Willie’s Liver

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.

 

Noon in Oxford

When the courthouse clock struck the first toll of the noon hour, the complexion of the village changed. Shopkeepers and clerks hurried their over-the-counter trade so as not to be late for mealtime; little old ladies in their shawls and bonnets scurried home along side streets to their salads and tea-cakes; doctors and lawyers put aside the healing of the sick and matters at the bar to congregate in the public inn for a plate of the noon-day fare; farmers found a shadier side of the square and rested under tall oak trees while they took their dinner of canned meat and yellow wedges of cheese. It was a time for idle chit-chat, political forum, witty repartee, and peaceful rumination with a temperance and protocol like no other time of day.    –L.W. Thomas
Written for the menu of The Warehouse Restaurant, 1984

The Warehouse’s Red Snapper en Mornay

The Snapper en Mornay was one of the most popular dishes at the Warehouse in Oxford because it was distinguished by a great home-made sauce. Jean Tatum Thomas once told me that if I were to put our Mornay on a Turkish towel she’d eat it, and don’t put it past me to try her one day. On the menus, it was billed as “Red Snapper en Mornay”, a distinctly Gulf of Mexico recipe. Our snapper came from Tarpon Springs, Florida, the home of many good Greek fishermen, but the sauce was our own.

When I came on to the Warehouse, James Ruffin made the Mornay, and because it was such a big seller, he was reluctant to teach me how to make it. For him, knowing how to make the Mornay represented job security. Now, there was no way that the owners were going to fire James; he worked hard, he’d been cooking there since they were waiters and everyone had a great deal of respect for him even though he took every opportunity to scare the living hell out of people every chance he got. Still James did not like the idea that they brought this young white guy (me) into the kitchen to help. It took months of working side-by-side with him before he let me even watch him make the sauce. I didn’t say a word, I just watched him and every now and then he’d tell me to go get something from the cooler or off the shelf. Then one day he said he was damned tired of having to make it all the time and told me to do it, he’d show me how. It was a watershed moment for me. After that, of course, we’d switch out and make it when either of us had the time and it was no longer a big deal.

Make a thick Béchamel with sherry, roughly a cup and a half of sauce for each eight ounces of fish, and season with a little salt and white pepper. If snapper is unavailable, use flounder, tilapia or ocean perch. Add grated Swiss or Provolone cheese, chopped green onions, picked lump crabmeat and a splash of sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”) then chill; skin fillets if needed, score lightly on both sides and place on a shallow lightly buttered oven dish. Spoon the cooled sauce over the fillets and bake at a very high heat until sauce is bubbling and fish flakes easily in its thickest part. Serve with a dusting of paprika, a sprinkling of sliced almonds, lemon garnish, fresh bread and a wine of your choosing.