Restauranteur Robert St. John lets us in on memories of his cousin Jim Longino, a loved one he calls a true original, and then shares a recipe for Chicken Picatta.
They buried my cousin last week. He was sent to his reward with full military honors in one of the more unique funeral services I have attended, but we’ll cover those details further down the page. Let’s look at the man.
Jim Longino was a distant cousin. Neither of us ever knew exactly how we were related, but we assumed that my grandmother and his mother were cousins. Those two were close and I saw his mother often in my youth. My grandmother kept up with things like kinsfolk lineage details and, unfortunately, most of the information on that specific branch of the family tree died with her.
I only remember meeting Cousin Jim a few times during my childhood and early adulthood. But I always heard stories of his doings and whereabouts at my grandmother’s dinner table.
Cousin Jim was quite the character.
Jim Longino was born in 1928 and spent his youth in Hattiesburg and then his junior high and high school years in Jackson. He graduated high school, went to Ole Miss, and then served two years of active duty in the U.S. Army during the occupation of Italy. He came home from post-war Europe with a couple of medals and a bevy of stories he would tell over the next seven decades.
Cousin Jim was a storyteller. After the war he ventured to Hollywood to take a shot at the movie business and then moved back to Mississippi and worked as a salesman for several different companies. He was successful as he had the one true gift every salesperson should possess— an ability to connect.
Cousin Jim was a ladies’ man. He never met a member of the opposite sex— no matter how young or old— that he didn’t flirt with just a little. Not creepy old man flirting, but sweet, innocent, lighthearted natter. Typically, when he met a woman, whether at the grocery store or in the independent living facility in which he spent his final years, he would break out into a rousing rendition of the Oak Ridge Boys classic song, “Elvira.”
I’ve never been quite sure why he chose that slightly corny— almost novelty song— as his woo-to-impress-the-women number, as he had a good singing voice and knew most of the American Songbook and classics by Cole Porter and the like, but maybe it just fit his baritone style. Apparently, it worked.
In 2012, I took a large crew from two of my restaurants and hosted a weeklong fundraiser for the Mississippi Museum of Art and Extra Table. The pop-up was held in the museum for seven lunches and seven dinners. Our crew served Crescent City Grill food at lunch and Purple Parrot Café cuisine in the evenings. One day, early into that run, someone from the museum approached me during service and said, “Mr. St. John, you’ve got a call. He said he’s your cousin.”
“Robert, it’s your cousin Jim Longino. I’ve been reading you in the paper. I want to come and have dinner at the museum.” I invited him to dine with us that evening and a decade of fun kicked off the minute he walked through the museum door and back into my life. “I’m Robert’s cousin,” he would loudly proclaim to anyone within earshot— from the museum janitorial staff, to my servers, to the table of dining guests seated next to him.
That was in August. I invited him to drive down and spend that Thanksgiving with my family since he was alone. Cousin Jim arrived to our home that November a little late and seemed a little nervous. He asked for a glass of wine and my wife poured one. I can’t remember how the massive martini ended up in his hand— whether he asked for it or my father-in-law volunteered it— but that’s not the important detail.
My father-in-law, God love him, has always regaled us with stories of when he was a bartender in the Air Force. Feeling that his bartending services needed to be dusted off in that moment, after being mothballed since the Lyndon Johnson administration, he stepped up to the plate and offered to make Cousin Jim a martini. The officer’s club on the Air Force base obviously didn’t mind operating in the red because he poured Cousin Jim what amounted to a triple martini. Seriously, a triple. This made Cousin Jim very happy. He held the glass of wine in one hand, the triple martini in the other, and— with his sunglasses still on— drank alternately from each.
After he finished the wine and was well into his second martini (which was actually his sixth in strength) he stood up in the middle of the room and began to sing. My son leaned over and said, “We need to invite Cousin Jim every Thanksgiving.” Fifteen minutes later, Cousin Jim was down for the count and had passed out in a chair, a victim of my father-in-law’s Air-Force strength martinis and my wife’s Sauvignon blanc. At that point Cousin Jim was less than an hour into his visit.
He snored and coughed a little and I occasionally got up from the Thanksgiving dinner table to make sure he was breathing. Midway through lunch, Jim appeared in the dining room doorway and loudly announced, “Let’s eat! I’ll say the blessing.” So, we all held hands, closed our eyes, and blessed the food for the second time in 25 minutes.
Cousin Jim loved to dance. When he retired from his career in sales, he spent a decade or more as a dance host on cruise ships. He traveled the world dancing with single female travelers at night in the ship’s ballroom.
Cousin Jim loved tequila. In the past several years I would pick him up at his independent living facility in Ridgeland and take him to lunch or a movie. He was a fan of margaritas and action films. On our way to take him back home I would turn on the Frank Sinatra channel and he would sing along with every word, while telling stories of how he once saw Nat King Cole perform in a small club in Los Angeles. He was full of stories.
He was quick to tell anyone he met that his grandfather, Andrew Longino, was the Mississippi Governor who built the new state capital around the turn of the last century, if it was a lady, he would follow up with an acapella version of “Elvira.”
Cousin Jim’s health took a turn late this summer. He was in and out of the hospital. His condition worsened in the days before leaving for my October work schedule in Italy and he asked me to contact his attorney, McCall Stern, a smart, sharp, striking redhead who was exactly who I would have guessed Cousin Jim would hire as the person to handle his affairs. She was totally committed to him and his wellbeing and was his guardian angel in those final days.
My plan was to fly home from Italy and see him the following day. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean I got word that Cousin Jim had passed and, in that moment, the world lost one of its true individualists.
The funeral was a small affair. The drawback of living long means outlasting most of your peers. The pastor from his retirement home gave a moving and appropriate message and then the organist played and sang a rousing version of “Elvira.” It was perfect. Those in attendance spontaneously joined in on the “Giddy-up uh um-poppa-um-poppa mow-mow” part and somewhere up there Jim Longino was singing along.
The world needs more Cousin Jims. It’s people like him, not the sheep and lemmings and cookie-cutter people who follow the typical norms, newest fads, and trendy things of the moment. It’s the unique people who march to the beat of their own drummer and add spice and flavor to our daily lives that make the world a more interesting place in which to live. That was Jim Longino.
The older I get the more I appreciate the uniqueness of people. They are who give life its character, its personality, and its voice.
Cousin Jim was a true original.
This Week’s Recipe: Chicken Picatta
I have been cooking and serving several versions of this recipe for the past 25 years. It’s always a crowd pleaser.
- 1 cup All-purpose flour
- 1 Tbl House seasoning blend (see recipe)
- 8 each – 4 oz. Chicken breasts, butterflied, cut in half and pounded thin
- 2 tsp Kosher salt
- 2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
- ½ cup Extra virgin olive oil
- 6 Tbl Capers, drained and rough chopped
- 2 Tbl Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 Large lemon, zested (about 1 TB) and juiced (about 2 TB)
- 1 tsp Garlic, minced
- ½ cup Dry white wine
- ¼ cup Chicken stock (see recipe)
- 4 Tbl Unsalted butter, cut into cubes, chilled
In a bowl, combine the flour and house seasoning. Season the chicken with the salt and pepper. Lightly dust each breast in the seasoned flour and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the floured chicken, working in small batches, for about 2-3 minutes on each side and set aside on paper towels to drain. When all the chicken has been seared, add the capers, lemon zest and juice, parsley, and garlic to the same skillet and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Deglaze with the wine and cook until almost completely evaporated, about 3-4 minutes. Add the chicken stock and reduce until about 2 TB of liquid remains. Reduce heat to low and incorporate chilled butter pats one at a time, stirring with a wire whip until fully incorporated. Once all butter has been incorporated, remove from heat.
Serve 2 pieces per person and top each with the caper, lemon and butter mixture.