Sardine Scenes

Some years ago an obscure editor at a very well-respected and well-known fashion magazine prevailed upon his famous food writer to come up with a piece on sardines. Now, an editor is nothing more than an ego who can spell, so to say that coercion was involved over this story is an understatement of near biblical proportions; the poor writer’s foot soles were probably held to some hellish, check-denying fire until he came up with a printable essay on a subject he obviously considered far beneath his dignity. The end product, a minor etude of culinary literature memorable primarily by its invective, was infused with caustic bemusement and only a very, very small degree of begrudging admiration for the fish itself. The subject took second place to the condescension that infected every sentence. I wish I had the essay at hand in order for me to illustrate this scathing hauteur by example, but trust me, us pissed off writers recognize each other.

What the writer was trying to do (with limited success, I might add) was to raise the sardine to such a degree of sophistication that it fit seamlessly in between the inexplicably anorexic-ly oriented fashions, the absolutely incomprehensible art and the unabashedly homoerotic ads. He began with an “imagine this” sort of scenario in which a thin, impeccably dressed Parisienne strolls into a bistro on the Champs E’lysee, orders a beer with sardines au plat, and then squats and gobbles without getting so much as a spot on her designer duds. Well, it could happen, I suppose; sardines au plat are little more than broiled herrings, but the idea of a chic young Frenchwoman sitting down to beer and sardines in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower just boggles the mind, which of course is the point he was trying to make.

Now, sardines aren’t a specific kind of fish as much as they are a type of fish; many species of small herrings are caught, canned and marketed as sardines. Ounce for ounce, sardines rank among the most nutritious foodstuffs in the world: they’re chock-full of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and all the “good fats”; 1 can, about three and a half ounces drained, has less than 200 calories. They’re also (like most canned fish) ridiculously cheap, less than $2 a serving. Yet most people turn their noses up at sardines. Why? Well, they smell bad, for one thing, but that’s not the main reason; lots of people eat stuff that smells bad, especially when nutrition isn’t particularly a key consideration. No, the reason people don’t eat sardines is because in this neck of the woods they’re considered trashy, so trashy that you’ll not find a single sardine recipe in any of Jill Connor Browne’s otherwise excellent culinary compilations .

I once shared a similar attitude, but one gentle September night while wandering around the neighborhoods of Oxford south of University Avenue, I dropped in on a celebrated artist and his wife who happened to be entertaining a world-renowned scholar and his spouse. The boys were enjoying a light repast of sardines served with good bread, cold vegetables, a variety of pickles, and rich, frothy beer. The girls did not eat the sardines but partook liberally of the beer, bread and pickles, augmented by good shaved ham. That was the very first time I had ever seen sardines in such an environment before, and although I had been enjoying them (furtively and surreptitiously) for years, this experience revolutionized my attitude. If sardines are good enough for an artist of immeasurable talent and for a scholar of the first water, both of them indisputable gentleman to the core, then they’re good enough for anybody.  Sardines, as Lena Grove would say in someone else’s book, ” . . . had come a fur piece.”

If you want to try sardines for the first time, then get a can of Port Clydes (in oil) and drain them; use a colander if you feel the need, but do not rinse them with water. Instead, sprinkle them with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice and just a bit of kosher salt, set them in a sealed container in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled and eat them with sour gherkins, raw celery and onions, and have your favorite beer with them. Dill toast is wonderful alongside, but rye Melba will suffice and saltines of any sort will do any time at all.

Sardines with ground mustard and shallots on black bread

Rankin County Redux

During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became legendary as dazzling gathering places filled with music, dance, drink (and a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans. In Jackson, this glittering venue of vice and iniquity became known as the Gold Coast.

Also known as East Jackson, the Gold Coast was that area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Though it covered barely two square miles, it was nationally notorious. In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins, who declares, “There is no coast except the hog wallows of the river banks, but plenty of gold courses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”

Goins cites one Pat Hudson as the first to see the lucrative possibilities of booze and gambling near the junction of two federal highways (80 and 49) across the river from Jackson. Before then there was only a scattering of gas stations, hot dog stands and a few corn liquor peddlers. Then a certain Sean Seaney began selling branded liquor, and his place, called The Jeep, became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze. He was soon joined by others. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of order, but as soon as he cleaned out one place, another opened up. After he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.

This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. In December of 1936, Governor Hugh White ordered the National Guard into a business on the Pearl River where liquor was seized, but a Rankin County chancellor later ruled that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement. The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision and by that time the liquor was flowing again, but the governor, too, bided his time and did no more.

By the Forties, the Gold Coast had flowered into a vigorous black nightclub scene. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (one of the few hotels in the South that catered to Negros) with its famous “Off-Beat Room”, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others featured entertainment by national acts such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horn and Billy Holiday as well as local blues legends Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson. These establishments even ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate, including one that offered a “special bus” to the Gold Coast from Farish and Hamilton Streets.

By 1946, Rankin County was paying the highest black market tax in the state, but these golden years of the Gold Coast came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when club owner Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met each other at place called the Shady Rest only to gun each other down in a shootout. Their deaths spelled the end for the old Gold Coast. Others had been killed, of course (bodies had been being fished from the Pearl for many years already), but this double homicide involving a local constable so aroused public opinion that afterwards operations never dared be so blatant.

In the 50s, the area became dominated by a colorful bootlegger named G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought the Gold Coast as securely under his suzerainty as any corrupt satrap might. But his reign, indeed, the Gold Coast as an entity, ended in 1966, when Mississippi finally repealed Prohibition and liquor became available in stores all over Jackson. (Not, ironically, in Rankin County, which is still “dry” for liquor.)

Beale Street is a big draw now, and the French Quarter will (thank God) always be the French Quarter. But the Gold Coast is gone. Attempts have been made at some sort of commemorative festival, but the good citizens of Rankin County seem to prefer that this celebrated venue of vice and joie de vivre remains lost in a maze of time, asphalt and blue laws.

My Baby Skillet

One of the most cherished and versatile elements of my batterie de cuisine is a well-seasoned 6” cast iron skillet. My sister Cindy, who I got it from, said it was her “baby skillet”. Cindy called anything of a diminutive nature a “baby”; to her, a hand spade was a “baby shovel”, and I swear I once heard her call Massachusetts a “baby state”. “Cindy, it’s the Bay State.” I observed. “That’s not what I said,” she replied. I let the subject drop; I’d learned a long time ago that you can’t win an argument with a big sister.

This little skillet is just the thing you need to use for baking short breads in small amounts. Suppose you’re having just a few people over for breakfast, and you want to make biscuits. This little honey is perfect baking for good half-dozen (or four catheads). It’s also ideal for a pan of cornbread that will feed at least four and a meat loaf that will feed three. When it comes to baked pasta, I would dearly love to have more of these for a manicotti party, one pan of four for every two people. They’re inexpensive compared to a cast-iron Dutch oven, but if you’re lucky like me you get one from someone you love.

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