Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Robert St. John: From a Hot Dog Cart

BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE— This week will mark the final week of my most recent work stint in Italy. I host tours in this country, and a few other European countries, 10-12 weeks out of the year. This seven-week, five-tour journey started in Rome before meeting my first group in Sicily. After that tour was complete, I flew up to Tuscany where my fourth group— in almost as many weeks— arrives tomorrow. 

There are so many aspects of this country that have made me fall in love with it over the past decade. The history, the food, the landscapes, the culture, the architecture, and the ever-present arts at every turn.

Though, first and foremost, it’s the people. 

I love the Italian people. 

Though “Italian people” is a potentially misleading term. As in America, people and personalities are different from region to region. The Romans are quite different than the Venetians. The Milanese are a world apart from the Sicilians. The same goes for the Tuscans, Bolognese, and so on. It’s been my observation that the Romans almost consider themselves Roman before Italian, the same with the Florentines, the Venetians, the Milanese, Sardinians, and so on. I sometimes forget that this country wasn’t an actual unified country until 1861. 

It's been my experience that no matter where I am in Italy, most of the people are warm and friendly. That goes double for Tuscany. 

My friend, fellow Jackson restaurateur, and noted Italian progeny, Fred Cerami, is the epitome of the warm, kind, and generous spirit I have witnessed over here. Anyone who has spent almost sixty years in foodservice and still maintains a positive attitude, generous spirit, and boundless enthusiasm, with a steadfast dedication to family is worthy of praise in my book.

Fred Cerami— along with the Ward brothers who ran the local Frostop burger chain— was the first entrepreneurial example I can recall. When I was nine years old, I remember seeing a guy with a hot dog cart set up on the corner of Hardy Street and Hutchinson Avenue in my hometown of Hattiesburg. My mother told me, “That young man is a college student at the university and is selling hotdogs to put himself through college.” Even as a kid I admired that. I guess he’s also one of the first people I ever encountered in our industry. 

It was a treat to get to eat a hot dog from Cerami’s cart and I can remember pleading with my mom to stop there, often. There was something special about buying a hotdog off the street instead of in a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

In addition to his entrepreneurial spirit, independence, and focused work ethic at an early age, he was kind, friendly, and hospitable— all traits that have grown deeper in him through the years. 

If one can’t admire someone who put himself through college selling 35-cent hotdogs, then you live by a different standard of accomplishment than I. Add to that the fact that he’s been in the restaurant business since the mid 1970s, and you have a true Mississippi restaurant legend and the godfather of the Jackson restaurant scene. I think Fred probably holds the record for being the longest-running continuous restaurateur in town who has been the sole owner of an establishment (A few other longstanding eateries— great as they are— have been passed down to the next generation).

Cerami has genuine care and concern for his fellow restaurateurs. After we opened our Italian restaurant in Ridgeland, he drove over from his Italian restaurant in Flowood and made a point to dine with us and congratulate me. I was so moved by the gesture that I stood on a chair in the middle of a packed dining room and announced his presence and asked for a round of applause for his years of service to the Jackson metropolitan area. 

This summer, a few weeks before we opened the Hattiesburg bakery, he popped in while we were cleaning construction debris from the dining area just to congratulate me on the upcoming opening. 

I could go on for several more paragraphs about his work ethic, Godliness, enthusiasm, steadfastness, and dedication to his restaurant and staff, but all that pales in comparison to his devotion and commitment to his special needs grandson, AJ. That young man is Cerami’s entire life and Fred is completely and totally devoted to his constant care. At an age when most people would have already retired and called it quits after enduring almost six decades of brutal restaurant work, Cerami— like many of the best Italians I know, and like all of the finest men I know— has prioritized his family. That is the true measure of the man.

Fred Cerami has always done what it takes— whatever it takes— to succeed in business and in life. He also has genuine care and concern for his fellow man.

The old hot dog cart that he rolled around town to put himself through college is now in the dining room of his Flowood restaurant and is used as a salad bar. It stands as a testament to his determination, grit, and tenacity. If there were a Hall of Fame of Mississippi restaurateurs, Fred Cerami would be a shoo-in for a first-ballot entry into the inaugural class, and if there were a museum that held all the iconic restaurant items that have made this state a great place to eat and live, that hot dog cart would be front and center.

Overall, Italians are a passionate people. That’s why I think they’re so successful in the restaurant business, a profession that demands passion and perseverance. Fred Cerami is the living, breathing embodiment of those two traits, with a lot of bonus character assets thrown in for good measure.

Ben fatto, amico mio.



 Caprese Crostini

1 loaf               Ciabatta bread, sliced ¼” thick, about 16 slices

3 cups              Roma tomatoes, small diced
2 TB                Extra virgin olive oil
1 TB                Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp                Kosher salt
½ tsp               Fresh ground black pepper
6-8 each          Large fresh basil leaves. chiffonade

Preheat oven to 300.
To make the crostinis, place the sliced Ciabatta on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake until crispy, about 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool completely at room temperature. If you are doing this ahead of time, store at room temperature in an airtight container for 2-3 days.
Stack the basil leaves, roll them tight, and slice thin with a sharp knife (chiffonade). Combine with tomatoes, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl.
Divide the mixture among the crostinis, about 3-4 TB per crostini. Drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar as desired. Adjust salt level and add black pepper to taste.


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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS