Pimento Cheese

Robert Moss, who is from that most eccentric of Southern cities, Charleston, South Carolina, describes himself as a culinary historian, a member of a geeky gaggle of food writers in which I am a mere gosling. In Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining, Moss delves into stories of Low Country dishes such as shrimp and grits and she-crab soup as well as elements of our broader Southern cuisine like bourbon, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. It’s with these subjects that he becomes troublesome, claiming rum is more Southern than bourbon, that fried green tomatoes are a Yankee invention and that pimento cheese originated in upstate New York.

It’s this pimento and cheese issue I’m all over like a duck on a June bug, but before going any further, let’s turn to this matter of spelling, since I’m acutely aware that any article in Mississippi is going to be scratched over and henpecked by a contentious flock of literati. Yes, I am quite aware that the it’s the pimiento pepper, but in his article “Creating a New Southern Icon: The Curious History of Pimento Cheese”, Moss notes that “In the late 1890s, imported Spanish sweet peppers started being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento. Soon the ‘i’ was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them ‘pimentos’.” I’ll remind you that Moss has a PhD. (in English, no less) from Furman, and though I’m not known for my slavish allegiance to academics, like the rest of you I always heartily concur with eggheads when they’re in my corner. It looks so good on paper.

Moss does not create another idol in this article; instead he reveals himself as an iconoclast of the first order by exposing the Yankee roots of a Southern dish Boston-based food writer Judy Gelman claims is “held sacred by Southerners”, and his research seems brutally thorough. However, as a former graduate student of the English department at the University of Mississippi, I’m delighted to say I have discovered a thin spot in Dr. Moss’ exposition. Even more appropriately, this modest and assuredly well-intentioned debunk comes via Martha Foose, the final court of authority on Mississippi food and a resident of Oxford for many years. Whereas Moss maintains that pimento and cheese is unknown outside of Dixie, Martha, in her splendid Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, points out that the pimento cheese capitol of the Midwest is Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Evangelism is clearly in play.

What made pimento and cheese characteristically Southern is the use of cheddar. In the rural South of the early 20th century the most commonly found cheese was mild cheddar called hoop cheese because it was sold commercially in large round wheels, red rind cheese because of the color of the wax coating or even rat cheese because it was often used to bait rodent traps. In memory lives the vivid image of a red hoop of cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas. Without a doubt it was this cheese that was most often grated and used with homemade mayonnaise in making pimento and cheese in country and small-town kitchens throughout the South.

Still and all, Moss makes a valid point; if foods we consider Southern are anathematized by Yankee roots, then our idolized pimento cheese has feet of clay. We just found out how to do it right and made it ours. But how is it that we’ve come to make a cult of cornbread, a fetish of fried chicken and an idol of black-eyed peas, all adorned with the trappings of media devotion and academic Sunday schools? Let’s please move beyond the iconography of food (barbecue is just short of having a clergy) and come to realize that any significant foodstuff is nothing more than a pleasing combination of tastes and textures. And sure, let’s have food festivals; of course you wouldn’t expect to find a shrimp festival in Omaha or one for mountain oysters in Key West (I could be wrong about that) but let’s come to know them for what they are, celebrations of community, people and locale.

As to pimento and cheese itself, I’m not going to be so crass as to give you a recipe. You do it the way you like it; God knows you’re going to anyway. Pimento cheese should be devoid of controversy. It’s not, of course, because everyone thinks their version is the best, but you’re the one making it, so just relax. Though Moss claims that recipes with cream cheese are “definitely in the minority”, I always add it to mine, mixing it with the mayo one to two. I also belong to a schismatic if not to say heretical sect who find a chopped fresh sweet red bell just as acceptable in pimento cheese as canned pimientos, and have no problem adding chopped green onions, though I once had a matron from Tupelo to give me a good finger-wagging over that. All I could do was wince.

 

Menu for a Delta Wedding

Food rarely plays a significant role in fiction, but when it does the part has a specific function. Adam Gopnik lists four kinds of fictional food: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

As an example for a writer who uses food in fiction to illuminate character, which seems to be predominant, Gopnik serves up Proust. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This Faulkner does as well with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home he describes in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”), as does Welty, whose novel Delta Wedding, in itself the most lyrical evocation of life in the Mississippi Delta on the eve of or in the 1920s, a delightful, warm-hearted and spellbindingly-written work, is a Southern (perhaps “the most Southern”) smorgasbord. Though three main meals are described–a rehearsal supper, the wedding feast itself and a picnic afterwards–people are eating all the time on almost every page of this book. This a listing could very well be offered as a textbook example of foods served in a well-to-do household in the South during the Coolidge administration. In both Faulkner and Welty, the food is a prop, a signature of their collective character, not a judgement.

Coconut cake, sugared almonds, cold biscuits with ham, sugar cane (likely left on the porch for the children to peel and chew), homemade fudge, wedding cake (made in Memphis), chicken salad, “Mary Denis demanded a cold lobster aspic involving moving the world . . . of course we moved it”, stuffed green peppers, hoe cakes and ash cakes, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, barbecue (most likely pork), the patty cake gift for George Fairchild (made with white dove blood, dove heart, snake blood and other things; he’s to eat it alone at midnight, go to bed and his love will have no rest till she comes back to him), licorice sticks, crusted-over wine balls, pink-covered ginger Stage Planks, bananas and cheese, pickles, a mousse (probably chocolate), chicken and ham, dressing and gravy, black snap beans, greens, butter beans, okra, corn on the cob, “all kinds of relish”, watermelon rind preserves, “that good bread” (likely yeast bread), mint leaves “blackened” (bruised) in the tea, whole peaches in syrup, cornucopia (horns of pastry filled with cream or fruit), guinea hen, roast turkey and ham, beaten biscuits (an “aristocratic” Eastern seaboard recipe: i.e. blistered biscuits), chicken salad, homemade green and white mints, fruit punch, batter bread and shad roe, ice cream, chicken and turkey sandwiches, caramel and coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pie, watermelons and greens.

As much as I want to call this a complete list, it likely is not. When it comes to Welty, who is not only subtle and understated, but knows food as few writers do, it’s easy to miss things; read Delta Wedding again, if for that reason alone.

Tammy Tell Me True

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

According to film scholar Melanie Addington, “Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust. Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says. Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves the American film medium a desirable notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

Pinky was the first big studio picture to troop into race issues. The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas, a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing. The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948), an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America, and its heroine. Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described the film adaptation, Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner’s three “Tammy” novels provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66).

Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song, which Reynolds herself describes as a “sweet, simple ballad”, went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says. “Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters. The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder.

 

Vaught’s Brunswick Stew

When you’re the wife of a football coach, you often  have to feed a BIG crowd, and if you’re the wife of Johnny Vaught, you want a Southern recipe that everybody loves. Such is the case with Brunswick stew, a favorite dish for gatherings in the South since Daniel Boone barged through the Cumberland Gap. By my reckoning, this recipe could easily feed either 20 people or the Rebel offensive line at one sitting.

The Ham of Dreams

In the 1930s, Harry J. Hoenselaar worked at a honey-baked ham store in Detroit, handing out samples and teaching drugstore clerks how to slice hams for sandwiches. He had long since mastered knifing ham from the bone, but he knew there had to be a better way. Then Harry had a dream, and with a tire jack, a pie tin, a washing machine motor and a knife, he fashioned and patented the world’s first ham spiralizer.

He later bought the Detroit honey-baked ham store where he once worked from the owner’s widow in 1957. Later, he divided its national territory into four parts and gave each one to a daughter. The original Honey Baked Ham store on Eight Mile Road in Detroit eventually spawned a company with 417 stores, from Southern California to New Hampshire. The busiest is in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. After decades of familial wrangling and consolidation, the entire operation has landed in the lap of Linda van Rees, a granddaughter, who moved the company headquarters to Alpharetta, Georgia, in 2015.

Spiral-cut hams comprise about 34 percent of all the ham sold in the United States. Most of the company’s hams come from pigs grown in the Ohio Valley, bred to have a specific amount of marbling. The hams are smoked over hardwood chips for 24 hours, then shipped whole to each store.  Spiral cutting a whole ham takes just a few minutes; at the flagship Honey Baked Ham Company store in Alpharetta, Ga., cutters can process as many as 450 hams during the busy holiday seasons. Each sliced ham is then loaded onto a small metal stand, sprinkled with layers of sugar laced with a clove-scented spice mix, and then fired with a blow-torch, melting it into what becomes a crunch crust once cooled. The hams are loosely wrapped in a heavy foil that a clerk can easily pull back to allow a customer to inspect a ham before buying it.

Many people warm spiral-sliced hams, but that can lead to dryness. The best way to serve it is to let the ham come to room temperature, then use a butter knife to slice around the small center bone, and use the knife to follow the natural lines of the muscle for more manageable slices.

 

 

Nan’s Overnight Rolls

Nan is one of those people who’ll make you beg for a recipe just because they like the attention of being begged for it. We all know these pests.

When I asked her for this 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 and persistent, called her up one night and found her in the right mood–likely well into a bottle of that cheap rosé she gets Ricky to buy for her because she thinks people would talk, like anyone cares at all–so she read it to me over the phone, and I could just see her wagging her finger at at me every other sentence.

It took her 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, place in a jelly roll pan or pie plate 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.”

 

Election Day Cake

Americans have always celebrated our elections, and it seems logical that our traditional election day cakes are based on the old British yeast-raised holiday fruitcakes. Since the recipe evolved in the dour kitchens of New England, the lavish libations of brandy the Brits employed were foregone, but don’t let that stop you from dribbling a soupçon of good bourbon over this cake before frosting.

In a large bowl, mix two packets of yeast into a cup and a half of warm water. Stir in a tablespoon of sugar and a cup and a half of plain flour, mix until smooth, cover and let work until bubbly, about half an hour. In another bowl cream one and a half sticks soft butter with a cup of sugar. Use a whip to fluff the mix well, then sift in about two and a half cups flour with a teaspoon of cinnamon and a half teaspoon each of ground clove, ginger, and nutmeg. A few drops of almond extract is a nice touch. Add two beaten eggs to the bubbly yeast mixture, then gradually combine with the seasoned flour blend. Mix until smooth, and stir in a half cup of raisins, a half cup chopped dates, and a half cup chopped pecans. Pour into a tube pan that’s been well coated with cake oil (a paste of one part shortening, one part vegetable oil, and one part plain flour). Cover and let rise in a warm place for about two hours, bake at 375 for one hour, and cool before drizzling with a confectioner’s sugar glaze.

Apple Pecan Cookies

You don’t see many Southern apple cookie recipes; a quick scan of Southern Sideboards, Bayou Cuisine, River Road Recipes, Vintage Vicksburg, Gourmet of the Delta, The Jackson Cookbook, and The Mississippi Cookbook turned up nary a one. However, this recipe comes from Hosford Fontaine’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, and you can’t get any more Southern than that. Though the South has a native crab apple, most of the Old-World apple species that produce what Emerson called “the American fruit” simply don’t do well in our climate, and fruit from those that do are most often dried or made into pies or sauce. As to the kind of apples to use, that’s up to you; I used Galas.

3 cups of fine unpeeled diced apples; (I use only pieces with skin so that when baked they’ll stay firm)
2 sticks butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A half teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and salt
2 cups rolled oats
¼ cup white raisins
¼ cup chopped pecans

Cream butter and sugars well, add eggs and flour mixed and sifted with spices and baking powder, then stir in apples, oats and nuts. Refrigerate dough for about 30 minutes, stirring once. Form dough into ping pong balls, and bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet with parchment paper at 350 or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack. This recipe makes about three dozen wonderful, chewy, sticky cookies.

 

Brigadeiros

Named for a Brazilian politico, brigadeiros are a very easy, simple chocolate candy; three ingredients, less than a half-hour cooking time, one pan, no thermometer, and crazy good.

Stir together a 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk, a half cup cocoa, a dash of salt and two tablespoons butter in a sauce pan over a medium/low heat. Stir constantly, scraping the bottom with a wooden spatula until very thick. When you can form a cooled spoonful, grease your hands with butter and make balls no larger than a walnut. Roll the balls in sprinkles (chocolate is traditional) crushed nuts, coconut, cocoa, or a coating of your own device. Brigadeiros are usually served in those little crinkly-edged paper cups, but I never seem to have any.

 

Baked Hummus with Feta and Spinach

Mix a garlic-y hummus with chopped, cooked, well-drained spinach and feta, salt lightly and season with a very warm red curry paste. Spread in a well-oiled oven-proof dish, top with more feta and bake in a moderate oven until lightly crusted. Serve with flat bread and very thinly-sliced cucumber.