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Tomb to table: a Christmas feast offered by the residents of Mount Holly and other folk 

Plus, recipes from the Times staff.

click to enlarge BRYAN MOATS
  • Bryan Moats

"Why do you doubt your senses?"

"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

— Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol," 1843

During the holidays, kitchens all over Arkansas are full of ghosts. That yellowed recipe card in your grandmother's flowing hand. The memory of your great-uncle, showing you how to peel potatoes, dropping the sandy hides into a bucket while telling you stories of KP duty in the Army. The memory of your cousin, showing you the difference between a pinch and a dash. The memory of your mother pulling a chair to the counter so you could climb up and help prepare with small hands; of being trusted to work the whirring beater; of being trusted to bring the brimming cup of milk from the refrigerator to the mixing bowl, padding along on heel and toe so as not to spill a drop on the linoleum, so that when you all sat down to eat before the bowls of grease-slick green beans and mounded piles of rolls and platters of ham and turkey, you could say, and mean it, "I helped."

Food is the stuff of life, and the stuff of lives, so much of our history and joy caught up in a cookbook. And so, at the risk of seeming overly morbid, we wanted to pay homage this week to the great cooks of the past who still haunt our cupboards. The following holiday recipes are mostly drawn from "Recipes in Perpetuity, Timeless Tastes and Tales from Residents and Future Residents of Mount Holly," published by the Mount Holly Cemetery Association, but the staff — present and past — of the Arkansas Times has also included a few from our own family cookbooks, along with stories related to the recipes.

We hope that you find something here that can be clipped and saved, to become a treasured part of your own family's holiday meals. In that way, the people who cherished these recipes before can live on in the best way possible: by contributing to the nourishment of others' bodies and the joy of others' hearts.

A note: The measurement styles used here are the same ones used in the original recipes. They should be easy to follow, even if a tablespoon is sometimes a Tbs. and other times Tb., etc.


From Recipes in Perpetuity

Fish House Punch

(The fifth refers to a fifth of the total volume of the recipe.)

  • 1 fifth lemon or lime juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 fifth water
  • 2 fifths Jamaican rum
  • 1 fifth brandy
  • 1 cup peach brandy
  • 2 peaches, peeled and slice

In a bowl, empty the rum and brandy bottles and use one for measuring water and lime juice. Dissolve the sugar in the water and stir in the lemon or lime juice. Mix in the other ingredients. Allow the mixture to mellow for a few hours, or overnight, before using. In order to keep dilution to a minimum, chill the mixture thoroughly before pouring it over a good-sized chuck of ice in a punch bowl. Garnish with peaches. Serves approximately 40 4-oz. punch glasses. Note: A good rum to use is a mixture of 75 percent to 80 percent Light to Golden rum, and 20 to 25 percent Myers Jamaican rum. Double the water content if a less potent punch is preferred, but always allow for the melting of the ice.

This 1732 recipe is included in "Recipes in Perpetuity" as an example of what members of the Gilt Edge Hunting and Fishing Club might have drunk. Many members of the club, formed in 1880, are buried at Mount Holly.


Mrs. English's Hunter's Bread

  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup cornmeal
  • 4 Tbs. sugar
  • 4 Tbs. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 lb. bacon (this is correct)

Sift dry ingredients together. Beat the egg and combine with milk, beat into the dry ingredients thoroughly. Spread into a lightly greased biscuit pan or 9" square pan or large loaf pan. Cut the bacon in small pieces and sprinkle over the top of the dough.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Serve with ducks or other game.

Julia Agnes Fisher English (b. 1820) was president of the Soldiers State Aid Society during the Civil War.


Wild Duckling

  • 2 ducks
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 4-oz can mushroom and liquid
  • 1 pod garlic
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 pkg. Pepperidge Farm dressing
  • Salt and pepper

Place ducks in Dutch oven with butter, garlic, mushrooms, onion and bell pepper. Salt and pepper generously. Cover and cook on low heat for 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours. Remove ducks and carve. Add dressing to juices and mix well. Serve together. Serves 4-6.

James Tappan Horner of Helena (1885-1957) was an active hunter and fisherman. This is his recipe.


Lillian's Orange Pecans

  1. Boil 1 ½ cups sugar and ½ cup of orange juice until thermometer reaches 234 F. or a small quantity dropped in cold water forms a soft ball.
  2. Take off stove and add grated rind of small orange and 3 cups of pecan halves. Stir until mixture looks cloudy.
  3. When it begins to sugar, drop each pecan to a marble top.

Lillian Scott (1869-1931), who lived on Elmhurst Plantation in Scott with her husband, Conoway Scott, began making this recipe after the 1927 flood that destroyed or nearly destroyed farms around Little Rock. She sold them locally as well as in New York City, where her cousin was president of Lord & Taylor Department Store.


Mary Worthen's Mint Tea

  1. Steep family-size tea bag in boiling water for about 5 minutes. In another container steep 6-8 sprigs of fresh mint in boiling water for about 15 minutes.
  2. Combine the above and add 1 cup sugar. Add ½ cup lemon juice. Stir. Add water to make about two quarts.
Mary Worthen (1917-2015) was a tireless volunteer at Mount Holly and the Historic Arkansas Museum.


Daisy Keatts' Ginger Cheese Muffins

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 tsp. soda
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2/3 cup grated cheese
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 3 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 4 Tbs. cooking oil

Combine ingredients. Fill muffin tins 2/3 full and sprinkle with ginger and sugar. Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees. For luncheon, serve with a fruit plate.

Daisy Andrews Keatts (1881-1966) was a nurse who started a tearoom when her husband, James Keatts, lost his job. She eventually ran the Tea Room on the mezzanine at Blass Department Store.


Mildred Conway's Scalloped Oysters

  • 4 jars (10 oz.) of oysters, drained
  • 1 bunch of parsley, washed, drained and chopped
  • Tony Cachere's Creole Seasoning
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • 1 1/2 tubes of Ritz crackers, crumbled
  • Lea & Perrin Worcestershire Sauce

In a 9" by 9" square butter Pyrex dish, (1) layer 1/2 of the oysters, (2) layer 1/2 of the crumbled Ritz crackers, (3) layer ½ of chopped parsley, dot with butter, sprinkle with Creole seasoning and Worcestershire sauce, then repeat layers. (Do not try more than 2 layers, as they won't get done.) Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until bubbly throughout, and slightly brown on top.

Mildred Hollis Conway (1903-1976), the wife of Claibourne W. Conway, is described in "Recipes in Perpetuity" as a "creative person" who turned her dining room table into a ping-pong table for her girls on rainy days.


Ed Cromwell's Eggnog

  • 6 eggs, separated (beaten separately)
  • 1 pint Bourbon whiskey
  • 1 lb. sugar (1 1/2 cups)
  • 1/2 pint Jamaican Rum
  • 2 pints XX* cream, whipped

Beat yolks well. Add sugar gradually. Beat until smooth and creamy. Add whiskey and mix well. (Sugar must be well dissolved before adding whiskey.) Then add whipped whites of eggs. Add cream. (The next morning, add rum.)

Ed Cromwell (1909-2001) was an architect and a leader in the historic preservation community. *XX cream is double cream; whipping cream is the best approximation.


Ruth Wassell Woodward's Fudge Cake

Sift and set aside:

  • 1 cup sugar and 1 cup flour
  • Combine and bring to a boil:
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 Tbs. cocoa

Add sugar and flour mixture. Add 1 egg, unbeaten. Add 1/3 cup buttermilk and 3/4 tsp. soda mixed. Add 1 Tb. Vanilla. Mix well and bake at 350 degrees in an 8" square pan for 25 minutes or until done.

Icing:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 2 Tbs. cocoa
  • 6 Tbs. milk

Add a little vanilla extract and bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Beat and pour over cake.

Ruth Wassell Woodward (1879-1970) was a genealogical historian and the sister of World War II hero Dr. Corydon Wassell, whose life was documented in the film "The Story of Dr. Wassell."


Sowell Family's Boiled Christmas Custard

  • 1 quart milk
  • 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsps. Vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Heat the milk in a heavy non-aluminum saucepan over medium heat (or in a double boiler) until the milk is hot. Combine the eggs, sugar, and flour in a small bowl and beat until blended well. Gradually stir a cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture and then add all of the egg mixture back into the hot milk. Stir constantly.

Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat. If lumps have formed, pour through a strainer to remove them. Top with plastic wrap to prevent a "skin" from forming on the top. Chill.

Martha Sowell is a member of the Mount Holly Cemetery Association's board of directors.

From the Staff

James Alan McPherson's Sweet Potato Pie

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 stick (or block, if you prefer) of butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon of lemon extract
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 Tb. cinnamon sugar
  • 2 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1 8-inch pie shell

Boil potatoes until soft. Drain. Add other ingredients and blend with a mixer until smooth. Pour into a pie shell and bake at 350 F. until the center is firm.

James Alan McPherson, who died in Iowa City, Iowa, on July 27, was one of the kindest and wisest people I've ever met. An essayist and fiction writer who was among the first group ever awarded the famous MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants," McPherson was also the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for his masterful 1978 short story collection, "Elbow Room." He was also from Georgia, which was kinfolks enough for a scared Arkansas boy who had taken his new bride by the hand in 1997 and ventured north into the frozen wastes of the American Midwest to attend the storied Iowa Writer's Workshop. McPherson's insight about my work changed my writing, and that — in many ways — changed my life. The first time I cooked his sweet potato pie, in our little university-subsidized apartment on the edge of town, I made a crucial linguistic error. McPherson, having grown up in Savannah, said "block of butter" instead of "stick of butter." So, when I whipped up this pie the first time, I dutifully melted four sticks of butter, which — all packaged up in the grocery store — looked like a "block" to me. The result was roughly the consistency of modeling clay, and left my mouth so tallow-slick I gagged. Second try went much better though, the lemony goodness working perfectly with the cinnamon and brown sugar. Still the best sweet potato pie I've ever had. Rest in peace, Jim. Your pie, and your writing, is still bringing my family joy. — David Koon


Rita Smittle's Chicken Cacciatore

  • 4 to 6 chicken pieces
  • Tomato sauce
  • 1 envelope spaghetti seasoning
  • 4 medium-sized potatoes
  • 4 carrots
  • Small can mushrooms (slices and pieces are fine)

Salt and pepper chicken pieces and brown slightly on each side in vegetable oil in skillet. Pour half of tomato sauce over chicken pieces; sprinkle with seasonings and then pour on rest of tomato sauce. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Add peeled and sliced potatoes and carrots. Pull chicken up on top of vegetables. Add mushrooms. Cover and simmer another 30 minutes.

Rita Smittle is Stephanie Smittle's grandmother. She has been a church organist for 55 years, and spent the last decade or so travelling around the United States in a '95 Challenger motorhome building 17 cowboy churches with her husband, Robert. She has worn her hair short ever since her dear friend and beautician of 37 years, Vera Lee Edsell, passed away in 2006. Once a year, she covers her entire kitchen floor with newspaper to facilitate the all-consuming task of shucking, blanching and freezing the year's crop of corn, and when something goes wrong in the kitchen, she exclaims "Rita Flo!" in self-reprimand.


Billy's Favorite Chocolate Cherry Cake

  • 1 pkg. chocolate cake mix
  • 2 eggs
  • Can cherry pie filling
  • 1 tsp. almond flavorings
  • Stir with spoon and bake.

ICING

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup Pet milk
  • 5 Tb. butter
  • Almond flavoring

Bring to a boil, boil 1 minute, add small package Hershey's kisses, whip with spoon.

Chef and Pulaski Tech Culinary Arts instructor Billy Ginocchio provided the recipe for the chocolate cake his late grandmother, Veda Jean Ginnochio, used to make for his birthdays as a boy. "My dad gave me her old recipe box for Christmas a while back," he said. "It's probably my one truly prized possession." Though the recipe appears simple, Ginocchio said the simplicity of it speaks to him as a chef. "That goes to my whole philosophy of food," he said.


Granny Barnett's Chocolate Pie

PIE

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 6 Tb. cocoa (use Dutch processed if you can find it, but even Hershey's Special Dark makes it better.)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3 egg yolks (reserve whites)
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 Tb. butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 pre-baked pie shell

Meringue:

  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 5-6 tsp. sugar
  1. Stir together the sugar, flour cocoa and salt in a saucepan. Add egg yolks and milk and stir together.
  2. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and bubbles.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in the butter and vanilla. Let cool while you make the meringue.
  4. To make the meringue, beat the three egg whites with the cream of tartar until stiff. Continue to beat while you add the sugar one teaspoon at a time.
  5. Pour the pie filling into the baked pie shell. Top with meringue, making sure to seal around the edges.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes, or until meringue is brown on top. Let the pie cool completely before serving.

My mother screwed this pie up royally the first time she made it. She was a newlywed. They had company. She was trying to please. It did not work.

"I don't know what you did wrong," my dad said when he took a bite, "but you better call my mama and find out."

Chocolate pie is sacred food in my family. Where two or more are gathered in a holiday's name, chocolate pie is with us. The recipe comes from my dad's mother — Allene Barnett, my granny — but in my heart, it belongs to my mom. Long before I was born she'd gotten the hang of making it — turns out it works a lot better if you don't try to substitute water for the milk — and she'd churn out two for every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinner. She might have made the odd apple pie here and there, too, and maybe somebody else in the family would show up with a pumpkin pie, but my mom's chocolate pies were always the main event dessert-wise. Make one and you'll understand why: No prissy French silk, this. Our chocolate pie is dark, dense, rich, on the verge of bittersweet. Not too fussy, either — sneak an extra egg white into the meringue to make it pile up pretty and you'll throw the whole thing off.

I wish I could say I learned how to make chocolate pie at my mom's side, but the truth is I learned the same way she did — by screwing it up the first time I tried to make it, calling her from my in-laws' house on my first married Thanksgiving so she could talk me through what I'd done wrong. (My problem: I always forget to add the butter and vanilla at the end. After hearing me dog-cuss myself at his parents' house for five straight Thanksgivings, my husband started leaving Post-Its on the piecrusts while I wasn't looking. "Add the $%#@ing vanilla," he'd stick on one crust, "And the $&#!ing butter, too" on the second. It's our own little holiday tradition now.)

After six years practicing on my in-laws, I took over making the chocolate pies for my own family's gatherings in 2009. Chemo had worn my mom out enough that she finally let her kids cook Christmas dinner, and thanks to those encouraging Post-Its, I did not let her down. I made them again for Christmas 2010, when my mom was so sick she could barely leave her bed. The only thing she ate was a piece of chocolate pie, and it made her smile, and at the risk of sounding like a Lifetime Original Extra-Maudlin-for-your-Holiday-Pleasure weeper, I hold on to that hard.

I have my mother's recipe box now, and I use her original recipe card when I make chocolate pie. Plain black ink on a plain ruled index card, a little rumpled and splattered these days because I cook messy. I love that it's her handwriting telling me how much cocoa to use and how long to brown the meringue — even if it's my husband's that tells me not to forget the $%#ing vanilla. — Jennifer Barnett Reed


Bessie Henry's Fruitcake

  • 1 scant pound butter
  • 1 pound sugar
  • 1 pound flour
  • 1 pound white raisins
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 pound pecans, shelled
  • 25-cent bottle of lemon extract ... One 2 oz. bottle

Cream together the butter and sugar. Soak the raisins and dry off. Add them and the remaining ingredients and pour in a large tube pan. Put a pan of water underneath. Cook slowly at 300 degrees until it's done. It will take a while. To speed things up, use less butter or more flour.

Eat every Christmas.

This is a rerun of a recipe that appeared in the Times many years ago. Bessie Gardner Henry, who was born in Hickory Plains and moved to Jacksonville after she was married, was Leslie Newell Peacock's grandmother. You will notice that it is not really fruitcake, but a raisin cake, which is why it is so good. You may also note her hinted-at worry about the recipe in the hands of others: She specified that the pecans should be shelled.
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