Angels in the Saddle

We all know people who simply will not listen to argument, who will not take “no” for an answer, and my buddy Dale Harper is one of them. I love him dearly, but his opinions are unshakable, particularly when it comes to food. Dale has been cooking all his life, knows food, knows people, and will tell you in a heartbeat what will fly and what won’t. So when I told him a dish with oysters and bacon would go over like a lead zeppelin, he just laughed, patted me on the top of my head as if I were an infant and poured me another beer, which of course obliged me to listen.

“Jesse, Jesse, Jesse …” he said, shaking a jaw that boasts a red beard longer than my forearm. “Your problem is you do not think! What you have are two ingredients that are simply made for one another! Consider the oyster, a creature of the seas, and while delicious on its own, is lacking in that one essential ingredient that is dear to the palates of us Homo sapiens.”

“You’re calling me “sapiens” when you just said I can’t think?”

“Be hush,” he said, thrusting his beard forward in a gesture of authority. “Of course you think, but you don’t think enough. You have to consider things in many lights and from many angles, in this case an examination of contrasts. The oyster lacks fat!” With that he plunged his forefinger onto the bar and then pointed it at me in accentuation, a superfluous gesture, since his beard was already putting my eyes out.

That’s how Dale brushed away my conviction that angels on horseback is one of those Wayback recipes like rumaki that’s been consigned to the cholesterol woodshed. Upon some less-than-sober reflection, I thought, “Why not?” Angels on horseback have been around for a very long time, and the recipe is simple: wrap oysters seasoned with black pepper or cayenne in bacon (trim it as you like), skewer and broil (I don’t recommend grilling) until bacon is thoroughly cooked. Bring the bacon to room temperature before wrapping the oysters, which you should pat dry before skewering. Turn once for crisping. Don’t use toothpicks, but if you do soak them in water to minimize scorching.

Smoked Oyster Spread

Soften cream cheese, season with ground black pepper and blend with an equal amount of drained, minced smoked oysters. Green onions, finely chopped black olives or mild peppers are options. I always add about a tablespoon or so of the liquid from the can to kick up the smokiness. Flavor with horseradish, lemon, and cayenne; no salt! Mix until smooth. For a dip, thin with mayo and/or sour cream.

 

NOLA Barbecued Shrimp

You’ll find no simpler recipe for shrimp from the Crescent City and none with more pungency. Shrimp, butter and pepper—black pepper; lots of it mind you, and the freshest grind you can get—are the only ingredients; any additions will ruin it. Use heads-on shrimp, 16-20 count, nothing smaller. I’m not saying you can’t make this dish with peeled shrimp of a smaller count, but I’d die first and go to hell shortly thereafter if I did. This should be obvious to most people.

Pat shrimp dry and place in the bottom of a shallow baking dish, skillet or casserole. Drizzle with melted butter—one stick to one pound of shrimp—and top with generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Place on the highest rack in your hottest oven for about 10 minutes.

Lost Bread

Every family has a picky eater; in mine it was my brother, Tom. His hamburgers were “mayonnaise only”, his salads “honeymoon” (lettuce alone), and steaks not medium well, but well. Breakfasts were a particular trial; the merest fleck of white in a serving of scrambled eggs would send him into a sour sulk, complete with crossed arms, a lowered head, and a puckered brow. Bacon had to be evenly cooked, but not crisp, and his biscuits had to come from the center of the pan. I wish I’d asked him why.

These specifications presented a challenge to our mother, whose patience was as limited as Tom’s stubbornness was infinite. Fortunately, she hit upon a dish that Tom adored so much that it was all he ate for breakfast until he entered high school. She’d still make it for his breakfast when he’d come to visit twenty years later.

We called it French toast, but this simple recipe of bread dipped in beaten eggs and milk then fried, is very old and is known by many names, most notably pain perdu, “lost bread”. French toast is most often served as a sweet dish much like pancakes or waffles with powdered sugar, syrup and fruit, but Tom—and I, among others—prefer it savory, simply seasoned with salt and pepper. We usually made it with white sandwich bread, but it makes a much more substantial dish with a thick cut wheat or sourdough.

Beat three eggs in a cup of milk or—even better—half-and-half. Season with a little salt and pepper; you can add a little vanilla if you plan to serve it with sugar or syrup. Sop dried bread slices cut to about a half an inch in egg/milk mixture and pan-fry in butter until nicely browned.

Blackberry Ice Cream

Macerate 4 cups of fresh or frozen blackberries with 1 cup sugar; mash and strain. This will yield about 3 cups of syrup. Make a custard with 1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, a dash of salt, 4 cups half-and-half, 2 cups whipping cream, 2 eggs well beaten and 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract. Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in a saucepan. Stir in half-and-half, bring to a simmer, cool, and slowly stir in beaten eggs. Bring to low heat and thicken for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, add whipping cream, blackberry syrup and a tablespoon vanilla extract. Whisk until smooth. Refrigerate and process in the ice cream freezer. This recipe works well with berries and stone fruit.

Crisp Mexican Cornsticks

You’ll find Mexican cornbread muffins  offered as an alternative to those sweet yellow ones and white-bread rolls in supermarket deli buffets all over Jackson, and likely across the middle South from Austin to Atlanta; I honestly can’t speak for Nashville or Pensacola. This recipe makes light, crisp sticks, great with any tomato-y soup.

Use the Martha White Buttermilk Mix, and add chopped chilies–hot, mild or mixed, your preference–whole kernel corn–do NOT use creamed corn–a little chopped, very well-drained tomato and minced onion, include chili powder, cumin and black pepper. Pour into a hot, well-oiled corn stick pan and bake in a very hot oven until lightly browned. Allow to cool before turning out of the pan.

The Smug Alternative

Deena Boydd sipped a triple-cream latte and began her editorial for the next edition of The Jacktown Liberator. “The worst problem in the world today is a false sense of self-importance,” she typed, considering it a brilliant beginning for a piece designed to skewer her detractors, a legion of local journalists, politicians and businessmen, not to mention creditors. While the journalists and politicians had other ridiculous axes to grind, her creditors, she reasoned, simply did not understand that she was a woman on a mission and that their concerns over money betrayed their petty sense of the world while confirming her broader and certainly more legitimate world-view.

A knock on the door of her tastefully neutral and largely barren office interrupted her reverie. Before she could say “come in” the door was opened by a short, very stout young black woman with a scowl on her face.

“Hello, Arusha, how are you this morning?” Deena asked, beaming with false goodwill.

“I been trying to get that man on the phone you told me about, but he ain’t takin’ any calls now,” Arusha said. “They said he got your message and he workin’ on a response.”

Deena frowned. Not only did she hope that the man Arusha was referring to, who happened to be the chairman of the city council, would respond to her questions by 5 p.m., her deadline to the printer, but she was also frustrated at trying to encourage Arusha to adopt a more sophisticated approach when it came to contacting people. Deena needed to speak with others simply in order to give the patina of reliability to her otherwise fabricated news stories about the inner workings of the city’s administration, but she felt that at the very least she should put a good face on her trumpery.

Deena clinched her teeth, which Arusha interpreted as a smile. Smiling in turn, Arusha asked, “Do you still want to go to lunch with me and Syllis at that foreign restaurant? She said it’s expensive. You know it’s my birthday that day, don’t you?”

“I thought you were a Virgo,” Deena said.

“Oh, I ain’t a Virgo. I got two kids. Anyway, I gotta go. It’s my turn to clean the bathroom, and Mr. Tadd’s picky about that. I thought he was going to have to be put in the hospital that time he found that cricket on the window. He sure is jumpy.”

Arusha left, slamming the door. Deena gritted her teeth hard even harder. Her gaze wandered from the door to the mirror on the wall opposite her desk.

‘I still look good,’ she said to herself. Deena was 53, a bottle blond with rapidly graying roots. She had begrudgingly decided to approve of her expanding bulk, which she reassuringly found in keeping for a mature woman of what she considered significant social stature. For a decade, her publication had ridden the modest wave of a small southern city’s liberal sentiments. Deena knew that her vision of the city’s future was the only one with any reason or design; she alone had her finger on the true pulse of the city. She felt that she’d established herself as a distinctive voice in local politics, when in actuality most people only picked up her publication in order to find out what bands were playing in the local nightspots.

Another knock at the door signaled the arrival of her partner, Tadd Stuffer, a pale, untidy man who stooped, snuffled and continually dusted his shoulders with dandruff. “We have to talk,” he said, glancing nervously down the hall before he closed the door.

“What is it this time?” Deena asked.

“Payday is this week,” he said. “And we don’t have enough money to pay everybody.”

“How much do we have?” Deena asked. Tadd quoted a figure. “Well, that’s enough for you and me, and enough to put out two more issues before another payday. We’ll issue everyone else vouchers.”

“We did that last time,” Tadd pointed out.

“In that case, you know what you have to do,” Deena said. “Call your mother and tell her we simply need a few thousand to see us through this rough spot.”

“Deena, I’m beginning to think Mommie’s patience is wearing thin with our continual need for money,” Tadd said. “She’s well-off, sure, but she’s already spent over a half a million dollars keeping us afloat for the past eight years. I don’t think she’s willing to do it for too much longer. Of course, it might help if you were a bit nicer to her.”

“Why should I be?” Deena thundered, her normally pallid, flaccid features mottled with fury. “She’s the one who made life miserable for you all those years, putting you in that clinic with all those other pathetic losers when all that was wrong with you was the need for the love of a strong woman. Look at all the good I’ve done for you. She should be grateful for that alone!”

“Deena, listen to me . . . “

“No, you listen to me! You get on the phone to that gold-plated bitch of a mother of yours and tell her that if she doesn’t send us twenty thousand bucks today, I’m going to tell her exactly what went on with her husband and your step-brother when he stayed in the pool house last summer.

“Deena, you promised!”

“I’m sorry, Tadd, but this newspaper is more important than your ugly family history. We are here in this city to help bring about a change, to bring a people out of bondage, to make good the wrongs of a century, and you’re worried about a measly case of incest?”

Deena was red in the face, her disproportionate Rubenesque body heaving with emotion. “Call her. Now!”

Tadd stared dumbly at her tits, which she had begun to knead provocatively. She started to unbutton her blouse. “Close the door,” she said.

“Here?” Tadd asked nervously.

“Yes.”

Tadd closed the door and whimpered while Deena drew a big black latex phallus from a bottom drawer.

***

In an office down the hall, Parsley Horton-Hoopey was giving her husband a lesson in political correctness.

“Zeus, I thought we’d agreed to call it ganja,” she said. “Marijuana is just a vulgarity invented by drug lords who only sell this sacred herb for money. And while we’re at it, it’s ‘maize’, not ‘corn’, for Demeter’s sake.”

Parsley had only recently moved to Jacktown from the West Coast, where she had lived in the commune near San Francisco her mother had founded in the mid-Sixties. She had moved to Jacktown to live with her grandmother after a series of arrests for larceny, fraud and drug charges had made it clear that the State of California teetered on the state of barbarism. Parsley had charmed Deena with her tale of persecution and woe. Deena, always the champion of those she perceived as underdogs, took her to her breast (quite literally and quite often, usually when Tadd was bound in handcuffs) and made her a managing editor, which meant that Parsley was in charge of the contributing writers, who were one by one becoming more and more frustrated and alienated because of her incompetence when faced with a paragraph and her indifference in dealing with deadlines.

In addition to her job at The Jacktown Liberator, Parsley also worked for a successful online marketing firm from which she had been pilfering funds in steadily increasing amounts for over six months. She reassured herself that if she got caught, she’d just get Zeus, who owned a small restaurant in the city’s trendy Fondue district, to pay them off and everything would be fine, and of course Deena would fight tooth and nail to keep her managing editor out of prison and avoid a scandal, wouldn’t she?

“And Zeus, don’t forget we have to go to Amelia’s house blessing Saturday afternoon.” Parsley listened on the phone then exploded. “I don’t care if you have to open the restaurant at 5! We’re going to Amelia’s! I’m supposed to hold the Holy Laurel Wreath! Besides . . . (she cooed) I have a surprise for you . . . Remember that black teddy you liked? . . . I bought it, and I’m wearing it to the ceremony.”

She hung up the phone with a sigh. God, she got tired of pushing sex, especially her own.

***

Across town from the Liberator offices, in Jacktown City Hall, Mayor Henry Jackson was meeting with his public relations man, Moore Dimm.

“Well?” he asked.

Dimm fidgeted. “It looks like Boydd at the Liberator is sniffing around the Harris Street Project again, and this time she claims to have found the contractor files.”

“Impossible,” Jackson said.

“She’s been talking with Stevens,” Dimm said.

Jackson frowned. Ruben Stevens was a hotshot developer from Little Rock who had piloted several urban renewal projects such as the Harris Street Project in the past seven years. When Stevens first became involved in the project, he had recoiled in horror at the lack of progress as well as the copious evidence of waste, ineptitude and graft that had stretched to over twelve years. But he quickly realized that profit was to be made by playing ball with the Harris Street Revitalization Committee, which was steadily funneling fraudulently-acquired state and federal funds into dozens of outstretched palms, including those of the mayor and his top advisers.

Stevens himself justified this foray into graft by rationalizing that the project would be finished eventually, albeit at many times the cost of the original estimate, on a much lower scale and in a much greater amount of time. Once he had assessed the lay of the land, Stevens settled into a lap of luxury, cushioned by a plush downtown office staffed with lots of giggling interns of both sexes and a top-floor apartment in the city’s Fondue district, one block from the offices of The Jacktown Liberator, where his latest inamorata, Parsley Horton-Hooey, gave him quite possibly the best hum jobs in the known universe on her lunch breaks at the insistence of her boss, Deena Boydd, who saw in uncovering the corruption behind the Harris Street Revitalization Project a way to lend some degree of credence to her fabricated forays into legitimate journalism.

Mayor Jackson was unaware of the Horton-Hooey connection with Stevens, but Dimm had heard about it from one of Stevens’ interns, a muscular young blond who also happened to be sodomizing Dimm (as well as Stevens) on a regular basis. Modesty, as well as the First Amendment, of course, forbade him to reveal his source. It was enough for the Mayor to know that there was a potential breach of security, and as the polished bureaucrat he was, he immediately began making plans to seal it.

“Can we get one of Huntson’s boys to take care of it?” he asked, meaning could a shooting be arranged.

“No,” Dimm said. “Too obvious, and Huntson would want a bigger cut.”

Jackson frowned again. When he frowned, Jackson’s face changed radically from the benign, plump, smiling figure he presented in most public images. It became a dark, sullen and demonic cloud. “Well,” he said. “It looks like it’s time to play ball with Miss Boydd. Let’s put her on the team, okay?”

Dimm smiled, looking for all the world like one of those simpering puttis in a Renaissance painting.

(All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)

ANZAC Biscuits

In 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of an Allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula to open the way to the Black Sea for the Allied navies. The ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Army, but the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915, the Allied forces were evacuated after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships.

Though the Gallipoli campaign failed the actions of the Australian and New Zealand troops during the campaign bequeathed an intangible but powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as an “Anzac legend” became an important part of the national identity, and is often credited with securing the psychological independence of the nation. News of the landing at Gallipoli made a profound impact on Australians and New Zealanders at home and 25 April quickly became the day on which they remembered the sacrifice of those who had died in the war.

This recipe comes from my old friend and neighbor Tom Lestrade. He said they’re just wonderful, and if you don’t want to trouble with golden syrup (which I recommend you do) Karo dark is a good substitute.

ANZAC BISCUIT RECIPE

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup shredded or flaked sweetened or unsweetened coconut
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons golden syrup (recipe below)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons hot water

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Take half the coconut and half the oats and chop well. Stir together the oats, flour, sugar, salt, and coconut. Place the butter and syrup in a small saucepan or microwave-safe container, and cook or microwave (medium 3-4 min) until the butter has melted and the mixture is bubbling. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the baking soda and boiling water, then stir in the hot butter. Be prepared: the mixture will bubble up, foamy, energetically. This is why you’re using a medium (rather than small) bowl. Stir the butter mixture into the dry ingredients. Hand fold in bowl until everything is moist, no dry spots. Drop the dough, by teaspoonfuls, onto the prepared baking sheets. A teaspoon cookie scoop works well here. Leave at least 1 1/2″ between them; they’ll spread quite a bit. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, until they’re a deep mahogany brown; the cookies are meant to be crisp/crunchy and dark brown, not chewy/light brown. Remove the cookies from the oven, and cool them right on the pan. Store, well wrapped, for a week or so at room temperature; freeze for longer storage.

GOLDEN SYRUP

Golden syrup is a lightly caramelized simple syrup flavored with lemon. Dissolve two and a half cups cane sugar into one cup hot water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a bare simmer, add a lemon slice and cook until a golden color.

Oatmeal Date Cookies

Coarsely chop about  eight ounces of pitted dates or another dried fleshy fruit, and add ¾ cup brown sugar mixed with one stick soft butter. Sift in a cup all-purpose flour, a teaspoon baking soda and about a teaspoon salt. Add a lightly beaten egg, a teaspoon vanilla, whatever spices fit your groove, and a cup and a half of quick-cooking oats. Mix well. Spoon golf ball-size globs onto lightly oiled baking sheets and place on the middle rack of a preheated 350 oven for about 20 minutes. This mixture–divine, sensuous, the very essence of destiny itself–can be baked in a pan and sliced into bars after cooling.