By Chef Nick Wallace
The first image of the Saturday morning was seeing a humid trailer full of living worm soil at the Mississippi Farmers Market. I touched the dirt. Played in it. Smelled it. A worm was popping his head out. I had a huge attachment to smelling the richness of that soil, knowing the types of produce and vegetables that come out of it.
Outside of the Farmers Market, I saw my usual honey guy, dressed in his casual bee suit. It was great seeing some new vendors there, too. Lemonade stand out front because it was so hot. Then entering, I saw a big crowd of folks. It's almost like Sunday dinner in there because you see everybody smiling and waving.
I was there to source ingredients for myself and also for a colleague and family friend, for whom I'd be cooking a few days later. I had visions of a fresh, raw, Farmers Market salad. Unadulterated Mississippi food. I set off to find the pieces that would bring the dish together.
Walking around, I found some heirloom tomatoes from Arender Farms. I picked out some under-ripe tomatoes, knowing I'd be serving the dinner in a few days. I left them out to get ripe for 48 hours in room temperature and they were perfect by the time I prepared them.
Onions came from Bobkat farms (named for Bob and his wife, Kat). He told me they were called torpedo onions. I had tasted a sample while I was talking to another farmer (the High-Heeled Hippie) and my kitchen supervisor Damien Shelby handed me a cup of these caramelized onions. It was almost like being at a candy shop. The natural sweetness. I knew that was going to be in the salad.
I got some farmers cheese that I would later fold in with parsley and chives as the base for a dressing. I found some squash. Saw some of the peppers. I knew that the salad would be a home run. Then I pursued something that could carry on this salad even more. I saw these beet tops. I knew those could be washed and cleaned and chiffonaded in the salad. I got some fresh shitake mushrooms that would soak up the dressing. The dressing was made with that farmers chess and some fresh local cream from Progress Milk Barn. The richness of the cream and the farmers cheese was balanced out by local honey and mustard. I marinated the salad for about two hours in that dressing. I combined all that with strawberries, cucumbers, and other fresh produce that I had on hand.
The salad was definitely a star, but I also got a chance to feature a boneless lamb roast that I sliced and served with creole mustard and honey, and a rustic wild goat that I made into patties and smothered with a Moroccan tomato jelly that just melted when a little heat was applied. My words for that goat are hairy, authentic, hay-like. It tastes like you have a cast iron skillet in the woods with a pit fire in the ground. Wild.
I had all I needed for the dinner. I was cooking for Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art (where I am currently the Executive Chef). But she wasn't my boss on this night. She was just a friend and someone who would be enjoying my food. Her house was full with her friends and family. They were group who'd been having weekly dinners like this with each other for decades.
Walking into Betsy’s household, it wasn’t about some typical American TV dinner while watching Dancing with the Stars. Everyone was gathered around talking, which is what my family does. Some of the men were checking in on the score of the game, just like in my household growing up. And then the ladies and some of the guys are hovering around the kitchen, too. Because no matter what, no matter what the score, nothing is going to distract them from those smells coming from the kitchen. It was great to see that in her home because that’s the way my family has been living and celebrating food my entire life.
I was finishing up the meal when I saw Betsy taking the lid off of a pot full of Delta tamales from Doe's. she asked for my help so I pulled the top off and they were smelling so salty and sweet. Everyone sat down for dinner at a long table on the screen porch looking out on her back yard that looked like the wilderness. A jungle. You started to hear the insects making all that noise as the nightfall came. For me, it’s common to have that sunday dinner type experience, and even though this was with different folks, it was the same feeling. In fact, I missed a family dinner at my grandmother's house that night, but she was fine for me to miss that dinner because she knew I was sharing with another family. So I told some of the diners that they had to return the favor and come eat with my family some day.
Eating fresh food and talking about it, you really bond. The guests that night could taste every bit and you could tell they were really appreciating food. But the food is just the start. It's what brings out the conversation and the stories. And dinners like this are the occasions when the chef gets to sit down and actually enjoy the plate. So I sat back and heard all the stories from across he table that I had never heard before. I saw thumbs up from the other end of the table from people just enjoying the food and each others' company. We’re definitely going to be doing more of these types of dinners and sharing of Mississippi stories. And I think i’ll surprise Betsy with my grandma making an appearance for the next one.