The Quest for the Red Zeppelin

It was mid-morning, late June, and Harlan’s truck was shaking, rattling and rolling, kicking up dust on a snake-neck red gravel road two miles northwest of Big Creek, Mississippi, hauling ass over about a hundred square miles of nothing but hills and woods, heartache, hydrocodone and honky-tonks, bait shops and the occasional double-wide Baptist church, making our way by fits and starts to the backwaters of Grenada Lake.

I was red-eyed from a blunt, grumpy and road-weary, but Harlan was ebullient behind the wheel, grinning like a Tartar, regaling me with his cynical and irreverent observations on the state of mankind and his critical assessment of my life as a microcosm thereof.

“I told you not to take up with that nigga Ricky, but did you listen? No, hell no, you had to move into that shit-hole duplex he shared with his sister.”

“That was three years ago,” I said. “Besides, I was in love. People do stupid shit when they’re in love. What about that Miss Lauderdale County you took up with who threw that five-carat engagement ring you gave her out the car window while y’all were driving across Lake Pontchartrain?”

He just threw back his head and laughed and said she was worth every damn carat and if he’d had any sense at all he wouldn’t had fucked her sister. Suddenly it occurred to me how little I knew of Harlan; he never mentioned a wife, never mentioned children and always changed the subject.

*****

For the last week and more emphatically for the past hundred miles he’d been explaining why we were making our way to a farm near a place called Cave Hill in the middle of nowhere to get a damn watermelon. Harlan claims to be the world’s leading expert on watermelons. His qualifications include a stint in the Navy, a PhD from Cornell and 32 years in USDA’s harness. Along the way he picked up enough knowledge to make him a recognized authority on not just watermelons, but the melon family of plants. Watermelons, however, are his consuming passion and he has traveled across the globe in search of rare ancestral varieties. On his farm in George County, Mississippi he grows dozens of varieties, his prize crop the white-fleshed tsamma of the Kalahari. Harlan is a tall, solidly-built man with a head full of thick, unruly greying red hair, an incandescent smile and a voice like Sam Waterston. He’s also full of shit he can talk his way between tiger teeth and gets his way in places most people won’t even go, like this farm in the middle of nowhere that grows the world’s most sought-after watermelon.

Bred from ‘Black Diamond’, ‘Moon and Stars’, ‘Charleston Grey’ and the Ur melon itself, the so-called “vine of Sodom”, Citrullus colocynthis, the fabled Red Zeppelin is a pearly green oblong melon averaging some twenty-five pounds, it’s most distinctive characteristic a lateral ribbing of pale, subtly shaded stripes that gave the fruit an illusion of light ribbing unknown in Citrullus lanatus. The Zeppelin is also distinguished—indeed ennobled—by a dense, velvety flesh of surpassing succulence. Arabian weddings are scheduled around its ripening in late August, when second-field melons are just coming in from other farms.

The watermelons grow on a tall dune that climbs out of an indenture in the ridge south of the Schoona River, the “hill”, nd a deep depression of red, clay-ey sand with an ever-weeping spring. We’d been on the road a long time, and I was just flat-out tired from the long drive up from Jackson, tired of the road and impatient with Harlan, who seemed alternately fidgety and distant. I just wanted to get there, get the ‘Zepp and go.

*****

On a wave of bravado, I summed our mission up: “So basically this laid-back ass-lick who makes more money in a day than I see in a month working for a slick new regional calls you up out of the blue and says he’ll give you a dollar a word?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m all over it.”

*****

The sun, lowering towards the rim of the world, shone in random rays over a stark country sculpted by loggers  and downpours. The road turned round and around, looping over the hills, plunging down the hollows, following the design of some sweaty, half-drunk supervisor to no rational destination whatsoever.

Then suddenly there it was, a gently sloping sandy hill, glowing and imposing, on the red side of gold, a washy bronze in the pale summer sun. as lyrically striated and undulating as a vineyard and punctuated by tiny glowing ovals situated like so many open whole notes up and down a page of symphonic notation,  As we grew closer I made out upon that terraced hillside a lithe figure in loose, faded red overalls with wearing a broad red straw hat with a billowing polka-dot ribbon gently hoeing a row of bouldered vines.

“That’s Royce,” Harlan said. “Let’s go on up to the house.”

The house was a solid dogtrot overlooking the broad Loosa-Schoona bottom refitted with a wrap-around porch sheltering high windows framing mandalas of dangling melded Mardi Gras bead disks, swinging strings, mandalas and figurines of colored glass. Each line, angle and corner of every room of the house, glowed in turn with ruby, topaz, purple, aquamarine and a hundred dozen colors in between, refracting light into blades, bringing tears to my eyes.

As we stood in the foyer, Royce came in. “Hey, daddy,” Royce said.

“Hey, sugar-booger,” Harlan said, giving him a sloppy kiss and a pat on the fanny. “Where’s Owen?

“He’s on his way back from Grenada. He’ll be here around dark. Y’all come get something from the refrigerator and we’ll sit on the porch.”

The winds were warm and shifty, the gloaming sky a bowl of scattered dirty cotton clouds. We arranged ourselves on the back porch. Around dusk, a light breeze sprang from the bottom. We could see the cloud pushing it sailing north up the river from the backwaters of the reservoir. and a little slipper of a moon dangeled over the fading sun. Soon,we heard a car horn beeping in the distance.

“Here comes Owen,” Royce said, looking in the distance, and turning to Harlan said,“Where is she?”

Harlan exhaled, stretched, stamped his feet and said, “In the back floorboard. I had a nice little box made, put a couple of photos in with her. One of us on our honeymoon in Daytona Beach. We both were wearing cut-offs. We were so happy. I put a picture of you in there, the one at the Sugar Bowl after the touchdown. She did love you, Royce. Don’t rob yourself of that.”

Royce looked up and pointed to a faint star at mid-heaven. “There she is, Daddy. That little dot of light nobody can touch caught in the middle of the sky. Momma was a lightening bug in a beer bottle, caught up in a storm of her own making.”” Royce leaned over and patted Harlan on the knee. “I’m settled with it, daddy. You know, she always tried to keep herself pretty for you, even when she saw the end coming. Let’s go get her.”

Owen, dark and quiet, embraced Royce as we walked down the hill, the field sky blue around us . We came to the east side of the hill, and there in the shadows Harlan placed the glossy black box on a flat red rock beside the weedy rill leading from the slow spring. The wind began to rise again, and Royce said, “Bye, Momma. Go home now. Don’t hurt anymore.”

Harlan began crying and we helped him back up to the house where we sat on the porch and drank and told stories about love and pain and loss until the noise of the night coaxed us inside and abed. In the morning Harlan and I drove south with a clutch of pearly melons nestled in pine straw against the cab in the bed of the truck. An orange-red sun blistered the morning sky.

Broiled Whole Fish

In this case  catfish, but the method works with any small fish, not much less nor much more than a pound. Pat whole gutted, scaled and skinned fish dry–this is an important step–score and slather with softened butter flavored with thyme, garlic, pepper and paprika. Place in a well-oiled pan, add  lemons with juice  and put in a very hot oven until fish flakes easily to the bone. A final squeeze of fresh lemon and a drizzle of oil before serving adds much to the dish.

 

Another Levee, Another Body

On February 27, 2013, the beaten and burned body of Marco McMillian, the first “viable” openly gay candidate for public office in Mississippi, was found near a levee in rural Coahoma County, almost thirty-five years after Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco.

Breaking Through” (www.breakingthroughmovie.com) documents the brutal struggle of gay, lesbian and transgender American citizens for the acknowledgement of their basic civil rights, more specifically their ongoing efforts to find open representation and responsibilities in the political arena. This film provides the stories of men and women who occupy positions of leadership in public service by having overcome both overt and embedded obstacles. As these people speak, historic newspaper headlines and photographs flash across the screen, emphasizing antagonism and threats yet stopping well short of the ruthless details of murders, beatings and ostracism which could easily have been offered. The camera cuts from left to right in the interviews as these people tell of being open but not publicly open, of living life half-in, half-out, describing the crippling limitations homophobia held for them and still holds for present and future Americans.

These stories provide a record of the challenges inherent in everyone’s desire to be a member of the family of mankind. See this documentary, and as you watch it, bear Marco McMillian in mind. The struggle isn’t over; not by a long shot.

Prelude to Grilling Season

You can still buy the grill that brought the American male out of house and onto the patio. The Weber original kettle charcoal 18” grill sells for $89 at weber.com. You can also buy the charcoal originally made from Henry Ford’s Model T production in Edison’s plant—Kingsford—at your local supermarket, though chances are you already have a far more sophisticated grill in your garage that uses a rack of gas burners and lava/porcelain briquettes.

In either case, for most people, summer is the grilling season, and while many (me among them) consider a pan-fried steak, simply seasoned and glossy with butter in and of itself transcendent for any carnivore, grilled meats provide a platform for dozens of sauces and condiments. Here are three you should try over the summer. Perhaps you’ll find one so much to your liking that it will become part of your repertoire.

Marchand du vin is a simple wine reduction, red wine and beef stock with butter and aromatics. In a saucepan, melt a stick of butter, increase heat to medium, add a half cup each finely-minced white onion or shallots, scallions and thinly sliced mushrooms. When vegetables are cooked through, increase heat and add three tablespoons plain flour. Cook until lightly browned, add two cups good beef stock and a scant cup of red wine, Cabernet, Merlot or your choice. Flavor with thyme, bay and Worcestershire. Serve as a side for grilled meats.

Americans devour tomato ketchup in untold gallons daily, but before tomato ketchup became popular, mushroom ketchup, a holdover from colonial days, was a popular standby. This is one of my favorite sides for grilled beef, and it makes a really good spread for sandwiches as well. My standard recipe involves two pounds of mushrooms—white button, portabella, oyster, shiitake, whatever you like—stewed in enough water to cover with a cheesecloth bag of pickling spices, about two tablespoons. Puree the mushrooms with a cup of red wine vinegar and season with ground ginger, nutmeg and allspice, about a half teaspoon of each. I like to add Coleman’s mustard for kick.

Finally, here is another favorite with ancho chilies. Soak a half dozen ancho chilis in warm water until soft. Remove the chilies (reserving the water), take off stems, chop coarsely and set aside. Sauté in vegetable oil one large chopped onion with four minced cloves garlic. Add a small can tomato sauce and a quarter cup or so of red wine vinegar. Let this mixture cool and place with chilies and puree until smooth. Place back on the heat, season with a tablespoon fresh ground cumin, Mexican oregano and cayenne to taste. A sweetener of some form is optional. Reduce to the desired thickness. You can serve this warm or cool.

Drunk Bundt Cake

There walk among us those in which the spirit of rebellion is fierce and pervasive, scofflaws whose sense of outrage at any form of constraint extends even unto the recommended directions printed on the back of a box. The following variant reflects the decadence and degradation–not to mention the unmitigated arrogance–of such an approach to existence. Here wholesome milk is replaced by debased beer, which the originator assures us gives a “lighter, somewhat more robust and yeastier” taste to the cake.

Yes, well, no doubt. Mix one 15-ounce box yellow cake mix with 1/3 cup vegetable oil, 3 large eggs and one 12-ounce can lager like Budweiser or (God help you) PBR. Bake in bundt. Note this corruption extends even unto the icing, composed of 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar mixed with enough of the same beer to make a glaze.

Honestly, the nerve of some people.

Copycat Recipes

Within living memory, there was a time when commercial products and establishments went a long way to convince consumers that their products were “Just like!” if not “Better than!” homemade. This marketing was still going on when I was a kid in the Sixties even though for the most part Baby Boomers were a generation removed from true home cooking, by which I mean cooking that largely involved fresh (unprocessed) dairy, meats and produce. While “homemade” is making a comeback as a marketing tag thanks to a resurgence of what I like to call the “Whole Earth” attitude—God bless Stewart Brand and all who sail in him—there’s a counter-movement in marketing based on selling products that are the very antithesis of homemade, meaning those developed specifically for restaurant franchises. And while you can buy selected products from Starbucks, Taco Bell and TGI Friday’s, you’re not going to find specialty items such as McDonald’s “special sauce” for a Big Mac.

It’s only logical that recipes for successful restaurant recipes are a closely-guarded secret. As a child, I knew a woman who claimed to know the Sanders’ Original Recipe of “11 herbs and spices”, one of the most famous trade secrets in the catering industry, by virtue of the fact that she had worked in a franchise outlet in Grenada, Mississippi for three months while her husband was in the Grenada County lock-up for beating up a grease monkey who’d stolen a gun from the glove compartment of his car while it was in for an oil change. She didn’t really know it, of course; her fried chicken tasted nothing like it, though perhaps it might have to her after her daily bottle of vodka. It wasn’t until August 2016 that the recipe was made public when the Chicago Tribune reported that a nephew by marriage of Colonel Sanders, had claimed to have found a copy of the original KFC fried chicken recipe on a handwritten piece of paper in an envelope in a scrapbook.

As journalists of fortitude and integrity, Tribune staffers verified the recipe before publication, and after “some trial and error” they decided the chicken should be soaked in buttermilk and coated once in the following breading mixture, then fried in oil at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown. With the addition of MSG (in an unspecified amount) they claimed the recipe produced fried chicken “indistinguishable” from fried chicken they had purchased at KFC.

11 Spices – Mix With 2 Cups White Flour

2/3 Ts (tablespoons) Salt
1/2 Ts Thyme
1/2 Ts Basil
1/3 Ts Oregano
1 Ts Celery salt
1 Ts Black pepper
1 Ts Dried mustard
4 Ts Paprika
2 Ts Garlic salt
1 Ts Ground ginger
3 Ts White pepper

While the KFC empire, which includes some 23 thousand restaurants worldwide with major markets in China (4,563 units), the United States (4,491 units), Japan (1,181 units), the United Kingdom (900 units) and South Africa (736 units), is built upon fried chicken, many people consider the appurtenances: biscuits, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, etc. essential to the KFC experience. And one of those essentials is cole slaw, which, after a considerable digression, leads me back to copycat recipes.

As a matter of fact, you can find a copycat recipe for McDonald’s special sauce; several have been online for almost a decade. As a matter of fact, you can find a copycat recipe for damn near anything; dozens of cookbooks and websites are devoted to the subject, and there’s no real reason to think they’re not any good. I’m sure most of them are delicious. But I’m of the studied opinion that foods are a lot more than the sum of their parts, that is to say that does KFC copycat cole slaw ever taste exactly the same if you’re not eating it out of a Styrofoam red-and-white container with a stylized image of Harlan Sanders on it?

You tell me.

KFC Copycat Cole Slaw

13 cups chopped cabbage This is about 1 large head of cabbage or 2 medium heads of cabbage
1 green bell pepper (optional, there is no bell pepper in the KFC recipe)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped carrot 1 medium size carrot
2 cups Miracle Whip Light
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil

If you are lucky enough to have a food processor, get it out of your cupboard. Start to cut up the cabbage and place it in the processor. While cutting up the cabbage, also cut up small slices of green pepper, onion, and carrot and add to the processor. Mixing up the ingredients this way will help distribute the flavors throughout the slaw. You may want to use a little less of the onion, or green bell pepper, but do use all of the carrot. If you do not have a food processor, no problem, simply chop the cabbage, onions, and carrots into small pieces.  Add chopped green bell pepper if desired. Now mix Miracle Whip, vinegar, oil, and sugar until you have a smooth mixture. The taste should be sweet with just a hint of vinegar. The amount of dressing may be increased or decreased according to the amount of slaw you are making. Add to cut up veggies and mix well. Let stand at least one hour to let flavors mix.

Cleopatra’s Melons

Shakespeare has it that among the many wiles Cleopatra cast in her seduction of Marc Anthony were “melons lush in flavor, firm and sweet, newly-plucked from the narrows of the Nile.” Cleo’s melons changed the course of history, but the fruits have enraptured mankind far before the last Ptolemy wrought havoc among the Romans.

Melons, along with other indispensable things such as coffee, algebra, tulips and zero, came to us through the Middle East, whose cultures, at peace or at war, have always served as a disseminating platform for goods and ideas between East and West. Here in the South, two melons – watermelon and cantaloupe – are queens; both have ripened on the banks of the Nile for over five thousand years—the watermelon from West Africa (Benin seems to be ground zero for the fruit and muskmelons from the opposite direction, Persia—and they thrive on the banks of the Mississippi as well.

While you can buy watermelons year-round, it’s just not a good idea to purchase a melon in the winter. Chances are, these melons are the tail-end of a second-field crop from Central America and will look and taste like pink cucumber. As a general rule of thumb, melon season in the American South corresponds quite neatly with our hurricane season, which you can remember with this rhyme:

June: Too soon!
July: Stand by!
August: Look out you must!
September: Remember!
October: All over!

I’ve jumped the gun and gotten decent melons at the tail end of May and I’ve even had a few November melons from the Missouri bootheel that were really good, but June through October is when melons are at their best, with August the peak month.

It’s also not a good idea to buy seedless watermelons because watermelon seeds release an enzyme that promotes the ripening process. You’ll find people who’ll tell you a seedless watermelon can taste just as good as one with seeds, but in my personal experience this simply does not hold true.

Buy a watermelon that is proportionate; do not get one that is narrow at one end, because the smaller end will be unripe; the stem and flower scab should both be in the very center of their respective ends of the fruit. Another good sign of a ripe watermelon is a yellow bottom, sure evidence that it has ripened on the ground. When it comes to thumping a watermelon, don’t thump it: knock on it; take your knuckles and rap on it like you would a door. Listen for a hollow sound, not a tight sound. It should be firm and heavy for its size.

Cantaloupes, like all smaller melons, should be on the soft side of firm and aromatic. The blossom end of a ripe cantaloupe should give slightly and the fruit itself should be yellowish between the mesh and — since they are a type of muskmelon — have a fairly strong odor. Watermelon should be served chilled, but cantaloupe (along with all muskmelons such as honeydew, Santa Claus, casaba and the rest) should be served at room temperature. Both types benefit from a salty accent, but instead of salting, try this:

Watermelon Salad with Bacon and Feta

Fry or broil lean bacon until crisp. Season with freshly-ground black pepper, break into pieces and sprinkle over chilled, cubed watermelon along with pieces of feta (you can also use a blue cheese for this). Sliced chilled cucumbers are a nice option. A little fresh lime adds zest to the flavors.

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.