Ruby’s Roadhouse Omelet

Working in west Florida during the 1980s, I came to know people from all over the world, then there was Ruby Ruth Reese, a down-home girl who grew up in what she called “the woargrass (wiregrass)” region of south Alabama.

Ruby Ruth (“Call me ‘Roo’”) had a heart of gold, but she was just as mean as she could be to all those displaced Yankees we worked with in Florida. She liked me because, as she once put it, “You’re country folk like me.” She even claimed to have relatives in Tupelo, but I think she just said that because she knew I was homesick all the time. Hell, the only reason she knew about Tupelo was because of Elvis.

Roo told me she worked in a truck stop in Geneva County, Alabama during the Sixties, and if they knew you well enough, and you ordered something “to go”, you’d pay five dollars more, and they’d slip you a bottle of whiskey under the counter before you left. They also made what they called ham and egg pie that most of their customers would order to eat by themselves. Roo often made these for us to share on our lunch, which we took around two in the afternoon when we’d had a busy day. I’ve fancied it up a little bit with the cheddar cheese (she used American), and she’d fuss at me for that.

8 large eggs
1/2 cup cream
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup diced white onion
1/2 cup diced cooked potatoes
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup diced ham
salt and black pepper

Beat eggs and cream very well with salt and black pepper. Heat an 8-in. skillet, add butter. Once butter is sizzling, sauté onions and ham, then add half the egg mixture, shaking the pan as you do. Mix cheese and potatoes with remaining eggs. Once eggs begin to set, add the rest of the egg mixture, then pop into a very hot (450) oven until firm.

 

Welty’s Mosquito

“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)

Parakeets in the Pines

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.

 

 

 

A Rose So Blue

When I was a little girl my grandmother Emma would sit me on a bench in the kitchen while she cooked, and she would tell me stories. Even now I can hear the sound of her voice, low and level. I can smell the cornbread in the oven and the big pot of beans simmering on the back of the stove. She told me how she played hoops with her sisters, how her grandmother would teach her Bible verses as she cooked. She told me how the rain sounds at nights on a tin roof: “Rat-a-tat at first,” she’d say, “Then so loud you had to shout to talk.”

She also told me about roses so blue they made the sky look like it had no color at all.

“Gramaw,” I’d say in my most grown-up way, “roses are red! Or white. Miz Stevens has some white ones. And I saw some yellow ones in the store. But roses aren’t blue!”

Emma would smile to herself, tend to the stove. “Oh, you are such a smart little girl!” she’d say. “But you’re not as smart as your old granny. Some roses are blue, but you ain’t gonna to see them in Loris Stevens’ yard, and you ain’t gonna see them in the store, either. Blue roses only grow in Africa, on the Mountains of the Moon.”

She told me that the Mountains of the Moon are draped in cloud and mist during the day. At night when the wind blows up from the desert sands, the skies clear, the moon beams upon the green slopes, and roses wind around the palms and climb towards the stars, their blossoms bluer than the open sea.

When Emma died my heart broke into a million pieces, but when I remember her my heart is whole again. If someone tells me I can buy blue roses from a catalog and grow them in my yard in Mississippi, I smile to myself and know that blue roses only grow in Africa, on the misty slopes of the Mountains of the Moon.

Jon Hinson: A Closet Tragedy

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 of the fire.

In our time 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.

 

Foodways: A Review

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.

 

 

You Might Be a Gay Redneck If …

You met your last boyfriend at Waffle House.
You manscape with a hunting knife.
You cheer for the NASCAR driver with the cutest jumpsuit.
You wish the Indigo Girls would “shut up and sing.”
You keep a colorful stash of Speedos in your bass boat.
You go commando in your overalls.
You always request “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” at the gay bars.
You attend Gay Rodeo events to find a personal trainer.
Your pickup truck horn plays “I Love the Nightlife.”
You smoke Mistys because you like how the slim box fits into your Wranglers.
You tailgate at Barbra Streisand concerts.
Your mullet has frosted tips.
You root for the hillbillies in Deliverance.
You wish R.J. Reynolds would make Cosmo-flavored dip.
The Gay River Expo disqualified you for using a trolling motor.
You think Kid Rock is sexy.
You’re saving up to buy a Pensacola timeshare.
Your Pride float spends the rest of the year on cinder blocks in your front yard.
You carry a camo-patterned man purse.
You were once thrown out of a leather bar for violating the dress code.
Your Miata has Truck Nutz.
Your commitment ceremony was catered by KFC.
Your personal scent is buck lure.
(adapted from Creative Atlanta, photo by Dennis Chanay)

Hellmouth Jackson

The city of Jackson, Mississippi seems to have more than its share of the problems typical of many municipalities: urban decay, a shrinking tax base, rampant crime and a citizenry plagued with indifference. Other cities can usually trace the source of these difficulties to such mundane matters as corrupt politicians, an inept and unresponsive municipal bureaucracy or social strife, and while Jackson does have these to deal with in abundance, at least one person thinks the city’s difficulties are due to a deeper, more sinister element: a volcano.

This volcano extinct is some 2900 feet beneath the capital city, its dense core forming one of the most prominent structural abnormalities found on gravity and magnetic surveys of the state, showing tightly wrapped contours of increasing gravity and magnetic deflection like a crowded bull’s-eye. The position of Jackson’s downtown district above the throat of an extinct volcano is unique. If the Jackson Volcano were to ever vent itself in the future, a very remote likelihood since it hasn’t been active since T. rex ruled the earth, the Mississippi Coliseum would be ground zero. Bernadette Cahill, in her book Over the Volcano: An Inquiry into the Occult History of Jackson, Mississippi (Aardvark Global Publishing: 2010) maintains that the volcano’s dense core affects not only physical aspects of the locale such as gravity and magnetism, but it also generates a negative well of psychic energy that continually saps the city – its spirit of place as well as the spirits of its citizens – of positive and essential life forces. She also hints at even more malevolent aspects, tagging the volcano as a gateway providing entry for evil from another plane of existence.

So the next time you feel like griping about your bathwater being muddy, your daily commute being delayed by an exploding sewer or ward politicians raising hell, don’t bother calling anyone up and griping about it, just blame the volcano. It’ll save you a lot of frustration.