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 You can also buy the charcoal originally made from Henry Ford’s Model T production in Edison’s plant—Kingsford—at your local supermarket, though chances are you already have a far more sophisticated grill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.

Homemade Ice Cream Base

This rich custard makes a sumptuous base for any homemade ice cream, simply add flavorings to taste. Admittedly it is a little time-consuming and takes a bit of patience, but custards were most likely the basis for the rich, unforgettable ice creams your grandmother made on the porch when you were growing up.

Combine 1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch and a scant teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Gradually stir in a quart of half-and-half, stirring constantly and place over low heat. In a large bowl beat together 2 large eggs and a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract until whites and yolks are thoroughly blended. Add this mixture very slowly into the half and half, stirring constantly and gradually increasing heat until thickened. It should have the consistency of eggnog. Stir in a pint of whipping cream and remove from heat. Refrigerate for 45 minutes to cool, then add fruit, nuts and/or flavorings and sugar to taste, place in your ice cream freezer and process according to directions.

Summer Vegetable Stew

The deli at our local grocery serves such a wonderful vegetable soup that many days I’ll get two large servings—at 12 oz. each, a little less than a quart—and make a lunch of that with saltines and tea. Such was my intent yesterday when I strolled in, found the soup bin empty and was told that the vegetable soup was discontinued for the summer, since “nobody eats soup when the weather is hot.”

Well, you know what? Yes, they do, and not just those prissy vichyssoises splashed across the pages of food magazines in June. We’ve enjoyed fresh vegetable soups for centuries here, and rightly so, since the American South produces the finest vegetables on the face of the planet. (There; I’ve said it, the gauntlet is flung. The ball’s in your court.)

Here’s my recipe, which starts with two quarts diced canned tomatoes and juice. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a talented, industrious gardener who cans, and you will have in your larder their red gold. If not, Contadina is the best. Sauté one large diced white onion with three or four diced ribs of celery and two cloves minced garlic in just enough vegetable oil to coat. To this add two cups water or two cups broth, vegetable broth preferably, but a weak chicken will do—in place of veal, you understand—pour this into your lowly-shimmering, beautiful tomatoes along with a cup or so of frozen diced okra, thawed and drained then find something else industrious or enlightening to do for a half-hour or until the onions and okra have surrendered their integrity to the essence of the mélange.

This is your base for the dozens of beautiful vegetable soups you will make throughout the growing season with fresh vegetables. Starchy-ish fresh peas and beans, even green beans, should be parboiled until tender before adding, and I wouldn’t add fresh corn at all, but that makes me an exception. Always add water because evaporation happens, and water is the preferred replacement. I like to add a little V-8, and I always seem to have a half an onion in the fridge I can use. Fresh squash can be diced and added raw, as it tends to meld as does—it should go without saying—fresh okra. As to herbs, I’m frugal; a pinch of thyme and a smidgen of oregano do just fine. Add salt with care and heat seasoning at the table. And yes, you can serve this warm or chilled.

A State Cake

Whenever you see one of those lists of “The Best Cakes in Each State or “The United States of Sweets” or some such, you’re inevitably going to find a hodge-podge of dishes selected by some junior editor at whatever online ad magnet put it together, and while many of them have at least some rational connection with the state via an essential ingredient (e.g. anything involving peaches is a cinch for Georgia, same with cheese for Wisconsin) that’s by no means a hard and fast rule.

However, it should come as no surprise to any of you that most of the states in our Union actually have official state foods, and unsurprisingly most of them are desserts. Official state foods are usually designated to promote a state agricultural product or to recognize a food or dish that has by custom and tradition become characteristic of a particular state. Examples for the former include Vermont’s State Pie (apple), Maine’s State Dessert (blueberry pie, specifically made with Maine blueberries) and the Louisiana State Jellies (mayhaw jelly and Louisiana sugar cane jelly). Blueberries are also the featured fruit in the Minnesota State Cupcake as apples are in the New York State Muffin. The only official state food of Georgia is grits (State Prepared Food) while the Peach Pie is the State Dessert of Delaware and Texas (go figure).Other well-known state pies are those of Florida (Key Lime, of course) and Massachusetts (Boston Cream; the Massachusetts State Doughnut is also a Boston Cream). Massachusetts and New Mexico also have state State Cookies (chocolate chip and biscotto, respectively).

State foods of character and tradition include the locally famous Lane Cake, the State Dessert of Alabama, as well as the equally famous Smith Island Cake, which is that of Maryland. Utah has a State Snack Food (Jell-O!?), and it’s quite characteristic  that the State Snack of Texas is tortilla chips and salsa while that of New York is yogurt. California has all of four State Nuts (almond, pecan, walnut and pistachio).The Rhode Island State Appetizer is calamari. The South Carolina State Snack Food is boiled peanuts, its State Picnic Cuisine barbecue. Louisiana has a State Cuisine (gumbo). But Oklahomans have won the state food contest hands down with a complete State Meal: Chicken-fried steak, barbequed pork, fried okra, squash, cornbread, grits, corn, sausage with biscuits and gravy, black-eyed peas, strawberries, and pecan pie.

But back to the unofficial list. On any given one of these lists of “state cakes”, for Mississippi you’re always going to find Mississippi mud cake, which is not our official state cake. In fact, unless you count largemouth bass, Mississippi doesn’t have a state food. Mississippi mud cake is more of a fudge or a brownie than a cake, and that’s likely how it began, but around fifty years ago in the 70s when all sorts of craziness was going on (yes, I was there), marshmallows—inexplicably and unnecessarily—were introduced. Me, I think marshmallows are an unnecessary adulteration, and Australians seem to agree, since the Aussie mud cake—no, they do not call it Murrumbidgee mud cake—is marshmallow-free.

One icon deserves another, so here’s Tammy Wynette’s recipe for Mississippi mud cake, which she says was taught to her by her mother, Mildred Lee.

2 sticks melted butter
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups plain flour
1 ½ cups pecans, chopped
½ cup cocoa
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
Mix together sugar, cocoa, and butter and eggs. Add flour, pecans, vanilla and salt to above. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees in a greased 9×13 oblong pan.
Topping:
Cover with miniature marshmallows and return to oven to melt.
Cream:
½ cup milk
1/3 cup cocoa
1 stick melted butter
1 box powdered sugar
Sift cocoa and powdered sugar, add milk and butter. Mix until smooth, then put on top of cake.