The South’s Summer Salad

Within living memory, this simple dish was a staple on meat-and-three menus throughout the rural South. Juice from the vegetables stirred with oil and vinegar make a mild, flavorful vinaigrette best with beans or cold meats. I love to use it in the old three-bean-salad, and it’s great with fish or shellfish.

Use fresh vegetables; supermarket tomatoes don’t have enough of that wonderful gelatin surrounding the seeds, and those cucumbers are too watery. Sweet yellow onions spoil the bite, and red onions discolor the mix; white boilers are best. Cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces, place in a glass or ceramic bowl and toss with a generous salting and a good bit of fresh ground black pepper.

Resist the temptation to use garlic and/or herbs. Add enough white vinegar to cover the vegetables by half and half that amount of corn oil. Do not use olive oil, which will coagulate when refrigerated. Refresh the mix with vegetables, seasonings, and liquids as needed.

Poke Salad

In April, 2000, the Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas processed its last batch of “poke sallet” greens.

John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bringing it to our buying locations.”

Poke processing was never a significant item in their mult-imillion-dollar enterprise, but Williams mentioned that one of the best markets for canned poke was southern  California due to the Oakies.

Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that Native Americans eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.”

“They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”

In the lean years before World War II, poke salad–like ramps–was one of the first edible wild herbs to appear in the spring, lending welcome addition to a winter’s sustenance diet of dried beans, cornbread, and salt pork .

The only drawback to poke salad is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic, phytolaccatoxin. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is safe and delicious.

Harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke, no more than a foot or so. Wash, stem, and trim. Add to a pot of water, bring to a boil, drain, rinse, return to pot with water, and bring to simmer with oil, a slit hot pepper pod, and a big pinch of sugar.

Drain and use much as you would spinach. Euell has a poke salad dip in his book. I like it with scrambled eggs and onion, and it’s wonderful in an omelette or a quiche.

Our Appalachian Table

Travis Milton, a native of Russell County, Virginia, high in the Alleghenys, became a chef on the East Coast. In 2010, at a New York restaurant, Milton was part of a group planning dishes that would “tell about who we are.” He wondered aloud about sourcing leather britches and greasy-backs, a type of beans common in mountain gardens.

The following afternoon, the head chef slapped a copy of Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking onto Milton’s station. “He got in my face,” says Milton, “and started barking, ‘If this is what you wanna do in my kitchen then you can get the fuck out!’”

Having White Trash Cooking slammed in his face was a turning point. To overcome the stereotypes, Milton realized, he’d need to be able to tell the story of Appalachian food, but writing on the region’s cuisine was mostly focused on single mothers dressing up SPAM in a sugary sauce and other relatively recent ways that Appalachian cooks respond to the poverty that is, for most, coal’s legacy in Appalachia.

Then in 2016, Ronni Lundy published Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Her work won the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year and Best Book, American Cooking awards. In Victuals, Lundy claims that European settlers adopted native Cherokee foods almost wholesale. Wild game, wild herbs and greens, nuts, and berries augmented produce from small gardens of beans, corn, and squash using the “Three Sisters” method.

Appalachians let animals range freely, keeping prized breeds adapted to the landscape. Settlers raised pigs on acorns, berries, and chestnuts, which produced the famous hams of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. After the Civil War decimated the region, residents of isolated Appalachia embraced their gardening traditions, developing thousands of hybridized varieties of apples and pears, squash, tomatoes, collard greens, and other foodstuffs.

While Victuals established a benchmark, the font and source for Appalachian food writing is The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery: Regional Memorabilia and Recipes. First published in 1984, Appalachian Cookery has little resemblance to any other publication involving Southern foods.

The Foxfire Project was the brain-child of Eliot Wigginton, a man from West Virginia who received an advanced education in the north and began teaching at a rural school in northeastern Georgia during the late 1960s. Called “foxfire” after a will-o’-the-wisp in mountain woods, his students collected folklore and customs in a series of oral histories that were first published in a 1972 anthology. Many more editions have followed as well as other volumes documenting Appalachian culture.

According to the text, some of the research and the photographic essays included in Appalachian Cookery were gathered for previous Foxfire books but were not selected for inclusion into an earlier volume. Appalachian Cookery stands out as the most complete and comprehensive record we have of the food, cooking and home life of southern Appalachia in early to mid-20th century. Most of the recipes are very simple; pound cake has four ingredients in equal measure. The book is also a primer on how to use homegrown or wild-gathered foods.

Appalachian Cookery opens a door to a world far away from arugula and alien to star anise, a world where cooking was simple but not coarse, having a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the lessons of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us from the upland South, these are our roots.

CRY-BABY COOKIES

Cream 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening with an equal amount of sugar. Add one cup molasses and two beaten eggs. Sift together 4 ¾ cups plain flour with 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 ½ teaspoons soda. Then combine with 2 cups grated coconut, 2 cups chopped walnuts and 1 ½ cups raisins. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup milk to creamed egg mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. YIELD: approx. 7 dozen cookies.

Bruce As We Knew It

Community cookbooks can evoke the past with a particular keenness, and the more I go over this book–and so I have, many times–the more my memory awakens to the idyllic little world that was my childhood in Bruce, Mississippi.

By “we” I mean the people of my generation who grew up in Bruce during the 1960s. These are the people and businesses that brought life to the Square, Newburger, and Center Street.

We knew these women and their husbands. Their children were our playmates; many we still know, along with their children and grandchildren. Here is a guide not only to the foods we remember, but also to our living past.

Hoover Lee Sauce

Hoover Lee was a grocer in Louise, Mississippi who created a marinade to replicate Cantonese duck. His concoction has a heavy soy background accented with garlic and ginger.

These chicken leg quarters were marinated overnight and roasted in a slow oven for two hours. The skin is crisp and the flesh succulent, reminiscent of the character if not the precise flavor of roast duck.

Cathead Biscuits

Take two cups of self-rising flour and sift in dry a scant teaspoon of baking soda. Add 1/3 cup cold vegetable shortening, and mix thoroughly with your fingers until granular.

Working quickly, stir in enough chilled buttermilk to make a sticky dough. Throw this dough out on a generously-floured surface, sprinkle with a scant more flour and knead once or twice, no more than enough to make a manageable mass.

Roll out thick, about half an inch, and, using a sharp edge, cut into large rounds, at least 3″. Again, work quickly so that the dough doesn’t get warm; the soda has to work in the oven.

Place the biscuits–just touching–in a lightly greased skillet or thick metal pan. Pop them into a very hot oven for about a quarter an hour until golden-brown and fragrant. Brush with butter while hot.

The Empress of Sweet Potatoes

Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a timber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great barrels that held the finest wines of the 1925 Exposition of Paris. But after the lumber was gone, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. Vardaman is now the (admittedly self-proclaimed) Sweet Potato Capital of the World.

cover card blogThe distaff side of my family is from Vardaman, and I’ve been eating sweet potatoes my whole life, so for a long time I’ve been sailing along considering myself an expert on the subject. Then here comes this McGreger girl who blows my dinghy out of the water. April McGreger has chops; whereas my father was a lawyer from Sarepta (sue me), she is a sweet potato farmer’s daughter from Vardaman proper.

In her introduction to Sweet Potatoes, the tenth installment in the University of North Carolina Press’ “Savor the South” series, McGreger says, “By the time I was a teenager, I had worked at pulling slips, the shoots that densely bedded ‘seed’ sweet potatoes send up, and had spent a couple of summers riding the ‘setter’ that plants those sweet potato slips in expansive fields. I learned firsthand how eyes and ears and noses fill with dust from the warm, just-plowed earth and how the modern farmer’s schedule is set by nature and financial demands, often at odds with each other.”

People you have no idea how refreshing, how delightful it is to find a book about food written by a genuine human being who has a fundamental knowledge of “farm to table” and not by one of these pompous foodways pundits who don’t know a roux from a rutabaga or a kitchen flim-flam aristo whose closest connection to the earth is trying to grow weed on his daddy’s back forty before flunking out of college and entering culinary school. McGreger is a very fine writer (as we expect of Mississippi’s children) and a scholar to boot, so she takes an appropriately schoolmarmish tone when it comes to sweet potatoes. In her own rhetoric, she poses the question “Is there any food more central to our southern identity than sweet potatoes?”

The short answer is no, and perhaps for that very reason the sweet potato demands definition, particularly as a botanical and linguistic entity. I’ll leave that explanation to April, who does a thorough job of sorting out the Latin as well as the vernacular. She spends some time on the history of this important foodstuff, pointing out the antiquity of its use and cultivation in the New World as well as its introduction to the Old. Central to her narrative is the role of the sweet potato in the culinary history of the American South where it’s been keeping body and soul together throughout the region’s tumultuous history.

McGreger laments, “Once such a prominent food in the southern diet, the sweet potato is now eaten by many only on Thanksgiving in the form of sweet potato casserole or sweet potato pie”, and her selection of recipes is designed to illustrate the versatility of the sweet potato and to provide cooks at every level of proficiency with a means of making them more of a staple in the kitchen”, as well they should be. She chafes at being restricted to only fifty recipes, but to her credit she offers a spectacular variety “aimed to help you refine techniques to develop your own repertoire.” These are arranged in four categories: “Breakfast: Morning Pastries, Grits, Gravy, and Hash”; “Sides and Salads: Vintage Classics and Fresh, Modern Twists”; “Mains, Soups, Stews, and In-Betweens: A World of Flavor”; and “Desserts: A Little Something Sweet”.

Before getting to the recipes proper, McGreger includes a crucial section concerning the selection, storage and preparation of sweet potatoes as well as a description of a few of the most essential culinary varieties (some have been developed as a garden ornamental) and what sorts of dishes they are best suited. Granted most of us have access only to the traditional “moist, orange-fleshed, and sweet” types, but it’s worth knowing other varieties are out there, and if the trend to greater diversity in the marketplace and the proliferation of farmers’ markets continues, finding whites, yellows, purples and heirloom varieties is something to look forward to.

Equally important is her section on selection and storage, since while she recommends buying sweet potatoes “dirty by the bushel, directly from a farmer”, the roots must be cured in a warm, humid environment for a few weeks in order to fully develop their flavor. Most essential is McGreger’s advice on the preparation of sweet potatoes, and since she is clearly the final court of authority when it comes to cooking these vegetables (roots and leaves, it’s worth noting), this section is the heart of her work.

April wryly regrets never winning the Little Miss Sweet Potato crown, but a lot of thought, a lot of time, and a lot of love went into this wonderful work, and in my less-than-humble opinion it establishes April McGreger as not merely a Little Miss, nor even a Queen, but as the Empress of Sweet Potatoes.

Fresh Pimentos with Cheese

Everyone should grow pimentos. These beautiful, thick-walled fruit carry a sting of goodness that works in dishes across the board.

For this recipe, we used both green and red fruit; the unripe peppers have a bit of astringency, but that’s undercut by blanching whole—ripe and unripe—in lightly salted water to cover until they are just soft, maybe 5 minutes.

Halve and seed peppers. If you’re not going to use them immediately, put them in a jar with a salty water. They’ll keep for a week or two like this, or you can put them in a jar with salt water and oil to keep longer.

For 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese we used about a third of a cup of diced blanched peppers. We used just enough mayonnaise to moisten, but no cream cheese to keep the pimentos’ pinch.

A bit of granulated garlic and salt rounded out this batch, though chopped scallions or shallots wouldn’t be out of place.

A Note on Sawmill Gravy

The Harrars’ Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) declares that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees.”

When the nation began to recover from its bloody Civil War, and on into the early 20th century, timber became the South’s biggest cash commodity. Logging camps and sawmills sprang up like mangling mushrooms in the great forests stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to Galveston. The deforestation of the southeast was an ecological calamity of continental proportions, but it provided a defeated, dispirited people with the elements of existence and, perhaps, hope itself.

In my homeland of the middle South sawmill gravy is a staple for breakfast. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many folks I knew as a boy would keep a covered container of left-over gravy with whatever meats and biscuits weren’t eaten that morning. More often than not someone would spoon it over a piece of cornbread or a scoop of rice sometime during the day, and many nights found another batch being made on the stove.

North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy

This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly.

Brown about a half-pound pork sausage in a little oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like). Break it up very well. When quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour, and blend until smooth. When flour begins to brown, stir in about a cup of water. Mix well. To this add enough milk to make a thin gravy. Reduce heat and cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little lighter than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed. I like it with a heft of black pepper.

Jett’s Table

My Aunt Jett learned to cook from her mother, whose people settled a wilderness.

Food was their only pleasure not subject to morals or religion. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. They planted and picked, cooked and baked, dried and canned what they could, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, or snap beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops, or breaded steak. If it were summer, she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob.She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage.

Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons. Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.

Aunt Jett (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.