The Great Leveler
I have been trying really hard to think of something new to say about Southern food, a subject that I (along with a host of other people) have written a whole lot about.
I have written about funeral food and pimiento cheese factions and George Jones versus Jimmy Dean sausage. I have attempted to prove the superiority of Southern cuisine by the all-too-easy comparison of our Junior League cookbooks with those from the North (Talk About Good! versus Posh Pantry; Aunt Margie’s Better than Sex Cake versus Grape Nuts Pudding). And I am still trying to prove the existence of the lone Mexican who introduced the hot tamale to the Mississippi Delta, where I grew up.
Whether or not this mythic figure ever actually roamed these parts is immaterial. The existence of the Delta tamale itself proves what I have long known, that Southern food is the Great Leveler. Hot tamales are beloved by rich and poor, black and white, and they are easily accessible at roadside stands, cafes, and restaurants. A dozen hots wrapped in shucks at either Scott’s Hot Tamales in Greenville or the White Front Café in Rosedale sells for eight dollars. The ones wrapped in paper at Greenville’s Doe’s Eat Place (my own personal favorites and the first solid food I ever ate) sell for a little more than ten dollars. But then, pretty much all great Southern food is cheap. Wyatt Cooper, the late, Mississippi-born husband of Gloria Vanderbilt and father of Anderson Cooper, once wrote that, “The best French restaurants in the world are wasted on me. All I want is a few ham hocks fried in bacon grease, a little mess of turnips with sowbelly, and a hunk of cornbread and I’m happy.”
If this was Cooper’s menu of choice, then he was not only happy, but rich—even without Gloria. On my last trip to France, I dined at two of “the best French restaurants,” L’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux and Le Grand Véfour in Paris, and the bill for four people at each place put me in mind of what my father once said about a particularly pricey family ski trip to Aspen: “Next year, we don’t even have to go—I can get the same effect standing in a cold shower burning up thousand-dollar bills.” France in July might not have been as chilly, but each l’addition was considerably more than the entire tab for a brunch I gave for a New Orleans debutante the weekend after I returned home. The deb in question was Lizzy Cordes, the daughter of my friend Elizabeth, and her special menu request was for an hors d’oeuvre I make consisting of a piece of bacon wrapped around a watermelon pickle and broiled. I was delighted to comply—these little bundles are not only inexpensive, they are salty and sweet and pair extremely well with the ham biscuits and pimiento cheese sandwiches I also passed around. The main course, 250 pieces of excellent fried chicken from McHardy’s Chicken & Fixin’ on Broad Street, cost me exactly $240.90. Lizzy and her fellow debs had just been introduced to what passes for high society in my adopted city, but they seemed not just content but really, really happy to be munching away on some crispy chicken that cost less than a dollar per piece, and all the thank-you notes mentioned the food.
If Southern cuisine acts as a leveler by reducing the differences between race and class, the culture itself reduces the differences between—or the distinctness of—other cuisines introduced into our midst. Those Delta hot tamales bear little resemblance to Mexican hots, which, I’m pretty sure, are not bound together by lard and beef suet and, in the case of Doe’s, porterhouse steak drippings. Just as deep-fried, bacon-wrapped, butterflied shrimp drenched in hot pink sweet-and-sour sauce on top of a ton of sautéed onions bears absolutely no resemblance to authentic Chinese cuisine. That particular item was my favorite thing on the menu at Henry Wong’s How Joy, another Greenville mecca, and it was what I thought Chinese food tasted like until I left home for school at sixteen. Morris Lewis, a prominent wholesale grocer from Indianola, Mississippi, not only left home, he was invited to China on a trade visit just after Richard Nixon opened up the place, but he was still convinced that How Joy was the real—or at least the tastier—deal. Upon his return, Lewis said, “I’ve been all the way to China and I’ve still never tasted Chinese food as good as Henry Wong’s.”
Sadly, neither Henry Wong nor his shrimp is still with us, but almost all of my other favorites are very much around. And a lifetime of eating and cooking them has enabled me to come up with at least a few new things to say. For example, Southerners who put sugar in cornbread are impostors, or criminals, or both. I love skillet cornbread, fried hot water cornbread, and cornbread muffins, but to add sugar to any of them is an abomination. Which does not mean that I am a purist. I also love “Mexican Cornbread,” which, much like our tamales, does not come from anywhere near Mexico, but from a cookbook called Bayou Cuisine put together by the Episcopal churchwomen of Indianola, Mississippi. Among its ingredients are canned cream corn, marinated cherry peppers, Wesson oil, and shredded Kraft sharp cheddar.
Its utter deliciousness brings me to another important point: there is no shame in the occasional canned or packaged ingredient. Nora Ephron put packaged onion soup mix in her justifiably famous meatloaf, and hundreds of hostesses across the South were at a complete loss when Kraft quit making its jalapeño cheese roll (most often referred to as “nippy cheese”), the key ingredient in Spinach Madeleine. The spicy spinach dish was invented by St. Francisville, Louisiana, native Madeline Wright in 1956, and when it appeared three years later in the first edition of River Road Recipes, published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, it immediately put the cookbook on the map. “If there were an Academy Award for cookbooks, the Oscar for Best Performance would go hands down to River Road Recipes,” pronounced no less an expert than Craig Claiborne.
Then, of course, there is the mighty Ritz cracker, without which at least half my mother’s entire repertoire would be decimated. She fries eggplant and green tomatoes in crushed Ritz crackers, uses them in place of bread crumbs or the lowly saltine in squash soufflés, and puts them on top of pretty much every casserole she makes, including her own now famous spinach dish, V.D. Spinach. So named because she served it to every “visiting dignitary” (from Bill and Pat Buckley to Ronald Reagan) who passed through our house, V.D. Spinach was chosen for inclusion in The Essential New York Times Cookbook, despite the fact that it includes frozen chopped spinach, Philadelphia cream cheese, and canned artichoke hearts.
I’ve also learned that Arkansas Travelers may well be the best tomatoes in the world, and all tomatoes are improved by peeling them. This latter point has been driven home to me all my life by my mother, who once peeled several hundred tomatoes for the Katrina refugees who had evacuated to Greenville’s convention center as accompaniments to—what else?—fried chicken. A couple of summers ago, my friends Ben and Libby Page hosted a brunch in Nashville at which they peeled and served huge platters of various heirloom varieties alongside their collection of Irish crystal salt cellars containing various salts from around the world. This added a decidedly chic element to every Southerner’s favorite summer pleasure. When I visited Ben and Libby at their Tennessee farm afterward, we had tomatoes from their garden with two or three different salts, as well as skillet corn and squash casserole, a revered summer trinity which leads me to my last point: Southerners have been doing “farm to table”—mostly by necessity—since long before the phrase was taken up by every foodie in the land.
There is a reason, after all, why Mark Twain sent a lengthy bill of fare home ahead of him after he’d spent so much time in Europe. Among the things he’d missed the most were: “Virginia bacon, broiled;… peach cobbler, Southern style; butter beans; sweet potatoes; green corn cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper; succotash; soft shell crabs.” I am reminded again of Wyatt Cooper, as well as of the fact that pretty much the only thing I remember from my aforementioned meals in France was a side of tiny haricots verts just picked from L’Oustau de Baumanière’s garden and drenched in fresh butter. And then there’s the exchange between Katharine Ann Porter and William Faulkner that occurred at a swanky French restaurant that was probably Maxim’s. They had dined well and enjoyed a fair amount of Burgundy and port, but at the end of the meal Faulkner’s eyes glazed over a bit and he said, “Back home the butter beans are in, the speckled ones,” to which a visibly moved Porter could only respond, “Blackberries.” Now I’ve repeated this exchange in print at least once before, and it is hardly new, but I don’t care. No matter who we are or where we’ve been, we are all, apparently, “leveled” by the same thing: our love of our sometimes lowly, always luscious cuisine—our love, in short, of home.
Since my own home was the site of many a festive dinner featuring V.D. Spinach, I include it below even though I’ve published it before. It is simply too good and too easy not to. I also include a reworked Spinach Madeleine, long a staple at my mother’s holiday parties. Mama serves it in a silver chafing dish surrounded by toast points, but it’s also pretty much the exact same dip that the Houston’s restaurant chain serves with tortilla chips and salsa to very good effect. After Kraft killed the crucial “nippy cheese,” the Junior League scrambled and posted a replacement recipe on its Web site substituting chopped fresh jalapeños and Velveeta. Word is that Madeline herself finds the Velveeta too watery and the version below features actual cheddar, plus a few of my own additions.
The squash casserole is my mother’s, based on a version made by her childhood cook, Eleanor, and the blackberry cobbler, adapted from Chez Panisse Desserts by the brilliant Lindsey Shere, is the best I’ve ever had. If the blackberries are especially beautiful, I use them exclusively. But the cobbler is also delicious with a mix of blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, which lends a patriotic touch for Memorial Day and Fourth of July celebrations.
( Yield: 6 to 8 servings )
1 tablespoon butter, for greasing the baking dish
Two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach
½ cup butter, melted, plus 1 tablespoon butter, melted, for the topping
One 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
One 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained and halved
1 cup coarse Ritz cracker crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a shallow 2-quart casserole.
Cook the spinach according to the package directions. Drain well, pressing hard against the strainer or colander to get as much water as possible out. Place in a mixing bowl and add the ½ cup of melted butter, the cream cheese, and the lemon juice and mix well.
Place the artichoke heart halves evenly over the bottom of the casserole. Cover with the spinach mixture and smooth the top.
Cover the top with the Ritz crumbs, drizzle with 1 tablespoon (or more if needed) of melted butter, and bake on the middle rack until bubbly in the center and lightly browned on the top, about 25 minutes.
( Yield: 6 to 8 servings )
2 packages frozen chopped spinach
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
½ cup evaporated milk
¼ cup finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons finely chopped jalapeño peppers
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 pinch cayenne pepper
Cook spinach according to directions on the package. Drain and reserve ½ cup of the liquor.
Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Whisk in flour until blended and smooth but not brown. Add onions and cook until soft. Slowly add milk and spinach liquor, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Continue stirring and cook until smooth and thick.
Add remaining ingredients to the white sauce and stir until the cheese has melted. Taste for seasonings—you may want more heat in the form of the chopped jalapeño and/or cayenne, as well as more salt.
NOTE: This may be served immediately, as a side dish or a dip. If the latter, you may want to double the recipe, place in a chafing dish, and surround with toast points. Or, it can be placed in a buttered casserole or gratin dish and topped with buttered bread crumbs, or a mixture of buttered bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese. Put the dish in a 350-degree oven until the crumbs are brown.
JUDY’S SQUASH CASSEROLE
( Yield: 8 servings )
8 yellow crookneck squash, about 2½ to 3 pounds
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing casserole and 3 tablespoons for topping
1 sweet onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon dried basil
2 hard-boiled eggs
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 sleeve Ritz crackers
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.
Scrub and trim squash and slice thickly. Place slices in the bowl of a food processor, and process until diced fairly finely. (You will likely have to do this in at least two batches.)
Melt butter in large heavy skillet and sauté onion until translucent. Add squash, sugar, salt, pepper, and basil. Cook until squash is tender and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Push eggs through a sieve and add to squash with sour cream and heavy cream. Mix well.
Crush crackers. (You don’t want to get them too fine—the easiest way to do it is to roll up the cracker sleeves in a dish towel and pound with a rolling pin.) Melt 3 tablespoons butter and toss with crumbs. Pour squash mixture into baking dish, top with the buttered crumbs, and bake for about 45 minutes, until the squash is bubbling and the topping is nice and brown.
THE BEST BLACKBERRY COBBLER
( Yield: 6 to 8 servings )
4½ cups blackberries
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon flour
FOR THE BISCUIT TOPPING
1½ cups flour
3/8 teaspoon salt
1½ tablespoons sugar
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Toss berries with the sugar and flour and set aside. (If the berries are especially juicy, add another half tablespoon of flour.)
Mix the dry ingredients for the biscuit dough. (If you use salted butter, add only a pinch of salt.) Cut in the butter with two forks or a pastry blender until it looks like coarse cornmeal. (You may also use a food processor.) Add the cream and mix lightly until the mixture is just moistened.
Put the berries in a 1½ quart gratin or baking dish. Make patties of the dough about 2½ inches in diameter and ½ inch thick. Arrange them over the top of the berries. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the topping is brown and the berry juices bubble around it.
Copyright © 2013 by Julia Reed