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 mult-imillion-dollar enterprise, so it just became more bother than it was worth.

The only drawback to poke salad 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. I like it with scrambled eggs and onion, and it’s wonderful in an omelette.

Asparagus Florentine

Perhaps the most charming aspect of language is folk etymology in which an unfamiliar word from another language is replaced by one more recognizable to native speakers. The most outstanding example of this process in English is sparrow grass, the old name for asparagus, which took root in the language in Shakespeare’s day and flourished until the reign of Queen Victoria. During that time, calling this vegetable asparagus carried “an air of stiffness and pedantry”, as the vegetable itself still does to this day.

Oh, yes; asparagus has undeniable snob appeal. A certain sign of this is that in the spring, when asparagus spears begin to storm the produce markets, food columnists wax rapturous over ways to ruin the flavor of this delicate vegetable by stir-frying it with peppers in vile olive oil (with garlic, no less), dusting it with every manner of herbs and spices (even curry, for Pete’s sake) or covering it with a sauce that overpowers the vegetable (Salsa? You’ve GOT to be kidding …). Like many spring vegetables including green or “English” peas, few people know what fresh asparagus tastes like, since the spears you get in the markets are invariably days old, and by then the flavor has been lost. People who grew up on a farm will remember how essential it was to pick sweet corn in a short time before cooking because the sugars in the kernels begin to revert to starch immediately after the ears are taken from the stalks. While asparagus has a lower sugar or starch content than both corn and peas, the same process is at work, and nothing can compare to freshly-harvested asparagus prepared for the table.

Alas and alack, asparagus is not widely grown in the South; it is a cool weather vegetable, which means that in the South, particularly the lower South, we do not have the requisite long periods of cold weather needed for the plant. It’s also somewhat fussy, requiring more care than most people are willing to devote to a perennial vegetable that takes up a lot of room and has a very short season. If you’re lucky enough to know someone diligent enough to grow asparagus, more power to you, but most of us have to settle with the stalks in the market. Buy bunches as soon as you see them in the produce section, and you’re lucky if you’ll find them upright in a container with water.

Freshly-picked asparagus is best served simply, with butter or a simple cream sauce. This Florentine is admittedly a stretch, but given that the spears I’m using and likely those you will are well past their salad days–in the most literal sense–I feel justified. A Florentine of any designation includes spinach, but a Florentine sauce can be any number of sauces, usually a simple sauce, but here a Mornay. Trim spears tough ends, boil in lightly-salted water until just tender, drain and cool immediately. Make your sauce with a butter roux, whole cream and a good grated hard, dry cheese, adding a cup of fresh stemmed and chopped spinach lightly cooked in butter. In for a penny, in for a pound, I recommend a thick sauce.  Spoon cooled sauce over steamed spears in a lightly buttered oven-proof dish, topping with a bit more grated cheese and broiling until lightly browned and bubbly.

How to Fry Baloney

Though we must stop short of calling it a ritual, frying baloney does take some presence of mind. First, the baloney must be thinly sliced, and the peel around the rim must be removed and chewed. (Swallowing is not recommended.) You must also cut slits in the slice, no less than four radiating from the middle, or else your baloney is going to buckle, and you don’t want that to happen. Deep-fried baloney is the food of the gods, but if you’re just frying slices, you don’t want a lot of grease in the skillet. Finally, baloney must be blistered, some say even to the point of being singed (high five) before putting it between two mayonnaise-laden slices of Sunshine soft white sandwich bread.

Egg Salad Angst

Egg salad simply screams of ladies’ luncheons and soda fountain sandwiches. Pimento and cheese once simpered under a similar association, but now, thanks to the same Southern machismo ethic that has established eating a white bread Vidalia onion sandwich dribbling Duke’s mayo over the kitchen sink virtually a rite of passage, P&C has transcended effete associations and is even found served in micro-breweries with an unassuming yet authoritative amber larger and parsnip chips. Still and all, the South is nothing if not traditional, and while egg salad might certainly be served on pumpernickel at some happy hour buffet in a west Florida leather bar, by far for the most part it endures as a staple at occasions with a heavy distaff attendance such as christenings, weddings and of course those endless, inevitable funerals.

Basic egg salad is just chopped, cooked—usually boiled—eggs blended with a sauce or emulsion to make a spread, but as with most simple recipes, variations abound and additions are discussed, debated and occasionally disputed. For instance, olives seem to be a traditional addition throughout the nation, but most recipes from the South tend to include black olives whereas above the Mason-Dixon Line green olives with pim(i)ento stuffing is the general rule. Woody Allen trivialized egg salad in his 1966 feature film debut as the object of Phil Moskowitz’s search for the stolen recipe of the Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, giving heft to my argument that when it comes to egg salad people can work themselves into a steaming froth over seemingly the most insignificant details, which puts egg salad right up there with art, law and religion, right where it should be.

Though I’m certain some misguided, unbalanced individuals actually do make egg salad with scrambled eggs, or horror of horrors compounded mangled omelets, or even worse God help us please not mashed quiche, use whole boiled eggs. Peeled. I mash then with a wide-tined fork (swear to God I knew a gal who used a baby food jar) and add mayonnaise to bind. Adjust the amount to your own tastes; me, I like it a little on the dry/chunky side as opposed to the creamy/smooth. I use canned, pitted jumbo black olives, and a little olive oil is a nice touch. Finely-chopped celery and green onion give egg salad a better texture, a dash of vinegar gives it a little bite. I like mine peppery, served on rye toast with a light Pilsner, not larger, you knuckle-dragging Philistines.

 

Buildings of Mississippi: A Review

Books about Mississippi architecture tend to focus on poverty-stricken African-American communities or the antebellum and Victorian-era mansions of the state’s white elite. Buildings of Mississippi finally puts them side-by-side, as they actually have been for centuries.

“Our goal from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes,” said co-author Jennifer Baughn. “This book helps illustrate how the two races did interact in some ways, and in other ways were separated.”

Nine years in the making, Buildings of Mississippi is the 26th volume of the Buildings of the United States (BUS) series commissioned by the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). This series documents state-by-state the full range of structures that are deemed of historical or architectural interest by experts in the field. Jennifer V. O. Baughn is Chief Architectural Historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the author of numerous articles on the state’s historic buildings. The late Michael W. Fazio was Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Mississippi State University and coauthor of Buildings across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture. Mary Warren Miller is Executive Director Emeritus of the Historic Natchez Foundation and coauthor of The Great Houses of Natchez.

Illustrated with photographs and maps, and newly redesigned in a more user-friendly format, readers of Buildings of Mississippi will come to know the history of 557 sites, illustrated by 249 photographs (all but 33 taken by Baughn and Fazio) and 29 maps. Along with stately plantation houses (and their housings for slaves), the volume surveys a range of other locations such as Native American mounds and villages, 20th-century enclaves built for sawmill workers, neighborhoods that bolstered black Mississippians during segregation, and the vernacular streetscapes of small towns as well as modern architecture in Greenville, Meridian, Jackson, and Biloxi.

The buildings are grouped into twelve regions that move roughly from the southwest corner of the state to the north, the east, the center, and then south to the Gulf Coast. Buildings of Mississippi includes such wide-ranging places as Longwood and Wister Gardens, Poor Monkeys, Club Ebony, and Dockery Farms in the Delta, the Coca Cola Company in McComb, Ginntown Rosenwald School near Tylertown, Holy Child Jesus Catholic Church in Canton, Shiloh Methodist Campground and Piney Woods School in Rankin County, the fabulous St. Michaels Catholic Church (round with a clam shell roof) in Biloxi, and the oldest house in the Mississippi Valley, “Old Spanish Fort”/de la Pointe-Krebs House in Pascagoula.

Baughn said that the books in the series used to be hardback, and were more like reference works. That seemed puzzling to her, since reference books on such a specialized subject have primarily professional appeal. The new field guide format is a recent innovation, and Baughn considers it a more natural option, more appealing to a wider readership, people who might put the book in a car or backpack for a trip. Buildings of Mississippi is also the first book in the series to be all color.

“The criteria for inclusion were determined both by the SAH and our own knowledge and research,” Baughn said. “We generally focused on buildings that were on the National Register, or in the case of buildings from the 1960s through the present, we tried to identify those that were important for historical events or had won architectural awards. And once we started writing, as Michael Fazio said, the building had to have ‘a hook, a story’ that would make it an interesting entry for the reader.”

The buildings must still be standing, so there are no non-existent buildings included. They also must be accessible from a public right-of way or open to the public. “Unfortunately,” Baughn said, “that criteria excluded many rural houses that can’t be seen from a public right-of-way and aren’t public houses.”

“The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), considers this to have an international audience. Well, I don’t know international audiences,” Baughn said. “My audience is the average Mississippian who enjoys history and historic buildings, and who likes going out in the state, driving around their town, small or large. I thought if these people were happy with the work, then international visitors would be happy, too.”

Buildings of Mississippi is an important work that brings the research on our state’s historic architecture up-to-date. The scholarship supporting the text is impeccable. The format is accessible to armchair historians and weekend travelers as well as tourists, and the illustrations—particularly the photographs—are lavish and outstanding. This book belongs in the hands of all Mississippians intrigued with our past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hollandaise Sauce

The sauce is called hollandaise (“Dutch sauce”) because of the amount of butter used. At least, that’s one theory; like most old recipes, nobody really knows. This is my method for hollandaise, and while it’s the reverse of most methods, which add the eggs to the butter, it works quite well. Simply whip three large egg yolks at room temperature–be careful not to get any whites in the mix–and a teaspoon warm water until light and fluffy. Then, whisking continually, slowly dribble in a half cup (1 stick) warm (melted) butter (unsalted). Add a squeeze of lemon juice, a dash of cayenne, and salt to taste. It shouldn’t break, but if it starts to separate, whisk in another teaspoon warm water.

Candied Sweet Potatoes

Okay, let’s straighten this out once and for all. Those big orange roots you find in the grocery store are not yams. Got that? As a matter of fact, it’s a good bet that most of the people who read this blog have never even seen a yam unless they’ve traveled to an area with a significant West Indian or Asian population or to the tropics where yams are grown.

Yam is the common name for some plant species in the genus Dioscorea (family Dioscoreaceae) that form edible tubers. These are perennial herbaceous vines cultivated for the consumption of their starchy tubers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Oceania. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a sweet-tasting, tuberous root native to tropical America related to morning glories.

Sweet potatoes are a staple of the American South. The root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin of yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, or beige. Its flesh is rich and succulent. The sweet potato is the state vegetable of North Carolina, and the Sweet Potato Capitol of the World is Vardaman, Mississippi. Sweet potatoes came to be called yams by West Indian and African natives and the name endured. To prevent confusion, the USDA requires sweet potatoes labeled as “yams” to also be labeled as “sweet potatoes”. If you see a can of yams in the store, you’ll find “sweet potatoes” in the ingredients.

So there. This recipe comes from April McGreger, a fellow native of Calhoun County and author of Sweet Potatoes, the tenth volume in University of North Carolina’s wonderful “Savor the South” series. April is a splendid cook, but I find her technique a little fussy. I simply assemble the ingredients in the skillet, put a lid on it, and bake at 350 until the potatoes are tender and the liquid reduced.

The genius of southern food is less in its individual dishes than in the overall composition of the meal. Syrupy sweet potatoes balance earthy field peas and sharp turnip greens shot through with hot pepper vinegar. Crispy cornbread swoops in to sop it all up. Here is a particularly nuanced version of ubiquitous candied sweet potatoes that makes use of that coffee can of bacon grease my grandparents and parents kept above the stove.

MAKES 6 SERVINGS

4 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Layer the sweet potatoes in a large cast-iron skillet. Dot with the butter and bacon drippings, and sprinkle with the sugar and salt. Pour the water and lemon juice over the sweet potatoes and cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid or foil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the cover and simmer until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the sauce is thick, 30-35 minutes more. Baste the sweet potatoes with the syrup from time to time, being careful not to break them up.

Blackberry Winter

The day Jimmy went into rehab Debby put in a garden. I kept telling her it was too early, but Jimmy would be out in a month, and she wanted everything to look promising. He was in what once was a church to get rid of a demon, to build a future, and the very day he entered was sunny and warm.

Jimmy’s commitment had been court ordered after he’d busted up the pool hall on Radley Road and sent Dennis Sprayberry to the ER with six broken ribs. Jimmy wasn’t always like this, meaning the type who’d take a cue and beat the ever-living hell out of the guy who was the best man at his wedding, a guy who was also the smallest football player in Mississippi ever to make All-State. No, Jimmy was good once, and things just went bad, but before that he and Debby got married in the same church he was now exorcising his devil. Dennis couldn’t bring himself to press charges, so Jimmy wasn’t in that much trouble, but he needed to mind himself.

Debby just couldn’t understand how it had all gone wrong, since for a long time all Jimmy did was drink a little too much beer every now and then but bit by bit he kept drinking more, got off all by himself a lot of times and nobody could talk to him and when we did he just said nothing he had going was doing right. And it wasn’t. He was hanging by a thread with his job, and when he almost cut his thumb off in an air-conditioner changing out the condenser and tested for alcohol for the third time he was fired. That’s the night he ended up down Radley Road and tried to kill Dennis. The sheriff played on the same All-State team, and he told the prosecutor to throw the book at him, but things worked out so that Jimmy had to spend a month in rehab and two years under observation.

So when Jimmy went in, Debby planted a garden in the cold earth under not much sun and a lot of rain. She went to the garden store in Tupelo and bought tomatoes and peppers, squash and cucumber seedlings, which she set out in a bed off the porch. She said she wanted her and Jimmy to be able to sit there in the afternoons and watch the sun go down over the garden. She said she was going to make Easter eggs so she and Jimmy could go looking for them the day after he got out. I knew it was a bad idea, but I’d said all I could. Good Friday came, and Debby got a call. Jimmy had broken out, so they had to put him in jail for violation of a court order. That night a cold wind came in and threw down a hard frost. Come morning the garden was nothing but frozen rows with withered plants, and all I could do was be there.

“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” she said. I just shook my head; I didn’t. I was blinded by hope, too. I loved my brother Jimmy more than she did.

 

Brennan’s Creamed Eggs Chartres

Here’s a great recipe for brunch or for a light buffet any time of the day. I always add a tablespoon of freshly-grated Parmesan to the egg mixture.

1 cup finely chopped/shredded white onions
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups of milk
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced (reserving 4 center slices for garnishment)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of paprika

In a large skillet sauté onion in butter until clear/transparent; stir in flour and cook slowly 3-5 minutes more. Blend in milk and egg yolk until smooth. Add salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, 8-10 minutes longer or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, add sliced eggs and mix lightly. Spoon into 2 8-oz casseroles and sprinkle with paprika and Parmesan cheese mixed together. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbling. Garnish with eggs slices; serves two. This is a wonderful breakfast or brunch recipe, and can be served in a casserole with toasted French bread slices.