About Boiling Shrimp

In my experience, the best procedure for boiling shrimp does not involve a rolling boil, which will shrink and toughen the meat. Instead, raw shrimp are dropped into lightly boiling water to cover and stirred until the water comes back to a shimmer. At that point, the meat is cooked through, ready to drain, cool, and serve.

Potato Candy

Soften a stick of butter and eight ounces of cream cheese (don’t use the low-fat), mix with a tablespoon pure vanilla extract, four cups confectioner’s sugar, and a cup of grated coconut. Chill mixture for about an hour or until very firm. Dust your hands with powdered sugar and form into irregularly-shaped balls.  Roll in or dust with cocoa (nothing’s keeping you from using paprika), stud the surface with nuts of some kind (of course I use pecan pieces) and  freeze before serving.

 

Oyster Soup

This light soup is good cool on a warm afternoon or warm on a cool evening.

Add three cups chopped fresh or two cups well-drained frozen spinach and a cup of quartered artichoke hearts to about a quart of broth seasoned with thyme, parsley, chives, and a bit of garlic.

Add a half quart of drained oysters dusted with pepper. Bring to a simmer, and hold on heat for a quarter hour or so.

Love a Duck

If you don’t know a duck hunter, befriend one; they always seem to have an extra fowl in the freezer, and will invariably tell you how to how to cook them.

After all, they shot the damn things.

Hunters and fishermen who cook really well – like Billy Joe Cross, bless his soul – should be designated national treasures. Heck, if Japan can give a tofu maker a house, we ought to be able to buy people like Billy Joe a Cadillac.

Like many if not most game recipes, this one involves a marinade. Acidic marinades tenderize, and as a general rule are for larger game, but with duck breasts, the marinade is for flavor. For every pound of boned duck breast, use a mix of a quarter cup of soy sauce, two tablespoons each brown sugar and olive oil, a couple of cloves of minced garlic, and a dash or two of black pepper.

Marinate for three hours. Stuff each breast with sliced onion and jalapeno, wrap in bacon, and spear. Grill or broil.

Fannye’s Pigeons

Fannye Cook was a pioneer environmentalist who championed the protection and preservation of Mississippi’s rich natural environment. She led the campaign to create the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, and its educational and research arm, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.

Fannye Addine Cook was born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi on July 19, 1889. By that time, Mississippi like most of the South was catastrophically denuded of the great virgin forests that stretched from east Texas to tidewater Virginia. In A Turn in the South, V.S. Naipaul spoke with a woman in Jackson who said, “When I was a little girl—say in 1915—they were still clearing (the forests). They would go and chop around these mighty oaks and they would then die and they would cut them. When they were going to clear out a field they would kill the trees. I never paid any attention to it. It was what they did.”

As James Cummins notes in his Preface, “the blackland prairie of eastern Mississippi had been cultivated to less than one percent of its former size, “White-tailed deer, Louisiana black bear, American alligator, wood duck, and other species were nearly eliminated by lawless exploitation. Streams and rivers were choked with eroding soil. The idea of caring for the land and its community of inhabitants, what writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold called a ‘land ethic,’ had not taken hold in Mississippi.”

That this biography of Fannye includes in its first few pages the following vivid documentation of passenger pigeons in Mississippi strikes a strong, graceful and resounding note against a bleak lack of consideration for the natural world. The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird, perhaps even the most abundant vertebrate, on the planet. Audubon once watched a flock pass overhead for three days and estimated that at times more than 300 million pigeons flew by him each hour.

But these birds were slaughtered unmercifully during the 19th century, and after a description of one massacre, Audubon wrote, “Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease, as they not unfrequently quadruple their numbers yearly, and always at least double it.”

From this perspective, these numbers seem incredulously inflated, yet as the slaughters continued and the forests fell–particularly the great beech woods of the Ohio Valley–the passenger pigeon declined in number with proportionate rapidity, and their extinction was sealed by the death of the last known member of the species, a female named Martha (after the first First Lady) that died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Though many of Cook’s specimens at the old Jefferson Street museum were destroyed by water during the 1979 Jackson flood, her documents and other materials form the core of the 18,000-volume library in the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. It was there I sought information about the last passenger pigeons in Mississippi. A long-time librarian at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Mary Stripling, provided me with this information concerning passenger pigeons in Mississippi.

“Jesse,” Mary wrote, “You are grasping at straws looking for the last one sighted in Mississippi.” She then cited several primary resources for more information, and also gave me the last sight records in their collection, adding that they appear to be handwritten by Miss Cook herself.

Year:  1848; Observer:  T. J. Pierce; Place: Brookhaven – Bayou Pierre. “One fall the pigeons came one afternoon by the thousands. There were so many and they were so thick the sun could not be seen and they darkened the sky. They flew low, many of them only 10 or 12 feet, so low that they could be knocked down with brush. They settled in the trees just on edge of grandfather’s farm and weighted them down. Many men and boys went out and shot them to eat — meat dark about like guinea. Only this one time were they seen there.”

Year : 1878; Observer: G. M. Cook;  Place: Copiah County – Utica. “Still a good many pigeons in Pearl River swamp and on hills. Daddy killed several at one shot out of a flock of about 20 in the top of a big pine tree over 100 ft. high (short leaf pine). In 1858 very large flocks so large and so low that Daddy and other school kids would run thru them with arms spread. The birds moved out of their way just far enough to keep from getting caught by the children.”

Undoubtedly straggling bands of passenger pigeons survived in Mississippi for  perhaps a decade afterwards but were likely exterminated well before the turn of the century. Yes, I was grasping at straws, but I knew where to look for the information I needed about the natural world in the state of Mississippi and thanks to Fannye Cook I found it. Whether you’re a hunter, a hiker or just someone loves Mississippi, buy this book, support local conservation groups, and care for your share of the planet.

And remember Martha.

Banana Pepper Relish

Seed and dice a pound of sweet banana peppers (throw a hot one in if you like), a white onion, mix with a cup of shredded cabbage, a grated carrot, and two finely-minced cloves of garlic. Dust with salt and sugar (about 2:1), toss to mix well, pack into jars, and cover with hot white vinegar. Seal and store for a week before serving. This is great with grilled meats–particularly sausages–and spicy beans.

Culinary Jackson

Does Jackson, Mississippi have a distinct culinary signature?

The short answer is no. Even the city’s–somewhat recently distinguished–signature recipe, comeback 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 commercial ingredients–ketchup, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce and pepper–easily stored, and versatile.

So as to a distinct culinary presence, well, no. What we have in Jackson is a cuisine typical of cities throughout the Mid-South: Herculean breakfasts featuring lard biscuits, grits and rice, eggs and pork, 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 that speak of place and past.

About Waiting

Anyone who prides themselves on their patience and understanding should wait tables for a week or so to find out just how patient and understanding they really are.

Many people are notoriously insensitive to workers in the food service industry; just ask any waitperson, bartender or cook. Any given one of them doubtless has several stories to tell of rude and insensitive if not to say vulgar treatment at the hands of a patron. The business of food and drink is a service industry, and it’s no coincidence that the word service comes from the Latin root servus, meaning slave. The food industry trains people to be servile, to cater to customers (and management) in an overtly deferential way because so much of a restaurant’s livelihood depends on steady patronage.

I’m not suggesting that anybody who works in the business is at the beck and call of every s.o.b. with enough money to buy a hamburger, but some people certainly seem to think so. These customers, either out of ignorance, stupidity, or a delusional sense of self-worth, will exhaust and demean a waiter, detracting not only from their own enjoyment of a meal but also (far more critically) from that of others.

In her autobiography, My Life as a Restaurant, Alice Brock, owner of Alice’s Restaurant, describes the situation well and offers a very human response:

I won’t stand for being treated like a piece of public property or a freak and I will never allow a customer to get away with giving an employee a hard time. The customer is NOT always right.  Being a “service industry” makes people think we are just computerized slaves.

One of the high-lights of an evening is to hear of a customer bringing a waitress to tears…I rush out to the dining room, pull their plates off the table and point to the door: “OUT…OUT…GET OUT AND LEARN SOME MANNERS!” To try to please the “difficult” customer at the expense of my fellow workers is ridiculous. Some people just have an attitude. They upset the waiter or waitress, who in turn upsets me, who in turn upsets the whole evening. It’s not worth it to try to please or placate these bitter, unhappy people, better to put them out at the first sign of trouble.

This is something I have to be there to do…it’s hard to tell or expect someone else to do it. Sometimes I’m wrong, or the waitress is wrong, but better to lose a customer than a co-worker. (p.119)

Ms. Brock is a notable exception, since most managerial-type people treat their waitstaff as expendable. And, to be fair, most people who eat out frequently learn how to deal courteously with waiters, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is a learning process. Nowadays, dining out is almost always coupled with another experience (a movie, a play or some other sort of public entertainment) but at one time dining out itself was often taken as a singular occasion to be enjoyed on its own merits rather than as an appendage to another event.

This happy time was when restaurants were successful not merely on the basis of turnover, but more on the quality of the foods they offered, the comfortable atmosphere they maintained, and the genial clientele they accommodated. Great care was taken not only with the menu, which usually involved many courses designed to fit the season as well as the particular talents of the cooks and the general style of the restaurant itself, but also with the presentation, the service, the table, seating, lighting, and atmosphere. Such staging demanded a great deal of planning as well as much care in the execution.

I have seen some degree of return to this tradition, but it is still rare to find a restaurant that does not cater to some abominable god of expediency. I’ve often encountered difficulty when dining out and trying to take my time between one course and the next with a pause to have a bit of beverage and conversation because waitpersons tend to interrupt with an insistent, “Are you alright?” as if to say that by not yelling at them for not bringing the food immediately that they were falling down on their job. The reason for this is that waiters are trained to turn over tables as quickly as possible and since most patrons have had the “20% tip” rule-of-thumb drummed into their heads waiters are eager to get the tip and get you out in order to get the next. Me, I tip as well as I can; just want you all to know that.

Waiting is dancing with  dialogue. I’ve known champion waiters from both sides of the kitchen doors, and I’ve been subject to the attentions of some world-class bartenders.  (Incidentally, bartenders, as a general rule,  just will not put up with a bunch of bullshit; trust me, I know.) Perhaps what I’m describing is simply an example of what is being called a decline in civility, but as Alice says, “Some people just have an attitude,” and in my book as well as hers such people require adjustment.

Painting By Els Driesen

The Pearl River’s Gold Coast

During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance, and drink–as well as 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, which doesn’t shut down for a damned thing.

In Jackson, Mississippi, it was the Gold Coast. Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast comprised the area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Though barely two square miles, its infamy was nation-wide.

In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins. “There is no coast except the hog-wallows of the river banks,” Goins wrote, “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 Pat Hudson as the first to see the possibilities of lucrative gambling near the junction of the two federal highways (Hwys. 80 and 49) across the river from Jackson where before then there were only gas stations, hot dog stands and liquor peddlers. Then San Seaney began selling branded liquor at his place, The Jeep, which soon became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze.

Others sprang up like mushrooms. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of law, but as soon as he cleaned out one den of iniquity another opened. Not only that, he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, and 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. Governor Hugh White, who in December of 1936 ordered National Guard troops into a business on the Pearl owned by one Guysell McPhail. Liquor was seized as evidence that the place should be shut down, but a Rankin County chancellor later dismissed the case, ruling that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate the local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement

The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision, but by that time liquor was flowing and dice were rolling. The governor bided his time.

In the late 40s, a thriving black nightclub culture was in place. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (the only hotel in Mississippi that catered to Negros) with its famous Off-Beat Room, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others, where national jazz and blues acts performed. These establishments ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate, including one that offered a special bus from Farish and Hamilton.

By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state., but these high times came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—often that big-ass catfish you hooked turned out to be someone you hadn’t seen in a while—but this double homicide so inflamed public opinion that illegal operations never dared be so blatant.

In the 50s, black businesses withered in the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education, and the Gold Coast became dominated by a white gangster named “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought area as securely under his suzerainty as a corrupt satrap. Red’s little kingdom withered with urban sprawl.

Beale Street is back–sort of–and the French Quarter will–Dieu merci!–always be the French Quarter, but the Pearl’s Gold Coast is gone, lost in a little enclave under the interstate, a puzzle of gravel, asphalt, and weathered walls.

Prudhomme’s Original Blackened Seasoning

When Paul Prudhomme came barreling out of the bayous in the early 80’s, his cuisine had an enormous impact on the restaurant industry. The Cajun rage prompted restaurants as far away as Seattle to place jambalayas, gumbos, and etouffees on their menus. But the one dish that inspired a genuine craze was his blackened redfish.

Prudhomme first served blackened redfish at K-Paul’s in March, 1980, serving 30 or 40 people. It was an immediate hit; within days the restaurant was full, and within weeks, there were long lines. The dish became so popular that redfish (aka red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus) populations in the Gulf were severely impacted. The fish were sucked up in nets by the truckload in the bays, passes, and inlets from the Florida Keys to Brownsville, Texas, nearly wiping out the overall redfish stock. Fortunately, intensive conservation efforts were put in place—one of them being the founding of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association—and the redfish rebounded.

Blackening is an ideal cooking method for fish, but you can also blacken meats and shellfish, even squash and eggplant. Foods to be blackened are dredged in melted butter, coated in the following seasoning mix, then seared in a super-heated skillet. Do not try blackening inside unless you have a commercial vent hood, and if outside you must use a gas flame. Prudhomme’s herbal measurements are excruciatingly precise, so I usually quadruple the recipe to make it less tedious.

1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne)
¾ teaspoon white pepper
¾ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves