Letter from Jackson

Darling Julia,

The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good in time for Thanksgiving, back to the mountains, to the house you love that keeps me on the road to turn it into the home you dream about, back to you and the woods I love that keep me coming back. When I am there, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.

It’s been four months since I got here last August. (I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel!) This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of interaction, not just of being, but of living there, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, even tasting it, developing a feel for it, and all that I have done, since repaving these streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights, though admittedly most of my time was spent downtown, which in many ways can be considered the strangest part of the city, yet paradoxically the most characteristic. I can only try to explain.

Jackson is not an old city like New Orleans or Boston, not even neighboring Vicksburg or Natchez, and it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Art Deco-era towers and none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings, and the face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with shattered windows like broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with the now-prerequisite roundabouts and pretty narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. In short, the city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.

Poverty is one of the two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, which is closely intertwined, is race or more accurately racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here. While a great show is made in the local media of progress, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office and funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed to achieve that end. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself.

I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well, darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the side of a mountain under the starry sky.

All my love,


When Giraffes Flew: A Review

Jeff Weddle’s vision encompasses many facets of the human condition—focused rage and conflict, love and lust, the peevishness of petty minds—but for the most part his vignettes confront you with those moments in life when the world shifts a bit, when the things that were in place lose their balance, bringing into focus the law that states life can turn on a can of sardines. Weddle’s stories are about those brief, shining moments in a South of indiscriminate geography, for the most part that of two-lane roads, the landscapes of Flannery O’Connor and Larry Brown, in a sturdy, staccato prose that tell what happens when we come to face the world as who we are, naked and without artifice.

The most powerful stories in the collection are “A Feast of Feathers”, a harrowing story of the loss of innocence; “Hot Sardines”, which delineates a situation packed with potential, a study in lowered expectations that explode into chaos and disorder; “A Constant Battle of the Flesh”, a very, very funny story of tangled lust that ends in the complex complacency many such situations do; “Epiphany”, perhaps best described as a prose poem about “God’s cruelest gift”, insufficient talent; “She Finds Herself Dancing”, a truly beautiful observation/reflection on that magic which takes place when the spotlights are upon you; “Dooley’s Revenge”, retelling that “oldest story” of two men and a majorette; the back-to-back stories of “Dog Day” and “Ditto”, which describe how some people weren’t made to care for others while some care for others too much in the wrong way; and “State of Grace”, a story that defies description but one you will find yourself reading again to find the song behind the words, “I wonder who you are.”

For the life of me, it is my fondest hope that in time the whimsical cover for this dark and perceptive collection of short stories, an image taken from the last story, which in itself is a reflection on theology, perhaps even on the need for theology, will become a collector’s item more illustrative of a publisher’s misconception of a work than it is of the work itself. Jeff Weddle is far from whimsical, and though When Giraffes Flew does have visions of exotic animals cavorting in clouds, nobody has an umbrella.

Chicken and Dumplings

Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply “said” anything) that Rose Budd Stevens (aka Mamie Willoughby) was a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my pea-pickin’ heart. If you are interested in the way most Mississippians cooked and prepared foodstuffs in the first half of the 20th century, then you should get From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (University Press of Mississippi: 1988). The book contains a cautionary editor’s note advising readers that most of the recipes contain “a higher fat, sugar and salt content than generally recommended by physicians and nutritionists today”. Well of course they do because those people didn’t sit around on their butts all day; they worked hard, ate well and deservedly so. For those Mississippi foodies who love the literature of the table too, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful work written by a remarkable woman. Mrs. Willoughby and I grew up in the same environment, rural Mississippi, but at different times. Reading her reminds me of the phrases and cadences I heard from my grandmothers and great aunts, so much so that I hear in her their voices fused altogether. Mamie, much like those women, is not averse to a lecture either, as she makes obvious in this passage:

Let’s get this chicken stew, dumplings and chicken pie business straight right now. Chicken Stew: Roll thick dough, cut into strips, drop into boiling chicken broth, and cook uncovered. Chicken Dumplings: Drop spoonfuls of dough on top of boiling chicken and broth, cook with tight-fitting lid on, and don’t peek. Chicken Pie: Put layer of chicken and broth in large pan. Dot with butter and black pepper, then layer of rich dough. Bake until light brown; add another layer of chicken, broth, and dough, bake. Do this until pan is nearly full. Some hold with a cup of sweet milk added, then back 30 minutes. I like hard-boiled eggs and sweet cream in my pie. Last would be cups of cooked-down broth, tasty with floating eyes of chicken fat, all melded together, food fit for the gods, company or family. Remember this was before it was known you could eat yourself to death!

This is one instance when Mamie and I part ways. Her recipe for stew resembles my family’s recipe for chicken and dumplings. What we’d call “drop dumplings”, which she uses in her C&Ds, were what we usually made with sweet dough for cobblers. It might be worth noting that Mamie is from south Mississippi, while I’m from the north part of the state, but I’m not sure if that’s a valid geographical culinary distinction. Here’s my recipe, which was used by my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother.  Typically, my ancestresses would use a cut-up whole chicken and cook it with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper, nothing more. These days, I just use leg quarters, because I find breast meat flavorless and stringy, the dark meat has a much better flavor and texture. You want to use one leg quarter for each person (I always throw in an extra one “for the pot”), and about a quart of stock for every two leg quarters. Debone your chicken, return the bones to the pot and reduce by about a third, then strain and return to pot. You want a good, rich broth, about a quart for each two leg quarters. For your dough, make biscuit dough with sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into the broth while it’s at a rolling boil. Once it starts to thicken, add the chicken (make sure to check for bones!), reduce heat, cover and cook maybe for another minute to fluff the dumplings, then turn off the heat and let the pot sit for about another five minutes. You’ll have to adjust the salt, since the dumplings, like any boiled starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.) will absorb it in cooking. I like my chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.

In the city of Jackson, Mississippi, which is filled with upwardly-mobile people of all stripes, chicken and dumplings is frowned upon as something poor people eat; well, I am poor, and I’ll be the first to say that if you won’t eat the food I set before you on my table because you think it’s beneath your questionable dignity, then you can scoot your uptight ass out my door, go to Parlor Market, get some over-seasoned hog belly from a tattooed hipster for twenty bucks a pop and never expect to enter my home again. Sweetly be!

Wilted Greens

Contrary to the widespread belief among our fellow countrymen that Southerners cook their vegetables until whatever nutritional value they may have held is lost (most often described as “cooking vegetables to death”), we have always enjoyed a wide variety of vegetables either raw (particularly in marinated salads) or lightly cooked as in the following recipe, which has been prepared in Dixie kitchens long before the word “Dixie” came into use. Granted, while the vegetables in this salad aren’t devoid of nutritional value, the other ingredients collectively render this recipe one of the unhealthiest under current dietary guidelines, but it is delicious.

Use the freshest mustard greens you can find, crisp and green without a spot of brown or yellow on them at all. If you buy a bunch in the store, it will have about a dozen to twenty Florida Broadleaf mustard leaves. You can mix these with Purple Top turnip greens if you like, but for this recipe Georgia collards, which in my opinion do require stewing, are out of the question. If you want to use kale, Bibb lettuce, arugula or any other of the more expensive leafy greens, go right ahead, but if you ask me, you’re going to look damned silly bringing lard-wilted arugula to a dinner table. Spinach is a much better alternative. Wash the greens thoroughly, shake off excess water and place in a colander or dish rack to dry, and pat dry before making the salad. Strip the greens of stems and shred, which should give you about eight cups of loose greens.

Fry six to eight slices of bacon until very crisp. Depending on the thickness of the rind, this will render about a quarter cup of drippings. Remove bacon and set on a paper towel to drain. Reheat the oil, add about a half cup of white vinegar (don’t use cider vinegar) mixed with about two tablespoons pepper vinegar. Let this cook down by about a third. Add about a teaspoon of sugar. Place greens in a bowl or pan. Pour the hot oil/vinegar mixture over the greens and toss vigorously with plenty of salt and black pepper. Top with thinly sliced white onions, crumbled bacon and chopped boiled egg. Sprinkle with more black pepper and serve immediately with a bowl of pintos and cornbread.


The Southerner’s Cookbook: A Review

Transitions in regional media are often difficult to discern, but when it comes to the South, which has an arguably more identifiable character than any other region of the country, watersheds can be mapped with a bit more precision.

Such is the case with Garden & Guns newest release, The Southerner’s Cookbook, which is the third installment in three years (each October) under the G&G label. The first two imprimaturs, The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life (Oct., 2013) and Good Dog (Oct., 2014), set the tone of the magazine’s brand, which is clearly targeted, in the words of G&G president and CEO Rebecca Darwin, “to people like me or to people who were very sophisticated, very worldly, but in love with where they’re from, which is this beautiful place called the South.” The label has a pronounced literary bent as is evidenced by its contributors, and given its added emphasis on sophistication and worldliness, one might well gather that Darwin and her team have set their collective caps to filling a decidedly upscale niche somewhere between brashness of The Oxford American and the comfort of that grand dame of regional periodicals, Southern Living. What with the progression of G&G’s publications so far, it’s a safe bet to expect the release of a book on Southern gardening next year.

The Southerner’s Cookbook is indeed market-generated, and I really shouldn’t be surprised that only one restaurant from the entire state of Mississippi carries a recipe. John Currence has a passage about his latest project, whole roast hog, which is somewhat of a departure for a native of the Big Easy operating in the Little Easy, but this is an era of diversity. Martha Foose inexplicably given the context is mentioned in a recipe for bacon crackers. The one recipe that shocks and dismays me is the one for “Comeback Sauce (sic)”, which is not only compared with McDonald’s “Secret Sauce”, but also provided by a chef from Alabama with a restaurant in Atlanta. The nod to Jackson in the first few words simply does not make up for such a slight. The cookbook is also far off the mark by consigning Jesse Houston’s restaurant Saltine, which specializes in oysters and seafood, to a sauce (Black Pepper Ranch Dressing) rather than an entrée. Both Mississippi and Jesse deserve far, far better than this.

If you need more evidence that Mississippi is nothing more than “that land mass between Louisiana and Alabama”, you need turn no further than The Southerner’s Cookbook. Yupster cookbooks have come of age, and Julia Reed is the bellwether for Mississippi. God help us all.




Floods, Sweat, and Tears

Though Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles, he lived in New Orleans as a small child and spent summers there until he was 11 years old, when his family returned to California. Music can be said to be in his blood in the most literal sense, since he had three uncles who were noted Hollywood film-score composers: Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman. In 1974, Reprise Records released Newman’s fifth album, “Good Old Boys”, his first album to achieve commercial success.

The premiere live performance of the music was in Atlanta on October 5 of that year, with guest artist Ry Cooter and Newman conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The songs on the album as a whole constitute not only a searing satire on the character of the South in general, but also an indictment of the hypocrisy of northern (and western) states in dealing with the institutional racism of the South in the 20th century. The song “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” is a plea to the highest levels of government for the relief of the Sisyphean struggle against poverty that is an ongoing condition for the people in this country who rely upon an hourly wage.

The most poignant song, “Louisiana, 1927” is based on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which to this day is the most devastating flood to hit the United States. What makes the ’27 flood most infamous is that in an effort to save the city where their profits were made, New Orleans businessmen insisted on dynamiting levees to divert water to the poorer surrounding parishes, which were effectively destroyed and many lives were lost. In the final verse, President Calvin Coolidge “comes down in a railroad train” with a “little fat man with a notebook in his hand”. Coolidge says, callously, “Little fat man, ain’t it a shame/What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?”, in which we can draw a direct parallel to the presidential indifference of Bush in the wake of Katrina.

They’re trying to wash us away,
They’re trying to wash us away …


Winter Green

In dry summers we forget the life that survives drought, living in the crooks and crannies on the barren trunks and branches of older trees, then after days upon days of pressing heat and caustic light, rains fall and woody bones come alive again, not with their own vigor, which is waning, but with a rebirth of fern, lush and green in a browning world, and on misty mornings when leaves are wet, you can hear laughter from little people among the fronds.

Theroux at Rowan Oak

Mississippians, particularly those of us from north Mississippi, should resign ourselves to literary scrutiny by writers of stature, since those without standing dare not scale the Parnassus of Oxford without credentials. Paul Theroux is no exception, but here we should pause and ask ourselves not only why they come here, but what (if anything) they’re looking for. Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to those who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident if not always clear clarion that reverberates from the center of Lafayette County across the world.

Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s effort spans generations. Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, but it’s also important that we read what others have to say about the one writer who twisted the skein of the South into a perceivable if frayed fabric.