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.” Suddenly realizing the situation, he asked, “What are we gonna do?” (In my experience, this has been management’s basic reaction to anything that’s not in the manual.) “First thing, call her up and see 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.”
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 two people to lift) went into a cold oven. I started turning up the thermostat 25° every fifteen minutes or so. I was on pins and needles. My boss Don 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 people 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. I deserved it.
Willie Morris is one of Mississippi’s most beloved authors, particularly for My Dog Skip (1995), perhaps less fondly remembered for his autobiographical North Toward Home (1967; written when Morris was all of 29), which at the time of its release was hailed by the Sunday (London) Times as “the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain”, and by William Styron (who was indebted to Willie for publishing his work during his brief tenure as editor of Harper’s), but damned with faint praise by the Sunday (New York) Times as though lacking in focus, “well-written.” Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983), which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt writing for The New York Times, states that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.”
Morris’s early successes as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr., the scion of the conservative family that owned the magazine over a dispute about the publisher meddling in editorial operations in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne, who he recklessly advised to write an embarrassing memoir. He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels with Willie as the Prince des Sots.
At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye. And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened. James was a good man who lived a hard life.
The Warehouse enjoyed an upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded. Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, a choice spot far enough away from the noisy bar so that Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds. Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver (dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle) served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.
Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my crowd before the Rose shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Morris–besotted–never complained. I could have offered to do it myself in a sauté pan to ensure that it would be better, but I was tired as well and much more of a Hannah fan anyway.
This complaint against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole with a small group. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.
I remember it was a late afternoon, and Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor and not a half-hour had passed when Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” Then he snickered. The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. We were all in shock, and I tried to follow Doxie out to say something, but he left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it. I let it go for then, but after forty years, Willie’s gross incivility and utter lack of regard for those considered unworthy of his company remains a defining moment for me of his corrupt, dissolute character.
Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings.
A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford was a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those years were halcyon years for me, as they were for many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.
Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theatre was located across a parking lot from the Gin, one of the first restaurant and bar to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted “wet”. The theatre was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess. The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor. Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.
I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projector reels. Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted.
Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading form of art in the 20th century. When we first showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience–and the projectionists, I might add–stared open-mouthed at the screen, and when the audience began throwing rice at the wedding, hollering phrases at the screen and doing the Time Warp, we just eventually joined in the fun. Ron also showed a lot of great movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.
At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain, to name a few, and brought to light (literally) unknown images: Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Lang’s electric automaton in Metropolis, a leather-clad Brando leaning on a jukebox in The Wild One. For me, this is the essence of Ron Shapiro’s legacy: the Hoka brought film as an art form to Mississippi.
Angelo Mistilis has without doubt cooked more onions than anyone in the state of Mississippi, onions that he slapped on that seasoned grill on College Hill Road in Lafayette County and served up to generations of Oxonians, Ole Miss students and other sorts of riff-raff on his legendary hamburger steaks. To have Angelo teach you how to cook an onion is on the level of having Yo-Yo Ma show you how to tune a bull fiddle; thank you Lisa for sharing.
In the life of any given classic recipe, you will find instances where it becomes caught in a backwater eddy and becomes a poor, grotesque thing far removed from its heyday, rather much like a fading star of stage and screen who can only find an audience where their celebrity is no more than their name (think Citizen Kane). Many recipes fall subject to this farce simply because their name on a menu is a draw: a pasta prima vera with frozen vegetables, for instance or a steak Diane with cream of mushroom soup. In capable hands classic incarnations can be very good indeed, but more often they’re simply just wretched.
Such was the case for scampi, a commercial standard (with variations) in the U.S. and Europe, but the house recipe we employed at the Warehouse in Oxford was wretched. James Ruffin made the sauce, which consisted of garlic powder, a commercial oil product (Whirl) and the remnants of whatever open bottle of white wine the bartender on duty had available. He’d shake this up and pour it over a dozen medium-sized shrimp arranged in a small circular metal dish, which was cooked by placing in our very hottest broiler. On a busy night, more often than not a scampi order burned because we had so much else to do, but if it was just dried out we’d put more sauce on it and send it out the window. Shrimp are expensive, after all.
To make proper scampi, sauté or broil shrimp in butter with plenty of garlic, add dry white wine, salt and white pepper. Add a jolt of lemon juice, a sprinkling of parsley and serve immediately. Some thicken the sauce with starch, or add scallions, and some people include chopped drained tomatoes. In the end, scampi should be a very simple dish made with good, fresh good, but I’m here to tell you somebody’s bound to fuck up just about anything.
Homemade soups should grace our tables more often; they’ve fed body and soul long before canning came along, and a good soup made with stout stock and proper care is the measure of a good cook. One soup you’ll never find in a can is gazpacho, which rated an entire chapter (“Beautiful Soup”) in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, and became a culinary craze sometime in the late 1970s. Gazpacho is a king of cold soups, an easily-made, refreshing and somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Historical recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture (I simply don’t like the texture), take it from someone who crumbles cold cornbread over a table bowl, bread is a great addition, and any well-textured bread will do.
This recipe is from my halcyon days in Oxford, where I was desultorily studying for a degree, diligently exploring my capacities for vice and desolately working in a string of eateries, among them The Bean Blossom Bistro, the first health-food restaurant in Oxford. It was located on Jackson Avenue across from the old telephone exchange. The Good Food Store, Oxford’s first health-food store—then in its second incarnation—was on the corner next door. Carol Davis opened the Bean Blossom in 1978. We had worked together at the old Moonlight Café, which Betty Blair had opened up in the Hoka a couple of years earlier. Carol and I became fast friends during that time, and when she opened up her own place, she brought me with her. We were very young, and though I like to think that Oxford in those days was an intoxicating environment, perhaps youth itself was our wine.
The Bean Blossom, like so many small restaurants, was founded more on good intentions than experience. I don’t think we ever seated more than fifty people at one time, and usually far, far less. The kitchen could barely hold more than three people. Our menu changed daily, though we could always whip up a tofu burger, or a veggie stir-fry or a great salad any time you wanted it. Carol introduced me to a lot of new foods, including adzuki beans, which I cook like cowpeas, and tofu, which I of course deep-fry. She also brought gazpacho into my world, and for that I am evermore grateful. I remember dipping the soup from a bucket in the bottom of our double-door refrigerator, a sheen of oil glistening atop the mixture. We served it with a variety of breads, and each bowl I eat now is a serving of nostalgia. Like memories themselves, this soup improves with age, but sours if mishandled.
Bean Blossom Gazpacho
Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though be careful, since the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet yellow banana pepper works well. If you want to add a hot pepper such as a jalapeno, fine, but I don’t recommend heat; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing rather than pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well, though there are countless variations. Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. You might want to add some liquid, in which case I recommend a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Let this mixture sit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator in a sealed non-metallic container overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a little fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper and return to the refrigerator. Serve in chilled bowls (freshly chopped chives are a nice touch) with good crusty bread.
One of life’s great lessons you should learn is that people will save all sorts of things and run up on such ephemera later. If you’re lucky enough they’re of the more innocuous sort, such as this recipe that my darling friend Connie ran up on the other day. Inebriation is a great incentive when it comes to bravado, and as a committed, generous ne’er-do-well, I’m in the habit of providing my friends (who are more often than not partners in crime) with the questionable blessings of my culinary genius. After a bit of mutual deliberation, we’ve concluded that it was scribbled at Ireland’s in Oxford on some sunny fall afternoon when we both should have been at our desks at Ole Miss.
Mississippians, particularly those of us from north Mississippi, should resign ourselves to literary scrutiny by writers of stature, since those without standing dare not scale the Parnassus of Oxford without credentials. Paul Theroux is no exception, but we should ask ourselves not only why he and others of his ilk come here, but what (if anything) they’re looking for.
Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident if not always clear clarion that reverberates from the center of Lafayette County across the world.
Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s effort spans generations.
Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, but it’s also important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed and fleeting fabric of the South, perceivable better by far in his excesses than by any others details.