Mrs. Johnny 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.

 

Fudge for a Rainy Day

This Alice B. Toklas Cookbook recipe was omitted in the first American publication (1954) but was included in the second (1960). Here’s Alice’s recipe from the 1984 edition:

Haschich Fudge

(which anyone could whip up on a rainy day)

This is the food of Paradise—of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises; it might provide entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by un évanouissement revelle’.

Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts; chop these and mix them together. A bunch of cannabis sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.

Obtaining the cannabis may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as cannabis sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognized, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called cannabis indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.

 

Bessie

Bessie Mae Evans kept house for us when I was a kid. She was a fountain of the sort of lore that fascinates young boys, especially when it came to snakes. Bessie knew snakes chapter and verse. She would tell about those snakes that could hoop up and roll downhill, the ones that would sting you with their tails if they couldn’t bite you and snakes that would wrap you to a tree with their coils and beat you to death. She claimed that those snakes would stick the tip-end of their tail in your nose every now and then to see if you were still breathing, and if you were, they’d keep whipping.

Serpents were Satan incarnate to Bessie: I once watched her lob a Molotov cocktail made from a Coke bottle full of gasoline and a dirty sock into a thirty-foot culvert next to her house because a neighbor said she saw a snake crawl into it. The resulting explosion registered on a seismograph at Ole Miss, whose geology staff dutifully sent a team of graduate students to investigate the phenomenon. (I heard they took a wrong turn near Paris and ended up in Pontotoc.)

When we weren’t discussing reptiles, one of our favorite things to do together was to plant ourselves in front of the television on Saturday afternoons and watch old Tarzan movies on Channel 13 out of Memphis. She’d pretend to iron, and I’d pretend to do my homework. One afternoon my mother busted us watching Tarzan Escapes during a scene when a scantily-clad Johnny Weissmuller is being pursued by a hoard of Hollywood extras brandishing spears and slathered in Man Tan. Momma pointed to the screen and said, “Just think, Bessie, you might be kin to those people,” at which point Bessie mustered up all of her considerable dignity and said, “No, ma’am; I am a Christian lady.” And that was that about that, with Bessie leaving Momma’s relation to Cheeta open to question.

Bessie taught me how to take care of “pot plants” (which is what we used to call houseplants), how to grow greens in the winter (usually in a burnt-over spot) and how to cook poke salad. Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that the Indian tribes eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.” They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”

Much like ramps, poke salad was eaten as a spring green because it was one of the first edible herbs to appear, giving a much-needed break from the beans, cornbread and salt pork diet of winter. In April 2000, Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas canned its last batch of “poke sallet” greens. As late as 1990 at least two processing plants continued the tradition, Bush Brothers of Tennessee and Allen of Siloam Springs. Surprisingly, one of the best markets for canned poke was southern  California due to the many “Oakies” who settled there in the ‘30s. John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen Canning, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bring it to our buying locations.” Also, poke processing was never a significant item in their multimillion-dollar enterprise, so it just became more bother than it was worth.

The only drawback to poke salad as a food is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is not only safe but delicious. Here’s how you do it: harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke. Wash, stem and trim. Boil them for about ten minutes in plenty of salt water. Then drain, rinse and simmer for a while with just a bit more lightly salted water and a bit of oil of some kind. A slit hot pepper pod of the slender sort is a nice touch, and adding big pinch of sugar is something you just ought to do. Trust me.

Use prepared poke much as you would spinach; Euell has a poke salad dip in his book, and Bessie used to put it in scrambled eggs. She always cooked with bacon drippings, using plenty of salt as somewhat of a talisman against poison of any kind, I suspect, since she used to sprinkle salt around her garden to keep the snakes out, too.

Bessie died Feb.8, 2013 at the age of 81. I cried all day.

Squash Pizza Crust

This recipe from Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook has a wonderful texture and flavor. Though the original recipe called for just zucchini, any squash will do. The crust can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen. You can either line a pizza pan or casserole with the crust or bake the mixture on a cookie sheet before topping.

Use 2 cups grated squash to one egg (the original calls for a 1:1 squash/egg ratio, but that’s a little much). Squeeze the liquid out of the squash; add the eggs and mix well with a good slug of olive oil and ½ cup each grated mozzarella and Parmesan and a little grated onion along with enough plain flour to make sticky dough. I like to use a little more Parmesan for a somewhat drier mix and add chopped peppers. Season with, salt, pepper, a little basil and thyme; I do not recommend using rosemary as in the original recipe. Roll out and shape with a twisted edge. Bake in a medium hot oven (375-400) for about 40 minutes, or until nicely browned. Brush with olive oil before cooling.

As to the toppings, you can use those you usually like on your pizza, but I forego meats out of respect for the original recipe as well as for Molly herself. Go lightly on the tomato sauce, since too much will make the crust soggy. Bake pizza in a hot oven as you would any other.