Every child has a Radley house, a place that makes them walk a little faster, that makes a tingling sensation creep up the back when twigs drop and leaves rattle, a Boo around the corner teaching them that the world doesn’t always work the way they think it should or will.
Old Rain stalked my smaller steps; some said he was a freakish child abandoned by a troupe of carnies, others said he was a baby Bigfoot come south. When he wasn’t brooding in a boarded-up house in Pittsboro, he haunted the woods and hollows feeding the creeks and streams that feed the Skuna River. I don’t know why we called him Old Rain, but what else is the Skuna or any other river for that matter except rain that’s found its way from hills to the bottoms, rain over-wintered in pools of owl-haunted sloughs and steeped in the character of the land itself, that has in the ways of God Almighty distilled and aged, as strong as bourbon, an engine of the earth itself.
Most monsters are lost under the baggage of adulthood, and I tucked away my fears of Old Rain when I found that there are more frightening things than scattered noises on lonely pathways. Now I believe he was a vestige of the deep virgin forests of north Mississippi, a faunus of the little river bottoms and low wooded hills that my Choctaw ancestors knew and loved. They would call him a bopoli, one of the little people who threw sticks, cones and stones to make noise around us in the woods.
Now Old Rain in memory and mind has become my partner in places I cherish: bright spring hills, close summer woods and frosty winter fields. Hold your monsters close, and make of them your magic.
These words passed among the neighbors each time it happened, and they all nodded knowingly, having long ago concluded that Clara Curtis had indeed slipped over the edge into that comfortable sort of crazy that was perfectly harmless and acceptable.
It was simple enough, after all; they had all known people who had grown up in the Depression, when every penny, every scrap of cloth, every button or buckle was precious, and the food, well people would have shelves upon shelves of home-canned vegetables, pickles, even meats, and smokehouses were filled with hams and salted sides of beef. So it was only natural that Clara, who was born in Mississippi the very year Calvin Coolidge was elected president, would harbor the bitter memories of her early years and retain the habits of her childhood for a lifetime. Why, those freezers were just full of frozen food—chops and steaks, bags of blanched limas, green peas and corn, stocks and soups—most of which, they said, were fed to the occasional homeless men who having heard of her soft touch would end up first at her front door, then on her back porch eating a hearty meal, usually with plenty of her homemade yeast refrigerator rolls, which were a highly-regarded addition to the pot luck suppers at St. John’s Methodist Church, where she was a devout attendee and tither. Her neighbors would see them stretched out in a post-prandial snooze on the white wicker settee on her back porch in the warm afternoons, but they were always gone by the morning.
Then there were the dogs. She couldn’t abide cats, Ms. Clara, but she loved dogs, all kinds of dogs, and if she found a stray she would take it home for caring. Those she fed from the heavy sacks of dry dog food she had Kenny the check-out man at the local grocery deliver to her house. Though home deliveries were long a thing of the past for most Clara Curtis, being of such an advanced age and of considerable means was an exception to this rule, and nobody begrudged her the privilege. She was, after all, Mrs. Harvey Curtis, that same Harvey Curtis who was one of the founding fathers of a local oil exploration group that happened upon a rich field in a nearby rural county, resulting in a considerable fortune which the childless Widow Curtis held with formidable tenacity in the palms of her tiny immaculately-groomed hands.
And the flowers, let’s not forget the flowers. Clara’s house, an unpretentious two-storied brick affair with three awkward gables, stood in a space surrounded by a ring of trees that provided shade by degrees according to their nature, but around the building itself circled a ring of light that in the spring brought daffodils of every shape, size and color as well as what one local horticulturalist called “the most magnificent collection of heirloom azaleas in the state”. In the summer her marigolds and zinnias blazed golden and scarlet beneath a sweltering sun and in the fall castor beans towered in burgundy clumps over the thickening, multi-colored cockscomb. The coda of every year was a pirouette of the beautiful old delicate mums that shared her name.
How many freezers did she have? Oh, at least three, some argued four and one or two knowledgeable observers just nodded sagely and whispered “five”. There really was no telling, since the house was old and after all did have a huge basement that was sure to be cluttered with God-knows-what else. But this was bound to be her last one, they nodded. After all, she was what? Eighty? And sure, she got around just fine, called a cab when she needed to go anywhere, and she’d had a string of regular drivers from the company over the years, the current one a wiry, sullen young man with a shaved head and tattoos who watched over her like a hawk and helped her in and out of the cab. “I’m sure she tips him very well”, they’d say with more knowing nods. Her alone in that house without a soul in the world, but all the money! That church itself would have folded a long time ago if it hadn’t been for her. Mr. Curtis had that (much younger) half-brother, of course (a drunk, a wastrel, but handsome as Satan they said) who would probably lay claim to some money, but they knowing Clara and her tight fist knew he wouldn’t get a penny.
Still she was getting on, and in the lingering heat of a long summer she died. Her driver was the one who alerted the authorities, who had to break through a window to enter the house. They found Clara downstairs in the basement with a dead puppy in her lap surrounded by not three, but five freezers.; written on the first were Cleatra, Rose, Milo and a dozen others; on the second Ophelia, Casper and Rue in the same number; on the third was Mr. Callahan, the fourth Mr. Jones, and in a far corner, Mr. Curtis.
Parochialism is endemic in rural America, and though Southerners are of a naturally hospitable nature, they and Mississippians in particular have an acquired sense of xenophobia engendered by their brutal treatment at the hands of outsiders, most especially writers. In the case of Mississippi, perhaps the most stupefying recent example of such mistreatment comes from Bill Bryson, a native Iowan and former chancellor of Durham University, U.K., who recounts his visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988. Bryson’s tale of his journey through Mississippi is as full of bile as most American writers who venture south, packed with shopworn stereotypes and clichés, saturated with ridicule and derision. He left Mississippi with impressions of the state that are what we have come to expect of most people who visit with baggage consisting of preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well-received by the world at large.
That same summer of 1988, V.S. Naipaul visited Jackson during a tour of the American South that resulted in his travelogue A Turn in the South, which was published the following February. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, had by that time achieved international recognition as an observer of post-colonial politics and societies. It was in this vein, that of an observer, that Naipaul visited the South, ostensibly to compare it to his own Trinidadian background. Though the issue of race was of obvious interest, the importance of race seems to move further to the background as the work progresses, and Naipaul finds himself increasingly preoccupied with describing the culture of the South, including country-western music, strict Christianity, Elvis Presley and rednecks. This shift of focus seems to take place largely in the section on Mississippi. Entitled “The Frontier, the Heartland”, his visit to the state is for the most part restricted to Jackson, where he becomes captivated with a character he calls Campbell, from whom he received a description of rednecks that fascinated and entranced Naipaul to the extent that he seems to become obsessed (he describes it as “a new craze”) with rednecks not merely as a group or class of people, but as almost a separate species; when someone tells him that “There are three of your rednecks fishing in the pond,” he “hurried to see them, as I might have hurried to see an unusual bird . . .”
Then we have Richard Grant, whose primary if not unique distinction among outside observers of Mississippi is that he did not “just pass through”. Grant is still here, though no longer in Pluto. He also sounds like a nice fellow, and his tale of buying a home on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta has a somewhat beguiling innocence about it, reminiscent of that involving a certain young lady who fell down a rabbit hole. Indeed, his story has a few other holes in it, not the least of which is why Grant, a British travel writer formerly based in Tucson but living in New York decided to “buy a house and move to Mississippi”. Some might find simply visiting here in character for a travel writer; after all, Mississippi, a state of overwhelming poverty with a stratosphere of commanding wealth, does have a perverse sort of attraction for people in search of something off the beaten path as well as a solid claim to have produced one of the most enduring and influential musical genres of any century, but the most embarrassing legacy of blues music and one augmented by Delta writers themselves (no surprise there) is the myth of the Delta as “the most Southern place on earth”, when in reality it’s just as full of “poverty, faith and guns” as any other neck of the woods between Annapolis and Austin. Three clues as to why Grant came to Mississippi to live and write are his friendship with a Delta food maven with a national profile whose well-to-do father just happened to have a high-end fixer-upper to sell in a hamlet on the eastern bank of the Yazoo River, a pixilated party with the Usual Suspects at Square Books in Oxford and Grant himself, a talented and hard-working writer with an ear for blues music as well by all appearances a bit of capital and no small amount of time on his hands. If those aren’t compelling components for a new book about the Mississippi Delta, then I challenge you to fabricate more plausible ones.
Grant is a fine writer with an amiable voice, but there’s a lot to get past in Dispatches from Pluto. He understands the intensity of isolated people and knows that in such empty places minds fix on petty matters, but in Mississippi he seems to have lost his compass on what is petty and what is not. Granted, travel writers should employ a degree of objectivity, but at some point the observer must become engaged, and throughout this book I kept asking myself, “Where is Richard Grant?” The answer is that he was making a living on many levels, steadily at work not only on what eventually became Dispatches but also on any number of other projects, including making the house he bought habitable, an effort that took an increasing amount of time and money, surely trying not only his patience but that of his long-suffering companion Mariah, not to mention Savannah. His engagement with the Mississippi Delta is in the most basic sense one of making do and getting by, one to which by his own accounts he as a free-lance writer is well accustomed and one well understood by Mississippi’s native residents. It’s worth suggesting that this is the reason he came and stayed, though there’s far more to it than that. A man such as Richard Grant does not lead a simple life.
This is not to say that all else in Dispatches is window-dressing, but much of it can be dismissed as such. One reads a great deal about the people, places and things in the Delta that any Mississippian or for that matter most people in the South or even the nation might find iconic to the point of cliché; the same tired recitation of the rich, sophisticated upper crust and poor, simple lower crust, the same circuitous itinerary of colorful towns and villages, the same boring assortment of restaurants, juke joints and run-down architecture as well as the obligatory nods to racial tension, a whole slew of blues musicians, firearms, possums and raccoons, alligators and snakes, cotton, sweet potatoes and catfish. In Dispatches from Pluto you won’t find any airy odes to the union of earth and sky or muddy elegies on the preponderance of the past; such things are no doubt within Grant’s ability, but that’s just not his style. He is a journalist at heart, a documentarian, if you will.
Curtis Wilkie likens Dispatches to Innocents Abroad, which might be more apt than it appears on the surface; Twain was of course far from innocent, and one suspects that Grant’s placid detachment is a mask for the sort of ferocious cynicism Twain himself often employed, but cynicism doesn’t seem to be Grant’s style either. He is a camera with a finely-ground lens, and this is why you should read this book, particularly if you are from Mississippi: to see Mississippi through the eyes of another person who came here not to deride or ridicule but for an account of how it is being here, or in Eliot’s fortuitous phrase, to explore and perhaps arrive where we started and know the place for the very first time.
This is a wonderful Old World recipe that works well for any occasion. Yes, it is labor-intensive, but that’s all the more reason to make them for a family gathering, when you can find (or command) other hands to help.
For the filling use about a pound of frozen, thawed and drained spinach. You can use fresh if you like, in which case use two pounds washed, trimmed, blanched and drained. Sauté in olive oil with one large finely chopped white onion, a cup of chopped scallions and a half-cup chopped parsley. Season with dill, nutmeg and lemon juice and add a cup of crumbled feta and a half cup of a hard grated cheese such as Parmesan. Cool, mix thoroughly with four well-beaten eggs and set aside.
Lay a sheet of phyllo across a very large baking sheet that has been brushed with melted butter. Brush this sheet with more butter, place another sheet on top and continue layering the phyllo (brushing each sheet) with about five more. Cut the layered sheets into strips about three to five inches wide, depending on how big you want the pastries. I like them large because I agree with my vegetarian friends who say that spanakopita is hefty enough to be served as an entrée. If you intend them for an appetizer, make them smaller.
Place a spoonful of filling on the end of a strip of phyllo; I can’t tell you precisely how much; this is something you’re going to have to figure out on your own. Have you ever folded a flag? The procedure for folding the phyllo over the filling is much the same. Fold a corner over the filling, flip, fold again, and then cut the strip, leaving about half an inch to seal with more brushed butter. Set the triangles aside on a lightly buttered baking sheet and refrigerate if necessary before placing in a medium oven (350) until the phyllo is nicely browned.
People who are paid to postulate upon such matters have in recent years theorized that the reasons we don’t have herds of brontosauri stomping around in our bayous is due not just to the Alvarez event, but also to egg-eating possums. You’d think we’d be grateful for this service to their fellow mammals, but as in the case of the dove (which brought Noah the most significant tidal measurements in the history of mankind) possum has been served without apology at meals throughout the South since the region was settled and far before.
Southern culinary icons tend to be traditional and domestic, the comforting products of home gardens and kitchens. Those game dishes brought in from the woods and fields have in recent years come to play a strikingly diminished role on our tables because fewer people are hunting these days, particularly for sustenance, and while most if not all of you might consider having possum on the table a revolting prospect at best, the simple fact of the matter remains that possums have long been esteemed for their porcine flavor. One early recommendation comes from John Boynton, a New Englander who came to Mississippi (near Vicksburg) to teach in 1836. Boynton was amazed at the “Old Southwest”, writing to his father, “It would take more than 19 letters to tell you the half of what I’ve seen in one week.” He hunted turkey and deer as well as an exotic animal: “(o)possums by the scores. Had one for dinner today—first rate.”
Faulkner included possum on the Thanksgiving table of the Sartoris family in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, influential and aristocratic Sartoris family contending with decline, but still clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here’s Faulkner’s description of the meal:
. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries.
By far, the most solid recommendation for possum comes from Bill Neal, who is widely considered by many to be the dean of Southern cooking, the man who played a key role in raising Southern foods to national prominence and continues to influence new generations of Southern culinarians. In his authoritative Southern Cooking, Neal begins his entry on possum by stating, “All southerners—black, white, or native—who know game relish possum roasted with sweet potatoes. The two components are inseparable; the dish is practically a cultural symbol of regional pride in the piedmont and mountain areas.” He continues with a recipe from Horace Kephart’s Camp Cookery (1910) that beings: “To call our possum an opossum, outside of a scientific treatise, is an affectation. Possum is his name wherever he is known and hunted, this country over. He is not good until you have freezing weather; nor is he to be served without sweet potatoes, except in desperate extremity.” (The possum season in Mississippi this year extends from Oct. 1 until Feb. 28.)
The recipe reproduced here comes from another authority, Erma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (13th edition, 1975). Note that the recipe recommends “feeding it out” (i.e. capturing the animal before slaughter and feeding it with bland foods not just to provide the meat with a less gamey flavor but purging the possum, which is a notorious scavenger), and while a good Southerner will always serve possum with sweet potatoes, the Rombauers were from St. Louis, which is marginally Southern and urban, so turnip greens were probably suggested since they are, like possum, an iconic Southern dish.