Culinary Jackson

Does Jackson, Mississippi have a distinct culinary reputation?

The short answer is no. Even the city’s adopted signature recipe, comeback salad dressing, has its roots not so much in restaurants here, but in diners across the South for the simple, practical reason that it’s easily made from on-hand ingredients (ketchup, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce and pepper) easily stored and versatile.

So as to a distinct culinary presence, no. What we’re left with in Jackson is a cuisine typical of cities throughout the Mid-South, the food of the yeomanry, the people who are the rule rather than the exception, a heavy cuisine developed to sustain people through long days of hard labor, beginning with Herculean breakfasts featuring lard biscuits, grits and rice, eggs and pork followed by meals of meats, starches and vegetables stewed in fats.

These are the foods you’ll find all over Jackson in restaurants and supermarket deli buffets for breakfasts and “meat-and-three’ (more often meat-and-two) lunches, dishes adopted from the home table of past generations, food with a voice in the family and community, a cuisine that sings of place, a menu plundered by time, restored in memory.

Cavegirl Popsicles

A petite version of the caveman version, these use chicken legs rather than turkey. Toss chicken drums in vegetable oil lightly seasoned with black pepper, paprika, sage and salt. Grill or arrange alternately on a skillet and place in a medium (300) oven for about an hour, turning once to brown evenly.

Homemade Ice Cream Base

This rich custard makes a sumptuous base for any homemade ice cream, simply add flavorings to taste. Admittedly it is a little time-consuming and takes a bit of patience, but custards were most likely the basis for the rich, unforgettable ice creams your grandmother made on the porch when you were growing up.

Combine 1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch and a scant teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Gradually stir in a quart of half-and-half, stirring constantly and place over low heat. In a large bowl beat together 2 large eggs and a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract until whites and yolks are thoroughly blended. Add this mixture very slowly into the half and half, stirring constantly and gradually increasing heat until thickened. It should have the consistency of eggnog. Stir in a pint of whipping cream and remove from heat. Refrigerate for 45 minutes to cool, then add fruit, nuts and/or flavorings and sugar to taste, place in your ice cream freezer and process according to directions.

Edwards House Chicken

Several weeks ago, I received a query via the Sideboard from former Jacksonian Sombra Laubach:

“Would like the King Edward Hotel recipe for chicken thighs baked with thyme and onions, please. My Jackson Symphony Cookbook disappeared. This was a recipe in the cookbook that the King Edward Motel was famous for back in the 70s. It is a favorite of mine over the years. Thrilled the King Edward Hotel has been refurbished!! Thank you for the recipe in advance. Hope all is wonderful in Jackson, my hometown!!”

I soon received a similar request from Diane Flowers and went looking for the recipe. I have The Jackson Cookbook, a superb collection with an introduction by Eudora published in 1975, but kept missing the recipe until a neighbor who is a native Jacksonian pointed it out to me (Thanks, Margaret!) In my defense, the recipe is credited to the “Edwards House”—as opposed to the King Edward Hotel—and I’m not really sure why. Perhaps the hotel restaurant was called the “Edwards House” though given the suspiciously archaic phrasing the recipe may date back to the early quarter of the century, which makes it really special indeed, an indication of the level of culinary hospitality in the city at that time.

The recipe is a classic fricassee, chicken fried and braised, simple yet rich, with a sublime aroma, all characteristic of haute cuisine of the sort you’d expect to have found in an establishment such as the King Edward in its heyday. Sombra said she doesn’t bread her chicken at all, that the onions were sliced thick enough not to singe and that basting is crucial. Me, I used boneless thighs skewered and lightly floured (no drenching beforehand) with salt and pepper, the beautiful early yellow onions we have coming to market now and a mixture of green and dried thyme. Use a medium heat—the butter will burn if too hot—and give the chicken a good browning. I wilted the onions in the oil/butter before topping the chicken, drizzle with more of the mix and placed it in a medium (350) oven for about half an hour.

Edwards House Chicken with Red Comeback Bruschetta

Hot and Sour Fried Cabbage with Bacon

Fry bacon until crisp, remove, drain and slice into small pieces. Chop or shred cabbage finely. Heat pan drippings, add cabbage and bacon with more oil (vegetable) as needed. Stir vigorously until cabbage is coated and just tender. Add hot pepper vinegar or hot sauce, ground black pepper and salt to taste. Finely sliced sweet onions–cooked or raw–are always a welcome option.

 

Red Rose Sausage Sandwich Filling

Red Rose imitation smoked sausage was originally produced by the Jackson Packing Company, which from 1945 to 1990 sold processed meats from their plant on South Gallatin Street. Red Rose was marketed under the company’s flagship Magnolia brand, which was purchased by Polk’s Meat Products in Magee. The sausages are sold in 24-ounce packages, usually three links. Red Rose at home is sliced into sections, split, fried or grilled and served with beans or potatoes. Two Jackson eateries, the Beatty Street Grocery and the Big Apple Inn on Farish, serve Red Rose sandwiches.

This recipe is a riff on the restaurants’ sausage sandwiches, the innovation here combining the slaw with the sausage stuffing, which works beautifully. Peel the casings from the sausages, break the filling into a heavy skillet—chopped onion would be a nice option—and cook until heated through and continue cooking until most of the grease is cooked out. Drain thoroughly and add about 4 ounces of slaw; that works out to half a large container from KFC. Serve warm on Bunny burger or slider buns with a dusting of black pepper and a few dashes of Crystal hot sauce.

The Mother of All Christmas Cookies

In search of the ultimate cookie recipe, Wittgenstein and others of his ilk will demand—in various languages—“Just what IS a cookie?” At which point some passionate egghead steeped in negative logic will say, “It is easier to say what a cookie IS NOT than to say what a cookie IS!” and will hurl a plate of biscotti against the back wall of the bar.

In the end, a cookie is a cookie is a cookie, a mixture of flour, sugar and butter usually with a leavening agent and perhaps, for richness, eggs. These ingredients constitute the Ur-cookie, and the following recipe has endless variations: add cocoa for chocolate cookies, oatmeal for oatmeal cookies, pecans for pecan cookies, peanut butter for peanut butter cookies, and so on and so forth.

These can be topped with a sugar frosting, a glaze or sprinkles, or chopped nuts. You can add food coloring to make them magenta, chartreuse or cyan. You can cut them into any shape using traditional cookie cutters or you can use a knife if you’re feeling (or are) artistic. For true inspiration, make them with children at your elbow.

BASIC COOKIE DOUGH

1 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Cream butter with sugars; mix well. Add eggs, vanilla and then flour, sifted with salt and baking soda, a little at a time. Bake at 350 degrees on a flat, heavy baking sheet for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool thoroughly before frosting.

Interview with Helen Ackle Lyons

The Lebanese community is a pillar of Jackson society, well deserving of a more comprehensive look, but this interview with Helen stands superbly on its own.

I’m first-born in this country.

My grandfather’s brother married my daddy’s sister (Ellis Joseph and Albert Joseph). Albert was married to Mary Ackle, the English spelling they gave us in Ellis Island. Other people with the background name, which means “brain” in (Levantine Arabic), spell it “Akl”. The Cherokee Inn founder was my daddy’s brother, Joseph Ackle.  The other side of the family “Aswic” (?) but they took Christian names. “Aswic” in Arabic means “black”, but the name they took was Simon. And that leads to another story; that of why they used the name “Simon”, which is of course in the Bible, as were all the names: my brother was Isaac, his brother was Joseph (Ackle).

The Simon surname comes from my mother’s uncle; he first came to this country sometime around 1900, earlier than my (Ackle) family. They came through New York. All the families I’m talking about came through Ellis Island. When the Lebanese people all have a name that maybe they spell a little different, “Ackle” can even come from the name “Hackle”. They took these names because of the pronunciation. It wasn’t clear, what with their “brogue” their accent, whatever you want to call it, some would put an “h” on it because of the guttural pronunciation. I know more because of my grandmother, my Daddy’s mother, she lived with us in Jackson. They first came to Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is a bedroom community of Boston. And the reason for that was, so many of the ethnic people stayed there in Lawrence. So many of the cemeteries are full of the Orthodox families who lived there. And one of the Joseph boys, who was Albert Joseph’s grandson, that’s my Daddy’s side of the family, they were Ackles on that side, on the Albert Joseph side. The Ellis Joseph side, though they were brothers, I was not directly kin to them, however, all of these people in Lebanon came from the eastern side of Beirut, up in the mountains.

We spoke Arabic, but not the “true Arabic”. When they came to this country and wound up down here, there was not an Orthodox church here in Jackson. The first Greek Orthodox church in Jackson did not appear until during the Forties. At that time, if you wanted to go to an orthodox church, at that time the orthodox church in Vicksburg was one of if not the oldest in the Southeast. The Lebanese people came to Vicksburg earlier than ours did to Jackson. Ellis Boudron’s family was one of the earliest Lebanese families in the country. Mary Louise Jones is my second cousin. Her daddy was my first. William P. Joseph was my daddy’s nephew. I went with my cousin William P. Joseph to Lebanon. I promised my mother’s mother, Haifa Nassah, married a Simon, original name was Aswic. The reason they became Simon is because my grandfather’s half-brother, who was a professor at the University of Beirut, came to America before the rest of them. He became a professor at the University of South Carolina.

I went to kindergarten at Poindexter. It was the only school that had a kindergarten. We moved from Farish Street to Gallatin Street and then to west Jackson when I was six years old. Clairmont Street. I was born in 1925 so that would have been in 1931. The street is no longer there. I went to Barr School. I went to Enochs Junior High, then to Central High School. I graduated in 1943. I want the emphasis on the culture. People seem to think that I’ve had a very interesting life. I married in New York City, a story that started in WWII. I can’t say that any of my other cousins had the kind of life that I had. My husband was from Pennsylvania. The only reason I was permitted to get married at that time was that my father was interested in the military because he got his citizenship by serving in the military in New York City. My father was interested in going back to Europe because when he came to this country, he left from Le Harve, France. Believe it or not, he was in the air corps in WWI he delivered mail on a motorcycle to the troops in France. That was the story my Daddy told. And he knew some French because of the French in Lebanon. When he came to America, he came because they were being starved. There was a famine, and my father remembered it. I listened to the old folks with my ear to the doors. They spoke in Lebanese among themselves.

Over the years, we have learned many things through our federation that we did not know, these things that we are learning how our culture relates to the Jewish culture. The Federation of Southern Lebanese Clubs has been in existence for about eighty years and has been a life-saver for so many people in our culture to learn from the professors that have studied our background, particularly the ones at the University of Texas. The immigrants didn’t want any emphasis put on them being Lebanese; my father hid a lot of things from us when we were children; he wanted us to grow up as Americans, and we did. He was a young man when he came to Jackson, around 10 years old. He was born in 1898 (Isaac Ackle).

Getting back to them coming to this country, they stayed in Lawrence, MA, until his mother, my grandmother and my daddy went back to Lebanon to get the youngest child who couldn’t come in on the first passage that they bought on a family passage. The little girl was younger than my daddy. I’m assuming, since he was like 10 when he did that, it must have taken them two years to go there, come back and then come South. I know that there were many Lebanese scattered in this area already. It was less developed than in the north, and they were out to make a livelihood out of what they did in the old country. They were merchants and during those days my grandfather peddled, wheeling a buggy, peddled merchandise, “notions”, Momma’s side was related to S.N. Thomas. But they all knew each other. They all came from small towns: Dufaya, Duschway, we have maps showing where they came from. They’re at the clubhouse on Cedars of Lebanon. The building has been there since I was 13. It was dedicated in 1938, July.

My grandfather Joseph Ackles was a peddler. He got to the neighboring communities in a cart with a horse. That year was probably like 1910-11. He peddled materials, dry goods, and there was a family in Jackson whose family wrote a book about Mr. S.N. Thomas, very well-known, they had a wholesale business on President Street. My mother’s mother was related to that family (you can use Billy “William” Thomas as a reference; he still doing ordering for merchants, and he is the surviving grandson of S.N. Thomas). This leads to the Buttross family in Canton.

Let me go back to the clubhouse. The reason we have a clubhouse is because we did not have a church and they wanted to keep the culture alive for their children. That was the reason for five brothers, five names that started the club by buying fourteen/twelve acres. The brothers were the Ackle brothers, two of them, Isaac and Joseph; the Sik brothers; the Joseph brothers, the Simon brothers; I don’t know who the fifth brothers were. Alfred Katool could tell you the fifth. The clubhouse was built by the WPA. And the governor of Mississippi, Hugh White, dedicated the club.