Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Traditions on the Point

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

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

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

And then there was the singing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Weather

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

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

The wetness drips from the eaves like melting icicles.

It clings to driveways, sidewalks, patios.

It brings clogged sinuses and hacking coughs.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Remembering Uncle Raymond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Washington Interlude

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

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

Enter Plan B.

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

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

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

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

They were glad to be home.

Floating Island

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Pecan Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microwave Pralines

1 lb light brown sugar

2 T light corn syrup

1 cup whipping cream

2 T pure vanilla extra

2 T butter

2 cups whole pecans, toasted

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

Monday, October 10, 2011

My French Connection

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

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

But I do have a French connection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I was in awe.

* I found this on the blog

** For more Juraj Plancic paintings, visit

Monday, July 4, 2011

I Scream, You Scream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can't beat it.

Perfect Peach Ice Cream

3 cups of fresh peaches, peeled and sliced *

4 T fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 -1/2 t pure vanilla extract

1 -1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 - 1/2 cups whole milk

2 -1/2 cups heavy cream

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

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

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

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

* This recipe is also good made with fresh strawberries.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Toni the Tiger

My mom, Toni, and I on the day it all began.

I lost my mom nearly eight years ago -- if it is possible to "lose" someone I think about every day, whose mannerisms and expressions I often glimpse in the mirror and whose words and voice, right down to that faint Point Cadet accent, tumble out of my mouth with amazing regularity.

My mother grew up in the middle of large boisterous family in a small, boisterous working class neighborhood in the middle of the Great Depression. Is it any wonder she turned out to be one tough cookie as they used to say?

She was witty, sassy and fierce. Her imagination was vivid and fertile; she spun the most wonderful stories and adventures for my sister and me out of thin air. She could have been a Hollywood screenwriter.

She loved to cook, and could work miracles in a matter of minutes with even the most spartan ingredients. She could have been an Iron Chef contestant.

She had an unerring eye for color, accessories and silhouettes. She could have been a fashion designer.

She had only to lay her hands on a fretful baby to turn it into a cooing angel. She could have run a nursery school (and she did keep children in her home for many years).

She approached life with that clear-eyed, hard-nosed, unyielding Point Cadet pragmatism that could be a little daunting if you weren't from there. She knew when you were trying to pull something over on her -- and she let you know about it with a look out of the corner of her eye that spoke volumes. She could have been a school principal or an admiral in the Navy.

She instinctively knew what to do when bones broke, noggins knocked and stomachs soured. She could have been a doctor.

She kept a cool level head during emergencies. When barely out of her teens, she single-handedly interrupted and foiled a robbery in progress after hours at the Keesler Air Force Base exchange. She could have been a police officer.

She could have been any number of things. But what she chose to be was a mother. A nurturing mother who turned feverish, sniffley nights into opportunities for midnight picnics.

And a fiercely protective mother who went by the name Toni the Tiger. One night she startled a Peeping Tom hanging around outside our bedroom windows. My sister and I stood watching open-mouthed in shock, horror and admiration as she darted out of the house into the night, barefoot and bare-handed, bellowing "I've got you now, you son of a bitch," in a hoarse unrecognizable voice.

What exactly she had him with was not then, and is not now, apparent. But there was no doubt in her mind, nor his, that she did indeed have him, and if she got her bare hands on him, the consequences would be dire.

Because you just didn't mess with Toni the Tiger.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Going "Eastering"

I must preface this post by noting that I am -- and always have been -- a girly girl. The kind who had a pink frilly canopy bed, every Barbie ever made by Mattel, a pet toy poodle AND a Persian cat.

I also loved getting dressed up -- even when it wasn't necessary.

Easter was a thrilling event -- for the goodies the Easter Bunny left in my basket and because I got to go shopping for a "dressy" dress.

Easter 1964 found my family living in Edgewater Park, the subdivision adjacent to the enclosed shopping mall that had opened just the year before -- Edgewater Plaza Shopping City.

It was like living next door to heaven. There was so much to do and see there. That year we found two prospective Easter dresses for me: a pale pink chemise with a delicate, scalloped collar and embroidered pink rosebuds on the placket from Goudchaux and a puffed sleeve whisper of a dress in pale, pale yellow voile with a sash at Gayfers'. After much agonizing, we went with the pink.

But I couldn't get the yellow dress out of my head. Two days before Easter, my daddy came home with Gayfer's signature shopping bag. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper was the yellow dress.

Mama scolded him. I was already spoiled, and I had no where to wear both dresses. Obviously, we couldn't save one as I was sure to be up a size by the next Easter. She urged him to return it.

Nothing doing. I already had worked out the perfect solution: I would wear the pink dress to church and to Nona and Grandpa's house for Easter dinner, and he yellow dress for "going Eastering."

Noting my parents' perplexed expressions, I patiently explained that Eastering was the springtime equivalent of trick or treating (a gig I had just discovered the autumn before). Instead of wearing costumes and carrying plastic jack o'lanterns door to door, children dressed up in their Sunday best and carried their Easter baskets around the neighborhood collecting chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, robins eggs and marshmallow peeps.

Believe it or not, they indulged me (probably because in a few short months I would no longer be an only child). My mother gave the relatives and few neighbors a "heads up" phone call and I, wearing my yellow dress, went Eastering.

I got a pretty good haul, but I never went Eastering again. Surprisingly, my idea did not sweep the Nation. I can't imagine why. I still maintain that it's a darned good idea.

I get one every 20 years or so.

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 15, 2011

What He Knew About the Restaurant Business and Its Secrets

One of the most treasured items on my bookshelf is a 40-year-old brown leather tome with faded gilt lettering. The cover is scratched, the binding warped, the pages water-stained. Most of my books that went through Katrina had to be discarded and replaced. This one, however, is irreplaceable.

The title: What I Know About the Restaurant Business and Its Secrets. The author: my dad, Jerry Willis.

The pages are completely blank.

A colleague gave him the book as a birthday present. My father, the eternal joker, adored it. He placed it at eye level on the shelf behind his desk at the restaurant so that any visitor, whether the mother of a bride discussing reception catering options or a distributer on a sales call, had to look right at it.

The scenario always played out the same way: Eyes idly skimmed the titles on the shelf, performed a quick double take, then hungrily zeroed in on the bait. Daddy would make some excuse to leave the room, then after a suitable, yet briefer than expected pause, returned and caught ‘em red-handed. It always got a laugh.

It is, perhaps, appropriate that the pages are blank. Fact is, Daddy did know quite a bit about the restaurant/hotel business – and more than a few secrets which he discreetly kept mum. Movie stars hooked up at raucous on-location parties. Prominent businessmen and politicians entertained voluptuous clients and constituents in hotel suites.

A now-well-known female country music star threw a hissy fit when asked to vacate the ballroom she had appropriated for a practice session. Daddy gently, but firmly stood his ground. He needed to set up for a wedding reception, and no diva, however talented, was going to ruin a bride’s big day.

Not all celebrities behaved badly. He had nothing but praise and respect for evangelist Rev. Billy Graham -- who he said was warm, sincere and truly charismatic.

American film icon John Wayne also proved to be a great guy when he and Daddy shared an early morning coffee or two during filming of The Undefeated in Baton Rouge. Mr. Wayne, who then had young children himself, admired the school photos my proud papa showed off and provided not one, but two, autographs.

Years later, “the book” still reels in the unsuspecting. My father, who would have turned 90 this week, would be delighted.

Happy Birthday, Daddy! Hope you’re still having fun. And if you and “The Duke” ever meet up for coffee again, tell him I’ve gotten over his misspelling my name with a “K.” Story of my life.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mermaids, Tigers and Elephants -- Oh My

Each of my parents was blessed with a well-developed sense of whimsy which could turn even the most mundane event into an adventure.

When nightfall found us stranded on a dark country road with only a full moon to light our way (as happened often given my father's love of shortcuts and aversion to asking for directions and filling up the gas tank), we weren't lost but looking for "Spookyville" the mythical village that was home to witches, ghosts and goblins after Halloween (my all-time favorite holiday).

Fireflies in our garden were fairy lights. The eggs we dyed at Easter were laid in our baskets by "The Good Hen." Power plant structures were castles under construction for princesses like me. To this day, I can't view one without envisioning how it would look with turrets and a moat.

Occasionally the attempt at fantasy backfired as it did the day my mother coaxed me to try homemade candied apples for the first time. First tactical error: She called them "Snow White's Apples," and to illustrate, she took a bite, then dramatically fell to the ground in a swoon. I ran, shrieking and screaming, to the neighbor's house with my mother, dusting herself off, in hot pursuit. It took a while for her to calm me down and to convince the neighbor that she really hadn't fainted and hit her head. We both learned important lessons that day: She that there is such a thing as too much whimsy, me that candied apples, no matter what you call them, are damn good eats.

On another memorable occasion, a family excursion to Ship Island, my mother entertained my young cousins and me during the long boat ride over with stories of the magic we would find on the island's shores. Her story started out with mermaids cavorting in turquoise waves and, no doubt inspired by her captive, wide-eyed and, it must be said, gullible, audience, Ship Island soon morphed Dr. Doolittle's Island, a tropical paradise inhabited by monkeys, tigers, elephants and rhinos. We could not wait to get there.

If you have ever been to Ship Island, you know what a whopper she told. Our disappointment was bitter and absolute. Over the years, we have returned many times and learned to appreciate our barrier islands for the many charms they possess.

However, now we know that mermaids, tigers and elephants are not among them.

"Snow White's Apples"

10 medium apples

3 cups sugar

2/3 cup water

1 t lemon juice

1/4 t cream of tartar

15 whole cloves

2-3 drops of red liquid food coloring

Wash and dry apples, remove stems. Insert a wooden skewer into the stem end of each apple. Set aside. Combine sugar and remaining 5 ingredients in a heavy saucepan, stir well. Cook over low heat, stirring gently, until sugar dissolves. Cover and cook over medium heat 2-3minutes to wash down sugar crystals from the sides of the pan. Uncover and cook over medium heat, without stirring, to hard crack stage or until candy thermometer registers 300 degrees. Discard the cloves.

Quickly dip apples into syrup. Allow excess to drip off. Place on lightly buttered baking sheets to cool. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Store in a cool place.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Easter Trees

My sister Kim at Easter circa 1967. Unfortunately, you can't see the Easter tree in this photo. I know we used to have one somewhere, but I think the hurricane got it.

When I think back on it, my mom was really was out there ahead of Martha Stewart. Long before it became commonplace to decorate for EVERY SINGLE HOLIDAY, Mama came up with creative ways to make every day magical for my sister and me.

Back in the mid-1960s, for Easter most people just dyed eggs and put them in a basket with the fake straw and marshmallow peeps and called it a day. Not at our house.

We had an Easter tree that was more elaborate than many Christmas trees. Now I admit I have seen one or two of these in recent years, but prior to 1965, no one I knew had ever laid eyes on such except the one that graced the top of our Zenith television set. We should have charged admission.

The "tree" was actually a bare branch, whitewashed with shoe polish and hung with tufts of pale green net "leaves" and lots of delicate hand-blown dyed eggs festooned with ribbons, sequins and lace. It was a beautiful thing.

Dying and decorating the eggs took all day. First, Mama stuck pin holes into each end of the eggs, and my sister and I would gently blow the contents into a bowl. Then Mama carefully dipped the delicate shells into vats of custom made dye with original Mama names like "Easter Hibiscus" and "Luscious Lilac" (these actually do sound like Martha Stewart paint chips, don't they) and let them dry before gluing on the gee-gaws.

Our favorite eggs were those she decorated to resemble storybook characters like the Ugly Duckling. When she really wanted to pull out the stops, she cut a hole into the side of the egg and created a miniature diorama inside.

Our Easter baskets were also works of art with carefully arranged Elmer's Gold Brick Eggs, Heavenly Hash and Pecan eggs, guarded by a platoon of foil-wrapped chocolate marshmallow bunnies lined up like soldiers around the perimeter of each basket.

I was well into my 30's before I realized that Elmer's confections were regional treats, made in Ponchatoula, La. Maybe you can find them everywhere now, but you couldn't in Boston in 1998. I know. I tried.

I felt so sorry for those Bostonians -- growing up not knowing the pleasures of an Easter Basket by Elmer. I'll bet they didn't have Easter trees either.

Easter Egg and Potato Skillet

The day we put up the Easter Tree, we always knew what we were having for dinner: Easter Egg and Potato Skillet. I guess today people would call this a frittata. My nona used to make these a lot, too, although as far as I know she never put up an Easter tree.

6 eggs

1 cup chopped onion

2 large potatoes, peeled and diced

3 Tbsp. vegetable or corn oil

1/4 cup milk

salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet saute onion and diced potatoes and fry. Beat eggs well; add milk. Pour into the skillet, tilting to cover the bottom of the pan. When cooked on one side, flip the frittata onto a plate and slide back into the skillet to cook the other side. Cut into wedges and serve.

Note: If you want a heartier, dish you can add cooked crumbled bacon to this recipe or dice up smoked sausage and fry with the potatoes and onion.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Little House at 1804 East Howard Avenue

Photo: The family gathered outside 1804 East Howard Avenue, 1963. Front row from left: Uncle Michael Soljan, Nona (Mary Rosetti Soljan), Grandpa (Mato "Mike" Soljan), Aunt Marie (Soljan Sullivan). Back row from left: Mama (Antonia "Toni" Soljan Willis), Daddy (Jerry Willis), Uncle Steve (West), Aunt Dolores (Soljan West), Uncle Raymond (Soljan), Aunt Peggy (Gore Soljan), Aunt Selema (Soljan Castle), Uncle Russ (Castle).

Nona and Grandpa's house on East Howard was a simple 1940s wood frame and brick bungalow, fairly typical for the neighborhood, but it was the most wonderful place in the world to me.

When we camped out in the darkened living room to watch TV, the lamp, shaped like a covered wagon with a team of horses galloping across the the top of the TV set, cast a reassuring ruddy glow.

From opposite corners of the room, studio portraits of my Aunt Marie and Uncle Michael -- she in a teased bouffant with spit curls and a black velvet shoulder drape, he in studious horn rims and graduation cap and gown -- smiled down like beatific angels. The living room furniture was always draped with crocheted afghans, sheets and other fabric to protect it from daily use, except on holidays and other "good" occasions when company was expected.

The dining room was full even when empty of food. The sideboard was taken up by exotic Oriental figure vases and decanters brimming with green colored water -- a decorating fad that no one seemed to realize had become passe. The wall next to the kitchen door was dominated by grandchildren's photos arranged like a family tree. I think the grandparents needed it to keep track of which kid belonged to whom. The corner built-ins burst with cut glass, candy dishes figurines and souvenirs from Alaska, Germany and Bellingham Washington.

The siblings gather in the dining room. This photo was taken sometime after Camille, probably in the mid 1970s. Seated: Uncle Raymond and Aunt Dolores. Standing from left: Uncle Michael, Aunt Selema, Aunt Marie and Mama.

On frosty winter nights, nothing felt better than coming in out of wind and standing on the floor furnace grate until our stockinged soles couldn't take it anymore.

A popular kid hang-out was the front guest room with its "good" lavender flowered bed spread that we grandchildren sat on at the risk of getting our guzicas (pronounced guh zitz ahs) beaten. I swear Nona could hear a squeaky bed spring from around the block.

One couldn't help but feel safe from every possible bogeyman when sleeping in that house. Crucifixes hung in every bedroom; dried palm fronds and prayer cards were tucked into the edges of bureau mirrors (the tops were always dressed with frilly hand-made doilies); jars of holy water rested on every bedside table.

For extra insurance, a framed dime store print of the Guardian Angel oversaw our slumbers, just as did in every bedroom on the Point.

The guest bedroom had a cedar chest filled with sheets, embroidered pillow cases and, lacy frilled doilies -- all starched, ironed and neatly folded for the next use.

The well-worn, soft, pilled flannel shirts in Grandpa's closet were redolent of tobacco and Old Spice cologne. At least he wore the dime store cologne we dutifully delivered as dual Christmas/birthday presents each December. On Nona's bureau, a collection of barely used Avon bottles jockied for space with the cheap plastic religious figurines that we sold for parochial school fundraisers.

As in any Point home, the kitchen was the heart of Mike and Mary's with its Barq's bottle opener mounted to the wall, the lingering smells of drip coffee and grilled "boat bread" from breakfast and always a pot of soup, beans, daube or pasta i fazol on the stove, the multi-colored aluminum pitcher and tumbler set (although I confess I did not love the iced tea Nona served in it), and the slightly dented aluminum cake stand cover that usually contained a pound cake.

The screened porch was a great place to visit or people watch when we weren't walking on the old fishing bridge (but only as far as our mamas could see us from the house). We all fought over the gliders. The yard though small provided wonderful spots to play hide and seek. My cousin Joey could camouflage a team of five kids in that tiny yard so well that even their mamas would have a hard time finding them. Nona loved flowers and always kept her plant beds in beautiful condition.

Hurricane Camille took out much of what I loved in the original house -- which itself was a replacement for the house lost there in the Hurricane of 1947 -- but the somehow the portraits of Aunt Marie and Uncle Michael were still hanging in their corners; waves had crashed through the house, ruining everything else.

After my grandparents passed, Aunt Marie lived in the house for a while, then sold the property to a retired Catholic priest who bought it for himself, his mother and sister recently come from Vietnam to live in. Occasionally, my mother and aunts would stop by the old place to say hello.

Every morning when Father said Mass, he included blessings for all of us -- the many generations of Soljans sheltered and nourished for so many years in that kitchen in the little house at 1804 East Howard Avenue.

Beef and Baby Pasta Soup

I can't think of my grandparents' kitchen without thinking of soup, juha in Croatian. Beef soup with baby pastina was a favorite, especially when served with a heaping side plate of sauerkraut, boiled potatoes and mustard, pickled onions and sweet gherkins. Nona always made this with large piece of bone-in chuck. I find that beef today just doesn't taste as "beefy" as it used to and doesn't make a good beefy broth. If you find your cheaper cut of meat just ain't making the broth, substitute canned beef broth for some or all of the water in the recipe. When I made this after Christmas with the remnants of a standing holiday rib roast (with the bones still in), the soup tasted similar to what I remember. But I don't recommend buying a rib roast just to make the soup (unless your name is Rockefeller).

2-3 stalks of celery, diced

1 large onion, peeled and diced

3-4 potatoes, cut in large-ish chunks (you may one to dice one, but you want the chunks to dip into the mustard later)

3 -4 carrots, peeled and diced

1 large can whole tomatoes

2 1/2 quarts of cold water or canned beef broth.

Approx. 8-oz package of small pasta (I like the baby pastina beads, but use whatever type of pasta you like).

Place meat and water and broth in a large soup pot. Add salt to taste (about 1 tablespoon). let come to a boil. Skim off foam and boil until the meat stops foaming. Add celery, onions, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes. Boil until meat is tender. Remove meat. Add pasta. Cook until pasta is tender.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Kitchen At the Old Slavonian Lodge, 1956

Now here's a blast from the past. Who knows what they were making? My guess is pusharates. Yes, that's my nona, Mary Rosetti Soljan, holding out the plate in the front row. Does anyone know who the four "unknowns" are in the photo? Charles Sullivan, archivist for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, who kindly let me repost the photo here, wants to know. This is to be one of the photos in an upcoming book that will be published by the college.

Photo from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, C.C. "Tex" Hamill Down South Magazine Collection

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It Ain't Fancy But It Sure Is Good

Some of my favorite dishes fall into what is now popularly known as "rustic" (ie: peasant) cuisine: Loaves-and -fishes-feeds-as-many-people-as-it-needs-to recipes that can be made cheaply ( or could back in the day ) using fresh ingredients from the garden, the sea, the market place.

While rustic food has gone upscale these days, you can still find it in its simplest (and I think best) form in hole-in-the wall osteria and trattorias in Venice's back alleys or just about anywhere in the Dalmatian region of Croatia. Often it's a big plate of spicy shrimp spaghetti with crusty bread on the side, a carafe of no-name house wine, with a simple custard dressed in honey for dessert. This type of food was often seen on the tables (and out on the boats) of Point Cadet.

What makes Venice's (and Dalmatia's) rustic food different are the exotic spices they use in their tomato gravy. Yes, oregano and basil grow in profusion in kitchen gardens and window boxes here as they do all over Italy, but that je ne sais quois piquancy in their shrimp spaghetti may well come from shreds of lemon peel, hot peppers, strands of saffron, freshly ground nutmeg or even a pinch or two of cinnamon.

After all that spice you want something cool for dessert to cleanse the palate and temper the heat. Gelato is my dessert of choice, followed closely by panna cotta, a simple custard often dressed simply with berries in season or, as in this case, a drizzle of honey. If you want to make it extra-special, toast a few hazelnuts, chop them and sprinkle on top.

Spaghetti With Shrimp and Tomato Sauce*

1 lb of diced bacon or pancetta

3-4 large onions chopped

1/2 head of garlic chopped

1 cup minced flat-leaf parsley

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped green onions

2 cans tomato paste

1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes

2 strips of lemon peel, chopped fine

3-4 lbs of shrimp, peeled

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 T sugar

salt and pepper to taste.

1. Fry the bacon or pancetta in a skillet until crisp. Drain on paper towels.

2. Saute onions in the bacon drippings over medium heat until golden.

3. Add in tomato paste and stir until mixture is brown, but not burnt.

4. Add tomatoes, cinnamon and salt. Stir well, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 45 minutes.

5. Add parsley, celery, green onions and lemon rind. stir well.

6. Add the bacon and garlic. Stir and simmer for 30 more minutes.

7. Add 1 cup of water, stirring constantly.

8. Cook shrimp separately in boiling water just until pink (about 3 minutes). Drain shrimp and add to the tomato mixture and continue simmering for another hour. Stir occasionally to keep the mixture from sticking.

9. Remove from heat and let cool and refrigerate. After grease has congealed, spoon off. Reheat before serving over cooked drained pasta of your choice. This may also be served over rice.

* There are several variations on this dish:

1.) Add sliced smoked sausage and/or diced ham to the recipe at Step 2. Saute in the bacon drippings and remove before adding the onions, then add back to the pot with the bacon and garlic in Step 6.

2.) Substitute 3 pints of shucked oysters for the shrimp. Parboil the oysters separately until the edges curl and drain before adding to the gravy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sniffles for the New Year

Happy New Year! I hope everyone's holidays were pleasant. I truly enjoyed mine, but, as usual, I was ready for them to be over when they ended.

I started 2011 off with a horrendous head cold which has now worked its way into my chest

My mama used to say, "Be careful of what you get into on New Year's Day because that's how you'll spend every day for the rest of the year."

I think she was right (and she just loved being right). This crud gives every indication of keeping me phlegm-ridden at least until spring. Lovely.

Fortunately, when my mother handed down aphorisms, she also handed down some recipes and remedies, at least one of which is helping with my current situation.

There weren't too many illnesses that Mama felt couldn't be helped (or warded off altogether) with a hot milk toddy -- a mixture of egg yolk, sugar, hot milk and a little vanilla (or whiskey for adults). It's like hot egg nog.

Even if you're not sick, it's a great way to cope with the chill of freezing January night like tonight.

And if I'm destined to drink one of these every night of 2011, well, I'm sure there are worse ways to while away an entire year!

Hot Milk Toddy

1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon sugar
Hot milk
1 tsp of whiskey or vanilla

In a coffee cup or mug, stir and egg yolk and sugar together until thick and lemon-colored. Slowly add the hot (but not scalding) milk whisking with the egg to prevent it from cooking on the spot. Add whiskey or vanilla. Add a sprinkling of nutmeg if desired (my touch).