Pepper Cheese Biscuits

Cut a stick and a half of butter into four cups self-rising flour. Add one cup grated cheddar cheese, one cup raw chopped mild red pepper, and enough sweet milk for a stiff dough. Roll out, cut into rounds and bake in an oiled skillet in a hot oven until lightly browned. Serve hot or cold filled with shaved ham and herb cream cheese.

Tomato Gravy

Fresh home-grown tomatoes, singed and peeled, are best to use, but home-canned tomatoes run a (very) close second. Bacon drippings are the traditional fat, and the liquid can be water, stock or milk, or combinations thereof; Bill Neale uses chicken stock or water, while Robert St. John’s recipe calls for stock and milk. If I’m using home-canned tomatoes–as I usually do, even in the summer–I always add a little juice. Traditionally served over buttermilk biscuits, rice or grits, Neale among others also recommends it for fried chicken. I use it to smother pork chops, too.

2 cups tomatoes chopped, if fresh, singed and peeled
2 tablespoons bacon drippings
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups water or broth with a little milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Add salt, pepper and sugar to chopped tomatoes, and mix well. Heat bacon drippings in a skillet, add flour to make a brown roux, pour in tomatoes with water/broth/milk and cook until thickened.

PB & J French Toast

Use thick slices of bread to make six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Grape is traditional, but I like to use strawberry jam, and peach is awesome, too. Whip four eggs, a quarter cup of sugar, and a teaspoon vanilla or almond extract together until smooth. Dip each sandwich into egg mixture, turning to coat both sides and ends. Plate on paper towels and refrigerate for about five minutes. Toast in a well-buttered skillet until golden brown. Serve with crisp bacon.

 

Belles Calas

When it rained, we sat in Mama’s kitchen and listened to old Tante Zoe. She talked all the time when she was cooking, about what she was making and how she knew how to do it right from the old days. If she was making a big dinner for special guests, she’d say why she was serving this because it was something you’d serve, “To the mayor, not the bishop!” Then she’d sing and talk to herself, look up, smile and coo like the soft old dove she was and make us molasses butter to put on the morning biscuits.

Poppa smoked his pipe in the house, but Zoe said she had better manners than to smell up the furniture cushions and puffed on hers in the swing on the back porch. Zoe ran that house more than he did. Mama was Zoe’s lamb from the manger, to her an icon of love itself, and that was that. He knew that Zoe was listened to outside our house, had the respect of everyone up and down St. Charles. And in those days, that was saying a lot. I don’t think Mama ever knew Zoe the way everyone else did.

Sunday mornings she’d fry rice beignets, the calas. She’d put a little water and a yeast cake in some old rice she had on the back of the stove, cover it and in the morning mix in eggs, flour and sugar into a loose dough and drop by spoonfuls into hot oil. And she’d tell us how they used to sing, the ladies in the Quarter selling their calas, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” and the girls would bring baskets to fill and take them back to the bedrooms where the men were waiting.

Calas (Beignets Riz)

Add two packets of yeast mixed with a cup of warm water and a tablespoon of sugar to two cups well-cooked rice mashed to pulp. Cover and let it work overnight. In the morning, add four beaten eggs, a half cup sugar, a teaspoon pure vanilla and hefty pinches of nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. Mix in enough plain flour to make a thick batter and drop by spoonful into very hot oil. Dust with powdered sugar while hot, and serve at once. Calas don’t keep.

Egg in a Basket

Use sturdy bread and a metal cutter. Eat the hole; there’s nothing else you can do with it. Lightly toast bread on both sides in a hot buttered pan, add a pat of butter in the center, and crack an egg into it. Cover to cook through. If you’re feeding several people, you can make these on a cookie sheet in a hot oven. Keep the seasonings simple: salt and black pepper with a dash of smoky paprika.

Sawmill Gravy

Brown a quarter pound of pork sausage in a quarter cup oil. Sprinkle in two heaping tablespoons plain flour, mix well, and cook until it quits bubbling. Stir in a cup each of water and milk. Reduce heat and cook down on the thin side; it will thicken when served.

Penny Eggs

Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew. Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the harkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.

Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other. Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors. He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common. Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.

“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”

Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Pudgy little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage. If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from MDOT bush hogs that had run over an old fence. “You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.

“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny. You’re eight, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”

“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless. I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, salmon and saltines. He lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his little heart.

 

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.