A very Southern Christmas

While preparing to write a Christmas eve column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I decided to have a blast from the past by invoking the Helena oyster loaf.

That’s right, I said oyster loaf.

Those of a certain age will remember that Richard Allin, who authored the “Our Town” column for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, would write each Christmas about the oyster loaf.

Food traditions are an important part of Christmas. Each year, I delight in gathering the various food catalogs that have arrived in the mail so I can order pecans from Georgia, grapefruit from Florida, country hams and bacon from Virginia, brisket from Texas and wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest.

I was in Helena last week, passed the historic Allin house and decided to bring up the oyster loaf.

In my library is a delightful book published in 1978 by the Phillips County Historical Society. It’s titled “Helena: The Ridge, The River, The Romance.”

It includes a chapter by Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, about Christmas in Helena.

Here’s his recipe for an authentic Helena oyster loaf: “Slice the top from a long pullman loaf. Remove all the crumb from the loaf, leaving only a boat made of the crust. Brush melted butter generously over the inside of the loaf and on the inside of the top, and toast under the oven broiler until pleasantly browned. Roll oysters in cornmeal and fry until golden brown and crispy. Assemble lemon wedges, green olives with pits, tomato ketchup and mustard pickle.

“After the loaf is toasted and the oysters fried, place a layer of oysters in the bottom of the loaf. Put in two or three lemon wedges and as many olives. Repeat the process, adding from time to time some of the ketchup and the mustard pickle. Continue until the loaf is filled, and top the oysters off with more lemon wedges, olives, ketchup and mustard pickle. Add the latter two items with care. If you wish, you may add them after the loaf is sliced and served. But if you do, you are not making the Helena version of the oyster loaf.

“After the loaf is assembled, cap it with the buttered and toasted top and put it back in the oven to heat for a while. When ready to serve, slice it across in about two-inch-wide sections. A chilled white wine goes well. So does beer. This is a Christmas eve dish. If you eat it at any other time, you do so at your own risk.”

Allin noted that mustard pickles had become hard to find. The old-fashioned recipe consists of cucumbers and onions pickled in a mustard sauce along with turmeric and celery seed.

“The tradition of eating the oyster loaf on Christmas eve got started, in my family at least, many years ago when my grandfather would stop by an old Helena restaurant-delicatessen and pick up a couple of these specialties. In those days, that particular restaurant made its own bread, a type of which was the long pullman loaf, named, I suppose, because it had the same dimensions as the railroad car. By the time I was invited into the family, it had become the practice to make the oyster loaf at home, although still using the restaurant’s singular bread. It was more economical, and the homemade loaf was more generously treated. So many good traditions have passed. The restaurant no longer makes either oyster loaves or bread. About the best we can do in Helena these days is . . . well, never mind.

“The tradition of the oyster loaf perhaps came up the river from New Orleans. It is known there as the mediatrice, so named because it was frequently brought home by wayward husbands who wanted to make peace with their angry wives. In Helena, it was simply a seasonal food item. Other methods were used to restore family tranquility. By the time the oyster loaf had arrived in Helena from New Orleans, there had been made a few changes in its structure. The New Orleans mediatrice was simply a hollowed-out, buttered and toasted loaf of French bread into which mealed and fried oysters were piled. The top was put back on, and the delicacy was then sliced into serving portions.”

Allin hailed from a prominent east Arkansas family. Born in October 1930, he graduated from high school in Helena in 1948 and finished the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., in 1952 with a degree in English literature. He served more than three years in the U.S. Navy, including working at the Pentagon in the Office of Naval Intelligence. His first job after leaving the Navy was as a roving reporter covering the Mid-South for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis. Allin joined the Gazette after three years of working for the Memphis newspaper. He played the tuba for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for a decade, and his tuba exploits often were the subjects of columns.

I still have his “Southern Legislative Dictionary” and “Wad and Gudge Creek Chronicles,” two little books he compiled.

His older brother, the Right Rev. John Maury Allin, was also a Sewanee graduate who went on to become the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA from 1974-85. John Maury Allin died in March 1998.

“One of the surest signs of the approach of Christmas at my house in Helena was when my mother began muttering, more or less to herself, something about pecans,” Richard Allin wrote. “‘I’ve got to see about my pecans’ would suddenly come from the other room, and I would say, ‘Why did you say?’ and there would be no answer. About a month before Christmas, one of the chairs at the kitchen table would be pre-empted for a time by a huge brown paper sack containing always 10 pounds of pecans still in the shell.

“Times were dangerous in the kitchen during the next week or so. The air was filled with shards of pecan shrapnel that whizzed around the room every time the lever on the pecan cracker was pulled. Scientists and sages have tried down through the ages to build a better nut cracker, but the only kind ever used at our house was the type that you screwed to a table. It had a lever that worked against a ratchet, and when you pulled the handle the pecan would shatter around on all sides. When 10 pounds had to be attacked, you had to bring in the heavy machinery.

“To this day, cracking pecans seems to me like one of the universe’s most boring activities. But my mother greeted each pecan as a new challenge to be attacked with unwavering ferocity. Shucking 10 pounds of pecans is no mean task.”

The 1978 collection of stories about Helena also contains a piece by Frank Jeffett about a Christmas eve duck hunt in which he and some friends narrowly avoided disaster. This story appealed to me because my late father was an avid outdoorsman. The Christmas holiday always included quail and duck hunts. On Christmas afternoon, when my father had been in the house long enough, he would say to me: “Let’s go give the bird dogs a little exercise.” We would head out and hunt quail until dark.

Sometimes we were up before daylight on the day after Christmas for a duck hunt. Jeffett wrote: “Only one who has duck hunted can fully appreciate how cold it can be when the wind is blowing and the thermometer has dipped below the 20-degree mark — and to know how really cold you can get, you’ve got to get in an open motorboat under those conditions before the first daybreak has appeared in the east.”

We often had baked wild ducks on Christmas eve (with cornbread dressing) and fried quail on Christmas morning (with biscuits and gravy).

A book I’ve been reading recently is “The Edible South” by Blytheville native Marcie Cohen Ferris, who’s now an associate professor of American studies and Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is married to Bill Ferris, a noted Southern scholar who once chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the preface to the book, she writes about Christmas vacations spent on the farm near Vicksburg, Miss., where her mother-in-law, Shelby Flowers Ferris, lived until her death this past August at the age of 96.

Shelby Ferris grew up at Vicksburg, graduating from All Saints Episcopal High School and then going to New Orleans, where she received her bachelor’s degree from Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University. She married William Reynolds Ferris in 1941 and began living on the family farm, named Broadacres, south of Vicksburg.

According to her obituary: “As a young bride, she made many adjustments, leaving behind a comfortable urban life in Vicksburg for an isolated rural life with dusty roads, no telephone, a generator to provide electricity and a well for water. She embraced and loved this life and soon developed a lifelong passion for gardening, planting extensive flowerbeds around her hilltop home, which she lovingly tended for almost 75 years. … Over the years, visitors from around the world enriched her rural Mississippi environment and were in turn enriched by it.

“Relatives from Boston and Chicago brought friends who talked about their lives, so different from daily life on the farm. The wide web of visitors increased over the years. Shelby’s children’s friends spent weekends riding horses, swimming in the lake, driving the Jeep and paddling down the Big Black River. Many learned to drive on the farm, across the wide pastures. These rich experiences nurtured the adventurous spirits of those who visited and left memories for generations of people who enjoyed Shelby’s hospitality and generosity, as well as her humor, the freewheeling conversations and delicious meals served at her dining table. Throughout all the years, Shelby continued to welcome old friends and make new ones, always with great hospitality and grace.”

She sounds like someone I would have loved to have known.

Marcie Cohen Ferris wrote this about the Christmas visits to the farm: “Food is the center of our holidays at the farm where my husband was raised in Mississippi. On Christmas Day, the family gathers around the dining room table. The ritual surrounding the preparation for the Southern meal is elaborate. Activity begins months in advance as casseroles and desserts are prepared and frozen by Liz Martin, a expert cook and housekeeper. She has worked in culinary tandem with Bill’s mother, Shelby Flowers Ferris, for over 30 years. In the last 24 hours before the meal, work reaches a crescendo. Bill’s three sisters, and now the next generation of grandchildren and nieces and nephews, divide up chores, polishing silver, setting tables and arranging bowls of camellias. The other meals surrounding Christmas Day are just as important, such as the traditional gumbo we enjoy for supper on Christmas Eve. Eating this meal reminds us of the family’s deep ties to New Orleans, the Creole city that has seduced each generation of Ferrises.

“Throughout the holiday, we gather daily for breakfast, a hearty noontime dinner and a light supper in the evening. Mrs. Ferris sits at the head of the table. She is the center of life at the farm. She still plans the menus and coordinates our meals. It is difficult to rise before her, at 5 a.m. each morning. There are fresh grapefruits cut and ready for each of us at our places at the table, designated by napkin rings personalized with our names. These rituals reinforce our Southern family and Shelby’s love.”

Christmas traditions, whether they’re about food or hunting trips, are important. You see, the memories you make are a key part of the Christmas season.

Merry Christmas.

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