Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Time in the City

Nona's favorite Christmas song was "Silver Bells." When I was a little girl, I thought "the city" in the song was New Orleans. It was the biggest (and only real) city I knew and my favorite place on Earth -- especially at Christmas.

Some four decades later, I've traveled much farther to much bigger cities. But New Orleans still is most dear to my heart -- well, except maybe for Paris.

My most treasured New Orleans memories date from December 1968 when we lived in the CBD.

My father was then the food and beverage director for Kolb's restaurant on St. Charles, a New Orleans institution, and the lunch spot for the city's downtown businessmen and shoppers. We lived upstairs on the third floor.

That old building was a den of curiosities, the type any eight-year-old dreams of exploring. Though the restaurant sold as much remoulade and red snapper as it did schnitzel and bratworst, the vibe was definitely Old Bavarian with a pulley style fan system operated by a giant Ludwig, a glass case filled with vintage beer steins and a china cabinet of delicate Bavarian china figurines, including an 18th century card game and a young courting couple.

But it was the restaurant's downtown setting that really provided the Christmastime magic that helped me forget that I didn't live in a house with a yard in a neighborhood full of kids.

In addition to the wonderful Mr. Bingle marionette shows and toy department at Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street, there were the ornate window displays at MB's rival , D. H. Holmes, the equal of any I've seen in New York or Paris.

That year, one window recreated an animated London Christmas straight out of Dickens, complete with an elderly lady roasting chestnuts, a roguish street urchin picking pockets and a Gothic cathedral that swung open its doors to reveal a golden Nativity scene against a red velvet back drop.

In the opposing window, opulent masked 18th century revelers garbed in pale blue, white and silver brocade, satin and fur, promenaded endlessly through arched white columns in a recreation of a Venetian Twelfth Night Ball.

A giant Santa Claus graced the facade of the downtown Sears at Common and Baronne where I jonesed over a jewelry box shaped like a Swiss chalet. A windmill wound up the music box to make the little ballerina inside twirl to the tinkling melody of "Fascination." A secret velvet-lined drawer under the windmill was the perfect place to hide my only piece of "real" jewelry, a birthstone ring.

On Sunday mornings, my mother and I attended eight o'clock Mass at the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception on Baronne and afterward peeked in at the infamous lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, then officially called the Fairmont though everyone still called it the Roosevelt.

We shopped for Christmas treats at the only grocery store near us -- the tiny A&P in the French Quarter, and in spite of the winter chill, enjoyed chocolate or strawberry sodas at the Walgreen's lunch counter.

While the rest of New Orleans headed to Kolb's after a busy day of shopping, our favorite downtown dining spot was the old Morrison's cafeteria on Gravier, the most beautiful cafeteria dining room I have ever seen. It was like eating in the square in Old Mexico with Spanish tiled floors, a twinkling "starlit" sky, and the facade of an old tiled-roof village with grille-work balconies and candlelit windows. I believe there was even a fountain.

We moved from New Orleans early in 1969, and though I have been back to the city many, many times since then, until this past weekend, I had never been back at Christmas time.

Most of my old haunts -- Maison Blanche, D. H. Holmes, the downtown Sears, Kolbs and the Morrison's ain't dere no mo'.

However, our little A&P, little changed, still operates down in the Quarter as Rouse's. The Fairmont is now officially restored to its former glory and called the Roosevelt once more. Its Christmas lobby is still a treat to behold. Across the street, the Jesuit church has also been spiffed up. The Walgreens, too, still stands, and for all I know still sells the world's best chocolate sodas.

However, these days, my shopping break libation of choice is a Sazerac in the Roosevelt's Sazerac Bar.

Turtle Soup

Perhaps Kolb's most beloved dish was their turtle soup. I remember one salesman ordered a big bowl of it every time he made a sales call and bought a gallon to take home. I haven't been able to find Kolb's recipe, but here's an authentic Creole turtle soup recipe from the blog Nola Cuisine

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Feast of St. Lucy

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Lucy, one of the two December celebrations that helped children growing up in Croatian households on Point Cadet take the edge off waiting for Christmas to arrive.

Like the Feast of St. Nicholas which is celebrated on Dec. 6 (read my St. Nicholas post here). St. Lucy's day is a relatively simple, yet much anticipated, occasion honoring one of Europe's most beloved virgin martyrs.

Sveta Lucia, as we called her, lived in Sicily during the late third century, early fourth century. Despite the Roman emperor Diocletian's ban on Christianity, Lucy converted after her prayers to God apparently cured her mother of a bleeding disorder. Lucy pledged to stay chaste and devote her life to Christian acts rather than marry the rich pagan to whom she was betrothed.

Her would-be suitor was so incensed by her rejection, he turned her in to the authorities for bringing food and drink to Christians hiding in caves and tunnels (she allegedly lit her way through the dark with a candle-studded wreath on her head)

After attempts to drag Lucy to a brothel and force her into a life of prostitution failed, as did efforts to burn her at the stake, her frustrated captors finally gouged out her eyes and stabbed her through the neck with a sword.

She was canonized by the Catholic church and today is best known as the patron saint of the blind.

Her feast day is widely celebrated in Sicily, Northern Italy, Croatia, Bosnia as well as Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark and several other European countries. Though Scandinavia today is largely Protestant, natives of these countries have loved Lucy ever since Christian missionaries convinced them she was a worthy substitute for the Norse goddess Freya in 1000 AD. Many of Scandinavia's traditional St. Lucy customs of today are actually ancient Norse traditions reattached to our girl Lucy.

Families in Hungary and Croatia sow wheat seeds on the Feast of St. Lucy (or sometimes on the Feast of St. Barbara on Dec. 4) which sprout by Christmas Day and are placed near the Nativity creche. My family never did this. I think this was more of a northern Croatian custom.

My family's St. Lucy's day celebrations unfolded much as they do in northern Italy where Santa Lucia delivers treats to children on the back of a donkey. We left out a bowl with carrots and lettuce for the donkey. St. Lucy left the bowl filled with candy -- and what candy -- fancy imported treats filled with jellies, liqueurs and flavored creams, molded into fantastic shapes and wrapped in beautiful foils.

We also lit candles in a tribute to St. Lucy's symbolic association with the Feast of the Lights -- lighting the way through the darkness of Advent to the joy of Christmas.

There are many regional recipes associated with St. Lucy Day celebrations -- hot buns in Sweden, cuccia, a kind of porridge-y dessert, or biscotti in Sicily. I don't remember my mother making a specific St. Lucy Day treat, but if I were to pick a traditional recipe to celebrate the day, it would be biscotti (also called biscutine) or perhaps this Venetian frico, fried cheese wedges

Santa Lucia Frico (Fried Cheese Wedges)Approximately 3-4 oz. shredded or grated hard cheese depending on the size of the skillet. Parmesan, Machengo Romano or cheddar work best. Semi-soft cheeses like mozzarella and Monterey Jack also work but will make a chewier frico. Very soft cheeses like brie or Camembert will not work and should not be used.

Spread the cheese in a thin, even layer in a 12" non-stick skillet. Some cheese varieties will require more cheese than others to completely cover the bottom of the skillet.

Place the skillet over medium heat and cook until the cheese releases all of its moisture and looks oily and bubbly over its entire surface. The cheese will melt together and form one large cheese pancake.

Use a spatula to lift one edge of the frico - the bottom should be well browned and the cheese should hold together firmly. It shouldn't be stringy or goopy.

Flip the frico and brown the other side for a minute or two, then remove from the pan and place on paper towels to drain. It will firm up and become very crisp as it cools.

Cut into wedges and serve.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Jingle, Jangle, Jingle ... Here Comes Mr. Bingle!

If you grew up in what is now known as "Who Dat Nation" (ie: New Orleans area and the Mississippi Coast) your Christmas included Mr. Bingle as surely as it included pusharates, fig roll, Christmas Eve gumbo or oyster dressing. The little snowman with holly wings and an ice cream cone hat remains so beloved by folks of a certain age, that sometimes it's easy to forget that he was just once just a marketing gimmick for Maison Blanche, one of the late, great New Orleans department stores.

When my daddy loaded up the Chevy Impala and took us on our annual Christmas shopping trip to downtown New Orleans (he loved the hustle and bustle of the city this time of year), the day was not complete without a stop by Maison Blanche's Canal Street window to await the raising of the red velvet curtain on the Mr. Bingle marionette show. Then you went upstairs, browsed the toy department, a Bingleland extravaganza with elaborate toy displays and Bingle dioramas, and had your picture taken with Santa Claus.

Of course, we didn't have to go to New Orleans to see Mr. Bingle. In Biloxi, if you had a good antenna, you could pick up WDSU-TV, one of the local New Orleans TV stations, and get the televised 15-minute Mr. Bingle show, which was part of their midday show, right in your living room. Afterwards, we'd walk around imitating Mr. Bingle's high-pitched voice and singing his little jingle -- which would drive the folks crazy -- all day long. (I have a theory that Mr. Bingle and Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live, were twins separated at birth. Strong resemblance, same voice. You decide.)

Sadly, for better or for worse, times do change. Maison Blanche was sold a few times, most recently to Dillards, and the flagship store closed in the late 1990s.* I truly believe that in a few years no matter where you go in the world there will be only Dillards and Belks department stores, Regions banks and CVS drugstores. And the world will be a much lesser place.

It is a testament to the New Orleans community, so famously resistent to change, and their lawyers, most of whom were raised on Mr. Bingle, that the sales contracts always contained a "Bingle clause" that covered the legal rights to Mr. Bingle.

Mr. Bingle survived. Thank God for those Sazerac-sipping lawyers in their seersucker suits!

Every year at Christmas time, you can still buy a stuffed Mr. Bingle doll, Christmas ornament or other memorabilia, at a handful of Dillards stores. And if one of these Dillards isn't in your neighborhood, you can always buy them online. This year's retro edition is on sale now through December 12!

If you don't know (or just don't remember), the Mr. Bingle back story, the folks at Dillards have provided an "official Mr. Bingle web site" with the little guy's history, some recipes and craft projects and even an audio clip to one of those shows. Click at your own risk. You won't be able to get that jingle out of your head for days.

For a more nostaglic, non-corporate take, on Mr. Bingle, visit the Mr. Bingle fan page where you can share your memories with other fans and collectors. This page is not affiliated with Dillards.

And if you're still feeling the need to share with other MB devotees, there is even a Mr. Bingle Facebook group page.

For more on the Mr. Bingle mystique, read this 2004 article about his never-ending appeal.

Bingle Food

Back in the day, after you'd done your shopping in downtown New Orleans, sat on Santa's lap and watched the Mr. Bingle show, you couldn't head back to Biloxi until you'd had chocolate or strawberry soda from the Walgreen's soda fountain -- and picked up a sack of jellied orange slices from the candy counter -- and a plateful of hot beignets, loaded down with powdered sugar from Cafe du Monde.

If this little trip down Memory Lane is making you nostalgic, and you don't have time for a holiday road trip to New Orleans, you can fake it using one of those packaged Cafe du Monde mixes almost every grocery store sells. Or you can make them from scratch using this Paula Deen recipe or the one on the Mr. Bingle web site.

If you're more of a Rice Krispies treat fan, you might prefer to make Mr. Bingles from one of the (now out of print) Mr. Bingle cookbooks.

* The New Orleans Ritz-Carlton hotel stands in the former Maison Blanche location today.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Calendars

Today is the first day of Advent, the religious season leading up to Christmas. In our house and in the classrooms of the Catholic schools I attended, there was always an Advent calendar to mark the progression of the season, day by day.

Some of the calendars were cardboard, like a regular wall calendar, others were shadow boxes with cubicles covered by numbered doors. Others were felt wall hangings with pockets, like hanging shoe trees.

Each one of them held a season's worth of treasures -- pieces of candy, pretty pictures, tiny Christmas ornaments or toys -- to be discovered each day. My favorites were the calendars imported from Germany with their festive foil-wrapped chocolates. I still buy those for my niece.

The Recurring Gentleman Caller has kept the tradition going for me. Every year, he buys me a beautiful Advent calendar fashioned like a famous cathedral with windows that open to reveal beautiful stained glass windows -- Notre Dame, San Marco. This year's calendar is a row of Venetian villas.

I love this tradition.

Advent, like Lent, is really supposed to be about fasting and deprivation, but since it leads up to Christmas, and includes the feast days of St. Nicholas and St. Lucia, there is a certain sense of joy and celebration. This was traditionally the start of cookie baking in our household. One of the cookies we always made this time of year was Nona's recipe for Chinese Chews. I'm not sure where she got it -- probably a ladies' magazine from years ago. It may not be original to the Point or even Biloxi, but it sure is a keeper.

Nona's Chinese Chews

The dates in these moist cookies make them chewy, but to this day I'm not sure why they're considered "Chinese." They are one of the easiest cookies I know, and they keep well.

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped pecans
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup all purpose flour

Cream together eggs and sugar. Mix in vanilla and pecans and add the remaining ingredients and beat well. Bake in an ungreased 9 x 9 or 10 x 10 pan at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. Cut into small pieces and sprinkle with confectioners sugar.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pub Crawling in Venice

My 50th birthday splurge wasn't what you might think. In fact, it wasn't much of a splurge at all, being the Venetian equivalent of the happy hour buffet we all used to hit in college.

And it's some of the best food in Venice.

Venice ain't an "eat cheap" kind of place.

Restaurant meals -- four courses including a separate one for pasta -- can set you back 60 euros or more -- which is a lot to pay to discover that you do not like cuttlefish pasta cooked in its own black ink. I didn't try that by the way. I'd rather wear black than eat it.

However, if you're on a budget, and want to sample the local cuisine beyond pizza and panini along with a genuine Venetian experience that does not involve Carnavale masks, gondolas or yet another medieval basilica or 15th century masterpiece, it can be done.

Every sestiere in Venice is full of tiny bacari -- little hole in the wall wine bars -- selling wine by the glass, local beer on draught and, beginning around mid-morning and on into the night, a selection of appetizers known as cicchetti. The concept is like Spanish tapas.

Some offerings are familiar: meatballs, fried cheese, finger sandwiches and roasted potatoes with dipping sauces. Some were, ummmm different -- bites of marinated squid and octopus with pickled onions on a square of congealed polenta come to mind.

Most bacari have few tables. Unless you plan to stay a while, you're better off bellying up to the bar or standing outside. Most places charge to sit whether at one of their tables or in their restroom stalls (and if you're really curious about the whole bathroom abroad experience, read it about mine at this post on my my other blog "The House Where The Black Cat Lives.")

You can load up a plate of cicchetti for about 4-10 euros per person or sample as you go for a euro or two per pick. After a bite and a glass, move on down the street -- there's sure to be another little place offering a whole new selection of tasty tidbits. Each bacaro has its own vibe -- some are fancy, some dives. All are fun.

When the bar tender at one place learned it was my birthday, he threw in a bunch of freebies. Well, he did try to extract a kiss.

But, hey, if a young, good looking guy wants to flirt with me on my 50th birthday, you know what, I think I'll let him.

By the way, the meatballs there were so good, I wanted to kiss the cook!

Venetian Style Meatballs

The meatballs you find in most bacari tastes like mini-meatloaves.

2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 tbsp horseradish
1 Tsp Dijon mustard
1 1/2 lb ground beef
1 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 onion, minced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups plain breadcrumbs
1 1/2 cup cooking oil
Salt and pepper

Put peeled and cubed potatoes in a pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. When soft (after about 15 minutes), drain, mash and set aside. While the potatoes cook, saute onions with 1 T of oil and 1/2 tsp of salt over medium high heat in a large nonstick skillet. When the onions are soft (about 10 minutes) set them aside in a bowl. Wipe out the skillet, add the meat and 1 tsp of salt, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon until evenly browned. Drain the meat, place into a large bowl, season with Worcestershire, horseradish, mustard, and pepper. Add mashed potatoes and onion to the meat. Roll the meat mixture into small balls ( about 1 to 1-1/2 oz), then roll in the egg, then the breadcrumbs. Heat remaining oil over high heat. Cook the meatballs in three batches, browning on all sides. Drain and serve hot or at room temperature.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sea Bass in Olive Crust: To Die For (But I'm Glad I Didn't)

You know those food magazine interviews that ask famous chefs and cook book authors what they would like to eat as their final meals?

Have you given yours any thought?

Last Sunday night I seriously believed my last meal on this Earth was going to be sea bass roasted in an olive tapenade crust. Not because that's what I finally decided on, but because it was what I had just polished off when dying in a fiery inferno seemed imminent.

OK. I'm exaggerating a little. But not by much. Here's what really happened.

Carlo -- the super-helpful night desk guy at my hotel -- suggested a nearby osteria for good Adriatic seafood. Great place, but could have done without the tableful of loud, Midwestern senior citizens. I don't know what they were celebrating (or not, they complained constantly), but from the looks of them I'm going to say that their 50th birthdays were some time ago.

Trying to tune them out, I enjoyed prosciutto with pineapple (good), seafood risotto (shrimp were overdone) and sea bass in olive tapenade with roasted tomatoes, fennel and peppers on the side (to die for -- okay, okay I'm getting to that part).

Finally, the seniors left (still complaining) and I was able to peruse the dessert menu in peace ... until I smelled something burning -- and not from the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a thin ribbon of smoke and then leaping flames. One of the departed tourists had thrown his discarded cloth napkin a little too close to the lit candle!

The wait staff were nowhere in sight. I was in that little back room reserved for Americans and Brits -- you know the one with no exterior door and grill work over the one window? Yeah, that one. Apparently, Italy's fire codes are not as strict as ours are. Oddly enough no one else in the room seemed to notice the conflagration threatening to annihilate all of us.

I threw my napkin over the flames, slapped at them frantically and doused the smouldering remains with my carafe of water. Finally the folks at the next table roused themselves from their discussion about global economics and, with typical British reserve, congratulated me on a job jolly well done.

Disaster averted, I REALLY enjoyed dessert (and not just because it was on the house ) of biscotti dipped in sweet dessert wine.

Now about that sea bass: tender, moist, flaky with the olives providing a tangy, salty complement to the delicately flavored fish It's definitely going onto my short list of prospective last meals.

I'm just glad it didn't have to be this one.

Sea Bass Roasted in Tapenade
I'm not sure how close this is to the osteria's recipe. I adapted this from Bon Appetit, and they got it from Joe's Crab Shack in Miami. If you can't find Atlantic sea bass, red snapper or halibut should work as well. Some people also claim haddock is close.

1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs made from soft white bread
1/3 cup Kalamata olives or other brine-cured black olives, pitted
1/3 cup roasted red peppers from jar, drained (again, roast your own peppers if that's an option. Much sweeter. Make extra to serve alongside.)
3 tablespoons purchased pesto ( if you grow your own basil, make your own by blending some leaves in a foold processor with olive oil, toasted pine nuts and a few cloves of garlic; it tastes way better)
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
6 6-ounce sea bass fillets
Lemon wedges
Fresh parsley sprigs (optional)

Combine first 4 ingredients in processor. Add 2 tablespoons oil and puree until almost smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Tapenade can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.)

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Heat remaining 11/2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over high heat. Sprinkle sea bass with salt and pepper. Working in batches if necessary, add fish to skillet and cook 2 minutes per side. Transfer to rimmed baking sheet. Spread 2 tablespoons tapenade atop each fish fillet. Bake fish until opaque in center, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plates. Garnish with lemon wedges and with parsley sprigs, if desired.

The osteria served this with roasted tomatoes, fennel and colored bell peppers on the side.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Venice: Land of Liver Lovers

I am that rare person who loves liver. When I was growing up, this made my mother very happy because she loved it, too. The two of us often happily chowed down on pan-fried liver with sauteed onions while my father and sister wrinkled their noses at us.

Despite my fondness for offal, I rarely eat liver now that my mother is gone. I've never mastered the art of preparing it properly. Very few American restaurants offer it on their menus. We seem to have become a nation of buffalo wings. Last week, I almost wept with joy when I learned that fegato -- calf's liver with onions -- is a classic, and affordable, Venetian osteria and trattoria menu staple.

In Fegato alla Veneziana, thinly sliced calf's liver (which is more tender and milder tasting than beef liver) is pan fried, and served with slow-cooked sliced onions and a sauce of pan drippings deglazed with red wine or beef broth and a splash of balsamic vinegar. It is usally served with polenta, the preferred carb of the Veneto region.

Fegato alla Veneziana

Pan-frying the liver tends to overcook and toughen the tender liver in the blink of an eye if you're not careful. This recipe is adapted from Mario Batali. It's really easy.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
5-8 onions, very thinly sliced *
1 pound calves liver, thinly sliced
1/3 cup red wine or beef broth
A few drops of balsamic vinegar

Heat the olive oil with 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy saute pan over a medium flame. Add the onions and cook them over low heat until they are very soft but not colored for about 1 hour.

Salt the onions and remove them to a warm platter. Add liver to the pan, salting and cooking for 30 to 45 seconds on each side. Work in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding the pan. When done, place the liver over the onions and keep warm.

Add wine or broth the pan and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter and pour it over the liver and onions. Drizzle with vinegar and serve immediately along side cooked or grilled polenta. Also good over rice or mashed potatoes.

* NOTE: The original recipe calls for 8 onions; I find this many onions imparts a very sweet taste to the dish so I use fewer onions, but some people prefer it sweet. Go with whatever floats your boat.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Venetian Cuisine: Deja Vu All Over Again

When I travel, I am always up for a new adventure, but then I am also fond of places with a tinge of the familiar.

Venice, with its meandering alley ways, peaceful piazzas and decaying architecture, put me in mind of my grandparents' native island of Hvar in the Dalmatian region of Croatia, and not a little of New Orleans.

Likewise the tiny trattorias dotting the back alleys far away from the tourist joints around San Marco, serve up food strongly reminiscent of Point Cadet: stuffed sardines, fried anchovies, pasta i fagoli, baccala, calf's liver with onion, seafood spaghetti and fried seafood platters. This really did not surprise me. For centuries, Dalmatia was ruled by the Republic of Venice and, years later, Dalmatian immigrants "ruled" the very eastern tip of Biloxi.

One of my favorite meals in Venice was my last dinner at Taverna Ciardi, a little restaurant/bar in the Cannaregio neighborhood. The menu was small, but market-driven, the mood relaxed with lots of locals (always a good sign). It was almost like eating at home -- in more ways than one.

We started with polenta topped with tiny baby Adriatic shrimp -- a Venetian version of shrimp and grits. Polenta really is just good old-fashioned stone-ground grits, the kind you so rarely get here anymore now that everybody has gone the "instant" route. These shrimp are so teensy -- much smaller than anything I've ever seen come out of the Gulf -- yet so sweet and flavorful.

Baby shrimp made their appearance again in the Spaghetti Taverna Ciardi -- which changes every day depending upon what they find at the market. Lucky for me, the market that particular day offered clams and mussels which together with garlic and white wine made for a simple, but delicious, pasta course.

For dessert, I had the taverna's signature cake studded with pears and apples and flavored with nutmeg and lemon zest. It looked like pound cake and tasted like bread pudding -- another familiar taste!

So what's the point of leaving home, you might well ask. As familiar as it was in many ways, Venice offers up many sensory delights you won't find anywhere else. Read all about them on my other blog, "The House Where The Black Cat Lives."

Until you can go yourself, here's a recipe for Taverna Ciardi-inspired shrimp with polenta, seafood spaghetti and apple-pear torta. Pour yourself a nice glass of Pinot Grigio (preferably from the Veneto region), pull up a chair to your dock (or your swimming pool or bird bath) and pretend you're sitting alongside a Venetian canal.

Salute and buon appetito!

Garlic Shrimp with Grits

The Venetians call this classic dish schie con polenta but it's okay if you just call it shrimp and grits -- that's what it is. I adapted this from a recipe in Food and Wine magazine.

6 1/2 cups water
Salt to taste (I like a lot; polenta can be kind of bland on its own)
1 3/4 cups white polenta (10 ounces). (If you can't find polenta in your neck of the woods, substitute stone-ground grits. Do not, repeat do not, use instant or quick grits. You want the kind your maw-maw used to cook.)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds shrimp, shelled and deveined
2-3 large garlic cloves, very finely chopped

In a large saucepan, combine the water with a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Add the polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the polenta is thick and the grains are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in the butter, season the polenta with salt and pepper and keep warm.

In a very large skillet, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add them to the skillet and cook over high heat until they are lightly browned on one side, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, turn the shrimp over and cook until cooked through, about 1 minute longer.

Transfer the polenta to shallow bowls. Top with the shrimp and some of the garlic oil from the skillet. Serve immediately.

Spaghetti a la Taverna Ciardi

1/4 cup dry white wine
2 dozen mussels, scrubbed
2 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4-8 garlic cloves, minced (depends on how much you love garlic. It's Halloween so I like to keep the vampires at bay and add all of them)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 pound spaghetti
1 pound of small shrimp or 3/4 pound medium shrimp--shelled, deveined and halved crosswise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Bring the wine to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the mussels, cover and cook over high heat until they open, about 2 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the mussels to a bowl. Add the clams to the saucepan, cover and cook until they start to open. Transfer them to the bowl with the mussels. Pour the cooking liquid into a glass measuring cup (discard the grit if you can). Shell the mussels and clams and return to the bowl.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the garlic and cook over low heat until golden, being careful not to burn. Add the red pepper and cook over moderate heat. Add the reserved shellfish cooking liquid and simmer over moderate heat until slightly reduced, about 3 minutes.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Meanwhile, bring the sauce to a simmer over moderate heat. Add the shrimp and cook for 1 minute. Add the reserved mussels and clams and simmer briefly to heat through.

Drain the spaghetti and return it to the pot. Add the seafood sauce and toss to coat. Season with salt and black pepper and transfer to a warmed bowl. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve immediately.
Note: As far as I could tell, there were no tomatoes in Taverna Ciardi's sauce; however, I have had seafood spaghetti on Hvar tossed in a very light tomato-spiked seafood broth that was extremely tasty. If you would like that version, add a pint of cherry or grape tomatoes to the skillet when you add the red pepper and cook for four minutes, crushing the tomatoes with a wooden spoon as they soften, just before you add the seafood stock.

Torta with Apples and Pears

This recipe makes a very dense, rustic cake. I've also seen it made with figs. Add a pinch of cinnamon if you crave more spice.

2 1/2 cups flour
2/3 sugar
3 eggs
2/3 melted, unsalted butter
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
1/3 cup milk
3 apples or pears or a combination. Use ripe, firm fruit.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients except the fruit. Mix until batter is smooth.

Butter and flour a 9″ springform pan. Pour in the batter. Peel and core fruit, then slice thinly and arrange in a circle pattern on top of batter. Fruit may sink slightly into the batter.

Bake the cake until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour.
Remove from oven and let cake cool slightly on wire rack. Remove the pan sides and slip the cake onto a serving plate. Serve at room temperature.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

French Dressing on "Piece-a Pie": A Biloxi Classic

If you grew up in Biloxi, a slice just ain't a slice without a healthy squirt of French (or Catalina) dressing on it. It's as necessary as the extra grated Parmesan or red pepper flakes. It is now so ubiqitous that even the chain pizza joints, put it on the tables and ask their takeout customers how many dressings they want.

But that wasn't always the case. The phenomenon allegedly started at Biloxi's premier pizza spot, Hugo's Pizza on Division Street .

When my mom worked at Keesler Air Force Base's exchange in the 1950s, she and her work pals hung out at Hugo's after a night of bowling. High school students from Biloxi High, Notre Dame, Sacred Heart and D'Iberville piled into Hugos after football games. It was a popular hangout for the KAFB crowd. People drove from all over the Coast just to sample one of Hugo's famous "pizza pies."

My Croatian-born grandfather thought it was called "piece-a-pie" and always referred to it as such. Ironically I had some of the best pizza this side of Hugo's in his hometown of Starigrad on the Croatian island of Hvar.

Early Hugo's regulars don't remember the French dressing being on the pizza. It started making its appearance sometime in the 60's and was a permanent fixture by the end of that decade. Nor is anyone sure exactly how it started. It was a probably an accident. Hugo's served some incredible salad as well as great pizza. It may simply have been one of those flukes of the salad getting onto the pizza. Happy accidents like that create classics all the time -- like Toll House cookies.

Hugo's changed hands sometime in the 1970s, and the pizza was just never the same after that. But by this time French dressing on pizza was firmly entrenched on Biloxi's collective palate.

When I went to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg in 1979, even the local Pizza Hut there was routinely putting French dressing on the tables to satisfy their students from Biloxi. And from there it went viral.

Now, if you're not from Biloxi, and this sounds weird to you, don't knock it until you try it. French dressing adds a extra flavor dimension to mediocre takeout or frozen pizza. It was the only thing that made that crappy "Tony's Pizza" that the USM Commons served edible. I don't know that I would add it to a gourmet wood-fired pizza with exotic ingredients like goat cheese, kalamata olives or grilled lamb. But it's a great topper for the classics -- pepperoni, cheese and sausage.
Any brand of bottled French or Catalina dressing works. Use whichever one floats your boat, although I personally find the fat-free versions too sweet (and, really, if you're eating pizza are you really THAT worried about the fat. Go for it). And as for the difference between French and Catalina dressing -- there is none. Different names, same product.

Obviously, the best dressing is the kind you make yourself. I like the following recipe. It's a little extra trouble, but doesn't your "piece-a-pie" deserve the very best?

Homemade French Dressing

Now I have no idea what French dressing recipe Hugo's used. This doesn't claim to be their recipe. It's just one I came across that I like. It's a "red" dressing with a little "bite" to it. If you find it's too sweet for your taste, decrease the amount of sugar. While it calls for white wine vinegar, feel free to substitute red wine vinegar or balsamic (which adds a nice touch) if you prefer or if that's what you have on hand. And, after you drizzle it on your pizza, be sure to save some for your salad. It's great just on plain iceberg lettuce.

2/3 cup ketchup
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 small onion, quartered
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Prepare the dressing by combining the ketchup, sugar, vinegar, oil, onion, paprika and Worcestershire sauce in a blender or food processor. Blend until the onion is well chopped. Chill and serve.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Different Kind of Twilight: Dark Shadows

Before the Twilight Trilogy, before Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, there was Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows was a gothic soap opera that aired late on weekday afternoons on Biloxi's ABC affiliate, WLOX .

If you were a kid in the late 1960s, Dark Shadows was your reason for living.

During summer break, we planned our play schedules around it. During the school year, we raced home before the haunting strains of the opening theme and the eerie silhouette of Collinwood mansion faded from the TV screen.

Dark Shadows was the saga of the fabulously wealthy, tragically cursed Collins clan. Its protagonist was the unwilling vampire Barnabas Collins played by Jonathan Frid. Veteran Hollywood film actress Joan Bennett played the Collins family matriarch. The villianess, Angelique, played by Lara Parker, was the witch who had made Barnabas a vampire and placed the curse on all those unhappy Collinses.

There were also assorted ghosts, zombies, monsters and several generations of Collinses. It was campy and confusing as all hell, especially since the members of the repertory cast often played multiple roles and travelled between centuries and generations and, oh yeah, a parallel universe.

Believe me, Lost had nothing on this show when it came to convoluted plot twists.

And my cousins and I just loved it. So did our Nona who faithfully watched every episode and filled us in on the parts we missed. "Vrag!" she'd hiss affectionately whenever the lovely, but conniving, Angelique graced the screen. Vrag is the Croatian word for imp or little devil. Nona called us that a lot, too.

The series spawned two feature films, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, but I never got to see those, at least not in a theater. For some reason, my mother, who had no problem with me watching the TV series, thought the movie versions might be too scary and intense.

In 1991, a much more lavish prime-time remake, starring Ben Cross, aired on NBC. That and a pint of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia became my guilty Friday night pleasure until the show was cancelled after 12 episodes.

I re-watched some episodes of the original Dark Shadows TV series a few years ago on the Sci-Fi channel. And I had to laugh -- that really was some over-the-top, melodramatic acting. The show, which was taped in one take, was full of bloopers. Cast members were always flubbing their lines and the production crew often inadvertently wound up stumbling into the frame.

And now it looks like them Shadows is gonna rise (er, fall) again. In 2007 Johnny Depp acquired the rights to the series and announced his plans to star as Barnabas in a movie remake directed by Tim Burton. This past July, they finally got a screen writer for the project, and filming is supposed to begin in January 2011.

Johnny Depp. Tim Burton. Sexy vampires and witches. I think it will work. I know I'll go see it-- and so will Nona in spirit. And if you can't wait that long, you can always watch the original on DVD.

And if you're a real Dark Shadows freak, you'll want to visit this page
Take that Twilight.

Homemade Fiddle Faddle

Dark Shadows was nothing if not a truly great trash wallow. Junk food just completes the entire experience. If a pint of B&J doesn't do it for you, try this homemade version of Fiddle Faddle, one of my favorite after school snacks.

1 c. butter

2 c. brown sugar, packed

1/2 c. light or dark syrup

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. vanilla

5 qt. popped corn.

Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in brown sugar, syrup and salt. Bring to boil stirring constantly. Boil 5 minutes stirring to prevent burning. Remove from heat. Stir in baking soda and vanilla. Peanuts can be added. Gradually pour over popped corn mixing well. Put in large roaster. Bake at 250 degrees for 60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fruit Salad (?)

I hesitated before adding this beloved recipe to the blog.

Though delicious, and a staple on our holiday dinner tables, it just seems a little ummmmm, low-brow, like something out of a "white trash cooking" tome.

I've heard this called "poor man's ambrosia" or "heavenly hash. "My mother just called it fruit salad. In her mind heavenly hash was Easter candy and this has nothing in common with it except for marshmallows and Easter.

It doesn't really have anything in common with fruit or salad either, hence the question mark in the title. You will find nary a strawberry, melon chunk, banana slice nor anything fresh in it except perhaps for the sour cream. I do recommend you take a gander at the expiration date on that (although really how much worse can sour cream get).

No, this is what they call a "pantry staples dish":

1 can of fruit cocktail (in heavy syrup), drained

1 small can of pineapple tidbits (or crushed pineapple) -- again in heavy syrup, drained

1 cup and a half of miniature marshmallows

1 pint sour cream

Dump it all together in a bowl, cover and let marinate overnight. You can add a cup of flaked coconut if you're so inclined (we never were). Or add a handful of chopped maraschino cherries (as we often did) or substitute canned mandarin oranges for the pineapple (which we only did once. Pineapple's better).

Now, while this might seem like a dish for undiscriminating palates, there really are a few details you should be discriminating about if you make it.

1.) Do not attempt to upgrade the recipe by substituting fresh fruit and creme fraiche. I've tried it. It doesn't work. Your pocketbook will be poorer and so will the overall flavor.

2.) Don't make this with "lite" fruit cocktail. If you're gonna do it, do it with heavy syrup. Even after draining the fruit cocktail, the syrup that coats the "fruit", absorbs, along with the sour cream, into the marshmallows and is a really key part of the flavor.

3.) Absolutely do not use those abominable colored miniature marshmallows. That's just an insult to the recipe and your dining partners.

4.) Don't toss this together minutes before serving time. The salad will be soupy and taste like what it is -- a bunch of thrown together convenience foods. This really needs to sit in the fridge overnight to absorb all the flavors and work its magic.

5.) At serving time, the mixture should have a fluffy airy texture. Serve in a pretty cut crystal dish. Presentation is everything. You may even be able to trick people into thinking it's real food.
Say what you will about it, I defy anyone to find a better accompaniment for ham.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can We Put the Round Bone Back in the Round Steak (Pretty Please)?

Maybe I'm just unobservant, but exactly when did supermarket butchers start leaving that little round bone out of their cuts of round steak?

As a rule, I don't much care for round steak. Yeah, yeah, I know the round cuts are leaner, and therefore better for you, than chuck, but they're also dry, tough and flavorless. Don't EVEN think of making me a hamburger with ground round.

That said, one of the favorite "everyday" summer meals of my childhood was my mom's pan-fried round steak with milk gravy served over rice with a side of fresh green beans and a slice of ripe garden tomato to make the plate pretty.

And the reason this was one of my favorite meals was the ubiquitous little round bone, filled with bone marrow, that came with every steak.

Like a hopeful puppy, I stood at my mother's elbow as she pounded the bejesus out the steak, cut it into serving pieces, dredged in seasoned flour and browned in a tablespoon or so of oil. I kept a watchful eye on the piece with the bone in it. When the meat had browned and the marrow turned creamy and pulled away from the bone, she let me gnaw on it while she made the gravy.

The marrow, creamy, sweet, nutty, went down like silky candy -- only better. And it was never enough. As far as I was concerned, the butcher could have just bundled up a whole package of those little round bones with a fifty-cent-piece size of meat attached and I would have been perfectly content.

The other day I had a hankering for round steak and gravy. I went to three grocery stores. In their meat cases, I found plenty of extremely lean, unnaturally red, unbelievably expensive, BONELESS round steak.

In the end, I wound up making do with the boneless stuff. It tasted OK, but it wasn't quite right.

I REALLY missed the bone.

In butcher shops all over America, there are heaps of those little beauties no doubt just being pitched out with the trash. If only I could get my hands on them.

Pan Fried Round Steak With Milk Gravy

Cut the round steak in to serving sized pieces. Pound with the textured side of meat mallet to tenderize the meat. This step is important. Round steak tends to cook up tough so you have to break down the muscle fibers before you add the meat to the skillet. Dredge lightly in seasoned flour. This isn't chicken-fried steak so don't worry with an egg wash or a double coating of flour.

Heat a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil in a skillet. Cook the meat on both sides until browned. Again you're not looking for a crispy golden fried coatings.

Remove to a plate. Keep warm while you prepare the gravy.

Now this milk gravy is the second reason why this was one of my favorite childhood dinners. My grandmother -- my daddy's mother in Tennessee -- routinely made this milk gravy with meat drippings, flour and milk to go with everything --pork chops, fried chicken and this round steak.

Add seasoned dredging flour (about two tablespoons, maybe a little more depending how much gravy you are making and how thick you want it) to the drippings in the skillet and lightly brown. Slowly whisk in about a cup of HOT milk. For best results, whisk a little flour from the skillet into the hot milk before adding the milk mixture to the skillet. Cook the gravy for a few minutes, scraping up the meat bits, until thickened and light brown. The texture varies. If you like thick gravy, use less milk, add more milk if your gravy is cooking up too thick. Add salt and pepper to taste. I like mine kind of peppery. Serve over rice or mashed potatoes or over the meat and hot flaky biscuits .

To be completely honest, this isn't a true Point Cadet recipe. My nona made smothered round steak with peppers and onions in a tomato gravy. But I like this kind better.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Spezi, Anyone?

When it's hot like this, I just mainline Diet Cokes. And when I've had my limit of caffeine for the day (something people tell me as opposed to something I figure out all on my own), I switch to lemonade.

But I never really thought about mixing the Coke and lemonade together. Maybe it's because I really hated the canned lemon coke that came out several years back. To me it tastes like lemon Pledge smells.

Or maybe it's because of one of those colorful "Depression-era" stories my mother was so fond of telling . You know those "making do" stories that parents raised in that era told (and embroidered just a teensy bit) so we lazy 70's teenagers would know how easy we had it?

Her story was her family couldn't afford soft drinks for all six kids, so Grandpa, as a special treat, would mix one or two bottles of Coke (actually I think it was RC Cola) into a pitcher of lemonade to stretch out the cola.

I felt so sorry for her.

Three years ago, I visited a friend in Bavaria. The trip included a visit to Crazy King Ludwig's castle in the Alps (the one on which Cinderella's Disney castle is based). Now that castle is way in the hell up in the sky. So the first thing you want to do after hiking your ass up there is find something to drink. At the concession stand that someone obviously saner than Ludwig was thoughtful enough to provide, you will find a revelation: a drink called Spezi -- a mixture of lemonade and Coke.

Turns out Spezi is a very popular beverage all over Germany and, in fact, in many parts of Europe. In Bavaria, it is made with an orange lemonade while in northern Germany it's more of the traditional lemonade. It's not bad -- especially if you can find carbonated lemonade (or orangeade) as they have in Europe. I make mine with regular lemonade and Diet Coke. For a more authentic Bavarian touch, try mixing the Coke with Fanta orange soda.

For the record, I never really believed Mama's"walking to school in the snow" story either. I mean, hello, I was raised in Biloxi, too. I'm saying.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Night Special: Fried Egg Sandwich

It's Sunday night. The house is tidy (well as tidy as it's gonna get with seven cats in residence ). The clean laundry is folded and put away. The garbage has been hauled to the curb for tomorrow's pick-up. All that's left to do is check in with you, dear readers, and enjoy my family's traditional Sunday night dinner: a fried egg sandwich.

I have been eating fried egg sandwiches on Sunday nights for as long as I can remember.

In my family, the Sunday noon meal has always been the big pull-out-the-stops meat and three plus dessert meal eaten on the good china around a table with a tablecloth (or at least place mats). At least twice a month, we would enjoy these at my grandparents' house on Point Cadet.

Those feasts usually revolved around baked or fried chicken, a roast (pork or beef) studded with garlic and falling apart, rice and gravy with Parmesan cheese, potato salad and deviled eggs (both covered with a generous coating of paprika -- Nona loved the stuff), and canned green peas. Nona wouldn't have known a leafy green vegetable if one had bitten her.

After the big noon meal, the kids headed outside to play hide and seek, walk on the fishing bridge or go to Rosetti's for ice cream. The adults cleared the table, cleaned up the kitchen, played cards, talked politics and told stories and jokes until dark. Everyone laughed a lot.

When we got home, as full as we still were, my mother insisted we eat a "little something" before we went to bed. Three daily meals -- whether you needed them or not -- was an iron-clad commandment in our household. That "little something" usually turned out to be a fried-egg sandwich.

When I moved out on my own, I continued the tradition -- mostly because eggs were about the only thing I could afford to eat for many years. Now I just do it (my cholesterol level permitting) cause I like 'em.

To me a simple fried egg sandwich, on fresh white bread, was, is and will always be the coda on a weekend well-spent.

It wouldn't be Sunday night without one.

Fried Egg Sandwich

Melt a pat of margarine or butter over medium heat in a non-stick pan until it stops bubbling. Break a large egg into the hot skillet. When the egg white has set, burst the yolk, using a spatula to spread the yolk into all the cracks and crevices of the cooked egg. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, flip the egg, and cook until the bottom is just set but still a little "juicy" and the lacy outer edges of the egg are brown and crispy.

Flip the fried egg onto a piece of FRESH white sandwich bread, top with a second slice. That's it. No mayo or other condiments (except for a drop or two of hot sauce if you must). For the optimal sandwich you want white bread, but it must be super soft and fresh or the sandwich won't be any good.. If your bread is past its prime, lightly toast it first.

Since I am not normally a "white bread" person, I keep a loaf in the freezer so I can thaw out the slices for this very purpose. It works.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sarah Coventry Parties

The 1970s were THE decade for home sales parties. If it hadn't been for Sarah Coventry jewelry -- which Aunt Marie sold on the home party circuit -- I would have had a pretty empty social life -- and even emptier jewelry box. I do not remember a single birthday or Christmas from high school where I did not receive at least one piece of Sarah Conventry jewelry.

The jewelry was not unattractive and well made for costume stuff. I received many compliments on a long hinged owl pendant with moonstone eyes as well as a silver necklace with a bib of intricately woven silver chains -- both looked great against a black turtleneck. I also felt very sophisticated in a gold faux-coral studded dinner ring that reached to my knuckle.

The standout SC piece, however, had to be the "Love Story" birthstone ring that everybody, including me, just HAD to have. It consisted of two crystal hearts set in a lot of frou-frou entwined vines and flowers. The collection also included earrings and a pendant.

I don't have any of my Sarah Coventry jewelry anymore. Looking at its popularity, and the corresponding prices, on e-Bay now, I wish I did. SC has gone from schlock to vintage. Who knew? Funny how time has a way of bestowing respectability.

I do, however, still have some of those Sarah Coventry party recipes. Two in particular stand out: congealed pretzel salad and my cousin Susie's fudge scotch ring.

The "salad" was really more of a dessert. Fudge scotch candy was one of the few things Sue liked to cook; she always made this for Christmas and to any pot luck type of affair.

So, are there any other Sarah Conventry girls out there? What was your favorite piece of Sarah Coventry jewelry and your favorite party recipe?

Strawberry Pretzel Salad

2 cups crushed pretzels
3/4 cup margarine, melted
2 teaspoons white sugar
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
3/4 cup white sugar
4 1/2 ounces frozen whipped topping, thawed
1 (6 ounce) package strawberry flavored gelatin
2 cups boiling water
2 (10 ounce) packages frozen strawberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). In a medium bowl, mix crushed pretzels, margarine and sugar. Press crushed pretzel mixture into the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish, and bake in the preheated oven 8 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Blend together the cream cheese and sugar. Fold in whipped topping and spread evenly over cooled pretzel mixture.

In a medium bowl, dissolve the strawberry flavored gelatin in boiling water. Mix in strawberries and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.

Pour gelatin mixture over cream cheese mixture and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours.

Fudge Scotch Ring

1 cup walnut halves (I've also made this using pecans)
1 6-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate morsels
1 6-ounce package butterscotch morsels
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (or pecans)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Line the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan with a 12-inch square of aluminum foil. Place a custard cup in the center of the pan. Plan walnut halves around the custard cup forming a 2-inch ring. Set aside.

Combine the chocolate and butterscotch morsels and condensed milk in the top of a double-boiler. Place over hot, not boiling, water. Stire until the morsels have melted and mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in chopped nuts and vanilla. Chill about an hour. Spon chocolate-butterscotch mixture in mounds over the walnut halves. Remove the custard cup. Store in refrigerator covered with foil. Yields one 8-inch ring.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Point Accent

If you hail from the Point, it doesn’t take long for someone to figure it out. Even if your last name doesn’t end with –ich or –eaux, the second you open your mouth, everyone knows your roots rest somewhere east of downtown.

This distinctive accent, largely native to the Point, but also heard around the Back Bay and other East Biloxi neighborhoods is less common in Central and West Biloxi. You definitely don't hear it in Long Beach, Gulfport or Pascagoula although you do hear something that sounds like it around Bay St. Louis.

It’s hard to describe the Point Cadet accent in print. Think Brooklyn crossed with a Southern drawl and you’re pretty close. A friend of mine from Massachusetts visiting East Biloxi for the first time declared, “I love this place. Everybody sounds like Joe Pesci.”

And, by the way, the true old timers never pronounced their neighborhood’s name as we do now. It was Point Caddy to them.

So how did this Noo Yawk accent wind up in the deepest part of the Deep South? And why did it largely skip over much of the rest of Mississippi’s coastal communities?

It all goes back to early 20th century immigration and its way of creating melting pots within a very short period of time. At the turn of the last century, New Orleans and Biloxi, received large numbers of people from Italy and what later became Yugoslavia, as well as Acadian French descendants from the swamps of South Louisiana. All of them were drawn by the booming seafood industry. New Orleans, more than Biloxi, also received Irish and German immigrants which explains why, in some neighborhoods, their regional accent is similar to, but slightly different than what you hear in some parts of Biloxi.

As the newcomers settled into the same working class neighborhoods, their various accents melded and evolved.

As evocative as these distinctive, if less than dulcet, tones are of our local culture, it’s hard to believe they they may be a short-lived phenomenon. The accent, so strong in my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, has started to fade away. Blame it on our transient society, where people move away from their old neighborhoods, and on the mass media which has affected all regional dialects to some degree.

In another generation or so , those dropped gs, screwy diphthongs and misplaced possessives may be heard only in oral history archives. A relic like the old downtown Biloxi Woolsworth (Woolworth’s to the rest of the world).

Aw, dawlin’, dey won’ know what dey missin’.

Red Bean Salad

The accent is on flavor in this favorite Point summer salad. This recipe does it the old-fashioned way, with red beans cooked from scratch, but today's busy cooks just substitute canned red beans..

1 cup of dried red beans
4 cups of water
(OR SUBSTITUTE 2-3 cans of red beans, rinsed well)
1 chopped onion
1/4 cup of good olive oil
1 T vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and sort beans. If cooking from scratch, bring beans and water to a boil and cook until tender. Drain well. Add chopped onion, olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss to blend. Refrigerate two hours and serve cold. This salad s a good accompaniment to grilled pork chops or sausage.

Friday, June 18, 2010

It Ain't Summer Unless I Have a Green Tongue

How do you know when hot weather has come to South Mississippi (besides the obvious)? When snoball stands start popping up like toadstools after a rain. What coffee stands are to the Pacific Northwest, the snoball stand is to the Deep South.

Whether you call them snow cones or snoballs, whether your preference tends toward the crushed ice or the shaved ice popularized by Hansen's Sno Blitz in New Orleans, there is no more refreshing treat on a hot sticky summer night.

Today's snoball stand menus are a gourmand's delight offering a head-swimming variety of flavors like Bridal Cake, Fuzzy Navel and Strawberry Shortcake. You can get them plain (one flavor), rainbow (multi-flavors) or topped with condensed milk (heaven).

Like my mother, I tend toward simplicity. Nothing beats a nice refreshing spearmint snoball. It is the perfect antidote to humidity.

For years, the most popular snoball stand in Biloxi was Mille's at the foot of the old Back Bay Bridge on Caillavet Street. People would drive from all over town to stand in line (which would often wrap around itself 3 times) and wait nearly an hour just for a snoball.

Yeah they were that good.

I don't have a recipe for this post. And with cheap snoball stands on every street corner this time of year who needs one? Part of the thrill -- dare I say even the majority of it -- comes from the expedition itself.

Assembling the household (or the neighborhood) into a vehicle. The backseat debate over the merits of various flavors. The hum of the well-used commercial ice shaver. Sitting on the sun-warmed car hood letting the cold, cold flavored ice slide down your throat while counting the stars. The sticking out of tongues to compare colors afterward. It all makes the treat taste better (really). You can't replicate that at home.

I must have a spearmint snoball (and green tongue). Now.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Daddy and His Pineapple Plantation Owner's Hat

When my father retired, he gleefully shed the tailored suits, French cuffs, silk ties and wing-tipped brogues my mother had picked out for him during his working life. In retirement, he wallowed in his own questionable taste, a byproduct of his color blindness.

Polyester blue and white checked pants, red and white striped shirts and a canary yellow sports jacket became the foundation of his leisure wardrobe.

The piece de resistance was a straw fishing hat from the fifty-cent table at Rose's discount store.

The hat was a plain straw boater -- the type worn by gondoliers in Venice or aristocratic Southern gentleman sipping juleps on their verandas.

However, it was accented by a tie-dyed band with all the colors of the Sgt. Pepper's album cover in the mix. And two plumey little feathers -- one red, one yellow --like the ones gracing the tips of plastic wands at Pet Smart. My cats, and not a few pimps, would have loved that hat.

My mother dubbed it "The Pineapple Plantation Owner's" hat. It became Daddy's signature accessory, as much a part of him as his horn-rimmed bi-focals.

He wore his new hat to the grocery store, the swimming pool, family picnics, even to Saturday evening Mass. Daddy claimed he wore the hat to protect his middle-aged bald spot from the sun. But I think he liked wearing it because, like Superman's cape, it unleashed his true nature.

Wandering around the New Orleans French Quarter, Downtown Biloxi or Edgewater Mall, while wearing the hat, Daddy could happily warble Christmas songs in July. Or speak pig Latin. Loudly. The prissy teenager in me was horrified and humiliated The other part of me was proud. My friends all thought he was original and cool. And he was.

No doubt encouraged by the hat, Daddy, taught my sister and me the fine art of swearing well. Not blue language that would get us in trouble but colorful original nonsensical phrasings that vented steam and got us giggling.

Goodnessgraciousjalapenopeppersheavenstobetsyhoohoohoo was one of our favorites.

The Pineapple Plantation Owner's Hat made life a little funnier and gave us all permission to act a little sillier. It became a beloved member of our family - rather like our poodle Tejean.

It left our lives as it had entered them-- as a fishing hat. One windy day, near Popp's Ferry bridge, a gust plucked the hat from Daddy's head and sent it skimming over the water. As my sister and I keened and wailed from the shore, it started taking on water, slipping ever further beneath the choppy waves, finally disappearing from view.

It was a noble end. A Viking burial without the funeral pyre.

And that hat deserved no less.

Coca Cola Cake

Daddy often wore the hat on picnics, including our annual Father's Day family picnics at Flint Creek Water Park in Wiggins. My mother usually baked a Coca Cola sheet cake for these occasions. I'm not sure if she got the recipe from Southern Living magazine or from Connie Bea Hope and Estelle Payton on their cooking show on Channel 5 out of Mobile.

They were sure good.

2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon, baking soda
2 cups sugar
1 cup of carbonated cola beverage (I like Coca Cola, but you can use what you like. Just don't use diet cola)
1 cup butter
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (real vanilla, please, not vanilla flavoring)
1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows
Cola frosting (see below)
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Combine flour, soda, soda and sugar. Stir well and set aside.

Combine cola, butter and cocoa in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Gradually stir into flour mixture. Stir in buttermilk, eggs, vanilla and marshmallows. Pour into a greased and floured 13x9x2 pan. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Spread cola frosting over the cake while still warm. Sprinkle with pecans. Let cool.

Cola Frosting

1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup Coca Cola (or your favorite cola brand -- again, no diet soda)
3 tablespoons cocoa
3 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine butter, cola, and cocoa in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in sugar and vanilla.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Matriarch

Photo: Sima Kovacevich Rosetti with her youngest son, Peter.

My great-grandmother, Sima Kovacevich Rosetti, was what is known as a formidable woman. Her opinions were widely admired and frequently aired. Her advice was coveted -- and freely dispensed. Her authority was like that of a convent's mother superior, absolute, unequivocal and rarely challenged.

Though raised in a patriarchal culture, she was said to be extraordinarily self-possessed, even as a young girl. In the Old Country, her parents were often warned that a girl so strong-willed would have a hard time finding a husband.
Few people alive today remember her, yet she was always reverentially referred to in the family as a "great lady."

In these handed-down memories, hers is a tall, looming presence, though photos reveal she actually was quite small in stature. Her posture -- head held high, shoulders squared, back ramrod straight -- gave the illusion of physical height.

Her hair, like my mother's, was jet black and pulled back from a face that -- in photos at least -- habitually wore a proud, even haughty, expression .

She wore enameled earrings fashioned like minature turbaned heads, symbolic of the Croats' victory over the invading Turks -- evidence of her ethnic pride and tenacity. Forgiving and forgetting was not part of her culture nor her individual make-up.

She was widowed right after the First World War, and left to raise five children in a country she had inhabited only a handful of years and still knew little about. Twice creditors tried to foreclose on her house on First Street, a fine Creole cottage. Yet she always managed to keep the wolves at bay.

She orchestrated her children's lives well into their adulthood. Some of them lived with her several years into their marriages. My mother and most of her siblings and cousins were born in Sima's house. Her grandchildren adored and respected her.
She was a mother figure and honorary head of household to many.

Young couples sought her advice on marriage, housekeeping and making ends meet. New mothers turned to her for help with colicky babies and wayward children. Her younger sister and brother consulted her when it came time for their sons to start wearing long pants, their daughters stockings and heels.

Her kitchen was the neighborhood's cooking school. Her daughters, daughters-in-law, nieces, younger cousins, all learned the art of soup and strudel from the master.

On her sideboard she kept glass jars filled with lemon drops, cherry lozenges, peppermints and hard licorice to be dispensed as rewards and favors to the family children. At her decree, no one else was allowed to stockpile these treats. It would never have occurred to them to do otherwise.
Before the Slavonian Lodge was built, her house was a gathering place. Young girls learned how to dance on her front porch, chaperoned by Sima and partnered by her three handsome sons Vitsie, Bruno and Peter.

Sima had a green thumb. Her flowers, some growing as tall as she, were the envy of the neighborhood. She grew them for the glory of God to grace the altar at the old St. Michael's Church. Like most Point residents, her life revolved around the Church.

Although the soil of the low-lying Mississippi Gulf Coast is vastly different from that of rocky coastal Dalmatia, she managed to maintain a small vineyard in her backyard with cuttings brought over from her homeland. My mother recalled stomping grapes as a child -- yielding just enough wine to be given out as Christmas gifts or shared on special occasions.
Sima was so well regarded that a local widower once came calling with his six sons , bearing presents, in tow and offered her pick of the litter as a son-in-law -- and threw himself into the bargain. It is a testament to Sima's diplomacy that she managed to turn down his offer (much to my grandmother's relief) while still maintaining the entire family's friendship.

The widow, herself, was much sought after, but she was done with men's follies. She had followed one across an ocean. That was enough in her book.

When the Coast Guard Station was established on Point Cadet, neighborhood goodwill was not exactly forthcoming. It was a tightly knit community that did not welcome outsiders with unknown missions and motives.

The new base's officers, knowing where the neighborhood's social power lay, came calling on Sima with polished brass and hats in hand. They admired her flowers, sipped her homemade wine and complimented her strudel. and biscutine At the end of the visit, she proclaimed them "gentlemen" and the word spread that the U.S. Coast Guard was now welcome on Point Cadet. As went Sima, so went the rest of the neighborhood

For Christmases thereafter, my mother delivered trays of pastry and bottles of wine to the station's gate on her grandmother's behalf and bore back handwritten thank-you notes from the station's front office.

Despite her strong constitution and iron will, Sima did not live to a ripe old age. Still in her 50's she succumbed after a long and terrible bout with stomach cancer. She stayed in control until the very end. She refused the hospital's food. As long as she was able to eat, her children delivered food, cooked from her own recipes in her own kitchen. After she was discharged to spend her final days at home, she insisted the young people dance on her porch and had the windows thrown open so she could hear the music.

When the end came, she called for a clean nightgown and her Mavis talcum powder. She instructed my mother to remove the Turk earrings from her ears.

And, only then, her will done, did Sima give up the ghost.

These twice-baked hard "dunking" cookies are more popularly known today by their Italian name of "biscotti." They are usually flavored with vanilla and anise. You can use any type of nut. Pecans are traditional on the Point, but I prefer almonds. Because they keep well in cookie tins, they were often made and served to drop-in guests with a cup of coffee or hot tea or a glass of sweet homemade wine.

2 cup of chopped nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts or pistachios)

1 tsp. vanilla

1 tsp. salt

1 1/2 sticks of butter, softened

2 tsp. essence of anise (do not use extract)

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

4 cups of all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and mix well. Stir in flour mixture, vanilla, anise and nuts. Divide dough into three sections. Roll each into a log and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown., about 30 minutes While still hot, slice into 1-inch thick slices. Places slices flat on a cookie sheet and bake again until hard. Cool and store in tins.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Here's to BHS ...

Biloxi High School's Class of 2010 will hold commencement ceremonies on May 23rd.

I come from a long line of Biloxi High grads. I, myself, am a member of the Class of '78.

Of course, when you're talking about BHS, you always have to relate which BHS you are referring: the "old" school on Howard Avenue, which most of my mother's generation attended, the formerly "new" school on Father Ryan which my generation attended, or the "currently new" school off Popp's Ferry Road which has been the "official" school since 2004.

No matter which school you attended, graduation is a big deal -- particularly in my mother's generation, when high school graduation often marked the end of formal education.

Uncle Raymond was so excited, he wanted the whole world to witness his receipt of his diploma. So he and his best friend invited then-President and Mrs. Eisenhower to attend Biloxi High School's commencement ceremony.

The Eisenhowers didn't come, of course, but the First Lady sent a handwritten note in which she warmly congratulated both boys and wished them future success. The local newspaper, The Daily Herald, ran a story about it.

Uncle Raymond had started a family graduation tradition.

By the time I graduated from BHS, a lot of people had the White House on their mailing list. I received a lovely engraved card -- bearing the Presidential seal - in which President Jimmy Carter expressed his and Roslyn's best wishes.

I wonder if anyone remembered to invite the Obamas this year?

Rosemary Roasted Cashews

Traditionally, the family always had a little social back at the house where well wishers could drop by to congratulate the graduate. The refreshments usually included a sheet cake, some punch, a dish of mixed nuts.
These rosemary-roasted cashews are a nice alternative to the usual party mix. I serve these a lot for cocktail gatherings. They are the perfect amuse bouche. If you don't like rosemary, they are also good roasted with thyme. The original recipe came from Ina Garten, but as with most recipes, I've adjusted a little over the years.
1 pound roasted unsalted cashews
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary (or thyme or a mix of both herbs)
1/2 t cayenne pepper ( or a dash or two of hot sauce)
2 teaspoons brown sugar (original recipe calls for light, but I usually have dark on hand so I use that).
1 Tablespoon of sea salt (or kosher)
1 T butter melted
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the nuts on a sheet pan. Toast in the oven about five minutes. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients. Toss the warm cashews in the mixture until thoroughly coated. These are best served warm.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Tribute to the Spiny Vine

Dewberry season has arrived in South Mississippi.

A lot of people call them blackberries. For the most part, they are wrong.

Dewberries, which proliferate in these environs, are bigger and sweeter.

These spiny vines, like kudzu or wisteria, can take over a yard -- or a garden -- in nothing flat. For that reason, they are usually considered a "nuisance" plant.

But, oh what an attractive nuisance.

Walking home from school on a warm spring day, I'd scope out vacant lots and the embankments along the railroad tracks looking for the profusion of white blossoms that heralded a bumper crop.

The blooms of April gave way to hard green clusters which slowly deepened from ruby to burgundy, then black to be plucked and tossed into the nearest empty receptacle -- usually my mouth or failing that my Cinderella lunch box.

The vines did not yield their bounty easily. The intrepid berry-picker, no matter how well covered, does not come away from a dewberry patch unscratched. Snakes and ants are also a danger.

On Point Cadet, the best dewberry pickings were found along the fishing bridge's access road from Howard Avenue to Ott's Fish Camp. One misstep and a kid could roll down that steep slope, crashing through tangled thorny vines, and right into the brown sluggish waters of Back Bay amid the broken concrete, abandoned rusty auto parts and God knows what all.

Yet all these risks were so worth the rewards.

My mother, though not a big dewberry fan, dutifully turned my harvest into a ceremonial cobbler every year. While the berries popped and bubbled in the hot oven, their purply juice oozing over and around the golden crust, Mama sprayed Bactine on my hard-earned battle scars, then we'd sit down to enjoy the fruits of our labors along with big scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Dewberry Cobbler

1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 teaspoons, vanilla extract
Dash or two of cinnamon (optional)
3 1/2 cups of fresh dewberries, washed
1 9-inch pie crust (I'm lazy and use 1/2 package of the refrigerated pie crust)
1 Tablespoon sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon of cinnamon

Stir together the first 4 ingredients (or first 5 if using the cinnamon) in a large bowl. Gently stir in berries until the sugar mixture is crumbly. Spoon mixture into a lightly greased 11 x 7 baking dish. Cut pie crust into 1" wide strips and arrange in a lattice design over the berries. Sprinkle top with the sugar/cinnamon mixture.

Bake at 425 degrees for 45 minutes. Until crust is golden and the center is bubbly. Serve with vanilla ice cream if desired (I highly recommend you do).

As with fish and crabs, berries taste so much better when you pick them yourself.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Hermit of Deer Island

Biloxi has never been short on colorful characters. The most intriguing of them all may have been John R. Guilhot (or Jean Guillot), known as "The Hermit of Deer Island." While technically not a resident of Point Cadet, Guilhot was well-known to Point residents. For years, local children were fascinated by -- and terrified of -- the grizzled eccentric.

He is such a legend that it is hard to separate myth from reality. It seems he cultivated much of his legend himself.

This much is known. Guilhot, a native of France, moved just off shore to Deer Island in the 1920s. A former barber, he was, according to my uncle and Internet research, at one time a businessman who grew oysters and owned and operated a small oyster plant on the island. After his wife died, and his house was destroyed by the hurricane of '47 he preferred to live alone with his dogs in a small shelter on the island. And thus the legend of "the hermit" was born. *

It is also fact that local tour boat operator Capt. Louis Gorenflo delivered Guilhot's groceries to him on his Sail Fish tour boat and left his mail and newspaper tied to a pine tree "mailbox" out in the water. This mutually beneficial arrangement was a matter of convenience for Guilhot and a promotional opportunity for Gorenflo's tour boat business.

Gorenflo featured "the hermit" as an attraction on his boat tours and even featured Guilhot's hairy, wild-eyed likeness in his advertising. As a bonus, when the ship went by Deer Island, sometimes Guilhot poled his skiff out and serenaded the tourists onboard with French folk songs. Often they threw money down to him. Eventually, Guilhot didn't want to be bothered anymore and rigged up a cup and pulley system to the tree for his mail and newspaper and just waved to the boat from the safe distance of the island.

While the tour spiel -- and the media -- made much of his "Robinson Crusoe" existence, Guilhot, though decidedly eccentric, was not a true hermit. Those who knew him, said that in company he could be gregarious and witty.

My mother recalled that he often came to town. A gaggle of children always followed behind-- giggling and whispering from a safe distance. They screamed and scattered when he so much as looked their way.

That said, Guilhot was fiercely protective of his solitary lifestyle. When the Hurricane of '47 threatened, he refused all attempts to bring him to shelter. He rode out the storm -- and survived it --- high up in a tree on the island.

His crusty, tattered appearance notwithstanding, the hermit was reputed to be a ladies' man with some alleged 4, 6 or 8 wives in his past, depending on which account you choose to believe. My uncle never recalled him having a girlfriend, but my mom said Guilhot was sweet on their older sister Marie who was young enough to be his granddaughter. Who knows if that is true? In her youth, Aunt Marie possessed the curvy figure, beestung lips and big brown eyes that turned lots of heads.

As he grew older, Guilhot often seemed impatient with the attention he received, but there is no denying that he also courted it. He is mentioned in a 1954 radio segment of the show "Down South Magazine of the Air." The show's recently discovered 23 segments were the subject of a two-hour documentary on WKFK Digital TV. You can download the individual segments here. Guilhot was also profiled in this 1955 article in the Milwaukee Journal.

Guilhot passed away in 1959, aged 81. Nearly 10 years later Hurricane Camille destroyed the remaining homes on the island, and the island has not been inhabited since. Over the years, casinos and condo developers have eyed Deer Island for development. However, the State of Mississippi acquired the land in 2002 and now maintains it as a nature preserve.

The hermit would probably like that.

* Part of what makes The Hermit's story so interesting, is you often run into conflicting versions of his history. The conventional story is that the hermit became The Hermit when he lost his house in the hurricane and chose to live in a shack on the island. Other people who knew him say that he had no choice but to stay on the island after his house burned down and his wife left him, taking the insurance money with her.

Hermit Cookies

Finding a recipe for this post was a challenge. According to an interview the garrulous Capt. Gorenflo gave in 1954, the hermit was a vegetarian with a penchant for rye whiskey though my uncle recalls Guilhot raised hogs on the island which tends to make me question the vegetarian part.

In his honor, however, please enjoy this old-fashioned recipe for hermit cookies. These are spicy. If you like gingerbread, you'll probably like these.

1 stick butter
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup chopped raisins

Preheat oven to 400, Beat butter until fluffy. Beat in vanilla and salt Beat in sugar gradually.Add egg and beat until mixture is light and creamy.

Sift together flour, soda, cream of tartar and spices. Add alternately with milk into butter mixture. Add raisins and mix well. Drop by spoonfuls onto greased baking sheets. Bake for 10-12 minutes .

Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Competition

Photo: My father, Jerry Willis. Don't let the suit and serious demeanor fool you. This man was a practical joker -- and B.S. artist -- of the highest order.
We all have our favorite holidays. Mine is Halloween. My father's was Christmas -- followed closely by April Fool's Day. You see, he was a practical joker.

Daddy hailed from Knoxville, Tenn., but he loved Biloxi, Point Cadet and my mother's family. And those he loved, he teased. A lot.

For practical jokers, the pay-off is all about the victim's big reaction. Aunt Marie, in particular, never failed to disappoint him. She laughed. She screamed. She cried. She wet her pants. Sometimes all at the same time.

Aunt Marie anticipated April Fool's Day (and Valentine's Day and her birthday) with a certain amount of trepidation. So would you if you suddenly starting getting anonymous ribald mash notes signed in a very familiar handwriting. Or if some crazy guy followed you around the grocery story, shouting in pig-Chinese.

Nona was another of Daddy's favorite victims. He called her Umpatilla (after the Alley Oop comic strip character) or Susie. I could never figure out the "Susie" thing, but then, I never understood why he called me Sam, either. He was big on nicknames.

Uncle Steve -- who had been on the receiving end of many of Daddy's jokes -- devised a clever plan that he believed would not only would turn some well-deserved tables, but better position him in a friendly ongoing competition between them.

Daddy and Uncle Steve each wanted to be Nona's second favorite son-in-law. They had no designs on the No. 1 position. Uncle Russ, who cut her grass, ran her errands and fixed stuff around the house, clearly had that position sewn up. They didn't want to work that hard.

On April Fool's Day Uncle Steve borrowed (on credit) an expensive and naughty, baby doll PJ set from a boutique downtown -- the perfect gift for a sweetheart, wildly inappropriate for a mother-in-law. He had it gift wrapped and delivered to my grandmother. Enclosed was a gift card signed "Guess Who, Susie?" in what appeared to my father's distinctive small handwriting and signature green ink. Uncle Steve spent weeks getting that handwriting just right.

Then he sat back and waited for the fireworks to begin.

He obviously had underestimated Nona's sang froid. No mention was made of the gift. It was never seen again. Uncle Steve had to pay for the set since he obviously couldn't blow his cover. Years later, my mom found that baby doll set, tags still attached, in Nona's cedar chest. Uncle Steve finally 'fessed up.

I love it. While Uncle Steve tried to punk Daddy, Nona, and by extension, Daddy managed to punk him. Daddy considered it his crowning achievement.

Besides pulling off the ultimate punk and becoming No. 2 son-in-law, Daddy's other lifelong quests included replicating the fountain drink Orange Julius. His version came pretty close to the real thing. As with all things he undertook, the quest was half the fun. And being around Daddy was always a whole lot of fun -- even if you were one of his victims.

Orange Julius

Daddy made several versions of this popular fountain drink -- all of them good -- but this one is closest to the real thing. I've seen similar versions that use powdered milk and vanilla instead of the vanilla pudding mix.

6 ounces of orange juice
6 ounces of water
3 ounces of simple syrup *
8 ounces, crushed ice
1 T instant vanilla pudding powder

Mix all in a blender and enjoy.

* 2 parts granulated sugar to 1 part water. Dissolve sugar in boiling water. When dissolved remove from heat and let cool.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

When We Were Angels

First Communion Day is a very big event in a Catholic child's life. In many ways it's like a debutante party or a wedding. Little girls wear white dresses and veils, little boys white suits. Families pack the church. And afterwards there are parties and presents. Perfect strangers on the street seeing your First Communion finery will give you money because on that day you are a little angel.

It's a good time.

When I made my First Communion in April 1967, poufy dresses held out by starchy crinolines and veils anchored by rhinestone tiaras were the ultimate in feminine First Communion chic. Oh, how I wanted a get-up like that. But my mother commissioned Aunt Frances to sew a simple tasteful white cotton pique chemise and a veil attached to a headband with white silk flowers. BOOOOOOORING!

Aunt Frances turned out exquisite christening gowns, Mardi Gras costumes and bridal attire. However, she free-formed accessories without a pattern. So my First Communion veil, rather than fluttering around my shoulders, enveloped me whole sort of like a white sheer net burka. In most of my first Communion pictures, it looks like the veil is eating me alive. If the wind had been right that day, it probably would have billowed like a sail, and I could have drifted up and away like Sister Betrille in "The Flying Nun."
The day itself is a blur of Latin, incense, ringing bells and giggling and whispering with my seatmate (which got me in trouble with Sister de Fatima). My cousin Karen made her First Communion on that day, too. Her slightly yellowed veil, worn by two older sisters before her, was just the right size.

After the ceremony, we posed for family pictures, then went to the hospital to visit our Grandpa who was sick and had missed the ceremony. All the nurses and patients exclaimed over us and gave us pieces of candy and money.

Years later, a small child visiting our house came across my First Communion photos. All sweet baby seriousness, he said he didn't know I used to be an angel. Then he asked to borrow my wings so he could fly up to Heaven to visit his grandpa.

I wish I had those wings myself. There are lots of people I'd love to visit there.

Top Photo: First Communion Day, Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Biloxi, Miss., April 1967. The church is now a cathedral for the Diocese of Biloxi.
Photo Above: As you might gather from the pout, my sister Kim was upset that after weeks of practicing with a bathroom towel on her head, she was not going to be allowed to make her First Communion. As you will note from my somewhat smug smirk, I'm not at all upset that I am the center of attention.

Kim's Meringues

Traditionally, First Communions are followed by parties. These melt-in-your-mouth meringues, my sister's speciality, look like little clouds -- the perfect Communion Day treat for little angels. Make these on a clear bright day or they won't come out right.

2 egg whites at room temperature

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 cup of sugar
1, 6-ounce package of semi-sweet chocolate chip bits
1/4 cup pecans, chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat egg whites, salt, cream of tartar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add sugar gradually, and beat until stiff. Fold in chocolate bits and add pecans. Cover a cookie sheet with heavy brown paper; do not grease. Drop from a teaspoon into small mounds onto the paper-covered cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for about 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees if they brown too fast. When done, these will be crispy and dry and creamy white.