Sunday, February 28, 2010

Down Around Biloxi ...

I recently discovered that one of my most attractive assets, at least according to my Recurring Gentleman Caller, is my hometown. It seems that every red-blooded Mississippi boy growing up during the 1960s and 70s fantasized about dating a Biloxi girl.

We are the official state goddesses.

I tried to get him to explain this to me. I mean just what did girls from our little peninsula have that girls from say Gulfport, Tupelo, Natchez or Laurel didn't? I got a lot of hand gesturing and muttering about exotic surnames ending in -ich and -eaux, plaid skirts, string bikinis, crosses on chains, tanned collarbones, Shrimp Queen pageants, feathered majorette headdresses and bouncing fringe and other random musings that made absolutely no sense.

I'd like to blame his obsession on Jimmy Buffett, but I think it pre-dates him.

And it's fairly universal across the state. My sister says that one of her friends in Jackson once summed up his attraction to a former flame with "Well, she was from Biloxi." As if that said it all. And it did.

Sure, these guys fantasized about Miss September, Cheryl Tiegs and all of Charlie's Angels. But what were the odds of meeting those ladies? However, it was not outside the realm of possibility that they might actually meet a girl from Biloxi.

When my RGC looks at me, he isn't just seeing a middle-aged woman whose string bikini days are long behind her.

And though he knows that I was never a majorette nor Shrimp (nor even Camellia) Queen and that my Catholic schooling ended in 5th grade, he can still picture me as a slender beauty with long feathered hair, a sparkly tiara and a short plaid skirt who, if he plays his cards right, will ride in his red convertible down Highway 90 for a romantic dinner at Taurus Steak House and dancing at the Fiesta.

After all these years, he's finally going out with a "hot Biloxi babe." And do you think I'm going to disabuse him of this fantasy?

Not bloody likely!

Anise Sticks

Mississippi boys may have associated Biloxi with the city's comely female residents, but when I think of my hometown, I remember the scent and flavor of anise. Point Cadet's ultimate anise cookie is hrstule, but it's a little trouble to make (and not my strong suit). A worthy, and easy, substitute is this anise flavored cookie. This was the first cookie I ever made, and, because they keep so well, my mother frequently sent me back to college after a weekend visit home with a tin of these (and clean line-dried laundry). These are delicious with hot tea.

2 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup shortening

2 eggs, well beaten

2 drops of anise oil or essence of anise (you may still be able to find this at an old-fashioned pharmacy or via e-mail from a shop specializing in Mediterranean food. I buy mine at the Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Va.)

Pre-heat over to 375 degrees. Blend dry ingredients; cut in shortening until particles are the size of large peas. Stir in eggs and anise oil. Mix thoroughly with hands. Using half of the dough at a time, roll out 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured board. Cut in 4x 1/2" sticks. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet about 1/2" apart. Brush with soft or melted butter or margarine. Bake 10-12 minutes. Make 3-4 dozen cookies.
Photo: Having a total 1980's moment (but then it was the 1980's so I guess that's OK).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Finding Love Point Cadet Style

I know we're a week out of Valentine's Day, but I still have love on the brain -- maybe because my Recurring Gentleman Caller whisked me away on a surprise date -- dinner and a movie -- last night. The movie happened to be "Valentine's Day" which got me thinking about some romantic stories I grew up hearing.

When Keesler Air Force Base came to Biloxi, it not improved Biloxi's economy and job market. It also vastly added to the female population's marital prospects.

This was particularly true on Point Cadet which, romantically speaking, was a very small pond. As a friend of my mother's once archly noted, that base was a godsend for many a homely lonely.

Even cuties like my mom and three aunts benefited from the social opportunities that arose from jobs at the base exchange. All of them met their future husbands there.

Aunt Selema never let anyone beat her to the punch. When Uncle Russ first walked into the exchange -- 6 ft. plus, white teeth, wavy hair, blazing blue eyes , chiseled bone structure -- the counter girls flipped a coin to see who would get to wait on him. Aunt Selema lost the coin toss, but she tripped the winner, sashayed on over there and was engaged to him within three months. Nice work.

My parents' courtship progressed a little differently. My father, Jerry, newly arrived from California, had left his shaving kit in the taxi. With his hair poufing in Biloxi's legendary humidity, he headed over to the exchange to get some Brillcreme and a razor. His buddy Jim wanted him to meet Toni, a girl who worked there.

As Jerry self-consciously rubbed his chin stubble, he broke the ice with one of his corny jokes: "So are you the girl who is going to help me shave?"

Toni was so fixated on his "hideous" tie with its satin palm tree applique that it took her a moment to realize that she was being handed the world's worst pick up line. And by a guy with some big hair.

He kept on hitting on her -- and wearing ugly ties . She finally caved -- realizing she'd never laughed with anyone so much in her life. She decided things just might work out if he let her pick out his ties .

They decided on an elopement. In accordance with her edict for "nothing fancy," Jerry placed a plain gold band on her finger. Of course it was engraved "To Pearl from Oscar" -- their "old married people" aliases.

A couple of weeks later, on her birthday, he presented her with the diamond ring he had intended to give her all along.

Nona and Grandpa threw a big post-elopement party for them at the house. Half the population of Point Cadet showed up. I always loved watching the film -- not only to see my mom and dad smooching and feeding each other wedding cake but to admire the trays and trays of food: pusharates, fig roll, hrstule, pig tails and these yummy pineapple filled fingers.

"Pearl" looked like she was having a great time. So did "Oscar."

But then they always did have a lot of fun together.

Pineapple Filled Fingers

The following recipe is fairly labor-intensive so I only ate these at special events like wedding receptions. Like pusharates, these are best made with a group of friends helping out over the course of several hours. This recipe does not double well. The cookies, however, will keep a long time when stored properly in airtight containers. Pineapple preserves are the traditional filling, but you can adapt to your preference. Apricot is also tasty.


2 lbs plain flour, sifted to make 8 cups

1 cup of shortening

1/2 lb butter

5 egg yolks

2 Tablespoons granulated sugar

1 pkg of yeast, dissolved in 1 cup warm milk

2 boxes, (approximately) powdered sugar

1 lb (approximately), granulated sugar


2 lbs of pineapple preserves

2-3 cups chopped pecans

Mix well.

Cream shortening, butter and 2 T granulated sugar in a large bowl. Add egg yolks and mix well. Add milk/yeast mixture, alternating with flour. Cover bowl and let rise for about an hour in a draft free location. Sift 1/2 box powdered sugar into a clean bowl. Pinch off marble-sized bits of dough and roll in the powdered sugar.

Roll out each ball on a board that has also been dusted with powdered sugar. Place a dab of pineapple filling in the center of each and roll up jelly roll style. Pinch ends and seam closed so the filling does not escape and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees until light golden. Remove from oven and immediately remove fingers from pan with a metal spatula. Cool on a wire rack or on a brown paper grocery bag. While still warm from the oven, sprinkle fingers with the rest of the granulated sugar. Cool completely and store in airtight containers.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mardi Gras Courtbouillon

Laissez les bons temps rouler. Tomorrow is Mardi Gras. While our little coastal celebrations are not as elaborate as those in our sister city to the west, we do put on the dog.

There were no parades on the Point, but when I was a little girl my family lived for a while in the Buena Vista Hotel's cottages (destroyed by Hurricane Camille) on Highway 90. My father managed food services for the hotel/motel/restaurant. The cottage's front lawn was the perfect viewing spot for both the day and evening parades.

At that time in the mid-1960's, the Buena Vista was the premier banquet/event hotel on the Coast. I viewed my first Mardi Gras ball there when I was only six years old. My cousin's fiance held me on his shoulders so I could see the presentation of the court; they were all dressed in beautiful aqua costumes with silver beading, plumes and rhinestones. It was like a fairy tale come to life! I couldn't sleep all night.

In later years, Aunt Dolores' house became Mardi Gras central. It was within walking distance of both Howard Avenue and the beach so we could catch the parades near the beginning and also near the end doubling our chances of catching lots of throws . Years later, when I was house shopping in Bay St. Louis, a seller proudly pulled out a kitchen drawer which he deemed the perfect "Mardi Gras bead storage drawer." Don't laugh. It's a practical homeowner consideration on the Coast -- on par with having a good place for the Christmas tree.

In between parades, we went to the house to catch a few zzzzs, and grab a bite to eat -- gumbo, red beans and rice, king cake, sandwiches -- and Uncle Steve's infamous courtbouillon.

Unfortunately, I do not have his recipe, but I remember it was hot, hot, hot. A little heat goes a long way with me. Here is a link to a vastly toned down recipe on the Zatarain's website. I suspect Uncle Steve would throw a bunch of cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce into it. I would add about a cup of chopped celery and some chopped parsley.

Some people on the Point made courtbouillon with crabs instead of fish. If you do this, you'll want to use a dozen gumbo-sized crabs, washed and scrubbed well, split in halves. Cook crabs separately from the tomato mixture in a pot, then add the bodies and claws to the rest of the mixture and cook for about an hour to an hour and a half more.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sweets for the Sweet

Photo: Aunt Selema (center) with her sisters Aunt Dolores (left) and my mom Toni (right) knew the way to a man's heart was through his stomach.
This time of year, one's thoughts turn to romance --- and chocolate. They go together so well.

Aunt Selema thought so the year she developed a crush on the paper boy. Since we all know the way to a growing boy's heart is through his bottomless pit of a stomach, she declared her tender feelings with a pan of homemade fudge.

Trouble was she was a tomboy, more accustomed to shooting marbles and beating up bullies than girly stuff like Valentines and candy-making.

But she had it bad. And bad is exactly how that fudge turned out. I heard you could have broken a tooth on it.

Nonetheless, the object of her affection, a nice local boy whose mama obviously raised him right, called on her personally to thank her for the "chocolate suckers" -- adding that just one piece lasted him his entire paper route and he figured that she had made enough to last him the rest of the month.

Perhaps he was being gallant. Then again maybe he was just scared of her. Most boys on the Point were.

Her fudge, as it turned out, lasted longer than her crush did. But then Paper Boy couldn't possibly have been better looking than Uncle Russ, the man she eventually married. Her female friends and relatives swooned as they begged her to hurry up and kick the bucket so they could fight over him.

By this time, Selema had become an accomplished maker of fudge and all other manner of sweets, so she wasn't too worried about the competition.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure she could have taken them all down in a fight.

Old Fashioned Fudge

2 cups sugar

2/3 cups milk

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Stir together first five ingredients in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil over medium high heat and cook until a candy thermometer registers 240 degrees (soft ball stage). Remove from heat, add butter and let it melt without stirring. Cool for 10-15 minutes. Pan should be cool to touch. Stir in vanilla.

Beat mixture at medium-low sped with an electric mixer 2-3 minutes or until the mixture isn't as glossy. Immediately pour fudge onto a buttered 11 x 7 inch platter. Cool 15 minutes. Cut into 1-inch pieces.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

When the Saints Come Marching In

Photo: Daddy before the Saints. If he were here today, he'd be driving that beauty down to Miami.
When the Saints come marching into the Super Bowl tomorrow, it's fair to say that more than a few of their most ardent fans will be, if not exactly saints themselves, at least sitting way, WAY up in the nosebleed section if you get my drift.

I'm sure my father will be in that number. Daddy was a football fanatic. He loved -- and identified with - the underdog. He could not have chosen a more perfect team to champion than the Saints. They did not have a winning season in his lifetime. Yet he just loved them.

When we lived briefly in New Orleans, he went to all their home games in Tulane Stadium and invited the folks from Biloxi to go with him. He bought my sister and I Saints sweatshirts (the ones where the players had chins like Dudley Do-Right) and a Saints bobble-head figurine for the dash of the Impala. He sang "When the Saints Come Marching In" ad nauseum.

By the way, did you know that the franchise got its name because it was established on Nov. 1 -- All Saints' Day? I didn't.

My father spent his last day on earth, a Sunday, watching football. At least he was spared the Monday night debacle that was the Saints-Giants game. The Giants smashed them 28-14 in New York. The Saints finished the season 2-12 despite having just moved into the brand-new Superdome. The bag-head era had arrived. I'm sure Daddy was glad not to see that although, loyal fan that he was, he probably would have eschewed the bag.

No matter how badly they sucked, Daddy always knew his Saints would make it to the Super Bowl one day. And now here they are.

Besides the Saints, Daddy also loved food (well, he was in the restaurant business). He never sat down to watch a Saints game on TV without a smorgasbord in front of him.

He was an inventive snacker. No chips and take-out pizza for him. He made wonderful sandwiches whipped up from whatever was on hand. My favorite were his cream cheese and black olive spread sandwiches. The spread is also good stuffed into celery stalks.


Whipped cream cheese, softened

1/4-1/2 cup black olives, chopped (you can also do this with green olives or a mixture of black and green)

2 T minced onion

salt and pepper to taste

dash, Worcestershire sauce

NOTE: You can also add chopped pecans to this for crunch.
Mix ingredients into softened cream cheese. Spread on bread or crackers. If desired, add sliced tomato.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Factory

As much as I have always loved Point Cadet, the place had a definite, ahem, "aroma" to it, especially during oyster season. My daddy always said a blind man could find his way to Point Cadet as long as he could smell. My uncle, a shrimper, said it smelled like money to him.

And for most of the families on the Point back in the day, that's exactly what it was. Almost everyone's livelihood was somehow tied to the seafood industry, whether they worked on the boats or in the factories.

There was a factory right across the street from my grandparents' house on East Howard Avenue. I remember the ever-present mountains of white oyster shells outside with sea gulls dive-bombing for the meaty remnants. My cousin David climbed one of those oyster piles barefoot one time and had to get 10 stitches in his foot. But then David was always going to the emergency room. He was all boy.

My nona had an even more intimate relationship with the Point's seafood packing plants. Like most Point girls who grew up in the first decades of the 20th century, my nona dropped out of "sister" school after 5th grade so she could go earn money for her family by working in "the factory."

There's a picture I love of Nona and her best friend, Miss Katie, taken when they were about 16. They had saved up their money from the factory, bought themselves some pretty dresses, took the trolley downtown and had a professional studio portrait made of themselves standing side by side in their store bought finery.

For them, this was the equivalent of a senior prom. A rare opportunity to be frivolous, look pretty and have fun before they became weighed down by the responsibilities of marriage, children and trying to make ends meet.

About 10 years ago, my Leadership Gulf Coast Class toured one of the seafood factories on Back Bay. The smell brought back memories. As my class mates and I watched the factory workers, mostly Vietnamese immigrants by then, working swiftly and diligently at the long tables, we murmured among ourselves about how hard these people had to work for the money. And it hit me: This is what my nona had to do most of her life.

I thought about that teenage girl in the sepia photo with her big dark eyes and shy wistful half-smile -- so proud of her lace mitts, rabbit stole and nosegay at her waist because she had bought it all herself. How many hours did she have to stand at the tables with an aching back and sore fingertips just to create that one perfect memory of her teenage years?

And that is something that I will never know because I've never had to work that hard.

And I feel humbled.
1 lb. fresh crab meat, picked over for cartilage
2 8 oz. packages cream cheese
1/2 stick butter or margarine
4-5 scallions, chopped fine
1/2 T lemon juice
garlic salt to taste
pepper to taste
a dash of Worcestershire sauce.
Saute chopped onion in butter. Lower heat. Blend in cream cheese and other ingredients. Mix until well-blended.
Note: You can add 1-2 T sherry or milk if you like to thin the sauce to a dipping consistency. Serve on toasted baguette slices or with crackers.