One cold Thanksgiving morning I found that someone had circled Smith Park, placing cans of beans and corn on all the broken chess tables. I was surprised that they were still there. No matter how much or how little you have, give thanks. For what it’s worth, you’re still here.
Barbara Yancy took a great deal of pride in her table and was a superb cook, but like many (if not most) such people, she was an absolute tyrant in the kitchen (both characteristics she passed down to her daughter), demanding absolute obedience to instruction and perfection in results. Her Thanksgiving table was a symphony of flavor, and her crowning note, the one dish made at the last possible moment and brought to the table with a flourish once everyone was seated before the blessing, was her giblet gravy, which was only made for the holiday table and had to be done just so.
You must use a quart of the clearest, richest broth thickened while hot with a thin paste of corn starch and water. To this add the yolks of at least two eggs which have been creamed with a pat of butter. Then add two more chopped hard boiled eggs (yolks and whites), the cooked and chopped livers and gizzards of the turkey as well as the hen you used for your stock ( a half cup or so of each), but not the meat from the necks, which she considered superfluous as well as “messy-looking”. Salt to taste and season with white pepper.
I agree with mother about chicken neck meat, but when I add chopped green onions to my gravy, I can just hear her heavy sigh of disapproval.
Jeff Weddle’s vision encompasses many facets of the human condition—focused rage and conflict, love and lust, the peevishness of petty minds—but for the most part his vignettes confront you with those moments in life when the world shifts a bit, when the things that were in place lose their balance, bringing into focus the law that states life can turn on a can of sardines. Weddle’s stories are about those brief, shining moments in a South of indiscriminate geography, for the most part that of two-lane roads, the landscapes of Flannery O’Connor and Larry Brown, in a sturdy, staccato prose that tell what happens when we come to face the world as who we are, naked and without artifice.
The most powerful stories in the collection are “A Feast of Feathers”, a harrowing story of the loss of innocence; “Hot Sardines”, which delineates a situation packed with potential, a study in lowered expectations that explode into chaos and disorder; “A Constant Battle of the Flesh”, a very, very funny story of tangled lust that ends in the complex complacency many such situations do; “Epiphany”, perhaps best described as a prose poem about “God’s cruelest gift”, insufficient talent; “She Finds Herself Dancing”, a truly beautiful observation/reflection on that magic which takes place when the spotlights are upon you; “Dooley’s Revenge”, retelling that “oldest story” of two men and a majorette; the back-to-back stories of “Dog Day” and “Ditto”, which describe how some people weren’t made to care for others while some care for others too much in the wrong way; and “State of Grace”, a story that defies description but one you will find yourself reading again to find the song behind the words, “I wonder who you are.”
For the life of me, it is my fondest hope that in time the whimsical cover for this dark and perceptive collection of short stories, an image taken from the last story, which in itself is a reflection on theology, perhaps even on the need for theology, will become a collector’s item more illustrative of a publisher’s misconception of a work than it is of the work itself. Jeff Weddle is far from whimsical, and though When Giraffes Flew does have visions of exotic animals cavorting in clouds, nobody has an umbrella.
Contrary to the widespread belief among our fellow countrymen, Southerners don’t always “cook vegetables to death”. Here in the South, we have always enjoyed a wide variety of vegetables either raw or lightly cooked as in the following recipe, which has been prepared in Dixie kitchens long before the word “Dixie” came into use. Granted, while the vegetables in this salad aren’t devoid of nutritional value, the other ingredients collectively render this recipe unhealthy under various and assorted current dietary guidelines, but it is a signature dish not only of our region, but in variations across the globe.
Use the freshest greens you can find, crisp and green without a spot of brown or yellow. If you buy a bunch in the store, it will have about a dozen to twenty Florida Broadleaf mustard leaves. You can mix these with Purple Top turnip greens if you like, but for this recipe Georgia collards, which in my opinion do require stewing, are out of the question. If you want to use kale, Bibb lettuce, arugula or any other of the more expensive leafy greens, go right ahead, but if you ask me, you’re going to look damned silly bringing lard-wilted arugula to a dinner table. Spinach is a much better alternative. Wash the greens thoroughly, shake off excess water and place in a colander or dish rack to drain, and pat dry before making the salad. Strip greens of stems and shred, which should give you about eight cups of greens.
Fry six to eight slices of bacon until very crisp. Depending on the thickness of the rind, this will render about a quarter cup of drippings. Remove bacon and set on a paper towel to drain. Reheat the oil, add about a half cup of white vinegar (don’t use cider vinegar) mixed with about two tablespoons pepper vinegar. Let this cook down by about a third. Add about a teaspoon of sugar. Place greens in a bowl or pan. Pour the hot oil/vinegar mixture over the greens and toss vigorously with plenty of salt and black pepper. Top with thinly sliced white onions, crumbled bacon and chopped boiled egg. Sprinkle with more black pepper; serve with a bowl of pintos.
Transitions in regional media are often difficult to discern, but when it comes to the South, which has an arguably more identifiable character than any other region of the country, watersheds can be mapped with a bit more precision.
Such is the case with Garden & Guns newest release, The Southerner’s Cookbook, which is the third installment in three years (each October) under the G&G label. The first two imprimaturs, The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life (Oct., 2013) and Good Dog (Oct., 2014), set the tone of the magazine’s brand, which is clearly targeted, in the words of G&G president and CEO Rebecca Darwin, “to people like me or to people who were very sophisticated, very worldly, but in love with where they’re from, which is this beautiful place called the South.” The label has a pronounced literary bent as is evidenced by its contributors, and given its added emphasis on sophistication and worldliness, one might well gather that Darwin and her team have set their collective caps to filling a decidedly upscale niche somewhere between brashness of The Oxford American and the comfort of that grand dame of regional periodicals, Southern Living. What with the progression of G&G’s publications so far, it’s a safe bet to expect the release of a book on Southern gardening next year.
The Southerner’s Cookbook is indeed market-generated, and I really shouldn’t be surprised that only one restaurant from the entire state of Mississippi carries a recipe. John Currence has a passage about his latest project, whole roast hog, which is somewhat of a departure for a native of the Big Easy operating in the Little Easy, but this is an era of diversity. Martha Foose inexplicably given the context is mentioned in a recipe for bacon crackers. The one recipe that shocks and dismays me is the one for “Comeback Sauce (sic)”, which is not only compared with McDonald’s “Secret Sauce”, but also provided by a chef from Alabama with a restaurant in Atlanta. The nod to Jackson in the first few words simply does not make up for such a slight. The cookbook is also far off the mark by consigning Jesse Houston’s restaurant Saltine, which specializes in oysters and seafood, to a sauce (Black Pepper Ranch Dressing) rather than an entrée. Both Mississippi and Jesse deserve far, far better than this.
If you need more evidence that Mississippi is nothing more than “that land mass between Louisiana and Alabama”, you need turn no further than The Southerner’s Cookbook. Yupster cookbooks have come of age, and Julia Reed is the bellwether for Mississippi. God help us all.
Though Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles, he lived in New Orleans as a small child and spent summers there until he was 11 years old, when his family returned to California. Music is in his blood, with Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman for uncles. In 1974, Reprise Records released Newman’s fifth album, “Good Old Boys”, his first album to achieve commercial success. The premiere performance was in Atlanta on October 5 that year, with guest artist Ry Cooter and Newman conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The songs as a whole constitute not only a searing satire on the character of the South in general, but also an indictment of the hypocrisy of northern (and western) states in dealing with the institutional racism of the South in the 20th century. The song “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” is a plea to the highest levels of government for the relief of the Sisyphean struggle against poverty that is an ongoing condition for the people in this country who rely upon an hourly wage.
The most poignant song, “Louisiana, 1927” is based on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which to this day is the most devastating flood to hit the United States. What makes the ’27 flood most infamous is that in an effort to save the city where their profits were made, New Orleans businessmen insisted on dynamiting levees to divert water to the poorer surrounding parishes, which were effectively destroyed and many lives were lost. In the final verse, President Calvin Coolidge “comes down in a railroad train” with a “little fat man with a notebook in his hand”. Coolidge says, callously, “Little fat man, ain’t it a shame/What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?”, in which we can draw a parallel to the execitive indifference of Bush in the wake of Katrina.
They’re trying to wash us away, They’re trying to wash us away …
In dry summers we forget the life that survives drought, living in the crooks and crannies on the barren trunks and branches of older trees, then after days upon days of pressing heat and caustic light, rains fall and woody bones come alive again, not with their own vigor, which is waning, but with a rebirth of fern, lush and green in a browning world, and on misty mornings when leaves are wet, you can hear laughter from little people among the fronds.
Mississippians, particularly those of us from north Mississippi, should resign ourselves to literary scrutiny by writers of stature, since those without standing dare not scale the Parnassus of Oxford without credentials. Paul Theroux is no exception, but we should ask ourselves not only why he and others of his ilk come here, but what (if anything) they’re looking for.
Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident if not always clear clarion that reverberates from the center of Lafayette County across the world.
Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s effort spans generations.
Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, but it’s also important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed and fleeting fabric of the South, perceivable better by far in his excesses than by any others details.