Audubon Visits Jackson

In this short excerpt from his Journals, artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who knew the older cities of the state on the Mississippi well, describes his only visit to Mississippi’s new capital city on the Pearl. May 1, 1823 – I left the bayou on a visit to Jackson, which I found to be a mean place. The hotel atop the bluff was the lowest sort of dive, a rendezvous for gamblers and vagabonds. Disgusted with the place and the people, I left and returned to my wife in Natchez.

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Butter Up

Any kitchen’s larder should include butter: without butter, cakes lose their savor, eggs can’t find their flavor and biscuits just get lost. Butter has no substitute; a chemist is no match for a cow. Butter owes its decline as a kitchen staple to its high saturated fat content. In a sly aside, Julia Child said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream,” which makes you wonder if she was talking about cooking at all. She wasn’t; she was talking about taste, which is an altogether different matter. Julia died in 2004, two days short of her ninety-second birthday, and I’ll bet good money she never nicked a stick of Blue Bonnet in her life.

Most butters (there are many types and grades) are yellowish because of beta carotene, the same nutrient that gives most sweet potatoes, winter squash and (of course) carrots, its highest sources, an orange coloration. My first taste of homemade butter was in the kitchen of a boyhood friend, Dean Wright, whose family owned a farm on the edge of town. The butter was almost chalky-white. The Wright’s cows didn’t eat much carotene, but they lactated nonetheless, and Dean’s family made good use of fresh, whole milk, thick, sweet cream and pale, pure butter. Margarine, the earliest version of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” made its dubious debut during the reign of Napoleon III, arguably the dimmest bulb on his Euro-trash family tree, who remembered (or was probably reminded of) his brilliant uncle’s observation, “Une armée marche à son estomac.” Intending to maintain France’s position as a military power, an ambition that was soon to be quashed by “blood and iron” Bismarck, he offered a prize for a butter substitute that would be “suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes”. (To paraphrase an earlier French ruler: “Let them eat ‘Country Crock’”.) In 1896, Napoleon awarded the prize to the spiffily-named Hippolyte Mège-Mourié. The ensuing Franco-Prussian War ended eighteen months later, shortly after the men from Berlin reduced Parisians to paying premium prices for plump vermin. Margarine probably helped make cats Shanghaied from the Left Bank more palatable, but long after the armistice, this artificial butter, like the Second Empire itself, remains a blot on France’s lilied escutcheon. (It’s worth noting that the first margarine factory opened in Germany in 1871.)

Nowadays margarine, once a means for upper-class French to reserve the best for themselves, has taken a demographic volte-face. Thanks to nutrition Nazis and Madison Avenue, butter rates as a heart-stopping Colt .45. As a result, margarine finds its way into the “butter compartments” of affluent refrigerators all over the place. The fact of the matter is, many brands of margarine contain saturated fats due to hydrogenating processes that enable vegetable oils to remain solid. As a final shot in this vein, let’s tote out the infamous French paradox, which casts light on the low incidence of heart disease among the French despite the fact that they eat a lot of saturated fats. The French paradox has oh-so-aptly led to the promotion of wine as a health food, an endorsement that covers a multitude of sins. Margarine as a spread insults any honest piece of bread. Either butter or olive oil makes much more sense. If you cook with margarine, you shouldn’t; given its high water content it’s just a bad idea. Butter, on the other hand, is essential in too many recipes to recount. A final swirl of butter adds gloss and aroma to a sauce, it browns nicely on broiled fish, and potatoes beg for it. Here’s a very simple recipe that unites butter with its cousin cheese in a great way.

Pepper Cheese Biscuits

Cut six ounces of butter into four cups self-rising flour. Add one cup grated cheddar cheese, one cup raw chopped mild red pepper and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Roll out, cut into rounds and bake in an oiled skillet in a hot oven until lightly browned. Serve hot or cold. These are great split and filled with shaved ham.

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A Basic Prima Vera

Toss cooked pasta, green peas, diced carrots, celery and chicken in a basic white sauce, add freshly-grated Parmesan and season with black pepper. Any combination of vegeables can be added; sauteed peppers and green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli or Brussels sprouts are particularly appropriate. Serve with bread and olives.

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The Real First Decoration Day

Widely acknowledged as the precursor of Memorial Day, widespread observance of a Decoration Day began shortly after the end of hostilities in the Civil War, when citizens began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. Many cities claim to be home of this observance, including Waterloo, NY, Boalsburg, PA, Carbondale, IL, Columbus, GA, and much closer to home, Columbus, Mississippi. In their 2014 book, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday, Dr. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware state that according to the Veteran’s Administration, at least 25 cities across America claim to have originated the Memorial Day holiday. While numerous historians feel that the true history may never be known, this book rejects that claim and explores the factual history of the holiday and shows that most of the better-known stories are mere myths and local legends. But Jackson, Mississippi can lay verifiable proof that the first Decoration Day was held on April 26, 1865 in the historic cemetery in downtown Jackson now known as Greenwood Cemetery.

Citizens of the Confederacy were well aware of the strategic importance of Appomattox; those in Jackson, Mississippi were already shaken by the fall of Richmond on Apr. 4, 1865, and news of Grant’s victory reached Governor Charles Clark some days later. In her diary his daughter recalled the telegram being passed around: “Yes, it was all over. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox! Like a thunderbolt it fell on all of us. We were stunned. I remember feeling astonishment that we were not all dead.” Many if not most were already resigned to defeat and were shocked by the assassination of Lincoln less than a week later, so it was a somber group that assembled on Tuesday evening, April 25 at The Oaks, home of former Jackson mayor James Boyd on North Jefferson Street. Just before midnight two couriers arrived with the news that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor and Union Major General E.R.S. Canby had agreed to a truce in Meridian, darkening the mood. Among them was Sue Langdon Adams, a Missouri native and niece of Mississippi’s Senator Robert Adams. A nurse, Sue had infiltrated Union lines bringing medical supplies back for Confederate forces and informing Confederate authorities of Union troop deployments.

When the news of the truce came, Sue was reading Plutarch’s Lives, where it’s mentioned that the graves of fallen soldiers were adorned with wreathes of laurel. Fearing that the reoccupation of Jackson was imminent, she tore out a blank page and penned an appeal to the women of Jackson to gather the next day at the city cemetery at two in the afternoon and adorn the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. One of the young couriers took the note and raced to the office of the newspaper, Mississippian, just in time for it to be printed in the next morning’s edition. The next day, a large group of citizens gathered in the cemetery soon every soldier’s grave was covered with floral designs of every kind. Troops led by Colonel McFarland marched through the cemetery as their band played Handel’s “Dead March” from Saul. As Adams moved through the rows of graves, she saw some that were unadorned and asked why there were no flowers on them. Told they were the graves of Union soldiers, she replied, “I will garland them with my pink roses for mothers and sisters sobbed prayers over them as they marched away. Maybe they fell in the riven flags in the battle of West Jackson.”

Adams later moved to California and married a Judge Vaughan. She died in Arlington, Virginia in 1911 and is buried in the Mount Olivet United Methodist Cemetery there. Her memorial efforts were acknowledged in an inscription on a monument which was unveiled on the Jackson Capitol Green in 1891:

“It recks not where their bodies lie,
By bloody hillside, plain or river,
Their names are bright on Fame’s proud sky,
Their deeds of valor live forever.”

Decoration Day Originated in Jackson, Miss. April 26th 1865
By Sue Landon Vaughan

Text by Cecile Wardlaw, based on research by Peter Miazza

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Bookstore Graffiti

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Refrigerator Pickles

Slice or cube cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers or squash, pack in a jar with aromatics and fill with a hot salty/sweet vinegar brine seasoned with a pickling mix. Let it cool, then seal before refrigerating. These are best after a week and will keep for a good month. Get your kids to help you make them pretty; they’re better at it than you are.

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Syphilis Explosion

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