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)

A Magnolia in Zaire

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.

Senate Bean Soup

By official records, navy bean soup has been on the menu of the U.S. Senate dining room every day since the early 20th century, but in his enduring classic Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (Chapel Hill: 1993), John Egerton, the governing genius of Southern culinary matters, claims that “it was a fixture on the menu in the Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s,” and suggests that Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho was the moving force behind a resolution requiring that the soup be served every day to members of that august body, though he also mentions Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota as the author in 1903. Egerton writes that the official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California” (of course he would).

Edgerton also argues that the soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina or Alabama or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition. “Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South. “There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims, with justice. Fortunately for us run-of-the-mill citizens, you don’t have to lie, buy or steal your way into the U.S. Senate to enjoy navy bean soup, which like all bean soups is a wonderful dish for cold winter nights. Here’s my recipe. It’s not official by any stretch, but it’s warm and wonderful, all the same.

Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water and simmer until beans are quite soft, adding water as needed. This will take about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool, then debone, remove most of the rind, chop the meat and a bit of the rind and add back to the beans, ensuring you have enough water to cover. Sauté one finely-chopped large white onion with one or two minced cloves of garlic, according to your tastes, in vegetable oil (not olive, not butter!) and add to beans, . You can add a stalk or two of chopped cooked celery if you like. I often use a ham bone left over from the holidays for this soup, and it’s good, too. Simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste. Serve with cornbread, of course.

A Love for the Printed Page

In January, 2010, a book written and illustrated by a man who lived and worked in Mississippi sold for a record-setting $11.4 million in a Sotheby auction; another copy of the same work sold for $9.7 million this year. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, says he wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t still a folio of Birds of America in Natchez, where Audubon lived in 1832.

“He would have known people down there,” Fred says, “And Natchez had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country before the war, so they certainly could have afforded to subscribe to the book.” Smith knows, since he has spent over a quarter of a century dealing with collectors, estates and institutions as a buyer, seller and appraiser of books, manuscripts and documents of every description, but primarily works about or related to Mississippi, the South and the Civil War; in short, every aspect of our multi-faceted regional history. As a result, he has become a one-man institution in and of himself, the go-to man for anyone in (or out) of the state wanting a set, subset or full collection of volumes of pages you’re unlikely to find at Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble.

John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, has known Smith for over thirty years; he calls Fred a compadre, and after reflecting back to the times when they’d alert one another to a shifty customer, says, “A great used book seller is there to provide information you can’t find anywhere else. Oh, you can google a book on some obscure moonshiner in the Delta, but Fred’s going to tell you if you really need that book at all, and if you’re lucky, he’ll know of a book you ought to have instead of that one. Fred’s father Frank knew the past seventy-five years of the culture of Mississippi, and he handed that down to his son Fred.”

Frank E. Smith was a managing editor of the “Greenwood Morning Star”, served as an aide to Senator John Stennis, as a member of the Mississippi state senate, in the U.S. Congress and as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He and Fred began thinking about opening a business in the 1970s. “We figured the state needed a used bookstore. Our literary culture was so important that someone needed to make them available for people here to own and to treasure,” Smith says. “The goal was that we’d pull together an inventory and open up a store in 1983. Then my aunt, who had an antique store in Vicksburg where we’d place books to see how they’d sell, had an accident and had to close her store. All of a sudden, we had a lot of nice furniture. When we opened up, we were half antiques and half books.”

“That first year, Eudora Welty bought a piece of furniture for $700,” Fred remembers. “Now, selling a few books here and there is one thing, but that was by far my biggest sale. I wanted to keep the check, but the furniture was not mine, so I had to go ahead and cash it. Years later, I did two appraisals for Miss Welty, one on the letter that Faulkner had written to her and another on some other correspondence. I called up her lawyer, Carl Black, and asked him if it would be alright to keep one of the checks (for $250) and he said that she’d never know. I kept the check.”

“I don’t always make people happy,” Fred says, though it’s hard to imagine, since Fred has a jovial, Dickensian presence, the proprietor of a modern-day curiosity shop, an unpretentious clapboard building at 926 North Street in Jackson’s Belhaven Heights neighborhood that’s chock-a-block with books, maps and manuscripts. But Fred, because of his unique knowledge and sincere appreciation of Mississippi’s history, literature and bibliographic legacy, is also the premier appraiser of the state’s books, manuscripts, maps and other assorted documents, making him a unique denizen of Mississippi’s bibliophilic Parnassus.

“My job as an independent appraiser is to put a value that I consider to be valid on materials I’m asked to consider. Most of what I do is for tax purposes because people are donating materials for tax breaks. But a lot of folks think their stuff is worth a lot of money just because it’s theirs, and that’s not necessarily the case. I have done many appraisals over the years, and have not been called into question on any of them; people know to call me.”

Hugh McCormick, who started McCormick’s Book Inn in Greenville in 1965 and closed the business last year, says, “I admire Fred a lot. As far as I know, he’s the only person who occupies the sort of role he does in the Tri-state area. People who come to Fred are looking for something very specific and generally very hard to find, and he knows what they’re talking about.”

Cham Trotter says that when he first began collecting Old Miss yearbooks, Fred was the first person he thought of going to for help. “I’m a Civil War buff, so I had been in Fred’s store before. Ole Miss started publishing yearbooks in 1897; what I had in mind to do was to have a yearbook from each decade. I had several yearbooks from when I was in school from the Sixties and Seventies, from my parents who went to school there in the Forties, from my grandfather, who was business manager at Ole Miss in the Thirties and a few from when he had been a student there around 1909.”

“But I walked in Choctaw Books one day and Fred had boxes and boxes of Ole Miss annuals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, even up into the Seventies and Eighties. The family of Dean Frank Moak had given these yearbooks to Fred on consignment. So I decided to try and get one from every year. I got even more from Fred over the years, and now I have a full set.”

John Evans, who has every reason to know, says that the preponderance of the internet spells the end of the used book business as we know it. “The used book seller could come back, but I think we’re going to go through a void before that happens. When Fred’s business goes away, you’re not going to have someone to rush in and start another store like Choctaw Books the next day.”

Bistrettes on Parade

In Rome the nuns were writing verse for papal passion plays,
Los Angeles was hid from God beneath a pagan haze,
And I was here in Jackson Town, my thoughts in disarray,
When the dizzy news was passed around: Bistrettes were on parade!

In formation loose as poets in symphonic masquerade,
They tripped the light fantastic toe, those Bistrettes on parade.
But I locked my doors and shut my blinds, turned my eyes away;
I’d waste my time, I’d lose my place, break promises I’d made
Should I prance in dazzled splendor with those Bistrettes on parade.

But tempered though the mind may be and settled in its way,
Temptation got the best of me: Bistrettes were on parade!
We sang and danced and laughed, quoted poets in the shade,
Euphoric and bucolic, we were Bistrettes on parade!