While I worked in west Florida during the 1980s, I came to know people from all over the world. Then there was Ruby Ruth Reese, a down-home girl who grew up in what she called “the woargrass (wiregrass)” region of south Alabama.
Ruby Ruth (“Call me ‘Roo’”) had a heart of gold, but she was just as mean as she could be to all those displaced Yankees we worked with in Florida. She liked me because, as she once put it, “You’re just tryin’ to rise above your raisin’, like me.” She even claimed to have relatives in Tupelo, but I think she just said that because she knew I was homesick all the time. Hell, the only reason she knew about Tupelo was because of Elvis.
Roo told me she worked in a truck stop in Geneva County, Alabama during the Sixties, and if they knew you well enough, and you ordered something “to go”, you’d pay five dollars more, and they’d slip you a bottle of whiskey under the counter before you left. They also made what they called ham and egg pie that most of their customers would order to eat by themselves. Roo often made these for us to share on our lunch, which we took around two in the afternoon when we’d had a busy day. I’ve fancied it up a little bit with the cheddar cheese (she used Velveeta), and she’d fuss at me for that.
8 large eggs
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup diced white onion
1/2 cup diced cooked potatoes
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup diced ham
salt and black pepper
Beat eggs and cream very well with salt and black pepper. Hint: add a splash of water, no more than a couple of tablespoons while beating; this helps the rise and keeps it moist. Heat an 8-in. skillet, add a half stick of butter. Once butter is sizzling, sauté onions and ham, then add half the egg mixture, shaking the pan as you do. Mix cheese and potatoes with remaining eggs. Once eggs begin to set, add the rest of the egg mixture, then pop into a very hot (450) oven until firm and bown.
I came to know Harry Ward when we worked together at The Warehouse and Audie Michael’s in Oxford during the 1980s, before the town became the characterless hipster charade of condos and concrete that it is now. Though Harry says the folks in Acadia parish would scoff at his claim to be a Cajun, Harry (who is from “N’awlins”) claims it, and I’ll always consider him the first Cajun I ever met. Harry was the first person I ever heard call a spice sack a “sock”, and he also introduced me to Tony Chachere (not literally, of course). Recently Harry sent me this wonderful Brennan’s recipe, and I learned of his ordeal with Katrina as well. While I’m sure there are thousands of such Katrina stories to be told, Harry’s seems particularly poignant to me, perhaps because it left him so far from the home he loves, or perhaps simply because it happened to my friend.
When Katrina struck, I was living in Bay St. Louis. Over the years, I had renovated my grandparents’ weekender there. The house was built in 1908. After about 3 years of completely renovating the whole house, I moved in in the late 90’s. As the house was only 600 feet from the Gulf of Mexico, I custom-cut plywood for my windows in preparation for hurricanes over the years. The old house was built up on brick piers about 2 feet off the ground, a typical construction at the time, with a wrap-around porch to take advantage of the sea breeze.
As Katrina approached, I knew we would have to evacuate. For the smaller storms, I had just boarded up and rode out the storm. The house had survived Camille, which up until then had been considered “the storm of all storms”, so I knew the house was storm-worthy. My wife and 3-month daughter evacuated to friends near Lafayette, Louisiana as I did not want to go north (to Mississippi or north Louisiana) for fear of Katrina knocking out power as she moved in that direction. After the storm, television coverage of Katrina was mostly of N’awlins as the television crews could not get to the Gulf Coast. We finally saw a fly-over of Bay St. Louis and realized we wouldn’t have anything left. When we made it back to the Coast, we discovered that only the steps remained of my grandparents’ house. The house was 23 feet above sea level. We had a 30 foot storm surge.
We went to Philadelphia, to my wife’s parents’ house, for about 3 weeks. Her brother came to visit there while on business. He was living in Reno, Nevada and suggested that we come out west to Reno as he had a fully-furnished rental. We came in the belief of a temporary stay, but we’ve been here for 10 years. I’m employed with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. Katrina has been an emotional and financial strain on our family. My wife still has nightmares of water and waves even though we evacuated.
I miss the South, the friendly people that wave to everyone even if they don’t know them, the food, the conversations and the slow pace of life. I miss talking about food or our next meal, even right after finishing one: “What do you want to make with the leftover shrimp or crawfish or crabs?” Like all great Cajun recipes eggs Chartres is about how and what to do with leftovers. Like gumbo; left-over meat or seafood, a roux, and you got your gumbo. Or jambalaya; leftover meat or seafood, mixed w/ rice, and you got your jambalaya. My mom made the eggs Chartres with left-over hard boiled eggs, especially after Easter. Now, this does not mean she would not boil extra eggs at other times, for egg salad, potato salad or even creamed eggs Chartres.
Brennan’s of New Orleans: Creamed Eggs Chartres
1 cup finely chopped/shredded white onions
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups of milk
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced (reserving 4 center slices for garnishment)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of paprika
In a large skillet sauté onion in butter until clear/transparent; stir in flour and cook slowly 3-5 minutes more. Blend in milk and egg yolk until smooth. Add salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, 8-10 minutes longer or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, add sliced eggs and mix lightly. Spoon into 2 8-oz casseroles and sprinkle with paprika and Parmesan cheese mixed together. Bake at 350 degrees until thoroughly headed. Garnish with eggs slices; serves two. This is a wonderful breakfast or brunch recipe, and can be served in a casserole with toasted French bread slices.
Here in the South people of a certain age are known to have casseroles in their freezers ready to pop into the oven when told of the death of a distant friend or same such relative so they can rush hot food to the designated home after dressing, coiffing and putting on an appropriately soulful demeanor, but foods associated with one’s own death are exceptional, the most notable examples being the last meals of the condemned, which range from the anticipated extravagant to the unexpectedly mundane or bizarre.
In the first category we have such foods as the steak and lobster ordered by such as Ted Bundy, Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis and Ronnie Lee Gardner. Sacco and Vanzetti had soup and meat with toast and tea (appropriate). John Wayne Gacy had a dozen fried shrimp, a bucket of original KFC with fries and a pound of strawberries (expected). Timothy McVeigh had two pints of mint and chocolate chip ice cream (skinny). The ultimate example in the second category would be the last federal inmate executed in the United States before the moratorium on the death penalty following Furman v. Georgia, who settled with a single olive (black with pit). A restaurant in Japan currently offers the last meals of these and others to patrons; no substitutions.
Then you have this unique example of a dish reputedly used by a condemned man to delay his own execution. The unfortunate unknown was sentenced to be hanged in Placerville, California, which is a little over 100 miles northeast of San Francisco, during the Gold Rush days.
For his last meal he ordered oysters and eggs knowing that the oysters would have to be brought inland by wagon over rough roads delaying his execution by several days. Other versions of the origins for hangtown fry exist, but the poignancy of this tale resonates. Hangtown fry is nothing more than an oyster omelet or frittata. Bacon, onions, sweet peppers and ham, are traditional, unsurprisingly reminiscent of the ‘Denver’ omelet. Somehow I find hangtown appropriate for a Sunday night.
Cooking and peeling boiled eggs is a matter of technique and experience. The methods vary; all they have in common are eggs, water and heat. The English eat soft-boiled eggs shell-on, sliced with a little knife and eaten with a little spoon, but Americans want hard-boiled eggs, ones Cool Hand Luke can gulp down in a Louisiana prison where you will find little knives, but not little spoons. I once saw a video of a guy blowing a boiled egg out of its shell; I tried it and got a migraine. Maybe I just suck at blowing eggs, but how much of a bad thing can that be? For expert advice on this matter of technique, these chefs offer their methods. Taken altogether, they offer a chorus of dissent against Emerson’s “There is always a best way of doing everything, if it be to boil an egg.” It ain’t that easy, Waldo.
Vishwesh Bhatt (The Snackbar, Oxford): Let’s get one thing out the way right away. Boiled eggs are my least favorite thing to eat. I’m uncertain where this aversion originated (or maybe I do), but there it is. Now as far as cooking and peeling goes, bring large chicken eggs (fresher the better) to a boil in well salted water. Boil rapidly for exactly 6 minutes. Shock the eggs by submerging them in ice water. Once they have cooled enough to handle, gently tap the air cell (the fatter end) of the egg on a flat hard surface until it cracks. Lay the egg sideways and roll it back and forth while gently applying pressure. The shell will start cracking, and once you have a crack that runs all the way around you can peel it off easily; if necessary you can run some cold water over the cracked shell while peeling to expedite the process.
Dan Blumenthal (Broad Street Bakery, Jackson): Place eggs in a pot and cover with cold water. Add a teaspoon or two of baking soda. This helps in peeling. Turn heat to max and bring to a boil. Cover and turn heat down to medium. Cook for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately run cold water over the eggs. Use ice in water if you have it. Once eggs are cool enough to peel, roll them on the counter to crack the shells, and peel them under running water to remove all shell fragments.
John Currence (The City Grocery, Oxford): We start eggs in cold water with a tablespoon of white vinegar. Starting cold will keep eggs from cracking and the vinegar helps the shell from “sticking” to the egg. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat and lower heat to medium. Boil for exactly 8 minutes. Pour off the hot water and cool with ice and cold water immediately. To peel, lightly tap side of egg on a hard surface to crack shell. Roll egg back and forth under palm until egg shell cracks all over. Egg will peel easily after this.
Alex Eaton (The Manship, Jackson): I put eggs in cold water; once eggs start boiling I time them exactly ten minutes. At the ten minute mark I ice them. To peel, I roll them on a flat service cracking them all over. Using a spoon you can peel the shell off with one good scrape.
Derek Emerson (Walker’s Drive-In, Jackson): Start eggs in cold water, put pot on high until it boils (must have bubbles in middle of pot). Once you get bubbles, turn off heat, add 1 cup of white vinegar and cover for 12 mins. Then shock until cool to stop them from cooking anymore. If you peel egg while they are still a little warm they will peel easier.
Martha Foose: (author of Screen Doors and Sweet Tea): Just buy your eggs way ahead of time. Add vinegar to water, cover 1 inch above eggs. If you want yolks to stay toward the middle poke rounded end with a thumbtack. Bring to a boil in non-aluminum pot. When water is boiling, cover, remove from eye and let sit 13 minutes. Run under cold water. Lightly crack; put back in cold water for 5 minutes.
Dixie Grimes (The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery, Water Valley): Use raw eggs directly from the fridge. Put (do not over-crowd) in a saucepan with about 2 tablespoons table salt and cover completely with water by 1-2 inches. Bring to a hard boil for about 6 minutes. Turn the heat off and let them sit in the hot water for another 6 minutes. Drain and gently crack the shells; re-cover in warm water for 3-4 minutes until cool enough to handle. Peel; more times than not the shell comes off in one whole piece. The key is to peel them while they are still warm.
Gary Hawkins (The Fairview Inn, Jackson): I cover my eggs by 2″ with cold water. Arrange eggs in a single layer, not bunched up all over. Bring to a boil, after it comes to a boil let it go 3 to 5 minutes, turn off heat and cover with lid for about 20 minutes then peel under cold running water.
Dru Jones (Boure, Oxford): In the restaurant, we generally boil 3 or 4 flats (18 eggs each) at a time. Salted cold water to cover the eggs, big splash of white vinegar, and bring to a boil. Hit the timer 10 minutes from the boil and shock in ice water. More than that and the yolks get a gray/green ring around them and it’s a tell-tale sign of over cooking. Peel when completely cooled. More often than not, give them a good roll and the cracked shell comes off in a sheet. If you are using farm fresh/day old eggs, I would probably wait a while to boil them.
Matthew Kajdan (The Parlor Market, Jackson): Place raw eggs gently in an empty pot, and fill the pot with enough cold tap water to cover the eggs by1 inch of water. Cook the eggs on medium heat; if boiling is too intense the eggs can jump and break. Add a pinch of salt to the water. This will make the eggs easier to peel; eggs that are slightly less fresh are also easier to peel. As soon as the water boils, turn off the heat and cover for ten to fifteen minutes. To see if the egg is hard-boiled, whirl it on a table. If it turns fast, it is hard-boiled; if it turns slowly, it is soft boiled. Chill the eggs under cold running water or in a bowl of ice water. When cool enough to handle, roll egg on a flat surface to crack the shell and peel under cold water, starting from the thick end of the egg.
Angelo Mistilis (Mistilis’, Delta Steak Company, Oxford): Add salt to the water. Don’t dump a lot of salt in there, maybe just two or three tablespoons, and bring them to a heavy boil for five minutes. If you’re boiling more than a dozen, take maybe six or seven minutes. To see if the eggs are done, take one out and spin it. If the eggs are hard-boiled, they’ll spin like a top. Cool the eggs down in cold water, crack them all around and peel. A lot of times that shell will come off in two pieces. But adding salt to the water is the key.
Taylor Bowen Ricketts (The Delta Bistro, Greenwood): I boil eggs slow and steady, and I pretty much only boil eggs from my friend Leanne Hines, who raises my chickens. The eggs are darker, richer and have thicker yolks than grocery standard eggs. I usually boil a dozen at a time, using a 4 quart saucepan and 3 quarts water. I simmer these nuggets of light brown goodness for about 20 mins., cool slowly and peel under cold running water.
Mike Roemhild (Table 100, Flowood): I still cook eggs the way my mother and grandmother showed me. It’s always better for hard-boiled eggs to use a bit older eggs, like a week old. Take eggs out of the fridge and poke big end with thin needle. Let the eggs sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Fill a pot with enough water to cover the eggs, add a pinch of salt and bring to a light boil. With a spoon set eggs one by one in to the boiling water. When water comes back to a boil set your timer on 8-9 minutes for large eggs, keep water at a light boil, not rolling boil. After time is up, drain off the hot water, and cool eggs in very cold water for about 5 minutes. Gently crack the shell on the rim of your pot and peel under running water.
Robert St. John (Purple Parrot Café, Hattiesburg): When cooking hard-boiled eggs, the key is to cook the perfect yolk. Once you’ve mastered the yolk, everything else falls in place. There are probably a hundred ways to cook the perfect hard-boiled egg, here’s mine: Gently place the eggs in a single layer in a saucepot. Don’t crowd. Cover with cold water by an inch or so. Bring the pot to a rigorous boil. Cook 1-2 minutes. Remove heat, cover, and let sit 9-10 minutes. Drain and cover with cold water. Remove the eggs and gently crack the shells. Peel the eggs starting on the large end making sure to get under the clear plastic-like membrane.
Nick Wallace (The Palette, Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson): If you want hard-boiled eggs that are easy to peel, make sure they are several days old. Buy your eggs 5 days in advance; hard boiling farm fresh eggs will lead to eggs that are difficult to peel. If you have boiled a batch that is difficult to peel, try putting them in the refrigerator for a few days; they should be easier to peel then. If you need to hard cook fresh eggs, steaming works well. Even fresh eggs steamed for 20 minutes will be easy to peel.
Finally, a reminder that an imperfectly peeled egg is why God created egg salad.
Mix chopped boiled eggs, finely chopped celery, red onion and black olives with mayonnaise; season with salt, dill, cayenne and serve as a spread on good dark bread.