Jezebel – The Naughty Southern Sauce that’s Crept North of the Mason-Dixon

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My sister,  Jenn, is well known for her over-the-top themed birthday parties.   Last night she rocked out yet another one – creating a Willy Wonka Wonderland for her sweet daughter’s third birthday.    This one was SO insanely well done, that one of her nephews said – in an affectionate way – “Aunt Jenn, you’re officially crazy!”   What’s great about my sister’s  parties is that she makes them fun for the kids with super-creative party favors , decorations, cookies, and games.   But, she also has great food for the adults.

She always has a pre-dinner gnosh that everyone can peck at before the main event.    And, one of the now standards at the spread is a plate of cream cheese with a spicy pepper jelly spooned over, surrounded by cocktail crackers.     This isn’t anything we grew up eating – the gnoshes of our home years might have included the obligatory hanky panky dip, or a Skyline chili dip.   But Jenn is mixing it up, contemporizing our family food lexicons- and this time, with the spicy jelly-over-cream cheese, is borrowing from an old Southern Sauce, known as the Jezebel sauce.   I learned about this Southern staple  from the  Food Network Star competition on the Food Network.

The Jezebel sauce is a sweet and spicy one – similar to the red pepper jelly my sister uses in her appetizer.     The Southern version is usually made of equal parts pineapple, peach, or apricot preserves and apple jelly, and then tricked out with horseradish sauce, dried or prepared mustard, and sometimes black pepper.        It’s typically used as a glaze on ham, chicken or pork, but also very popular as a cracker dipper over cream cheese.    It’s also been served on biscuits over country ham and pimento cheese, at places like the Scratch Biscuit Company in Roanoke.

The origin is a bit dicey, because it’s claimed by Florida, Kansas, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,  one of my favorite yearly fall food meccas.     Its name, after one of the bad girls of the Bible – the headstrong Phoenician Queen Jezebel,  in the Old Testament, who was thrown out of a window and consequently eaten by dogs – might hint at it’s originator.   Jezebel, was as an assertive woman vilified for thousands of years because she wouldn’t let men dominate her and because she seduced King Ahab and then allowed worship of the idol Baal in Israel.    The term ‘jezebel’ became associated with fallen women and false prophets. The popular 1938 American film with the same title was named after the Biblical seductress   So, perhaps the origin story comes from either a judgey Church lady who created the sauce for a Sunday congregational dinner, or a 1930s housewife who’d seen the movie and yearned for more excitement in her life.

Although references to fruit horseradish sauces in the South come as early as 1938, the Jezebel sauce is first referenced in a newspaper article in 1958, by American food writer (for the New York Sun and New York Herald Tribune)   Clementine Paddleford.

Whatever the Southern origin, the Jezebel sauce, or another spicy form of it, has made it north of the Mason-Dixon to our Yankee table care of my cooky-party-planning sister.

The Corned Beef Sandwich that Launched a Congressional Investigation

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The corned beef sandwich, preserved in resin at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana, memorializes the first corned beef sandwich in space, snuck on board by Gemini astronaut, John Young.

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“Try Our Corned Beef.  It  is out of this world,” proclaimed the sign in front of the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1965.     And, indeed, their corned beef was.     Nestled inside the Ramada Inn, was Wolfie’s Sandwich shop, near the NASA Cape Canaveral Pad 19 launched the Gemini space missions in the mid 1960s.   It was partially owned by six of the Gemini astronauts.   The little shop became a hangout for these larger than life men who pioneered our space program before and after their legendary missions.

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The men of the Gemini space missions.

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To come up with the freeze dried space food now used on missions , and long before Dippin Dots became an ubiquitous fair food, a great deal of experimentation was required.      Concern on space missions was that weightlessness would carry crumbs and other by products of food into the control panels and foul the electronics, risking the safety of the missions.    Part of the Gemini missions were to test various types of foods that would be safe in anti-gravity.

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Carl was manager of the Ramada Inn and its sandwich shop.    He and Wally Shirra were talking in Wolfie’s one afternoon about the horrible food they had to eat on their missions – emulsified, reconstituted food in packages.    Carl said if he had known how bad the food was, he would have catered the missions for them from Wolfies.    The discussion ended in them agreeing to sneak on a corned beef sandwich on the next mission piloted by Gus Grissom and John Young.     The two took thick slices of corned beef, wrapped them in cellophane and dropped them from high ladders to see if they would stand the forces of takeoff.   What they didn’t plan for was the affect of weightlessness on the dark rye bread.

Shirra, known as a prankster, bought a Wolfie’s corned beef sandwich and helped Young sneak it in his space suit.    As they leveled off in space, Young pulled out the sandwich and asked Grissom what he wanted on his corned beef.   After one bite, the sandwich disintegrated, and rye crumbs and caraway seeds were floating everywhere.   History would probably never have known of the incident if photos of the crumb-laden control panel hadn’t made it to mission control back home.

The photos of this deli delivery in space fascinated Americans, and caught the eye of Congress.    Several congressmen became upset, thinking that the astronauts were ignoring the space food that they were supposed to evaluate on mission, costing the country millions of dollars.   The House of Representatives appropriations committee convened a meeting to investigate the corned beef scandal.   What came of the investigation was the prevention of any unauthorized deli meats into orbit on future mission.

Corned beef did make it on the menu in time for the first space shuttle flight in April of 1981, a mission commanded by John Young, the original sandwich smuggler.

In his 2012 memoirs, Young said of the scandal, that the corned beef sandwich got more attention than it deserved.    Besides, he noted, the smuggled sandwich didn’t even have mustard or pickle on it!