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.