Cast0iron skillet cornbread. Photo: Bob Luhmann

A Yankee in Letitia’s court

Beyond learning to avoid moonshine and duck ponds in Tallahassee, I did learn the joys of oysters from Apalachicola and fresh Gulf shrimp.

My ex-wife was raised in Tallahassee, Florida. I was raised in northern New Jersey. We met in Provincetown on Cape Cod where we worked together at a restaurant. We had left our colleges early during those turbulent times of the early 1970s and both ended up in Provincetown in 1973, where so many of our fellow misfits landed in those days and earlier. We married less than six months after we met, but it was 1979 before I visited Tallahassee for the first time with my ex-wife and our 3-year-old daughter. The farthest south I had been prior to my first visit to Tallahassee was the Jersey shore, so I couldn’t have been prepared for the culture shock. I would come to learn that Southern culture was as alien as any foreign country’s culture for a Yankee like me.

My ex-wife was something like fifth-generation Tallahasseean, if there is such a word. Her family had deep roots in that area, which was Deep South in culture. I had spent time with my in-laws previously and had done reasonably well for a Yankee. As a means of survival, I quickly learned to avoid any discussion of politics, social issues, the Vietnam War or the Civil War. The last topic I came to learn was not referred to as the Civil War, nor was it the War Between the States, it was unequivocally the War of Northern Aggression. From all indications, it was still being fought.

I believe the major reason I was accepted to the degree that I was had to do with my profession as a chef, which made me something of an interesting curiosity in those days prior to the multitude of cooking shows available now. Because rebels like rebels, Southerners tend to find nonconformists, even Yankees such as myself, worthy of consideration without being summarily dismissed, but with conditions. Possessing good manners was an essential condition. Having learned good manners at an early age, I could pass that test. Southerners generally tend to view Yankees as an invading barbarian horde and in many cases, there’s truth in their view. I learned to play on my good manners, nonconformity and keeping my mouth shut (mostly) on social issues to get by.

Through longevity in the area and a couple of doctors as ancestors, including my ex-wife’s celebrated grandfather, her family had stature in Tallahassee, which had grown from a large town to a substantial capital city during my ex-wife’s “raisin’ up” years. Stature in the Deep South had much more to do with family history than with financial worth. A family flaunting nouveau-riche status in the Deep South was often shunned, whereas a family rich in history and of no more than modest means, preferably with a sprinkling of reprobates and scoundrels for interest, would be much more likely to be considered a family of stature.

The code of conduct in those days in the Deep South was pretty rigid. A man from a family of stature could flaunt the code if it was done with a certain style, in which case he, if he was white, achieved the status of good ol’ boy. White women could work somewhat outside the code by being “sassy” or they could be strong Daughters of the South, but as far as I could tell, there was no real female equivalent of good ol’ boy in those days. I had virtually no contact with the African American community in my visits, but a bit more on that later.

Let me take a moment to give you a brief relevant summary of my ex-wife’s ancestry. Her mother — Letitia, or Tish for short — was most definitely a strong Daughter of the South. She was smart, educated and if she had an issue, she had no qualms describing what that issue was in no uncertain terms. As an example, there were men, such as a recent United States president from Arkansas, whom she characterized as “pantywaist,” an archaic word originally defined as a boy’s garment used with short pants but which had come to be synonymous with “sissy.” For a Southern family with a deep military background such as Tish’s, a man could hardly sink much lower.

I remember her coming back from a heated encounter with a customer service representative at an airport counter whom she considered officious bristling: “She’s so filled with self-importance, there’s no room left for brains.” I always loved that description.

I didn’t always agree with Tish and she could be prickly as a porcupine, but I grew to love and respect that strong-willed woman with a soft heart who brought up four children while working full-time as a nurse in a TB clinic and pursuing her master’s degree in social work after being widowed at age 36.

I can still hear her begin describing the actions of a woman she considered ignorant of the genteel mores of the South with “Bless her heart.” I came to understand, that phrase was the beginning of a Southern insult, such as, “Bless her heart, she just doesn’t know any better.” This phrase was Southern code to convey the opinion that the woman in question was truly dumber than a rock. She might even make her chicken salad with (gasp!) dark meat. Over the years, I learned it was a Southern artform to cloak insults in a certain genteel plausible deniability.

What I just described is obviously a gross simplification of Southern culture but is worth noting for context. Coming from generations of stature and having a doctor as a father, Tish came from a long line of non-cooks. In previous generations most cooking was mostly done by someone else, almost always someone with darker skin. Those days had passed, but with virtually no family traditions of cooking combined with very little interest in food other than as sustenance, preparing meals was a chore considered comparable to emptying the cat’s litter box.

The first and last dinner I ever had prepared by Tish was served at a table that was set with what had to have been four complete sets of silverware. I had never seen so many silver utensils except in museums. It looked like a table set for French aristocracy. She was going all out as it was the first time in years that all four of her children were with her at once.

The meal itself was another matter. The meal was served absolutely stone-cold, as trying to gather a family of fiercely independent Southerners who resist being told what to do just on principle was not unlike herding cats. The meal was highlighted by a stewed pork shoulder and canned Le Sueur peas, all with absolutely no seasoning whatsoever. Tish had no idea nor interest in how to use herbs and spices and considered salt as poisonous as arsenic. I looked around the table, but no one seemed as alarmed by the cold, tasteless food as I was. Out of self-defense I took over food preparation when we were together from then on, which she gratefully accepted, even as I gradually introduced increasing amounts of salt.

When we got to Tallahassee, I had learned having all Tish’s children together meant it was time for an open-house celebration. Being a Yankee barbarian, my understanding of an open house meant a casual affair with guests coming and going as was convenient. They were usually messy, somewhat raucous affairs with a minimum of structure. I was about to learn what an open house meant in the Deep South in 1979 for a family with deep roots in the community.

Having as much history as her family had in the immediate environs meant anyone with any ties through the complex Southern social structure must be invited. Over 100 accepted the invitation, many more than could fit in Tish’s well-kept but modest home at once. The solution to this problem was both brilliant and absolutely perplexing to a Yankee like me. The guest list was divided into thirds with neighbors and old friends of the family invited from 5 to 6 p.m., distant relatives and those in the community with similar stature were invited from 6 to 7 p.m., followed by close friends and close relatives from 7 p.m. on. I had never heard of anything like it, but unlike getting Tish’s family to sit down to eat, everyone seemed to willingly comply with what was an apparently accepted Southern tradition.

My sister-in-law’s husband, Matt, and I were the only ones who didn’t know a soul on the guest list. We may as well have been cardboard cutouts, as we were merely props in the celebration. It was not unlike being a member of a wedding party not knowing any of the guests. Given the circumstance, Matt and I decided it would be helpful if we invited our mutual good friend Jack Daniels to join us. We instantly bonded and became great friends over the years. Sadly, he passed away much too early and I miss him. He was the sort of friend whom I would not see for a year or two but was able to pick up our conversation where we left off.

As the party was approaching, I was told that the family’s former African American maid, Rosie, would be attending. Since I’d been told numerous times Rosie was “just like family,” I assumed, in my Yankee naivete (bless my heart), she was an invited guest. Rosie came in, exchanged pleasantries with “her family” and headed straight to the kitchen where she stayed, making coffee and refilling platters.

Prior to the party, Matt and I were taken on a sightseeing trip to a beach near Apalachicola on the Florida panhandle. On the way back, we saw a sign for half bushels of oysters (between 60 and 75 oysters) for some absurdly low price I can’t recall. Matt and I decided it was too good a deal to pass up and stopped the car. Over the years, we came to learn we both possessed more exuberance than brains, so it wasn’t surprising we weren’t sure when we were going to eat them or how we were going to store them. We just knew it was an incredible deal and we both loved oysters. So, we brought them back to Tish’s house in their burlap bag, and we snuck them into the laundry room off the kitchen.

As the party progressed and our duties as props were gradually discharged, Matt and I took refuge in the kitchen with Rosie, where the three of us finished what remained of the bottle of Jack Daniels. We were having a great time in the kitchen, when Cu’in Billy appeared. “Cu’in” is the best I can do for writing a Southern pronunciation of cousin. Billy was from a branch of the family tree that kept things interesting — very interesting. Remembering this all took place 45-plus years ago, Tish had laughingly told me of a story of Billy’s dad chasing a daughter-in-law around the dining room table as she continued to rebuff his carnal advances. I was told none of his sons would leave their wives alone with him from then on. I enjoy good humor, but even then, the story made me more than a little uneasy.

Homemade vodka. Photo courtesy Mother Earth News

At any rate, when Cu’in Billy appeared and took stock of the situation, he smiled broadly and said, “You boys evah had shiiiiiine?!”

Neither of us had ever had authentic Southern moonshine, but it seemed like something that should be checked off the bucket list. Having had a considerable amount of whiskey already — and, as I already indicated, possessing more exuberance than brains — we decided it was exactly the right thing to do. We told Billy we hadn’t, but we’d love some if he had it.

Billy said, “Ya’ll come along with me then.”

As we walked through Tish’s living room, no one took much notice of us, as everyone was deep in conversation. We got in Billy’s pickup and headed over to his apartment for our maiden encounter with authentic Southern moonshine. The first thing we noticed as we entered Billy’s apartment was a barber’s chair in the middle of the living room. Finding it strange that someone would have a barber’s chair in the middle of their living room, Matt asked Billy about the chair and its placement in the middle of his living room.

Billy replied with a big grin, “It can get mighty interestin’ in a barber’s chair!” Matt and I laughed nervously and a little too loudly as the definition of “it” was pretty clear given the large dose of hormones Billy had undoubtedly inherited from his daughter-in-law-chasing father. Neither of us pursued the subject any further.

We each took a large swig of the moonshine out of the bottle, as we were instructed it was the only acceptable way to drink it straight. The extreme alcohol content immediately caused an out-of-body experience, scorched my mouth and throat and tasted worse than siphoning gasoline. After we caught our breath and stopped hiccupping, Matt and I agreed one swig was probably enough of a bucket-list experience for us. Billy told us he’d usually put it in his slushie from the Piggly Wiggly store when driving around town, as the police wouldn’t bust him for having an open container while driving.

After having a good-sized shot each of what was probably about 99% alcohol on top of the bottle of Jack Daniels, things got a little hazy for a bit, but we made it back to the party, where we were introduced to Cu’in Pat. Pat was about my age and my ex-wife’s favorite cousin. Pat was charming in a good-ol’-boy sort of way. Over the years I came to understand his political views, which he dispensed freely, were further right than Attila the Hun’s.

Pat once took me into a gun shop, where he had about a 45-minute conversation with the owner about which gun would be best for shooting an elephant. I stood silently horrified that someone would even consider shooting an elephant. Having spent enough time in the South at that point, I also knew this was partly a baiting tactic being performed for his cousin’s Yankee liberal (read: possible commie) husband. After a number of years of semi-good-natured ribbing, I had learned how to own my Yankeeness at that point, but it wasn’t worth taking the bait.

Oysters. Photo: Ben Stern/Unsplash

But back to our conversation with Pat at the party where we got around to the subject of our oysters stashed in Tish’s laundry room: Pat told us he used to work an oyster bar and if we wanted, he’d be happy to shuck them for us. It was just the thing! The party had mostly broken up, so our wives joined us as we all went back to the laundry room to the sacred burlap sack of oysters.

Pat proved to be an expert oyster shucker and we gorged ourselves on the mountain of oysters washed down with beer until about 2 a.m.. Our wives and Pat each had three or four while Matt and I ate most of the rest. We finished off the night with cups of coffee, which only transformed me into a wide-awake drunk with a belly full of oysters sloshing around in a caffeine- and alcohol-infused morass. We sat around the kitchen table laughing and babbling incoherently until we talked ourselves out and stumbled our way to bed where, after I finished vibrating, I passed out for a couple of hours.

Needless to say, I got up the next morning with a truly excruciating hangover. I was absolutely useless. When I slowly made my way out to the kitchen in search of aspirin, Tums and coffee, I had to squint faced with what seemed like blinding light in the kitchen. Matt was sitting at the kitchen table looking as bad as I felt. Our wives were frantically running around cleaning, as Tish was on a completely understandable rampage over the oyster carnage in her laundry room. Her fury was exacerbated by the fresh shrimp I’d bought and stored in her refrigerator. Their juices had leaked all over the bottom of her refrigerator onto the cake she was to serve that afternoon, which she had put in the vegetable crisper.

Because Matt and I were as useless as we were and to hide us from the wrath of Tish, we were shooed out the door with my daughter, aged 3 and Matt’s two children, aged 5 and 7, until Hurricane Letitia weakened sufficiently in intensity. We were told our destination was the duck pond down the road. We were sent off with directions to the pond and a bag of bread to feed the ducks.

Neither Matt nor I had a coherent thought between us as we trudged down the road with our kids to the duck pond. We discovered a picturesque little kettle pond in a tidy little park at the end of a cul de sac. I could see about three dozen ducks idyllically swimming around in the pond. We headed toward a bench at the far end of the pond about 20 yards from the water. Matt and I decided the best plan of action was for us to nurse our hangovers on the bench and give the kids the bag of bread to feed the ducks. The kids gleefully headed down to the water with the bread and began tossing bits of bread into the water for the ducks.

A mallard on the attack. Photo: Chuck/Flickr

I noticed immediately something was not right. These were not the ducks I was used to. They had to have been rebel ducks who had been reincarnated Confederate soldiers killed at the Battle of Vicksburg. They were the most aggressive ducks I’d ever seen as they fought furiously over the bread. When the ducks decided they weren’t getting the bread quickly enough, the three dozen or so ducks came out of the water and started advancing on our kids with the bread like the soldiers of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Paternal instinct cut through our hangover haze and we ran down to the kids and scooped up the three terrified children as the ducks, perhaps sensing Yankee spies, started pecking at my legs! We ran back to the bench for refuge as the angry ducks surrounded us with the seeming intention of revenging Sherman’s march to Atlanta.

There ensued a scene straight out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” with two entirely pitiful, pantywaist Yankees screaming like 12-year-old girls with three terrified children all standing on the bench surrounded by a flock of angry rebel ducks. In my sorry state, they may as well have had fangs dripping blood. We began throwing handfuls of bread over the heads of the bread-thirsty fowl as diversion to give us time to make our escape. We eventually escaped with the children unscathed and me only bearing slight wounds from the pecking. I can’t say my pride was wounded, since I neither possessed nor deserved any pride at that moment.

Beyond learning to avoid moonshine and duck ponds in Tallahassee, I did learn the joys of oysters from Apalachicola and fresh Gulf shrimp. I had held this superior Northern notion of oysters from the South never being able to hold a candle to my favorite cold-water oysters from Wellfleet on Cape Cod. The two varieties are different, but I had Apalachicola oysters a number of times on subsequent visits while imbibing sensibly and they’re quite good.

Fresh Gulf shrimp are entirely better than any shrimp we can find in the North, which led to one of my favorite Southern dishes of shrimp and grits. Grits are a culinary gift from the South as far as I’m concerned, even though my lovely New England-bred partner, Lois, disagrees. I understand where the Southern phrase “gooder than grits” comes from when describing something especially good: Fresh Gulf shrimp with a good spicy gravy and grits is a heavenly combination.

Not being able to truly recreate shrimp and grits, for lack of equivalent shrimp and a partner who doesn’t like grits, I had to search through my recollection of Southern dishes I’ve enjoyed. I do have a favorite Southern recipe for cast-iron skillet cornbread, which I’ve been making for years. As I said, I was brought up in northern New Jersey which, if memory serves, has no tradition of cornbread. The first time I can recall having cornbread was the Yankee version after moving to New England in my late teens. I find Yankee cornbread confusing. Is it cake or is it bread? All in all, I’m not particularly fond of it especially without any comforting childhood memories of it. After having the Southern version, I tend to agree with a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern cornbread and perhaps no bread is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.”

Cast-iron skillet cornbread

Recipe courtesy Alex Guarnaschelli from the Food Network

At times I’ve added hot pepper flakes and cheddar cheese to this recipe, though I’m not sure Mark Twain would have approved. I use it as a side dish or for serving with chili over it.

Ingredients

  • 1 ¼ cups coarsely ground cornmeal (I use Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal for polenta)
  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Method

  1. Place an oven rack in the middle of the oven, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and place a 9-inch cast-iron skillet inside to heat while making the batter.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda.
  3. Whisk in the milk, buttermilk and eggs.
  4. Whisk in almost all of the melted butter, reserving about 1 tablespoon for the skillet.
  5. Carefully remove the skillet from the oven and reduce the heat to 375 degrees F.
  6. Coat the bottom and the sides of the skillet with the reserved butter.
  7. Pour the batter into the skillet and place it on the prepositioned rack in the oven.
  8. Bake until the center is firm and a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 20-25 minutes.
  9. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes before serving.

Postscript

Letitia Johnston Bond Croft passed away in 2002 at the age of 84. I was honored to have been one of her pallbearers and was given the opportunity to speak at her funeral. Having been a member of the military, she was given full military honors at her gravesite. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.