We need no further proof that to the staff of The New York Times the state of Mississippi is an anomalous, backward enclave than the January 26, 2016 article in the newspaper’s food section about the “improbable rise” of a slow cooker pot roast recipe credited to a Ripley woman named Robin Chapman that has become a web phenomenon, “a favorite of the mom-blog set”.
Now dubbed “Mississippi Roast”, Chapman, who was interviewed by Times writer Sam Sifton for the article, simply called it “roast” (and still does). The recipe involves beef chuck topped with a packet of dry ranch dressing mix, a packet of dry “au jus” gravy, a stick of butter and a few pepperoncini. Chapman claims it’s riff off a recipe she received from an aunt, who used packaged Italian dressing, but she wanted something “milder” (the word is in quotes in the Times article), so she used ranch instead of Italian. “Over time,” Sifton writes, “the recipe has slowly taken on a life of its own,” which is of course news not only to “food writers and scholars”, but to those of us who actually cook in order to feed ourselves and our families.
To his credit, Sifton has done a considerable amount of footwork delineating the “rise” of this recipe from Chapman’s kitchen to a cookbook put out by the good people at the Beech Hill Church of Christ in Ripley, through nearby Hickory Flat where it was sampled by visiting food blogger Laurie Ormond or Bentonville, AK, who published the recipe on her blog. The recipe was picked up by Candis Berge on her blog in 2011. Berge claimed it passed what she called “the hubby test” (in quoting her claim, the Times italicizes this, finding it a key factor in the recipe’s “mom-blog set” popularity), and very soon “Mississippi Roast” became popular on such platforms as Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest.
Again to his credit, Sifton actually goes to the trouble to make “Mississippi Roast”, though predictably he is not faithful to the original recipe. He uses less butter (not saying how much less), reasoning that “there is plenty of fat in chuck roast”, uses five times as many pepperoncini, sears the roast before placing it in the cooker, “browning it aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper” (do I hear a faint echo of Craig Claiborne in that sentence?) and coating it with flour to create a “base of flavor” to replace the gravy mix and actually makes ranch dressing instead of using a packet (let’s give the devil his due and assume packets of dried au jus and ranch dressing mix are unavailable in Food World) and “dumped that” over the top of the meat. “Eight hours later,” Sifton writes, “My family dived into their meal with glee. It was exactly the same as the original effort (my italics, indicating incredulity), and took about the same amount of time to make.”
Sifton’s article ends with wine pairings compiled by one Eric Asimov (nephew of Isaac), who states, “This soft, beefy roast calls for a robust, structured red that will both complement the flavor of the meat and accommodate the bite of the peppers,” and recommends among others “a Brunello di Montalcino or its more modest sibling, Rosso di Montalcino” from Italy, “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant or its grander neighbor, Priorat” from Spain, a “southern Rhône, like a Gigondas or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape” or “if you are a fan of Argentine malbec, try one”. On second thought, anyone who can write such frivolous drivel about what wine to serve with a “Mississippi Roast” must know science fiction.
We can safely assume that everyone at the Beech Hill Church of Christ will assiduously ignore Asimov’s alcoholic urgings, and we can be damn sure that most people who want to make a pot roast with pre-packaged mixes will continue to do so however the hell they want using whatever the hell they have on hand, as cooks have been doing since the dawn of recorded history. The compelling theme behind this prolonged sneer against Mississippi, indeed against the “mom-blog set” across the nation, seems to be the sheer incredulity that such an atrocious recipe could actually find any sort of popular appeal in a country that is deluged by a media that promotes upscale food and ignores the needs and lives of people who work hard and have little time or money to indulge in such frivolities as Kobe beef or “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant”. Perhaps New York City itself is an anomalous enclave, but certainly anomaly resides in the editorial offices of The New York Times.
On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.
“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”
Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.
At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.
“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.
When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.
Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.
Mississippi legitimized legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out or rebuilt after the soaking by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. City fathers allow that the Dixie Mafia may still be operating on the Gulf Coast, but as a mere shadow of its former might and ruthlessness.
Every culture has dishes prepared for special occasions , but over time many recipes that our ancestors prepared on a regular basis have been needlessly consigned to specific holidays. How often do you roast a turkey or make a fruitcake? What’s particularly sad as well as paradoxical about this occasional consignment is that many dishes we prepare only for the holidays are those that bring us the most comfort, that make us feel most at home and closest to the heart of our lives and those we love.
Gingerbread is an extreme example of this culinary exile, particularly because when gingerbread is prepared even for the holidays it’s most often make into cookies or constructed into houses, the latter a bizarre case of misguided nostalgia, since a gingerbread house was where a cannibalistic witch lured the outcast Hansel and Gretel. Unlike most recipes, gingerbread has a very specific culinary history, having been brought to Europe by an Armenian monk—Europe was swarming with monks back then—first to France (of course) and from there the bread spread throughout the western hemisphere (the French consider this a natural progression). Ginger has always been thought of as an aid to digestion, and Beard maintains that in this country gingerbread was eaten on a regular basis much like savory bread up until the first decades of the 20th century, when it became a food for children or the holiday table, specifically for the Christmas table as anthropomorphic cookies.
Let’s bring gingerbread back into our homes on a regular basis if for no other reason than that it is a most aromatic dish with an infusion of cinnamon, clove, allspice and ginger in an exotic melange rising above the mellow scents of vanilla, molasses and brown sugar. This is another recipe you should have in your repertoire for any day of the year, any time of the day, particularly for us Southerners, since we have access to the finest molasses in the world, namely sorghum molasses, the nectar of any god. This recipe is not complicated at all and by far surpasses those awful mixes you’ll find that the supermarket that have doubtless been on the shelf nearby the birthday candles for months.
First, this is a buttermilk recipe, so instead of baking powder, bicarbonate of soda provides the leavening; second, know that you need to use a strong blackstrap molasses, not Karo Dark, and certainly not honey; finally, use more ginger than you might feel comfortable about. You’re going to find a lot of recipes that employ a teaspoon of ground ginger with equal amounts of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, but this is gingerbread, not spice bread. The ginger needs to shine in the taste of the bread itself.
Cream a stick of softened unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar, beat until fluffy and mix well with two eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Mix one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a quarter teaspoon each of ground cloves and allspice. Add two teaspoons pure vanilla extract and a half cup buttermilk. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 350 for about an hour. If you have the willpower, cool before slicing.
“Mosquito”, by Flo Field Hampton, arranged by Harry L. Alford. Crystal Springs, Mississippi: Flo Field Hampton Publishing Co., c. 1926. Eudora Welty illustrated the cover for this musical piece written by Flo Field Hampton, her English teacher at Jackson Junior-Senior High School: “O Mos-qui-ta, Mos-qui-ta, you bi-ta my feet-a!” (Special Collections, University of Mississippi)
It was a beautiful little bird, a brilliant green for the most part, with a yellow head and a line of red bordering the bill and extending under the eye. The forewings were edged with orange. In flight, it must have resembled a jewel; in clusters, a mandala of color. The Carolina parakeet, the only parrot native to North America, ranged across the eastern half of the continent north to Michigan, west to Texas, but nowhere more numerous than in the South, where raucous flocks darted through the virgin forests feeding on mostly on acorns and grains, but their fondness for early fruit proved their doom. They were easily kept from ravaging settlers’ orchards because when one bird fell to the gun, others would cluster around it crying before the gunfire resumed, and they were slaughtered.
Audubon kept one as a pet; Wilson found them in Natchez in 1811, but records are spotty. Chances are they were never that numerous, just fleeting, noisy accents among the trees along rivers in the virgin forests such as you might expect of parrots in any jungle. The Carolina parakeets died out in the early 20th century; the last flock was recorded in Florida. The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. This was a male, Incas, who died within a year of his mate, Lady Jane. In a case of tragic irony, Incas died in the same aviary cage in which the last passenger pigeon, Martha, had died nearly four years earlier. In 1939 the Carolina parakeet was declared extinct. Some believed a few may have been smuggled out of the country and repopulated elsewhere, but that’s no more than wishful thinking.
Jon Clifton Hinson served in the United States Congress as a Republican U.S. Representative for Mississippi’s 4th congressional district beginning in 1979. During his re-election campaign in 1980, Hinson admitted that in 1976, while an aide to Senator Thad Cochran, he had been arrested for committing an obscene act after he exposed himself to an undercover policeman at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Hinson denied that he was homosexual and blamed his problems on alcoholism. He said that he had reformed and refused to resign. He won re-election with a plurality of 38.97 percent of the vote. Independent Leslie B. McLemore polled 29.8 percent, and Democrat Britt Singletary received 29.4 percent. Hinson was arrested again on February 4, 1981, and charged with attempted sodomy for performing oral sex on an African-American male employee of the Library of Congress in a restroom of the House of Representatives.
At that time, homosexual acts were still criminalized even between consenting adults. The charge was a felony that could have resulted in up to ten years in prison, as well as fines of up to $10,000. Since both parties were consenting adults (and social attitudes were changing), the United States Attorney’s office reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. Facing a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, Hinson pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted sodomy the following day and was released without bail pending a trial scheduled for May 4, 1981. Soon thereafter he checked himself into a Washington, D.C.-area hospital for treatment. Hinson later received a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended, and a year’s probation, on condition that he continued counseling and treatment.
Hinson resigned on April 13, 1981, early in his second term. He said that his resignation had been “the most painful and difficult decision of my life.” He was succeeded in the House by Wayne Dowdy, a Democrat, who won the special election held in the summer of 1981. Soon afterward Hinson acknowledged that he was homosexual and became an activist for gay rights. He later helped to organize the lobbying group “Virginians for Justice” and fought against the ban on gays in the military. He also was a founding member of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens Association in Fairfax County. He never returned to Mississippi but lived quietly in the Washington area, first in Alexandria, Virginia, and then Silver Spring, Maryland. Hinson also disclosed that he survived a 1977 fire that killed nine people at the Cinema Follies, a Washington theater that catered to gay customers. He was rescued from under a pile of bodies, and was one of only four survivors.
Now we have openly gay public servants, but it’s safe to assume that there are closeted government officials at every level—federal, state and local, doubtless from both parties—who are representing their electorate in good faith to the public trust with which they’re invested. From our perspective Hinson’s crash and fall seems not so much a tragedy as it is a farce, the ridiculous result of a man coerced, perhaps even forced into a role he could not play. It’s impossible for us to imagine the pressures put upon him to become a pillar of the Republican Party in its struggle for a stranglehold on the state of Mississippi, but the weight broke the man, reduced him to disgrace, poverty and exile. Hinson himself is far from blameless; as an openly gay man he would never have been elected to any office in the state of Mississippi, but there’s no reason to doubt that he could have represented his district capably had he exercised more discretion if not to say caution in his personal affairs. Perhaps that’s what he was trying to do, but it’s more probable that like many gay men of his generation in the South, he only knew clandestine solicitation as a venue for sexual commerce.
Hinson, unremembered for any legislation and with no other legacy than creating an ebb in the incessant tide of Republication domination in Mississippi, died in July, 1995 in Fairfax County, VA.
After the publication of the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, C. Vann Woodward suggested that the work deserved expansion. This affirmed what the editors knew already, that their initial effort, an 8-pound tome published in 1989, merely scratched the surface of the many-layered, multi-faceted South.
The first volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, focusing on religion, hit the shelves 17 years later, quickly followed by others scrutinizing topics such as the environment, ethnicity and history. This, the seventh volume, issued in August 2007, sets forth a cornucopia of lore and learning about a subject very close to the Southern heart: Food. In the general introduction to “Foodways” the editors state emphatically that this work is not an apologist tract for any perceived decline in Southern foodstuffs. “Instead, the entries that follow constitute an attempt to transcend the quips and stereotypes, to document and showcase southern foodstuffs and cookery . . . in all their diversity.” A subsequent essay, “Southern Foodways,” by Joe Gray Taylor and John T. Edge, sets the table. The authors take a predictable but informative tour of the region’s culinary history, emphasizing the key roles of corn, pork and the “great triumvirate of southern vegetables”: turnips, cowpeas and sweet potatoes. They document the impact of cheap flour on the South during the late 19th century, which made “wheat flour biscuits as common as cornbread,” and maintain that food patterns formed on the southern frontier “persisted . . . until after World War II in many small towns and rural areas.” They also note that the most basic change in southern foodways since the mid-20th century has been the explosive growth in “eating out” and the rise of “so-called fast foods,” a trend some might decry as an abasement of the cuisine, but the authors point out that “chicken and catfish . . . have been a part of the southern diet for over 200 years. Furthermore, they are still fried!”
Well of course they are. What follows this essay, the 148 encyclopedia entries proper, makes for a feast of information and diversion. Each entry comes supplied with a bibliography, the names of the contributors and their locations. Globalization has clearly set in: You have a guy in Spain writing about catfish and hot peppers, the “Civil War” entry is from Brooklyn and the ground zero on “Greens” is from (southern) California. Then you have Wiley C. Prewitt, Jr., a damn good writer from Lodi, Mississippi, who declares, “While folks in other regions of the country may have equated the consumption of wildlife with unsuccessful farmers and shiftless backwoods folks, southerners have generally exalted the hunting, cooking, and eating of game.” Here Prewitt echoes a defensive theme first expressed in the opening paragraph of the introductory essay: “southerners have borne chips on their shoulders about all manner of our cultural creations,” a statement that might have bearing on the encyclopedia itself, its perceived purpose, and its audience. If for Southerners, then why, and if for others, then who? Well, for whoever wants to know, and for whatever reason, of course. That’s why encyclopedias exist, and the South deserves a great one, no apology needed.
It’s poignant that we need a primer of sorts for the likes of grits, Goo-Goo Clusters and Justin Wilson, but “Foodways” is much more than a textbook. The scholars, writers and occasional epicures who did the legwork on this volume deserve to put their feet up under any groaning board between Austin and Annapolis. The niggling geek in me wants a full bibliography at the end of the volume in addition to the citations below individual entries (we’ll assume a full bibliography for the entire publication is in the far future offing), but that’s nit-picking. On an even more personal note, I’m so, so glad that Ernie Mickler made the cut. He’d be so proud. The thought and care that went into this volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture makes it a court of authority on southern foodways, pit, spit, whole hog and hominy, a fun, lucid and occasionally eloquent record of our table.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible is an exercise in endurance. Kingsolver is a beautiful writer, her voice is a perfect vehicle for this patchwork narrative and you’ll find her prose by turns ponderous, on other curves playful, a cadenced eye cast on what can only be described as life lured or provoked into that tenuous balance between being and living where the differences are uncertain.
Kingsolver is a native of Kentucky, yet good writing knows no geography, and while Kingsolver might find comparisons to Oxford’s oracle flattering, she might well find it annoying. Faulkner, more than any other American writer in the past century, has been used by countless critics and academics as a rough rule of thumb for superiority among writers whose sentences involve any degree of rhetorical convolutions, and though this is a measure of the length of his shadow, the comparison has become far too trite to be taken seriously in any context.
What confounds this parity with The Poisonwood Bible, the tragedy of Orleanna Price, is that she is from Pearl, Mississippi. Why Kingsolver chose Pearl of all places as the hometown for this woman, the wife of a religious fanatic who sacrifices his family out of zealotry, is a question only she can answer, but one worth asking.