Collards at Tara

Food is rarely mentioned in fiction because writers in this genre are more concerned with the turmoil of the human condition than soups and sauces, but you’re going to find food mentioned in the fiction of many writers; Proust, for instance, or Dickens or Woolf along with dozens of others. The most notable fictional description of an antebellum Southern meal is from Gone with the Wind. After the war, when Scarlett had come home to ruin and desolation and declared, “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” hunger still reigned at Tara:

There were apples, Yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare. A the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air.

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

Margaret Mitchell was born in an upper-class home in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, and her family roots were well-established in antebellum Georgia, so she was well-informed when it came to the viands of the Southern table. While most of the dishes seem apt for a plantation meal in early 19th century, some people (admittedly me among them) might find the presence of collards in what we might assume is a porcelain tureen a jarring note. But stewed collards are a premiere green leafy vegetable of the region, robust and hearty, a satisfying and substantial addition to any table.

Confessions of an Urban Planter: Part 2

The first week of May, Jim Steeby from Stewart, Mississippi, said cotton planting had begun in the Delta. With two beds ready, I sowed my cotton by hand, which was a less-than-mystical experience than I had anticipated, but shouldn’t have, since cotton itself is a plant, and what aura it has is what we have given it; besides, it was the seeds themselves which no doubt found an exhilaration in being thrust into warm, moist soil after such a wait. Of the four beds planned, the ones on the east and west were planted on May 5. Since my appeal for seeds had netted no less than three copious batches (in different colors, I might add, blue, brown and purple due to the fungicides which coated them), they were mixed together in a batch and sown, some in short rows, others in small hills. Predictably, once the seed was planted, the rains ceased, and watering began, not just for the cotton, but for the other seeds and seedlings already in place; their roots, once established, would sustain them in months to come, but the roots themselves had to be encouraged.

The next two beds were planted on May 10, after the soil had been broken up with an adz borrowed from a nearby neighbor, then churned by another near neighbor with a gas-powered tiller, which thoroughly belittled my former efforts. Sandy clay and humus was mixed with existing dirt to a depth of at least a foot. The seeds were sown in roughly four very short rows in both beds, and though rain threatened all day, it never appeared, so watering was again in order. On the same day, I noticed that the first seedlings had begun to appear in the pot and the west bed. Again, their emergence seemed anticlimactic. Perhaps I was simply tired, or perhaps I was distracted by other events in the garden, since other plants were up as well: sunflowers, morning glories and moonflowers, marigolds, plum grannies and zinnias, cherry tomatoes and celosia. The coneflowers were budding, as were the orphaned Easter lilies I’d garnered from neighbors, and the herbs (chives, mint, oregano and others) were at their late spring peak. The garden was coming into being, and it promised to be a bountiful year.

For whatever reason, the cotton seeds proved fickle. To make a series of mini-rows, a total of perhaps fifty were planted each round, each planting a mixture of the three seed types, those with a purple coating proving the most viable. Rainy weather in mid-May helped the second set, and before long the rows (as such) began to take shape, not only in lines but in triangles and circles. Only the closest of seedlings needed thinning. In Delta fields, such fussy tending is not necessary, but being fractional this acreage needed more attention to crowding; in this instance, optimal outcome involving big, pretty plants that would bloom and boll. A rainy May helped; the cotyledons and stems grew big and fat. By the end of the month, some seedlings had preliminary leaves, and I decided to wait on thinning. One the one hand, I wanted the best plants possible, but then I’ve seen cotton growing close together, and in the best situation of open field and plentiful rain, all the plants were tall, leafy and in flower. Somehow back in the back of my mind I kept trying to imagine what kind of machine planted cotton, and I couldn’t envision it being less haphazard than me. I tried to imagine how cotton must have looked in its primeval state in Tehuacán, predictably failed but persisted. While many scoffed at my crop, growing cotton has become more than an endeavor; it has become a responsibility, and my care has paid off. By the first week in June, the cotton was about six inches tall and the cotyledons were being replaced by true leaves. Though my beds received only five hours of direct sun a day, the stems were strong and red, so I decided thinning needn’t be that drastic, since cotton in row crops grows much closer together.

In the Deep South, we have nothing resembling the graduated springs and falls of more northerly latitudes, and while our winters are predictably brief and comparatively mild, summer has such a duration that it can be divided into three parts: new summer, high summer and far summer. The summer solstice marks the beginning of the high summer, when daytime temperatures are in the nineties and seventies at night. By that time, the cotton was a foot high, but overshadowed by early summer annuals such as zinnias, first crop marigolds and sweet cherry tomatoes. With marigolds and cotton still in mind, more marigolds are planned for early August before the cotton bolls. By that time the old maroon plume coxcomb will bloom, the yellow plum grannies ripen, the red popcorn will begin to brown and the low hedge of asters make such a show of blue as to bring the October sky to ground. In the meantime, it’s lay-by time.

Andrew Bucci: Art, Food and History

As incredulous as it may sound to us today, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the citizens of the very city who had grown up on and around the bluffs surrounding this iconic Mississippi landmark.

The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Enjoying an After-Dinner Pipe-Bucci

With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded. But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of a few volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts. On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists. At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire. The colony was later relocated to Utica, Mississippi.

(Many thanks to Joel Brown for his help with this article; you can find many of Bucci’s art in his gallery in Jackson. Belhaven University is also featuring a number of Bucci’s works in an exhibit at the Bitsy Irby Gallery through August 29. )

Roast Short Ribs

For 3 pounds center-cut short beef ribs, line the bottom of a roasting pan with one large white onion. Coat ribs in a seasoning mixture of pepper, salt, granulated garlic and cumin in equal amounts. Top with another sliced onion, cover and place in a medium oven (300) for three hours. Uncover and bake for another 30 minutes. Serve with a good mustard, slaw and beans.

Confessions of an Urban Planter: Part 1

Growing cotton in Jackson, Mississippi is problematic, yet while well south of the fabled Delta and sorely lacking in expansive fields and farming equipment, the capital city of Mississippi does have a favorable climate for the cotton plant.

In my hometown of Bruce, Mississippi, well into the hills, Mr. Buddy Massey, who ran the Shell Station on the corner of Hwys. 9 and 32, grew cotton every year. Everyone sort of chuckled at it, but the townspeople loved talking about how his crop was coming along. I wanted to do that here, reinforce a sense of community that I’d felt growing up and was certain others here remember as well. This was an ambitious undertaking in the heavily-wooded old neighborhood in Jackson I call home, Belhaven, where many years before I’d hacked out a small garden on what was once a barren, sun-scorched verge at the corner of two long streets. The sun is strong there, and not only was the soil hard-packed, it had the stump of a long-dead oak embedded in the clay. But former mayor Leslie McLemore had the stump removed (thank you, Dr. McLemore), and armed with only a shovel and persistence, I eventually worked the ground into a garden that grows a good variety of flowering plants and vegetables over the course of a given year. I figured if Buddy could grow cotton, I could too.

This project encountered obstacles right off the bat. First and perhaps foremost I discovered you need permission to grow cotton in Mississippi; the shadow of the boll weevil still looms over the Cotton Kingdom, and the Mississippi Code states specifically that “Every person growing cotton in this state shall furnish to the commissioner and the corporation on forms supplied by the commissioner such information as the commissioner may require concerning the size and location of all commercial cotton fields and of noncommercial plantings of cotton grown as an ornamental plant or for any other purposes.” Having found that out, I knew having the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in a building a mile and a half away magnified my chances of getting busted for cotton, and while the novelty of being hauled to court for growing cotton in Mississippi did have some appeal, I decided to take my chances.

Second, getting the seed; cotton seed, because of the restrictions, is not something you find in a yard and garden emporium. They seem to be sold not by the bushel, nor even the pound, but by the seed; the individual seed, mind you. At a loss, I issued an appeal on the local social networks for help, which came forthwith, netting me not only enough seeds for my modest enterprise, but enough to plant a city block. For some time, I considered the novelty of becoming a Jesse Cottonseed, spreading the wealth of white gold across Jackson’s cityscape, but in the end I decided that I would never live down the shame of being the man who reintroduced the boll weevil to Mississippi. I’d probably be pilloried, then burned at the stake, at the very least tarred and feathered and exiled to Arizona.

Third, waiting for it to get warm; we had a typical winter, but a cool spring. The first batch, planted in outside seed flats on April Fool’s Day of course failed, so I decided to sit on my haunches and seed while my part of the earth tilted more towards Sol. While waiting for it to get warmer, I decided to dig up a new bed for the cotton. I’d already planned to put it in the center of the main bed where I get my best sun, but just west (all of about 5 yards) was another patch of ground covered in grass. In my mind I’d always known that I’d have to hew out another bed there, but this time I needed more than a shovel. This earth, Yazoo clay to be exact, had been baked by the brutal Mississippi sun for decades and was full of gravel, broken bricks and fragments of concrete and asphalt. I found this out on my first efforts at making it useful for cultivation.

So I put out a cattle call on the local social media for a garden adz. After much back and forth, I ended up with a pick-axe with a horizontal blade weighing about 50 lbs. What followed was a series of excruciatingly painful lessons on performing heavy manual labor with a body that had grown soft and old involving such simple elements of physics as gravity and motion. In the end, I had not one bed but two: the one intended and another across the parking lot entrance, smaller and with a trellis. I dug the bed as deep as I could after reading up on cotton roots, which are said to extend up to nine feet in an alluvial soil such as the Delta’s. People, I did my best, but I only ended up with a bed that is about two and a half feet deep. I filled it with a mixture of clayey sand and humus, Mrs. Hutto’s garden soil. As a good son of Calhoun County, there I buried a sweet potato that had sprouted over the winter behind the refrigerator as a blessing on my endeavors and waited for the earth in orbit to tilt closer to the sun, another lesson in physics, this time involving celestial mechanics.

Springs in Mississippi are usually brief; most years we jump directly from winter to summer with little respite at the end of March, but this year Father Winter, who had enjoyed a brutal reign in the north with record snows and lows, lingered here in the South with cool temperatures and cloudy skies. Any other year I’d have been grateful for his late company, but I had a crop to plant, one that needed warmth. The temperatures remained cool and rainy until the end of April; then suddenly the skies cleared and the sun came out in force. The earth, which up until then had been too soggy to work, suddenly firmed and my shovel seemed inadequate. But it was all I had, so I began digging, one square yard at a time, sometimes only one a day, at the same time working in the sand and humus the cotton needed with the clayey soil.

The teachings of toil and tedium brought home another lesson of how hard people worked to grow cotton when it was still a farm crop, something people raised to provide income to abet that from what little food they had to sell. If they were lucky, they had a plow and a mule, but they were no strangers to hoes and shovels, and had to deal with weeds in the same way I do, by uprooting. Likewise, herbicides and pesticides were out of the question, since calling in a crop duster to fly down Poplar Boulevard might have peppered the gyros at Keifer’s with legal consequences potentially much worse than growing cotton without a permit and besides, with the exception of an occasional light fertilizer, my garden has always been free of chemicals. I prayed for some Muse of Cotton to grace my crop with benevolence as she must have for those who came before me.

The Vocabulary of Hate

Redneck is the most acceptable form of ethnic slur in the Western hemisphere. First documented by the OED in 1830 when it was applied to the Presbyterians of Fayetteville, Arkansas, redneck has a long history of opprobrium. Three explanations for this usage are offered: first, it could be a reference to a ruddy neck caused by anger; second, it could be a reference to sunburned necks caused by working in the fields all day, lastly it could be a reference to pellagra, a vitamin B deficiency that can turn the skin on the back and neck red. How Presbyterianism became involved is obscure. There is a documented referral to striking coal miners in West Virginia who wore red bandannas as a means of group identification, and in Afrikaans rooinek is a disparaging term the Boers applied to the British and later became associated with any unwelcome European immigrants to South Africa. Now as a matter of course it’s applied to white Southern Americans without censure.

Dorthea Lange, 1937

Dorthea Lange, 1937