It’s February in the Pine Belt of South Mississippi. It’s 82 degrees outside, the azaleas are blooming, and the crawfish are in season. I’m not stupid enough to think that spring is already here, but it sure feels like it today.
This is what I call Mississippi fake spring. It happens every year. The weather gets nice and mild. Trees start to green up, flowers start to bloom, but there’s another cold spell, or two, maybe even a freeze in store overt the course of the next eight weeks.
The same thing happens in September. We experience Mississippi fake fall. It gets us every time. After a brutal summer with scorching heat and intense humidity, Mother Nature coughs up a cool snap in the middle of the month and everyone pulls out their sweaters and jackets. A week later we’re back in the low 90s, and it’s eventually 72 degrees and raining on Christmas day.
We wish for seasons down here and I’m ok with that. It just shows that we Mississippians are full of hope. Nevertheless, I’ll enjoy this fake spring day and try to wade my way through the clouds of pollen that are flying across the roads and lawns.
March in Mississippi is a beautiful thing. For a week or so we get to experience the cool evenings San Diegans live with year-round. But that, too, is what makes Mississippians special. It’s easy to live in San Diego where the average temperatures are in the mid 70s during the day and mid 50s in the evenings. We endure down here, and it’s my belief that people who endure are stronger and sturdier. We’ve been enduring for generations.
We South Mississippians are troopers. We have chosen to live on the last patch of American soil that was settled east of the Mississippi River. My forefathers came to this pine-clotted area— hatchet in hand— and fought panthers, rabid racoons, malaria, encephalitis, Lyme disease, and a few other insect-borne illnesses. Unlike the wise and resourceful Native Americans who set up camp near rivers and creeks, or the French and Spanish settlers who pitched tents on the Gulf beaches and along the Natchez trace, my geographically challenged ancestors staked their claim among the tall stands of sap-oozing, pollen-spreading virgin pines.
Fake spring, or not, I am going to enjoy this weather while I can. I don’t have access to any exact research on memories and our senses, but I know certain songs take me back to a specific place and time in my childhood. I also know that certain smells remind me of things from my past as well. I was walking across the parking lot from my office to one of the restaurants yesterday. The prep cooks in the kitchen were making a roux. The exhaust fan was wafting the aroma of toasted flour all through the parking lot. It took me back to my childhood, instantly.
My paternal grandmother was an excellent hostess and a great cook. We ate lunch at her house almost every Sunday after church. She had a set rotation of roast beef one Sunday, turkey and dressing the next Sunday, and the leg of lamb on the 3rd Sunday. On the 4th Sunday we would typically eat out.
Leg of lamb day was my favorite. Especially my grandmother’s leg of lamb. It was probably the most exotic food item I ate as a child. That’s about as out of the ordinary as foods got for me in the South Mississippi of the 1960s.
My grandmother set a very formal table with crystal, silver sterling silver, china, and linen. The full menu was almost always the same. Some type of congealed salad, which I never ate. Tomato aspic is a cruel trick to play on a child. It looked like Jell-O. It shook like Jell-O, but it tasted like V8 juice.
I can’t remember most of the vegetables during those formal launches. It seems like asparagus always made an appearance. I love asparagus today but as an eight-year-old, I was not a fan. At her more casual lunches she served mashed potatoes with English peas. I always made a nest of peas in my mashed potatoes. It was one of my favorite dishes as a child. It’s still one of my favorite dishes today. There was always rice and gravy. But the star of the show was leg of lamb with gravy
It’s the gravy that took me back as I was walking across the parking lot the other day. The aroma of toasted flour while a roux is being made always takes me back to her house on 4th Avenue. Sometimes I sat on a stool in the kitchen and watched her cook the entire lunch. Other times, usually in the spring, I was outside, wandering among the giant azaleas in her yard catching bees in old mayonnaise jars. Whenever the aroma of toasted flour came wafting from the kitchen’s window unit air conditioner and into the backyard, I knew the gravy was being made, and gravy was always the last item in the preparation process.
It was time to eat.
Occasionally in interviews I get the question, “what would you choose as your last meal?” It’s an easy one for me. I’ve been blessed to have eaten in a lot of fine restaurants over the years, but if I were able to choose a last meal it would be— without a doubt— my grandmother’s leg of lamb with the pan gravy she made from the pan drippings, rice and gravy, and her biscuits. She made amazing biscuits. I’ve never been able to replicate them.
I hope I’m never in a situation where I will have to choose a last meal. But if I am, the choice will be a no-brainer. Childhood food memories always motivate me. But they also make me question myself. Am I creating the same food memories for my children that my family did for me? I sure hope so.
Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Chutney
Preheat oven to 375
1 Leg of Lamb, bone in, about 6-7 pounds
12 cloves fresh garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbl fresh chopped rosemary
1 Tbl fresh chopped thyme
3 Tbl kosher salt
1 Tbl fresh ground black pepper
Using a paring knife, cut 12 small pockets, spread out in the lamb leg.
Insert one clove of garlic into each pocket.
Rub the leg with the olive oil, the rub the herbs, salt and pepper over the leg.
Place the lamb in a large roasting pan, and place it in the preheated oven.
Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and continue to bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes to achieve a medium rare temperature. If using a thermometer, it should register 145 degrees.
Remove from the oven and allow the lamb to rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly around the bone and serve.
Raspberry Mint Chutney
1 Tbl olive oil
1 /2 cup shallots, minced
1 Tbl garlic, minced
1 Tbl fresh ginger, minced fine
2 tsp curry powder
1 /4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1 /2 cup sherry
3 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 cup mint jelly
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp water
1 /2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbl fresh mint, chopped
In a small sauce pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and cook shallots 3-4 minutes. Stir in garlic, ginger and seasonings, and cook 3-4 more minutes, stirring often. Do not let garlic brown. Deglaze with sherry and reduce by half.
Stir in 2 cups of the raspberries, chicken broth and bay leaf and simmer 15-20 minutes, until reduced by half. Stir in mint jelly and cook three minutes more, stirring constantly. Dissolve the cornstarch with the 2 teaspoons of water and stir it into the simmering sauce. Allow the sauce to thicken then remove from the heat and strain. Stir in the vinegar, fresh mint and remaining cup of raspberries.
Serve at room temperature.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)