Confessions of an Urban Planter: Part 5

Two months after the solstice, the intensity of the sun had lessened, but because the earth had begun to tilt back in its orbit, the cotton plot received more continual light (if fractionally) as the sun cleared the tree line south of the garden. It was then almost to the day that the first vestiges of cold air presaging the oncoming season came sweeping across the Lower Forty, bringing frost to North Dakota but to Mississippi nothing more than a steady northerly breeze that in a higher latitude might well be construed as a sirocco. The summer’s occupation ended, and though the heat persisted in the day, nights no longer wrapped you in a suffocating blanket. It was hurricane season; sere, still and expectant.

The first boll opened the last week of August. I saw it under the light of a nearly-full moon, a low, white symmetrical glow against the shadowed green. Again, no thunder and lightning came, but though a friend in Arcola had sent me photos of a local field crop waist-high and plush with open bolls along with disparaging comments about my “scrappy-ass Jackson ‘plantation wanna-be’ cotton”, I was proud of my little fraction of an acre. It was, after all, making a crop, one that fit well with my modest and unpretentious character as an urban planter. Making a bale out of it might be impossible, but I’d have cotton to harvest.

To my astonishment, the opening cotton proved unrecognizable to many if not most of my neighbors. On many occasions I found myself faced with the question, “What is that?” as someone pointed to the whitening bolls. “Cotton,” I’d say, and they would either slap their foreheads or form a silent “o” with their lips. These reactions became a general rule of thumb for determining who of my neighbors were from where, and I’d always ask, but then I found that people from North Carolina and Tennessee didn’t recognize the plant. Most of them didn’t know an oak from an elm, either, but I’d cherished the notion that most Southerners would recognize the most iconic crop of their homeland out of repetition if nothing else. Perhaps the image of a cotton boll itself has become so divergent from reality that its actuality has become inconceivable to anyone save those who plant the seed. Sure, I was a half-assed farmer in the middle of Mississippi’s capital city, but I was making an effort.

Late August cotton near Arcola, Mississippi. Photo by Alan Orlicek.

Late August cotton near Arcola, Mississippi. Photo by Alan Orlicek.

Faulkner at the P.O.

Given his connections with the University of Mississippi, William Faulkner found periodic employment at the institution when he was a young. His job at the physical plant allowed him to write, but his tenure at the University post office was taxing both on his time and his nerves, which he clearly expresses in one of his most famous utterances: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”

Faulkner was honored in the most ironic fashion possible by the release of a 22-cent United States commemorative in his hometown of Oxford, Miss in August, 1987. The stamp was designed by Bradbury Thompson of Riverside, Conn., and is based on a well-known portrait by Murray L. Goldsborough. The stamp, part of the Literary Arts series, went on sale at local post offices Tuesday, Aug. 4. Ceremonies observing the release were held in conjunction with the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference.

Glazed Chicken

Marinate leg quarters of chicken overnight in a solution of water, sugar and soy. Drain, pat dry and brush with a very light barbecue sauce. Bake in a moderate oven until skin is crisp and the legs move easily. Serve with potato pancakes, field peas and sour cream.

Tomato Sandwiches from Mont Helena

This wonderful recipe comes from Feeding the Flock: A Collection of Recipes from the Rolling Fork Methodist Church (2003) and was contributed by Marilyn Tilghman, a member of the church who is also a caterer. Melissa Thomas, assistant coordinator of the Lower Delta Organization, at whose event I first tasted these delicious hors d’oeuvres, tells me that Marilyn prepares these for the reception at the annual presentation of the play A Dream Revisited at historic Mont Helena.

Mont Helena is a Colonial revival home built atop a ceremonial mound in the Mississippi Delta near Rolling Fork. The house was designed by George Barber, an architect more famous for his Queen Anne and Victorian style homes. Built in 1896 by Reverend George Harris and his wife Helen Johnstone Harris, Mont Helena was once one of the premier homes of the Delta. Rev. Harris died in 1911. Helen continued to live at Mont Helena until her death in 1917. Over the years, Mont Helena fell into disrepair, and by 1993, the once elegant mansion was a crumbling shell. Drick Rodgers, the current owner and a distant relative of Helen Harris, began restoring the home. In 2009, the Friends of Mont Helena was established, restoration work proceeded, and Mont Helena now provides visitors to the area with a beautiful example of post-bellum Southern architecture.

For forty sandwiches, fry to a crisp and crumble 1 pound bacon. Add to 2 cups (or more if needed) mayonnaise, 2 bunches of green onions (make sure to cut off about 1/2 of the green since it tends to be rather tough, then chop up the remaining onion in a small chop/dice. If that seems to be too much onion for your taste just reduce the amount. Season with a teapoon dill leaves, a teaspoon Tony Cachere’s Seasoning (original, more if you like) and black pepper to taste. Spread on 2 inch rounds of bread (I use soft wheat), top with tomato slices (Roma is recommended) that have been lightly salted and drained between layers of paper towels. I dust the tops of the tomatoes with dill before serving. This recipe makes about 40 sandwiches.

12 Dishes Every Southerner Should Know How to Cook

If you ever find yourself inclined to take on a project that is sure to stir up a lot of fuss (something that unless it has the potential for improving the world I’d generally advise against), ask a group of people about food. I submitted a preliminary list of twelve kitchen essentials for a Southerner to my friends, among them many talented cooks, and it was like throwing a June bug down into a flock of ducks. The pot roast was devastated by a barrage of detractors who claimed that it’s just got Yankee written all over it, the red velvet cake was gunned down as a Waldorf recipe and the pecan pie was mined by a sweet potato. So I substituted a pound cake and sweet potato pie for the red velvet and pecan, stewed greens, which almost lost out to butter beans, for the roast, and achieved some degree of consensus. This list deserves a Purple Heart at least.

Buttermilk biscuits
Pimiento and cheese
Fried chicken
Barbecued ribs
Pound cake
Fruit cobbler
Cornbread dressing
Chicken and dumplings
Sweet potato pie
Banana pudding
Stewed greens