Local history is the beggar at Clio’s feast. In the hierarchy of history topmost are works on great wars, empires and cultures; next histories of countries, commerce and important cities; then finally—after a considerable gap—comes state and local history, the latter often denigrated as nothing more than amateur obsessions.
State and local histories command little professional attention because they receive the least academic funding, the fewest and least government loans or grants, and the smallest lectern on official and scholastic stages. In those the folklorist with his dancing palette and anthropological basis commands more respect. Professional historians deride local history as poorly-researched, ill-written and hopelessly insular. This criticism can and is levelled at history written on any level; simply read The American Historical Review for confirmation.
Yet who can scorn research as insufficient when conducted with so little material in place? How often does Gibbon himself sound as if he’s labored far too late and drunk far too much port? Who can say that the storming of the Bastille isn’t local history to Parisians, or an account of the Beer Hall Putsch isn’t to Bavarians? The least parts of history come together to form the whole, and in the smallest arenas of mankind we can discern a microcosm of the whole?
Let us treasure those who, compelled by their love of place, put before us a likeness of how it was before our time, teaching us who we are, revealing how our little part of the world shapes our lives and strengthens our hearts.
When we saw Polk’s driver Michael Newton making a delivery of Red Rose Sausage to Froogel’s Supermarket on Fortification in Jackson, Mississippi, we had to get a photo. Since making the first post on red rose sausage over three years ago, people across the country have been contacting Mississippi Sideboard about this product, which they all say–in one way or another–that they remember with fondness from growing up in Mississippi, and our posts on red rose sausage receive the most consistently heavy traffic year after year. Thank you, Michael!
Peppers in Mississippi don’t carry the same cachet they do in parts of Louisiana and Carolina where their cultivation and consumption has become a fetish.
That’s not to say that we don’t have our share of connoisseurs here, for indeed we do, even eccentrics who will trot you out to a raised bed in their back yard in order that you might make appropriately appreciative noises over their ghosts. You’ll even find reapers and habaneros at a farmers’ market which I find more evident of their ease of culture than their demand for the table.
The staples prevail. Topmost are the thick-walled bells, best smaller than a fist, dark and tight. Country-style lunches should always include the crunch and zest of fresh sliced onion and sweet banana pepper to cut fat-stewed vegetables. Jalapenos here tend to be woody with more heat than taste, but deseeded and minced they’ll serve in a pico or pureed in a thin salsa. Poblanos should have a larger role in our kitchens, as should all the mild thin-walled capsicums. The thick-walled cherries are regrettably still a novelty.
The Mississippi pepper season begins in earnest when the thin cayennes come to market, as they did today in the form of two mesh baskets filled with spindly green pods marked to sell for a dollar each. At such a price my jaw dropped. The vendor, apologizing (!) said she’d have red ones soon, which she’s sure to mark up, but the greens are just as good if not more so, even dried. We’re finding less and less of the long cayennes now, so if you find a vendor, woo them, fawn and flatter, because cayennes will get you through the winter in the form of sauce or vinegar. Tabascos will too, and they grow well here, in my experience better than cayennes. The meatier tabascos make a better mash for red sauce, but both are equally good simply destemmed, pierced, packed into a jar with salt and filled with hot vinegar.
For two years now I’ve been growing pequinos first sent as a cropped plant from a friend in Austin. In the landscape of my mind where all sorts possibilities entertain themselves, the fiery little pequin is what I remember called a bird’s-eye pepper, not the Asian variety. Pequinos grow at a glacial rate from seed so must be pruned and overwintered.
When the courthouse clock struck the first toll of the noon hour, the complexion of the village changed. Shopkeepers and clerks hurried their over-the-counter trade so as not to be late for mealtime; little old ladies in their shawls and bonnets scurried home along side streets to their salads and tea-cakes; doctors and lawyers put aside the healing of the sick and matters at the bar to congregate in the public inn for a plate of the noon-day fare; farmers found a shadier side of the square and rested under tall oak trees while they took their dinner of canned meat and yellow wedges of cheese. It was a time for idle chit-chat, political forum, witty repartee, and peaceful rumination with a temperance and protocol like no other time of day. –L.W. Thomas
Written for the menu of The Warehouse Restaurant, 1984
Here in the Mid-South, we make three sandwiches with raw vegetables. One is the cucumber sandwich, served on pretty little trays aside ewers of lemonade, iced tea or gin and tonic on tables topped with linen and silver, eaten by ladies smelling of lavender sachets and gentlemen of a certain persuasion in pastel seersuckers. Diametrically opposite of this delicate denizen of elegant afternoon gatherings is the sweet onion sandwich, gnawed upon with indecorous gusto as well as deservedly considerable discretion over a kitchen sink and washed down with Miller or PBR by the likes of hunters, ATV enthusiasts and women’s sports columnists.
Then we have the tomato sandwich. Egalitarian and comfortable in company, this summer staple of Dixie is found on every front porch and patio, at picnics and tailgatings, on the table for breakfast, lunch or even a late dinner. For me a tomato sandwich is the ultimate nosh on a sultry summer afternoon when you’re watching the “Real Housewives” reunion. The essential components are bread, sliced tomatoes and mayonnaise. The bread should be sliced loaf, a soft wheat or white; for the sake of authenticity, Wonder bread is often mentioned. The tomatoes should be the best your particular part of the world has to offer, firm and richly ripe, though not uniformly so, since you want a blush of green around the stem end to ensure the fruit has a tinge of acidity that is the signature of a homegrown tomato.
The mayonnaise should be slathered on the tomatoes as well as the bread, thus ensuring an even moisture to the arrangement. Season with plenty of salt and a bit more black pepper then you would ordinarily consider enough. Adding bacon elevates a tomato sandwich from a mere culinary concoction to sheer poetry, but lettuce in any form or fashion is superfluous and annoying.
In the summer of 1855, Miss Anna Sheegog died upstairs in the house in which I write. No token of hers remains, not even a hair ribbon; the grief at her passing was eased and forgotten long ago. Yet she is still fooling around up there, after al this time, and no wonder—she was only 16 and not ready to be done with life.
Something is always stirring in old houses, for they murmur in their sleep as people do. So much happens, and none of it wants to leave; it is laid up in the walls, left to leak out now and then when someone is listening. Ghosts, we call it, though it is really only memory. I have listened here—in all weathers, in the bright noon and deep watches of the night—longer than Miss Anna was alive, and I know something of the memory of houses.
This one is called Rowan Oak, for Mr. William Faulkner called it that, and he lived here longer than anybody. Because he lived here it is a literary shrine of sorts; for 20-odd years pilgrims have been coming up the walk to see what lies in the white house.
I, too, was a pilgrim once, come by a long road begun in a railroad yard. One night a switchman, Frank Smith, pressed on me a book, of all things, a paperback, greasy and bent to the shape of his blue jeans pocket. “Read this,” he said. In the yard office after the train was gone, I opened it and began to read, and the world was never the same again.
Years later, when I was curator of Mr. William Faulkner’s house, I happened on a page of manuscript behind a drawer in the library. I knew right away what it was; lines from The Hamlet, written in this very house. It was no small thing to meet, and as the morning light fell through the tall library windows, I remembered another light; the glow of Frank Smith’s lantern on that vanished summer night, when he put his copy of The Hamlet in my hand.
Ghosts again, and, always, time. In Mr. Faulkner’s house, time is the sum of all senses. It is in the light, in all seasons softened to twilight by the trees. Time lies in the creak of a shutter, rain in the downspouts, in a step half-heard in the empty rooms above. It is in the very smell of the place, which is the smell of all grandmother’s houses, made of dust and mildew, old books and years of fried chicken—and that almost palpable memory that will not go away. It is the smell of time.
No wonder pilgrims sometimes speak in whispers here. No wonder children often cling shyly to their parents’ legs, flirting with something only they can see. Time conjures them all, as it conjures us, who are stewards of time.
There have not been many of us. Dr. James Webb, the first and best curator, will always be chief. In the early years Dr. George Street was here, and Bev Smith. I have worked with Danny Toma, Terrell Lewis, Keith Fudge. Winfred Ragland was the first groundskeeper, and then Isiah McGuirt, whom I watched rake the leaves of 15 autumns.
These were all Southern men who knew not just Mr. Faulkner and his work, but also what it means to love an old house and earth whence it came. They were all pilgrims, come here by their own long roads, each to find his own doorway to the past.
Once, on one of those days when the sky is deep blue and every leaf sharp and clear and shadows haunt the fence corners—once, on such a day, Isaiah walked out in the north pasture to work his turnips and Dany went along to swap lies. I wandered out by myself by and by and leaned on the fence and watched them. On the whole place there were only three of us. Their voices drifted to me across the morning. Now and then, an acorn rattled on the tin roof of the cookhouse, the loft door creaked, the house drowsed white and solid in the sun.
I should not have been surprised to find Mr. Faulkner at my elbow, leaning on the fence with his pipe, nor to see Miss Anna in the kitchen door—for the streams of time had come together once more, the old proper rhythms of life were in cadence, and all that ever happened on this place narrowed to an old man and a boy in the pasture, talking quietly under the autumn sky.
Occasionally, folks ask me what it is like to work at Rowan Oak. I do not know how to tell them about Frank Smith or Dr. Webb or Danny or the day Isiah went out to hoe his greens, but sometimes I try, and they are almost always satisfied. It is a good thing for pilgrims to carry away into the world waiting for them beyond the gate, for in that world ghosts are silly and magic is only for children. I don’t believe so myself, and neither does Miss Anna—but then, she is only 16, after all.
Novelist and scholar Howard Bahr lives in Jackson, Mississippi