Sing “Tammy” for Me

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner. Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

Writer, director and film scholar Melanie Addington says, “Sumner’s childhood is much more similar to her lighter fare (the “Tammy” series), than it is from her most important work, Quality, where she got to the heart of Southern life.” Filmmaker and attorney Anita Modak-Truran explains, “Pinky tells the story of a light-skinned black woman who passed as a white and trained as a nurse up North, where she became involved in a romantic relationship with a white doctor. When she returns to the South, her grandmother tries to help her figure out where she belongs in society as she nurses the dying white domestic tyrant Miss Em.”

Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust,” Addington says. “Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says. Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves the American film medium a desirable notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

“Pinky is Tammy hopped up on the steroids of social injustice,” Modak-Truran says. “Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was progressive; he believed that audiences accepted social issues that were swept neatly into a love story. By today’s standards, the movie and its plot seem like ancient history, but it wasn’t so long ago that I overheard people discussing the mixed race of President Obama. Pinky was the first big studio picture to tromp into the race issues, and for that alone, it was groundbreaking.” The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas,” Modak-Truran says, “and a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing.” The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948) , an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of movies adapted from novels by Cid Ricketts Sumner is a romantic comedy featuring a cuddly Mississippi-bred cutie-pie who is head over heels in love with the perfect bachelor,” Modak-Truran says. “I wonder if the Tammy novels were Sumner’s way of placating Southerners from the sting of Quality. Or maybe Sumner simply wanted to return to simpler roots after the audacious and gut-wrenching Quality.” In either case, the heroine of Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described Tammy and the Bachelor as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner wrote three “Tammy” novels, which provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66). Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song, which Reynolds herself describes as a “sweet, simple ballad”, went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says. “Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters. The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River. Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder. A hammer ended the life of Cid, short for “placid”, a family nickname she was given for being such a contented child.



Hugh Dean Encounters the Oyster Cracker

Hugh Dean Miller is one of those people who believe that there is a reason for everything, that his life is a juggernaut of nuts, bolts and plates that steams without perturbation across the stormy waters of existence in pondering, placid faith of reaching an eventual haven. This description fits Hugh Dean to a “T”, he himself being a man with supreme confidence that no rogue wave will capsize him on his voyage through life.

He is a man to be envied in many ways, but like most people who have such a secure mindset, Hugh Dean regularly finds himself beset by petty nuisances that present no impediment to the eventual success of his progress yet distract him to no end with their niggling, irritable inability to fit into his navigational chart. Such was the case when Hugh Dean and I were picking up some supplies for a party at Jolene’s and Hugh Dean stumbled upon a package of oyster crackers.

“Jesse!” he shouted. I was two aisles over picking up a case of Miller Lite, but I heard him clearly enough. “Get over here!” Knowing this would take a few minutes, I put the beer back into the cooler and joined Hugh Dean, who was grasping a sack of Premium oyster crackers in both hands, turning it over up and around, trying to read the ingredients (and failing because he was so far-sighted), jiggling it to see the little crackers toss and tumble in the cellophane.

“Have you ever seen these?” he asked.

“Yes, Hugh Dean, those are oyster crackers. Some people put them in soups and stuff.”

Typically, Hugh Dean wasn’t listening to me. “You can’t put an oyster on these,” he said. “Do they have oysters in them? They don’t even look like an oyster.” Puzzlement was written all over his face.

“Hugh Dean, that’s just what they’re called,” I tried to explain. “That doesn’t mean you eat them with oysters or they’re made of oysters. I hear they’re really popular in clam chowder.”

Somehow that made a connection. “Well then why in the hell don’t they call them clam crackers? Or chowder crackers? Who decided to call them oyster crackers anyway? Why would anyone make something like this when you can just crumble up a saltine in your soup like normal people do in the first place?” Hugh Dean sighed, tossed the sack back on the rack, and struck out in a determined stride down the aisle towards the beer cooler. “Jesse, let me tell you something,” he said. “There are some things in the world you just should not waste time wondering over. They’ll just keep you from focusing on the Big Things.”

“Hugh Dean,” I said. “That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard in three months.”


The Existential Tomato

In the spring even the most urbanized Southerners exhibit an itch to plant tomatoes. Many city gardeners who take stock of their perennial beds and despair of finding a sunny spot for a tomato plant acknowledge their passion for this vegetable by planting cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets or dwarf varieties in containers. More chivalrous souls violate neighborhood codes that consign vegetables to the back yard and plant Big Boys out front.

No more fruitful digression can be imagined. Speaking strictly for myself, I do not eat those winter tomatoes in supermarkets; genetically perhaps they are tomatoes, but they have an unnatural color, they’re harder than a rock, and as far as taste goes, I’d much rather eat one of Peyton Manning’s sweat socks. If you’ve never gone out to the garden, picked a beautiful, ripe tomato (of whatever variety) and eaten it right there on the spot atop of God’s good earth with the tang of that tomato plant in your nose and the warm sunshine on your face, then you’ve never had a tomato at its best. If you have, you can truly say, “I know what a tomato is,” for you have achieved an existential union with the tomato-in-the-world. (Or maybe that’s an essential union; I forget the distinction. I think I flunked existentialism at Ole Miss, though I’m not really sure I took it in the first place, which means I might have passed the course after all.)

Vegetables prepared for the table straight from the soil are a hallmark of great Southern dinners; a luscious home-grown tomato, simply sliced and served on a plate, usually with a fragrant cantaloupe and maybe a dewy cucumber are signature elements of any summer meal. I consider a ripe tomato the crowning glory of Southern vegetables, but everybody has their own favorite; some advocate summer squash, others favor fresh beans and peas, and still others extol sweet corn. Some souls champion okra or eggplant. But even back in the Bad Old Days when most of the country ate out of a can or from the frozen food section, people in the South knew to get their vegetables from gardens, and if they didn’t have a friend or relative they could help out by weeding and hoeing for some of the returns, they could get fine vegetables from the truck gardens and produce stands along the byways. While you’re out on the road this summer and you see produce stands with signs written on brown cardboard with a magic marker, do yourself a favor by stopping by, pending a little time and a little money getting to know the vegetables of the South and the people who grow them. It’ll be a lesson you’ll always remember.


All You Need to Know About Groundhog Day

To confirm that the Charta of Christ embraces the cycle of life, the early Church adopted observances of the solar calendar from many different cultures. The most significant of these are obvious, but one stands out as eccentric: Groundhog Day, which Christians observe as Candlemas.  February 2 falls between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, marking the middle of solar winter in the northern hemisphere. All Saints’ Day marks the mid-point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, Lammas Day the mid-point between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox while May Day, which, like the summer solstice has no significant Christian observance, marks the middle of spring.

Groundhogs have a reputation of testing the weather in mid-winter to see if they need to just barge on the couch and munch on cookies for a while longer or lose 10 pounds, buy a new bathing suit and clean out the pool. This is a Germanic tradition that entered the American repertoire via Pennsylvania, where many Deutschlanders settled in the New World. This tradition had naturally become associated with Candlemas, which celebrates the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the Presentation is one of the twelve great feast days of the year.  If, like me, you’re from the Deep South, groundhogs aren’t something you grew up with; there’s not even a gumbo recipe for them. I didn’t grow up with woodchucks, either, so when I found out they are one and the same (quite recently) it came as an humbling reminder of my considerable and overweening ignorance, but I was comforted that nobody else in the library knew it either. A groundhog/woodchuck is a big terrestrial rodent that holes up in dens in the winter, and they live for the most part where winters are harsh. They live as far south as Arkansas, most of Tennessee, north Alabama and Georgia as well, but almost nowhere in Mississippi except up around Southaven, where they’re more likely to end up barbecued than gumboed.

The Pennsylvania Deutsch seem like a charming people, but to be honest I think their groundhog fixation has gotten a little out of hand. On February 2, Groundhog Lodges all over southeastern Pennsylvania hold morning celebrations which not only include food (I’m sure sausages are a mainstay), speeches and theatrical skits, but also fines for anyone who speaks English (a nickel a word), since only the Pennsylvania German dialect is permitted.  But by far the largest observance of the holiday is held on the other end of the Keystone State, in Punxsutawney, where the most famous woodchuck of all, Phil (you’d think he’d be named Hans or something, but no), makes his prognostication. To be fair, the South also has a groundhog, General Beauregard Lee, who lives somewhere outside of Atlanta. Sadly, the General was pretty much discredited in 1993 when, almost six weeks after predicting an early spring, the southeast was hit by a blizzard that crippled the region and most of the eastern half of the nation for almost ten days.

But you have to admit that expecting a big, fat rodent to make a six-week meteorological prediction, something that the National Weather Service would be unprepared to do, is a stretch. Me, I still haven’t figured out the shadow thing. If the weather is clear, it’s supposed to stay cold? My first thought would be that seeing the sun/shadow would be an encouraging sign, but I don’t even bet on football games anymore.  Groundhog Day is fun, it’s quirky, and it does mark a milestone in the solar year. But shadow or no, I’m not putting out any tomatoes until Good Friday.

Willie’s Liver

Willie Morris will undoubtedly always be remembered as one of Mississippi’s most “beloved” authors, particularly for works such as My Dog Skip (1995), Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home (1981), and Good Old Boy (1971). He will certainly be less fondly remembered for North Toward Home (1967), which at the time of its release was hailed by the Sunday (London) Times as “the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain”, and by William Styron (who was indebted to Willie for publishing his work during his brief tenure as editor of Harper’s Magazine), but North Toward Home is scarcely a title to stir a Southerner’s heart. Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983). Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing for The New York Times, states that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.”

Morris’ early success as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr., the scion of the conservative family that owned Harper’s over a dispute about the publisher meddling in editorial operations in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne (who he advised to write a memoir, A Feast Made for Laughter). He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels.

At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye. And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened; he was a good man.

The Warehouse enjoyed an upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded. Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, a choice spot far enough away from the noisy bar so that Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds. Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver (dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle) served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.

Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my crowd before the Rose shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Morris–besotted–never  complained. I could have offered to do it myself in a sauté pan to ensure that it would be better, but I was tired as well and much more of a Hannah fan anyway.

This complaint against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole with a small group. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.

I remember it was a late afternoon, and Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor and not a half-hour had passed when Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” Then he snickered. The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. We were all in shock, and I tried to follow Doxie out to say something, but he left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it. I let it go for then, but even now, after thirty years, Willie’s example of gross incivility and utter lack of regard for anyone he considered unworthy of his company still stands out for me as a defining moment for the corrupt, dissolute character of one of Mississippi’s most “beloved” authors.

Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings. This dish goes well with spicy stewed tomatoes.



Red Rose Sausage

You’ll find imitation smoked sausages in supermarkets all across the Lower South, but in Mississippi our signature brand is Red Rose, originally produced by the Jackson Packing Company, which from 1945 to 1990 sold processed meats from their plant on South Gallatin Street. Red Rose was marketed under the company’s flagship “Magnolia” brand, which was purchased by Polk’s Meat Products in Magee (“Picky People Pick Polk’s”).

Sold in ropes most often found in the freezer section, Red Rose at home is usually sliced into sections, fried or grilled and served with beans or potatoes. Two landmark restaurants in Jackson, the Beatty Street Grocery and the Big Apple Inn on Farish, feature Red Rose in sandwiches. You’re certain to find many people who consider imitation smoked sausage a culinary/nutritional atrocity, but the Polk’s company gets mail orders from all over the country sent by people who grew up in Mississippi and remember their mothers serving Red Rose on the table, knowing it would make everyone happy.