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.
In the culinary sphere it’s not unusual for chefs of one ilk or another to turn a hayseed staple into a Broadway entrée. Examples abound; swear to God, we’ve seen black-eyed peas made into everything short of cupcakes with sweet potato icing (don’t you dare!), and if I run up on one more gourmet recipe for fried green tomatoes I’m going to take a skillet to somebody.
Well, so be it. Most basic recipes are open to elaboration, and every cook has a twist; a pinch here, a dash there, a pot for this, a pan for that. The possibilities are endless. If the cook’s intentions are honorable, meaning that his or her primary concern is with how a dish tastes, all the better. But if you’re putting a heap of crab seviche over a batch of cold butter bean fritters just for the novelty or so you can charge six bucks more, that’s just wrong.
Capote once said of writing that you must learn the rules before you can break them, and this is true of cookery as well. Be “original, not outrageous,” Alice B. Toklas cautions. Her advice is especially valuable for those of us who cook at home, because most people prefer the familiar to the exotic, and even slight variations in a favorite dish might give pause to your most appreciative audience. (If you really mess up, you might find yourself on a bus to Batesville.)
Back-to-basics movements happen from time to time because they cleanse the palate of all accumulated froth or frippery and help us remember why we liked something in the first place. The Outlaw country music of the 70s made “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” sound operatic. Now y’all know I love that single, and I love Barbara; she was just overproduced for profit at the time, which is the point I’m trying to make. Southern food staples are falling victim to the same marketing mojo as that banjo-pickin’ little girl from Houston, and it’s just sad.
M.F. K. Fisher has a recipe for salmon pancakes (i.e. patties) in How to Cook a Wolf, which is very much a solid recommendation for their goodness, but you’ll rarely if ever see them on a restaurant menu for the simple reason that with the exception of tuna salad, dishes made with canned fish are not considered marketable commodities.
My father liked to cook a big breakfast on Sunday mornings, and he always made salmon patties. He said that his mother used to make them with jack mackerel, always adding that we should be grateful he went to law school so that he could afford to feed us salmon; for him, a child of the Depression, that was a step up in the world. Mackerel patties are almost every bit as filling and nutritious as salmon, but take it from me; they’ll make your house smell like a hot wharf for a week or so depending on your upholstery.
I’ll not lie to you; these cakes taste best when fried in lard, or, even better, bacon grease. If that makes you clutch your chest, use Crisco. Trust me, though, olive oil just isn’t right, and butter won’t take the heat. Most people I know make salmon patties with flour, but cornmeal gives a crispier crust and a better inside texture (flour tends to make it a bit gummy).
Some nights the winds from the hills reach me in this mean, dirty old city, and I find that can of salmon back up in the cabinet, heat up a skillet and make the thing that sings most to me of home. In the end, no matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s our childhood foods we cherish most.
One 16 oz. can of pink salmon makes 4 to 6 cakes. Drain fish, reserving two tablespoons of the liquid. If you’re squeamish, remove the skin and bones, but I leave them because of the added nutritional value. Mix well with one beaten egg, the reserved liquid from the can, and about a half cup chopped green onion. Add enough white corn meal or bread crumbs to make a thick batter. You should need very little salt; I like plenty of black pepper in mine. Form into patties and fry in at least a quarter inch of oil. Brown on both sides, then place in a very warm oven (about 300) for about ten minutes to crisp the crust and ensure a cooked inside.
Welcome to Jackson: City of Grace and Benevolence
City of Grace, you open,
you part your curtains
and smile like a hostess
when we call your name,
you tender what any traveler needs,
a call to ease, a balm,
a kindness, whatever storm.
You take us in. City of Grace
and Benevolence, you say
you know what solace means,
burned so often they called you
Chimneyville, and now
you can’t forget,
you’ve written it in bronze
outside the City Hall
the War made a hospital
for the Yankee
and for your Rebel sons,
like the one who is always dying
outside the Capitol.
City of Fame,
you hold him still, laurel
on your crown, fan
making a hand of wind
to soothe his face
and fill the eagle’s wings
spread above to promise,
Virtute et armis, to say again
just how far you’ll go.
City of Remembrance,
you keep so well, you show us
where Welty lived,
the house still there, how she skated
to the library, through
the Capitol, the book
now cast and open in her hands.
Tell me now, City of Embrace,
of the newsreels’ children
rounded from their march,
flags gathered, the children
trucked to the fairground cages,
the ones who peer out
through the chicken wire.
City of Richard Wright
and Ross Barnett, tell me
not just where the Governor pled
I love Mississippi, I love her people,
her customs, but where the writer
went to school, a short walk
from here, thinking it was not
until one wanted the world to be different
that one would look at the world
with will and emotion, and tell me,
then, where Medgar Evers lived,
whom you remember
with a post office and a stamp
and an airport, though
when I’ve asked you’ve turned
to someone else and said
Can you help this man find his friend?
Ambivalent City, you know the way,
but you let me find it, the statue,
the library, miles away,
the Boulevard, and then the house,
the plaque that tells us
this is where he lived, perfect
as a photograph, as a movie,
only the color’s unreal,
or too real, the green piercing,
the hose uncoiled as if someone
might return to water the lawn.
Neighbors cruise, panning
like cameras as I stand
where he must have stood
choosing the house with no front door,
where Beckwith must have stood,
who drove the town asking everyone
where Evers lived, where
he marked his man.
There is nowhere else to stand.
A city is a kind of memory,
and if you stay too long
the shape of someone else
will hold you there
until day repeats its failure
and the streetlights wake
and yawn all color from the dusk
and the house becomes a photograph
of itself and the small wings
unfold from the fabric of night,
from all the magnolias’ ears
and the broad stretch of the reservoir
and the river you can smell
as they gather into pearls
the stars’ historic light,
the eyes’ whose looking stays
long after the pupils
have burned away. Fireflies
fall back into the grass,
and the mayflies clasp each other
in a kind of halo. City of Ghosts,
you can’t abandon your history,
and it won’t abandon you.
You watch each other,
you call each other’s names.
The sidewalks, the driveways
gleam like quarried moon,
and each open hand repeats
the ambient light as the crickets
fill with heat and raise again
the street’s last breath: Turn me loose.