Pride and Potatoes

One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among tedious implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup in a tool shed—for all I knew it might have been used as a lubricant—my friend said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.”

I was puzzled at the time, but now I think I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have found no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup.

Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and in this case its company was poverty itself. Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them. For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives which, in this new world, were not quite picture-perfect. And potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished to an outhouse.

Others harkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s stature was reckoned by its making do in the face of adversity. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they came to know in hardship. As children they may have been sent to school with a biscuit folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean, and coming home they often had soup made from the leftovers and whatever else they had on hand to feed many hungry people. The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family.

I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range. She probably remembered her momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that (to her mind painful) image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and probably had learned how to make at her mother’s knee.

Here’s a recipe from Linda Bolton, who for many years ran the Good Food Store when it was on Jackson Avenue in Oxford. Linda was a guru of mine, a woman of many parts who cast her bread upon the waters without reservation. Back when I was writing a food column for The Oxford Times, I published a really basic potato soup recipe and the next day when I was walking towards the Rose,  Linda yelled across the street at me: “Let me tell you what all you left out of your `tater soup recipe, Yancy!” So she did, and here’s the modified recipe:

Potato Soup

For each serving (@ a cup and a half), take a large starchy potato, wash, peel and dice, making sure to take out all discolorations. Boil in enough water to cover, adding a vegetable bouillon cube. When almost tender through, reduce heat, sauté for each of two servings one small white onion and two cloves of garlic, both finely minced, in about two tablespoons sweet butter. To this, add liquid from the potatoes and boil until onions have broken down. Add this mixture back to the potatoes, simmer and stir until the soup has a creamy consistency with soft chunks of potato. Salt to taste and season with crushed dill seed, rosemary and pepper. You can add a little heavy cream and another tablespoon of butter to make a more substantial soup, in which case you might also want to add a little hard grated cheese. Serve hot.

Something by Way of a Philosophy

Food is a passionate issue for many people, and some foods are certainly controversial. Barbecue, for instance, is a highly inflammatory subject, but almost any food can become a flash point; I was once involved in a heated discussion about how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich (Do you use mayonnaise? I don’t…). Arguments over foods range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but unless you’re one of those self-styled and overly-promoted griddle Napoleons or oven Antoinettes you can get your fill of almost everywhere—or just an all-around jerk yourself—talks about foods and cooking tend to be cordial and convivial, albeit with the necessary measure of peppering. People who enjoy food and cooking are gregarious, open, and giving.

At any gathering I’ve ever attended, activity revolves around the food. What semblance we have of hearth nowadays lives on in kitchens, and hearth and home are practically inseparable. Most people will agree that the best meals are home-cooked, and home itself must be one of the warmest words in the English language. Home entails more than place; the word implies security, comfort, congeniality and much, much more. Here in the South, the word has become infused with almost mystical implications, evoking a poignancy and mystery peculiar to the region. When we talk about home cooking, we’re talking about foods with a voice in the family and in the community, a cuisine that sings of time and place, a balm for the mind, a madeleine for our memory.

Foods without history and bereft of geography are just plain bad. When I was growing up in the `Sixties, America’s tables reflected the mentality of Levittown, and the only really good cooking was found in rural and ethnic homes, those permeated with a sense of the past, of family and of the earth itself. I grew up in north Mississippi, which is home to the cooking of the middle South, of the yeomanry, of the people who were the rule rather than the exception in the rural South of their day. Theirs was not a light cuisine; it sustained people through long days of hard labor. Breakfasts usually featured biscuits made from lard, grits, eggs and pork in some form or the other; other meals were made from fried or stewed meats and vegetables cooked with fatback.

My people are descended from small farmers who came into this area from Virginia and the Carolinas, and the way my ancestors cooked still informs the cuisine of the region to this day. They fed themselves and their families on the same basic foods the colonists at Jamestown ate: corn and pork augmented by whatever fruits and vegetables they could get to grow as well as game and fish. Food was important to them because it was their only unadulterated source of pleasure. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Recipes are essentially dead words on a piece of paper, and it’s up to the cook to take the words and breathe life into them. It’s an unwritten law of cookery that the same recipe in the hands of, say, six or seven cooks will produce different (often wildly different) results. If you want to learn how to cook, then you must cook yourself. Once you’ve become more secure in your abilities and more confident of your results, then by all means be more creative. One of the glories of cooking as an art is that it lends itself easily to experimentation, but be “original, not outrageous,” as Alice B. Toklas cautions. Capote once said of writing that you must learn the rules before you can break them, and this is true of cookery as well. Bear in mind that most people prefer the familiar to the exotic, and even slight variations in a favorite dish might give pause to your most appreciative audience. So if you’re determined to try seasoning a pound cake with cayenne or bake catfish with pickled peaches, don’t be surprised to hear, “Honey, I love you, but . . . “ Given the circumstances, those might well be the kindest words you’ll ever hear.

Mystic Mayonnaise

It’s difficult for us now to imagine mayonnaise as exotic, but  Welty remembers its advent in Jackson as an event.

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding. But she also wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in his The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the 1930s.

More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor in Jackson, she was unfamiliar with Welty’s work. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. I’m including a part of the introduction here, specifically that section dealing with mayonnaise because it explains to a “t” just how exotic this now-prosaic kitchen item was then.

“As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph. Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch.”

Welty goes on to describe a typical Jackson kitchen in the twenties and thirties, and mentions a great many women who made significant contributions to the local cuisine. If you can find a copy of The Jackson Cookbook, buy it, read about Jackson’s culinary history from a master of her craft and cook the superlative recipes. No wrong could come from it at all.