Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Traditions on the Point

Perhaps on no day of the year, are Croatian families from Point Cadet closer to the traditions of their homeland than on Christmas Eve. Back in the day, the air hanging over the Point was thick with fog and redolent of  bakalar, the traditional cod stew served for Christmas Eve dinner, and frying pusharates, the glazed fruit-filled doughnut holes that are the star of all Christmas pastries.

The enduring popularity of bakalar is a bit of a mystery to me. I am not a picky eater, but I could never get past the stinky smell of the cooking cod to actually  taste it (not even when I visited Croatia) though I hear it is quite delicious. It is amazing to me that a fish that originates from the North Sea is so popular along the Adriatic and the Northern Gulf of Mexico, areas both known for their excellent indigenous seafood. Blame it on the Venetians and their trade routes.

The dried salted cod for bakalar must be ordered well in advance of Christmas, soaked for hours and pounded to a pulp to soften it. The fish is cooked down along with potatoes, bay leaves and other seasonings  to make a thick stew.  My grandfather used to put raisins in his bakalar, a touch you'll often find in North African versions of the dish, but no one else I know of on the Point did that. To see photos of bakalar (both cooked and pre-cooked), visit this site.

And then there was the singing.

Midnight Mass at St. Michael's was always packed and afterward, the Croatian men of Point Cadet would begin their rounds of visits, singing a cappella in Croatian at each house and lingering for a shot of whiskey or homemade grappa, freshly fried pusharates, bowties slices of strudel before moving on to the next house.

Aunt Frances' husband, Uncle Frank, was not Croatian but always accompanied the group to hum background harmony. About half-way through their rounds, after a few belts of the hard stuff, he gave up humming and began singing along in Croatian-sounding gibberish. No one seemed to notice or care.

Not surprisingly, many of the singers enjoyed a Christmas breakfast of Alka Seltzer.

I've often wondered if these customs, which traveled to Biloxi with our immigrant ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were still alive and well in Dalmatia.

You'll find the answer here and here. I should have known. Traditions this good just never die.

So no matter where your family comes from or where you live now, Sretan Bozic i Nova Godina (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year) from Mike and Mary's Kitchen.

Christmas Weather

In South Mississippi a "White Christmas" isn't quite the same as a "White Christmas" elsewhere. Here the white stuff is fog, not snow. And we've been getting a lot of it lately.

Actually, Christmas weather rolls in off the Gulf, the rivers and the bayous just before Thanksgiving and stays for the duration.

The wetness drips from the eaves like melting icicles.

It clings to driveways, sidewalks, patios.

It brings clogged sinuses and hacking coughs.

It wreaks havoc on driving conditions. And cooking conditions. Beloved holiday candies -- pralines, divinity fudge, meringues -- turn into icky, sticky messes fit only for the garbage can. You can't even get the glaze to dry on a patch of pusharates.

While you can't make a fog-man or fog-angels or have a fog-ball fight, there's no denying that for all of the problems with fog, it does possess a certain mystical, magical quality worthy of a Christmas story by Dickens

The beckoning glow of Christmas lights takes on a surreal quality when viewed through the opacity of a thick, Christmas Eve fog.

When the swirling mists take on fanciful shapes and touch your cheeks with wet fingers as you're walking down the street, it's easy to believe you're being trailed by the spirits of Christmases past, present and future

And, sometimes, just sometimes, the fog burns off around 10:00 to reveal a Christmas miracle --blue skies and golden sunshine -- a perfect South Mississippi Christmas Day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Remembering Uncle Raymond

I have a few Christmas posts at the ready, but I am postponing them to remember my uncle, Raymond who passed away last Friday.

Uncle Raymond was a big guy right from the start -- a whopping 12 pounds when he was born. His birth reportedly was a long, difficult one, and when he didn't draw breath, the attending physician (he was born at home as were most babies back then), declared a stillbirth.

My great-grandmother refused to believe that this big, beautiful much-longed-for baby boy, didn't have a shot at life. She dunked him back and forth between tubs of hot and cold water, rubbing him vigorously between dunks until he started screaming and flailing.

His uncles called the solemn little boy with coal-black hair and big dark eyes "the kid with the million dollar smile." When they called him that, he just frowned all the harder.

That's not to say he didn't have a sense of humor. He loved to tease his four older sisters, and they loved to tease him back. When he was real little they convinced him that he really wasn't their brother and that their mama and daddy decided he would have to go back where he came from.
Wiping away tears, he packed a few treasured toys into a box and went out to Old Biloxi bridge to hitchhike his way to his new home. Nona, who had been shopping downtown, stepped off the bus, to see her son climbing into stranger's car, while her daughters, who realized the prank had gone a little too far, ran out from behind the bush where they had been hiding waving their arms to ward the car off. That was the last time they ever tried give him away.

He grew up to be a handsome young man who somewhat resembled a young singer from Memphis (by way of Tupelo).

Although he would spend most of his life in Pascagoula, Uncle Raymond was a true Point Cadet boy. From the very start, he loved the water and spent most of his life on it. He learned to throw a cast net before he learned to read. He grew to be a commercial shrimper. I remember vividly the picnics our family held on his boats.

At his service, he was remembered as a man who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life: the water, his family and food.

Not too bad for a boy who wasn't supposed to have a life at all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Washington Interlude

Although the Hurricane of '47 has been eclipsed by Camille and Katrina in its destructive fury, it was a storm of some significance to Point Cadet.

My mother's family lost their home on East Howard Avenue -- and everything in it -- to the unnamed storm. Grandpa lost both of his boats, too, which left the family homeless and destitute.

Enter Plan B.

Nona had relatives in Bellingham, Wash., so she, Grandpa and Uncle Michael, who was then about five, temporarily moved up there for 10 months so that Grandpa could make some quick money fishing on the West Coast tuna boats. The rest of the kids moved in with Aunt Marie, who was, by then, married and living on Oak Street.

Living on the West Coast took some adjustment. Everything -- the terrain, the customs, the food, the accents -- was different from what they knew in South Mississippi. Uncle Michael adapted quickly, as kids do, and in no time at all was talking like he'd been born and raised in Washington State. He also delighted in Bellingham's hilly terrain and regularly reported home on the number of steps it took to get to the mailbox, the store, the bus stop and anywhere else he went.

He and Nona learned that unlike Point Cadet, where it was perfectly respectable to refer to elders by their first names prefaced by "Miss" or "Mr.," in Washington, everyone was addressed formally no matter how well you knew them. Nona never could get used to being referred to as Mrs. Soljan by her auntie's friends.

In Bellingham, ladies played bridge at parties where the hostesses all served a new dessert that was all the rage: Floating Island. Eventually, Grandpa amassed enough of a nest egg to come home and rebuild the house and finally bring the family back together under one roof.

They were glad to be home.

Floating Island

The French dessert Ile Flottante or Floating Island - airy meringue islands swimming in sea of creamy vanilla custard -- was the "it" dessert for fashionable hostesses in Bellingham, Wash. circa 1947. My nona brought the recipe back to Point Cadet although it never really caught on despite the area's sizable French population.

3 eggs
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups whole milk

Separate two of the eggs. In top of double boiler, combine 1 whole egg and 2 yolks with sugar, salt and vanilla, beating until smooth. Stir in milk and cook over simmering water, stirring constantly. When custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove from heat. (Do not boil. If custard should start to curdle, remove from heat and beat vigorously until smooth.) Cool completely.

In a medium bowl, beat egg whites with electric mixer until stiff. Gradually beat in 4 tablespoons sugar. Pour cooled custard into serving dish. Drop meringue by heaping tablespoons onto custard to make islands. Chill before serving.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Pecan Harvest

The pecan* tree in my side yard -- after several barren years -- is now loaded with appears to be a bumper crop. The race is on to see who gets them first -- me or the squirrels.

Pecan trees are common in Southern yards -- and recipes. The tree in my grandparents' back yard provided for the pies we ate at Thanksgiving and the pig tails we consumed at Christmas with enough left over to augment the odd batch or two of brownies or pralines.

In summer, we'd squint up into the branches, assessing the expected harvest. A rainy summer meant the nuts would be full with sweet, tasty meat. A dry summer foretold of shriveled nuts that wouldn't even tempt the hungriest squirrel.

The kids were the designated pickers; our young eyes and knees were better suited to the task. We shuffled around in the dried leaves, locating pecans with our feet before dropping to our knees and scooping them into brown paper grocery sacks (crawling around was quicker, but more painful). There was always a contest to see who could pick up the most.

After supper, everyone gathered to shell the nuts. The kitchen table was covered with newspaper. All the shellers were assigned a sack of pecans, a bowl and cracking and picking instruments.

Unlike today's paper-shells, these pecans were hard to crack as hickory nuts. The going was long and tedious with lots of breaks to flex cramped fingers.

The grown ups would start telling stories. Stories about the old hermit that lived on Deer Island ... the unfortunate boy whose head got squished like a watermelon between a piling and a passing boat ... the girl who wouldn't let the doctor remove the strawberry birthmark from her forehead and then bled to death when the blood vessels got caught in the teeth of her comb ... the champion swimmers that swam marathons out to the long-gone Isle of Caprice.

Those colorful, sometime even lurid, possibly totally fabricated stories kept us going through the tedium , sore wrists and fingertips and that irritating pecan dust that settled into cuts and scrapes. Eventually, the last pecan was cracked, the precious nuts divvied up into little plastic bags, the errant shells swept up off the floor and thrown away.

For days our fingertips would be tender and we'd see bags and bags full of pecans every time we closed our eyes.

But it was the stories that always stayed with me the longest.

* On Point Cadet (well in Mississippi in general) and in Louisiana, it is pronounced "puh-cahn" with the accent on the last syllable. Residents of Georgia and Tennessee adamantly insist the nut is a "pee-kan" -- accent on the "pee." I dunno -- sounds kind of unappetizing to me.

However, you pronounce it, one of my favorite uses of pecans is in the use of that famously Southern candy, pralines. Again, how you pronounce the name is a matter of geography. Here they are "prah-leens" not "pray-leens." My favorites are rich and creamy, not overly sweet or gritty. This recipe is easy in that you can make it in the microwave. Like meringues and humidity, pralines are best made on a day with low humidity. Good luck with that.

Microwave Pralines

1 lb light brown sugar

2 T light corn syrup

1 cup whipping cream

2 T pure vanilla extra

2 T butter

2 cups whole pecans, toasted

Combine brown sugar, corn syrup and whipping cream in an 8-cup microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high 13 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes. Add butter and stir until well-blended and creamy. Stir in toasted nuts and drop by tablespoonfuls onto waxed paper. After pralines have cooled and hardened, carefully remove them from the waxed paper and store between waxed paper in an airtight container.

Monday, October 10, 2011

My French Connection

Last month, I went to Paris. I love that city. You would think that I must have some French blood in my veins, some atavistic instinct that draws me back there again and again.

But nope, I'm all Croat on my mom's side, Irish/Scotch/English/Cherokee by way of Tennessee on my dad's. Not a Gallic drop in me.

But I do have a French connection.

Years ago my mom told me that her aunt Tonica, my grandfather's sister for whom she was named, had married an artist and lived in Paris. He died. She returned to Croatia. She had sent my grandparents a book of his paintings, but because these included a bevy of nudes, it went on a top bookshelf where the kids couldn't see the naked women. The Hurricane of '47 took care of that book.

In 2008, I came face to face with those paintings in a wing of a museum in the town of Stari Grad. And I felt an instant sense of connection to my great-uncle-by-marriage, Juraj Plancic.

Like my grandfather, he was born into a family of fishermen on the island of Hvar. It became clear early on that he was born with natural artistic talent. Though he originally apprenticed as a barber, he eventually wound up in art school in Split and later studied under the noted sculptor Ivan Metrovic at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. He graduated in 1925 and earned a scholarship to study in Paris. He married his sweetheart, my great-aunt Tonica Soljan, and four days later, in November 1926, they arrived in Paris.

Paris in the 1920s was the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Of Picasso and Salvador Dali. Was Juraj part of this crowd? I somehow doubt it. Though an incredibly talented artist, he was a Dalmatian boy through and through. Reportedly shy, sensitive and prone to illness, he was also a devoted family man with the strong work ethic of the humble fishing folk he came from.

The early Paris years were lean ones for the young artist and his bride. Paris, so cold and grey in the winter, must have been a shock to them after Hvar with its turquoise waters, olive groves and rosemary scented sea air. Their living conditions were in a word squalid.

Inspired by his memories of home, he painted what was in his blood -- the boats returning from the sea, the vinters harvesting their grapes for wine. However, inspired by his new surroundings, he stretched beyond the pastoral scenes and still lifes of his training to experience the new colors which would become his trademark.

His hard work paid off. He was invited to show at salons, including an exhibition in his honor at the exclusive Gallery de Seine in 1929. His paintings sold. He accrued patrons. He and Tonica moved from the suburbs into the center of Paris.

But he never forgot where he came from.. He wrote home to a friend, "My greatest joy is when I paint our fishermen and our maritime world in general, which lives on land and sea My paintings are full of our merry sailors. These are stories I had heard as a child of my late grandfather, now I extract the fragments." *

In April 1930, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Knowing he had limited time, he painted feverishly up until his death, just four short months later, two months shy of his 31st birthday. He is buried in Thiais cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.

Tonica returned to Croatia with their infant daughter, Alice. She remained in Zagreb the rest of her life. My Aunt Dolores met her there, along with her daughter, grandchildren, two brothers and other family members in 1977.

Juraj went on to achieve immortality as one of Croatia's best-known artists. His work was shown posthumously in Paris and Zagreb. In 1960, the Gallery of Art in Split mounted a retrospective of his work which was hosted in several cities around the former Yugoslavia. In 1963, Tonica donated several of his paintings to the Art Collection of Juraj Plancic (now Juraj Plancic Gallery) located in the second floor of the Palace Biankini in their hometown of Stari Grad. I would see them there 45 years later.

And I was in awe.

* I found this on the blog

** For more Juraj Plancic paintings, visit

Monday, July 4, 2011

I Scream, You Scream

Happy 4th! It's a rainy one here in the 'burg, but hotter 'n heck nonetheless -- as the 4th tends to be in these parts.

Some years the family got together on the 4th, some years we didn't. Sometimes the picinic was on the shrimp boat, some years it was in the back yard, other years we dragged everything -- including the big old heavy ice cream maker -- up to Flint Creek Water Park in Wiggins.

Homemade ice cream was the one constant (other than sparklers and bottle rockets) in our Independence Day celebrations. Ours was an old-fashioned hand-cranked monster that required a team of child laborers working in shifts over what seemed like several hours to crank out decent soft-serve. But, oh, was it so worth the sore arms.

We didn't get exotic with our flavors. Our preferred ice cream was always vanilla, unless someone happened to pick up some good peaches at a farm stand.

After we'd slurped it down (it always tended to be soft soft-serve, the kids hurried down to the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor and onto my uncle's motor boat so we could catch the fireworks display.

The best place to watch the show was in the channel between Fishermans' Wharf restaurant and Deer Island. The fireworks exploded like giant chrysanthemums over our heads and hurtled down like shooting stars into the water around us, as the shore exploded into a panorama of bottle rockets, firecrackers and Roman candles. As hot as it always was, the sight always made me shiver.

This year, it's been so dry (just not today) that most cities have called off their fireworks displays.

But I still made ice cream. I've replaced the ancient behemoth with a nice little electric number that pumps out gourmet sorbet or gelato in less than half an hour.

However true to my roots, on the 4th, I keep it simple. Plain ice cream flavored with farm-fresh peaches.

You can't beat it.

Perfect Peach Ice Cream

3 cups of fresh peaches, peeled and sliced *

4 T fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 -1/2 t pure vanilla extract

1 -1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 - 1/2 cups whole milk

2 -1/2 cups heavy cream

Mix the peaches with 1/2 cup sugar and the lemon juice let the fruit macerate in its own juices for @ 2 hours. Drain fruit, reserving juice and mash half of the peaches.

Mix milk with the rest of the sugar in medium bowl until sugar dissolves (1-2 minutes). Add cream, vanilla, peach juice and mashed peaches.

Pour into ice-cream maker per manufacturer's instructions. About 5 minutes before ice cream is done, add the rest of the peaches.

My preferred way of eating the ice cream is nice and soft, right out of the machine, but if you like it a little firmer, pour ice cream into freezer-safe containers and freeze for about 2 hours (thaw about 15 minutes before you plan to eat).

* This recipe is also good made with fresh strawberries.