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

May 28, 2016

Vicious Cuisine — How New Orleans just made me eat something very, very naughty

They say in Vegas that what happens there stays there, but for most of what happens in New Orleans, what happens there has an afterlife that wafts eveywhere. What I have done makes me want to confess in pre-Vatican-II Latin: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The French Quarter is a tourist destination for decadence.  I was not there exactly as a tourist when I committed my trespass against decency.  No, I was there on business, truly — getting my book The White Trash Pantheon (Vox Press, 2015) in local independent bookstores like Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley and Beckham’s Bookshop over on Decatur Street. I was literally minding my own business, that of poet, when I was seduced by the vicious underbelly life of the French Quarter to do something so unspeakable, I hardly tell you all now how decadent it was.

I am an unlikely candidate for temptation to commit the many vices present on Bourbon Street.  First of all, I drink in moderation whenever I drink.  As a woman of Irish ancestry, I have my ancestors’ hollow leg, anyway, unlikely to be overcome by intoxicants of the fermented kind.  The idea of vomiting on myself in an alleyway doesn’t sound like a fun afternoon, even in the rain. I am unlikely to seek out the ministrations of strippers and prostitutes.  Not even Sam Heughan taking off all his clothes would inspire me to find places to stuff dollar bills, and he is my ideal log thrower in a traditional Celtic caber toss, certainly. I have no desire for any perversion I could hire an illicit sex worker to perform.  My money is therefore generally safe on Bourbon Street, as is my soul.  The Lord’s Prayer asks that we be not led into temptation, and Bourbon Street is not a direct path to any temptation for me.  I see the end from the beginning there — vomit on shoes, throbbing heads, empty wallets, and a need to see the doctor, just in case. Bourbon Street does not lead me into temptation, even though it does not exactly deliver me from evil — if you don’t want a hooker on Bourbon Street, there are voodoo curses available for a price.  I am a generally forgiving soul.  I do not play with witchcraft — it’s not a toy; it’s not a joke; and malevolent intentions are in themselves curses on the holder of said intentions.

But Bourbon Street, named for the decadent royal dynasty that built Versailles, is not the only decadent street in the French Quarter.  Conti Street, named for one of the leaders of that dynasty, a Prince of Bourbon, held my decadent downfall a few days ago.  Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa.  I am an American.  I have American sins. Mea Maxima Culpa.

At a lovely new shop, I stopped as the rain burst from the sky.  The thing you see in the photo seemed to call out my name. It glistened before me as thunder rattled the pastry  cases at the shop. The French Quarter, after putting forth all other forms of temptation in front of me, finally found my kink, my proclivity, my sin.  Indeed, it is a sin akin to original sin — that of eating what one mustn’t ever eat. The object of my desire seemed to whisper what Stanley said to Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire right before he rapes her — “We’ve had this date since the beginning.” Like Blanche, I swooned and let myself be ravaged.

bacon donut

This is the bacon maple donut available 24/7 at Sweet Things & Grill #2 on Conti Street in New Orleans.

No one should ever eat a bacon-topped maple donut, but if it’s wrong, well, I didn’t want to be right.  The salty grease of the bacon mitigated the over-sweetness of the maple fondant frosting. It tasted like American imperialism, like land stolen from Native American tribes.  It tasted like the last day in the imagined chateau of the Marquis de Sade (who must have known the Prince de Conti for whom my fated destination with the donut was named), when all the other decadence was spent in his banned book.  It tasted like the fifty-first shade of gray.  It tasted like my mortality, embraced suicidally, as the paramedics placed the cold paddles on my chest and shouted clear, and I murmured, “no — let me go toward the light, that salty, maple light.”

It tasted like the end of Jim Morrison’s song, “The End.” It tasted like New Orleans, wrapped in bacon, slathered with syrup, demanding a perpetual carnival, then throwing the ashes from the smokehouse where the bacon was cured into the river at the Saint Ann’s Parade.  This is the end, my only friend, the end.  This is the end of America, its ultimate expression of selfish piggishness as the Third World starves.  This is the end, mon semblable, mon frère.

It was like I ripped the head off a chicken in a sacrifice to some shadowy Dick Cheney-like Orisha, then drank the blood from its neck, smearing the mess all over my white santera dress, then rolling my eyes back in my head, seeing a vision of the molecular structures of lipids and glucose in an orgy of stray atomic legs as I chattered like a blonde Fox News pundit as the crawl of words underneath my head ran like this: “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/ And all the children are insane /All the children are insane /Waiting for the summer rain, yeah”  — The end, beautiful friend, the end.

I wish, as I kneel here confessing myself to all of you, that I could tell you I was sorry.  I am not.  I will have to work out at my new gym in Algiers for at least a week just to burn off the calories that one donut put on my body, but how can I say I am sorry?  New Orleans made me eat it, the way it seduces all newcomers somehow.  I confess the sin of American gluttony and hegemony.  I confess the sin of re-appropriating Jim Morrison and Charles Baudelaire to hegemonic ends, the end.  Honestly, the donut was quite delicious, and if there is anyone who needs to gain at least twenty pounds for some reason, perhaps just one of them wouldn’t be bad.  I do not have that need.  I am at the gym now.  I was asked by the trainer why on Earth I would eat that bacon-maple donut, and I said, “It was like Everest.  I ate it because it was there.”

It was there, the full expression of our American flaws, the rock uplifted, slithering exposed. Yes, I ate that thing.  Yes, I need to sweat. Yes, the  end, the end.

For your own apotheosis via a bacon-maple donut, find it if you dare at Sweet Things & Grill #2, 806 Conti Street, New Orleans.

 

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November 3, 2015

On Southern China (Not Kowloon, But Plates and Cups)

The Bible Belt is not a place particularly welcoming to astrology, due to scriptural admonitions against witchcraft and all, but there is one cultural equivalent to asking a lady if she is a Leo or a (pardon the presumption) Virgo.  That would be the time-honored practice of discerning personality by selections of wedding china and silver patterns.  Marilynne Schwartz, in her Southern Belle Primer, offers a look at wedding silverware patterns as a map of a bride’s heart.  Allow me to say she is not wrong.  One can tell a lot about a girl based on how she sets a table, more than most Yankees think.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

Allow me to confess I am the Yankee exception to the rule — you can tell EVERYTHING about me if you know how to read my china, not the tea leaves in my cup but the tea cup itself.  You can tell my heritage, my erogenous zones, and the probability or the lack thereof that I would commit a crime.  Victorian culture believed that phrenology, the study of the shape of skulls, could tell one whether or not a certain individual had a predisposition for criminality.  The Nazis used this pseudo-science to justify their claims to master-race status.  But the skull men had it all wrong.  You want to tell whether or not I am likely to join Bonnie and Clyde on a shoot-out filmed by Arthur Penn?  Look into my choice of Spode Blue Italian and see a woman capable under wartime conditions of something akin to undercover Mata Hari moves but a total lack of inclination to direct acts of gunpowder-fueled violence.  Some girl who chose Villeroy and Bosch’s Basket Pattern for her wedding china, on the other hand, if pressed by enemy troops, she could lob Molotov cocktails out her dining room window, no prisoners, no quarter.

Other indicators in my china pattern are complicated by my Irish-American heritage.  I come from a family willing to fight over flatware and crockery, not to break dishes but to break heads over dishes.  I inherited my mother’s austere china pattern — a Danish mid-century eggshell-blue silver-rimmed affair, about which I wrote this award-winning poem, which appeared in Grasslands Review:

WEDDING DISHES

Given to you in exchange for the breaking of the saucer between your thighs,

The set of bloodless-blue silver-rimmed mirrors, salad-, bread- and dinner-sized,

Enough for twelve guests, you

stashed them under tea towels and in earthquake-proof canisters,

afraid of what a jury of your peers might do to them,

promising yourself their use for some grand occasion, grander than your wedding,

than the births, the anniversaries, the prize-winnings,

the high holy days, the moveable feasts, the raises, the graduations,

the leave-takings.

You never once set them out.

Don’t touch them, you warned me.

Those are for special days, days impervious to the passing of the hours,

the cycle, then the cessation, the graying of hair, the drooping and wrinkling,

the liver-spotting, for special days, not today, you told me.

Then, you got the news — you were waning,

and still you left them under heavy wraps, cryogenically sealed for some future

where you would not partake in the breaking of bread.

They sit now in my cabinet.

I inherited them all virginal, still uncrossed by a single butter knife.

I set them out like flat full moons every twenty-eight days or so.

Though they are the ice blue for which you registered,

I heap on them my roasted red peppers, my scarlet bruschetta, my berry sorbets,

my purpling beets, my bloody meats, my ripe nectarines, my marinara and my moussaka.

They have finally entered the coursing stream of the family, a place where at last the

good things are fed to the good people who waited so long to be invited to the table.

You see?  My mother’s inherent reticence and distrust of joy is evident in that wedding china, now mine, now repurposed, or rather, purposed to original purposes.

I also inherited my great-grandmother’s dishes, German plates made before World War I in Bavaria, white with Tiffany blue trim and gold rims.  It’s elegant, no longer manufactured, and precious as a symbol of female power in my family.  My mother’s funeral was not attended by one female relative who coveted the plates.  After the funeral was over, she had the temerity to send her son to ask for them for her, claiming they ought to be hers by right, never mind that my mother left them to me.  I told the man to tell his mother that if she wanted those plates, she could come see me about it — translation: come and look me in the eye if you dare; my mother just died, and I am in the mood to cut a b#!(h.  She never came.  The plates are still mine. She is still alive.

I believe I feel about that old china the way that the “best” Southern families take pride in beat-up flatware, which they proudly announce was hidden in the well when Sherman’s troops marched through their plantations.  In those dinged-up forks, they see a big fork-you to enemy looters from their great-great grand-mommas.

While most women in the South don’t inherit plates and spoons hidden from the Yankees, the choice of the pattern of such items is as important a choice to most women as the choice of college they attend.  When one receives a guest, it says everything about the hostess, if one can read.

Of course, divorce happens in the South, alas, as frequently as it does in the North, and then the meaning of the wedding china becomes bittersweet for some belles.  I think that in a society that believes that no matter how many times the bride has been married beforehand, a big, poofy white dress is never in poor taste on a new wedding day,most women of the South find a way to live with the old plates after the marriage ends.  After all, it is usually the woman who has chosen the pattern as a representation of her own proclivities.  However, I know at least one Southern woman who hates the china that reminds her of the broken covenant.

I prefer to see all plates hidden from Yankees, exes, or bitter female relatives as a sign of feminine power, a sign that the bearer of the cup is not so much a Kappa Kappa Gamma as a Cappa de tutte cappe, or as a friend of mine and I once coined, a “chippie de tutti chippies.”  A woman who lets go the man and keeps the bone china has perhaps gotten the best of both worlds in certain cases.  The china pattern then becomes the emblem of the matriarch, the one at whose table one must take Thanksgiving dinner and Easter brunch.  A woman with multiple china patters inherited or remaining after divorces, don’t mess with her.  She will fork you up.

October 10, 2015

Southern Food Curated — the Food Museum at Miss Mary BoBo’s Boarding House

America is a strange place to eat.  More than one third of us are obese, and nearly one seventh of us go hungry at least part of the time.  We have plenty of food, but we don’t share it equitably.  We overspend on processed foods that contribute to the diseases that kill us — heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and we underspend on the foods that would benefit us most — greens, beans, and fish.  We value convenience, and with some reason.  In order for families to economically survive, most households have both parents working outside the home, so the days of a cook making dinner over a slow flame over hours where the pot was periodically stirred, those days are over for most of us.  Therefore, McDonald’s serving us McMuffins all day sounds like a mighty benefit, as lots of us don’t quite get around to breakfast before dinner time.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

We yearn for home cooking but are rarely home long enough to cook.

At odds with this culture of convenience is a strange cult of food, one that creates an audience for cooking as a form of entertainment. We have all-day networks devoted to watching other people cook, and the people who watch are not all watching to imitate.  The tradition of American food preparation is that anonymous women did most of the work.  Wives prepare Thanksgiving, and the thanks for two days’ cooking goes to God mostly, rarely to the women who burned their wrists taking the turkey out of the oven.  Where households could afford to do so, servants were relegated to the kitchen, as kitchens before air-conditioning were miserable places to spend a day during the summer.  Big Southern households built kitchens  in separate buildings from the big house because the heat was unbearable and with kitchens being the most likely source of a house fire, it made sense to put the kitchen in a free-standing structure that could burn to the ground without burning the home as a whole. The people who sweated, and kneaded, who plucked feathers and gutted fish, those people were not celebrated.  In the traditions of the South, they went unpaid, as they were slaves or wives.  While wives were not slaves (exactly), they were not free, enfranchised, or able to choose other occupations than that of home maker for the majority of the history of this country and for the entirety of the history of the Confederacy.  So why are we watching now the cooks on television who make food into a spectator sport?

"all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. " -- John Updike

“all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-ri ce-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks- rackers-and- cookies aisle. ” — John Updike

We seem to have begun the celebration and idealization of cooking as a thing to watch with the industrialization of our food production.  After the Second World War, women who had worked for a few years in factory jobs were corralled back into the kitchen to prepare elaborate meals for G.I. husbands who would take their place as industry captains.  Meals went from something to grab on the fly to a proof of good housekeeping and feminine skill. Companies selling industrial food products — margarine, corn syrup, and cheese in a can — started having contests for housewives to compete like athletes, and this to promote the factory of food they ran.  County fairs had pie contests before, but national contests with television spots for winners — that was a 1950s idea and part of the myth of the happy housewife that would be rendered joyful by soap called Joy, by soup in a can, by floor wax that made a shine in which she could see her happy face reflected.  Suddenly, it became possible to make cooking aspirational, part of the American dream. A perfect pie, with meringue peaks just browned lightly — this was now a national source of comfort.

With the exit of women from the kitchen and into the workplace, food changed again.We became increasingly dependent on prepackaged goods, on restaurants that mass-produce food, and we became less healthy than before.  We stuffed ourselves mindlessly in front of the television with our potato chips rather than consider eating a discrete episode where family members looked each other in the eye, where fresh ingredients comprised the whole of the meal, where the meal ended, and we did not eat again until the next meal.  We became a nation of lonely snackers overly engaged in video games and sports events where we neither lifted a ball nor even donned a jacket to venture out of our living rooms to sit on a bleacher and cheer. We became spectators instead of participants in the leisure of our own lives.

So why do so many of us slouch on couches watching the cooking shows and then drive to eat Big Macs?  I attribute it to a longing for authenticity.  When the unsung women used to cook us meals the slow way, we took them for granted, but we felt loved.  The food smelled like something.  Our lives felt like we needed to be awake for them. We talked like connected people to one another around the table. The food nourished us. We were fed.  We don’t know when dinner is any more.  Nobody has the time to make dinner, not a real dinner.  Thirty-minute meals are possible, but they require somebody to invest time in a premeditated trip to the supermarket. No distractions had better arise, no pets had better run away not to be found until the next day  No family arguments had better explode, and no demands for additional overtime from overbearing bosses had better get voiced for all of us to make it to the table, for the family cook to get to her post chopping the carrots an hour before meal time.

This problem of authentic food and family time is particularly poignant to Southerners.  Momma’s biscuits are a source of nourishment as important as mother’s milk.  To eat grandma’s tea cakes is a partial living out of Southern identity. Food served at Southern funerals is a reason for the bereaved to stay alive. The home-cooking of Southern tradition is a way of Southerners knowing precisely who they are.  But mothers in Atlanta have no more time than mothers in Chicago to cook a four-course meal by sundown. Women in the South are working just like women in the North. Men in the South have not learned to cook any better (with the exception of the honing of seasonal barbecue skills) than men in the North have. Daughters no longer learn with the same frequency the skills requisite in the heirloom recipes of their family heritage.  Those foods are usually all advised too fatty by the doctors, anyway, and who has the time?

One of my friends in the South has a traditional recipe of a thin-layered cake of multiple tiers, and it takes a good day to make it.  She is a neurobiologist.  She can either concentrate on cake-baking, or she can try to find the root of a cure for ALS.  To her, the cake is a pleasure, but it is a distraction.  She feeds her experiments’ fruit flies, rather than the initiates at any Junior League.  That she can make the family cake, which includes home-made fondant (!) is impressive, but it is hardly the most impressive thing she does — she can clone insect brain cells, something her grandmomma never did.  Authenticity and tradition often get trumped in today’s South by forward-thinking and long work hours in double-income homes.

So today, if one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the makers of Jack Daniels — and in typing these words, I feel compelled to salute sour mash whiskey and its salutory benefits to those who  are ailing from heart-ache and underexposure to tear-jerk Country music ballads — I sigh deeply and try to remember what I was saying.  What was it? Oh!  If one goes to Lynchburg, Tennessee, one can visit a historically preserved boarding house, something which used to be a fixture in the Southern Landscape before the advent of post-war motel chains.  Miss Mary Bo Bo’s boarding house in Lynchburg was particularly known for its good food.  She received guests, it seems mostly traveling salesmen (and during the Twenties, bootleg distributors), and she served old-school Southern fare — baked apples, creamy macaroni and cheese, turnip greens wilted in pork fat, fried chicken of the kind that rarely gets made in private homes any more, and a delightful variety of pies.  A visit to Mary BoBo’s boarding house means one’s small family sits at a big table with others, and at each table for each meal, a hostess explains like a museum curator the significance of each dish within Southern cooking.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Come to Lynchburg, Tennessee for a curated traditional meal, a historical reenactment of Southern lunch.

Today, the house (which is run by the Jack Daniels corporation in conjunction with its distillery tours) attracts many people from outside the South, and the strategy of this table d’hote is essentially to stage a reenactment of the Southern meal, not unlike a historic reenactment of the Siege of Vicksburg.  Nobody down South eats a Mary BoBo-sized meal more than once or twice a month, and even then, nobody cooks all the dishes for such a meal except on the rarest of occasions.  The Mary BoBo meal is still eaten after funerals and at church socials, and those events are potluck — each cook does a fraction of the work.  Perhaps on an occasion as grand as a family engagement one might see such a meal served.  Alas, today’s Southern eaters can neither produce nor consume this level of Southern authenticity alone.  Paul Prudhomme is gone to his celestial spice rack. Paula Deen, bless her heart (and I mean that in the most Southern of ways), is on a low-carb diabetic diet if she doesn’t want to risk foot amputation and blindness (apart from blindness to her own racism). The rest of the South is hurrying to get home, but when we get there, the kids are playing Minecraft and whine if you ask them to set the table, even though they will be punished for it.  The husband got home and fed the dogs, gave the kids each a bag of raisins and a juice box, and he is on Facebook.  The wife lugged in the bag of groceries, set a slab of margarine to bubble in the pan, and she is flouring up the pork chops as fast as she can.  She wants to catch her breath — work was hard today, but now the baby has started to cry, and she runs, yells at her husband to watch that nothing burns, and picks up the littlest one to see if he has shoved one of his brother’s toys up his nose again.

Who has time to cook?  Who can look a loved one in the eye without wanting to cry?  Where is grandmomma’s multi-layered cake, momma’s biscuit, daddy’s barbecued ribs?  Is this our current tear-jerk ballad, and do we sing the lyrics of the song together?  Or do we sing it in rooms with closed doors, pretending it’s all fine?  Where is Miss Mary Bobo, the uncurated one who fed smiling bootleggers and excluded black visitors from her table?  We miss her, not for her personality or her moral compass, but for her roasts, the kind that comforted the diner, that said that all was well whether it really was or not. We are sentimental and crave comfort food.  Kardashians are tramping around on television.  The Internet announces apocalypses, scriptural and zombie.  We feel empty inside.

What’s for dinner?  What should we really eat for dinner? What will really satisfy us, North and South?

May 6, 2015

Let Them Eat Cake: Why, with God and Scarlett O’Hara as My Witness, I’ll Never Go Hungry Again

My pastor in Oxford, Brother Williams, told me that at our church here in Mississippi, we spell fellowship F-O-O-D.  I write this as a witness.  I have tasted, and I have seen that the LORD is good, and his mercies, as well as his appetizers, endureth forever.

I love the people at Christ the Rock.  They are kind and unpretentious.  If you look earlier in this blog, you can see my previous post about them.  Whenever we get together, with the slightest of excuses, there is a buffet laden with home-made macaroni and cheese, biscuits out of the oven, cole slaw, sandwiches, muffins, cookies, and desserts — oh, the desserts!  Isaiah 61:8 says that the Lord loves justice, and I have received my just desserts at Christ the Rock, thanks be to God.  My cup runneth over with unsweet tea they make especially for me, out of pity for my Yankee proclivities, for no natural-born Southerner would willingly drink iced tea that hasn’t been sweetened.  They have handed me a napkin.  As it says in Psalm 81:10 — I have opened my mouth wide, and fellowship at Christ the Rock has filled it.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake.  Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake. Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

But this past Tuesday really took the cake, or rather it gave it.  I have been volunteering to teach high school English for the teenagers at Christ the Rock’s Church School, a part of Oxford Christian Academy.  We are writing poetry, fiction and essays together.  We have been reading the play Measure for Measure and contemplating whether Shakespeare felt that the State could legislate morality — an interesting question for young Christians to ponder.

Meanwhile, I had been getting ready for my prospectus defense.  I had been very stressed out about it, too.  I asked the church for prayer on Sunday, and pray they did.  Then, on Thursday last week, the morning before my defense, my students, seven lovely and well-behaved teenagers (yes, they still make some of those), asked Brother Williams to lead them all in prayer for my successful defense.  I was very moved by how personally they took my fortunes at this defense.  They seemed to feel if I succeeded, then they, too, had some share in that success.  If I failed — perish the thought — God, our merciful and mighty God, would surely not let that happen.  They prayed individually for me to persuade the room of committee members.  They prayed in earnest.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

My defense turned out (by the skin of its academic teeth) to be a success.  I told the church this on Sunday, and on Tuesday, the next time my class met, they shouted “surprise!” when I opened the door.  They had gotten me, in the spirit of fellowship, a cake.  Above is a picture of it.  Brother Williams told me, “What we cannot pay you in money,” (The school keeps its costs very affordable for people without two nickels to rub together) “we can show you in appreciation and hospitality.”

I would rather teach the children of the church than the children of Babylon, even if Babylon is gilded.  At the Lycee Francais in New York City, were I to teach high school there, I would barely make a living wage, anyway, while only the richest of the rich could afford to attend.  Here, I help young people in my spare time, as I pursue writing and my doctorate, find their own unique voices without apology.  I help them discern Shakespeare’s skepticism about government-mandated morality, with hopes that future voting will reflect this discussion’s debate later on.  I help them understand that our God creates with words, potent words.  Their words contain potency as well.

And it is a blessing to belong to a fellowship that spells itself F-O-O-D, that celebrates with those who advance, and considers itself set apart from the mean spirit of much of the world, even as it draws those who have been downtrodden by the vicissitudes of its cruelty to its table.

So pull up a chair.  Don’t be shy.  Let me slice you off a piece with extra piped-on gooey goodness.

September 7, 2010

Breakfast as Haute Cuisine — Big Bad Breakfast, Oxford, Mississippi

Breakfast gets no respect — the Rodney Dangerfield of meals.  However, it is possibly the food that American cuisine does the best.  Can breakfast be an art form, handled by skilled hands with cast iron skillets?

If they serve Breakfast in Heaven, I think they use the recipes of Big Bad Breakfast of Oxford, Mississippi. Big Bad Breakfast is part of a food empire that is surely the best in the state of Mississippi — it includes a restaurant featured in Garden and Gun — Yes, you Yankees!  They have a magazine down here that sits on people’s coffee tables in the place where your copy of New York Magazine sits.  It is entitled Garden and Gun, sometimes with a photo of guns on the front cover:  Know it.  Deal with it.  Shudder, if you must — called The City Grocery.   The who’s who  — or should I say “who-all is who”? — of Mississippi comes to eat there, and boy, do they know their stuff.

Anyway, Big Bad Breakfast has a chef, Jason Nicholas, with a Fine Arts degree from Ole Miss.  They hired, for a place that makes breakfast as its chief fare, a charcutier.  His last name is Lovejoy.  If bacon is a joy, and if ham is a love, well — this guy knows what to do with it and how to do it.

They make grits that are better than anything I’ve ever eaten for breakfast.  The secret seems to be a bunch of butter and garlic.

And honey, the wait staff — they are a fantasy.  Each is cuter than the last, really, and girls, given that this is Mississippi, there’s actually a pretty good chance that at least some of them are straight.

Despite pretentious 1980s rock lyrics to a song called “Breakfast in America,” people don’t really consider breakfast a tourist attraction.  This is a great pity, for if it were, Breakfast in America would be worthy the way a Sacher Torte is in Vienna.

I say, all the air-kissing jet-setters should decide that Breakfast is the new little black dress and come air-kiss my grits here, or rather kiss the grits of this marvelous place.  Tapas was hip.  So was sushi, long ago.   I declare a vogue for buttermilk biscuits fresh out of the oven, handed over by some guy who looks like he stepped out of a teen heart-throb movie, while Roy Orbison plays softly in the background and you drink your freshly squeezed orange juice.

Come and get it, America!

Big Bad Breakfast, without a photo of the hot waiters

August 3, 2010

Wine without the Snooty

drink the very best -- but expect no social distinction from the Schlitz crowd

This Mississippi heat will slap the snooty right off your face.  I could have steamed broccoli outside yesterday.  Even the habitues have rushed indoors where it’s cool.  Some of them grabbed a beer.  Others of them decanted a glass of fine wine, but the bouquet did not waft upwards with a snooty inflection.

In fact, Mississippi seems to be in the snooty-slapping-off-your-face business, especially when it comes to things that New Yorkers do with an air of smugness.

Wine is my example.  The best wine dealer near Vicksburg, Mississippi is across the Louisiana State line.  They carry the finest and best French wines, the most palatable Italian bottles, the trendiest Australian and Californian wines out there, truly, but don’t expect them to make you feel like a connoisseur as you sip.  Let me tell you about this store — Delta Discount Wines & Spirits.

You see, in 2007, Big Al and Little Al Kitchens, who had owned a small grocery in nearby Bovina, decided to open  up a fine wine store, so they did the locally logical thing — they crossed to Louisiana, where the laws regarding many things — pornography, lottery, and alcohol, to name a few — were less Baptist than Catholic, and they bought the convenience store at a highway Chevron station.  Here it is:

The only place for miles and miles to get the just-shipped Beaujolais Nouveau

They hired a guy who knew something about wine, but who Big Al and Little Al could relate to — you know, a good ol’ boy who looked like  a trucker more than a sommelier.  That would be K. Chris Barkley, a fabulous (by New York snooty standards as well as good ol’ boy standards) Director of Wine & Spirits.  He was the kind of guy who could tell whether the Shiraz  had had a good year or a bad one without making the guy in overalls who got off his tractor to buy lottery tickets feel funny.

They let Chris (or K. Chris?  Like K. Fed?) make the choices — he purchases what the market will bear, but he pushes the envelope, too.

At a recent social function where Chris was promoting the store, he told me that he thought the palate of Southerners was sweeter in general than Northerners, but it is clear from the wine he stocks and decants that he is an educated man in his profession.  He understands the best marriages between various wines and various foods, and he has probably read every page of Wine Spectator for years.

He has started a mailing list for Big Al and Little Al that he has called The Blue Jean Wine Society.  I joined it.

Big and Little Al Kitchens own the best darn wine shop in the Delta.

He seems to sell plenty of the good stuff, too, but the store website says, “Delta Discount is truly a one stop shop offering Louisiana Lottery tickets, gas, diesel, ice, groceries, Subway sandwiches, beer, wine, and spirits!”

This is the way that things happen down here, I am learning.  You can have your fine wine, but you can’t have your snooty, not even snooty on the side, not even a snooty chaser.

In New York, fine wine is snooty because so much is snooty.  The velvet rope makes the dive bar appear like a phenomenon, not a roach motel.  New Yorkers not only like what they like, they like to have what other people want but can’t have.  I was pleased, I remember, when I had floor seats for Ricky Martin at the Garden at the height of his fame, not because I loved Ricky Martin, but because I had better seats than Donald Trump and Barbara Walters that night, and I had gotten them for free.  That is a New York state of mind.

In the South, that would be rude.  Competition is veiled.  Sharing is neighborly.  Hospitality is more important than snob appeal.  Why would one want to alienate a guest who did not appreciate an oaky white wine from Sancerre with a smirk at his glass of Jim Beam?

In fact, Delta Discount is currently offering its Jim Beam drinkers a special — purchasers receive a concert download of Kid Rock songs with every bottle.

It’s odd, in fact, that New Yorkers find fine wine snooty.  I visited a winery — not one with group tours, but a working private winery in France — with my friend Jean Levielle years ago.  New Yorkers have forgotten, perhaps, that wine growers are farmers.  I met the owner, who was very gracious, but he was covered with grape stains and dirt clods.  People down here, in this agricultural country, they, too, get covered with juice and mud.

I find it oddly disorienting, nonetheless, to recognize that I can drink whatever  I want around here, but I won’t impress anyone.  Some people in New York used to find it a bit surprising that I drank Jack Daniels — not a very ladylike or pretentious drink at all — as well as Kirs Royales.  I have always liked plebeian as well as patrician libations.   I’ll take a glass of chilled Gewurztraminer with my chicken tonight, in this steamy heat, and nobody will care one way or the other.

July 18, 2010

The Emperor (or Mississippi State Governor) of Ice Cream

“Call the roller of big cigars,/ The muscular one, and bid him whip/In kitchen cups concupiscent curds…./ The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” — Wallace Stevens

Stevens, in his poem about the ephemeral nature of life, bids us believe that there is no other emperor than the emperor of ice cream — meaning that empires melt after appearing and tasting grand.

I ask you — is that such a bad thing, really?

Where the empire awaits.

Off of Highway 49, going South from Florence, Mississippi toward Hattiesburg, there is a fruit stand called Donna’s.  Donna and Sidney Harrell sell boiled peanuts, squash, satsumas, cucumbers, and Sidney’s ice cream.

It is amazing ice cream, and if there ever were an emperor of ice cream, Sidney Harrell is it.

His black walnut ice cream has underflavors of maple, a pinch of salt,  and — I want to say but can’t prove it — whiskey.  His blueberry ice cream tastes as if the berries were flash frozen at the moment of picking, ready to explode in the mouth of the person who has a scoop of this heavy and redolent cream.

All empires fall.  Why not enjoy them before they melt into the sticky folds of the paper napkin surrounding the homemade waffle cone?

Sidney Harrell doesn’t look like a world-class chef.  The day I saw him at the fruit stand, he was wearing a trucker cap and a pair of faded jeans.  He had no air of the pretense that surrounds most emperors.  Rather, he looked like he might have been the mechanic of ice cream, the farmer of ice cream, the ranch hand of ice cream.

If Sidney’s ice cream pleases — and it does — it is not because he blows his own horn.

Summer is half over.  The heat in Mississippi could give anyone a headache.  Why not fight fire with ice, with ice cream?

Donna’s website — http://www.donnasproduce.com — announces “Sidney makes all of our flavors in a stainless steel machine with an old, crank-style cylinder.”  The ice cream is fourteen percent butter fat, one hundred percent worth it.

Gelato is unheard of in Mississippi.  The delicate sorbets of Berthillon on the Ile Saint Louis are as distant as the House of Chanel in this backwoods country surrounded by pines.  However, ice cream is, however ephemerally, perfectly articulated in that crank-style cylinder on the highway between nowhere and nowhere.

Sometimes, an empire rises in the desert.  Sometimes, when a pine tree falls in the forest, one can hear the sound of one hand clapping.

So it is with Sidney’s perfect ice cream, created for a public that sees it between parentheses, a pit stop, a moment between destinations.  However, it is not parenthetical, this ice cream.  It is the empire, the only empire, according to Wallace Stevens.  Sidney, Haley Barbour notwithstanding, is the governor of this emperial defiance of the transitory, temporary  nature of his stand.

So stop on your way somewhere better and notice that it might be that the journey is the destination, just as Wallace Stevens points out that the ice cream is the empire.

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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