Sam, the Garbager, had carpet,
And some scraps of office jot,
Optomacy stooped to throw him,
As he passed from lot to lot,
And with these he decked his cabin
In a rather modern style;
But himself remained old-fashioned
Like–simple and true the while.
And the milk of human kindness
Seemed to bubble from his heart,
As he rolled about the city
In his two-wheeled garbage cart.
Lyrics of the Under-World (1912),
photo by R. H. Beadle
Some people will tell you that I’m an old ass who’s quick to fuss about any damned thing, but allow me to point out that when it comes to red beans people insist on using the wrong beans. Yes, that’s right. Instead of honest-to-goodness red beans, most people—even most vendors—use kidney beans, which are yes red, but they aren’t the right red. You’ll see small kidney beans marketed as red beans all the time; even the Camilla brand red beans are kidneys, as are those used by the Blue Runner people, but most markets in the mid-South will have honest-to-goodness red beans sold simply as red beans, and if you look under the ingredients, you’ll find “small red beans”, not kidneys as you’ll find on the Camilla package or on the Blue Runner can. Sure there’s only a whisker’s difference between the two, but it’s crucial and critical, a matter of veracity and refinement if not to say taste.
Any dried beans should be picked through and washed (you really don’t want to know why), then soaked for at least six hours. The procedure for cooking follows the very simple dictum of: “Boil the hell out of them.” Believe me, if you serve up crunchy beans, you’re never going to hear the end of it, and you can always get rid of excess liquid after the beans are cooked through. For a pound of dry beans add a half large white onion and whatever old bone you have around. Do not add salt until later, since cooking beans with salt makes the skins tough. Once the beans are quite cooked, adjust the amount of liquid, depending on how soupy or solid you like them; I like mine syrupy. I also like a good herbal stamp; for a pound of cooked beans I add a tablespoon each of dried basil and thyme. Trust me, use granulated garlic instead of fresh (it’ll get bitter), and for God’s sake don’t add Tabasco or cayenne; with red beans, don’t worry about adding heat—people will do that at the table before they even taste it—but with heft, meaning the beans should star in full drag throwing beads and kisses.
“I grew up poor! We were so poor! Rupert, tell them how poor I was!”
“They were very poor!” Rupert said from the back porch, where he was working on the lawn mower. “They were so poor they had to piss in a bucket a block away!”
“But we were proud!” Lucretia said. “My mother, she was the old Creole blood. She sold the calas on Dauphine, her apron white as a young nun, stiff as an old priest, and she’d go, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” And all the girls who worked up in their rooms, they’d come down to get Mama Diart’s cakes for their gentlemen who were sleeping it off in the beds like they’d get the strong coffee from Monsoir’s. The bottle they had already.”
“They were so poor, they had to eat cereal with a fork to share the milk!” Rupert banged on the mower and yelled at it.
“And yes,” Lucretia said, “We would have the rouge ser riz, all the time! If we were lucky, Mama would get the ham joint that Hector Monsoir had saved for her because you see he was secretly in love with Mama from a long time ago when she was so beautiful and slender like a dancer with her laughing eyes.”
“They were so poor, she had to share her brassiere with her sisters!” Rupert tried to crank the lawnmower, but failed and he cussed.
“But not like those beans they make now!” Lucretia shouted. “Pah! Those beans they make now they taste like those little wads of dough the Italians boil to put in that red gravy they make. Beans that have no bones, no flesh, no . . . spirit. They use those big long-nosed beans, those . . . what do they call them, yes, them kidney beans, the light-colored ones like a bean the white people in the country use to put on their meal bread.” She made a face like spitting. “And they should be pissed on! No, she used the little red beans she bought from old Helene on Magazine.”
“They were so poor, if her brothers didn’t wake up with bones, they didn’t have anything to play with!” Rupert pulled the cord and the mower cranked, coughing and spitting. He led it into the yard and began mowing.
“She would bring the beans home when she sold her cakes, put them in the big pot on the back of the stove with water enough over the joint if she had it, and start the laundry for her ladies on Bourbon. All afternoon they’d soak, and she’d start the fire. She had the herbs, too, from the market on Decatur, and pepper. When we all got home at night she made the rice, and we would eat while all around us we could hear the music play and imagine people dancing in those pretty rooms where the ladies would spray their perfumes on the pink lampshades.”
Many of you might know the Roffignac cocktail, a fruity drink that the effete among us pretend to enjoy when they’re seriously jonesing for a beer, but for those of us with a realistic bent we have oysters Roffignac, a roguish and astoundingly good dish. This recipe comes by way of Howard Mitcham, who says the Roffignac, once on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, was the most popular restaurant in antebellum New Orleans, founded by the family of the French nobleman who became the city’s tenth mayor in 1820. Howard claims that oysters Roffignac was the first “baked” oyster dish in New Orleans, and if we can’t believe Howard Mitcham in that regard, then we can’t believe anybody. (Trust me.) You’ll not find many oyster recipes that use red wine, and even fewer using paprika as a principal flavoring, but you’re going to be immeasurably surprised at how wonderful this combination can be. Add this dish to your repertoire as a hearty alternative to a sissy Bienville or Rockefeller.
For four servings:
2 dozen fresh oysters in their shells
1/2 lb. peeled boiled shrimp (about a pound raw in the shell)
A half dozen scallions, finely chopped
About a dozen small button mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon paprika
A dash of cayenne
About a half cup of dry red wine
Clean oysters of mud and hangers-on, shuck and reserve liquid. Heat butter, add scallions, garlic, shrimp, mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are done through. Dissolve cornstarch in about ¼ cup water, add to pan, quickly add wine and oyster liquor as mixture thickens. Top oysters and broil until cooked through. Serve with lemon and parsley.
This dish has like so many others—gingerbread, for example, or roast turkey—become needlessly consigned to a specific winter holiday, but the dessert could easily fit on any table. Most recipes have no more than four ingredients—crème fraiche, cream cheese, egg whites and sugar—though the misguided might add vanilla or lemon. Recipes will ofen stipulate crème fraiche or sour cream, and for years I’ve been making a coeur a la crème using sour cream for convenience. This year, I’ve upped my game and made crème fraiche, which is not difficult, a little goes a long way, and it keeps in the refrigerator for a very long time.
You can make a simple crème fraiche using cultured buttermilk and whole cream from the supermarket, but if you’re going to bother to make it at all, do the best you can. I did not want to buy a packet of the crème fraiche culture, which seemed to me like a slacker’s option, so I trotted down to the Mississippi Farmer’s Market and bought fresh whole milk and buttermilk from T&R Dairy. Their lightly pasteurized products contain lactic bacteria needed for a good crème fraiche. I made a culture using a cup of whole milk, a quarter cup of buttermilk and a spoonful of store-bought sour cream, which does have a tiny bit of its characteristic bacteria. I kept the starter out overnight, and by morning it had thickened to a dense slurry. I added a half cup or so of that to a quart of whole cream from the supermarket, and it worked like a charm. I ended up with a thick, tart crème fraiche, which I’ll tend to as I would a sourdough. In time, with added culture from T&D, I’m hoping it will mellow and enrichen.
Now, if you happen to frequent the kinds of stores that sell such things as stainless steel strawberry stem removers, chromium banana slicers and cast-iron hot dog toasters, then you’re likely to run into these cute little ceramic heart molds with holes that are made specifically for a coeur le crème. Since I am just not a Williams-Sonoma-type person, I went to the Dollar Store on Fortification and found a plastic, heart-shaped container with Ninja Turtles embossed on the front (“Be My Bodacious Valentine!”) that was just the right size and grabbing a packet of cheesecloth from McDade’s—yes, can buy cheesecloth at McDade’s (!)—I was ready to make my heart of cream. I burned holes in the plastic with a hot nail, lined the mold—for that’s what it had become—with damp cheesecloth, mixed one cup of my crème fraiche with six ounces of cream cheese, blended in two (organic) stiffly-beaten egg whites and a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar. I placed the coeur on a plate in the coldest part of the refrigerator for several hours, inverted it onto a server, removed the cloth and garnished with raspberries, though any kind of berry would have been good this time of the year, even bananas.
My friend Buddy owns a place in the tiny hamlet of Pocahontas, Mississippi, which is distinguished by archaeological sites of the Plaquemine Mississippian culture dating from 800 to 1300 CE as well as a more recent tee-pee that someone erected in a somewhat misguided–albeit somehow charming–homage to the community’s Powhatan namesake.
Buddy is a handyman, one of the hardest-working people I know, a man who does what he has to do–put up drywall, repair roofs, paint apartments–to keep his land safe, his home in shape and his family fed, the kind of guy who works all day, comes home, has a couple of beers most likely gets laid more often than not and gets up to do the same thing again the next day. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and he’s always bringing me stuff from his garden, tons of tomatoes, okra and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax at other times. Some years ago, in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic that I dried. The bulbs and cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.
A friend who is better-versed in such matters than me said it’s actually a kind of leek, adding that I was lucky to get a pass-along of it from someone who lives in the country nearby. Buddy tells me that he has to thin his out twice a year, that it spreads all over the place and he swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. Buddy’s pushing 70 now, shows no signs of letting up, and I’ve got the prettiest patch of Pocahontas you’d ever hope to see coming up this year.