Mississippi Roast

We need no further proof that to the staff of The New York Times the state of Mississippi is a backward enclave than an article that resurfaced recently in the newspaper’s food section about the “improbable rise” of a slow cooker recipe credited to a Ripley woman named Robin Chapman that has become a web phenomenon, “a favorite of the mom-blog set”. First published on January 26, 2016, the article, was written by Times food guru Sam Sifton, who calls the dish “Mississippi Roast.” Chapman, who was interviewed by Times writer for the article, simply called it “pot roast” (and still does). The recipe involves beef chuck topped with a packet of dry ranch dressing mix, a packet of dry “au jus” gravy, a stick of butter and a few pepperoncini. Chapman claims it’s a riff off a recipe she received from an aunt, who used packaged Italian dressing, but she wanted something “milder” (the word is in quotes in the Times article), so she used ranch instead of Italian. “Over time,” Sifton writes, “the recipe has slowly taken on a life of its own,” which is of course news not only to “food writers and scholars”, but to those of us who actually cook in order to feed ourselves and our families.

To his credit, Sifton has done a considerable amount of footwork delineating the “rise” of this recipe from Chapman’s kitchen to a cookbook put out by the good people at the Beech Hill Church of Christ in Ripley, through nearby Hickory Flat where it was sampled by visiting food blogger Laurie Ormond or Bentonville, AK, who published the recipe on her blog. The recipe was picked up by Candis Berge on her blog in 2011. Berge claimed it passed what she called “the hubby test” (in quoting her claim, the Times italicizes this, finding it a key factor in the recipe’s “mom-blog set” popularity), and very soon “Mississippi Roast” became popular on such platforms as Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest.

Again, to his credit, Sifton actually goes to the trouble to make “Mississippi Roast”, though predictably he is not faithful to the original recipe. He uses less butter (not saying how much less), reasoning that “there is plenty of fat in chuck roast”, uses five times as many pepperoncini, sears the roast before placing it in the cooker, “browning it aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper” (do I hear a faint echo of Craig Claiborne in that sentence?) and coating it with flour to create a “base of flavor” to replace the gravy mix and actually makes ranch dressing instead of using a packet (let’s give the devil his due and assume packets of dried au jus and ranch dressing mix are unavailable in Food World) and “dumped that” over the top of the meat. “Eight hours later,” Sifton writes, “My family dived into their meal with glee. It was exactly the same as the original effort (my italics, indicating incredulity), and took about the same amount of time to make.”

Sifton’s article ends with wine pairings compiled by one Eric Asimov (nephew of Isaac), who states, “This soft, beefy roast calls for a robust, structured red that will both complement the flavor of the meat and accommodate the bite of the peppers,” and recommends among others “a Brunello di Montalcino or its more modest sibling, Rosso di Montalcino” from Italy, “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant or its grander neighbor, Priorat” from Spain, a “southern Rhône, like a Gigondas or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape” or “if you are a fan of Argentine malbec, try one”. On second thought, anyone who can write such frivolous drivel about what wine to serve with a “Mississippi Roast” must know science fiction.

We can safely assume that everyone at the Beech Hill Church of Christ will assiduously ignore Asimov’s alcoholic urgings, and we can be damn sure that most people who want to make a pot roast with pre-packaged mixes will continue to do so however the hell they want using whatever the hell they have on hand, as cooks have been doing since the dawn of recorded history. The compelling theme behind this prolonged sneer against Mississippi, indeed against the “mom-blog set” across the nation, seems to be the sheer incredulity that such an atrocious recipe could actually find any sort of popular appeal in a country that is deluged by a media that promotes upscale food and ignores the needs and lives of people who work hard and have little time or money to indulge in such frivolities as Kobe beef or “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant”. Perhaps New York City itself is an anomalous enclave, but a certain anomaly definitely resides in the editorial offices of The New York Times.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Slugburgers

Before you think that my organic gardening has gotten way out of hand, consider that “slugs” are what a lot of people call counterfeit coins, and this sandwich filling is a culinary imposter only posing as a burger. During the Great Depression, a lot of diners in the American South stretched patties of ground beef or pork with potato flour. These were deep-fried, giving them crispy exteriors and juicy insides, topped with mustard, slid between buns, and sold for a nickel, which were also called “slugs.” Corinth, Mississippi, claims the slugburger as its own. John Weeks brought this hamburger recipe from Chicago to Corinth in 1917. Weeks had his hamburger meat ground to specification by local butchers, which included potato flakes and flour. Originally called Weeksburgers, in the Fifties,soy grits replaced the potato and flour. The slugburger is made into small patties, which are fried in canola oil and served topped with mustard, dill pickles, and onions on a slider  bun.

Slugburgers are still popular there and in surrounding north Mississippi and north Alabama. Each year the citizens of Corinth as well as those who travel from miles around descend on the town to pay tribute to this local culinary specialty at the annual Slugburger Festival, started in 1988. In 2012, the first World Slugburger Eating Championship was held there, and the winners have come exclusively from Northern California, as professional Major League Eating eaters have dominated. Matt Stonie from San Jose, California won the first three, the last of which in 2014 he set the world record with 43 slugburgers eaten in 10 minutes. In 2015, Chestnut made amends just days after the eight-time Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest was defeated by Stonie, who did not compete in Mississippi, by taking Stonie’s slugburger crown with 33 eaten. He repeated the feat with 41 in 2016, after he had reclaimed the Nathan’s title days earlier.

Slugburger Festival World Slugburger Eating Championship
Year    Winner                   Burgers           Runner up
2012    Matt Stonie        30 ‡                   Adrian Morgan (24.5)
2013    “                                31 ‡                   Joey Chestnut (30)
2014    “                                43 ‡                  Joey Chestnut (42)
2015    Joey Chestnut   33                     Juan Rodriguez (23)
2016    “                                 41                     Geoffrey Esper (32)
‡ World record set

For slugburgers, add two cups potato flakes and a cup of flour to one pound of ground beef, add a tablespoon each salt and pepper. Use your hands and mix very, very well. Form into patties, on the thin side. Some people—me included—dust the patties with flour before deep-frying in canola oil. Serve on a bun with mustard, pickles, onion, and a side of French fries or onion rings. This makes about 8 burgers.

 

Eudora on the Rocks

The muse of fiction is a thirsty bawd, especially in the South where the icon of a hard-drinking writer unjustly tars even us most humble wordsmiths with the brush of dissolution. Eudora Welty, every inch a lady, certainly did not fall into this rough-hewn category. Nonetheless, Eudora did enjoy the occasional bourbon. I have it on good authority that Welty and her friend Charlotte Capers, a Jackson historian, wit and essayist, were often to be found ensconced in Eudora’s home on Pinehurst with a bottle of Old Crow. Later, the authority insists, Welty became a convert to Maker’s Mark, and she invariably took it on the rocks with a splash of water.

Eudora lived to a ripe old age, garnering laurels all the way. In her youth, she worked for the short-lived (1935-39) Federal Writer’s Project. Thousands worked on the project, including several well-known authors, many of them women. Fieldworkers such as Welty made about $80 a month, working 20 to 30 hours a week, collecting stories, local histories and taking photographs. They also collected recipes for a project entitled “America Eats”, and most of these recipes and recollections of foods have been gathered together by Mark Kurlansky in his splendid Food of a Younger Nation. Welty’s contributions to “America Eats” are somewhat substantial, and from all over the state: stuffed apples, stuffed eggs, lye hominy, barbecue sauce, a seafood and an okra gumbo, court bouillon, beaten biscuit, Spanish rice, potato salad and, last but not least, a mint julep. Welty writes:

A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old City of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in Whitehall, the home of Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Billups. “The drink is refreshing,’ Mrs. Billups says, needlessly enough, “and carries with it all the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments, which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.’ The Whitehall recipe is as follows:

MINT JULEP

Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled.
Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water.
Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping into dissolved sugar.
Strain after stirring.
Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity.
Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold.
Put a spring of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet.
Let goblet stand until FROSTED.
Serve rapidly.

“Who could ask for anything more?” Eudora adds.