The Celluloid Classroom

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.

The Hoka from the southwest, late 70s. The mural of the dancers was painted by Jere Allen. Photo by Douglass Boyles.

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.

Ron and me at the drive-in, summer of 1978.

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.

Photo of the Hoka from the southeast, likely early 80s.

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’s Onions

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.

Naïve Corruption: A Scampi Story

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.

Halcyon Soup

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.

Slap-Yo’-Momma Cornbread

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.

 

Theroux at Rowan Oak

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.

 

Chicken Livers Bourguignon

This is another dish we served at the Downtown Grill in Oxford. The recipe, like many of those on the menu, came from Paulette’s in Memphis when it was in its original location in Overton Square, before it moved to Mud Island/Harbor Town in 2011. George Falls told us that it was very popular with the “after-church crowd”, which had many of the sorts of little old ladies who tinted their hair in decidedly unnatural shades of magenta, lavender and powder-puff blue and tipped from their change purses.

Typically, the dish was made in batches of perhaps a gallon or two depending on the day, stored in the cooler, and the line cooks would reheat it per serving at the sauté station, adding a bit more stock and the wine, which was usually the house burgundy. It was served over buttered fettuccini, though we later changed that to rice, which we could store on the steam table. And George was right; it was popular with the older crowd, mainly because it was one of if not the most inexpensive item on the menu, and it required a minimum degree of heavy mastication, but it never caught on and was discontinued, as was much of the “Memphis menu” (as we called it) after the first year.

For my part, I thought it was a very good dish, particularly as a buffet item, which is why I recommend it being served in a chafing dish for a luncheon reception of some sort or perhaps an after-event late night gathering. While you could serve this with buttered potatoes of some sort, linguini or fettuccini would be (I think) more appropriate, as would any sort of rice. It’s particularly good with a nutty wild rice blend.

Drain, trim and cut one pound chicken livers into bite-size pieces. Sauté in butter with a sprinkling of black pepper until just done through; you want them pink, not overcooked. Set aside with liquid. In another pan, sauté in 3 tablespoons butter one clove of garlic, finely minced, two large minced shallots, and three ounces of mushrooms, thickly sliced. Sprinkle with two tablespoons of flour and mix well. Add one and a half to two cups of rich, flavorful beef stock to make a sauce, add about a half-cup or so good, full-bodied dry red wine, such as a Burgundy or Beaujolais, season with thyme and rosemary then reduce by a third or until thick and smooth. Add livers, mix well, salt to taste and finish with another jolt of wine and a pat of butter for gloss.

Mistilis’ Hamburger Steak

Angelo Mistilis opened his restaurant on College Hill Road in May, 1962 and closed in 1988. The menu featured dozens of items over those many years, but first and foremost was the hamburger steak with potatoes.

“You could have it regular, you could have it with onions, you could have it with just cheese, or you could have it all the way, Angelo said. “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. 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. 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