An Enduring Bounty

In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the final foothills of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges, the sun is strong, and in December a weary green lingers in the woods and roadsides.

There I spent my childhood. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but my father Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. He and those older in his day remembered the grinding hardships of a more distant time.

Our lavish Thanksgiving  comprised an overture to Christmas. Soon after, my mother Barbara filled the house with glowing towers of glazed glass jars, papier-mâché crèche figurines and ornaments light as air hung with shining ribbons. Her trees took days to decorate, among her most memorable was a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments. Smilax, holly, and magnolia adorned mantles and lintels, bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables. On the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we roasted peanuts and made popcorn in a long-handled perforated pan.

Barbara provided a groaning board. What she didn’t cook herself, she shared food friends and relatives brought for her table: ambrosia from Aunt Gay, bread-and-butter pickles from Ruby Zane, tea cakes from Aunt Leila, peanut brittle from Betty Edwards, pecan divinity from Ora Crocker, a coconut cake from Zara Arrington. A splendid cook, Barbara spent days on the Christmas feast, making pans of chicken and dressing, baking a turkey, a ham, and yeast rolls, candying sweet potatoes and stuffing dozens of eggs. This largess was there for all who called at our open door.

Above anyone I’ve ever known my father Jess loved Christmas, threw himself completely and unreservedly into the essence of the season and drew everyone he knew along in his wide wake. He was the Spirit of Christmas Present, bigger than life, colorful, jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone in that world he called his own.

By the first week of the month, Jess had set his plans in motion, beginning with a party at the community building at the city park on the south side of town where local bands provided music for dancing (an activity widely frowned-upon at the time) and the local blue laws banning liquor were casually set aside while he pumped his friends for contributions to fund  his Christmas expedition. After the party, he would make a trip to Tupelo, to the Lady Lee outlet store, where he would buy boxes of firecrackers and bottle rockets, huge sacks of Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon candies, peppermint sticks, and butterscotch rounds. From there we’d head to Cockrell Banana Company where he’d buy crates of oranges and tangerines.

These he brought home where they were put in a spare bedroom, and in the days before Christmas my brother Tom, sister Cindy and I along with a cadre of neighborhood children would sort them out and stuff them into small paper sacks, staple the tops together and pile them into boxes. On Christmas Eve, we’d pile into a car, at best a station wagon commandeered from a neighbor, at worst a ’65 Mustang convertible, and we’d drive across the tracks.

Jess wore a Santa suit, and Barbara would dress us children as elves. He once drafted his brother-in-law Jim to play Santa while he sauntered alongside laughing and greeting. When we rolled across the railroad tracks, we collected a troop of children flanking our route, shouting and jumping, reaching out to catch the sacks of candy and fireworks. Jess would make sure that those children who were too shy to come to the car received their share, and he would often walk into homes where he knew of special need bearing a ham or an envelope with money.

Jess was in his glory then, doing what he felt was the most important thing he did all year. His career in public service gave him an opportunity to help many people, but seeing the eyes of these children for whom his visit was the only Christmas many if not most of them would have gave him a sense of wholeness that few men are afforded. His largess, his sense of noblesse oblige, was untainted by any shadow of arrogance; he remembered the deprivations of his own childhood and sought to ameliorate those of others.

Now I am an old man who spends his holidays without family and in little company , but the living memories of my childhood are with me, and my heart is warm. My father’s gifts live on.

The Man Who Loved Christmas

First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr. was a remarkable man in a difficult time, colorful, vibrant, and generous, his life a vision of community, unity, and compassion.

If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.

And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.

Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.

The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.

He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.

The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t.  It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again.

It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.

Jess Jr. (left) with his brother-in-law Jim Young as Santa.

Ur Cookies

Wittgenstein asks, “Just what IS a cookie?” Analytics state, “It is easier to say what a cookie IS NOT than to say what a cookie IS!” A stentorian voice declares, “A cookie IS a cookie IS a cookie.”

Ergo, flour, sugar, and butter with a leavening agent and eggs constitute the Ur-cookie, which is an Ur-cookie. These can be topped with a sugar frosting or glaze or sprinkles, or chopped nuts. You can add food coloring to make them magenta, chartreuse or cyan. You can cut them into any shape using traditional cookie cutters, or use any number of handy implements if you’re feeling froggy.

For true inspiration, make them with children.

1 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Cream butter with sugars; mix well. Add eggs, vanilla and then flour, sifted with salt and baking soda, a little at a time. Bake at 350 degrees on a flat, heavy baking sheet for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool thoroughly before frosting.

Note from a Culinary Gumshoe

Anyone who entrusts you with a family recipe loves you and will give you other instructions like, “Get a job.”

Such memories bind us all, and heirloom recipes should be treasured as reflections of a people and their character. I’m always on the lookout for old recipes from family lines and any dish not mentioned in that harangue of books and magazines devoted to Southern cuisine. Community cookbooks are a fine source of these recipes, but you can bet your bottom dollar that more than a few contributors are simply not going to share essential details because the church secretary was caught sleeping with her brother-in-law.

Some years ago, I found a recipe that stands out: amalgamation cake. Yes, it’s a cake, but amalgamation is a word you usually stumble on in cookery works by dirt road academics purportedly “devoted to” and “enthralled with” Southern foodways. I first heard this cake mentioned by a friend from Tupelo; queries to others brought about a dozen responses, all of them indicating that the amalgamation cake originated from northeast Mississippi and adjacent Alabama.

I felt smug about isolating a true north Mississippi heirloom when someone popped up and pointed out that Ferrol Sams mentions amalgamation cake, “And he’s from Georgia.” Recipes also hail from northwest Tennessee, western South Carolina and a bundt from Florida that seems way off all maps, but they are few. No mention is made of amalgamation cake in “Southern Living”, not in any of Quail Ridge Press’ “Best of the Bests” series, nor in any of my Jackson cookbooks. It is in The Mississippi Cookbook, published by the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service in 1972, confirming that amalgamation cake is a rural tradition.

Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi
Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi

Research on the origins of this recipe became a grail quest. The earliest recipe I’ve found is handwritten from Itawamba County in 1939, sent to me by Bob Franks in Fulton. Apparently recipes for amalgamation cake are jealously guarded in families, passed down and shared only with close friends and relatives. True to form, every recipe I received came with stringent instructions to follow; those who shared recipes with me said if I didn’t use fresh coconut that I would die and go to–a deeper level of–hell.

They all told me to get a job, too.

Amalgamation cake is always made for Christmas, and is similar to Alabama’s Lane cake, made famous by its mention in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Lane cake was created by Emma Lane of Clayton, Alabama who published her recipe in 1898. Most recipes for both cakes result in layers of white sponge cake with a filling of raisins, pecans, and coconut. The main difference between a Lane cake, which has it, and and amalgamation cake, which doesn’t, is liquor. The Lane cake, like its cousin the Lady Baltimore, is always infused with bourbon or some such, while the sober amalgamation abstains from spirits. The sole exception to this rule is a recipe from my home county (“Vote dry and drink wet!”) Calhoun, which calls for a sweet wine wrap overnight.

The following recipe was published in The Tuscaloosa News, Nov. 2011, from Billie Ruth Armstrong Moore, a student in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s “Preserving Your Family History” class. Asked to bring in a family recipe and write about it, she wrote:

Granny’s Amalgamation Cake was a favorite dessert at Thanksgiving and Christmas which our extended Armstrong family always celebrated at the home of my grandmother, Georgia Elizabeth Shumpert Armstrong. Her home was located near the Evergreen Community which is in the southwest corner of Itawamba County, Mississippi.

Billie Ruth includes scaly bark hickory nuts, a distinctively native ingredient. White raisins were mentioned as a refinement, and seven minute frosting is standard.

BATTER
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
1⁄2 cup Crisco
3 eggs (or 9 egg whites)
1 cup milk
2 1⁄2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

FILLING

9 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 3⁄4 cups milk
1⁄4 pound butter
1 15-ounce box raisins
1 1⁄2 cups mixed nuts (1 cup pecans and 1⁄2 cup scaly barks)
1 big coconut, grated

Bake batter in 2 or three layers. For filling, beat egg yolks well, and then add sugar, milk and butter. Mix well and cook on medium heat until thickened slightly. Add raisins and nuts, cook until thick, add coconut last. Beat well, cool, spread between layers, then assemble and frost cake. Let rest several hours–overnight if possible–before serving.

About Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that draws water and nutrients from its host plant, but has chlorophyll and produces its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe rarely affects trees that are healthy, but can harm those already weakened by root damage (as from construction), drought, or pests. The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning “dung, filth.” This makes sense when you consider that the plant’s seeds are spread by bird droppings, but perhaps it’s best not to bear in mind that you’re kissing under a “shit stick.”

In a famous Norse myth, mistletoe caused the death of the god Balder, the best loved of all immortals, by the jealous Loki. When Balder dreamed that he was about to die, he told his mother, Freya, who went to all things and made them swear that they would never harm her son. But she thought the mistletoe too weak to hurt anyone, and Loki found this out, he fashioned a poison dart from the plant and put it in the hand of the blind god Hodur, who stood aside while others threw things at Balder for the fun of seeing them drop to the ground before they reached him. “Here is something for you to throw,” Loki said, “and I will direct your aim.”

No one seems to know where the kissing comes from, though some claim that after Balder’s death, Freya commanded that the plant must never again bring destruction, and that those who pass under it must exchange a kiss of love and peace. Washington Irving wrote that men gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. The English hang kissing balls made with cedar and mistletoe in doorways.

Mistletoe vendors on a street in Paris.

Ellen’s Cranberry Brisket

A recipe from my friend Ellen, who helps me keep up with my fines with the Jackson/Hinds Library System (no simple task, that). It’s beautifully succulent, with a sweet/savory tang, rather colorful—as roast meats go—and has a wonderful aroma. Doubtless more elaborate, “foodie-friendly” versions of this recipe exist, but—speaking strictly for myself—I stand with mouth agape in admiration for the sheer 60s-era simplicity of this version.

Ellen uses a 14-oz. can jellied cranberry sauce to a packet of Lipton Onion Soup Mix for each two pounds of untrimmed brisket. That’s it. She places the brisket in a lightly oiled baking pan, spreads the soup mix onto it, tops with slices of cranberry jelly, covers it, and cooks in a 275 oven an hour or so for each pound until meat is tender. Serve with onion rolls and red cabbage slaw.

How to Cook a Green Ham

Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, either as main dish, or providing support in dozens of sides across the board.

But as a great many of those smart-ass hillbillies from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky–the absolute worst–will tell you (in annoyingly nasal, condescendingly reverential tones), there are hams, and then there are hams.

The best hams are dry cured, usually with a mix of salt and sugar. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced without cooking, but they need to be soaked in water for at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by brine injection. Smoked hams are usually a variant of both, with smoke and brine both providing preservation and flavor.

Then you have the green ham, which is what your old granny called a leg of pork. You’ll find it sold as a “fresh” ham. You may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs of meat you’ve been serving all these years.

A green ham will have a rind over a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife (honest to God, I use a box cutter), and coat with garlic, sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper, and sea salt. Put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions in the bottom of your roaster with enough water to cover. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack.

Place in a hot oven, 450. After thirty minutes, lower to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Let sit for at least an hour before carving.