The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 28, 2010

Southern Food — and my contribution to it

Selling fresh foods in Mississippi, one tomato at a time

In his book of Southern recipes, food writer James Villas (from down South), writes “Such is the sovereignty of Southern cookery to anybody (Reb and outsider alike) who has fully indulged in its many glories that comparisons with other American styles are almost ludicrous.”

To this, I shrug my shoulders and say, “ehh?”

I believe that a good Southern meal cooked just right is remarkable.  I once attended a funeral in North Carolina, and the reception the widow put on afterwards in her modest home was something of a revelation to me.  The dessert table alone, with a full twenty cakes, provided by every female cousin of the deceased, was an astonishment.  Ham — have any other people on the face of the Earth ever come up with so many ways to make a ham sing?  And the addition of bacon or ham to every legume on the planet makes them all palatable (and taste about the same).  I’m even a fan of grits now.  I particularly like the grits I get at a chain restaurant here called Waffle House.

That said, I boldly compare  — despite Villas’ admonition that I will appear almost ludicrous — the richness of the food down here to the food in New York City, where the world’s cuisine is really the city’s cuisine, given its unimaginably diverse immigrant struggle.  Cheap good food is made everywhere.

How I miss the food of my beloved city!

I drive down highway 59 toward Hattiesburg thinking of a chopped liver bagel from The Second Avenue Deli.  When I recently visited New York, and I stopped by the newly reopened Second Avenue Deli, I told the proprietors that I did this, driving in Mississippi, dreaming of their chopped liver on a nice plain bagel, and while my husband and I were waiting for a table, one of the owners of the restaurant offered me, while I was still in line, slices of bagel smeared with that delicious New York gritty mixture.  It was a return home at least as much as listening to the cursing on the street corner or watching the women hobble along in impossibly high heels with impossibly short skirts.

I miss Al Safah restaurant in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, a Lebanese restaurant with food I used to eat at lunch with my friend Nada, a Lebanese woman who is something of an evangelist for her national cuisine.  How I miss their delicious babagounoush, their zatar, their fried onions with lentils and spices.

I miss the tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes and olives from Rocco’s restaurant in Astoria Queens, Trattoria L’Incontro, where absolutely everything on the menu is impossibly delectable.  I met Rocco when he owned a Pizzeria, out of which he served things like wild boar and scarole a la braccia, grilled escarole with white canellini beans.  Now, he owns a restaurant where gangsters, politicians, star atheletes, and anybody with any sense at all, makes a pilgrimage to in the city.

I cook at home with the same gusto as James Villas’ Southern cookery cooks, and I am proud that as a newly-minted Southern wife, my future son in-law (a Cajun) apparently brings  my stepdaughter across state lines to see us in part in case, “Miss Anne,” as he calls me, is going to cook anything.  I cooked some chicken for a church social about two months ago, and while some people’s foods did not get all eaten, mine did.  Around here, that is a mark of distinction.

I don’t cook Southern food, though.  My food is different than the things I see in Mr. Villas’ book.  I wouldn’t fry a green tomato, and while I make ham, it is likely to have a port glaze on it, and the chicken isn’t fried with bread but stewed with white wine and marmalade.  In the midst of the real Southern cooks, I wouldn’t presume to make food that is not in my own idiom.  I would be a poor imitation of them, but cooking as I do on my own, I make food influenced by my upbringing in California, where I cooked the family’s meals for guests since I was an adolescent, my stint at Ecole De Cuisne La Varenne as an intern who translated in exchange for an intermediate certificate, and decades in the glorious mosaic of New  York City, where every tribe’s cooking wafts out the windows of the working class apartment towers.

In this spirit, I decided, while dealing with a serious bout of homesickness, to bake cookies for the farmer’s market of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

I felt I had the blessings of my home town to do so.  After all, The New York Times recently wrote an article with the following beginning: “HOME COOKING FOR SALE — College-educated and unemployed, New York’s young home cooks hope to find a place in the food world.”

While not entirely unemployed — I teach part-time this summer at Belhaven University — I am partially unemployed, and while not that young, I am a home cook, as Julia Child would have said, a servantless cook, from New York.  And after all, the Times is the paper of record, isn’t it?

Despite having an intermediate professional certificate in French cuisine, obtained largely as a method of staying in Paris to remain a club kid in the Parisian club scene of the late 1980s, I had never attempted to sell my food or my cooking skills in any manner, despite certain people telling me I should, usually with their mouths full of something I had made for them.  In New York City, where the best food abounds, there is little room for the amateur.  In all professions, the best of the world have gathered there to compete with one another.

However,  in Vicksburg, the competition is not stiff.  People have a collegiality to them, even with competitors.  Southern manners are generally warm and acomodating.

I showed up several weeks ago at the Vicksburg market, having filled out the requisite paperwork, with a small concern I call Brooklyn Cookies.   Each week, I offer four different kinds of cookies — week one included double-chocolate biscotti, traditional Sicilian anisette cookies, oatmeal cookies snootified with amaretto and dried apricot, and sugar cookies cut in the shape of sea shells and coated with royal icing.  Each packet includes (because I am a better writer than a cook) a lovely story with the ingedient list  about a different neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I did not bring a tent to cover myself — I figured that the market was only from 8 am to 11 am, and how hot could a person really get, especially if she were wearing a baseball cap from the Original Nathan’s hot dogs?  A tent would have sent my profit margin down the drain.  However, the organizers of the market realized the Yankee girl had underestimated the power of a June Mississippi sun, even in the early hours of the morning, and they literally pitched a tent around me to cover me so I would not die of a heat stroke.  I must have thought I was selling cookies in Vermont or something, and they were right, and terribly, terribly kind, to take pity on me.

Now, I rent that tent from the market organization, and I spend several hours turning red — my neck is turning red, despite sunblock — and sell out of my glorious mosaic chocolate chip cookies, my East New York barred window bars with three kinds of jam, my peanut butter cookies with Jamaican spices.  People say they haven’t had these flavors together before.  Uncoached, children between the ages of five and ten pick up small pieces from my free sample plates and shout loudly, “Mommy!  These are great cookies!”

I am making a small profit each week, as if I were teaching an additional class at the university.

Southern cooking is delicious when perfectly rendered (which it is, most of the time), but it is a bit predictable, like a hug from Grandma.  It is love itself, but don’t expect to swoon from it.  I am bringing an embrace from the other woman, the desperate housewife, not the real one from New York, but the surreal one.  It is different, dangerous, naughty, even.  I am the immigrant from elsewhere, bringing my spice rack, my palate of exotic places, and a sense of the edginess of New York — now almost a myth.  I joke with people that if one wants to get mugged on the Coney Island Boardwalk these days, one needs to bring one’s own mugger.  However, these cookies might bring their own mugger. That might be a gun in their pocket, or they might just be, like a Southern gentleman, glad to see you.  In any case, they are selling well, and my culture shock is slightly diminished by them.

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