jane Early has that 8-layer caramel cake recipe from her mother Eugenia, a Hardin, my first cousin Dudley’s second cousin on his mother’s side, before she married Jane’s father, who gambled away the family farm in a lop-sided mule race. He had a glass eye that he used to take out and put in his iced tea when their preacher came over.”
Nowadays, store-bought collapsible tables have replaced the long lines of sagging and splintered pine boards beneath the blackjack oaks and sweet gums, but anyone who brings Stouffer’s to a church social in Mississippi is going to get talked about. And not in a good way.
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.