Hot Dip from Cafe Olé

Cafe Olé on University Avenue in Oxford was a popular eatery in the 1990s. I worked there briefly when I returned to Oxford after several years in Florida, and man, was I a mess.

The dip, served as a complimentary side with a basket of warm tortilla chips, is typical of most good Mexican restaurants. We made gallons and gallons of it.

Converting a restaurant recipe to one easily made at home presents problems both with the scaling-down process and the ingredients. Bear in  mind also that this recipe is my adaptation of the one I copied down some twenty years ago.

So make a batch according to these directions and then modify it as you see fit. I have scaled down the more distinctive ingredients (lime juice, vinegar, jalapeno “juice”, onion, garlic, and cilantro) in this version, because once these are added, you can’t very well remove them. If you want more, you can add it later.

The dip should be on the thin side, very sharp, redolent of garlic, cilantro, and lime.

1 12-oz. can tomato puree
1 cup water
1 12-oz. can whole tomatoes (with juice)
1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup canned jalapeno juice (or any hot pepper vinegar)
1 cup jalapenos (half that if you’re using fresh)
1 large white onion, chopped
1/4 cup granulated garlic (I recommend dried/minced as a substitute)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Process until smooth

Photo by Lester Ferrell

Keepers of the House

In the summer of 1855, Miss Anna Sheegog died upstairs in the house in which I write. No token of hers remains, not even a hair ribbon; the grief at her passing was eased and forgotten long ago. Yet she is still fooling around up there, after al this time, and no wonder—she was only 16 and not ready to be done with life.

Something is always stirring in old houses, for they murmur in their sleep as people do. So much happens, and none of it wants to leave; it is laid up in the walls, left to leak out now and then when someone is listening. Ghosts, we call it, though it is really only memory. I have listened here—in all weathers, in the bright noon and deep watches of the night—longer than Miss Anna was alive, and I know something of the memory of houses.

This one is called Rowan Oak, for Mr. William Faulkner called it that, and he lived here longer than anybody. Because he lived here it is a literary shrine of sorts; for 20-odd years pilgrims have been coming up the walk to see what lies in the white house.

I, too, was a pilgrim once, come by a long road begun in a railroad yard. One night a switchman, Frank Smith, pressed on me a book, of all things, a paperback, greasy and bent to the shape of his blue jeans pocket. “Read this,” he said. In the yard office after the train was gone, I opened it and began to read, and the world was never the same again.

Years later, when I was curator of Mr. William Faulkner’s house, I happened on a page of manuscript behind a drawer in the library. I knew right away what it was; lines from The Hamlet, written in this very house. It was no small thing to meet, and as the morning light fell through the tall library windows, I remembered another light; the glow of Frank Smith’s lantern on that vanished summer night, when he put his copy of The Hamlet in my hand.

Ghosts again, and, always, time. In Mr. Faulkner’s house, time is the sum of all senses. It is in the light, in all seasons softened to twilight by the trees. Time lies in the creak of a shutter, rain in the downspouts, in a step half-heard in the empty rooms above. It is in the very smell of the place, which is the smell of all grandmother’s houses, made of dust and mildew, old books and years of fried chicken—and that almost palpable memory that will not go away. It is the smell of time.

No wonder pilgrims sometimes speak in whispers here. No wonder children often cling shyly to their parents’ legs, flirting with something only they can see. Time conjures them all, as it conjures us, who are stewards of time.

There have not been many of us. Dr. James Webb, the first and best curator, will always be chief. In the early years Dr. George Street was here, and Bev Smith. I have worked with Danny Toma, Terrell Lewis, Keith Fudge. Winfred Ragland was the first groundskeeper, and then Isiah McGuirt, whom I watched rake the leaves of 15 autumns.

These were all Southern men who knew not just Mr. Faulkner and his work, but also what it means to love an old house and earth whence it came. They were all pilgrims, come here by their own long roads, each to find his own doorway to the past.

Once, on one of those days when the sky is deep blue and every leaf sharp and clear and shadows haunt the fence corners—once, on such a day, Isaiah walked out in the north pasture to work his turnips and Dany went along to swap lies. I wandered out by myself by and by and leaned on the fence and watched them. On the whole place there were only three of us. Their voices drifted to me across the morning. Now and then, an acorn rattled on the tin roof of the cookhouse, the loft door creaked, the house drowsed white and solid in the sun.

I should not have been surprised to find Mr. Faulkner at my elbow, leaning on the fence with his pipe, nor to see Miss Anna in the kitchen door—for the streams of time had come together once more, the old proper rhythms of life were in cadence, and all that ever happened on this place narrowed to an old man and a boy in the pasture, talking quietly under the autumn sky.

Occasionally, folks ask me what it is like to work at Rowan Oak. I do not know how to tell them about Frank Smith or Dr. Webb or Danny or the day Isiah went out to hoe his greens, but sometimes I try, and they are almost always satisfied. It is a good thing for pilgrims to carry away into the world waiting for them beyond the gate, for in that world ghosts are silly and magic is only for children. I don’t believe so myself, and neither does Miss Anna—but then, she is only 16, after all.

Howard Bahr lives in Oxford, Mississippi

Red Snapper en Mornay

Snapper en Mornay was one of the most popular dishes at the old Warehouse in Oxford. We broiled snapper fillets with a rich in-house sauce, and served them with a dusting of paprika, a sprinkling of sliced almonds, and our house bread.

Make a thick Béchamel. Add grated Swiss or Provolone cheese, chopped green onions, picked lump crab meat, and a splash of sherry. Season with Lowrey’s, mix well, and chill. You’ll need about a cup of sauce for eight ounces of fish; if not snapper, use flounder or another lean white fish.

Score fillets on both sides, place on a buttered pan, cover with sauce,  and broil until fish flakes.

Dixie’s Blue Cheese Dressing

Chef and author Dixie Grimes lives in Water Valley, Mississippi.

This sinfully delicious and beautifully iconic blue cheese dressing will make your mouth water and your taste buds sing: silky and salty with a hint of sweetness, a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton. It is a beautiful thing; that is, until you have had to make it for a fine dining restaurant on the fly.

This recipe is by far one of the most temperamental that I have ever used. Everything has to be just right, including proper alignment of the stars and planets, and even then it might not work. However, I highly recommend giving it a whirl. The depth and flavor of this dressing is not like anything I have had before or since I worked at the Downtown Grill. We eventually retired it, and I came up with an easier alternative for the prep cooks to make; it would do, but it’s nowhere near as good as this one.

I started my professional culinary career at the Downtown Bar and Grill. I was a prep cook which meant I was the low man on the totem pole, the grunt; it was my job to do whatever the chefs needed me to do and get yelled at constantly for either not doing it properly or quick enough or both. That being said, I could hold my own and for the most part the guys gave me as much respect as a chef will give a prep cook (which ain’t much). I was allowed and expected to make everything and anything the guys needed for service, except of course the blue cheese dressing. Why would they not let me make it? And why did I never see it being made and why was only one person allowed to handle this recipe?

I would soon find out when I saw my name on the prep sheet aside the blue cheese dressing on a football Friday of an Ole Miss home game, in other words no room for error. Had I finally moved up to the upper echelon and was so bad ass that I was going to be allowed to make the sacred and secret blue cheese recipe that only Alison Wilkes was allowed to make? Alison was the Queen of the Downtown Grill and the most difficult recipes were given to her and her alone. It was at that moment I realized that for the first time during my shift Alison was off that night; she had worked earlier in the day and during the chaos the blue cheese was overlooked. The chef forgot to put it on the prep sheet! It was not the call to greatness I thought I had earned, it was out of pure necessity that I was allowed to make this recipe for the first time, much to the trepidation of the chefs as well as me.

There was really no room for failure now, all eyes were on me. I had no idea of the tediousness of executing this recipe, how everything has to be perfect: the measurements, the order of the ingredients as you add them, the temperature of the kitchen and the weather (not even kidding). I had no idea that this recipe had a 99% failure rate for anyone who tried to make it besides Alison. As I was reading through the recipe I remembered two things that Alison had told me prior to my employment at the Downtown Grill when we were just lifetime buddies. I remembered Alison talking about this recipe and that it gave her great pleasure basking in the joy of being only 1 of 20 people in a professional kitchen who could make this dressing that the Grill was so famous for; I also remembered her telling two key pieces of information as to why her always turns out, two things that were NOT written in the recipe. One, that there are three separate ingredients which are incorporated in one at a time, and they have to be added in alphabetical order: EOV; eggs, oil and vinegar. Two, everything has to be basically the same temperature, the bowls for the mixtures, the ingredients, air temp, all the same. Again, these instructions were not included in the recipe, so who knew? Well, Alison, of course.

So armed with this key information, I started the process, praying the whole time; please God let the dressing turn out. As I added the final mixture of vinegar the angels started to sing. ‘Holy crap!’ it’s working, I thought. I could see it coming together. To my surprise, I had done it, but instead of jumping up and down and screaming, which is what I wanted to do, I quietly tucked into my corner, not saying a peep, just getting the sacred dressing ready for service and storage. Then I casually walked up to the chef, container in hand. “Here you go chef. Do you need any on the line?”

Y’all, his jaw literally dropped. “What the hell!” he said. “You actually got it to turn out! We were planning on cussing at you for your futile attempt to make something that couldn’t be made.”

“Guess I just got lucky chef!” I said, remembering something else I learned from Alison: “Never tell the bastards anything.”

Downtown Grill Blue Cheese Dressing

2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
a generous slash of Tabasco
6-8 ounces blue cheese

Using a blender, whip eggs for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a teaspoon at a time, until it starts to come together, then trickle in to consistency. Add a vinaigrette made with all the other ingredients. Mix for a minute. Pour dressing in a bowl, stir in crumbled blue cheese, and refrigerate.

Black-Eyed Gumbo

My family’s New Year’s celebrations always included fireworks and black-eyed peas. Many of the fireworks were left over from my father’s superb Christmas collection, which contained the usual array of bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers, but he always had a few fire fountains and a sparkling rocket or four put away for the last night in December. The peas, which we had on the table year-round, assumed an incandescence all their own that night as signatures of memory and rapport.

Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country. Among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.

In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endures as evidence of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage.

This is another recipe I made at the Harvest Cafe in Oxford, a vegetarian restaurant on the corner of Jackson and South 10th. On the brunch shift, I’d make soup specials, which was always a challenge, because the black bean chili was outstanding and one of the most popular dishes.

Under duress, I rose to the occasion and in a memorable effort made a gumbo using black-eyed peas. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes seemed a good combination for our clientele; most people who ordered soup wanted something warm and filling around Sunday lunch time, and this recipe seemed a good alternative to the favorite chili.

My idea received a guarded reservations; when my boss, John Anderson, asked me what he needed to put on the blackboard as the soup of the day, I said “black-eyed pea gumbo.” He blinked his eyes behind those big glasses he wears, slowly nodded his head and said, “Okay”, which in my experience with this gentle man I recognized skepticism of a profound and imponderable nature.

Jennie Lee, my co-worker, asked me if I’d lost my mind, but she’s from Charleston, was more perloo than gumbo. She also didn’t sign my paychecks.

Besides, the dish was well underway. I’d made a good brown roux with vegetable oil and our lightest flour, added minced garlic, chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. This primordial goo I combined with a good base made with vegetable stock and seasoned with basil, thyme, oregano and bay. Not only that, but I’d been soaking the peas since happy hour the day before, and they were simmering on a back eye. I also had two packages of organic okra stashed in a refrigerator in the back; these were expensive contraband (imagine the price of a frozen package of organic okra in 1995 Mississippi), but essential to my enterprise.

The okra I rinsed under warm water before adding it to the pot to relieve it of ropy-ness. The peas I drained but kept the liquid. After adding the peas and okra to the pot, I started adding the liquid to achieve a good consistency (I like it thickish, but with a good juice) then added two small drained cans of diced tomatoes that I’d smuggled in from James’ Food Store. Once that was done, I began adjusting the seasonings, and finally put the gumbo in a serving pan on the line.

Of course, John ordered the first bowl. His critique was just as laconic as his first, but delivered with a smile, which I took as a positive sign. This interpretation was confirmed when the orders started coming in, many for the gumbo. This earned me a grateful nod from my co-workers, since pouring something in a bowl and sending it out the window is one of the less stressful acts you can perform in a busy kitchen.

Before the end of the shift, John came into the kitchen and said, “They loved your gumbo. How did you make it?”

John, here’s the recipe, sorry I’m late. Again.

Pat Lamar’s Lasagna

When I was working at Audie Michael’s, a restaurant on the Square in Oxford (current site of the City Grocery), we became well-known for two items outside our regular menu. One was gumbo, and the other was lasagna. We ran both regularly as luncheon specials.

Since we were basically an upscale burger joint, we didn’t do a lot of catering, usually only large take-out orders for regular customers. But one day Pat Lamar, a wealthy, socially prominent patron and later mayor of Oxford, sent in a messenger carrying a beautiful, knee-high (swear to God) McCarty bowl with a tapered bottom. My boss came waltzing into the kitchen with this huge piece of pottery and said, “Mrs. Lamar wants you to make lasagna in this for her party tonight.”

“Sure,” I said. “Is this oven-proof?” He looked at me like I’d hit him with a hammer. “What do you mean, oven-proof?” he asked. (He was a nice guy, just lacked focus.) “Look,” I said. “I’m not about to take an expensive piece of pottery, fill it full of lasagna and bake it in an oven without knowing that it’s not going to shatter into seven hundred pieces.”

When realization blossomed in his mind, he panicked. In my experience, this has been management’s basic reaction to anything that’s not in the manual.

“What are we gonna do?” he said.

I told him to call her up to find out if she’s baked in it before,” I said.

A few minutes later he came back and said, “She’s never put it in the oven, but she thinks it will be fine.”

I was skeptical. Even if the piece was insured, I didn’t want to have to clean up an oven full of lasagna and broken crockery. So I got on the phone and called Ron Dale, the top ceramics professor at Ole Miss.

“Jesse Lee,” he said, “To be honest with you, I do not know if it will withstand the heat or not. But the one thing not to do is to put a cool piece into a hot oven. Bring it up to heat.”

So I took a deep breath and made lasagna. I filled the bowl with warm water to heat the ceramic up a bit, poured that out, and filled it with swirled layers of meat, cheese, sauce, and noodles, all still very warm.

The entire ordeal–which took four people to lift–went into a cold oven. I turned the thermostat up 25° every fifteen minutes or so. I was on pins and needles. My boss positioned himself in front of the oven on a stool staring at the oven door until I ran him out with a mop.

After three hours, the lasagna was bubbling beautifully and the bowl was fine. I found a box big enough to hold the damn thing and was just closing the lid when Mrs. Lamar’s mincing entourage came to pick it up for the party, which had already started.

Once it was out of my hands, I went up to the bar and got good and snockered.

Angelo’s Hamburger Steak

Angelo Mistilis opened his restaurant on College Hill Road in Oxford, Mississippi, in May, 1962, and fed thousands upon thousands before closing in 1988. The menu featured dozens of items, but by any stable reckoning, first and foremost was his hamburger steak.

“The hamburger steak was on the original menu, the hamburger steak with cheese and onions came in a little later, in the mid to late 60s,” Angelo said. “You could have it regular, you could have it with onions, you could have it with cheese, or you could have it all the way,” Angelo said.

“We used about nine tons of fresh ground beef a year. I had a butcher that got my hamburger meat with all the trimmings, and I got some from James’ Food Center.”

“We always served it with hand-cut home fries,” he added. “We’d use around 1200 lbs. of potatoes a week and two fifty-pound sacks of onions. The cheese was always sliced American, and we served it on a paper plate in a wicker basket.”

Photo by Rusty Faulkner