A Thanksgiving Toast to Eugene Walter

By Jill Warren Lucas

Eugene Walter never needed to use a holiday as excuse to lift a glass, but the celebrated bon vivant from Mobile, Ala., did have some sage advice for how to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

“There is a way to get to those souls who’ve had it with the usual turkey dinner,” Walter writes in “Turkey Tattle and Dressing Dope,” one of dozens of recipe-filled and liquor-laced essays collected in “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink” (University of North Carolina Press).

Photo courtesy of UNC Press

Walter’s way with turkey will strike many readers as contrary to virtually all modern culinary thought, which leans toward a well-brined bird cooked in an oven kept mostly closed to regulate temperature, though he is firmly in the camp of those who believe stuffing should be cooked in a casserole dish.

“DO NOT SALT!” he commands while urging frequent basting and turning the bird over several times for even roasting. Acknowledging that “I’ll have certain cooks shouting, ‘Heresy!’” at his methods, Walter clearly delighted at breaking with culinary convention of his day – and celebrating kitchen triumphs (or just about anything, really) with a well-mixed cocktail.

Eugene Walter, Mobile, 1995. Courtesy of Walter Beckham, http://www.walterbeckham.com.

A contemporary of Truman Capote who connected with numerous creative geniuses during his long and storied career, Walter was a unique voice in celebration of the vast landscape of Southern cuisine, and “The Happy Table” is a welcome addition to the growing library of UNC Press titles that examine the South’s historic and ongoing contributions to all things food.

First through salon parties for the bohemian arts crowd in 1940s New York City, then in the ‘50s with the ex-pat creative intelligentsia in Rome, Walter’s delicious wit was as well known as the “exotic” Southern foods that graced his foreign tables. The creative globetrotter transitioned from author of award-winning literature to a gourmet and avid recipe-collector who was published in such diverse places as the groundbreaking Time-Life “Foods of the World” series and his hometown Alabama newspaper.

While Southern fare has become globally chic in recent years, in the early decades of Walter’s career it was rarely found in fashionable restaurants or the tables of upscale soirees. His graceful and good-humored prose helped to bring due recognition to the hard-working and often eccentric home cooks whose stories he placed in vivid context.

Relaxing at Termite Hall, Mobile, 1987. Courtesy of Joyce Fay.

With a shoebox of Alabama dirt kept under his bed when his career took him to some of the world’s culinary capitals, Walter also wrote passionately of his cravings for the foods he missed, including the lack of authentic gumbo in New York City and his determination to grow greens on his terrace in Rome.

While his turkey technique may not stand the test of time, Walter was an early proponent of local, seasonal eating. He abhorred pre-made and pre-packaged foods, famously railing against pre-ground black pepper. Still, he recognized that products like canned condensed soup were a boon to Southern cooks in the years before refrigerators became a common feature of their kitchens.

The recipes in “The Happy Table” cover a lot of surf, turf and garden, but one constant is their use of alcohol – sometimes just a splash, sometimes a great glug. The affectionate tribute was developed posthumously by his executor Donald Goodman, who sorted through boxes of papers Walter collected for a book proposal called “Dixie Drinks.”

As with many accounts, Walter’s Thanksgiving entry is a mix of storytelling and recipe sharing. He states his preferences plainly, including the unwavering conviction that leftover turkey is the best turkey.  Included in Part II of the book, labeled “Victuals,” here is some of his advice.

Cold Turkey Paté

Not all southern tables feature turkey hash or turkey gumbo on the day after Thanksgiving. The following, a kind of molded paté, is mighty fine with small hot biscuits or flat yellow cornmeal hearth bread. This cold paté, following a first course of hot borscht or potato soup, makes a nice lunch the day after Thanksgiving.

½ cup finely chopped walnuts

½ cup finely chopped pecans

3 oz. rat-trap cheese, cut into small cubes

½ lb. turkey meal (dark preferable), cut into thumbnail-size bits

2 strips lean, crisp-fried bacon, chopped very fine

1/3 cup finely chopped green onions or chives

¾ cup mayonnaise

Freshly ground black pepper

As you like: 2 fresh sages leaves, chopped; fresh marjoram; dash of celery seeds

Minced peel of ½ lemon

1½ tsp. Dijon or Creole mustard

1½ tbsp. dry Sherry

Pinch of salt

Be sure everything is chopped fine. Mix well. If you need more mayonnaise, add it. Taste for salt. Spoon mixture into bowl, crock or pan of your choice, which has been lightly oiled with olive oil. Chill at least 8 hours or overnight. Turn out onto serving dish, surround with olives, gherkins, deviled or devilish eggs, watercress or parsley. Raw carrot sticks are nice; so are cherry tomatoes cut in half and topped with caper juice and chopped capers.

Since Walter is often pictured in the book with a twinkle in his eye and a glass lifted in a toast, one would be remiss to not include a libation appropriate for the holiday. There is something in this collection suitable for every occasion – no surprise coming from a man whose lips were touched with peach brandy at his christening.

Here is his one of five recipes he shares for a mint julep, a symbol of the South for which “no two Southerners” will agree on the ingredients. Walter credits the mint julep as “delightfully refreshing and a known cure for headaches, crankiness and fatigue” – which makes it the ideal elixir to guarantee a happy Thanksgiving.

The ingredients described may be hard to come by locally, but Walter always encouraged readers to be creative and use what they had on hand. “The best advice to cooks is,” he wrote, “seek fresh, avoid chemicals, keep a light hand, rise to the occasion, try what you don’t know, have fun … and good eating, you-all!”

Bluegrass Julep (Circa 1912)

½ cup spring water

½ cup granulated sugar

Handful of mint sprigs

Bourbon

Take a dipper of water from a limestone spring and dissolve enough granulated sugar in it to give a fine oily texture, then set it aside. Take a goblet of sterling silver (or, in an emergency, a tumbler of cut crystal), and single medium-size leaf of mint, selected for succulent tenderness and plucked from the living plant not more than 10 minutes before. Using the back of a sterling spoon, bruise the leaf gently but purposefully against the inside of the goblet and heap full of fairly fine-cracked ice made from the same limestone spring water.  Pour straight bourbon whiskey slowly into the goblet, letting it trickle through the ice at its leisure until the vessel is almost full. Set aside for one minute. Add the sugared water, a tablespoon or so, until it threatens to overflow. Garnish the rim with 3 freshly picked mint sprigs. Let stand in a cool spring-house or icebox until the frosting on the goblet or tumbler is thick. Sip slowly; don’t use a straw. Between sips, think of someone you love

Photo Credits: From The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink edited by Donald Goodman and Thomas Head.  Copyright © 2011 by Donald Walter Goodman.  Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Jill Warren Lucas blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her on Twitter at @jwlucasnc.

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