Jackson, Mississippi stands at a crossroads in the Deep South, so it was a shock to discover people here who do not serve greens and peas on New Year’s Eve or Day to ensure good fortune in the coming year. Of course, like any Southern metropolitan area, Jackson has people living here from across the nation and the world who have good reason not to know they should have a pot of peas on the stove on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, but you also have people here living in detached, pretentious affluence who consider peas, collards, mustard and turnip greens, all with their ethnic and rural connotations, coarse and common, and upgrade with Brussel’s sprouts and hummus, replacing the traditional ham with a crown rib roast.
Fortunately such people are by far the exception rather than the rule, and most people in Mississippi’s capitol city cook leafy greens and field peas at the turn of the year in observance of a regional tradition. Black-eyed peas are a type of cowpea, as are crowder peas, and serving them instead of any other variety of beans (for they are beans) is mandatory. This culinary tradition entered the Southern repertoire by way of Sephardic Jews who settled in South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. Greens are almost always served as well, but the type of greens is a matter for the most part a matter of preference, to a lesser extent that of geography, and involves three principal types: greens (turnip and mustard), collards and cabbage. In the broadest sense, cabbage seems to be most often served in urban households, greens in rural households, and collards most often in the lower South and along the east coast, but this statement is based on the least systematic research.
The tradition that associates these foods with financial prosperity is clouded in folklore, but then luck has always been associated with riches, though there are those among us who would say such an relationship is unworthy of the more ethically evolved. In the past, people were known to have cooked peas with coins in them to ensure wealth, a dangerous practice considering the risks of choking and poisoning. Still peas, largely because of their shape, are symbolic of coins, as leaf greens are with paper money, an obvious analogy in this country where the currency is green on the “back” side.
Needless to say, peas and greens are not a tradition in other parts of the country, where New Year’s foods are usually nothing more than an accompaniment to revelry and alcohol abuse. While such activities are by not unknown here, we should find comfort in knowing that our traditional New Year’s table bears more hopes for the coming year than a hangover.
It is three thousand light years to the Vatican. Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed that the heavens declared the glory of God’s handiwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled. I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer, and for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.
I have told no one yet, but the truth cannot be concealed. The facts are there for all to read, recorded on the countless miles of magnetic tape and the thousands of photographs we are carrying back to Earth. Other scientists can interpret them as easily as I can, and I am not one who would condone that tampering with the truth which often gave my order a bad name in the olden days.
The crew are already sufficiently depressed: I wonder how they will take this ultimate irony. Few of them have any religious faith, yet they will not relish using this final weapon in their campaign against me–that private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious, war which lasted all the way from Earth. It amused them to have a Jesuit as chief astrophysicist: Dr. Chandler, for instance, could never get over it. (Why are medical men such notorious atheists?). Sometimes he would meet me on the observation deck, where the lights are always low so that the stars shine with undiminished glory. He would come up to me in the gloom and stand staring out of the great oval port, while the heavens crawled slowly around us as the ship turned end over end with the residual spin we had never bothered to correct.
“Well, Father,” he would say at last, “it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world–that just beats me.” Then the argument would start, while the stars and nebulae would swing around us in silent, endless arcs beyond the flawlessly clear plastic of the observation port.
It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused most amusement to the crew. In vain I would point to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers. Will my report on the Phoenix Nebula end our thousand years of history? It will end, I fear, much more than that.
I do not know who gave the nebula its name, which seems to me a very bad one. If it contains a prophecy, it is one that cannot be verified for several billion years. Even the word nebula is misleading: this is a far smaller object than those stupendous clouds of mist–the stuff of unborn stars–that are scattered throughout the length of the Milky Way. On the cosmic scale, indeed, the Phoenix Nebula is a tiny thing–a tenuous shell of gas surrounding a single star.
Or what is left of a star . . .
The Rubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs there above the spectrophotometer tracings. What would you, Father, have made of this knowledge that has come into my keeping, so far from the little world that was all the universe you knew? Would your faith have risen to the challenge, as mine has failed to do?
You gaze into the distance, Father, but I have traveled a distance beyond any that you could have imagined when you founded our order a thousand years ago. No other survey ship has been so far from Earth: we are at the very frontiers of the explored universe. We set out to reach the Phoenix Nebula, we succeeded, and we are homeward bound with our burden of knowledge. I wish I could lift that burden from my shoulders, but I call to you in vain across the centuries and the light years that lie between us.
On the book you are holding the words are plain to read. AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM, the message runs, but it is a message I can no longer believe. Would you still believe it, if you could see what we have found?
We knew, of course, what the Phoenix Nebula was. Every year, in our galaxy alone, more than a hundred stars explode, blazing for a few hours or days with thousands of times their normal brilliance before they sink back into death and obscurity. Such are the ordinary novae–the commonplace disasters of the universe. I have recorded the spectrograms and light curves of dozens since I started working at the Lunar Observatory.
But three or four times in every thousand years occurs something beside which even a nova pales into total insignificance.
When a star becomes a supernova, it may for a little while outshine all the massed suns of the galaxy. The Chinese astronomers watched this happen in A.D. 1054, not knowing what it was they saw. Five centuries later, in 1572, a supernova blazed in Cassiopeia so brilliantly that it was visible in the daylight sky. There have been three more in the thousand years that have passed since then.
Our mission was to visit the remnants of such a catastrophe, to reconstruct the events that led up to it, and, if possible, to learn its cause. We came slowly in through the concentric shells of gas that had been blasted out six thousand years before, yet were expanding still. They were immensely hot, radiating even now with a fierce violet light, but were far too tenuous to do us any damage. When the star had exploded, its outer layers had been driven upward with such speed that they had escaped completely from its gravitational field. Now they formed a hollow shell large enough to engulf a thousand solar systems, and at its center burned the tiny, fantastic object which the star had now become–a White Dwarf, smaller than the Earth, yet weighing a million times as much.
The glowing gas shells were all around us, banishing the normal night of interstellar space. We were flying into the center of a cosmic bomb that had detonated millennia ago and whose incandescent fragments were still hurtling apart. The immense scale of the explosion, and the fact that the debris already covered a volume of space many billions of miles across, robbed the scene of any visible movement. It would take decades before the unaided eye could detect any motion in these tortured wisps and eddies of gas, yet the sense of turbulent expansion was overwhelming.
We had checked our primary drive hours before, and were drifting slowly toward the fierce little star ahead. Once it had been a sun like our own, but it had squandered in a few hours the energy that should have kept it shining for a million years. Now it was a shrunken miser, hoarding its resources as if trying to make amends for its prodigal youth.
No one seriously expected to find planets. If there had been any before the explosion, they would have been boiled into puffs of vapor, and their substance lost in the greater wreckage of the star itself. But we made the automatic search, as we always do when approaching an unknown sun, and presently we found a single small world circling the star at an immense distance. It must have been the Pluto of this vanished solar system, orbiting on the frontiers of the night. Too far from the central sun ever to have known life, its remoteness had saved it from the fate of all its lost companions.
The passing fires had seared its rocks and burned away the mantle of frozen gas that must have covered it in the days before the disaster. We landed, and we found the Vault.
Its builders had made sure that we would. The monolithic marker that stood above the entrance was now a fused stump, but even the first long-range photographs told us that here was the work of intelligence. A little later we detected the continent-wide pattern of radioactivity that had been buried in the rock. Even if the pylon above the Vault had been destroyed, this would have remained, an immovable and all but eternal beacon calling to the stars. Our ship fell toward this gigantic bull’s-eye like an arrow into its target.
The pylon must have been a mile high when it was built, but now it looked like a candle that had melted down into a puddle of wax. It took us a week to drill through the fused rock, since we did not have the proper tools for a task like this. We were astronomers, not archaeologists, but we could improvise. Our original purpose was forgotten: this lonely monument, reared with such labor at the greatest possible distance from the doomed sun, could have only one meaning. A civilization that knew it was about to die had made its last bid for immortality.
It will take us generations to examine all the treasures that were placed in the Vault. They had plenty of time to prepare, for their sun must have given its first warnings many years before the final detonation. Everything that they wished to preserve, all the fruit of their genius, they brought here to this distant world in the days before the end, hoping that some other race would find it and that they would not be utterly forgotten. Would we have done as well, or would we have been too lost in our own misery to give thought to a future we could never see or share?
If only they had had a little more time! They could travel freely enough between the planets of their own sun, but they had not yet learned to cross the interstellar gulfs, and the nearest solar system was a hundred light-years away. Yet even had they possessed the secret of the Transfinite Drive, no more than a few millions could have been saved. Perhaps it was better thus.
Even if they had not been so disturbingly human as their sculpture shows, we could not have helped admiring them and grieving for their fate. They left thousands of visual records and the machines for projecting them, together with elaborate pictorial instructions from which it will not be difficult to learn their written language. We have examined many of these records, and brought to life for the first time in six thousand years the warmth and beauty of a civilization that in many ways must have been superior to our own. Perhaps they only showed us the best, and one can hardly blame them. But their words were very lovely, and their cities were built with a grace that matches anything of man’s. We have watched them at work and play, and listened to their musical speech sounding across the centuries. One scene is still before my eyes–a group of children on a beach of strange blue sand, playing in the waves as children play on Earth. Curious whiplike trees line the shore, and some very large animal is wading in the shadows yet attracting no attention at all.
And sinking into the sea, still warm and friendly and life-giving, is the sun that will soon turn traitor and obliterate all this innocent happiness.
Perhaps if we had not been so far from home and so vulnerable to loneliness, we should not have been so deeply moved. Many of us had seen the ruins of ancient civilizations on other worlds, but they had never affected us so profoundly. This tragedy was unique. It is one thing for a race to fail and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth. But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors–how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?
My colleagues have asked me that, and I have given what answers I can. Perhaps you could have done better, Father Loyola, but I have found nothing in the Exercitia Spiritualia that helps me here. They were not an evil people: I do not know what gods they worshiped, if indeed they worshiped any. But I have looked back at them across the centuries, and have watched while the loveliness they used their last strength to preserve was brought forth again into the light of their shrunken sun. They could have taught us much: why were they destroyed?
I know the answers that my colleagues will give when they get back to Earth. They will say that the universe has no purpose and no plan, that since a hundred suns explode every year in our galaxy, at this very moment some race is dying in the depths of space. Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end: there is no divine justice, for there is no God.
Yet, of course, what we have seen proves nothing of the sort. Anyone who argues thus is being swayed by emotion, not logic. God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the universe can destroy it when He chooses. It is arrogance–it is perilously near blasphemy–for us to say what He may or may not do.
This I could have accepted, hard though it is to look upon whole worlds and peoples thrown into the furnace. But there comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter, and now, as I look at the calculations lying before me, I know I have reached that point at last.
We could not tell, before we reached the nebula, how long ago the explosion took place. Now, from the astronomical evidence and the record in the rocks of that one surviving planet, I have been able to date it very exactly. I know in what year the light of this colossal conflagration reached our Earth. I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shone in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in that oriental dawn.
There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?
(The Star, Arthur C. Clarke, copyright Arthur C. Clarke)
If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.
And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.
Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.
The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.
He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.
The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t. It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.
(Written by Sellers Gale Denley, first published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984)
In Florida during the Eighties I worked with a Korean lady named Marie. What with my drawl and her accent it took us weeks before we came to understand each other well, but once we did we became the best of friends. “We’re both December babies,” she explained. “December babies are happy. Not lucky, but happy.”
Marie was a war bride. She moved from Korea with her GI husband in the Fifties to the little town in south Alabama where he had grown up. She literally had a hard row to hoe, raising three children and taking care of her husband’s mother, who was stricken with cancer. She had to bear the opprobrium of being an Asian bride in a rural Southern village. But Marie endured; she nursed her mother-in-law until the day the woman died, tended a spotless home and a productive garden, raised her children well (college grads, all of them) and won the love and respect of her husband’s friends and relatives. Marie became like a second mother to me. When she found out that I was sleeping on the floor, she called up her husband and had him drop a bed outside my back door. When she found out I didn’t have a good coat, she found one that fit me at a rummage sale. When I was sick, she gave me spicy fish-head soup and made me eat the eyes.
When you’re working around food as we did, the temptation to munch is downright irresistible, and Marie and I were world-class munchers. What made our grazing more enjoyable was the kimchee Marie brought to work. Kimchee is fermented with salt, red pepper, garlic and dozens of other ingredients. It’s something like the national dish of Korea, and some of you might remember that on the old t.v. series “M*A*S*H”, one of the running jokes was for them to discover what they thought were landmines but turned out to be jars of kimchee which had been buried to ferment at an even temperature. Kimchee is hot and sour and extremely pungent; some people can’t stand the smell. Kimchee also makes you fart a lot, but I grew to love it. I learned to eat kimchee as a sort of relish, taking a leaf of fresh lettuce (any kind you like), putting a little rice on it, a piece of beef, chicken or fish, a big pinch of kimchee, then you roll up the leaf and eat it: it’s sort of like a Korean taco. In Alabama, Marie discovered that one of the local leaf vegetables made excellent kimchee: turnips.
Wash fresh turnips with greens well, dry them thoroughly, and chop the leaves coarsely. Cut and use stem ends that stick out below the leaf, but don’t bother to remove the stems from the ribs of the leaves. In the meantime, peel your turnips and cut them into rather large chunks. Marie cut hers into oblong slivers. Place in a large glass or ceramic bowl and sprinkle generously with coarse kosher salt. Use enough salt so that each bit of the vegetable is coated. Toss the salt, sliced turnips and chopped greens together. Then take about five cloves of coarsely minced garlic, the whites of a bunch of green onions cut into 1 inch pieces (save the greens for another recipe) and toss them in with the mixture. Let this sit for about half an hour, then mix with a full teaspoon of powdered cayenne pepper, perhaps a bit more: some people use red pepper flakes (a good heaping teaspoon as well), or you can use chopped fresh hot peppers, but I like for the relish to pack a punch. Toss thoroughly.
Now put this mixture into glass jars, topping it off with some of the liquid that has accumulated in the bowl. Seal your jars tightly and set them in a cool dark place. In a few days, check to see if it’s fermenting; look for bubbles. If it is bubbling, open the jar very, very carefully over a sink to let a little bit of the gas escape; if you’re rash about opening the jar, you might just end up with kimchee juice spewed all over you (you might detect the voice of experience here). When the gas has been relieved, reseal the jar and let it sit for another day or so. Then repeat the gas release procedure and refrigerate your kimchee for at least another week before eating.
No matter who you are, or where you go, you’ll find angels on your journey; Marie was one of mine.
After noting (somewhat suggestively, I thought) that Mexico is shaped like an on-end cornucopia, one authority I consulted for a reasonable analysis of cultural diffusion with the U.S. degenerated into a diatribe against the North American Free Trade Agreement, but even without his analysis, perhaps even despite of, it’s safe even for a rube like me to say that the influences are profound, that of Mexico on the U.S. embracing such diverse areas as art and architecture, music and literature, not to mention food, a far more significant contribution than that our northern neighbor Canada, which as far as I can tell seems to be restricted to ice hockey and fried potatoes with gravy.
Tomes have been written about Mexican food in the U.S., but with the obvious exception of Texas the discussion of Mexican foods in the American South has just begun. In Mississippi, Delta tamales are certainly the most notable culinary import from south of the border, but another that you’ll find throughout the state if not most parts of the South while Mexican in name does not like the tamal have its origins in Old Mexico. Instead, what we know as Mexican cornbread is almost certainly though not verifiably a Tex-Mex recipe that has been around long enough to become a standard not only in our homes but also in supermarket delis, a certain sign of its broad appeal.
Though Southerners claim cornbread as our definitive staff of life, Mexico is the home of this staple, though certainly not as we know it now. While researching the history of Mexican cornbread (the U.S. version, whose origins are obscured in a cloud of “women’s magazine” articles and speculation), it was somewhat of a discovery to stumble upon our cornbread in Mexico, unsurprisingly called pan de maiz, which seems to be recent and largely at home in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. One recipe I found on a Mexican website claims to have come by way of Maine and even employs buttermilk. While such things aren’t inconceivable, I suddenly felt as if the Culinary Improbability Drive had been activated, and I was on the verge of turning into an enormous jalapeno hushpuppy and plunging into a roiling intergalactic catfish pond. I felt much the same way about Malaysian grits.
Mexican cornbread has all sorts of atrocious variations, but the most rudimentary type employs corn, peppers and some sort of cheese. Extreme examples include any number of beans and meats, cacti, seeds and flowers, not to mention that California aberration with blue tofu. For my part, I’ve devised a recipe that is a departure from the customary pan of bread, one that is lighter and at least in spirit closer to the flatbreads more often served on Mexican tables. It reminds me of an early Southern cornmeal staple many consider the ancestor of the cornbread most often made for our tables. Make batter as you normally would for cornbread, adding only whole kernel corn, peppers and your choice of cheese in equal proportions. I prefer to use thin-walled mild peppers for the most part with a thinly-sliced jalapeno for kick. Drop batter by spoonfuls into a well-oiled skillet, brown on both sides and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a medium oven until done through. You want them crusty, good for toppings (salsa, guacamole, refried beans, etc.), serving them as you would a sope.
From an undeniable existence, we ascend to the metaphysical ontological, where such things-in-the-world as an onion peel particulate and scatter in those realms of thought where essences rule and recipes are no more than words on paper or ideas to be tossed around, concepts before conception. If as Hesse claims man is an onion, then what is onion to man at any given layer? What is onion-ness without the onion, and who are we without it but bereft?
Brush puff pastry with oil, dust with grated Parmesan, pierce and bake in a hot oven until browned. Cool and coat with grated mozzarella, unripe or winter tomatoes which have been sliced, drained, salted and seasoned with pepper and herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil), top with more of the cheeses and bake in a medium oven until cheese is melted through. Serve hot or cooled.