Noon in Oxford

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

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