One of Anthony Bourdain’s last works is an introduction to Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, originally published in 1975. In this tribute, Bourdain calls Mitcham’s cookbook “one of the most influential of my life.”
Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press said he and his team approached Bourdain because they knew that he was “an admirer of Mitcham.”
Bourdain’s culinary career started in the early 1970s in Provincetown, where Mitcham was already a legend. “He was just so terrific,” Simon said. “I think he loved the gusto with which Howard lived his life and cooked and brought it all together.”
A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great.
A name chef during what Bourdain himself called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of food, people, art and lore.
Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times.
His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his writings on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seem to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority.
“People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”
James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis.
For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherency. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”
Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University as an art student, and at some point, in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery.
What quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown.
His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1975 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”
“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time.”
“He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”
“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook.
Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”
On the one hand, you have an effete, fruity cocktail, on the other, the roguish, bravado oysters Roffignac.
Both recipes are from the most popular restaurant in antebellum New Orleans, which occupied the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets. Howard Mitcham says that oysters Roffignac was the first baked/broiled oyster dish in New Orleans eateries, and if Howard says so, it’s so.
You’ll not find many oyster recipes that use red wine, and fewer using paprika for actual flavor as opposed to a color accent, but it’s a robust combination. Add this dish to your repertoire as a hearty alternative to a sissy Bienville.
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 seasonings. Cook until done through. Dissolve cornstarch in about ¼ cup water, add wine and oyster liquor, and drizzle into hot mixture until thickened. Cool before spooning over oysters and broiling.
This text and recipe is from Howard Mitcham’s magical Creole, Gumbo, and All That Jazz.
After gumbo, the most famous Creole-Cajun dish is jambalaya. The word is probably derived from “Jambon,” which means am in both Spanish and French. The “a la ya” is probably an African expletive which can be interpreted as either acclaim or derision. Jambalaya was a well-known dish even before Hank Williams’s Hit Parade song came along and made it nationally famous. Millions have sung the song without knowing anything about what the dish was like. The recipes herewith will give you a chance to really get on the bandwagon. Jambalaya started out as a poor man’s catch-all, utilizing any leftover meats, sausages, shrimp, or fish that might be lying around, and stretching them a long, long way with plenty of rice. If a poor Cajun family had five or six kids, it’s a safe bet they ate jambalaya several times a week. Like red beans and rice, it kept people from starving during depressions and recessions.
But the consummate artistry of Creole and Cajun cooks has lifted jambalaya above its humble beginnings to a higher plateau, and it is now served with pride and joy in the mansions of the wealthy and in high-toned restaurants. This dish is a close cousin of the Spanish paella, and it probably originated down around New Iberia, which, as its name suggests, was originally a Spanish settlement. However, there’s another town with a Spanish name, Gonzales, up near Baton Rouge, that calls itself the Jambalaya Capital of the World. Its citizens hold a jambalaya festival every year. They cook big black iron wash pots full of the stuff, and people come from all over to sample the rich and redolent fare. A real Gonzales jambalaya is so peppery hot, spicy, and rich that the uninitiated can barely cope with it, but an aficionado of the art can consume a half gallon of it and ask for more. The version of Creole Jambalaya here is lighter fare than the Gonzales product.
Melt a half stick butter in a thick-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, cook 1 pound andouille or smoked sausage (or both) until lightly browned. Stir in a heaping quarter cup of plain flour, add 3 medium white onions, chopped finely, 4 minced cloves of garlic, 6 whole scallions, chopped. Cook until onions soft and clear. Add a 16 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained, along with a bay leaf, and a teaspoon each thyme, cayenne, cumin, and black pepper. Add 4 cups broth (chicken or beef), a cup of cooked chicken, and a cup of diced ham. The liquid should cover the ingredients. Bring to a rolling boil and stir in 2 cups raw rice (let me recommend Zatarain’s long grain, jly). Cover, boil for about 5 minutes, then reduce heat and cook until rice is done. Remove lid to cook off excess liquid; “a jambalaya should be moist, but not soupy.” Salt to taste.
This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s knowledgeable, rambunctious, and absolutely delightful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (Addison-Wesley: 1978). Howard lived in New Orleans in what many consider a golden era, (1955-70) when the city was filled with talent not only local, but brought on board by the scintillating lures of freedom and indulgence.
One of the most delicious seafood dishes to come out of New Orleans is barbecued shrimp, and once you’ve eaten it, you’ll never forget it. Barbecued shrimp have been around for a long, long time, and they’ve been served at many restaurants, but they’ve been brought to a peak of perfection by Pascal’s Manale, up- town on Napoleon Avenue. People come from miles around to eat their barbecued shrimp, and on weekend nights the place is so crowded, you have to wait two or three hours to get a table.
It is said that Manale’s secret recipe for this dish is buried in the center of a two-ton concrete block under the office safe. A friend of mine, Mrs. Ivy Whitty, solved the riddle by hiring a cook who used to work at Manale’s. The cook could neither read nor write, but she had all the treasured secrets in her head. Working together, that cook and Mrs. Whitty perfected a barbecued shrimp recipe that may or may not be Manale’s, but it is sublime.
It’s amazing that such a good dish could be so simple, but there’s nothing in it except shrimp, butter, and black pepper. If you try to add anything else-herbs, spices, Worcestershire, whatever-you’ll spoil it for certain. It’s important to use fresh shrimp with their heads and shells on if you can find them. The tomalley inside the shrimp’s head, which is like the tomalley of a lobster, adds a real punch to the sauce in the pan. (However, if you can’t find fresh shrimp, frozen unpeeled shrimp with tails will make a dish that’s almost as delicious and better than almost any shrimp dish you could find in the average seafood restaurant.)
At first glance it seems that the recipe calls for too much black pepper, but you’ll discover later that it’s just right. The heat cooks out of it-well, sort of. Always open a fresh can of black pepper when making this dish so that it will be fully aromatic and pungent. The general rule for butter is one stick per pound of shrimp plus a stick for the pan.
Use a 16-20 count; pat shrimp dry and place in the bottom of a buttered baking dish, skillet or casserole. Drizzle with melted butter—one stick to one pound of shrimp—and top with excessive amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Place on the highest rack in your hottest oven for about 10 minutes (jly).
This wonderful old recipe is from Howard Mitcham’s classic, Creole Gumbo, and All That Jazz. Cover the bottom of a 10-in. gratin with finely-crumbed saltines mixed with pepper, paprika, chopped shallots, and parsley. Add a layer of oysters that have been rolled in the crumb mixture, then top with another layer of crumbs and grated parmesan. Drizzle with only enough melted butter to moisten, then slowly pour heavy cream into the edge of the dish until oysters are just covered. Place in a very hot oven until bubbling and browned.
A writer, scholar, and an artist as well as the first and foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur, and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great.
A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto, with horns, drums, and songs. His Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz stands loud, proud and without a smidgen of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, written with the same gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts as fully, but as his fellow Mississippian, Creole Gumbo strikes much closer to my heart.
Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times. His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his eloquence on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seems to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”
James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis. For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherence. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”
Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. A May 30, 1934 clipping from “The Pica”, the GHS school newspaper, includes a column by Mitcham (“Rigmarole”) and three poems by Foote. A news article in the same issue notes: “Walker Percy, freshman at the University of North Carolina and member of last year’s graduating class, will journey to Germany for a three months’ tour of that country,” adding that “the tour will be made on foot and on bycicles (sic)”. After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University. As an art student at LSU in 1940, Mitcham came to the attention of the Baton Rouge Advocate for befriending a Negro janitor on campus, Felton Coleman, who according to the newspaper article Mitcham “forced” to paint. Reading the account of this incident is almost painful, since it is most likely from our perspective that little coercion was involved at all. Instead, Coleman probably expressed an interest in painting while he was sweeping a studio, and Mitcham, far from ordering him to paint, instead gave Coleman a canvas and paint to take home to his “cabin”, where he soon “spent his evenings . . . painting by the light of a kerosene lamp, intent neighbors (crowding) at his elbows.” A year later, one of Coleman’s paintings, the “brilliantly-colored and strongly composed ‘Baptism’, appeared by invitation at the annual exhibition of Louisiana artists at the capitol.” (The painting is now on permanent exhibit at LSU.) “Coleman can be the greatest artist of his race, at least in the South,” Mitcham is quoted as saying. “It’s a pity that the opportunities to learn are not in the reach of more of his people. They all have talent. Painting gives them a way to express themselves, and they’ve got a great deal to say.” It’s worth noting that to advocate more education for blacks in the South in the 40s was progressive, if not radical.
At some point in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery. During this time, he became the model for “the stone deaf man” in Marguerite Young’s epic work, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Sabina said that during Mitcham’s days in New York, Walker Percy would come to stay with him, often sleeping on the floor in Mitcham’s tiny apartment in the Village.
A little over a decade later, Mitcham’s support for civil rights was confirmed in another medium. Among the papers of Dr. James Silver at the University of Mississippi is a letter from Mitcham to Silver dated 1956 written in a strong articulate script thanking him for a letter and clipping from “the Jackson, Tenn. newspaper” and his vigorous support of Silver’s stance against a closed society. “You have certainly flung down the gauntlet in a manner that was badly needed,” Mitcham wrote. “I only hope you don’t get a potsherd in the urn with your name on it. To defend freedom of thought and expression in Mississippi these days is almost suicidal, they’re more afraid of truth than any other one thing, just can’t afford to face it, or the house of cards will fall down.” The year before, Howard received a letter from Faulkner thanking him for a painting.
Dear Mitcham, The picture is here. It was all right, not bent but arch-ed a little but the paint did not crack. I flattened it with careful pressure, am trying to get a frame, something solid behind it. I will let the Buie people hang it for a while if they wish. I like it. I have it propped in a chair at eyelevel across the room from my typewriter where I can look up at now and then. I don’t know where rumor of illness came from. It’s not mine though. I had measles and such as a child but nothing since. Thank you for condolence though, and many thanks for the painting. I like plenty of dense color. Yours sincerely Faulkner
It’s not known if the painting ever did hang in the Buie Museum, but it is still at Rowan Oak. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, pointing out the date as well as the elements of the painting (a Tokyo newspaper, a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a pipe) said, “Mitcham probably painted this to mark the publication of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches by Hokuseido Press in Japan on April 1. Faulkner also traveled to Japan that August on a goodwill tour.”
Mitcham’s first book, Fishing on the Gulf Coast, was published by Hermit Crab Press in 1959. “I don’t know much about fishing,” Mitcham confesses in his preface, but that doesn’t stop him from offering instructions on how to catch dozens of fresh and salt water species using methods anyone on the Gulf would use now. But Fishing on the Gulf Coast, in the final analysis, is a cookbook, Mitcham’s first, and it establishes his life-long love for seafood. Fishing includes many recipes you’ll find in later works (bouillabaisse, court bouillon, pompano en papillote and, of course a gumbo, in this instance from Antoine’s, no less). While the recipes are elaborate (and nowadays quite expensive to make), they’re easy to follow; they make perfect sense to anyone from south of I-10, with procedures for such things as smoking mullet (much beer-drinking seems to be involved) and incredibly detailed maps of the Gulf Coast along Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle.
What makes Fishing on the Gulf Coast even more of a treasure are Mitcham’s beautiful woodcut prints of fish and marine life. Art (along with a passion for antique clocks and clockworks) provided Mitcham with a fruitful outlet for his talents throughout his life. The 1963 summer and winter issues of The Carolina Quarterly featured two portfolios with six of his woodcuts prints. Like his fellow Mississippi artist Walter Anderson, who also made woodcut prints, much of Mitcham’s work reflects a strong interest in classical mythology. This is nowhere more evident than in his Four Tales from Byzantium (Wattle Grove Press: 1964). Incredulously enough, Wattle Grove Press was a small publishing house founded in Launceston,Tasmania by Professor Rolf Hennequel in 1958. According to a pamphlet issued by the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston, Hennequel stated that the purpose of the press was “. . . for printing unusual literature, which could not possibly be launched commercially. This was—and is—our only purpose, which also includes the desire to help young writers.” How Mitcham connected with this small, progressive press in a part of the world that could be considered almost the antipodes of Mississippi is an as-yet unfathomable mystery. Somewhat later, the book was re-issued by Hermit Crab Press in New Orleans.
The quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown. An editor of The Provincetown Advocate described Mitcham as “Artist, block print maker, chef par excellence, pro-beatnik, draughtsman and one of the most talented ‘nuts’ ever to come into Provincetown.” Mitcham maintained an art gallery on the Cape, painted signs and repaired clocks (one correspondent claims he published an article on antique clocks in Gentleman’s Quarterly). In the 1960s, Mitcham wrote a column in the Advocate called the “The Cape Tip Gourmet” and another called “The Cape Curmudgeon”. He wrote that the first place he headed when he first arrived in Provincetown, and most likely from then on, was Town Wharf. “It made my heart jump to see the enormous hauls of herring that the trap boats were bringing in,” Mitcham said. “But my gourmet’s heart was broken when I found out that this wonderful fish was being knocked down for two bucks and fifty cents a barrel and shipped off to the cat food factory.”
His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1976 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”
“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time. He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”
“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”
In Provincetown, Mitcham bonded strongly with the local Portuguese community, where he made many deep and lasting friendships and his love for them shines from his works. In Fishing on the Gulf Coast, Mitcham claims he contacted the Portuguese Embassy to obtain a recipe, and The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook contains many, many more. “Transplanting the Azores Islanders to Provincetown was a great step forward because they brought with them their beautifully rambunctious cookery, and this husky, euphoric cuisine has quietly worked its way into Cape Cod and New England cookery in general,” he wrote. “I have been observing Portuguese cooks for twenty-five years, and I find that they have the following relative units of measurement: (1) a little, (2) some, (3) a bit more, (4) a lot, (5) plenty, (6) enough.”
Mitcham’s best-known work in my part of the world is Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), arguably the most embracive and best-written book about the food and people of southern Louisiana. The exuberance of this work needs many readings to encompass. In Creole Gumbo, Mitcham celebrates his love for the kaleidoscopic, carefree world of the Crescent City: its food, its history and, astoundingly, its music. Reading Creole Gumbo, you discover Mitcham the bohemian, a Falstaff in the French Quarter, ebullient in his adoration for life and the bounty of the waters. Creole Gumbo could well serve as a textbook for New Orleans cuisine, since it not only includes the most recognized dishes of the city with authoritative recipes usually garnered from reliable sources but more so, it places the foods of the city within the demographics that shaped them. Like any knowledgeable writer on the subject — Paul Prudhomme, for instance — Mitcham takes great pains to distinguish between Creole and Cajun, two distinct populations often erroneously lumped together by less astute writers and epicures. He also describes other people that combined in the great cauldron: the native Choctaws, the immigrant French, Spanish, Albanian, Sicilian, Chinese and Filipino. Mitcham also offers a “Short Biography of a Creole Building”, that being the Skyscraper on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, where he lived with his friends, artists Johnny Donnels and Maggi Hartnett, noting that the building was also home to Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner during the 1920s and the site of jam sessions by legendary jazz artists like Kid Thomas, George Lewis, Percy Humphries and Lewis Nelson. Mitcham had an apartment in the 600 block of St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. His longtime friend, photographer Johnny Donnels, lived on the floor below, and on the efficiency stove in Donnels’ apartment was where Mitcham tested his recipes. “If it didn’t kill anybody or make anybody sick,” Donnels said, “we put it in the book.”
In her Sept. 12, 1979 article in The New York Times, “A Library of Creole-Cajun Cooking”, Mimi Sheraton said that Creole Gumbo is “a delightful book with excellent recipes for the gumbo, jambalaya, crab, shrimp, crawfish and other seafood dishes that distinguish both the Creole and Cajun kitchens.” She praises Mitcham’s “beautifully simple recipe for the pungent barbecued shrimp of the type made at Pascal’s Manale restaurant and some unusual folklore dishes such as the Chimney Sweep’s shrimp boil that Mitcham and his Guild of Chimney Sweepers (named in honor of a dinner that Charles Lamb hosted for the London sweeps) hosted yearly for French Quarter bohemians during the 1950s and 1960s.”
“At our last big party we boiled 400 pounds of shrimp and 400 fat crabs for 200 guests and we drank eight thirty-gallon kegs of beer,” Mitcham said. “For music we had Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers, the famous old gut-bucket jazz group from Preservation Hall, and the Olympia Funeral Marching Band”.
Sheraton notes that Creole Gumbo, like its predecessor The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, deals (almost) exclusively with seafood, for which Mitcham had an avowed and lifelong passion, but it’s worth pointing out that with few exceptions (bananas Foster springs to mind) the recipes we associate most with New Orleans are seafood-based: trout amandine meuniere, oysters Rockefeller, seafood gumbo, pompano en papillote, the aforementioned barbecued shrimp (which, it must be said, resembles no other type of Southern barbecue) and many others. This emphasis on seafood provides a convenient point for a brief comparison with The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Two points must be emphasized: first, that one city sits on the edge of the North Atlantic, the other at the mouth of the Mississippi River; secondly, the ethnic make-up of places, New Orleans a hodge-podge of race and nationalities, Provincetown a New England enclave with an important Portuguese community. Geography plays an important role in the types of seafood used. Recipes for clams of all sorts and the fish of the North Atlantic (cod, haddock, bluefish, etc.) dominate the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, while the emphasis in Creole Gumbo is on oysters, shrimp and such fish that thrive in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico (redfish, snapper, speckled trout, etc.) as well as the denizens of the fresh and brackish water environments along the Gulf: alligators, snapping turtles and catfish.
In 1981, The Hermit Crab Press published Maya O Maya! Rambunctious Fables of Yucatan. According to a synopsis by Creighton University, which owns one of the 500 published copies, the book is “a collection of humorous parodies of ancient lore about gods, statues, and rites. The first, ‘The World’s Strongest Cocktail,’ presents Ixnib, the god who invented the drink balche. The woodcut figures are reminiscent of Mayan statues in museums.”
Mitcham’s final, and in many ways his most personal book, is Clams, Mussels, Oysters, Scallops, and Snails: A Cookbook and a Memoir (1990). Were we to judge by this book alone we might well concur that Mitcham’s favorite food among all the denizens of the sea is the clam, since well over half the book is a paean to this bivalve mollusk, it’s biology, its history as a foodstuff (particularly in New England) and recipes from all over the world. Mitcham delves into the American “Chowder War” (New York/Long Island tomatoes vs “Yankee”—New England—cream) and of course offers several Portuguese recipes. In addition, somewhat surprisingly to me because the idea of Mitcham as riveted to a New Orleans/Provincetown axis, he reveals himself as a far-ranging traveler, journeying not only to Portugal itself, but to southern Spain, the Pacific Northwest, Philadelphia and Chicago. He also introduces a cadre of chefs who were very much his fellow celebrities in the culinary world of his day: Joseph Poon, Louis Szathmary and Jeff Smith, among others. Many of his recipes for oysters are repeated from Creole Gumbo, which given their excellence is quite excusable, and he covers scallops, periwinkles and moon snails deftly and with expertise. As always, Mitcham’s style is light, breezy and wry, a delight to read. It’s in this book we also come to know many of the people who make up his world, an off-beat collection of people who clustered around Howard as the cynosure of a starry sky.
Mitcham shared his days between New Orleans and Provincetown, where he worked in local restaurants. He also became very much a fixture in the town; Jan Kelly, who wrote a food column for The Provincetown Advocate with Mitcham for years, described him as “brilliant, a great art lover and so well-read that there wasn’t a literary or mythical reference that he didn’t know. He was an absolute genius, terribly complicated at times, but never boring.” Mitcham died at the age of 79 on August 22, 1996, at Cape Cod Hospital. Mitcham once told Donnels he’d like to be buried in a Truro, Mass., cemetery beside an old clam digger friend of his, but at another time Donnels said, “We were sitting in Pat O’Brien’s, and he said if ever he died, he would like to be cremated and have his ashes scattered through the ventilating fan of the ladies room there.”
Mitcham’s ashes were spread over the ocean off Cape Cod.
Cryptozoologists report that crawfish three feet long live in a remote Japanese lake, but not one of these animals has yet to make its way onto a sushi bar, much less into an étouffée. The largest recorded crawfish, about half that size, live in Tasmania, where they are protected by law, not like that would stop a Cajun with a plane ticket and a dozen coolers.
Crawfish are the same thing as crayfish. What distinguishes them from their cousins (lobster, shrimp, crab and krill) is that crawfish live in fresh water, making them the most available crustaceans in the world. They’ve been eaten with relish for centuries. Their popularity in this country is largely restricted to the Deep South, more specifically to Louisiana, for the simple reason that the French people who came to live there (unlike the riff-raff who invaded the rest of the country) were more familiar with crawfish as food than as bait.
God in His Infinite Wisdom provided the French settlers in Louisiana with a vigorous and plentiful species for their tables, the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii). Renegade squadrons of these creatures have achieved invasive status all over North America as well as Europe and Asia, and their proliferation in the wetlands surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi provides the basis for a multi-million dollar industry. The Louisiana Legislature designated the charming city of Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World in 1959, a title blithely if not pointedly ignored in Mère France, where dishes including crawfish are referred to as à la Nantua.
Gallic enthusiasm aside, it’s worth noting that crawfish play a significant role in the cuisines of Scandinavia, where on the first Friday in August people gather outside, sing, eat mass quantities of crawfish and drink prodigious amounts of vodka, beer and aquavit. In that part of the world, the cooler taste of dill (seeds, crowns, leaves and stems) is used to flavor a bouillon of sugared vinegar, beer and water. Cajuns also eat crawfish in public celebrations with plenty of music, beer and booze, which might be the only direct parallel between the two peoples. The most decided culinary contrast is the pungent spices used to season the bouillon in this part of the world. Forget that sissy dill; if you don’t have halved heads of garlic, bay and cayenne in the water, not to mention plenty socks of seasonings, corn, potatoes and whatever else is in the refrigerator, you’re going to be trussed to a tree and someone else is going to take charge.
Fresh crawfish are usually available February through May, but frozen crawfish meat is available year-round. This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s wonderful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), in my less-than-humble opinion the most comprehensive and best-written book about the kaleidoscopic world of southern Louisiana’s music, history, and food.
Melt a stick of butter in a skillet, sauté one small onion, three ribs celery, one small bell pepper and a clove of garlic, all finely chopped. Add the diced meat of 1 large eggplant and cook until soft. Add about a cup of chicken stock, a quarter cup sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”), a pound of peeled crawfish tails and enough bread crumbs to thicken into a wet paste. Season with salt, pepper (cayenne, if you want more heat), thyme and basil, pour into a baking dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 until bubbling. This recipe makes about six servings (over rice) as an entree, works well as a small plate buffet item and is better served warm and best the next day.
Over 35 years ago no less an authority than Howard Mitcham predicted that “the day will come when fillet of alligator will be served with pride in first-class gourmet restaurants, and frozen alligator meat will be available in the supermarket.” Well, if not in your supermarket then certainly online, where you can find gator meat from a number of sources in our Great Sister State of Louisiana. Here’s Howard’s marinade recipe for barbecued alligator steak. Marinate steaks for at least four hours, turning the pieces occasionally. Grill on a low heat for about an hour or until tender.
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 1/3 cups salad oil
8 drops Tabasco
1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
1 tbsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper